"Pap, what's that sound?" I asked, cocking my head as the horse strained to pull our wagon of logs up the hill.
My father, red-faced from waking so long in the heat, paused his crashing through the bush and cocked his head to listen.
A breathy, flute-like noise came through the trees, mixed with an almost hypnotic moaning. It sounds like some tropical bird. Except we lived in Appalachia; tropical birds didn't exist here.
"Is someone hurt?" I asked, wincing as the moaning voice hit a sour note. "Sounds like someone's sick!"
"Nah, Jed, just an elf," Pap said, shrugging and going on.
"An elf?" I sputtered, trampling after him and grabbing his thick, sweaty, hairy arm. "Pap, you never told me elves lived hereabout!"
"Sure they do. They're just strange folk."
I glanced around us, to the woods surrounding our small wagon and the horse. What if they were watching us right now? All the stories my mother had told me of elves came back to me: silent, clever creatures who loved to play tricks, or help humans in secret.
"You think they're following us, Pap?" I asked hesitantly, hiking up the strap of my overalls, trying to look at least a little presentable, even though my feet and pants cuffs were already muddy.
"Yup. You hear that crashing noise?" Pap asked, gesturing behind us. "That's them."
"I thought they were quiet," I said, pausing to listen to the sound of snapping sticks.
Suddenly, I glimpsed a movement behind a tree. Jumping, I tugged on Pap's hand insistently, pointing backwards in excitement. There, emerging from the forest, were two tall figures. I knew what they would look like before they even approached. They would be tall, with pointy ears and clever faces, with clothes that were finer even than the Mayor's in town. They would probably have bows over their shoulders, and arrows ready to shoot at any moment.
I was horribly disappointed. Crunching through the underbrush were two slightly overweight long-haired men. Their beards were over their chests, full of food and dirt and...was that bird droppings? They were barefoot, as I was, but they wore Hawaiian-print T-shirts and ratty shorts that looked even worse than my overalls had the one time I ran through a pricklebush. Their eyes, through their cracked sunglasses, looked dazed and a little...well...out of it.
"Hey, dude," the dark-haired on said, nodding at my father and looking at the wagon. "Don't got a truck?"
"Broken down," Pap replied, as if it was normal to be talking to an elf.
"There any other way to do this than abuse a poor animal," the other elf said, lifting his sunglasses to peer at the wagon's interior. "You cutting down trees?"
"Yeah, what else?" I put in, a little annoyed by their nosiness. "We need wood for our fireplace this winter."
"RIP, tree," the dark-haired elf moaned a little sadly, picking up a log and kissing it before laying it back down in the wagon bed.
I looked at him a little funny, but he only grinned at me, showing teeth stained yellow.
"What's your name, kiddo?" he asked, holding out a dirty hand. "I'm Rain. That dude over there is Shine, my brother."
"Um...uh...Jed," I replied, uncomfortably shaking his hand. This didn't look like the kind of elf who would repair shoes. Actually, just looking at his spindly arms, I didn't think he had done any work in his life.
"Are you a real elf?" I asked skeptically.
"Sure, man. I even got the pointy ears," he said, pulling back his tangled, oily hair to show me.
That was the only thing I had gotten right; the ears were indeed pointy. Everything else pointed more to a hobo than your typical fairytale elf.
"Can you sing?" I asked suddenly, a hope dawning in me. Maybe these were the sorts of silly elves who sang songs and danced.
"Sure we can," Shine spoke up, coming over with what looked like an instrument made of plastic drinking straws. "We're very good musicians."
Pap grunted, but I leaned forward, excitement dawning in my face. "Really?" I imagined them singing a long lament, or a beautiful love song.
"Of course. We even have a band."
"Oh..." Not exactly what I had in mind. "What's it called?"
"The Beatles. Isn't that a great name? My brother thought of it," Shine said proudly, leaning an arm on Rain's shoulder with a cheesy grin. "We used to sing in a nightclub before we got kicked out."
"What's a nightclub?"
"Where the Devil resides," Pap spat, leading the horse on, as Shine and Rain followed. "Dumb name for a band, anyway. Sounds like a bug."
"I think it's unique," I said a little defensively, almost wishing the elves were what I thought they were. "Can you sing me a song?"
"What sort of song?" Rain asked, grinning.
"A lament," I said. "A mournful, sad, epic lament that is like to make me cry."
"We specialize in such music," Shine said, lifting his flute thing and blowing through it. A weird, sort of whistling sound came out, as if he was blowing through a straw into an empty water glass.
Rain reached behind a tree, and pulled out a guitar from nowhere. It looked as if it was made of trash. I raised an eyebrow.
"We like to recycle," Rain said with a smile. "See Shine's flute? Made of used restaurant straws. And my guitar, cool, huh? We build it out of a toilet bowl, a UV pipe, and used copper wire as the strings. Real groovy, man."
"Where? I don't see any groovy."
Rain shrugged at my confusion, before lifted his guitar and strumming at the strings. I couldn't really hear any vibration in the instrument, but perhaps that was because Shine began blowing into his flute thing again and making strange tooting noises. Nevertheless, I watched in anticipation, waiting for the beautiful elf-song that they would sing.
Oh, poor treeeeeeee
You are deaaaaaaad
Cause of a, uh...
The horrible squawking that came out of Rain made me think of one of our chickens after I'd stepped on its tail. But it only grew worse, the song lyrics miserably out of beat and off-tune.
...ah, uh, sleeeed
Cause a kid feeeeeell
Into the deeeeeeell
And so the kid's sleeeeeed
Made you deaaaaaad
Oh poor treeeeee
You are in the groooooooound
Cause you are rouuuuuund
And you are deaaaaaad
Cause of a sleeeed
And a dumb kiiiiiiiiid
Who did what he diiiiiiid
Our horse snorted, and Pap snorted, and I was inclined to snort too once the song was over.
"Well," Pap said, taking a thick finger out of his ear, "you certainly won't be invited to sing with Taylor Swift anytime soon."
"It sounds like something my little brother could have made up," I said, with more than a little disappointment in my voice. "Can you dance, then?"
"Sure!" Shine said enthusiastically, throwing down his flute and beginning to prance around with his arms plugged into his arm pits.
Rain followed his lead, and they went in circles like that, bent over with their hind ends sticking out. My father in I watched with more than a little disgust. I was so let down I almost wanted to cry. They looked like...well, like clumsy birds. Not like majestic, beautiful, elegant, graceful elves.
"And what do you call this dance?" Pap asked when they had finished with their spectacle.
"The Chicken Dance!" Shine and Rain cried simultaneously.
"Because it looks like a chicken," Shine said.
"And we want to bring honor to the sacred chickens," Rain put in. "The life-giving chickens that are part of nature and the circle of life."
"Life's a line," Pap said with a snort, leading the horse on down the hill to our home, which was only about a mile away now. "Don't you boys have anything better to do? Like maybe a job?"
"Do you fix shoes?" I asked eagerly.
"No. We're currently, um, unemployed," Rain said, scratching his head.
"Yeah, uh, we feel like work is a bit too confining for us right now," Shine added.
"Well, we'd better be heading out," Rain spoke up before we could ask any more questions. "Just wanted to tell y'all to take good care of your animal and quit cutting trees down."
"Thanks for the tip," Pap said, crossing his arms as they sauntered off.
"Peace out, Jed!" Shine called back, making a funny finger sign. With a flick of his sunglasses, he was off in the woods, before lifting his funny-looking flute and beginning to play.
I glanced at my father, who shrugged and turned away, though put a finger in his ear after Rain hit another bad note.
"Gosh, Pap, why didn't you tell me elves were so weird?" I said, following after him.
"You ain't seen nothing, boy. Wait till you meet the fairy circus acrobats."