The Swindler and the Sprites

Digital drawing. A sprite, a humanoid person with butterfly wings and pointed ears, seen from waist up with arms crossed, turned to the left, wings partly extended to the right, facing forward, and smirking. Swirling above the sprite’s head are the faint glowing forms of five pairs of butterfly wings.

Have you ever seen a swarm of sprites, in a murderous rage, who were just released from a servitude into which they were tricked?

If your answer is “no,” and especially if you then crinkled your brow in mild and concerned disapproval, then I imagine you’re one of the wise ones, at least when it comes to encounters with fairy folk.

My answer is “yes.”  But it’s not what you think.

I’m not the reckless fool who tricked them.

Nor am I reckless fool who freed them.

I just happened to be around when it all happened.

And I just have to tell someone.  It’s in my nature.  The story is almost as good as the time I caught the baker backing out of the tailor’s house in nothing but his underclothes, just before dawn.  (I don’t know what he was baking in there, but the tailor’s husband didn’t seem to like the taste of it, if you get my meaning.) 

Speaking of baking…

Even I must eat.  And so must you, I imagine.  Yet not all are inclined to toil in a kitchen, to learn the art and skill of toasting, searing, roasting, broiling, baking, and making that which most of us need to sustain both our bodies and our spirits…food.

So it will come as no surprise to you that when some device is invented that can making the making of food a quicker task, an easier task, perhaps even a more magical task, that device will arouse broad curiosity and eager interest.

I was certainly intrigued when I first heard of the “five-minute oven.”  And at the same time, I was suspicious, as you likely would have been as well.  But wise and wary as you may be, perhaps you too would have fallen under the spell of the confident man waving his velvet-gloved hand, if you had been standing before him, if you had seen the fantastic oven for yourself.

Perhaps you too would have been fooled.

I certainly was.  I admit it!

The only reason I didn’t buy one myself is that I don’t need any help in that arena.  I’ve been told that I’m quite skilled in the kitchen—by those who’ve eaten the fruits of my toils.  (I would never make such a boast all on my own.)

But then again, I wasn’t really fooled, not really.

For the magic was genuine.

The story is not old, but it has already been forgotten.  If it is told at all, it tells of a man who used sleight of hand to slide steaming hot pies into his oven, where he had just placed a bowl of eggs, flour, sugar, berries, and butter. 

In went a tender loin, with freshly plucked herbs, and a sprinkling of course salt.  Out came a steaming juicy loin, seared and seasoned.  Pair it with a pile of potatoes and applesauce and…dinner was served.

Some dishes were done almost immediately.  A few took five minutes—no more!

No skill or effort was required save that of gathering the desired and required elements.  This was used to convince onlookers that the device was not some illusion, but a dazzling new tool for those who had no skill and yet longed to eat well, and tastily. 

I will tell you how he did it.  There is no need for me to be coy with a fellow food-lover.

It was magic, after all.

The magic of the sprites.

Oh, you’ve tried to hide it, my friend, but did I just glimpse a skeptical smile?

Sprites don’t know how to cook, you say. 

Before I lose you, let me assure you that some sprites do.  And they learned it from you.  Well, not you personally (unless there’s something you’d like to tell me).  I mean, they learned it from humans.  (My apologies, if you’re not human.  You appear to be so from this distance.) 

For them, the task is not difficult.  They can move at such incredible speeds that the chopping of vegetables is the matter of an eye-blink.  And they have such facility with fire that they can speed the cooking of a dish without fear of burning.  Their hands are so small that even when moving quickly, they can measure and season grain by grain.  So their dishes are never over-salted.  And their bakes are never over-sugared. 

Their senses are more sensitive.  Nothing spoiled or moldy or rotten would ever be served by a sprite. 

If ever they decided to be cooks, and to open their own eateries, the sprites would put all human cooks out of business.  All of them, I say.

So in that way, it is perhaps fortunate—for humans at least—that most sprites have only the lightest of interest in the cooking and eating of food.

It is for this reason that the young man with the empty pockets and the quick mind did not know what he found when he came across five little figures, no bigger than mice, scrambling over the body of an old man in an ugly sweater.


He should not have seen them.  They were off to the side of the road, hidden by the lush evergreen shrubbery that lined the borders.  But the young man himself was trying not to be seen.  He had just left a town where he’d been selling bottles of “spinal oil.”  Some concoction meant to be applied to the center of one’s back to relieve the aches, pains, and sprains of age and injury. 

It would seem the “spinal oil” did not work, and enough complaints had been lodged against the enterprising young “doctor” to encourage a hasty departure toward his next venture.

Before he left, a warrant had been issued for his arrest for the crimes of “selling false hope” and “claims in favor of a fraudulent invention.”

Had they known he was not a doctor and that he had himself mixed the vat of fraudulent oil, they would have added several more lines to the warrant.

The young man heard the quiet but certain rustling made by the five small figures, and he spied them trying to feed the fallen old man.  They spoke to each other in a language he did not understand.

But then he watched them do something he most definitely did understand.

One of the people wielded a cup full of what appeared to be flour.  Another held up a small basket of blackberries.  A third uncapped a bottle of milk.  A fourth unrolled a paper bag full of sparkling white granules that must have been sugar.  And the fifth held aloft a large disc of yellow butter. 

The five stood in a circle, spoke a short chant, threw their respective ingredients into the center of their circle, and then a tiny whirlwind appeared for a count of no more than six or seven.  And as the young man stood frozen and watching from behind bushes, he caught the warm scent of a blackberry pie. 

And there, in the center of the five tiny sparrow-sized people was a pie with a perfectly browned crust and fancifully fluted edges, and tiny slashes in the crust to let out the steam, through which could be seen a dark purple filling.

You see, the old man had fallen dead on the way back from purchasing a few supplies for the making of pies.  He had felt his death coming perhaps, for he stopped and left the road, and made for a tree against which he might sit and rest for moment to catch his breath.  But that moment never came.

He never reached the tree. 

Flour spilled upon the dirt and twigs.  An egg had fallen from the egg sack.  It was cracked and oozing. 

The little people cut a precise slice, seeming unfazed by the heat, and two of them walked it over to the old man’s mouth and nose.  They seemed to be trying to rouse him with the pie.

The young man was betrayed by his stomach, which at that moment announced its desire for a slice of that pie.  And in doing so, announced the presence of its owner.

Five little pairs of eyes turned toward him.  The young man held up his hands and rose.  Five gazes followed him as he moved toward them. 

“I’m sorry, fellow travelers,” he said, looking down at the old man, who had not stirred or taken a single breath in all the time he’d been watching.  “But I’m afraid your friend is dead.”

He caught no surprise in their little faces.

“You knew?” he said.  “Then why are you trying to rouse him?”

He could not understand their speech.  But they certainly understood his.  And knowing they could not explain, they gestured instead.  One of them pointed to the old man, then pointed to his own chest, crossed his arms in front of himself and gripped his tunic with his hands, then lifted.

The young man glanced at the old man.  “You want me to remove his coat?”

The little man shook his head and repeated his prior gesture.

The young man then knelt and pointed to the article of clothing that lay under the coat.  “The sweater?  You want me to remove his sweater?”

The little man burst into a smile and nodded.  And the other four nodded as well.

“I’ve done questionable deeds in the past, my friends,” the young man said.  “But I have never undressed anybody without their express permission.”  He winked at the little man, who only stared back, no longer smiling.

“I know he’s dead, but surely his remains deserve a modicum of respect,” the young man continued, peering at the sweater, wondering about its import to these little folk.

Tiny coins of light flickered upon the sweater from the sunlight that beamed through the forest canopy.  In that light, the young man caught a shadowy gleam.  The unmistakable gleam of magic.

Now he understood why the little folk wanted the sweater.  And they needed for him to remove it for the task would be too taxing for them.  But the young man paused.  He had seen these little folk lift sacks of flour and full quarts of milk in heavy glass bottles. 

It was not his strength they needed. 

He removed the old man’s coat, performing further checks to assure that the man had indeed passed from this life.

Underneath, he saw even more clearly that the sweater was imbued with enchantment.  And that it was quite hideous.  The colors were pale.  He caught hints of hues, violet, green, blue, and orange, but all were faded, as if bleached by the sun, or grayed by time.  Yet the threads were whole and mostly un-frayed.

He lay his hand upon it and when he did, one of the little folk spoke.  And this time, the young man understood his speech.

“Remove it, and destroy it,” the little man said.  “Do that, and we’ll be in your debt, stranger.”

“It is dangerous,” one of the others said, a little woman.  “It is what killed our friend.”

The young man’s eyes gleamed, as if reflecting the gleam of sweater’s magic.  “Is it, indeed?” he asked.


It will come as no surprise to you that the young man did not destroy the sweater.

He pulled it off the dead man’s chest, walked some distance away, and before the little folk could protest, he swept off his own coat and pulled the sweater over his shoulders. 

He gasped as if he had just jumped into a lake of cold water in naught but his own skin.

The little folk watched as the young man’s eyes first grew wide with worry, and then shifted to and fro with scheming.

For the sweater told him its story when he donned it. 

A story both grotesque and fantastic.


The old man had been an enchanter.  And he had a particular curiosity about the magic of a particular kind of fairy, the sprites.  He spent his whole life collecting a very particular kind of enchanted artifact: strands of hair from the heads of sprites. 

Unlike human hair, the hair of most fairies will vanish into the ether as soon as it falls or is plucked away from the head.

But this enchanter found some way to hold the hairs still.  And he collected so many that he soon had enough to spin threads, and from those threads, to weave a sweater.

“How morbid,” the young man remarked.  “No wonder it’s hideous.”

Whatever the enchanter had done to the sprite hairs made them invisible and intangible to the sprites.  And it gave the enchanter the power to bind the sprites to his will.

At the very least, it had bound these five particular sprites.  And it bound them still.  And the mark of that binding was the absence of their wings.  It was no wonder that the young man did not recognize them for who and what they were when first he saw them.

“You will help me, my friends,” the young man said.  “Then I will destroy the sweater for you.  I must first amass a fortune, one sufficient to satisfy my desires for the natural course of my life—assuming I live as long as your…”  He glanced down at the dead man.  “…warden?”

“We will help you amass this fortune, stranger,” the little man, the little wingless sprite, said.  “We will help you after you destroy the sweater, for we will be indebted to you.”

But now that the young man knew he was speaking to sprites, he knew he could no more trust the steadiness of their word as he could trust the steadiness of a chair with two legs, for their wills were whimsical.

He intended to destroy the sweater, for magic too was whimsical.  But hope had sparked within his mind.  He would make those riches quickly, then he would use the magic of the sweater itself to bind the sprites from revenge.  Only then would he destroy the sweater.

No longer would he have need to skulk beside the roads between towns, glancing behind for signs of law-keepers.


The young man tried, of course, to compel the sprites to cast every type of enchantment that they were rumored to know. 

But they refused.

He soon learned that he could only compel them to make food.  It was the first command that the enchanter had given them upon binding them with the sprite-hair sweater.  He did it as a test.  But the sprites quickly threw up their own defenses before he could stop them.  The only other command he managed to secure was the one that kept them from escaping.  The one that kept them visible.  The one that bound their wings.

So the young charlatan could command them to cook.

Nothing more.

So came into being the five-minute oven. 

The young man “invented” the oven by purchasing five cheap metal safes and affixing various needless levers and wheels upon it.

Within each, he built hollow walls in which the sprites could hide.

He performed his first demonstration to passersby who were lured by the aroma of the cherry pies that he had set upon the table.  One of them was an innkeeper, who noted that the invention would be a great boon to those like him who had to serve many patrons in the course of a day.

But the young man, knowing the oven’s secret, would not sell to the innkeeper.  He explained that his invention was new and delicate.  It would only work for a household of one family, perhaps two, for many years. 

“When I refine the design,” he assured the innkeeper, “the first one I build will be sent straight to you, sir.”

“Alas, I have only five machines left,” he said to the small crowds that gathered.  “They are taxing to build.  But if you can meet my price, I will put your name on my list.  Give me only half for materials, and I will collect the half for my labors once I deliver you your oven.”

He would sell the five ovens, and send one of the five fairies to each machine.  Having already been warned that their brand new oven would need some time to adjust, and would be somewhat slower in the beginning, the customers were unfazed when their ovens took slightly longer than five minutes, with only one sprite within, chopping, stirring, sprinkling, flipping, basting, and browning.

In the days that followed, he would collect payment from those who sought to reserve the next batch of ovens he built, after learning from their neighbors how well the five sold ovens were performing.

When the reservations tapered off, the young man left that town, taking the sprites with him, and traveled to another, a sufficient distance away that news of his failing ovens would not reach his new customers in time.

It still was a daring swindle.

And a profitable one.

The young charlatan was well on his way to completing his fortune.

Perhaps he might have even succeeded.

But as misfortune would have it, he entered a town where he encountered a most unusual pair of potential marks—or rather, customers.

Well, he did not know they were a pair at first.


Fairies don’t often befriend humans.  But it has been known to happen.

And it had happened in this town.

And it so happened that the fairy in question was a sprite.

He had blue-black butterfly wings, bordered in bright yellow.  But he rode upon the shoulder of the black-coated woman whose fingers glittered with stacks of copper rings.  The two were friends.

“It’s a swindle,” he whispered in her ear.  “I see five fairies in the walls of the oven.  My kind. They’re the cooks.  And only five ovens to sell.  A story is spooling in my mind.”

The woman smirked.  “Will you fly to them and ask what their share of the profit is for the trick?”

“And maybe ask for a slice, our price for not revealing the ruse?”

The woman chuckled as she felt the tiny weight lift from her shoulder.  Her friend had made himself invisible to her kind.  She wondered why the sprites in the oven were hiding in the walls instead of doing the same.  Perhaps the effort of cooking required too much of their concentration.

She felt the flutter of wings, but saw nothing, as the tiny weight returned to her shoulder.

“My friend, we are wanted for the righting of a wrong,” the sprite said. 

The woman startled, for her friend, whose voice was light and merry, always on the verge of song, had spoken his last words in a voice that was hard and heavy.

He told her what he had learned from his five fellow sprites.

The woman’s gaze grew as hard and heavy as the sprite’s voice, as she glared at the young man, who smiled and waved his velvet-gloved hands before his oven, and flared his coat, revealing just a flash of dingy thread from an ugly sweater spun from the captured hair of sprites.

Their plan was a simple one, for they had surprise on their side.

The woman worked her way to the front of the crowd, and asked if she might inspect the inside of the oven.  When the young man made his practiced excuses for why he could not allow anyone to tamper with the ovens until they were purchased, she held up a sack heavy with coins.

The sack was an illusion, created by her friend, the black-winged sprite.

Alas for her, the enchanted sweater gave the young man the power to see through the illusion.

And then he saw the sprite standing upon her shoulder, hidden at first by her hair. 

The young man pointed to the woman.  “Thief!”

The woman pointed to the young man.  “Charlatan!”

The woman surged forward.  She reached for the hem of the sweater and managed to grasp it.

“Murder!” the young man cried.

But the confused crowd only murmured and watched.

The black-winged sprite winged toward the oven.  He flung open the door and called out the five sprites within.

The five, being bound, had not the power to make themselves invisible.

As soon as the crowd saw them coming out of the oven, the murmuring swelled.

The black-winged sprite made himself visible. 

The crowd gasped.  They may have been confused by the five little folks, and only beginning to think upon the woman’s accusation of charlatanry.  But they recognized the little winged sprite as a sprite. 

Two others seized the young man.

“No!” he cried.  “Wait!”

The woman kept her grip on the sweater’s hem, and worked free a single thread.  She pulled upon the thread, and pulled, and pulled.

The threads entwined with the one she pulled came loose, unraveled, and their edges began to fade from sight.

Seeing this, she gave a final yank.

All the threads came loose, and all vanished.

“The sweater is sundered!” the woman cried. 

She looked over at the oven, where the five sprites flicked open their newly unbound wings, bright orange and brilliant blue, vivid violet and glowing green, and one pair a rich and blazing red.

They took to the air and darted straight toward the young man.  The two people who had held him still until the law-keeper arrived now released him.  They and the woman backed away from the young man as a swarm of angry sprites descended upon him.


Isn’t it dreadful?  I know he deserved some comeuppance for what he did, but I am compelled by a small measure of pity for the young man—it’s why I didn’t tell you his name.

What did the sprites do to him, you ask.

Come now, my friend, we may have tough skins and strong stomachs, but we also have gentle natures, do we not?

We must not speak of such things, stinging spells, and endless itching, and…oh, it’s enough to make you shudder.  And after all, I’m sure the sprites lost interest…eventually. 

Copyright © 2023  Nila L. Patel

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