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Under the Bridge
An article for Footprints Magazine by Cheeseburger Brown
Under the Bridge, an article for Footprints Magazine by Cheeseburger Brown - illustration by the author

There is a place in Innisfil that no one over the age of ten knows about. Except me, that is. From without it's just a small bridge over a trickle of a creek. But to pass beneath the bridge is to step into a pocket in the world, a bubble in whose bounds the last of an unremembered kind make their final stand.

Finding forgotten spaces is my job. While the rest of the Footprints staff are dispatched to report on serious matters I'm the one they charge to rediscover special corners of our town, abandoned nooks and crannies that have some remarkable quality. Did you catch the story about the community of doves living in the derelict barn? That was mine.

South of Churchill by a sideroad I won't name there's a bridge where the local kids play. They swear one another to secrecy with an elaborate and mispronounced oath, then lead the uninitiated to crawl beside the creek and disappear for hours at a time.

I know this because my daughter told me. She confessed as I tucked her into bed, crying that she'd lost her teddy bear. She said her bear had been captured by the unremembered kind beyond the bridge, held in a cage of twigs guarded by vicious, pinch-faced faeries armed with pebbles. I sighed, and grabbed a flashlight. "I'll find your bear," I promised. "When you wake up in the morning he'll be here, okay?"

She nodded, sniffling.

I parked my car and waded into the brush, searching the gloom with my beam. The creek gurgled and chuckled. I found a wayward mitten and a candy wrapper, but no bear. As instructed, I bent down and passed beneath the cramped bridge.

On the other side the night was quieter. The old farmhouse I'd noticed from the near side couldn't be seen; instead, the woods were thick and virginal, as they might have looked centuries ago. I scratched my head with my flashlight, puzzled.

The bush was cut by narrow trails, the footprints child-sized. I followed the best-trampled until I came to a clearing marked by a ring of stones. Within the ring was a box of gnarled sticks housing my daughter's precious bear, but as I bent to retrieve it a pebble glanced off my brow. I looked around, wincing. "Who's there?"

The response came in the form of a concentrated volley of pebbles lobbed from the cover of nearby shrubs. I was forced to stumble back along the path, my skin smarting in a dozen places from the tiny projectiles. A small voice sounded behind me: "Hey, it's some guy."

I turned to face two ten-year-olds wearing black sweaters and black toques. "Somebody's throwing stones," I said. "Are you kids playing war or something?"

"That's the faeries," said one of the kids.

"Isn't it awfully late for you kids to be playing pretend?"

"We're not pretending," he claimed. "We came to rescue the teddy bear. It belongs to a girl in Gilford. We're dressed in black because we're being ninjas."

"I see," I said, though I didn't.

"You can't just walk up, or they get you," said the second kid. "You've got to distract them -- with these." He opened his hand to show me marbles. "The faeries love them because they sparkle," he explained.

"Do your parents know you're out here?"

The kids rolled their eyes and pushed past me. I followed them back to the clearing. One held a flashlight shaped like Pokémon, casting the beam wide while his friend arranged a trail of marbles. They retreated to the lee of an oak tree as I stood by, transfixed. The first kid unwrapped a chocolate and handed it to the second, who tossed it into the clearing.

"What are you doing?"

"Quiet, mister!"

We turned off our flashlights. A cloud drew back to uncover the moon, and the clearing was cast in an eerie, milky light. The shrubs rustled. The kids tensed.

A tiny figure, no larger than a bottle of beer, flitted across the clearing on a pair of translucent wings that hummed like a dragonfly's. She sniffed the chocolate, then her head snapped up as she spotted the marbles. She cooed and proceeded to gather the marbles into her arms one by one. Another figure joined her, and then another, wings quivering as they skipped along in the grass.

"Wait for it…"

Five wee creatures gathered at the far edge of the clearing, marbles clicking together as they were fussed over. The first kid nodded to the second, and then counted to three as he poised a lighter at the head of a Victoria Day sparkler.

"Go!"

The kids burst into the clearing. I squinted as the sparkler blazed to life, the sudden brightness blinding. The hissing sparkler was waved at the creatures as the other kid dashed apart the cage and scooped up my daughter's bear. "Got him!"

In the sparkler's guttering light I saw the creatures' faces and became afraid. They were contorted in anger, insectile eyes black and cold. They screeched as they bared clawed fingers, their wings beating frenetically.

"Run!" commanded the kids. I ran.

We squirmed out from under the bridge, panting. The smell of the air was different out here, and there was no moon in the sky. "What were those things?" I gasped.

"Faeries," said the first kid. "They're mad, because somebody trapped them in there, in the place you can only get to by crawling under the bridge."

"Somebody? Who?"

"I don't know. Are witches real? Maybe a witch did it."

"I'm pretty sure faeries aren't even real."

"Maybe," admitted the kid. "But the pebbles they throw sure do hurt."

I couldn't deny it. I accepted the rescued bear with thanks and offered the kids a drive home. I put the bear into my daughter's arms and then sat by her a long time, unable to sleep.

Developers break new ground and the forgotten world becomes smaller; glens become narrow strips of trees, gullies become sewers. As Innisfil grows, the wild shrinks. But there are still secret places out there, and I'm not sure whether to be delighted or terrified.

Fin.

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