Bourbon Penn 7

Your Fairy is Serenity Elfsong

by Samantha Henderson

Your Fairy is Serenity Elfsong.
She brings good luck.
She lives in the forest at the edge of the city.
She only becomes visible during the first snow of the year.
She wears sky-blue and has green butterfly wings.

"You're a fucking idiot, you know that?" The fairy flicks her cigarette butt, sucked so short the embers must be burning her fingers, against the grimy concrete of the building where she leans. It throws off a last brave spark and falls into the slush, making a black smear.

I ignore her, pulling the denim jacket tighter over my shoulders and walking faster. The icy water seeps into my sneakers. It's been snowing since dawn, the first snow of the year, and grey clots fall from the grey ash sky. No one else is stupid enough to be on the streets, not without boots and winter coats. The last thing I want to do is to talk to a fairy.

I reach the next street corner and of course she's there again, the smug bitch. She's wearing an oversized black leather jacket, hung all over with chains and zippers like she's some kind of punk rocker wannabe, and a spandex, pale blue tee underneath so tight I can see her ribs. She's got black leggings and ankle-high combat boots. Her wings, aphid-color, droop from under the jacket, tattered and useless in the damp. Her face is pretty in a sharp, hateful way and her fingers are long and stained nicotine-yellow.

My feet feel frozen solid by now. It hurts to walk. The cold and wet are penetrating my thin jacket, and I can't stop shivering.

She pushes away from the wall and walks backwards in front of me. Her breath smells like tobacco and some kind of flower from I-don't-know-where, some meadow or forest or garden where these freaking fairies come from in the first place. I don't know why they want to come here and I don't know why they bother me. She taps at my chest, furiously.

"Why would you leave a roof and a warm house in this kind of weather?" she buzzes at me. "All the cribs are filled long since, and no one cares about a raw girl like you."

I snort at her. I'd rather not talk back, because no one else can see her and it looks like I'm a crazy. But then I think, no one cares if I'm crazy.

"I don't care," I say, finally. "I'm not letting him touch me again."

She turns her head, pursing her lips. They don't understand, the fairies. About sex. Not really, not what it means between people. Humans, I mean. They don't think of their bodies the same way we do; they do it with friends, with strangers who think they're human — casually, like it's a hobby. Or maybe an exercise like yoga. I've recognized some of them among the girls and boys who are doing it for rent and drug money. They don't have that whipcord core of fear the human streetwalkers do, because very little can hurt them.

And fairies aren't born, so they don't have parents. Families. Good families. Poison families. People that claim your body and soul, and tangle you womb to tomb with love, be grateful, be loyal, stay out of that cupboard and never, ever tell.

She eyes the grey sky, the grey air, the snow turning to grey slush underfoot. Soon what snowfall there is will be gone, and I won't be able to see her anymore.

"Look," she says. "If you stay out here, you're going to have to hook up, and there's two guys that run skinny little girls like you. The first one's Rudd. He won't let anyone beat you up and you can keep some of your money. Then there's Conner. Some girls are OK with Conner, but you…." She narrows her eyes at me. "You won't last until spring."

After a minute I nod at her, which she probably doesn't see because she's almost gone, just a trace of color against the grey brick and there, finally, nothing. I can't stand here for long, looking at nothing.

You'd think being able to see fairies would do me a bit of good. You'd be wrong.

I blow my nose on my sleeve, pull the wet denim closer around my shoulders, and move on.

Your Fairy is Hazel Heartfrost.
She plays the violin.
She lives in places where bad magic grows.
She can only be seen when the full moon rises.
She wears crow feathers and her wings are deep green.

The shit I got from Raoul's boy is just melting when I hear a string whine and I grin, not looking up. Shoot up here long enough and Hazel's happy to play for you, but I think I'm the only one who knows what she is. I sit in the burned-out VW like a chick in a half-broken egg and hold the lighter under the foil until the mixture boils. The moonlight glitters on the broken glass: car windows, beer bottles, the old syringes all crushed underfoot into glass gravel. It's like snow's come early.

There's a clatter of beer cans in the overgrown hedge at the curb and I huddle in an unzipped sleeping bag and wait. They'll probably leave me alone, as long as they don't know I've got crystal.

Hazel's a black mass sitting on a pile of broken concrete between me and the street. Her feathers bristle as she tunes the violin, her bow makes e and a whimper beneath the horsehair. The moon quickens iridescent green across her shoulders.

"Sing me to sleep, Hazel," I say, and I think she nods. Tonight I'll go down into myself, as far as her song can follow and beyond. Maybe I'll climb out again, to sunlight and ashes, and maybe tonight I won't, and finally I'll stay in the dark warm nucleus where the goddamn fairies can't go, where fucking Rudd can't go.

As long as I can remember I've seen them, seen them seeing me, which makes it somehow worse, like a reflection trapped between two mirrors that goes on and on forever. Maybe as a baby, in a warm sweet milky forgotten time, I liked it and smiled at them. If your toddler sees fairies, really sees them, and it's not pretend, I swear to God, do them a favor. Give them a loaded gun to play with.

The needle's a centimeter into my arm and I'm about to push sweet when I hear the beer cans again, then a curse, then a heavy tread. No, two. I think push it in, push it in quick, and I do, just enough to feel the burn. Then my fingers falter and I pull steel out, cradle the hypo against my chest, hunch over in the sleeping bag: a lump, a pile of dirty clothes. But the steps — two sets of them, damn it — pause, then speed up, crunching across the glass and detritus, eager.

Voices. "What's up, girl? Whatcha hiding from Daddy?" And a high, cackling giggle. One's a guy, the other I can't tell. Doesn't matter.

I don't expect the kick that drives the breath from my body. I coil up like a caterpillar on hot coal and try not to break the hypo as a boot crashes into me in measured interludes and someone grabs my hair, wrenching my head back.

I see the bright moon, the feathered silhouette that's Hazel. Anyone else would take her for a crow, sitting on a ruined wall.

Her indifference makes me angry. I'll be damned if I let her sing for me anymore.

"Here." I force the hypo away from me, fighting my own body. It falls from between my fingers, and I can't stop from trying to clutch it back. It rolls across the asphalt, unbroken.

"Here, take it," I hear myself say. "Take it and leave me alone."

With a whoop, one of the figures pounces on it. The other still clutches my hair. I twist away, feeling a chunk tear out of my scalp, but the hard grip loosens and I bat it away. The figure pauses, torn between me and the glass glitter in his companion's hand.

Something thumps against my leg, outside the sleeping bag, and I start violently and see Hazel, standing a few feet away, fiddle and bow drooping in one hand. Her wings are spread behind her, the moon shining green through them, and she looks less like a butterfly than an enormous Luna moth. She's kicked something over to me; it's smooth and hard and somehow alive beneath my hand. Long and thick, unnaturally straight. A discarded baseball bat, the wood shattered down one side.

I grab it and twist out of the sleeping bag and half stagger, half fall away from the dark, faceless figures. Why can I see Hazel so clearly, and not them, since they are mortal, people, my own kind? The back of my head burns where skin and hair have come away and there's a deep blue ache in my bones where I long for the push of the drug and my very teeth hurt but I'm alive now, I want to stay alive for now, and I bash the bat into the ground hard once before I raise it to my shoulder, eyes on the figure in front of me. It's like I can take a piece of myself and push it into him, her, whatever and feel their want: they want to hurt me, they want to hit me until I'm still and crawl into the warm carcass, they want what the other one holds, they're angry at me for not having more, they wonder what that music was they heard a few minutes ago. They see the weapon in my hands, they calculate the angle between want and is it worth it and slide away, grabbing the other by the sleeve.

"Share," one growls, and I marvel at all I couldn't feel in the blood-warm tide of all that want. "Don't be a greedy fuck."

And they both look at me in a brief, clear, analytical moment, and I breath deep, feeling the cold grind of a cracked rib and know I'd be useless in a fight, and then their gazes shift sideways, to where I know they can't see Hazel with her feathers and fiddle, and they draw back. One slaps the other on the arm, and they are gone, and I hear a laughing "thanks, girlcrush!" from the street. And I sit hard, on my ass, the bat across my knees, and cough and taste blood in my mouth. Hazel tilts her bird-head, considering me.

"Whichever takes the drug will die," she observes, as if it's of little account. "I could see the poison in it."

Fuck, I think, believing her. Raoul's cutting his shit with Drano. Probably cutting, then cutting again for street crap like me.

I spit blood, sweet and salt. "Thanks for the heads-up, Hazel," I say. "Appreciate it."

"I've seen a lot of you die," she remarks. "You go inside where I can't follow you down. Though the other ones can't see me, even at the end."

I try a step, and another, lurching. The pain in my ribs flares and subsides. I use the bat like a cane.

"Are you curious?" I ask, although I should ignore her. "About what it's like for people when they die?"

"No," she says flatly. "Dying, yes. I can watch a dying girl again and again. But the death of a human is only interesting to other humans. A little cold, and then the darkness."

She turns and starts to tune her violin again. "You're not dying anymore right now, so you should go away. I'll fiddle you home, if you like."

"Fuck you, Hazel," I say, but nicely, because it's the closest I'll get to thanking a fairy. She smiles sweetly, and I hear the mellow yowl of the fiddle twist the air, fading behind me as I limp down the street, leaning on the bat as the sulfur-yellow streetlights drown the moon.

Your Fairy is Oak Rainbowsong.
He brings good news.
He lives in overgrown gardens and meadows.
He can only be seen when the harvest is over.
He wears clothes of many colors and has rainbow wings.

Years later, and I've kept the bat. Sometimes under the bed, sometimes behind the door. I've used it twice. Once, one of my roommate's sketchy girlfriends got the wrong room, and I almost brained her, her ghost-eyes looking at me wide in the dim. I almost asked her, do you see them? Behind me, over my shoulder? How long? Since you were a baby, since you tried to die? They like that, like flies to blood, like gnats to the wet of your eye. Doesn't matter if they're real.

The other one was someone who reminded me a lot of Conner, and I broke his shoulder. The police asked me if I wanted to press charges for breaking and entering, and I looked at the flimsy door of the flophouse — veneer and practically nothing else — and laughed and lit a cigarette. Then they asked him if he wanted to press charges for assault and he glared at me while they wrapped his arm, but he shook his head, so I laughed some more and offered him a drag. He shrugged and took it.

It's been a long time since I grabbed that bat, though it's stayed with me from flop to flop. I've got a nice place now, meaning I don't crunch through a litter of used needles on the way to the bus and only spot a few used condoms lying decorously in the gutter, blooming like old white roses. I'm working at the kind of restaurant where a middle manager takes his girlfriend — either at the beginning to impress her, or later on when he's taken her for granted too long and she's threatening to call his house and talk to whoever she might find there. I take any shift I can get.

I've found the balance between pretty and dowdy, unctuous and indifferent that gets me maximum possible tips. I never show my teeth when I smile. I only snort sometimes, late in the shift when I'm covering more than one section of tables and my feet burn and my back aches, and the place where my rib healed throbs like a second heartbeat. One of the busboys always has some powder in a twist for a twenty-spot, and if the tips have been good it's sometimes worth it.

But no more than once a night, and not even once a week, and not tonight, 'cause tonight I'm hurting. If I start tonight, I'll run, not walk down that path to Hazel and her violin. I grit my teeth and think of the hot bath waiting in my chipped tub, rust blooming under the enamel. Andre, dressed in white with his twists of white in his pocket cocks his head at me, inquiring, and I shake my head no and heft the tray of rocket salad and Prime Rib with horseradish high on my shoulder, where it's not as sore.

I shove into the dining room and serve Mr. Prime Rib Well Done with Extra Horseradish (man's tastebuds must be shot), and almost drop the tray on the floor, because fuck it. His date looked perfectly normal before but now she has wings that match her silver lamé dress, drooping to the floor on either side of her. She grins at me, triumphant, and her teeth look like they've been filed to points.

Oh, shit. Since I almost shot Drano, I've seen the fuckers twice or thrice, but always at a distance. Someone down the street, with a ghost of a wing and a wrongness about how they walk. Something shimmering in the heat, on top of a wall in the distance. So rare, so ephemeral I almost knew it was always my imagination.

I freeze, hearing the clink of plates and the occasional maldiciones from the kitchen, but it all seems to be coming from a distance. My thumb's in the salad.

I look around and I almost weep, because they're everywhere, sitting across from Mr. Filet Mignon with a Side of Rice instead of Potatoes, and Ms. Plain Broiled Chicken with Broccoli. At least half of them, at every table: couples, four tops — I swear they looked human a minute ago but now they're all torn formalwear and wings like crackled glass. At one table there's a stick-thin pair, holding hands over the table. The boney, barky fingers have grown together like unpruned rosebushes.

All of them stare at me, ignoring their human dates, who keep on eating and talking and laughing as if everything's normal. As if they haven't come for me, after all these years.

I close my eyes and think of Andre in the kitchen, in the steam beside the dishwasher, his pockets full of white-twist candy. In the darkness behind my lids I float free. My grip on the tray loosens and I can't feel the floor beneath my aching feet, and somewhere down a black spiral I hear the lick of a violin. I'm starting to rise, and if I float they'll have me.

They can't have me. My eyes snap open. If I was an inch off the floor before, I'm standing firm now, and I give Silverwings her plate of green. I twist the pepper we pretend is gourmet over her food, and give an extra twist looking down into her grin, just 'cause I feel like it.

Then it's grab the tray and return again and again to the window. I grit my teeth and serve them all, human and fairy. I decide that fairies hate pepper, and grind it on liberally until I can't stop sneezing, but nobody complains. The humans don't seem to notice that their dates only push their food around and never actually eat. I am solicitous and charming. I show my yellow teeth to the fairies. My tips are enormous, ridiculous. I know that in the morning it'll all be dry leaves, mixed with a few limp dollars.

At the end of my shift I think of waiting for the manager so I can quit to his face. He's in the pantry, getting blown by the hostess. I give up and hand over my fistful of tips to the confused busboys.

On my way home, I only see one of them. He's in the back of the bus, hanging onto the pole and staring at me like I'm the freak. I stare back until he lowers his eyes, not scared but bored. There's a ball of ache in the small of my back, my knees feel like shattered glass, my feet burn. They burn as I walk three blocks home, they burn up the front steps, they burn down the hallway that smells a little like yeast, a little like piss, to my apartment.

I unlock the door and hear a soft clatter, a sigh, and I take the bat from behind the door because I know someone's in the kitchen. The sharp edge where it's broken along the side snicks into the soft flesh under my thumb. I feel the slick of blood under my fingers but don't feel any pain.

I raise the bat. My stance is excellent as I sidle into the kitchen. He's turned on the florescent, and I blink as I cross the threshold: living room into kitchen. Dark into light. He's sitting at the table, in one of my mismatched chairs. He looks like a rainbow vomited: red and yellow and green and blue, like some asinine character from a kid's TV show. His wings wave aimlessly behind him, and the breeze he makes pushes a lock of hair into my eyes. There's a hissing sound from the kettle on the stove, muttering and swearing to itself like it's close to boiling. He has an empty teacup in front of him.

But they don't eat or drink. None of them at the restaurant ate a bite of Prime Rib or Chicken Kiev or even drank their wine, even though the plates and glasses were empty after, I swear. Why he's boiling water, I can't imagine.

He looks up at me with his big brown eyes, and there's a brown, crispy-looking leaf caught in the hair over his left ear, and I have to laugh, though I don't lower the bat. He just blinks, like I'm a small puzzle.

"What the hell are you doing here?" I say, biting down the laughter. "And that clusterfuck at work, what's that about? Did you all miss me? Did I get too normal?"

He tilts his head, looks at the cup like he wishes I would offer him the real stuff but they don't drink, they don't eat, they never. He sighs, and looks at me again. My shoulder's aching with holding the bat. It feels like an overloaded tray at work.

He spreads his fingers. I notice they're webbed. I don't care.

His voice sounds brown, resigned. I listen for the threat. "What you mend will rip again," he says. "What you patch will break."

I feel a trickle from the cut on my finger meander down my wrist.

"You push us down into the ground, but we sprout and crack the earth again. Always, for you, there will be a harvest."

He pauses like he's finished. Perhaps he is. Perhaps not. I don't wait to see. This harvest is over.

I step in. I swing my good bat down, even with the floor, level with his head. Even when the kettle finally boils, set free and screaming, I don't stop.

Samantha Henderson lives in Covina, California by way of England, South Africa, Illinois and Oregon. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit and Weird Tales as well as Bourbon Penn, and reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, Steampunk Revolutions and the Mammoth Book of Steampunk. She is the co-winner of the 2010 Rhysling Award for speculative poetry, and is the author of the Forgotten Realms novel Dawnbringer.