Mom decided last September that eleven-year-old Bethany was old enough to stay home alone after school until she got off work, but sometimes Mom didn’t get home until six or later. That wasn’t so much of a problem last fall when it stayed light longer in the evenings, but now the sun went down just after five. That meant the McPherson School sixth-grader was alone more than two hours after dark.
Bethany made herself a snack when she got home, surfed the web, watched videos, got around to doing her homework, and nuked frozen burritos or made fried won tons on the stove for dinner.
She actually wouldn’t have been so bothered about being alone except for the shadows in the cellar.
It wasn’t the shadows that Bethany first noticed, though. It was the noises.
The first time she heard them was in late October or early November…anyway, it wasn’t long after Halloween. In the beginning, she thought it was the furnace kicking on and didn’t pay much attention. But then she started hearing things that sounded like small animals.
Mom looked around in the basement the weekend after Bethany complained about it but didn’t find anything. Still, to make her daughter feel better, she set out some mousetraps which never caught anything (although occasionally the peanut butter used for bait went missing without triggering the trap).
Then there were the voices, at least that’s what they sounded like to the pre-teen. Tiny little voices and a lot of them, like there were cartoon characters living under her feet.
Bethany didn’t want to go down into the cellar and look. She knew it couldn’t be mice if they talked (though Bethany could never quite make out what they were saying), but then what could they be?
This time she didn’t tell Mom. After she and Dad got divorced, Mom made Bethany go to a counselor for almost a whole year. She absolutely hated it and if she told Mom she was hearing little voices in the cellar, she’d make her go to a therapist for the rest of her life.
Finally, Bethany couldn’t stand it. Whenever she turned on the lights and walked down the basement stairs, the noises stopped, so one day right after the sun went down, she decided to try something else.
She got a flashlight, made sure it lit up, and then as quietly as she could, she opened the door to the cellar and started down the stairs. Bethany kept the flashlight off so whatever it was wouldn’t see her coming. Besides, there was just enough light coming in the cellar windows and she held on to the bannister to make sure she wouldn’t fall.
The voices were still talking as she reached the foot of the stairs and this time she could hear what some of them were saying.
“Do ya think we should stay here much longer, Sean? I’m getting a wee bit tired of raiding their pantry every night and living on crackers and peanut butter.”
“We have no place else to go. The bloody fires burnt our homes to the ground, Maisey.”
“I think we should find some new homes. It’s not safe living so close to the big people.”
“I’m the clan elder Cameron, and I say we should stay a bit longer, just to make sure there’s no more burning.”
Bethany had heard enough. Whoever they were, they didn’t sound dangerous, just homeless, and all the voices were coming from just a few inches off the floor. She pointed her flashlight at where she heard the talking and turned it on.
“Okay, hold it. Who are you and what are you doing in my cellar?”
For just an instant, she saw maybe a couple dozen or so tiny people, all of them two inches tall at most. Then they scattered so fast the child couldn’t tell which direction they had all gone. Well, all of them were gone except one and he was staring at her flashlight and trembling.
Bethany was standing right by the main light switch and toggled it on. Instantly the basement became illuminated, but the little man still couldn’t take his gaze away from her flashlight. She turned it off and knelt down.
“Hey, I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
He looked old if the white hair and graying beard were any indication. The little hat on his head looked like one her great-grandpa used to wear. Mom said it was called a fedora. All of his clothes looked the same color as the trees and grass. Outside, he’d be almost impossible to see.
“What’s your name?”
The old little guy, whatever he was, didn’t answer but kept glancing to one side or the other. He whispered, “Pssst. Is everyone gone yet?”
“I can hear you and yes, they’re all hiding except for you.”
He stood up taller and stopped looking scared. “Oh good. As long as the clan is safe then I’ve done me duty. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sean McAlister Bartholomew Springer Jones, head of the Santa Rosa Dryads.”
“Dryads, dear. As your prisoner, I expect no special treatment, but I warn you, the instant you take your eyes off of me, I’ll be just as hidden as the rest, so you’d better know the right spells to keep me here.”
“I don’t know any spells Mister…what do I call you. You have a really long name.”
“Sean will do. How about you, Missy?”
“Bethany, and you’re not my prisoner. Actually, I thought I was going crazy. Maybe I really am. What’s a Dryad.”
“We often be called ‘tree nymphs,’ though you big folks seem to think we’re a whole lot more into nudity and what you call ‘adult activity’ than we really are.”
“What are you doing in my basement?”
Sean looked down, a shadow of sadness crossing his face. “We have no place else to live.”
“Where did you live before you came here?”
“The trees.” She saw tiny tears dripping onto the floor under him.
Bethany’s proverbial light bulb lit up above her head. “The fires. A lot of the trees, tons and tons of them burned up.”
“Aye, Missy Bethany. All of our homes, gone in the blaze, just like all of those big people houses.”
As they were talking, one by one, the other clan members, adults and children, began to slowly come out of the nooks and crannies of the cellar and gather around their elder.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I’ve been afraid of you for months.”
“We’re not harmful or mischievous, Missy. In fact your kind never even knows we’re about usually.”
Bethany sat down cross-legged and put on his best “thinking cap” expression. “Well, you can live here as long as you want, Mr. Sean. All of you can. Can I get you something besides peanut butter and crackers to eat? We’ve got a frozen pizza I could bake for you.”
“Pizza! Yay!” Several of the Dryad children cried out in glee and an instant later all of their mothers hushed them.
“Really, it would be no trouble.”
“That’s only one meal, Missy. What me and mine really need is to be back in the green. We’re not meant to live underground like gophers.”
The girl thought again and then said, “If you’ll wait right here, I’ll put the pizza on and then I have something to show you.”
Ten minutes later, Bethany returned with her iPad. In her absence, the Santa Rosa clan had engaged in a vigorous debate about the wisdom of accepting assistance from a big folk, even if she was only a child. However they were still where Bethany had left them when she sat down again on the cellar floor.
She turned the display of the iPad toward Sean and the others. A web browser was open to a page on Dryads.
“It says here that you live in trees, particularly oak trees, is that right?”
“Right as rain, Bethany.” It was Maisey who had answered and the first time someone other than Sean had addressed her directly. Then several of them began to explain the benefits of living in an oak as opposed to a birch or a pine, although an offshoot of the Sonoma clan actually preferred pines, and then so many of them were talking, it was hard for her to understand them.
“Wait! Wait!” She put the tablet down and held up her hands. The loud chattering settled into softer murmuring and then finally they all stopped.
“What I’m trying to say is we have two big oaks in the backyard. Could you live in those?”
“So close to a human?” Phillip was renowned for his big mouth and poor timing regarding its opening and immediately slapped both hands across his lips.
“I remind you Philly that we’ve been living in this basement for over two months.” It was his cousin Elvira who sternly rebuked him.
“Well, we’ll need to talk it over, Bethany.”
“That’s okay, Sean. My offer is open anytime you want to take me up on it but just…” She looked back up the stairs. Thankfully, Mom hadn’t come home yet. She lowered her voice anyway.”Just you can’t let my Mom know, okay?”
“Oh, that won’t be a problem, Missy. Fear not.”
“I’d better check on the pizza.” Bethany stood and ran back up the stairs.
“Well, she’s gone. What say you all to her offer?”
Another vigorous debate took place on the generous but highly controversial offer of a new home. Another ten or so minutes went by and this time when Bethany came down the stairs, she was holding a very large cutting board and on the cutting board was an extra-large pepperoni and mushroom pizza.
Most of the Dryads thought it smelled wonderful and even those who didn’t were grateful that they were being served a meal that wasn’t crackers and peanut butter.
They broke bread and cut a deal. The two oaks indeed would be more than enough room for them and certainly more suitable than a musty old basement (the Dryads had to evict the previous tenants, the mice so there’s be room, but several feral cats in the neighborhood benefited).
The meal done (the Dryads had brought their own tiny plates and cutlery) and the cutting board in the kitchen sink above, Bethany directed them all back to her iPad.
“Here’s the other thing I wanted to show you.” This time she had opened a webpage to a recent news story: Wave of lawsuits blames PG&E for deadly California fires.
“Why the cads, the scoundrels. They robbed us of our…” Sean became overwhelmed with emotion and couldn’t go on speaking.
“It’s an interesting idea dear,” Maisey began “but I can’t see the lot of us tramping into one of your courtrooms. We’d cause a riot.”
“No,” replied Cameron. “But we could keep an eye on the lawsuit and see if justice is done.”
“And if not, what then?” Sean had managed to compose himself. “We’re not mischief makers so as to pester these PG&E folks. I’ll not have this clan reduced to such a thing.”
“I agree, Sean.” Cameron was smiling in a very peculiar way. “On the other hand, our cousins the Gremlins might be willing to help and mischief is their middle name.”
Sean stroked his beard and grinned. “Aye. That might be the ticket indeed, Cam. It might be indeed.”
I wrote this for the Sunday Writing Prompt #236 “It’s All In The Title” challenge hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use one of the titles listed on the challenge page as the inspiration for a poem or short story. Obviously, I selected Shadows in the Cellar although I leveraged Wrath of the Dryads in order to create my “little folk” and their predicament. You can click the link above to see all of the titles that were presented.
My daughter lives in Napa, CA and was surrounded by the horrible northern California fires last October. Fortunately, they didn’t come too close to her, but as you can see here, so many other communities were devastated.
Since Dryads are tree dwellers (especially oak), it would seem that not only were many, many human beings left homeless, but wilderness creatures (real and mythical) as well.
Fortunately, due to Bethany’s kind heart, Sean’s clan now has new digs.
The story about the lawsuit is real but I couldn’t think of a plausible way to have the Dryads join it. On the other hand, if the courts don’t see fit to making sure justice is done, these tree folk can send their somewhat more malevolent cousins into action (of course, this is written all for fun, though there is a tragic reality to the story).
With a title like “Shadows in the Cellar,” my first thought was to create a vampire related tale, but then I’ve written so many of them lately, I decided to try a different approach.
Other stories based on the prompt can be found at Blenza.com.