Change Of Life

by Duke Kimball


On the day his wife found Jesus, Jerry Converse was in the garden, shooting at the goddamn fairies.

They hadn’t given him much choice lately—relentless bastards gnawed up the lilacs, they carved little runes in the birch tree, they raided the bird-feeder and scattered the seeds all over Hell’s half-acre. Even pulled up the potted geraniums. Now lilac-eating, or seed-raiding, he couldn’t really hold that against them. It was in their nature. But why couldn’t they think of a better place to dig their little dens than his damn flowerpots? Those geraniums never did anything to anybody.

So as far as Jerry was concerned, this was no longer a simple case of fae-will-be-fae. This was vandalism, pure and simple. And he wasn’t about to let those moth-winged little shit-kickers escape the long arm of justice.

Now he sat, plastic flaps of the folding beach chair uncomfortably stuck to the bottoms of his thighs, while his bathrobe flowed luxuriously from his shoulders. A judge passing sentence. In lieu of a gavel, he brandished a half-empty tallboy of Miller Lite in his left hand. He sucked the residue from his bushy white mustache during the more pensive moments of the trial.

In his right hand was the trusty Crossman 1377c—the cheapest, least-accurate BB pistol he could find at Gill-Roy’s hardware. He’d bought it primarily for the price ($49.95 plus tax, $14.95 for ammunition), but also because it was longer and more stylish than the actual gun he’d carried on the Force. The Glock was compact, bulky, all-business. The Crossman was rather elegant, for a BB gun. Almost Lugeresque.

Not that he’d ever had much call to use a gun. Elk Rapids wasn’t exactly a hotbed of crime and villainy. In his twenty years, he’d drawn his gun maybe ten times, and that mostly for show. Only fired it once, in an attempt to take down a rabid troll that had gotten loose down by the Harbor back around ’89. It was during the annual Harbor Days festival, damn carnies had a pet troll they kept chained up behind the Tilt-A-Whirl. And of course you can’t expect carnies to keep a troll up to date on his shots, so it had popped the chain and chewed up the arm of a local teenager. Took off all frothing at the mouth and holed itself up under the footbridge, where he and his partner Dale had been forced to open fire. He’d missed it. Dale had always been the better shot.

So Jerry bought plenty of ammo for his Crossman. There certainly wasn’t anything illegal in popping off BBs at the little meddlers, or even knocking a few off. Jerry had done his research—the DNR’s website identified Nymphus alata as an invasive species, first introduced to the state when Will Keith Kellogg, the damn money-grubbing bran peddler himself, brought four pairs of the Common English Garden Fairy to his estate in Battle Creek to give the place some “old world charm.” Fast forward a few decades and the fairies had practically taken over the Great Lakes region and were claiming vast swathes of Ontario. The DNR had done two intensive culls but the fairies just kept bouncing back. Between them and the Okinawan Water Sprites that had found their way into Lake Erie, the native wee folk Nymphus americanus were being driven right out of business.

Jerry couldn’t claim to have much actual care for their plight. Mannegishi, as the locals called them, were also mischievous pests. He and Dale once went fly fishing by his folks’ place, up on Iron River, and right when they got into some nice brown trout had their rowboat pulled off by a little pack of the hairy, noseless critters. Dale had popped out of his waders and swum after the boat like a bat out of hell while Jerry floundered about, swinging his rod like a wild man and hollering until the mess of them piled into their little stone canoes and disappeared into the weeds. But at least Mannegishi were local. And, more importantly, they stuck close to the lakes and rivers and left his geraniums alone.

His eye caught movement above him. The branches of the birch tree, the one that got leaves on his deck every autumn, the one that he kept threatening to cut down and the one that Nell kept convincing him to leave alone. He popped off a shot into the rustling leaves. Missed it, but he got close enough to unsettle the little bastard. It barked at him and flipped its wings in annoyance, zipping off and away toward his neighbor’s azalea bushes with a sound something like that of a long zipper being rapidly undone. Jerry did not smile. Justice was blind.

Nell would have yelled at him to leave the fairies alone. She liked them. Thought they were cute. At the very least, she would have told him to put some clothes on if he insisted on continuing his childish war. But Nell wasn’t at home. Nell was at church.

Before the Change-Of-Life (which is what Jerry had taken to calling it), Nell wouldn’t have considered going to church. Not that they were godless heathens or anything. He believed in a higher power, and lower powers, and even some powers in between. But Organized Religion was for the weak-minded. Like his brother Sam, or Lois the fat-bottomed assistant principal at Nell’s school. The one she was currently sitting by. She’d turned down those invites on a bi-monthly basis for years, loudly complaining when she got home about that ginger-permed Born-Again who “couldn’t mind her own dang business.”

But things change.

Changelings. That was another thing about fairies. The old timers in Iron River had told stories about those. Jerry remembered his grandfather Pappa Toivo at the breakfast table, scruffing him on the head with calloused hands, always too hard. “Little Jerry dere, he musta been switched at birt wit a Changeling.” He would give Nana Aina a broad wink. “No hooman child could eat dat many flapjacks.” Jerry, wide-eyed, had worried about that for a while before finally coming to the conclusion that, if he were a secret fairy child, he’d probably know it.

Besides, the whole angle never really made sense to him. If fairies were in need of babies, why would they abandon their own? If the object was to dump their own infants, why take someone else’s? No, if the fairies had any inclination toward baby thieving, Jerry doubted that they’d bother to go through the motions of leaving something behind to soothe the mourning parents. They’d just take what they wanted, like any other animal. Might not even wait for them to be born first. His time on the Force had taught him something about the way the world worked—when change happens, it’s usually brutish and quick. And there aren’t often many pieces left to put back together.

It’s not like Jerry feared change or anything. Their life hadn’t been perfect. When they were younger, just starting, Nell’s family back in Little Current wouldn’t talk to him. Didn’t for years. Couldn’t forgive their little girl for marrying an American, and a Republican no less, a man over sixteen years her senior. And then the aftermath of their third miscarriage, that had been … rough. Beyond rough. But he loved Nell, he loved their life, and he didn’t necessarily want change. Especially the Change.

Nell had begun experiencing—well, she’d jokingly referred to it as her change-of-life, in mockery of her mother, but she usually just called it what it was—menopause, around the start of her 51st year. But now, a year later, the symptoms had gotten worse. Worse enough that she started the mornings knelt over the toilet. Worse enough that the headaches had sent her to the doctor, looking for a prescription for something, anything—only to find out that her condition had other implications. In other words, she learned that, at age 52, she was expecting.

She’d been so happy that afternoon. Made Jerry pork chops (his favorite), and didn’t even tease him when he ranted about the fairies and the geraniums. Jerry loved seeing her that happy.

He wished to God he had handled the news better.

He hadn’t meant to shout, at least. To bemoan her state and to rattle off the impracticalities: he was 68 years old, old for a grandfather, for God’s sake, and retired for fifteen years. How could they support a child? He didn’t mean to belittle her dreams, or accuse her of being irresponsible with their birth control. And he certainly didn’t mean to suggest, no, insist, that an abortion was their only sensible option. Nell was horrified—and for good reason, they didn’t even believe in it, they always voted for the other guy. But Jerry was upset and he knew, knew, that their situation was different.

He really didn’t mean it, but it happened, and for the first time in their 35 years together, he slept on the couch. And the next day, he bought the BB gun.

Nell … well, Nell wasn’t Jerry. She didn’t yell. She got mad, she got quiet. She’d been quiet, lately. They got along okay after that first fight, but it was all still boiling under the surface. Whenever he broached the subject, she referred to their Change as their “blessing” or their “gift from God,” and it was strongly implied that it merited no further discussion.

Jerry wasn’t sure what to do. He couldn’t be a father, not now, that dream had died a long damn time ago and they needed to just accept it. But she just wouldn’t give in to reason. He’d let the matter go, knowing that when the glow wore off and reality hit, she would see it his way.

Instead, she was at church.

He didn’t fight her over it. “Just don’t turn into a nutjob on me,” he’d said, and she’d smiled. But her heart wasn’t in it.

That was the thing with Nell. She either said the right thing, or nothing at all. Jerry, conversely, made saying the wrong thing into an art form. Like when one of Nell’s little third graders called the house bawling and he’d shouted at the kid to “calm the hell down” until Nell had snatched the phone away and engaged the wailing voice with reassuring tones.

“It’s okay, Sammie. It’s not your fault,” Nell had crooned into the phone after miraculously deciphering the mewling sobs. “Just keep Twinkie in his cage and make sure he has plenty of water, okay? I’ll come pick him up in a few hours. Just remember, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not your fault.”

“Was it his fault?” Jerry had asked Nell when she hung up the phone.

“Hers.” Nell sighed. “And absolutely. Though it was mostly her parents. Why do I bother writing up the class pet care sheets if nobody ever reads the dang thing?”

“Language!” Jerry had said in mock horror.

She slapped him on the arm. “Anyway, you know what she did? Accidentally killed Brownie. Let the fairies out of the cage, which is NUMBER ONE on the class pet care sheet, by the way, and she flew right into the window and broke her neck. So the parents tried to replace it with another brown-haired fairy and hope I couldn’t tell the difference.”

“Clever.”

“Would be, except that fairies need to be kept in previously socialized pairs, and if they’re suddenly thrown in the same cage with a strange fairy they can get extremely territorial.”

“Uh oh.”

“Yeah. Uh oh. Now poor Sammie has to bury two brown-haired fairies and Twinkie is missing a dang eye.” Nell shook her head. “Now I have to figure out what to do with a mangled fairy.”

“Whatcha mean?”

“Well, I can’t bring Twinkie back to class with one eye. I’ll traumatize a room full of eight-year-olds.”

“Sure you can.” Jerry grunted. “Get it a little eyepatch. Rename it ‘Winky.’ Problem solved.”

God, she was pretty when she laughed.

A rattle caught his attention. One of the little vandals was swinging on the bird feeder. He drew up the air pistol, carefully following the movements, exhaling slowly before firing.

And it fell.

When he caught it, it was still alive. Just stunned. Little female by the look of it, long blonde hair, little slighter in build. He took it by the ankles, swung it against the tree. The crunch reminded him of something sweet, like biting into an overripe apple, and the sound turned the beer a little in his stomach.

He held the creature out, away from his baby blue bathrobe. It seemed so … small. So helpless.

He was staring at the tiny hands.

“Do you know what pikkuleipa means?” Jerry remembers the question well.

“Cookie.”

“Yes, dat is what it is. But da words, in Finnish?” Jerry, five or six years old at the time, shook his head, and Nana Aina sighed. “You should be learning Finnish by now. I talk to your mudder about dat.” She pinched her fingers close together. “Pikku,” she said, “pikku is small. Can you guess leipa?”

Jerry thought for a moment. “Cookie?”

“Not so bright, my little Jerry.” She laughed, and for some reason Jerry was not insulted by this. He laughed too. “Leipa is bread. So cookie is little breads. Little breads for little hands.” Nana Aina patted Jerry on the wrist and handed him the gingersnap from the cooling rack. “Now—did you make one extra special small, like I ask?”

Jerry nodded, pointing at the tiniest of the small brown cookies. Nana Aina motioned for him to take it, and she led them out to the living room. Next to the window, she had a small plate set atop a faded lace doily. Jerry placed the cookie on the plate. “What’s that for, Nana?” he remembers asking her.

Nana Aina’s eyes twinkled. “Haltija.” She knelt down and whispered the word in Jerry’s wide-eyed face. “You know dem, boy? Da little folk?”

Jerry nodded. “You mean the fairies?”

Nana Aina shrugged. “Dem soudern ones wit da wings, those we call metsän väki, they belong in da woods, you know. Veden väki are the old ones by da water. But we leave presents for our tonttu. The tonttu is haltija, little folk, dat live in a house and protect all da little ones like you who live dere.” She gave Jerry a wink. “Pappa Toivo, he worked in da mines, you know? Digging out iron?”

Jerry nodded. “I know, Nana.”

“He made friends with raudan väki, the iron folk. So we leave dem presents so dey watch over us.”

Jerry looked at the tiny cookie on the tiny plate on the tiny doily. He imagined a tiny metal person sneaking in and taking it. “Are you sure Pappa Toivo won’t just eat it after we go to bed?”

Nana Aina laughed. She was pretty when she laughed, and big and powerful. “If he does dat,” she reassured little Jerry, “I give him a big ol’ smack.”

That was good enough for Jerry. He slept easy that night, knowing that the iron fairies were watching out for him.

But years came, and years passed, and fairies ceased being magical and became simple garden pests. He shot them off his bird feeder, he smashed their heads in against birch trees and held their little broken bodies in his hand and he need not worry about that—he had no little ones in his house to protect. Yet.

Yet seemed like a big word to Jerry at the moment.

He tossed the dead fairy out into the woods across the street. Washed his hands. Went for another beer, reconsidered, made up a pot of coffee instead. Checked his supply of BBs (he’d gone a little overboard at Gill-Roy’s, he was still well off), and reloaded the Crossman. Poured himself a cup of Folgers, and saw a familiar blue packet on the counter by the pantry. Without entirely thinking about it, he took an Oreo from the package and placed it on a paper napkin, setting it on the china cabinet by the sliding door.

“Little bread for little hands,” he mumbled, BB gun and coffee in hand, before walking back to the deck and settling back into the beach chair.

Nell found him there, nursing half a mug of cold coffee, when she got home from church. She didn’t tell him that she’d found Jesus, not yet, but she slipped her arms around his shoulders and kissed the stubble beneath his ear and he knew. More change.

“I love you,” she said.

Jerry grunted, his usual response to those three words. He detected a smile from the breaths on his neck. “Been thinking the den could make a decent nursery, with a little work,” he said. “What say we hit the Home Depot this afternoon?”

Another kiss. “It’s going to be alright.”

And then the Change-Of-Life was just that, more life, and Jerry couldn’t bring himself to do anything but grunt again.

A chitter, zip and a scurry, and a fairy was skimming across the backyard toward his tomato plants. He brought up the Crossman, sighted the critter, and gave the customary exhale one gives before firing a weapon.

He felt Nell exhale too, on the back of his neck. He didn’t pull the trigger.

Duke Kimball likes to wear hats. He’s been a religious studies major, a grocery store clerk, and a sleazy used car salesman. He’s currently a part-time bookseller and the content guy for a website company. His fiction and poetry have appeared in places like Kaleidotrope, Asymmetry Fiction and Strange Horizons, among others. He lives in Lansing, MI with his brilliant and amazing wife, and a dog that’s named after a cheese factory. You can find him on the world wide web at dukekimball.com, or on twitter @capndukekimball.

“Change Of Life” was inspired by northern Michigan, small town evangelism, Norse mythology, and a memory of his grandfather angrily shooting squirrels in the garden with a BB pistol. Not necessarily in that order.


“Change Of Life” by Duke Kimball. Copyright © 2018 by Duke Kimball.

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