by Mark Figueroa
“So what happened next, dad?” The children asked in unison, clutching their sheets in anticipation.
“Well, kids,” Antalaus said, resuming his story. “Lars nodded at me. ‘Then, we crush the heads an’ scoop the remainin’ soft meat from the bone,’ he said. His little eyes barely sticking out from underneath his large iron hat. It resembled a cauldron – a big cooking pot – with horns,” Antalus declared, smiling at his daughter.
“Lars is weird,” Antalus’ son remarked. He giggled and stared at his sister.
“In the center of his hat was an emblem that read, Somnia Comedenti,” Antalus continued ignoring the interruption. “We made our way to the front of a big, mysterious cave, and Lars popped his knuckles before taking a deep breath and guiding me in. He said something I couldn’t understand, but I nodded anyway, and his eyes got really, really wide as he said, ‘Well ’en come on, boy-o. While the caverns sleep, the wraiths weep, but when it wakes, the wraiths will take, or so the tales say.’ His fangs shined in the light of my lamp,” Antalus said, showing his teeth.
“Weird and scary!” Antalus’ wife chimed in from the doorway. She smiled at her children while avoiding Antalus’ stare. “I suppose this Lars justifies your midnight adventures over the past few months,” she mutters, her obvious passive aggression escaping her children’s grasp.
Antalus smiled. His face was soft and sincere, but his eyes were hollow pits devoid of any discernible emotion. “You could say that. You could also say much more. I’d rather enjoy my evening with the children before the horse dive.”
“The god damn diving horse couldn’t come any sooner,” Antalus’ wife said under her breath.
“Diving horses?” Antalus’ son asked. “Does he know Lars?”
Antalus smiled again. “No he doesn’t. The two are unrelated, actually. A diving horse is something mommys and daddys get when they find themselves treading water. It keeps them from drowning together,” he said, calm and eerily distant. Antalus rubs his son’s head and stroked his hair. “Mommy and Daddy have needed a diving horse for a very, very long time. Daddy worked a lot and Mommy had many friends, so many friends that Daddy was shocked at how popular she was. You see -”
“- Antalus,” Antalus’s wife interrupted, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists.
“Your mother, Margaret,” Antalus continued, ignoring his wife’s interruption, “was the love of my life, so when I found she was having twins, I was overjoyed. Then, when you two were finally born, I immediately fell in love with your button noses, freckles and blonde hair. I also became enamored with those blue eyes you two have. Mommy and Daddy both have black hair and brown eyes, like our mommies and daddies, but you two – you two look nothing like us. Especially not me,” Anatlus said. A cold smile slowly curled up on his despondent face. He stared at Margaret who blushed in shame then stomped in silence into the aether of the turbulent home.
“Diving horses are weird,” Antalus’ daughter said. “What happened with Lars, daddy?”
“Well,” Anatalus said, resuming his story. “I stood from our spot along the underground stream, holding the camera – that camera.” He points at the camera placed on his children’s dresser. “I held that camera close to my chest and started taking pictures and I asked Lars, ‘So, what do you do with the meat?’ while I ducked and avoided sharp stalactites pointing down from the rocky ceiling in the cavern.
While leading the way, Lars said, ‘We mostly resell to butchah’s, laddie. Most of us don’t dare eat the flesh o’ man; those who ‘ave, never recover their faculties. We use the proceeds to blend in wit’ ye’s. Iffin’ we look human, an’ run necessary business, no one questions us; even if they’re buyin’ the flesh of their own youngen’ from our stores.’
I said, ‘Fascinating,’ as we came to a giant doorway decorated with gems and crystals. The walls around the stone door had glowing writing all over it in many languages. Lars drew a symbol on the ground and the cave shook as the door slowly opened.
‘We best sit tight for a spell,’ Lars whispered to me. Following his lead, I pressed my back against the cavern and sat down, listening to weeping echoing through the cave.I placed my hand on the lamp’s key, gently lowering the kerosene. ‘You can see, right?’ I whispered to Lars.
‘Better than you know, boy-o. Even now, the ghosts of my brethren eye us,’ he said.
‘Where are they?’ I shivered as we slowly made our way to our feet and through the massive door.
‘Some things are better left unsaid, lest ye wish to tarnish yer’ knickers, laddie,’ Lars said to me. We gradually inched forward as the weeping grew faint. He let out a sigh of relief and ‘We’re clear.’
We paused at the intersection between four paths: the one behind us and three ahead. Smoke, soot, and gunpowder wafted from the tunnel to the right.
I nodded. We walked for a spell before I heard what I’d been searching for. ‘If this is it, you stand to make a whole lot of money, Lars,’ I said.”
Antalus’ children stared at him in awe, imagining the story he had been relaying. In their young minds, the fantastic concept of a musty bedazzled cave and a magical dwarf seemed innocent and whimsical. “Dad, what were you looking for in the cave?” the kids inquired.
“You’ll know soon enough, kids, but anyway, as we made our way, Lars chuckled and we made some conversation. He said, ‘I know I stand to fetch pretty coin, hence why I be’s bring’n ya down here, lad. But, dun’ it bother ye just a wee bit?’ He asked me, stroking his long red beard. ‘The price of it, I mean, lad. It’s a tad expensive. Sometimes ye’ lose more then yer’ tradin’, ya know?’
‘Not at all. I can’t make two adults vanish, but children get lost all of the time. Besides, it’s not like they’re going missing,’ I said,” Antalus said. He grinned at his children. His eyes twinkled with a faint indication of life and a spark of victory. “That was when we smelled the fountain, kids. It was beautiful. There were Fairies humming and butterflies dancing over and around the gold and blue stone. I pulled out my camera and set it on its tripod. That’s when Lars and I took this photo,” Antalus said, taking a picture out of his pocket. “Then, I drank from the fountain of youth. It’s been about a month since then. And, I’ve been fattening up our trade,” Anatlus said kissing his son on the forehead. “Good night, Hansel,” he says, patting the boy’s head. He moves over to his daughter and says, “Good night, Gretel.”
Gretel giggled. “More, Dad, more!”
“No, you kids need your sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day for you and your mother.”
Hansel laughs. “And then he’ll eat us, right, Papa? What will you tell people when we’re gone?”
“Oh no, son. Lars doesn’t eat people. His friend, Őfelsége, does and she starts with the soul of a person first,” Antalus said, adjusting the camera on the dresser.