Squiccus hums in low, rhythmic tones and the chipmunk’s breathing slows. With gnarled hands, Squiccus pets the disheveled fur down the nape of the creature’s neck; its capture had been—difficult.
“There is a cabin in the glade with blue curtains in the windows,” Squiccus says, his wrinkled lips brushing the tiny hairs of the chipmunk’s ears. “You will enter, as you can, find the shiniest bauble you can carry and bring it back to me.”
He repeats this until the little rodent falls asleep. Squiccus shuffles through the passageways that compose his lair. When he gets to the entrance, he shakes the creature awake and says, “Now, go!” then tosses the chipmunk into the leaves outside his cave.
Squiccus turns and stumbles on the uneven ground. The hundreds of rings and lockets, earrings and bracelets strung on cords around his neck klink in dull, sad notes. The joyless sounds, the remnants of love instilled within those tokens of affection he’s stolen over the years, fade in the dark.
He grips a fistful and holds them before his failing eyesight. “You worthless adornments, what good are you now?” He sniffs at the gold and silver. The scent of emotional spirit they contained when fresh is gone. He’s drained them dry. They now smell only of mold and ruin.
He lets them fall and they clank dully against his sallow chest. Limping back to the meager hearthfire burning deep within the mountain, the fire’s smoke snaking up through cracks in the age-old cavern’s ceiling, he embraces the granite along the tunnels he’s chipped and carved through the rock. Most now forgotten, the passages serve only as roosts for covens of brown bats, quivering in the cold.
Squiccus groans in recline. He lies upon fur-bare skins where no amount of adjustment can give him comfort. A few dried mushrooms make his meal, his main sustenance having been the succor he could extract from the keepsakes thieved from the surrounding communities—mementos of love depleted.
“The little rat better find me somethin’ good.”
After Janeane left, Richard had little will to live. Yet, for thirty years he’s endured. He’s survived by becoming a fishing guide, staying within the hills Janeane and he had called home. Just after, he’d searched the areas they’d frequented, even purchasing a metal detector. Janeane’s claim that he’d doffed his ring and gone out cheating, though circumstantial, had been her final straw.
Today he’s staked out the meadow and the circle of cabins where many of his clients have stayed and complained over the years.
“We saw a bluejay fly off with my mother’s amethyst bracelet.”
“It was a raccoon pilfering our belongings when we arrived. The bastard had my golden locket in his teeth as he ran away.”
“I’d never seen a rat as big as that. What? A packrat? Well, whatever it was, I’m sure the creepy critter stole the ring given to me by my great aunt.”
Today, Richard has a plan. He’s glued the tiniest GPS tracker he could find within a cheap brass pocket watch. It hangs from a lanyard on a nail within the blue-curtained cabin.
Earlier in his guiding career, down upon a sandy bank of the Percy River, two miles from his current position, a series of strange footprints had repeatedly presented themselves.
“Damnedest thing, only four toes. Must be some mutant hillbilly hiding out in the forest.” Richard had searched every valley, every trail for signs of the mysterious mutant. The only evidence, decades worth, jewelry that continued to vanish.
Today, Richard will track the thefts and trap that freak of nature.
Though nearly blind, Squiccus’ hearing had honed itself to whisper perfection. When faint scraping trickles in, he rolls to his knees, creaking wind-blown oak, and rises to his crooked slouch. His hands hang nearly to his feet; they dangle there waiting for the charmed chipmunk to enter the cavern.
“Give me that,” he says, his throat phlegmy with disuse. “A watch? I wanted a ring, a pendant with a… a picture.” Squiccus tries to snatch up the creature to enthrall it a second time, but it dodges and escapes down the tunnel. “Wicked little vermin.” He coughs up a sticky mass and spits it chasing. “Next time, I’ll eat you instead.”
He shuffles back to his filthy bed and sits, the weight of hundreds of bangles drawing him down. With the gilded pocket watch gripped tightly, he rubs it against his forehead and chants the essence extraction words.
He flips it around and rubs again. He fumbles with the catch and finally springs it open. He rubs both halves against his leathery skin.
Nothing. Not even the scent of gratitude, the nuance of thanks.
“Empty. Worthless. Trinket.” Squiccus raises the watch above his head to shatter it against the floor. Another noise, a distant scraping perks his ears.
“Not empty. Not worthless.” Richard crouches in the entrance surveying the squalor. He shines his flashlight into the cloudy eyes of a hunched and repulsive creature. “What the hell are you?” He checks the number of toes on its feet.
The creature grunts and drops the watch, shields its eyes and scrambles back against the wall. “Get away, get away,” it croaks.
Richard does the opposite. Glinting in the bright light, scores of bejeweled gold and silver treasures, swinging at the neck of the beast, draw Richard further into the cave. “Whatever you are, you’re a thief, foremost.” He scans the space, the beam exposes ages of filth, piles of tiny bones, a leaning stack of rusted tools and the hearth, its ashes spilling halfway into the creature’s den. The beam returned, Richard watches the thing fondle the baubles at its chest. “Been at this a while, I’d say.” Richard moves forward revealing the hunting knife held in his other hand. “Time to return what you’ve stolen.”
The thing’s eyes flash and dart to the gang of decrepit shovels and picks, a serviceable ax among them. “I am of this mountain.”
Richard pauses as the timbre of the creature’s voice strengthens.
It continues. “I am an ancient spirit born of ancient folk. I am Squiccus and what I possess is mine.” It scrambles to its feet, its rotting trousers hanging off its hips. “Mine as is my due.”
“Squiccus, ay?” Richard’s muscles tighten. “Well, Squiccus, what ain’t your due is one of those rings. You stole it from me thirty years ago and I aim to take it back.”
Quick as a badger, the squat, troll-like Squiccus dashes to the stack of tools, crashes down the bunch of handles and grabs the ax. The rust-pitted machete would have served him better. He hefts the ax above his head and makes for Richard.
Richard’s knife is only for show. Finding this pitiful thing buried in the mountain, decades of peoples’ treasures draped around its neck, has rocked him in his unexpected success. Years of searching and now this, this victory in his quest, it leaves him unprepared.
“I only want my ring,” Richard cries as the beast screeches and drives toward him.
Squiccus’ swings his feeble arms, but the weight of the ax is too much. It slips from his fingers and drops behind him. Yet his motion throws him forward.
Blindly, Richard stabs with his knife, catching Squiccus in the belly. The blade slips between a dozen lockets and slides through a delicate bracelet inlaid with garnets. Momentum aids in the thrust, the angle of the blade slicing up into arteries that pump and slick the knife’s handle. Richard cringes from the flow. Squiccus jerks and falls back, the array of gold and silver spreading out in gaudy display, a raucous jangling that dies with Squiccus.
A shudder of emotion surges through Richard. All he hears is his own breathing. Looking down, the thing lies still, pathetically gaunt and frail.
Before he loses his gumption, Richard plucks the knife from the beast’s body and begins to cut the cords from its neck, tying the ends until he finds his wedding ring, gold with diagonal onyx bands. Returned to his finger, he prepares himself for remorse, for the guilt of what he’s done.
But, none comes.
A week later Richard lifts one of the captured strings of keepsakes from his dining room table where they’ve sat awaiting determination. He examines diamond and pearl earrings, rings with embedded gemstones and faded pictures hidden within heart-shaped lockets. He spreads the crude string loop. He tucks his chin and lowers it around his neck.