The Little People
Grandpa hitched up his pants and smiled. Whether it was a story about the time he walked clear across the country without changing his socks or his friend Ernie’s solid gold poodle, he certainly loved to tell us kids his incredible tales. But his favorite had to be the one about Lincoln.
“Are you sure you want to hear that one?”
After some cheering and clapping from the assembled group, Grandpa grinned.
“Okay, okay. You see, Abraham Lincoln, in addition to being a great president, had a secret, a big secret only a few people knew about.”
He paused for effect and looked out over his expectant grand- and great grandchildren.
“And that secret was he had little people living in his beard.”
As usual, there was a gasp from the crowd. Having heard this tale many times, I just smiled.
“That’s right,” he said raising his right hand, his usual custom whenever the veracity of one of his stories was questioned. “Actual little people. Now I don’t know who they were or where they came from but they lived in that bushy beard for years. And, not only were they good friends with Lincoln’s wife, that looker Mary Todd, it’s rumored that they helped him write that famous speech of his, the Gettysburg Address.”
There were some more oohs and aahs. The little kids were enthralled but some of the older ones and few adults in the room rolled their eyes. At age 11 I was somewhere in the middle. Of course when I was younger I believed every word of Grandpa’s stories, but now that I really thought about them, they really seemed unbelievable. I mean, tiny people in Lincolns’ beard? That just sounded crazy.
“It’s all true,” Grandpa said. He looked at me and winked. “Just check out that big statue of him.”
Sadly Grandpa died shortly after that in a car accident and I didn’t really think about Lincoln or his beard until a few years later. I was on a class trip to Washington D.C. and when a couple friends and I climbed those numerous steps up to the Lincoln Memorial, it suddenly hit me.
While my friends were more concerned about how fast they could run around the columns, I focused my attention on Lincoln. The sculpture was very large and impressive and I gazed at it for a while. I was just about to find my friends when the clouds shifted and a beam of sunlight shone directly on Lincoln’s beard. Although I was far away, I thought something looked odd about it.
After watching a tired-looking security guard walk by, I decided to get a closer look. I found a few foot holds in the back and started climbing. The marble was cold but surprising easy to hold onto and I quickly ascended.
I struggled over the side of the chair and fell into his lap, banging my arm on his enormous leg. I was a little stunned and was momentarily enraptured by the view looking out onto the reflecting pool and Washington Monument. But I quickly snapped out of my reverie and gazed up at Lincoln’s head.
At first I didn’t see anything unusual, just the many lines and ridges that made up his beard. But then, on the left side of his chin, I saw something else. What appeared to be tiny people — three of them — were peeking out behind some of the sculpted hair.
Just as I moved closer, I heard a yell.
“What do you think you’re doing?! Get down from there!” The security guard was back. I was startled and almost fell but regained my footing. After taking one last glance at the beard, I slid down to the base, and then to the floor.
The guard was bright red and came charging at me. I faked to the right and then went left. I made it the bottom of the stairs in probably record time and after finding my friends, happily scurried off to the bus.
Now I was sure Grandpa was right after all.
Years passed. I never returned to the Lincoln Memorial but did scrutinize every piece of information I could find on him. Biographies, documents, artifacts. I thought I had struck gold when I found in a little museum in Nebraska what was most likely one of Lincoln’s beard combs. But, after convincing the proprietor I was from a prestigious university and he let me handle it, I was quickly disappointed. After all, it was only a comb; what did I expect to find, a tiny hat or something?
Just as I started believing that maybe Grandpa had made it all up, something interesting occurred. One day I was watching TV and happened to turn on the public broadcasting channel. On a very small set that included just a table and couple of chairs, two men were talking. One of them was portly with a large reddish-brown beard. His name appeared on the screen: Harold Lister. What made me not change the channel was what was under his name: Beard Historian.
I quickly turned up the volume but unfortunately they weren’t talking about Lincoln but about beards in the Renaissance; and Lister kept mentioning what was undoubtedly his new book called A Beard in Time.
I figured if anyone knew about Lincoln it had to be this guy and I immediately went to the Internet and found out all I could about him.
I was able to find his phone number and called him the next day. I fumbled through an introduction, but when I mentioned I had seen him on TV, he seemed more than happy to talk to me. He was an affable fellow and it was obvious he loved talking beards.
But as soon as I mentioned Lincoln’s secret, there was an immediate silence on his end of the phone.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said after a moment.
I was a little taken aback; I was sure he would be able to help me, or at least tell me I was being ridiculous. But, judging form the tone of his voice, he suddenly seemed nervous, uncomfortable.
“So,” I continued. “You’ve never heard anything about Lincoln and, I know this sounds crazy, little people living in his beard?”
Again there was silence.
“Where are you calling from? I, I can’t talk about this over the phone.”
It turns out Lister only lived about an hour from me and we met at a little coffee shop. When I got there I immediately saw him in a back booth. I smiled and extended my hand.
“Hi, you must be-“
“Sit down,” he said through clenched teeth.
He eyes darted around the room as I sat down across from him.
“Tell me everything you know,” he said quietly.
“Well, um, I don’t really know too much. A long time ago my Grandpa used to tell me this crazy story about Lincoln and these tiny people living in his beard. I mean, I didn’t even believe it until I saw the Memorial.”
Lister smiled but then quickly frowned.
“How did you see the beard? It’s got to be 40 feet high.”
I smiled. “I climbed the statue when I was on a class trip. So, is it true?”
Lister looked around again and then nodded.
“Why don’t more people know about this?” I asked. “I mean, something this huge, shouldn’t people know about it?”
“Are you crazy? If word got out about this, what do you think would happen? Chaos, that’s what would happen. If everyone found out that one of the greatest presidents to ever live had little people living in his beard, how would people react to that? That’s why they’ve tried to cover it up.”
“Who? The government?”
Lister laughed. “The government? I wish. No, this goes much deeper than that. That’s really all I can say here.” He pulled out a business card. “Here, if you want to know more, come to this address tomorrow night at eight.” He handed me the card and then slid out of the booth.
At 7:00 the next night I found myself speeding down the highway, anxious to get to Lister’s. Perhaps I was too anxious because I missed the right exit and didn’t get to his house until almost 8:30.
I quickly walked up the driveway and knocked on the front door. After knocking again with no response, I peered through a side window and into what looked like a living room. I was just about to knock again when I noticed the upended table and broken lamp on the floor.
“Lister?” I called.
I tried the door and it was open. In addition to the disheveled living room, I saw that the kitchen was also a mess with drawers pulled out and objects scattered all over the floor.
“Lister, are you here?”
That’s when I saw him. In a small room that appeared to be used as an office, he was lying face down with his legs sticking out into the hallway. I rushed over to him. He wasn’t moving and after a minute I was able to turn him onto his back. His face was badly bruised and it looked like his left arm was broken.
I leaned down but he wasn’t breathing. Then I noticed his beard. Although the room was dim it somehow looked odd. When we had met the day before it was very neat but now it was uneven, misshapen.
That’s when I saw the scissors clutched in his right hand and when I got up, I noticed something else. Spelled out on the wood floor, in what were most certainly his own beard clippings, were words. When I crouched down to look at them, there was suddenly a light shining on me.
I looked up and squinted. A tall figure was standing there holding a flashlight and gun. “And keep your hands where I can see them!”
A radio crackled and the light was lowered. Now I could see the man more clearly. He was completely bald and appeared to be in his 50’s. “Yeah, I got him,” he said into the radio.
My heart started pounding. What should I do?
“Uh, excuse me, officer? I know this probably looks bad and everything but I didn’t-“
He grunted. “Yeah, it does look bad.” He shone the light into my face and stared at me for a moment. “Did anyone ever tell you, you resemble your grandfather?”
The comment was so unexpected, I was speechless.
“What?” I was finally able to sputter. “What did you say?”
He ignored me and shone the light on the floor. “What is that?” he asked, staring at the hair. I stepped in front of it.
With the gun still trained on me, he took a few steps. “What the hell?”
I knew I had to do something. With his attention diverted, I saw my chance and lunged at him. He was completely surprised and by the time he recovered, I had grabbed his hand. He squeezed the trigger and fired into the ceiling.
We dropped to the floor. He was thin but strong and it took all I had to stay on top of him. I managed to shake the gun loose and it slid under the desk. That’s when I felt the pain on the side of my head; one of his flailing fists had gotten me square in the left ear. I was momentarily stunned and he flung me into a tall bookcase. There was a lot more pain, this time in my back and arms.
Suddenly a large object fell from an upper shelf and landed on his head. It didn’t seem to affect him but after a moment he sank to the floor. When I saw what had knocked him out I smiled. It was a huge book entitled The Big Book of Beards.
The radio crackled again. “Jensen, are you there? Jensen?”
He had a pair of handcuffs on his belt and I quickly grabbed them and cuffed him to the desk. It was then I remembered the message. Thankfully our scuffle hadn’t disturbed it and once again I crouched down — this time very gingerly — to read it.
Suddenly I heard sirens. I took out my cell phone and snapped a few shots and then bolted for the door. After a moment of hesitation, I rushed back and with the toe of one shoe, messed up the message.
I ran to my car and headed back to the highway. But where could I go? They knew about me now. I was in deep, too deep.
As I approached the onramp, I slowed down and pulled out the phone. It took me a minute to read Lister’s message but when I did, I got on the highway, south this time instead of north. I had to get to Gettysburg.
The beard truth was out there.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED