The Beans of Production
I found the little cutie hiding in the coffee grinds.
He poked his head out and looked around. He wore a red pointed cap over a smooth, chubby face.
Then he saw me, stifled a squeal, and dived under the grinds. His feet stuck out. He was wearing wooden shoes.
I don’t know how he got in here, or if there are more like him. There must be a hole somewhere in the café, like for a mouse.
It was just after closing, so I was the only person there. I broke off a flake of cookie, and held it out to him, crooning “hey hey hey” in my best dog whisperer voice.
He looked up, numb with terror. I smiled and cooed and offered the cookie. He trembled if the crumb got too close. I took it back and nibbled it. “Yum,” I said, rubbing my tummy. I carefully placed the fragment next to him.
He broke off a piece with his teeny-tiny hands and bit in. His eyes bulged with delight, and he stuffed the rest in his mouth, munching like a caterpillar.
We make good cookies.
I showed him the palm of my hand, and he grabbed on like a scared kitten. I lifted him to the counter. He was damp from the grinds. His skin was scratched and his tunic was soiled and ripped, like he had made a rough journey.
I know this trick for making a chair out of a champagne cork holder, so I took one off a bottle in the fridge, and twisted up a seat for him. He climbed up onto it, and sat down. His legs didn’t reach the bench.
I asked him where he was from, and what he was doing here. He prattled in harsh sounds I couldn’t understand. I ran the coffee machine to make us both a drink. Fascinated, he watched me grind some beans, and gaped at every gush of water and puff of steam. While I worked, I jabbered away to show I was friendly.
I placed a pup cup filled with cappuccino in front of his chair. Even that was too big for him to drink from, so I gave him a plastic teaspoon, which he held in both hands like a lance.
Pulling up a stool at the counter, I sat down with my long black. While making eye contact, I blew on my coffee and took a sip, to show him it was safe to taste.
He swung the spoon into the pup cup, and fished out a puddle of swirling brew topped with froth. Transfixed by the steaming almond-stained liquid, he lifted it to his mouth and sniffed. He sipped, jerked, and dropped the spoon.
Gabbering, the tiny dude peered in wonder over the edge of the cup. He reached in to scoop out a handful of coffee, but recoiled when it singed him. He skipped over to the spoon, hoisted it in his arms, and bailed up cappuccino with the patience of a blacksmith fetching molten gold from a furnace. Gripping the stem of the spoon in his left hand and cupping the bowl with his right, he tipped the coffee into his mouth and drank deep.
Then he lay on his back, and murmured in meandering bliss.
After a while he got up, pointed at the coffee cup and shouted. I realised he wanted to take some coffee home with him, so I placed three perfectly roasted coffee beans in his open arms. He pulled off his tunic and used it to tie the beans up in a bundle.
He walked over to my hand and squeezed it. I lifted him up to my chest and gave him a proper goodbye cuddle.
I put him down on the floor, and he scampered off with his bounty, vanishing in a dark corner of the shop.
Look… you probably think I was stoned, right? I enjoy a puff sometimes, but in this case I was completely sober, and anyway I’ve never seen elves before, even that time I took dodgy e at Strawberry Fields.
The next day I wasn't sure it had really happened. Still, over the next few days I knit a tiny jacket for him. I figured that if I never saw him again, my pet rat could have it. And I bought a pack of rubber thimbles, so at least he could have his own makeshift cup next time. I kept the stuff in my work apron so it was handy.
Anyway, I’m Matilda, I’m 23, I study interior design, and I work at a top 20 café in Melbourne. We’re called The Castle. It’s not in the top 10. Dave hates that. He’s the owner. He wants us to break into the top 10. But honestly we are just holding onto the bottom rung of the top 20. And if you let go of that ladder you never get back on, no matter how good your hash browns are.
I didn’t tell Dave about the elf boy. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s wild for trends. Every week he tries something new to make us fashionable, like the week we swapped all of the plates for slabs of driftwood. I can see him marketing us as the goblin café and making us all wear pointy ears.
Anyway, it’s not a good career move to tell your boss you saw an elf. I should know, I told an old boss I heard my rat talk, and that didn’t go well. For the record - I didn’t mean that my rat could speak, I just meant that he made a sound that was like “Merry Christmas.” Even if I wasn’t sure I really saw the elf kid, I will go to my grave swearing my rat made that sound, whatever the offensive opinions of that duty manager.
As it so happens, I did see my little buddy again. It was about a month later, and it was during closing.
I heard faint drums and trumpets, and on the floor I saw a company of pint-sized dudes. Most of them had helmets and spears, and they walked in formation around a bed with a canopy and curtains, carried by lads dressed all in black. A couple of the ones with helmets were playing musical instruments. Two guys in super-plush kit led the procession in front of the bed.
When they saw me, some of the soldiers started to shout and wiggle their spears, but the two fancy boys got them to calm down. They walked out ahead of the pack. I crouched to get more on their level.
One of the smart lads held out a goblet on a cushion. The other had this shimmering harp that warbled tunes even though nobody was playing it, like a novelty mp3 player. He put the harp on the ground, and gestured for me to take it. When I did, the other offered me the goblet.
I got the message. I dropped the harp in my apron pocket, and went to the coffee machine to whip up some brew. While I worked, the elves chanted. It was a bit creepy.
When I was done, I sat on the floor with a cup of espresso. I dipped the goblet in to fill it, scalding my fingertips a smidge. I put the full goblet on the floor, and one of the leaders picked it up. He took it over to the bed, and the warriors parted the curtains.
It was my little cutie! He was super old, and he had a golden crown on his head. He was propped up on a dozen fancy cushions. When he saw me, he cried out and tried to get up, but he was too weak and shaky to lift himself. The little guys in charge soothed him. I twigged that they must be his kids. One of them put the goblet to his lips, and he sipped.
He closed his eyes and warbled these happy sounds, and then he got quiet and stopped moving. His kids sobbed, and the soldiers all got down on one knee. I started to cry too, but one of my tears knocked over a soldier, so instead I rubbed my eyes and took a swig of the espresso. I got out the jacket I had knitted for him, and laid it over him like a blanket.
The elves formed a two column line, with the sons at the front. They all held out sacks.
I put a couple of coffee beans in the sacks of the sons, and they moved off so the next pair could step forward. I filled all the sacks in the line. Then they got into formation around the bed, and gave me a salute and squeaky cheer. They marched off, the trumpets, drums and synched bootfalls fading into silence.
I didn’t know what to make of all that, so I put it out of my mind. There’s plenty to keep your head busy in a coffee shop. You’ve got the police officer who comes in every morning and fails to pick you up, the wedding planner who always sprawls dress designs over multiple tables, and a fair helping of twitchy goth poets and headset types. More than enough to keep your girl occupied, and not dwelling on caffeine-obsessed elves.
It was a couple of months before there was more action from the little people. It was early in the morning, and Dave and I were setting up. Then we heard the most beautiful choir music you can imagine, this impossible harmony of voices fusing and separating like golden oil swirling in water.
This time it was a small army of little people. Most of them were covered by simple white smocks, but a group at the front wore jeweled red robes. They sang as they walked in formation. A few of them carried these pots dangling on string with strong-smelling smoke spiraling out, and some rode horses or wore armour. The ones with armour had swords and maces. Some of the ones in white smocks kept hitting themselves on the back with bits of cord. It looked like it hurt.
If I was shocked at the spectacle, imagine Dave. I hastily explained to him that these dudes had been visiting and they seemed harmless. They just liked our coffee!
One of the ones in a sparkling red robe stepped forth, and the assembly hushed. He spoke for about five minutes. We didn’t understand any of it. But when he was done some of the guys in white lugged forth a casket, about the size of a bar of soap. They opened it, and it was full of spectacular carvings in gold and silver and incandescent jewels.
Honestly, it wouldn’t have been a week’s rent here in Melbourne, because as nice as it all looked it was too small to be worth much. But Dave’s eyes glittered like the treasure. I explained to him that they expect to take some coffee beans home in return for their gifts.
Dave pulled out our coffee scale, and tipped in the contents of the casket. Then he weighed out the same amount in coffee beans, and placed them on the ground in front of the group. Like ants, the ones in white crawled over the pile, and in moments it had vanished.
While Dave was doing that, I brewed up coffee, and began to distribute thimbles to drink from. The ones in red drank greedily, but the ones in white refused to take any, like they were scared to even smell it.
Once the horde had drunk its coffee and gathered the beans, the singing resumed, and it slunk off. After this ordeal, Dave decided not to open the shop that day.
Over the next few weeks, Dave grilled me about the little people. I didn’t have much to tell him. They’re just weirdos who like our coffee, which is most of our customers. Dave started to spend more on the shop, like having new signs painted, buying web banners or mounting bicycles on the walls. I asked him if he had seen the little people again, and he was cagey about it. Eventually I worked out that he was bartering with them, doling out coffee beans at prices exorbitant even for a Melbourne coffee spot, and funneling the windfall into his shop. I tried to talk to Dave about it, but after that I stopped getting shifts.
It was rough to be turfed out after working there for a couple of years, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. The Fair Work Ombudsman doesn’t have a gnome crimes division. I got a new gig pretty quick, and with the hustle to pay my bills and pass TAFE had bigger things in my life to worry about.
Then one day I rode by The Castle on my bike. It was a burnt-out husk.
I asked at the convenience store across the road, and they said there had been a fire. What about Dave? Nobody had seen him.
I dug into the network of coffee shop staff, and got a contact for one of the girls that had replaced me. At first she said she didn’t want to talk, but then I told her I knew about the little people. Then she said she would meet up. Just as long as it wasn’t for coffee - she didn’t drink that anymore.
She didn’t see much. It was at the start of her shift in the morning, when he let herself in.
The shop was crawling with thousands of little dudes. They all wore identical pajamas, and had shaved heads. They swung around the shop on grappling hooks, screaming and ransacking everywhere. Dave was tied to a table bench with hundreds of ropes, the hooks digging into his skin. A group of them were swarming over the coffee machine, cranking out coffee and sealing it in bottles. A trough of coffee was set up with giddy revellevers dipping tiny mugs in and drinking freely.
After that glimpse, she bolted. She didn’t know what happened after that, or what happened to Dave.
Anyway, my café days are done. I’ve got my first internship to worry about. New world, new me.
But some nights when I’m home and playing with my rat, I think about that first night with the little cutie, and how happy he was to have his original taste of coffee.
Then I lock my rat away in his cage, where a small harp plays endless songs of a land we’ll never see, one small but dangerous to ignore, for when roused it can topple a castle.