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Yes, I had seen gnomes before, six times to be exact, but they had all been hallucinations. This hallucination, however, refused to cooperate and instead insisted on being very real. And not only that, he insisted that I follow him.
In the end, curiosity got the better of me. More
“You are not really here, are you?”
“Well,” he said, pulling at his long beard with a gnarled little hand, small booted feet barely reaching the edge of the seat and showing dark leather soles scratched and patterned by years and miles, “that depends on who’s looking.”
He didn’t exist, of course.
“That would be me,” I told the little mirage.
“Then I’m here,” he said.
No, could not be. Still, as if to humor my hallucination, I said, “Do you mind if I touch you? Just to verify.”
He hesitated, but after a heartbeat or two answered as if he had not, “Of course.”
So, surprised and not a little fascinated that this illusion insisted on being real, I walked across to where he sat in my reading chair. What was it we called the gnomes back home in Sweden? Tomte. Yeah, that’s right. Tomte. This one looked exactly like one. And so lifelike.
I’ve had them before, these gnome hallucinations, but not for a while, and never this vividly.
And now to make him vanish.
The detail, though. I marveled at it as I approached him. His long, gray beard slithered down his chest like a frosty river all the way to his knees where it came to curly rest. He was probably all of three feet, if that.
And look at those little hands, back in his lap now, keeping each other company. They struck me as miniature cabinet maker hands, tawny, knotted, strong, able. I’ve seen fully grown ones. The old cabinet maker I’m thinking of had been in his early nineties then. Amazing hands, capable, proud. And they had looked just like this, though in 1:1 scale.
I should have been terrified, and would have been had I been new to this, but I had seen them (or him) before, and I knew that this one would, just like the others, vanish before I could reach him. Just like the one atop the boulder, back in Sweden. The first one. All those years ago.
Sitting on top of the large boulder near the marsh.
The spring sunshine made the gray of stone and the white and gray and black of lichen blend and shimmer. And there he was, sitting on the boulder, still as anything. Just like this one right now, in my apartment, sat there watching me approach. Not friendly, not unfriendly, just an old gnome: pointed cap, white hair, and so very small. The wind played with his long, gray beard and tried to rob him of his cap. At one point he grabbed it with one hand to make sure the wind didn’t get away with it, all the while watching me. Amazingly real.
This first time I was too young (or too dumb) to be scared and instead made straight for the boulder to take a closer look. What I actually meant to do was to talk to him (to hear my mother tell it, I would talk to anyone and, apparently, anything). I waded through the marshy grass and soon reached the foot of boulder where the gnome still sat, watching me.
I glanced down at the lower part of the boulder to locate a crevice I had used many times for foothold in order to scale the big rock. I found it easily enough and then looked up for the usual hand-hold to grasp and now there was only air where the gnome had been. A fast and bright April cloud shot out over the edge of the rock—so very white against so very blue that gnomes couldn’t possibly exist.
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