The shorter days and chilly nights had conspired to drop a warm tapestry of garnet, green, and gold over Stoughton. Autumn came quickly this year and it was zooming past at an alarming rate. It was time to work on my next assignment. My editor had given me a good one this time, an article sure to put me back on a professional path: High School Football. When that assignment had landed on my desk, I had breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a story featuring people had come my way. It had to be perfect so I waited for one of those days of crisp air and spectacular light. As the sun began to ignite the trees with the light that only comes near sundown, I headed to the practice field. With my camera slung across my body and my crinkly, new notebook in my hip pocket, I strolled past the cheer squad as they built a rock solid pyramid. Those young women are fearless, but I had my assignment so I climbed the hill to the tennis courts and found a good vantage point. The team had broken into two squads: one doing a bone crushing tackle drill while the other worked on the snap count.
The wind was wiping my hair across my face so I reached into my pocket for something to tie it back. When I looked up, a tiny dirt devil of leaves and dust raced across the field. Odd, I thought. It wasn’t that windy. I began to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then it happened. A mop a bushy, gray hair zipped across the scrimmage line and made a mad dash at the ball. Oton was on the field. I swear I nearly swallowed my tongue in an attempt to stifle the scream rising from my gut, but I was afraid to move for fear of alerting the coaching staff or worse, the players.
Except no one seemed to notice the crazy troll, a mere eleven inches tall, zipping between cleated feet and darting away from falling bodies. I was about to witness my tiny, stinky, annoying friend’s death. I couldn’t let it happen so I did the only thing I could think to do. I ripped pages from my notebook and tossed them to the wind. They sailed onto the field of play and skittered across the grass, one coming to rest again the leg of the coach. I took a deep breath and followed them onto the field just as the center snapped the ball again. “Excuse me,” I mumbled as I peeled the paper from the coach’s shin. “If I lose this, my editor will kill me.” He growled at me, but I kept going, right up to the line of scrimmage where Oton stood beaming, awaiting the next play. I rushed between two burly players with my eyes blazing and locked on the oblivious troll. Little did I know that the coaches had called for the exact same play and they were already downing the ball—in the same place. I lunged at the blank sheet of paper drifting between the feet of young man, and scooped Oton up just as he noticed me. I couldn’t believe they didn’t see him, or at least smell him, but then again, the players had been working hard, and lockers rooms have a well-deserved reputation for a certain sort of funk.
With Oton squirming in my arms and his stench seeping into my new sweater, I hurried to my car where the little deviant and I could have a private conversation. “Oton, what were you doing in the middle of a football game? Don’t you realize they can’t see you? You could have been killed.” He snorted. “That wasn’t football. Football comes out of the bright, shiny box in your garage.” I allowed my head to fall back against the headrest. This was my reward for introducing football to a village of trolls. “Okay, if that wasn’t football, what was it?” After all, Oton had a unique view of the world. “That was Hurl.” He was triumphant, and I had just stumbled upon some weird troll tradition. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s Hurl?” He sneezed, coating the dashboard with snot, and rubbing the rest on his filthy trousers. “Hurl is a test of bravery. First, you find a rock, the bumpier the better. Then you wrap it in a skin … if you have one.” I was starting to see where he was going. “So you make a ball out of rock and leather—“ “It’s not a ball, it’s a rock. We call it Bob.” I was being to regret saving him from the player’s cleats. “Why do you call it Bob?” He smirked up at me. “Bob: Battered Or Bruised.” He was laughing hysterically, but I wasn’t amused. “Okay. So you wrap a rock in leather and call it … Bob.” My head fell against the steering wheel with a thud as he began to treat the seat like a trampoline. “Then, and here’s the good part, we take turns hurling it at each other.” I raised my hand. “Let me guess. The last one standing wins.” He tipped his tiny head to the side. “Have you played Hurl before?” I felt like crying. “Just a lucky guess,” I moaned. “Oton, what were you doing out there on the practice field?” He wouldn’t look at me, a bad sign.
I wasn’t innocent in this. Two years ago, I had left Elvsmyr saying I had to get home for the football game. My beloved Packers were playing the Vikings. Little did I know where that remark would lead, I had seen the glint in Oton’s eye as soon as I had said Viking. That led to the infamous troll football party in my garage. It was quite a day, but in the end, the trolls, the entire village of them, had become devoted football fans. Never mind that they couldn’t tell the teams apart. They were all Vikings to the trolls, a point that still stings my Packer Pride, but I never expected Oton would sneak onto the high school practice field. “You didn’t answer my question. What were you doing out there?” He plopped down on the seat and groaned. “We’re outta rocks.” I rubbed the back of my neck as the headache began to take hold. “I find that hard to believe. I’ve been to your village, many times. There are plenty of rocks.” He looked deflated “Hurl hurts.” It was my turn to snort. “l’m sure it does.” It was starting to come into focus. “You’re here to steal a football.” He refused to look at me. A few heartbeats later, he asked, “can we go get sprinkles now?”
I turned the car on and backed out of the stall. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll buy you a whole bag of sprinkle donuts if you promise to leave the footballs alone.” I doubt he heard anything I said after sprinkle, but at least he had been distracted from his mission, for now. But Coach, if footballs start to disappear, I’m pretty sure I know where they are. There’s just one thing. You don’t want them back. Troll stench tends to stick to things.
Originally appeared in the Stoughton Press, November 2014