Botch and Taxes
by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero
“Slug, Wart, Belch . . .” The Queen enjoys the names she gives us. She has to suppress a grin, which would be inappropriate to the occasion of sending forth her Tax Trains.
After roll call, twenty-one trolls bow ponderously and prepare to turn massively away from the face of the Most High Indwelt of the Supreme Trait, Her Sovereign Ilf Majesty.
“Not you, Botch.”
What does she want with me? Her attention is perilous. To make us, the Queen pulls mud from the river, and twists it into something like life with her power. This is her Trait, and she has more of it than any other Ilf. That’s why she’s Queen. She can untwist us back into dust, too.
She steps all the way around me, saying nothing.
Queenie—I feel free to call her that in my mind, the only place words can move, since I have no mouth, just a place where I open to Swallow—Queenie summons me for Swallowing jobs more than any other troll. She also watches me more.
Surely she can’t have discovered that I know more of words than the rest of my kind. I hide the books I sneak from her dusty, unused library inside the mud flesh of my belly, where even she cannot see. I don’t know why I’m the only troll able to learn letters and understand more words than my name and Queenie’s orders: Come, Go, Stay, Smash, Swallow. I’ve watched her make other trolls, and I think I spent extra time in the vortex of her power. Maybe she slipped up with me. Maybe she knows it and that’s why she named me “Botch.”
She makes us each with a black, black hole inside. When I Swallow, it feels as if I open out, then close on whatever—or whomever—she has commanded me to Swallow. And they go Elsewhere. I feel as if I have more energy afterward, but since Queenie’s power is what makes my body, I don’t really need to eat or drink like Mortals and Ilfi do—I just Swallow.
“All right, Botch. Go.”
A Tax Train is waiting beyond the gate: an Ilf captain, a gatekeeper, guards, functionaries, a long string of saddle and packhorses. I hate Tax Train. Queenie’s Law: Pay or be Swallowed, no exemptions.
We crest the green Elder Mountains and descend into the West Reaches. After the last of the farms, the gatekeeper opens a silver tube where the Queen has stored one of her light-gates. The Keeper can't make gates, but he can use them. An exit of purple light opens and we go through it to cross, in one step, vast plains that are home only to great beasts. We come out in land so dry that the rock is all out on the surface. The earth here is like me, bare and brown.
The Ilfi, Banshhhh, and Mortals here are miners, windwailers, and dryland framers who grow just enough to support the Ilf mines. Not one has ever failed to pay Tax.
The Ilf miners are cheerful, joking with their fellow Ilf guards. They turn over a third of their gold, copper, silver, sapphires, and rubies. They have plenty, even after they’ve traded with caravans for barrels of nectar and sweet wine.
The Banshhhh are surly, but they wail up winds that our windsmith traps in brass pots. Queenie will deploy them to harry her enemies.
The Mortal farmers are the ones I like. They have a song about how a man is made out of mud. I am made out of mud. I feel happy among the Mortals.
I fear for them, too, because Queenie’s command made my flesh, and my flesh is bound to her command: Collect or Swallow. Trolls don’t speak, breathe, bleed, breed, feed—or choose.
Last Turn, Mortal harvests were bad, and I can see it has been another bad season. They are required to leave the standing stalks until the Tax has been gathered, just as they are required to have their large clay corn and bean jars counted and sealed at harvest by the Ilf sheriff. The stalks are fewer than they should be. The ground is dry and cracked.
The first dozen farm families pay, though one gaunt wife weeps the whole time, clutching her two thin children. But better to weep than be Swallowed. Then we come to Miquel’s farm. I like Miquel. He sings the mud song and laughs, and he always offers me beer, even though he knows I don’t drink or eat. The Ilf captain takes his beer readily enough. There’s no beer this Turn.
“I have no Tax. We have eaten all, and now we starve.” Miquel simply stands in the dust. His wife and child are nowhere to be seen. He knows he will die, and he has sent them away. The Ilf captain and I stomp down into his storepit. We see that only three jars were sealed at harvest, and all have been opened and stand empty.
Miquel’s words shiver in me. That means he’s lying—it seems that words and truth quarrel if they are at odds in Mortal and Ilf brains, and something in my power-twisted flesh feels it. I cannot tell the Ilf captain about the lie because I cannot speak. For the first time, I am glad to be mute.
What has Miquel done that he is willing to lie and die for? Has he hidden enough to feed his family after he is gone?
We all three know what the captain must now order. “Botch, Swallow.”
I fight the power that is opening the gap in my head, opening the black space within me. I fight until it bursts and I feel I am splitting. I feel Miquel’s cry inside me. I will not close on him. I will not. I keep opening until . . .
“Botch! Here!” I fall toward Miquel’s voice. Somehow, I am not Elsewhere, and I am not Not. Miquel is laughing, weeping.
We are in a cave with three great clay corn or bean jars, a bottle of hard-gathered pine-nut oil, strings of drying thornpads, a few fist-size jars of beer, and Miquel’s small daughter and wife, whom he holds tenderly. I see by her belly why Miquel was so desperate: if she starves, she and the new baby will die a-birthing.
“What did you do, Botch? I am . . . alive!”
I shake my head. Even if I could speak, I could not explain. I Swallowed so wide that I Swallowed myself and Miquel, and we have not come out Nowhere. We have come out where Miquel’s heart is.
“Come on, Botch. Here.” He thrusts a beer jar into my hand. Trolls don’t drink because we are sustained by Swallowing and the Queen's power. But what will happen if I Swallow this beer?
I decide to find out.
The beer was . . . unexpected. The Mortals evidently think so too.
As my senses re-connect, Miquel, his pregnant wife, and their small daughter huddle against the cave wall.
Miquel steps forward. His little girl peers around his legs, a smile overtaking her fright, her eyes crinkling in a giggle. Miquel sets his hands on his hips and laughs. “Wail of the Banshhhh, Botch! You got some boost out of that, Man!”
Man I am not, which is why it happened—whatever it was.
But this was an occasion to celebrate—or tremble. Beer seems to serve Mortals in both extremes, and I was the author of the extremity, so . . . I Swallowed Miquel’s beer, the first I ever had, the whole clay jarful.
The beer should not have affected me. I can’t be changed by Air, Earth, Water, Fire, or anything made from them. Mortals believe in a fifth Element, Soul. Maybe there is Soul in Mortal beer. If so, Soul has quite a kick, since here I am, sprawled against the rocky wall, numb. I need to move my legs, though, because they’re taking up most of the space. I try to draw them up, but all that happens is that they shake, and that makes jars rattle and little hisses of dust drift down.
“Take it easy, Botch! Rest. You saved my life, Botch. Fire and Water—I’ll wait on you hand and foot! You want anything? If I got it, it’s yours.”
Miquel’s little daughter sidles along between me and the cave wall. Her grin peeps at me above my elbow. I feel a tickle as she climbs up and sits on my arm with her feet on my chest. No fear in this one now. I like the way her little feet patter-tap against me. I begin to understand why Crow and Lump and some other Trolls crave young.
“Tro-lllll. Bosh.” Miquel’s girl must be just learning words. I remember when I could think only one word at a time, like all the other Trolls still do. She considers a moment. “Night-night?”
Trolls don’t need sleep, but night-night sounds pretty good right now. I let my mind fall into the rocking sensation that I enjoy when I’m lying in the under-ground at the Queen’s castle, the deep place my kind are allotted to wait when Queenie doesn’t want us for Smashing or Swallowing. We don’t sleep in the deep, but we lie still and let our senses drift. It feels as if I’m in a boat of light, rocking in a sea of dark. I feel the girlchild slide off my arm, curl up in the crook of it, and yawn. Rocking, rocking, side to side, light to night . . .
. . . A far-off alarm hails me. “Botch! Return!” It is the Tax Captain. He is the Lips of the Law, so it is Queenie’s voice I hear through the Power. It stirs my limbs, though I want to stay in the boat. I want to stay in Miquel’s cave. “Botch! Return!” . . .
I feel Miquel’s child lifted from the crook of my arm with a sleepy protest. I raise my head and the rocking stops. “What is it, Botch, our friend? What do you need?” It is a gentle voice, sweet and low. Miquel’s wife lays a soft hand on my shoulder. I have never heard her speak before. I like the sound.
But my legs are drawing up of their own accord, obedient to Command. I want to stay, but I don’t want to fight Command again. It was terrible enough the first time, when I fought not to Swallow Miquel. As I roll to my side, Miquel’s wife retreats as far as she can.
“Stay with us, Botch.” I can tell by her voice that she really means it.
I am on my knees now. I crawl toward the cave entrance, which I think I can barely pass through. Miquel moves to the opening, his body wedging in ahead of my shoulder. He must not try to stop me. I could hurt him. I shake my head.
“Botch, don’t go!” Miquel means it too.
My knees keep moving to push me forward. I hold myself back, but I won’t be able to do it for long. I push him aside.
“I will always stand in your debt, Botch. I will always stand as your friend. After the baby is born, we will go West, over the High Teeth and down to the Sea. I think Tax Trains don’t go that far because few can live there, where the Sea Claws come out to hunt on land. If ever you can, go to the Western Sea and find us. While we live, we will welcome you.”
I nod. I mean “Yes, go West. Yes, be free.” I cannot be free, made thing of Queenie’s that I am, so I don’t mean “Yes, I will meet you there.” But if he thinks that, and if it comforts him, let it be.
I go onto my belly, pushing myself like a serpent, and I struggle out of the cave. I stand and see that it is dusk. My legs climb down the low, rough cliff, answering the Queen’s Command. I turn east. I sense that the Tax Train waits some way along this canyon, where it opens into the bottomland that holds Miquel’s dying farm.
I hope the Tax Train has finished its work here. I hope no other Mortal chose not to pay. Swallowing Mortal beer was a . . . revelation. But I’m not ready for another—yet.
Cheryl Wood Ruggiero's work has appeared in The Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Abyss & Apex, CALYX, South Carolina Review, The Potomac, The 2River View, Pebble Lake Review, and Wolf Moon Journal, among others, and is forthcoming in the anthologies Crimewave, and Shelter of Daylight. Her poetry chapbook Old Woman at the Warm Spring is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in February 2011.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
Discovery! For me, as each story detail emerges from wherever it lives in my mind, it opens a new and deeper view of the world we all know, as well as of the unknown world that unfolds as I write. I feel I know both worlds better when I've finished a story, and I hope readers will feel the same way.