Extended version: Take a Chance, Change Your Life
We were never quite clear about how they got into the tool shed, how long they’d been there, or where they came from originally. They’d arrived before we did, and will likely leave long after we’ve gone. If they ever do leave.
It was the dawn of a new millennium, and we were a pair of penniless graduate students, all out of options for affordable housing near the University. We’d been drowning our sorrows in cheap beer at a seedy neighborhood bar on St. Paul’s east side, a place that felt more like home than our digs on the west side. Evan had come back from the bathrooms with a scrap of paper he’d found thumb-tacked to the corkboard just inside the door to the back parking lot. He said it was the answer to our prayers. I’d thought he was an atheist, but we were new to this phase of our relationship; there’s always something new to discover.
The scrap was an advert for caretaking a St. Paul property on the dilapidated side of a row of mansions, somewhere between the bluffs of Grand Hill and the curve of the Mississippi. “They” needed someone to make the mansion and grounds look occupied, “to keep the riff-raff out.” I kid you not; the scrap actually said “riff-raff.” Not that we ever found out for sure who “They” were. There was no phone number to call, just a P.O. box address for all communications.
We thought, “Why not? We’re desperate.” So we sent a note to the P.O. and got more detail. For a measly $75 bucks a month, including heat and utilities, we could live in the gardener’s house at the edge of the property. Not that we were gardeners, but that didn’t seem to matter to whomever we were dealing with. Once we realized that access to public transportation was just a short hike, we were sold. Well, once we saw how close the bus lines ran, and that our landlord would be raising the rent to an ungodly amount, we were sold.
Like I said, we were never clear about how they got into the tool shed, how long they’d been there, or where they’d come from. And we weren’t really clear about how old that tool shed was, but it was large, and had possibly served as a small stable in an earlier life. We had, and still have, lots of questions about origins, but life has been too busy, and too rich, to worry much about all of that.
But to continue the story: we’d pushed through the door, just to have a look around, and there they were. One was draped over a half-empty seed bag of Prince’s Premium Lush Lawn (for shade), snoring softly. That was Nikko. Another, Gerta, was intently peering, bent-kneed with hands on her ankles, into the depths of a mouse hole hidden behind the rakes and a rusted push broom. Lillehans was belly-up in the rafters, arms and legs hanging over either side of the beam that ran crosswise to the roofline. He’d taken care to pull his tall red cap over his ears and eyes, so as not to be disturbed by his siblings’ stirring about.
Lillehans of the rafters liked to consider life from on high, so he could look down and consider what was best for everyone. Gerta and Nikko preferred to approach the world eye-to-eye, and although they were twins, you wouldn’t immediately guess that from watching them together. Gerta, as Lillehans explained, was most likely to grab the cat by the tail, while Nikko preferred to tame the stray by scritching behind its ears. Between the two of them, however, they managed to handle both sides of a cat’s nature and get on with it; there’s a lesson to be learned there, as Lillehans often reminded us, with his thunderous frown.
It took awhile for us to figure out how to communicate with them. They spoke a kind of ancient-Norse-modern-New Zealand patois. We were scando-germanic kids from St. Paul’s east side who’d made it into grad school at the illustrious U, so I guess we had some brains. Probably still do. Growing up in the culture we did, and then navigating the culture of graduate school, our penchant for listening for the unspoken message and weathering difficult situations by keeping our mouths shut and our heads down served us well in the situation we now found ourselves in.
Sometimes the three siblings got a bit rageful at how slow we were to understand what seemed so obvious to them. Lillehans would grumble and knock over the rakes, Gerta would climb up on my pillow in the gardener’s house and pull my hair while I slept, and Nikko would stand at our bed in the morning and stare at us with his sorrowful blue eyes, big as thimbles. To be fair, they’d been waiting a long time for someone to partner with. As always, we kept our mouths shut and our eyes open on the best ways to pacify. I started to wear a nightcap and Evan cut his hair. We wished Nikko a good morning and got out of bed to do our chores, few as they were.
Gradually, we opened our sphere of understanding of what was necessary, and further, what was possible. We made a lot of mistakes, but they appreciated our efforts to make things right. And their needs, really, were quite simple.
Take feeding them, for example. They were perfectly capable of doing amazing things with grass seed and dandelions, pine cones, and yes, even baby mice. And they weren’t above dumpster diving at the local McDonald’s just off West Seventh Street, especially when under the influence of crabapples frozen and thawed enough times to make a wicked ale. What they really longed for—and we had to let them into the kitchen of the gardener’s house so they could show us exactly what they wanted—was a special kind of Rømmegrøt that called for ingredients easily found at Cub’s or Kowalski’s, and a few others that were a special order from the local Co-op.
That was the only–and last–time we let them cook in the kitchen. That day, they’d made a shambles of the pantry, spilled cream on the kitchen floor, and after filling their bellies so full they all had food babies, fell happily asleep in the middle of the required traditional hand-turned bowl in indigo blue that had been shoved into a back bedroom in the gardener’s house. That’s also where we’d found the little spoons and tiny tankards, and a few other items useful to creatures as small as they were. We’d been using that back bedroom as an office and computer room, but we changed that, as well. Back then, we were still working on our thesis proposals.
Once we got the recipe for the Rømmegrøt right, it was easier to cook up large enough portions for the three, and run it, piping hot, across the yard to the tool shed. Cream in the red pitcher, a spoonful of lingonberries in the center of the bowl, and a little craft beer from the local brewery for special occasions, like the Winter Solstice—it took the two of us to deliver the goods, but it was well worth it. In return, they did what Nisse do, and cleaned and cared for the tool shed and the grounds, and even protected the mansion and the house that we lived in.
For them, there had to be an equivalent exchange, a fulfilling of the need to give, in order to truly receive. This was, I guess, what “They” had been hoping for when we’d rented the place to begin with. We still haven’t finished grad school, and we might not. There seem to be greater rewards to what we’re doing here, than what we were learning at the University.
© Liz Husebye Hartmann (2019)
99-word Flash: Take a Chance, Change Your Life
We’d answered the ad thumb-tacked to the corkboard at the neighborhood bar.
“Caretakers wanted, unoccupied mansion, rent dirt-cheap, duties minimal. Help us keep the riff-raff out! RSVP PO 9999NO 55101”
We were desperate, floundering through graduate school, and flat broke.
“Heaven sent,” noted Evan, so we took a chance.
We weren’t the sole tenants. Enter Lillehans, Gerta, and Nikko, who safeguarded the grounds for a bowl of piping-hot Rømmegrøt with cream, a spoonful of lingonberries, and the occasional craft beer. Nisse make good partners, as long as you keep your promises.
It was the best job we’ve ever had.
© Liz Husebye Hartmann (2019)
Carrot Ranch Prompt (12/12/2019): In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a gnome. It can be a garden gnome, a Christmas Joulutonttu, a nissen, or a sauna protector. You can write magical realism, or feature contemporary gnome-like products. Go where the prompt leads!
Also from The Free Association Writer’s Circle Prompt: 30 minutes on “Origin”
And from Anita Stewart’s Microfiction Madness: December’s photo prompt. For an extra challenge use the word popcorn. Stories can be drabbles or longer flash fiction, or you can write poems. Have fun!