It started curled up in a little story I overheard: the one about being on drugs out in the woods and finding a disabled kid and bringing him back to your camp and feeding him, believing in your altered state the kid was a gnome. Well, I believed in it and told the story to my husband and his friends on more than one occasion. I kept telling it. I clearly loved to. I couldn’t tell you why. I found out several months later that it was an urban legend and felt the fool, unsure of whether I should tell them this or not. You know a story’s good when it will not abide its end, when it feels like a secret you might keep from your husband and your kid for a very long time indeed. How else to explain how it broke through the retaining wall that kept me from sleep and then took over my dreams—I know it’s boring saying so, but it’s true; you can’t control what holds you when you sleep. It even began to perforate my daily interactions.
Everywhere I went I began looking low and under things for evidence of other lives. Do you know how in the grocery wine aisles wineries have to pay for better placement, at eye level and the shelf below? So all the wines on those shelves—the ones you think you want, the ones most people buy—aren’t as good as you think they are. They’re the wines they want you to want, and they’re never weird or interesting; they’re just wines, and if you want those wines, even or especially knowing this, that says something about you. So the wise know to look at the bottles that are a little harder to see, top shelf and bottom shelf, that don’t present themselves as obviously. I wondered what I had been missing with my eyes up where they always looked, where the marketers knew I looked.
That new looking action felt like a secret, like I was getting away with something. Or getting filled with something new. One house I walked by on my daily walk had a little gnome head at ground level, underneath an unruly pile of marigolds. I’d never seen it until I started looking down. I must have walked by it 10,000 times. Was it just the head, I wondered, sitting atop the dirt, or had someone buried it up to its neck and left it there? And if so, was it for punishment or pleasure? Or had it burrowed down itself and felt comfortable there, or was somehow trapped by domestic magic?
They are known to live for centuries if you trust the lore. Possibly the yard rose around it: possibly it had always been there. Or the intense rains of last week had exposed it. It did have the look of something that had been there a very long time, like before this neighborhood with its racist charter and its specs about acceptably historic paint colors: the gnome’s red pointed cap was mostly bleached now. I told my husband over dinner that a gnome was buried in the yard. That one down right across from the school, I said, that we always walked by when we took our son on walks in the evening. Which one? he said. The one with the bashed-up fences that looked like there was always something in there trying to get out. The one with the window into the bathroom where they should really shut the blinds? Indeed. A gnome? Like a garden gnome? I don’t know, I said: just a gnome. Yea high? Red hat? Jaunty bastard? he said. Abouts, I said, and once its hat was red. Now it’s not. Then it’s a garden gnome, he said. He went into an explanation about taxonomy that I ignored.
I was thinking about the thing instead, how old it might have been, how many lives it might have seen elapse without its owners knowing: that’s a kind of magic. That’s just weird, he said. What kind of people would have a thing like that in their yard? I didn’t tell him that it had consumed me, thinking about it. And, more, that I wanted it, wanted to bury it in our yard, for it to have a space in our lives. And I knew I’d soon have to come back and dig it up. Its pointed cap came to mind when I was trying to think of other things, or not to think of anything, like trying to banish an unhealthy fantasy during sex so I could just get off and reassure my husband that he still had it, so he’d finish and I could get on with my evening of thinking about small things. That had become what sex was: a reassurance, a passing between us of something small but important. A relief, too, I guessed. He’d gone on a tangent about his suspicions about the house, how the owners always gave him a weird vibe, the little girl who lived there and how she always looked haunted playing in the yard, and how the dog would come and go, be there for a week and then be gone again for a month. Like where did it go? he wondered. Plus it seemed too large for a yard that small. And it had trashed the fence with its curiosity. Maybe, I said aloud, the dog had dug up the gnome and been banished for it. Or buried it, he said: like a bone.
He was starting to get it, I thought, maybe. So I set it for him as a test, and even as I was doing it, I knew it wasn’t wise, to treat a marriage like this, to set traps within it. How well could he understand my desires? And why was it important, even, I didn’t know. Would he pass by the thing on his long run tomorrow and bring a gnome back home to me, or better, bring this gnome, the thing itself inside our house or at least our yard so we could use its pull for good?
If he did then it meant he felt it too, its importance to our lives, then it meant that it had wound its way inside him too, like a little worm invades a world and soon multiplies and has to find a bigger one to live. This is what I wanted to say to him: I wanted him to see more of the world than he did. He was focused on what he thought was important. You couldn’t blame him for that. A life slides you in a slot and you wear a little rut and it gets deeper so that you start to see what you want to see and nothing more. The middlin’ wines on the only shelf you see: they’re pretty good; they do the job. It wears on you, all that other seeing, all that reckoning with all of it, choice, infinity, I thought, and it was easier this way. I had the bandwidth for so little what with the son and walks and lack of sleep and with the death of our beloved pets, all four within a year, like after the first went the others just gave up and stepped out into nothing.
But it was stronger than I thought: the story. The thought of the gnome down in the ground out in the neighbors’ darkened yard.
The night progressed. My son yelled a couple times and woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep after the latest round of soothing. Where had I even overheard the gnome story, I couldn’t remember anymore. Now that I knew, why hadn’t I told my husband it was not true? It seemed secondary to the bleached thing itself. I could see the moon through the skylight. Surely it illuminated the neighbors’ house as it did our own. I heard the buzzing of another neighbor’s drone and watched it hover over the pool next door, the one where the teenage girls lived and you could feel their evenings trembling with possibility. I wondered: What could you see from there? At night especially?
I thought about our marriage. It meant something but what it meant I was still not sure. That meaning had been hanging over us for 21 years waiting for a sign like this. This was a door. This opened to another life. I give us two days to go through it or one of us would disappear.
Ander Monson is the author of eight books, including the novel Other Electricities, a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and the essay collection Vanishing Point, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He teaches at the University of Arizona.
From The Gnome Stories by Ander Monson, forthcoming from Graywolf Press