On Snowflake-veined Wings
by Chip Houser
Amalia runs her finger around the inside of her Tupperware, wiping up the last of her leftover poutine. Her fall allergies kicked in a few days ago, so she doesn’t really taste the gravy. But she’d rather finger-clean her Tupperware at her table than go wash it because Jerry and three of his sales team flunkies are clustered by the sink watching a video on his gigantic phone. From their crude commentary and the video’s crashing waves, then the gagging, she can guess what they’re watching. Why they’re silent for once, too. It’s a clip of a woman in the Côte d’Azur, slim and tan in her pink maillot, running in slow motion into the waves. The man who’s filming keeps calling out Sirène! Amalia watched the video earlier that morning; it was all over her feeds. The video is like a Viagra commercial, until the woman vomits an impossibly long stream of brightly colored fish into the surf.
When the woman throws up, Jerry’s flunkies unleash a range of expletives. They’re all staring at Jerry, who looks quite pleased with himself.
Amalia laughs, but they don’t notice. No surprise, they’ve never noticed her.
“Dude, you knew,” one of the flunkies says. “Why would you do that to us?”
Jerry chuckles and restarts the video from the beginning. He’s not interested in the ninety seconds that follow the woman’s vomiting, the miracle of the fish churning through the crests, leaping in rainbow arcs, or the woman following them out into the surf. The video ends with the man filming calling out to the woman long after she’s disappeared. Amalia watched that part a dozen times.
“Boys, that right there is perfection,” Jerry says. “I’d fly to France for you, Sirène.”
His flunkies giggle like horned-up adolescents.
He’s calling her a mermaid you asshole, Amalia thinks. She’s confused, alone, in pain—and all you can think about is fucking her?
The break room is quiet. Jerry and his team are looking at her, mouths open.
“Did I say that out loud?” she says, and then she sneezes unexpectedly. It’s a big one, and she doesn’t have time to cover her mouth or turn away. A surprising amount of mucus dislodges, spraying out across the table. Her head immediately feels clearer, which she hardly notices because her snot is chunky and full of maggots. Tiny, squirming maggots no bigger than grains of rice.
The sales team recoils as one, dumbstruck or horrified. Except for Jerry, who steps toward her, phone raised.
Bending close, Amalia sees they’re not maggots, they’re … fairies? Little jellybean-colored people with wings wrapped around their tiny bodies. Beautiful, delicate things struggling in the slush-like snot.
“She’s got some kind of enhanced allergies,” Jerry says. He’s taking a video, moving closer.
“Get away!” Amalia yells, shielding the fairies with her arm as best she can. She hooks her Tupperware under the edge of the table and sweeps them in, leaving glistening arcs across the tabletop. The fairies smell faintly of mint.
Jerry is almost on top of her. “Would you look at that! Like tiny Tinkerbells!”
Amalia pushes his phone away—“Fuck off, Jerry.”—and flees the break room.
The last thing she hears is Jerry saying, “We’re going viral, boys!”
• • •
Amalia sits in her Prius, staring at her fairies. No one followed her to her car, so she feels safe for the moment. There are fifteen of them, each small and perfect and unique. One with soft lavender skin is curled next to a coral-colored one, a silver-hued one hugs an indigo one, and so on. They all have white hair and translucent, white-veined wings. They are stunning to look at, but Amalia is devastated, because by the time she reached her car, every last one was dead.
She’s not sure how long she’s been crying, a few minutes maybe, but she’s already congested again. Her forehead and cheeks radiate cold. She’s afraid to blow her nose, terrified she’ll sneeze again.
Why did they die, she asks herself over and over. What did I do wrong?
From all the other stories, she knows her fairies aren’t a one-time thing, they’ll keep coming. She also knows it’s only a matter of time until public health, or more likely the media, comes after her, and she’ll be harassed just like that woman in the pink suit. No wonder she walked into the ocean. That woman is lucky, she could swim after her fish. Amalia couldn’t fly away with her fairies, even if they were alive.
She’s touching the tiny, cold bodies, wondering what she should do, when a news van pulls up to the building. Jerry holds the front door open and waves them inside. That didn’t take long.
Amalia starts her car and drives slowly out of the office park. Her apartment is ten kilometers south of the office, they’ll look there first. She heads north on Highway 2 instead, keeping an eye on her rearview mirror until she’s sure she’s not being followed.
While she drives, she works on her plan. She thinks briefly about calling Mindy or Joycelyn, the two friends who helped her through her divorce a few years ago, but it seems unfair to drag them in. She feels like she still owes them from that fiasco, never mind what this could become. The media circus will find them sooner or later, and it’s better they not know.
Her sinuses feel like they’re packed with slush again; she has a constant ice cream headache. She pulls over, feeling another sneeze coming on. Afterward, she watches the fairies struggle, their little arms reach for each other, their mucus-coated wings sliding loose. They’re making small sounds, so she brings them close to her ear. They’re singing. It’s a sad, soft little melody that only lasts a few seconds. She looks at them closely, and realizes they’ve stopped singing because they are dead. They lived fifteen, maybe twenty seconds.
Amalia carefully slides the little creatures from her hands into the Tupperware.
Why are they dying? She’s crying, sad of course but also frustrated. Why?
• • •
Back on the road, she has an idea, a destination. Summers during high school, her family spent a few weeks every summer in the woods near Yellowknife up in the Northwest Territories. Her parents were teachers and couldn’t afford big vacations, but someone they knew had a cabin there. It was a nice place, though there wasn’t much to do and not many people about. She took a lot of walks in the surrounding forests. She remembers finding all the winter gear in a separate little hut-like building—a snowmobile, chains and skis and poles, containers of petrol. She always thought the winters must be more fun, but she hasn’t been back since. Her parents’ divorce soured the idea, and her ex always preferred the Caribbean.
She’s never headed north for the winter, and now that she is she wonders why she hasn’t thought to before. The cold sounds nice, and the quiet. Funny how the quiet, which was so boring as a teenager, appeals to her now. A sort of sanctuary. She looks forward to walking alone on the soft pine floor of the boreal forest and figuring out what to do before whoever comes looking can find her.
Every time she needs to sneeze, Amalia pulls over. She tries everything she can think of to help the fairies live—blowing her nose gently rather than sneezing, turning the vents on them, holding them in the air so flying might be easier, singing with them—but no matter what she does, they always die after fifteen or twenty seconds. She knows they’re gone when their faint melodic trilling stops, when their wings and limbs go slack and their tiny hands curl to rest.
Heartbroken, she adds each group of fairies to the Tupperware, which she’s cradled in an old towel on the passenger’s seat. After she sneezes out the latest group and lays them to rest, she notices the fairies smell like brine. It’s so morbid, like a miniature mass grave, but it’s better than dumping them in a trash can or leaving them wadded up in tissue.
She turns on CBC to pass the time. They’re playing an interview with a Texan who’s had enhanced allergies for several months. He calls himself the Manthill.
“At first, I just tried to keep the ants off me, you know?” the man is saying. “But I got pretty sick from the powders and sprays and whatnot. For a while I slept in a tent behind my house, out of consideration for the wife. She’s kinda used to it now.”
“I’m not sure I’d ever get used to that,” the reporter said. “Now you spend your days down at the Alamo, is that right?”
“I do. Can’t really be on the job—I’m a mechanical contractor, ductwork mostly—with these little guys hanging around. Some kinda OSHA thing. I’m lucky ‘cause Duluth Trading made a special ad campaign for their Buck Naked underwear. ‘Ants in the Pants’ they’re calling it.”
“God Bless America,” Amalia says. “Always so literal.”
The reporter asks the man about the ants.
“We got a good symbiosis going now—that’s what the entomologist fella calls it. All they want is a patch a dirt to build their little mounds. Mostly I hang around, talk to the tourists, hand out underwear samples and such. Lots of pics with folks, too.”
“Sounds like you should charge admission.”
“Thought about that, but where would I put the money? I don’t want anything else in my underwear, if you know what I mean.”
Feeling a sneeze coming on, Amalia pulls over. This batch survives for thirty seconds. When they’re gone, she’s left with nothing but the Manthill’s hearty laughter. She snaps the radio off and puts her head in her hands. Her fingertips feel warm against her forehead, her skin now frosted with rime. When she pulls back onto the highway, she leaves the windows down. It’s getting colder, somewhere around freezing, and it feels good.
• • •
Amalia stops on the far side of Edmonton for gas and a restroom break. At the next pump, a bearded guy in flannel is filling up his idling Grand Am.
As she puts the nozzle back in the cradle, the gas smell triggers an unexpected sneeze.
“Gesundheit,” the Grand Am guy says.
“Sorry, that was gross.” She caught most of the fairies in her cupped hand.
“Getting colder, innit?”
“Yeah it is.” She gets back in her car, the dying fairies cradled in her hands. The fairies live over a minute this time. The precious sorrow of their tiny bodies moving against her skin is heartbreaking. She tries not to look at the accumulating bodies as she places these carefully in the Tupperware.
Inside the station, Jerry’s video is on the flat screen by the soda fountain. She slows to watch, horrified at how blue her face is. Why didn’t anyone say anything at the office? She knows why, because they don’t really see her, even though she interacts regularly with all the departments, collaborating with them on new campaigns. As she runs from the break room, one of Jerry’s flunkies yells, “Is that Amalia from marketing?” Another screams “Snot fairies!” The woman behind the counter laughs. Amalia doesn’t remember hearing them at the time and suspects they added those clips.
A vision of sincerity, the newscaster appeals to the viewers, asking for their help locating Amalia. “If you see the Fairy Queen, please contact the authorities. We all just want to help her keep the little angels alive.” The photo is from last year’s holiday party, which is good. Her hair was green then; she’s gone aubergine since.
Amalia uses the restroom quickly, picks up a pop, and leaves. It’s getting colder fast now that it’s dark. She can see her breath. She’s almost to her car when she sneezes again. This time, she catches them in the crook of her arm.
It’s the cold, she realizes as she wrestles the card door open. They need the cold.
Then the Grand Am guy is there, tapping on her window, taking video with his phone. His voice is muffled, but he’s excited, talking loudly. “Damn, it is! You’re the Fairy Queen!”
She turns away. She watches the frost-white veins in the fairies’ wings, delicate patterns like snowflakes, as they thaw into translucence. “Live,” she says, “please live.” They do, for a full two minutes.
Grand Am is still filming as she drives off. She lowers all the windows and heads north, deeper into the cold.
• • •
Around midnight, Joycelyn calls. A few minutes later, it’s Mindy. Amalia sends them both to voicemail. Their messages sound a little confused, a little hurt, and a little forced. They mean well, but Amalia’s glad she didn’t call them. In her message, Joycelyn refers to the fairies as “little angels.” She learned a lot from both Mindy and Joycelyn about independence after her divorce from Clint, about when she could rely on them and when she needed to deal with something on her own. She’d be the good friend now and not get them involved. And, if she’s being honest with herself, it didn’t help that they both referred to the Fairy Queen thing. Why does everyone with enhanced allergies have a stupid nickname? Sirène, Manthill, Fairy Queen … does everything have to be reduced to a fucking soundbyte?
• • •
At four the next morning, Amalia pulls into a rundown roadside motel in Providence. She needs to sleep, if only for a few hours. The gravel parking area is empty, but a curl of smoke rises from the rental office’s chimney.
Inside, a woman with white braids resting on her quilted vest sits by the fireplace. She looks up from a worn paperback.
“What can I do you for?”
“Can I get a room?”
The woman looks at the clock. “We do by the day or the hour.”
“I’ll probably only sleep a few hours,” Amalia says.
“We’ll settle up when you check out then.”
The woman slides a big wooden six across the counter, a small brass key hooked to it. “The room’s cold now but it heats up good. Turn the dial on the baseboard all the way to the right.”
Amalia takes the key. The woman’s glance lingers on her hand, which is distinctly blue. Amalia shoves her hand and the key into her pocket. “Thank you.”
Her room is across the parking lot. She barely gets inside before she collapses on the bed, not bothering to turn on the heat or take her coat off. She’s exhausted, her sinuses are packed full, her head is throbbing, but she’s asleep immediately, the pillow wonderfully cold against her cheek.
• • •
Amalia wakes to banging at her door. She’s so congested it feels like whoever’s there is punching her sinuses. She pulls back the edge of the curtain. It’s bright outside, it must be around noon. A white van with a big dish on top is parked in front of the office. A gloved hand raps on the window, and she flinches back. A man steps into view, his camera shutter fluttering.
She whips the curtain shut. She runs to the kitchenette and unlocks the small window above the sink, but it’s stuck. The man is pounding on the door again, saying they just want to talk.
Amalia climbs onto the counter and tries to pull the window open. It doesn’t budge. She stands up, back against the window, and tries to keep time with the man’s pounding when she drives her heel into the frame. It’s a cheap window; three kicks and the entire window pops out onto the soft snow outside. The glass isn’t even broken.
The air is gasp-cold, dry and crisp. She imagines the smell of pine must be delicious. She wiggles through the opening, grabs the Tupperware off the counter, and flees into the quiet forest.
• • •
Amalia runs until she can’t anymore. She listens, bent over, the only sound her ragged breath. Pushing aside boughs, she crawls under the canopy of a blue spruce and sits on the soft blanket of needles, her back against the craggy trunk. Her fingers sting from the cold as she scoops a shallow hole and nestles the Tupperware in the needles. She removes the lid, hoping the cold might somehow revive them. Anything’s possible, she’s sneezing fairies for God’s sake. Maybe it’s cold enough here and the next fairies will live.
Her face and hands are stiff with cold, her head so congested it hurts to move her eyes. She peels off her coat and huddles against the trunk, breathing in the bitterly cold air. It’s well below zero now. She won’t last an hour like this, and yet she’s excited. It feels right to be here in the forest. Alone in this dry, safe, cold place. Her head aches, and she feels the painful expansion of ice inside her sinuses.
With the first sneeze, she ejects a pea-sized ice plug from each nostril. The second sneeze rockets streams of bluish slush onto the needles, as do the third and fourth. When she’s done sneezing her headache is gone, and the needles teem with movement.
Amalia wipes her nose carefully, in case of lingering fairies. They are such tiny, delicate things. And they’re alive! She watches in wonder as they unfold their wings, stretch them out. Hummingbird-fast, they shed their icy glaze in scintillating clouds. They rise by the dozens on snowflake-veined wings.
The fairies don’t fly away, though, they flit over to the Tupperware. She leans close, tears freezing in growing rivulets on her cheeks. Each fairy sings its small song, hovering above one of the dead fairies. They then dip quickly and touch the frozen fairy, Amalia thinks it looks like a kiss, and fly off. Soon, the Tupperware is teeming with fairies shaking their wings out and taking to the air after their kin. Through her tears, they look like tiny stars glimmering upward.
“Please,” she says, reaching out with stiff blue hands. “Please,” she says as their wings shiver and they lift into the air. “Take me with you.”
None of them listen, they don’t even seem to notice her. And then they’re gone.
Copyright © 2022 by Chip Houser