Lyle Hefty was pretty much ticked off.
Lyle was an enigma in the Great State of Wisconsin. First of all, his last name was Hefty, a fine Norwegian name to be sure, but one which painted a picture of garbage bags and obesity. Lyle Hefty was not obese. As a matter of fact, he was the skinniest farmer in Dane County and he didn't like milk, or cheese, or ice cream, or any of the other fattening foods from America's Dairyland. Lyle didn't believe in all that stuff, no sir. He grew corn. Yep, just corn. Most dairy farmers grew feed corn for their cows, but Lyle grew sweet corn only. Now, if that's not an enigma in Wisconsin, nothing is.
"Them dairy boys are a bunch o' meatheads," Lyle would say to anyone who would listen. "They get up every mornin' and milk cows, they do. And then at night they gotta milk 'em again, you betcha. Every day, every week, every year. Now me, I got it made. I get to travel when the summer's over, I do. I been to Iowa, I have. And next year, I'm goin' to Nebraska! They got some corn there, I tell ya."
So Lyle didn't have too many friends hanging around except for Sven. Sven put up with Lyle because Lyle had a 26" color TV to watch the Packer games on.
Sven was everything Lyle wasn't. He had a dairy farm just down the new highway from Lyle and he usually ate up most of his profits. Sven had never met a hunk of milk fat he didn't like and his jowls hung like slabs of beef underneath his chin. Sven also liked beer a lot, which was why Lyle Hefty was pretty much ticked off.
Lyle and Sven were watching the Packer game, and even though it was only preseason they were pretty excited. It was a good, close game, and Sven got so pumped up that he reached behind him for a cold beer from the cooler hidden behind the couch, forgetting that he was at Lyle's, and that Lyle was the reason you had to hide beer in the first place. Lyle didn't believe in beer either, which really made him unpopular in Wisconsin. When he saw Sven sneaking that Pabst Blue Ribbon, well, it was just too much.
"Sven, you hit the road, you dumb Swede, and take that stinkin' stuff with ya! Don't come back no more to old Lyle's, ya hear? I don't care if it's for the Bears game!"
A beer commercial came on the TV and girls in bikinis frolicked on a beach in southern California. That really set Lyle off.
"Look at that, will ya'? If those little cuties really drank all that beer they'd look just like you, Sven! Now get outa here!"
Lyle kicked Sven outside, slammed the door, and stood there in disgust, breathing hard. And then he did what he always did when he was pretty much ticked off. He walked to the window and looked out at his corn. It was planted in absolutely perfect rows and Lyle could tell if even one ear was out of place. It was growing extra high this year and Lyle calmed down as he watched the plants wave in the breeze. And that's when he got the shock of his life.
"Oh my God!" he shouted. "Someone's been stealin' my dang corn!" He flew out the door and ran down the stairs, his John Deere cap flying off his bald head. He reached the cornfield and stood there with one hand on his hip.
"Who came and stole my corn?" he muttered. "Jeez, they took the whole plants and everything!" And sure enough, there under Lyle's boots was an empty patch of dirt, right in the middle of acres and acres of five foot high corn.
Lyle took off running again. He found another spot of bare dirt, just like the first.
"I betcha it's them darn Baker kids, playin' a trick on old Lyle," he whispered, his head shaking back and forth like a pendulum on a cuckoo clock. "I'll show them who not to mess with, don't ya know. Just 'cause I ain't got no cows don't mean they can come over here and pull my corn. I'll go right over there and..."
He heard a rustling sound. He charged deeper into the cornfield, imagining serious harm to the Baker kids. He kneeled down. He had seen a corn plant simply disappear under the dirt, like a ship sinking down a whirlpool.
"Those darn Baker kids got a tunnel under there or somethin'!"
Lyle plowed the dirt with his fingers. Something knifed up from below and swiped at his left hand -- some kind of a paw, with brown fur and sharp claws. Lyle pulled his hand away and blood oozed out through three nasty scratches.
Lyle jumped to his feet and launched into one of the most colorful tirades of his long and distinguished career. When Lyle wound it up he could get it going like nobody else. This time, in his shock and confusion, he cursed everyone from the Pope to the Green Bay Packers. And then he took off running towards the tool shed.
In a few minutes he was back in the cornfield with a shovel and flashlight, his left hand wrapped in a greasy oil rag. He began to dig. The paw shot up again and scraped against the metal shovel with a loud screech.
"Scratch that, you little pecker!" shouted Lyle triumphantly as he pounded the dirt with the back of the shovel, trying to brain whatever was down there.
He shoveled some more, digging like a man possessed. Nobody was gonna steal Lyle Hefty's corn and get away with it, that was for darn sure.
When the hole was about two feet deep the dirt began to slip away, a little at first, and then faster, funneling down into the hole. Lyle felt the ground move too late and the hole let go completely. Lyle fell into the dark, letting go of the shovel and pin wheeling his arms as he went down.
It seemed to Lyle that he fell a long way, but it was only about six feet. He landed on his back and his teeth clamped shut so hard that he saw stars. A shower of loose dirt fell in after him, covering his face and filling up his nose. He sputtered and coughed and swore up a blue streak, but his tough old Norwegian backbone had survived the fall. He sat up.
Light from above shone down and Lyle found his flashlight in the dirt next to him. He hit it several times with his callused hands until the light came on. He shone it around and saw tunnels leading off in all four directions.
"Jeez! I don't think even the Baker kids could do all this!" Lyle stood up stiffly, stooped over and gingerly duck-walked into the tunnel on his left.
"Somebody's probably got a secret government project goin' on, right under old Lyle's cornfield. And they probably got a Halloween monster-hand or somethin,' to stick up above the dirt and scare old Lyle away. Well it ain't gonna work, don't ya know."
The tunnel was about four feet high and roots of corn plants twisted down from above like brown moss. There was a foul smell in the close air, a smell of black dirt, moldy plants, and an odor that Lyle couldn't quite place. It smelled like Sven in August, right after he had milked cows in the barn.
Lyle found some tracks on the floor of the tunnel. They were like dog prints but they came in twos instead of fours, and they were just a little bigger. Lyle gulped. Maybe there was something down here besides a Halloween monster-hand. He found his shovel in the dirt and wielded it like a weapon.
"I'll just brain the little pecker, I will," he muttered.
He made his way through a maze of tunnels and wondered if he was getting lost. "Jeez, that little pecker sure is a digger," he whispered.
Lyle's flashlight beam caught something moving up ahead. A streak of brown fur disappeared around a corner and left an object I the dirt. Lyle picked it up. It was a corn cob. A bare corn cob.
"That does it! I gotcha now, ya little moocher!" Lyle shouted as he charged around the corner, only to pull up short when he saw what was waiting for him. The creature stood upright, about four feet tall. It had thick, brown fur from its broad, flat feet, to the top of its neck. Its wrinkled face was human but was puckered like a sun-dried peach. Its head was completely bald and its eyes were shiny blue.
What really got Lyle's attention, though, was the creature's nose. It stuck out a good fifteen inches from its face, and frankly, Lyle thought it looked like something you'd buy in one of those kinky sex shops in Madison, the kind of thing you needed batteries for.
"Holy jeepers!" gasped Lyle, for by now it was apparent that this was a real, live version of one of thousands of trolls found in gift shops all over Wisconsin. Lyle tried to remember some of the Norwegian lore about trolls. There was something about good luck, Christmas pranks, stuff like that. There was nothing about digging tunnels and stealing corn. This must be a Swedish troll. Come to think of it, Sven was Swedish and this troll smelled a lot like Sven on a bad day.
The troll calmly gnawed on an ear of corn and gazed at Lyle with its glittering eyes. For a moment Lyle felt paralyzed, but when the troll threw down the finished corn cob and reached its hand up into the ceiling for another, it was too much for old Lyle to bear. He swung his shovel in an arc and struck the troll full on the side of its face. It shrieked and took off running. Lyle followed, feeling his blood rise. He raced through twists and turns, the troll just steps ahead. The tunnel angled downward until roots no longer grew from the ceiling. The air thickened and a pungent smell came from up ahead.
Lyle stumbled into an enormous cavern and dropped his flashlight, breaking it. That didn't matter by then because the cavern was lit by torches stuck in rock walls. It smelled of smoke and filth. Bare corncobs were piled high along the walls, and small mounds of feces lined the floor, pocked with undigested corn.
The troll Lyle had been chasing stood in the middle of the cavern, hands on its hips, grinning with razor teeth. Behind it were its friends and family. Most of them were bigger. One of them was much bigger.
Lyle tried to back away but they were on him in a second, gnawing and scratching. Lyle Hefty was pretty much ticked off for the last time.
* * *
The Packer game ended and Sven felt bad. Oh, the Packers had won all right. Sven had watched the fourth quarter on his Radio Shack 12" black-and-white, but his heart hadn't been in it. He had been friends with Lyle for fifteen years and it had been kind of rotten to smuggle that beer in, and, well, maybe he could go and apologize. Next week was the Bears game, after all. Sven eased his bulk off his K Mart couch, sighed, and headed out the door.
When he got to Lyle's farmhouse Sven knocked and let himself in, just like always. The TV set was still on but Lyle was nowhere to be found. Sven got a funny feeling in his stomach and went outside to look around. He walked to the edge of the cornfield and found Lyle's footprints in the soft, black dirt.
"Jeez...maybe Lyle had a heart attack in his field or something," he muttered.
He found the hole. He stood gaping down and saw tunnels branching off in four directions.
"Lyle, you down there? It's me, Sven!" he shouted, but his words were muffled by the heavy dirt.
Sven wandered over to Lyle's tool shed, scratching his head. He thought about just going home again but then he thought of the Bears game next week. He took one of Lyle's flashlights, and a ladder, and headed back into the cornfield.
Sven climbed down into the hole. He shone the flashlight around in amazement and wondered if maybe Lyle was involved in some kind of secret Norwegian underground.
Sven peered into the musty gloom and followed Lyle's footprints. He thought there was a rather pleasant smell down here but he couldn't place it.
He heard a sound. It came from deep below somewhere, a kind of rhythmic chanting. It got louder as Sven continued on. It sounded like voices - lots of rough, low voices. He came around the last turn and realized the voices were speaking Norwegian. Sven struggled to understand the words.
He stopped in his tracks when he saw the cavern. It was filled with large, furry creatures and a few smaller, skittering ones. They danced around and around, their shadows huge in the torch lights. In the middle of the room was a pile of splintered bones next to an old pair of overalls. If there was any doubt as to whom the overalls had belonged to, there was also a pair of Green Bay Packer boxer shorts, savagely ripped and tossed aside.
The creatures chanted and circled the pile of bones. By now, Sven had figured out what they were saying. Roughly translated, it was:
"Corn sucks! Corn sucks! Bring us farmers! Bring us farmers!"
Over and over they chanted in their horrible voices. Sven turned and ran back through the tunnel. He reached the entrance and scrambled up the ladder. He ran out of the cornfield, raced down Lyle's driveway, and never looked back.
* * *
Lyle Hefty was the first Wisconsin farmer to disappear that year. There were more, and when milk prices began to go up, the governor became involved. Some men in dark suits from Washington came out to Dane County and the disappearing stopped shortly after.
Wild rumors flew back and forth about what had really happened, mostly about secret societies of Swedish or Norwegian terrorists. The Weekly World News did a story about cannibal aliens in Wisconsin, but that seemed far-fetched. Then the Packers lost to the Bears for the second time that season and there was enough bad news to worry about, so the stories just dried up.
Sven spent the winter watching his black-and-white TV and didn't say much to anybody, not even his wife and kids. He sold the farm in February and moved his whole family to Alaska, where there isn't any corn at all, except in stores.
Sometimes at night Sven wakes up in a cold sweat. He has nightmares about living in Nebraska, where, like his late friend Lyle once said, "They got some corn, I tell ya!"