Petia rode her rusted bicycle past the mustard yellow fence of piled flat stones. Most of it was held together with crumbling mortar, except for a darker section. Three years ago, drunken Miroslav had caromed his Volvo into the low wall, and the owner had only seen fit to pile more stones there, not wasting his precious lev on cement.
The rims of her bike complained at the cracked pavement. It was easier to dodge the broken bottles on the dirt shoulder than to navigate the downright desultory sidewalk job. Where was the infrastructure? What were they paying taxes for? Petia had to push the madness of these spiraling thoughts out of her head and just focus on the ride home.
She rode past a strange plaid cloth sack on the corner. She rode past the creepy dirt yard of gnarled, winter-dead trees, pointlessly guarded with chain link fencing. What was someone supposed to steal, an evil-looking branch? Some gravel? She rode past another plaid sack, flattened on the sidewalk, white powder trailing behind it.. she snapped her eyes away and stopped asking questions.
The cold wind slipped greedy hands down the front of her dress, inside her grandmother’s quilted jacket. The sky was mottled gray, leaving the town nearly twilit at eleven in the morning. A steel trash container stood on three working casters, mounted into the shoulder, half open. If she heard anything moving inside it, she blocked it out promptly and pedaled faster. There was an old car with two flat tires that she could see; on the hood, a tablecloth was held in place with bricks. Why? This town…
Tree, tree, tree after stumpy, knotted tree, with whip-like tendrils reaching for the sky, the bottom meter of their trunks painted white like the telephone poles. Across from these, behind her turned head, she heard a baby crying in a house, crying over a loud TV. She pedaled faster.
There was a small boy on the sidewalk, dragging a long forked stick. His black hair was shaved nearly to the scalp, he was pudgy beneath his clothes, and he wore an athletic-styled hoodie: in this, he resembled all the boys in this forgotten and neglected town.
He waved the stick at her as she rode by and shouted, “Vèštica!” His voice was high and bright. An old man up the road, ahead of her, slowly turned around to see what the commotion was about. Petia bent her head, as though to let the curse roll over her, and again when she caught up to the old man and he said the same in his quieter, raspy growl. This horrible town… She didn’t cry, she wouldn’t cry, she only blocked out the world until she got home.
Petia coasted through her own broken down gate, rested the bike against the cheaply masoned wall. Across the street grizzled Sava and his lanky, dopey sidekick Nikifor were hauling something large from their beat-up hatchback. Another prop for one of their crooked schemes, no doubt. She tried not to stare, but Sava caught her before she could look away.
“What do you think you want, kushka,” he called out to her.
Turning away, she fought with the padlock and the deadbolt, threw herself inside and flung herself against the door. There was only some dry laughter outside. Biting her lip she slowly bolted the door and sank to her kitchen table, all the sadness welling up inside her, and that’s when she spotted the little man on her counter.
He was dressed in blue satin, crude pants and a crude shirt. Short, messy dark black hair, huge eyes, and a sharp little mouth that quickly pulled into a grin. He was hauling a small mesh bag behind him, exiting one of her cupboards.
“You little pest!” she spat, lunging at him. He laughed and leaped off the counter, hurling himself through the air to the broken white tiles of her kitchen floor. Barefoot, no less. Petia snatched a wooden spoon and threw it at him: he sprang to the left, protected by the table, and ran to a corner. She rounded the table and grabbed the first thing on hand, a mug, and threw it slightly ahead of where he was running.
It shattered on the floor, large chunks bouncing off the plaster wall. Somehow the tiny man had stopped short and spun out of the way of the shrapnel, ducking into a slit in the wainscot next to her old fridge. Gone in an instant.
When she gave up searching for him, this impossibly tiny person, she looked at the damage: she had unthinkingly grabbed her favorite coffee mug, another hand-me-down from her grandmother. “Oh, goddamn it…” She fell to her knees, gingerly taking up the larger pieces, collecting the rest with a hand broom. All this, she piled in the center of her table as a reminder of the price of her impatience. She had another cry, as well, feeling very sorry for herself on this day in particular. Another miserable day in this horrible town.
Her students didn’t respect her. They fought in class, they ignored her lessons, they openly mocked her when she handed their failing papers back to them. They called her vèštica, or Petia the Witch. Whether there was any story behind this name didn’t matter: every wretched little village needed someone to look up to in the city, and someone to look down on in their midst.
All she wanted to do was earn enough money to leave, move to the big city, get out of this go-nowhere dump of a town. The pay for a teacher was too scant, however, barely enough to pay rent and buy food to live on, and that was if she didn’t get mugged in the street by Sava or one of his idiot friends. Police? Ha! The smart ones left long ago, and the others were glorified errand-boys for what passed for crime lords around here.
Petia felt the walls closing in on her, the ceiling coming down on her. She wrapped her arms around her chest, trying not to panic, but sometimes it all got to be too much. She looked wildly at the window, incapable of closing due to disrepair, letting a steady, chilling breeze whistle into her wretched little kitchen. The dirty dishes in the sink, the silt piling up in the corners, the cracked floor tile, the crooks outside her door, and now this tiny little scavenger ransacking her cupboards. That is, if she weren’t finally going insane…
She forced herself to breathe, through her constricting throat. She leaned into the cold breeze from the broken window and gulped at the air. When she got enough in her, the tension seemed to melt enough to allow her to sink to her wobbly table and resume crying.
A quiet voice said, “Hey… easy, now…”
She jerked back in surprise. Had someone come in? Her gaze darted back and forth in the little kitchen but there was no one else there.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” said the voice.
That’s when Petia noticed the tiny man in blue, standing on her kitchen table. He didn’t have his little bag with him. He was raising his hands and watching her cautiously. “Calm down, Petia,” he was saying, “take it easy, keep breathing. Don’t attack me−”
She looked around: there was nothing convenient to throw at him. She screeched and lunged across the table at him, fingers splayed like talons. The tiny man simply hopped out of the way of her clutches, landing lightly on the table beside her wrists. Snarling, she swept at him with her arm, and again he hopped over her assault as though it were nothing.
“−because you’ll never be able to hit me,” he concluded.
“Damn you!” Petia stood abruptly, knocking her chair back. “You little wretch!” She stepped quickly to the side, grabbing at him again. He only balled up and rolled a few inches out of her reach. She repositioned again, reached for him, and he ducked seemingly without effort.
“You can’t do it!” His voice was pleading, not arrogant. “I have an ability!”
“What kind of ability?” She picked up an apron hanging by the sink and unfolded it, intending to use it like a net.
Far from scared, the tiny man looked tired. “It’s like with a cockroach. They can feel the air shift when you swat at them, and the signal goes straight to their legs so they’re off and running faster than they can think.” Sure enough, Petia cloaked the table in the apron and swatted at what she thought was a lump beneath it. Her palm only struck fabric over wood, and the tiny man peeked at her from a different chair.
Crying out in anguish, Petia balled up the apron and threw it toward the basement stairs. “Fine. Fine! I can’t kill you, little cockroach! What the hell do you want with me?” She took a step toward the chair on which he stood. He leaped with surprising grace to the tabletop, stepping carefully to keep himself at the far end across from her. Eventually she gave this up too and sat down, raising her hands to signal her resignation.
“I’m sorry about your mug,” he said quietly. “I didn’t want you to break it.”
“What do you know about that stupid thing?” Petia was harsh and curt.
“I know it came down through your family, and it was important to you.”
“How could you know that?”
He shrugged. “The same way I know you hate your job and those shitty students.”
“That’s not true! I love my job! I want to make a difference, help those kids! They just…” She repeated her resigned gesture.
The tiny man nodded. “Hey, are you hungry?” Without waiting for an answer, he hopped off the table and sprinted across the floor to his crack in the wall. In a moment he returned, hauling a different mesh sack. Springing back up to the table with unlikely strength, he opened it and pulled out some dried, salted sausage. “It’s no feast, but it should be a nice little treat,” he said, tossing her a couple slices.
Petia couldn’t have been more surprised. She knew the sausage end hadn’t just disappeared last week, but she couldn’t remember finishing it off, either. Slowly her mind recalled all the diminishing rations and foodstuffs, the last little bits of foods she could’ve sworn she’d put away but which always seemed to vanish. It was this little runt taking them, she realized, but now he was turning around and sharing them with her.
“How generous,” she grumbled, but still chewed on a coin of sausage.
He looked up into her face as though trying to read her. “I’m just grabbing the stuff it doesn’t look like you need. And I need very little.”
“So, on top of everything else, I’ve attracted a greedy little rat?”
He looked hurt. “One more crack like that and you’re on your own, lady. I’m trying to apologize and help you out, if I can.”
Would wonders never cease. Petia stared at the miraculous little freak of nature in blue satin. “And what is it you think you could do for me? No, wait.” She waved off his response and got up to retrieve a bottle of schnapps from a cupboard. At least the booze never disappeared: he couldn’t climb up to this cupboard, she supposed, and he couldn’t manage to worry the cork out of the bottle any better than he could haul the whole thing into his little hole in the wall. She poured herself a shot of Feuer Wasser, brought it to the table, sat down and knocked it back in one go. She set the empty shot glass before the little guy.
The tiny man watched her drink it, stepped back from where she thunked the glass down before him, and sniffed at the fumes. As they met his approval, he toppled the glass over and crawled partially inside, keeping his eyes on Petia while he lapped the abundant liquor coating the inside. Petia made no move, only watched him with interest as he extracted himself, nodded approvingly, and stepped up to tear off the smallest fraction of the sausage he’d just given her.
The audacity of this little guy! Despite herself, Petia smiled at him, only a little.
He smiled back without restraint. “I know lots of little things. Tons! Cockroaches and rats can sneak around everywhere, unnoticed. I can collect information like I gather food and supplies. Why not? What else have I got to do with my life?”
The schnapps burned pleasantly in her belly. She felt the tension melting from her shoulders, and she decided she liked how far apart the tiny man’s eyes were and the angle of his grin. “How’d you get so small, anyway?” she asked, leaning forward slightly to rest on her elbows.
He didn’t back away. “That’s another conversation entirely. I promise I’ll tell you someday, but you wouldn’t believe me. Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
“You’re much more interesting.” She studied his clothing: it looked, for all the world, like scavenged swatches of satin fabric that he could have stitched together himself. They could have come from an expensive track suit, but on him they looked like crude pajamas. They were cute, in their ungainliness.
He laughed, squirming beneath her gaze. “Maybe that’s true, but I want to hear you tell your story.”
“Aren’t you the little rat who knows everything?”
“I just might! But it’s better to hear it from you, and I’ve already talked too much. Please,” he said, gesturing toward her graciously.
Petia’s head felt a little light. She looked at the front door, at the tiny window inset at eye level. The sky was still that bleary gray, looking like she felt. “I’m lonely.” The words came out of her before she knew it. “The best years of my life are trickling away, wasted in this shitty little town of petty thugs and empty husks. I wanted so many things! Better things than this.”
“Like what?” The tiny man had sat down and wrapped his little arms around his little knees. The tiniest sets of toes peeked out from beneath his clumsy satin cuffs, so fine against the aged, rough wood of the kitchen table.
“I wanted to travel… if I can be selfish for a moment.” She grinned at him, suddenly shy. “Not just to get out of this hell-hole. I wanted to see Prague and Moscow, Rome and Paris. But those are so expensive. I couldn’t even do a weekend trip to Plovdiv, to say nothing of Bucharest or Thessaloniki.” She closed her eyes and drew a long breath. “If someday I accidentally found myself as far as Burgas… I don’t know why I wouldn’t throw myself into the Black Sea.” She shuddered, then slowly opened her eyes and looked down upon her company. “If I can be selfish for a moment.”
The tiny man gaped at her, shut his jaw, then opened and shut it again. “You can’t think that way,” he managed at last. “Please, don’t even let those thoughts into your head. Nothing grows in this town but negativity, and that sprawls, roots going everywhere, branches choking out the sky.” He rolled to his knees and crawled toward her, where her elbow rested on the table and her hand rested on her elbow. Staring up at her, he placed the tiniest hand she’d ever seen in her life upon the knuckle of her pinky finger, and a gentle shock ran up her arm. “Don’t allow those thoughts into your head. Promise me!”
Petia froze out of concern for him. She didn’t want to move her arm or her hand, even accidentally, lest it break the spell and chase him away like a sparrow. “Why do you care?” she whispered.
He released her finger, but only sat back on his heels. “There’s a field outside of town. The farmer who owned it is dead; he had no family. It’s flat, mostly, though once in a while a dog shits in it. In the winter it has little black sticks jutting out of it like a deterrent for pedestrians; in the summer, these sticks multiply, bearing no fruit or flowers, half of them dying off each winter.”
Petia tried to picture the field. It sounded like too many areas around here, frankly.
“In the middle of this dead, lumpy field, though, there’s a single flower that grows.” The tiny man’s palms rested on his thighs as he craned his little head to look up at her, nearly directly below her chin. “There’s a rose that persists there, year after year. Among the few dead souls that can even notice it, no one bothers to pluck it, so there it grows. Me? I pass by it every day. I look forward to it! I see it there, bright against the background, like pasting a picture from a magazine against a mud wall.”
“It sounds nice,” she said, “but I can’t remember the last time I saw a rose in this area.”
“This whole town is that dead farmer’s field. Tell me you don’t know you’re the rose, here.”
Something felt funny in Petia’s chest. She unfolded her arms and leaned against the back of her chair. The tiny man stared at her, nibbling, while she controlled her breathing.
She said, “Shut up. Tell me about yourself now, why you’re so little.”