I never would have heard of the underground if it hadn’t rained that Sunday. After waking at my usual time, one look at the weather convinced me that there was really nothing important enough to get up for. That’s the good thing about living by yourself—there’s no one tromping around the house to wake you, so you can sleep as long as you like. Of course, the bad thing about living by yourself is when someone’s at the door, there’s no one to nudge saying “Your turn” even though you know it’s not. When the buzzer rang that memorable morning, I threw my bathrobe on, and made my way downstairs.
“Who is it?” I called out.
“Just a minute!”
I looked out the window and saw a man in a government uniform standing outside.
I opened the door a crack. “There must be some mistake,” I said. “I didn’t call for an exterminator.”
“We’re doing the whole block, ma’am. There’s been a report of a pixie infestation. If we don’t do the whole neighborhood, they’ll just run from house to house.”
“Well, I suppose you’ll have to come in then. Do you have identification?”
He showed me his badge and I opened the door.
I must confess that at this time, I had only the haziest of ideas about the issues of the day. Recently retired from service in the Paper Shredding Department of the Capitol, I hadn’t taken advantage of the sudden influx of free time to inform myself of current events. After the glamorous world of shredding, it was difficult to adjust to civilian life, and my feeling of obsolescence left me disinterested in the events sweeping the nation.
I’d heard of the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Little People and the Society for the Preservation of Magical Beings, but I didn’t really know anything about them. I was, of course, aware the government had declared a state of emergency. Wanted posters of gryphons and gnomes hung everywhere, from supermarkets to laundromats. I had seen the public service announcements showing the havoc wreaked by the return of the fair folk: riots when people tried to reach the end of the rainbow first, pictures of innocent humans trapped in bottles after freeing djinni. Of course, I believed them; I had no reason not to. It was only later that I found out the footage had been faked, that the crimes hadn’t happened or the accounts had been based on unsubstantiated rumors.
I followed the exterminator from room to room watching him spray all the baseboards and in all the closets. By the time we got back downstairs, two pixies writhed on my living room floor, gasping for air.
“Are you sure they’re not in pain?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he assured me. “It paralyzes their central nervous system so they don’t feel a thing. The gasping is just a reflex.”
Somehow, I wasn’t convinced. It was difficult to watch. They looked so harmless—just like children. Miniature children to be sure, but children nonetheless. I couldn’t believe they were the threat the government made them out to be.
He vacuumed up the two corpses. “There may be a few more. Sometimes it takes the poison a few hours to take reach them in their hiding places. Just put them out on the sidewalk in a garbage bag. We’ll be coming around to collect them at the end of the day. Thank you for your cooperation. It’s important that we all work together to rid the world of this menace.” I could tell he was required to say that last bit. He rushed through it tonelessly.
After I showed him out, I went through the house, looking to see if any more pixies had been flushed out of hiding. The upstairs rooms were all empty, but when I came back downstairs, I found another pixie on my kitchen floor.
“Oh dear,” I said. “You do look like you’re in pain.”
To my surprise, it nodded.
It was still breathing, so apparently it had gotten a smaller dose of the poison, or it hadn’t taken full effect yet.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
It wriggled on the floor, clutching its pocket.
I tried to reach inside, but my fingers were too big, so I ran to get the tweezers from my medicine cabinet. I found a pill inside his coat pocket and popped it right in his mouth. There was no time to get water, he was already gasping like the others had, struggling for breath. I took the liberty of holding his mouth closed, just as I used to do when I had to give my cat medicine. After he swallowed, it took effect almost instantaneously. In moments the pixie’s breathing was normal.
“Feeling better?” I asked, helping him to sit up.
“Much, thanks. If you hadn’t given me that pill, I would have been a goner for sure.” He shook his head ruefully. “We usually post someone on guard, but the sound of the rain made us so drowsy, we all drifted off.”
I looked at him skeptically. “You don’t seem dangerous.”
“We’re not! We haven’t harmed anyone—you’re the dangerous ones. But you don’t see us going around exterminating you!’
“But the government says you are a force of chaos and a threat to our society’s stability. The president says you’ve come to invade us.”
“Not to insult you, but I’ve been to many worlds and most of the countries on earth, and they are just as attractive as America or more so. Not to mention more hospitable. If we were going to take over anyplace, it wouldn’t be here. Invasion couldn’t be farther from our minds.
“We saw an economic opportunity here. You have things we need and we have magic. It seemed like the basis for a mutually beneficial trade agreement. We brought some workers in, started up a few factories to show what we could do. People were happy enough at first, but then they claimed we were unfair competition, even though no one else could do what we could. Next thing we know, we’re public enemy number one.”
“Well, excuse me for saying so, Mr. Pixie, but why don’t you just blink your eyes and vanish, or whatever it is your particular species does,” I suggested.
“It isn’t that simple. Magic doesn’t run on electricity. We need to convert psychic energy to create it. When there are a lot of us, there’s enough energy for conversion. When only a few, there isn’t.”
I looked puzzled.
“Think photosynthesis, it’s the closest analogy I can think of. Your government has made such inroads on our numbers that we are at a point where we can’t escape without assistance.”
By this time the little fellow had pretty well convinced me that we were the menace, not our visitors, but I felt compelled to explore the question thoroughly. “Perhaps if you told the president your intentions were peaceful,” I proposed, “and that you are willing to leave immediately, he could set up some kind of airlift.”
“The reason our numbers are so few,” the pixie replied solemnly, “is because we sent a delegation to your president. Not only did he take them prisoner, but he tortured them to give away the locations of our secret settlements.”
“I believe our government has been overreacting and exaggerating the gravity of your presence here,” I admitted, “but I can’t believe our elected officials could be capable of such heinous acts.”
“Use your common sense. How could your government have developed such an effective pixie poison, unless they had pixies to experiment on? And how did they know there were pixies in this area? Did you know?”
“No,” I confessed.
“One of us must have given the location away. And none of us would have done that unless we’d been tortured.”
“Oh dear!” I exclaimed.
The pixie had confirmed my worst fears. This went far beyond mere propaganda.
“But why do they want you exterminated? We could learn so much from you?”
“Don’t keep saying exterminated. We’re not pests–we’re magical beings. To answer your question, I don’t know. They don’t consider us to be people, so maybe that keeps them from seeing what we can offer. We’ve heard rumors that they’ve kept some of us alive to experiment on.”
I was ashamed of my country. “What can I do to help?”
He told me about the underground and how it worked.
Everyone knows about the underground these days, but at the time, it was a closely guarded secret. And believe me, if half the people who claim to have worked with us today had actually been part of it, we wouldn’t have needed years to complete the evacuation.
It was the most exciting time of my life. Because I had been such a loyal government employee, I was above suspicion. It was the most natural thing in the world for a recent retiree to buy an RV and travel.
The government’s paranoia helped. They portrayed the underground as anarchist youths or foreign terrorists who wanted to use the powers of magical beings as their predecessors had used bombs and chemical weapons. No one gave me a second glance.
It was easy enough to transport the Little People, they fit in a pocket or a purse. But there was the occasional giant. We’d have to dress them in special trousers textured like tree bark. They could travel only at night wearing black shirts, and black greasepaint on their faces with the occasional spangle to suggest stars. There was nothing we could do to hide the whites of their eyes, however, and even though the giants had strict instructions to stand stock still and close them the moment anyone came near them, the poor dears were so high up it sometimes took them longer to notice people down below than it should. I am convinced that the rash of UFO reportings from that time were just glimpses of giant eyes.
Then there were the shapeshifters. We left their disguises up to them, although we did our best to restrain those whose sense of humor was stronger than their sense of survival. Can you imagine, one of them wanted to cross the border in the shape of the president walking naked! Once they made it out of the country, they were taken to gathering places, where they stayed until there were enough of them to transport themselves magically.
Of course, there were some unfortunate incidents, but they never involved the underground. The Liberation Front resorted to explosives to free the pixies from the Smithsonian Zoo, but we never condoned violence. It was as abhorrent to us as the caging of intelligent beings.
I am grateful that we got as many out as we did by peaceful means, and that our efforts to alert the public to the true menace succeeded. Our proudest day was when the president was forced to resign and Congress passed the amendments guaranteeing equal protection to magical beings.
Of course, by then, most of them had left. Few wanted to return after their dreadful experiences. I sometimes regret I never accepted their invitations to spend time in one of their worlds, but somehow I always felt it would be difficult to come back. And I wasn’t sure their compatriots would find it any easier to accept humans than humans had found it to accept them.
The world seems to move a little slower since the underground disbanded, and life has lost a little of its zest. Now that the congressional hearings are over, my speaking engagements are fewer and farther between. Probably in a few years, all mention of the underground will be relegated to a few lines in schoolbooks.
Occasionally I hear from some of the old crowd and we get together to relive our escapades. Now and then I even get a postcard from a non-human or two. They have their ways of keeping in touch. In spite of our nostalgia, I can’t help feeling that remembering those days is more pleasant than it was to live them. When we look back, we know there was a happy ending, but at the time, we were too concerned with the safety of our charges to enjoy the excitement.
Perhaps my age is catching up with me. I find myself content to sleep in on rainy mornings, and although I can’t help wishing the buzzer would ring to start some new adventure, I’m always secretly relieved when it does not.
M. P. McCune
M.P. McCune is a public interest lawyer who spent years telling her client’s stories to the court before deciding it was time to tell some of her own. She lives and works in NYC.