For this week's Fiction Friday: a short story I wrote a while back about not judging a book by its cover, even if the cover is kind of ugly.
The day Tommy Schallenberger met the orc started out normally enough.
It was during the soft midsection of summer vacation, some indeterminate date in the middle of July, the time when twelve-year-old boys ignore even the day of the week into non-existence. It was long enough after the end of school that the frantic desperation to cling to every moment had passed, and not yet near enough to the beginning of the next school year that a new, and altogether different kind, of frantic desperation had begun.
Tommy was splashing his way down the creek bed, clad only in a disreputable pair of cargo shorts, his brown hair streaked with sun-faded gold and his shoulders and cheeks bronzed and freckled. There was nothing purposeful about what he was doing. If an adventure presented itself, that was fine. If not, he could pass an agreeable afternoon doing nothing but exploring the creek and trying to catch frogs.
He jumped down from a flat rock by a shallow waterfall onto a projecting shelf lower down, and almost lost his footing, but with that preternatural grace that some pre-adolescent boys have, he regained his balance after teetering for a moment on the ball of one foot. There was a rustle in the bushes, off to the side and downstream, but Tommy paid it little heed. Deer were common and unafraid, and if it wasn’t a deer, the other possibilities didn’t seem all that alarming. The last black bear seen near Tommy’s house had been ten years ago, and for a boy who had been raised on Bear in the Big Blue House, even that thought seemed more intriguing than frightening.
Tommy jumped from the shelf down to the lower creek bed, where the water recommenced flowing after bubbling for a bit in an oval pool. He miscalculated the depth of the pool, however, and found himself suddenly immersed up to the waist in remarkably cold water. Reflexively, he tried to scramble out, and his natural sense of balance failed him. His bare feet slipped on the algae-coated surface of the rock, and arms flailing, he fell over backwards.
Tommy was a good swimmer, and the water wasn’t that deep. so there was never any real danger. But he inhaled a big gulp of water, and came up gagging and coughing, and as a result slipped again and went back under. And that was when a strong hand grabbed him by the wrist, and lifted him bodily out of the pool, to hang there like a caught fish, dripping and sneezing and spitting out creek water.
Tommy looked at his rescuer. A shriek rose from his gut, got caught halfway, and came out as a thin whine.
A thick-set, broad body, arms far too long and legs too short to seem human, was surmounted by a nearly spherical head of such amazing ugliness that Tommy immediately wondered if he’d drowned in the pool and been summarily sent to hell. The eyes were small and piglike, the hair scanty but coarse. The ears were long and pointed, and stuck out from the side of its head like wings. Like Tommy it was only clad from the waist down, and its skin was a rather alarming gray-green. The creature’s mouth was impossibly wide, and pulled into either a grimace or a smile—it was hard to tell which it was.
Tommy coughed again, and tried to yell for help, but his vocal chords were still in open rebellion, and it came out as a faint “Eeep.”
“If that was an attempt to call for help,” the creature said, in a remarkably cultured voice, “what the hell do you think I’m currently giving you?”
“What are you?” Tommy said, finally mastering his own voice enough at least to form words.
“What do I look like, a garden gnome?” the creature said, the irritation clear in its voice. “I’m an orc.”
“Orcs aren’t real.” Tommy tried to make his voice sound braver than he felt.
“Oh, yeah?” The orc swung Tommy effortlessly up onto dry land, and set him down. “Tell that to my parents, siblings, cousins, and so forth.”
“There are more of you?” Tommy massaged his shoulder.
The orc rolled its eyes. “Kid, do you know where babies come from?”
Tommy scowled and drew himself up, trying to look taller than his five-foot-two. “Of course I do.”
It shrugged. “Well, then?”
“Yeah, okay,” Tommy admitted. He looked more closely at the creature. “You’re not planning on killing me and eating me, are you?”
The orc sighed. “You humans and your propaganda. Why would I have rescued you if that was my plan? Wouldn’t it be easier to let you drown, and then eat you afterwards? Why rescue you, and then chase around a live boy and try to kill him?”
Tommy looked defiant. “Maybe you just like to make your victims suffer.”
The orc made a little “pfft” sound. “Bloody nonsense."
“Well, in The Lord of the Rings…” Tommy began.
“Oh, don’t get me started. Tolkien kind of sucked as a historian, frankly.”
Tommy goggled. “The Lord of the Rings is history?”
The orc regarded him for a moment, raising one eyebrow. “You think he made all that stuff up? Like, invented languages and so on? Get real.”
Tommy stared at the orc, tried to think of something to say in response, and failed completely.
“Well, of course,” the orc said, his voice thoughtful, “history is written by the victors, and all that sort of thing. It’s not like he was exactly biased to present us orcs in a positive light.”
“He said you liked to kill humans and elves and dwarves just for fun.”
“Yeah, like the dwarves and elves were innocent.” The orc's voice sounded bitter. “You know what happened when the dwarves got back to Moria? From the way Tolkien talked, the dwarves were helpless victims. What a crock. You know what the first thing they did was? Just guess.”
“Killed some orcs?” Tommy ventured.
“Of course!” shouted the orc. “What else? It was all, ‘Khazad-dûm belongs to the dwarves!’ in spite of the fact that they hadn’t lived there for hundreds of years, and they proceeded to run up toward a few orcs who were in the entry hall, and chop them into dog food. I ask you, does this sound fair?”
“Not really,” Tommy admitted. “But look. Some of the orcs did bad things. Like the ones that captured Merry and Pippin. And that big ugly dude who shot the arrows into Boromir.”
“Fair enough. There are orcs that aren’t very nice. Are all humans nice?”
“I guess not.”
“So, if I wrote a book, and picked out a few—Adolf Hitler, let’s say, and Stalin, and Genghis Khan, and so as not to appear sexist, Marjorie Taylor Greene—and used that to argue that humanity was the filthy spawn of mud and evil, you’d think that was unfair, wouldn’t you?”
“You know what that’s called? That’s called an overgeneralization. Do you know what an overgeneralization is?”
“I do now,” Tommy said.
“You know, I sometimes wonder if human schools ever teach critical thinking.” The orc paused. “Anyhow. Tolkien took the orcs that sided with Sauron and Saruman, and decided from them that all of the orcs were evil. Hardly fair, I’d call it. All of these other orcs, ordinary orcs, are at home minding their business, raising their kids, and just wanting to be left alone, and along comes Tolkien and basically says that the only good orc is a dead orc.” He paused, and looked a little sad. “No wonder there’s so few of us left.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“It never occurred to you to ask the question of how an entire species could be evil?”
“Well, no,” Tommy admitted. “But now that I’ve met you, I can see that I should probably think more about it.”
“You’re not just saying that because you’re scared I’ll eat you?”
Tommy’s brown eyes met the orc’s small gray ones. “I’m not scared of you any more.”
The orc gave Tommy a speculative look. “You seem like you’re all right, kid. What’s your name?”
“Tommy. Tommy Schallenberger.”
“Mine’s Globnorg.” The orc reached out a huge, rough hand, and briefly engulfed Tommy’s small one.
“Globnorg?” Tommy asked incredulously.
Globnorg scowled. “Yeah, that’s another thing. Tolkien made it sound like just because our language doesn’t sound as nice as Elvish, that means we’re the bad guys.”
“Well, you have to admit it doesn’t sound very pretty.”
“Huh.” Globnorg snorted. “Ever listen to German? It’s not exactly the language of love.”
Tommy didn’t say anything. His grandparents spoke German, mostly when they didn’t want him to understand what they were saying, and he had to admit they always sounded like they were arguing, even when they probably weren’t.
“Listen,” Globnorg said. “Elvish may sound all soft and silky, but that doesn’t mean much. I can tell you that their arrows aren’t soft and silky, they’re hard and pointy, and some of those Elves are serious badasses.”
“Legolas sure seemed to be, in the movie.”
“Legolas.” Globnorg gave a dismissive gesture with one huge, craggy hand. “Since when do Hollywood and reality have to be the same? Upper-class privileged pretty-boy rich kid snot, that’s what Legolas was. So far as I’ve heard, anyway. I never met him, though, it was a long time ago.”
“You’ve seen the movie?”
“Of course. We may be orcs, but we’re not backwards. We’ve got culture. But we’re smart about it. We’ve borrowed the nice things from you humans—movie streaming, computers, microwave ovens, cellphones. We avoided the traffic jams, nine-to-five jobs, and spam emails. And we’re not screwing up the environment like you humans, either. I just finished installing solar panels in front of my cave.”
“That’s cool,” Tommy said. His science teacher from fifth grade, Mrs. Wilkinson, had been very much in favor of solar panels, and he’d thought Mrs. Wilkinson was awesome. Anyone who agreed with Mrs. Wilkinson couldn’t be all bad.
“All it amounts to,” Globnorg said, “is your frame of reference. If all you hear all the time is orcs are bad, orcs are evil, orcs will kill you, then every little thing you hear about us afterwards—every time some misguided orc teenager knocks over a convenience store—it becomes evidence to support what you’d already decided is true. It’s another critical thinking thing—this one’s called confirmation bias. Ever heard of that?”
“I have now,” Tommy said again.
“Well, good. So you read Tolkien’s slanted, biased take on our culture, and you make your mind up, and after that everything that happens just makes your opinion set deeper into cement. That’s why you expected me to eat you.”
“Well…” Tommy paused. “There’s also the way you look.”
The orc grinned, exposing way more teeth than Tommy thought possible. “Judging by appearances. You’re a veritable textbook of logical fallacies, you are.”
“That one, I knew about already,” Tommy said meekly. “Sorry about that.”
“No harm done.” The orc shrugged. “It’s not like it doesn’t happen all the time. Anyhow, I’ve used up enough of your afternoon, talking philosophy. You probably want to get back to whatever you were doing.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Tommy said. “I was just walking.”
“Nothing wrong with that. Actually, that’s something my people could have used some reminding about, way back in the day. When did they get in trouble? When they let Sauron and Saruman talk them into these type-A personality Great Big Important Plans, and somehow convinced them that just being wasn’t enough, that they had to somehow Do Something Grand. Look what happened. Lot of good that did us, in the long run.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“Anyhow, Tommy, nice to meet you. Oh, and one quick request—you may not want to mention to your family about meeting me here. Not meaning to cast aspersions on your relatives, but these things have been known to end badly. Packs of dogs, people with torches, shotguns, and so forth. Ugly on all sides.”
“Don’t worry,” Tommy said. “I don’t think they’d believe me, anyhow.”
“Oh, okay, well, then. That’s all right.”
Tommy turned and walked a few feet away, then turned and looked back at Globnorg, half expecting that he’d be gone. He wasn’t. He raised one lumpy gray hand, and wiggled his fingers briefly in farewell. Tommy waved back.
“Watch your step on the rocks,” the orc shouted at him. “They’re slippery.” And just as he passed out of earshot, Tommy heard the orc say to himself, “Humans. Actually, they’re kind of cute when they’re little. In an ugly sort of way.”
It's astonishing to see what the universe looks like on scales different from those we're used to. The images of galaxies and quasars and (more recently) black holes are nothing short of awe-inspiring. However, the microscopic realm is equally breathtaking -- which you'll find out as soon as you open the new book Micro Life: Miracles of the Microscopic World.
Assembled by a team at DK Publishers and the Smithsonian Institution, Micro Life is a compendium of photographs and artwork depicting the world of the very small, from single-celled organisms to individual fungus spores to nerve cells to the facets of a butterfly's eye. Leafing through it generates a sense of wonder at the complexity of the microscopic, and its incredible beauty. If you are a biology enthusiast -- or are looking for a gift for a friend who is -- this lovely book is a sure-fire winner. You'll never look the same way at dust, pollen, algae, and a myriad of other things from the natural world that you thought you knew.
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]