He’d ridden his Schwinn stingray bike from his house all the way up Route 16 to his grandma’s farm house. It was about six miles, but the had road great hills that he could really fly down. He didn’t even have to get off his bike when getting up the biggest hills, now that he was 10. He did have to stand on the pedals and it took about all of his might, but he’d crest each of the four big hills and that was the most awesome feeling in the world. The bike would whistle down the hills and if he didn’t chicken-out, and use some brake power, he could nearly top two of the big hills without pedaling at all.
When he coasted up into his grandma’s driveway she was standing on her covered porch as usual, and saying, “Goodness boy you’re going to crash if you keep riding like a mad man.”
“I’m Ok gram, holy-smoke look at all these leaves!” Jacob could hardly see a blade of grass through the heavy carpeting of leaves in her yard.
Gram’s house was over 100 years old. It was built in 1865 and this was 1968. Jacob loved the old place, especially because his grandpa, who died a couple of years ago, used to tell him stories about the building of the Nolan Farm House; how old Shane Nolan had to make a bargain with the wood folk and other woodland beings to be allowed to clear the land of trees. He was under very strict instructions which tress were never to be removed, and Jacob’s grandpa told him, “Shane Nolan never broke his word and nor have I.”
One of the forbidden trees was an old oak that was thought to be over 250 years old. It was so huge that its trunk was more than four feet around. It was also responsible for the tons of leaves in the front yard which it shared with a very old sugar maple and two young birches.
Jacob didn’t mind raking leaves since they were so colorful. He loved the maple leaves, the reds, which ranged from nearly purple to fire engine red. The yellow, oranges and browns of oaks and sugar maples were abundant in his grandmother’s yard too.
Jacob raked for three solid hours. Raking the piles of leaves into a giant old blanket and then grabbing all four corners and tugging it about four hundred feet to the gully which dropped into what his grandfather called the deep wood. At the top he’d heft the bulging blanket over the edge and watch the leaves tumble and roll down into the deep wood.
It was on his fourth huge load that he thought he heard a small voice hollering, “Whoa boy, don’t you go tossing me off that cliff!”
Jacob tugged the heavy load of leaves backward away from the edge and let go of the corners of the blanket and ended up falling on his butt.
“What, who…who’s talking?” Jacob called out before he realized he’d spoken out-loud to a voice he imagined he’d heard.
“I’m talking you, young descendant of Shane Nolan.” The voice said very clearly sounding exactly like Darby O’Gill from one of Jacob’s favorite movies.
“I’m not a Nolan…where the heck are you?” Jacob asked. He was still sitting on the cool damp ground, which he could feel soaking into his Levi’s.
“I’m here, don’t you doubt it boy, and I’m just not about appearing before those I may have no agreement with.”
Jacob stood up and looked around; assuring himself that his gram wasn’t seeing him talking to no one.
“If you ain’t a Nolan just who are you claiming to be?” The voice asked. The voice was decidedly closer and easier to hear and much harder to doubt.
“I’m Jacob Ryan and I am the grandson of Joseph Ryan who kept the agreement that was made by Shane Nolan.” Jacob was very surprised by his own words and more surprised when they caused the voice to say, “Well then Jacob Ryan stand still so you don’t go stepping on me. You nearly cut me boots off with that iron toothed tool you’re removing the leaves with.”
A tiny man appeared on a large rock about two feet from Jacob’s right foot.
“Oh my gosh…you’re real.” Jacob whispered and knelt down to get a better look at the man that was about an inch and a half tall. He was wearing clothing of sorts. It looked like weaved moss and his boots looked to be made out of acorn chips. His hair was reddish gray and it flowed into a matching beard.
“Of course I’m real, if’n I wasn’t how do you suppose you’d be hearing me and talk’n to me?” The little man asked sensibly.
“You know my name, so what’s yours?” Jacob asked sitting on another boulder close to the little woods man.
“I am a gnome and my name is impossible for you to speak. I belong to a race coming from the beginning of times. Our homes are under your ancient trees. I never appear in the day’s light but you gave me no choice when you swept me up and tried to throw me over the edge.” The gnome said forcefully.
“Well if you weren’t invisible, I wouldn’t have raked you up, now would I?” Jacob argued back.
“How would I know what you would have done? I only know what was done.” The gnome answered.
The sun was going down and Jacob knew he had just enough time to ride his bike back home before it was too dark.
“I’m sorry about raking you up. Are you hurt?” Jacob asked trying to see if there was any green blood coming out of the old gnome.
“No Jacob, I’m not hurt but if you would give me a wee bit of a lift back over to the old oak I’d be better off.”
Jacob put his hand down and the tiny gnome walked into the center of his palm. The feeling of the gnomes little feet felt just like when Jacob let big beetles walk on his hand.
Jacob carried the gnome to the base of the giant old oak and watched as he stepped off his hand onto a large root. The gnome said, “Off with you then Jacob. Oh, and I wouldn’t go telling anyone you’ve seen me, or worse spoken with me. Your people have long forgotten magic and the truth of the ancient ways. They will simply try and take you to a doctor for fixing your young head.”
Jacob let his grandmother know that he was leaving and tucked the five dollar bill she’d given him deep into his front pocket. He desperately wanted to tell her that he’d seen one of the woodland beings his grandfather told him about in stories, but he also knew the gnome was right; people would just think he was crazy.
He got home just as people were beginning to use their cars headlights. He put his Stingray bike in the garage and took a few minutes to wipe it down even using some liquid glass wax. He was never going to get any rust on this bike!
Jacob’s Mom was a writer. When he came inside the warm house he was very happy to see her deep in concentration over her 1965 Royal Empress Electric Typewriter. He remembered when she sold a story to the Yankee Magazine, in Dublin, NH and bought the fancy new typewriter.
She was typing fast and the Royal Empress made a wonderful gentle tapping sound and an electric whir as it changed lines. It was cool, but Jacob used to fall asleep when he was little to her clicking away on the old 1940s Smith Corona Sterling Typewriter, and to the reassuring ding of its bell and the zip of each return.
Jacob was an only child of a single parent. He usually told his Mom everything. They were more like friends. Jacob’s dad was killed in Vietnam in 1964 when Jacob was just six. His dad was a bomber pilot and was part of the first wave of bombers that flew into North Vietnam, which President Johnson ordered. Now there was a picture of him on top of the roll top desk where his mom was typing. Next to it was the box that held his Purple Heart Medal. Jacob’s mom always said that’s where part of her heart was too.
His mom looked up and asked, “How’d it go at Gram’s?”
“Fine, she gave me five dollars.” Jacob answered absently as he scanned the contents of the fridge and pulled out a half gallon of apple cider.
“There’s stew on the stove and some French bread in the oven. Wash your hands and have a nice big bowl honey.”
As he ate his stew he kept replaying his encounter with the gnome and couldn’t help smiling. His grandpa’s stories were true. He wondered if his grandpa knew they were or if he was just passing on tales he’d been told.
Jacob looked at his hand and could still feel the sensation of the gnome’s tiny acorn shoes walking on his palm. He wanted to tell his mom about it but he sure didn’t want to go to a psychiatrist. He hated going after his dad was killed. The school counselor recommended it and for a bunch of Thursdays Jacob went to Dr. Ackerman’s in Rochester.
The office smelled of cherry pipe tobacco and old leather. It was dark and gloomy. Worse was how Dr. Ackerman kept asking him how he felt, and did he miss his father. Even at six years old, Jacob knew that was one of the dumbest questions in the whole world.
He was not going to tell his mom or anyone he’d seen and talked to a woods gnome while raking leaves at his gram’s place. Nope, without proof he did he’d be stuck in Dr. Ackerman’s office for about two years. Maybe worse; he could go to the kids’ part of the State Hospital in Concord.
A few hours later he was in bed. He lay awake and in the dark he looked at his palm which felt tingly. He sat up and sucked in his breath when he saw tiny glowing green spots across his palm. He blinked and they were still there. He turned on his bedside Apollo Rocket lamp. No spots, no green; just a plain old regular hand.
He wasn’t scared. He actually liked the tiny green glowing spots. This was his own proof to himself that he had carried a gnome back to his place under the old oak at his gram’s house.
Just before falling asleep he decided that he had to go back and try and talk to the gnome again. Maybe he could borrow his mom’s Polaroid Land Camera and take a picture of the gnome.
The next day school lasted forever. When the bell rang releasing him he ran out of the classroom only to be grabbed by the arm by Mr. Schultz, his science teacher.
“Slow down Mr. Ryan.” Mr. Shultz ordered and let go of Jacob’s arm.
Teachers always called you Mr. Ryan, and not your first name when you were busted.
Jacob decided to head to the town library.
Mrs. Snowden was the Head Librarian and looked about as old as the library itself. Some kids were scared of her and said she was probably a witch in her free time. She did look sort of scary; tall and slim with white skin so wrinkled it looked like tissue paper. Jacob liked her though. She always knew the answers to his questions about any book or subject he wanted to find in the big old library.
“Hi Mrs. Snowden, I’d like to learn about gnomes.” Jacob said.
“Hmm, you can try fictional creatures, folklore or faerie tales.” Mrs. Snowden wrote out the card numbers and the two aisles he could look in on a 3 by 5 card.
He had an urge to say, “Not fiction, I need fact books.” He realized that he couldn’t do that since gnomes, faeries and sprites were considered folklore.
He found Banks & Son Edition No 120:The Spritely Elves, The Fairy Brook, Dance of the Gnomes, Mischief by Moonlight, Dinner Bells, The Wood Warblers by Thomas Keighley 1928
The book was green and white on the cover and the pages were brown. Even so, Thomas Keighley did not write as if the existence of gnomes was true or just stories. He wrote each article like a factual account.
Jacob took notes:
They only go out at night and their home is lively after sunset.
They are friends of animals; they speak their same language and protect them from danger.
They are earth spirits, they work the soil and tree roots, to which they grant power.
Their best feasts are when the freezing winds blow over the woods dancing and playing, they start to run and some prefer rain for their dances.
Jacob brought the book up to check out and Mrs. Snowden made a small coughing sound and said, “I’m sorry Jacob, this cannot be checked out, it’s Reference Only. Where ever did you find this?”
Jacob was disappointed but he had most of what he needed. He just had to borrow his mom’s Polaroid camera and then go get proof that gnomes are real.
He got home at nearly 5 pm and realized it was too late to ride to his gram’s place tonight. It got dark so fast in October it was near sunset by 6 pm and pitch dark by 7 pm.
One thing that bugged him about his research was that gnomes were supposed to only appear to kids. That didn’t make sense because Shane Nolan wasn’t a kid when he came to Wakefield to clear the land and start his farm and apple groves.
It took two days before Jacob could get back to his grandma’s place. It was a Saturday though, so he was able to go earlier than after school.
He told his grandmother he was going to look for salamanders, which wasn’t really a lie, since he’d learned that gnomes were friends with them.
Jacob called out in a sort of whisper at the trunk of the huge old oak tree where he’d left the gnome.
This was difficult since the gnome had not given a Jacob his name. Jacob just kept saying, “Mr. Gnome, come on out, I want to talk to you.”
He kept at it for half an hour and just when he’d decided that the woodland creature was never going to show, a voice called out, “Will you hush up with your Mr. Gnome come out blathering!”
“Oh, great, you’re here.” Jacob said.
"Yes, I am. You didn’t give me much of a choice.” The gnome complained.
“Sorry but I had to see you again. I want to ask you some questions.”
The tiny gnome grunted and said, “I’ll answer your questions if you give me a bit of your cider from the can you’re carrying at your side.”
Jacob was surprised. He did have cider in his army canteen. “How’d you know I had cider in this?”
“Well I can smell it can’t I?” The gnome answered gruffly.
Jacob poured some in the cap which was nearly as tall as the little man.
Then right before Jacob’s eyes the gnome appeared to get see through, then he sparkled in the same greenish glow as the foot prints on Jacob’s palm.
The gnome was now six inches tall and he took up the cap like a bucket from a well and poured the cider into his mouth and all over his beard.
“Ah, your grandma makes the cider same as your grandfather and he made it like Shane Nolan before him.”
Jacob decided to try his first question. “If you are supposed to be only seen by children, how could you make a bargain with Shane Nolan who was an adult?”
“Who says we can only be seen by children?” the gnome asked.
“Books and stories,” Jacob answered.
“Oh, well they would wouldn’t they. I mean what adult is going to go around saying he’d been talking to a gnome? No, they wouldn’t only kids would, they’re so honest. That’s why your books say that only kids can see us.” The gnome answered clearly satisfied with his answer.
“What’s your name?” Jacob dared to ask.
“My name’s Scratch, or as you call it, me nickname. My given name is ancient and you would not be able to say it, so call me Scratch.”
Jacob’s heart was racing. He was actually talking to a gnome. He dared to ask what he’d really come to do.
“Can I take your picture?”
“No, I can’t stay long enough to be drawn or painted. I sat for Rien Poortvliet and it took hours for him to draw me.”
“I have a camera. It takes instant pictures,” Jacob said, revealing the Polaroid camera.
Scratch posed sitting, standing, he did hand-stands and seemed to enjoy showing off. He liked watching his image slowly appear in the Polaroid’s wet surface. He didn’t care for the chemical smell though.
They talked for quite awhile and Jacob’s understanding of this gnome and spirit folk grew.
Then suddenly Scratch said, “I’ve got to go boy,” and he was gone.
Jacob ran into his grandmother’s house with the Polaroid photos.
“Gram, look at these. I’ve got picture of a real gnome.”
He laid the pictures out on her sewing table and gasped. Each picture appeared to show a cement garden gnome.
“Those are wonderful; I didn’t even know we had those in the yard.”
Jacob flushed red and then he thought of how his grandpa would say that you’ve got nothing in hand. “Sorry son, you’ve got scratch.”