by Nicole M. Taylor
Rosalie’s mother used to have a routine for whenever Rosalie or one of her sisters informed her that another baby was soon on its way. She would sit down slowly, as though her ar-thritis pained her more than it actually did and lean her head on her hand. “Another mouth to feed,” she would sigh.
Rosalie would then tell her the name she had picked for her offspring, Ariel or Jamison or Sonya. Names that sounded like they belonged to kings or queens or even people who had never really lived at all except in fairy tales.
But now her mother was dead. And deep in the woods where the sunlight never seemed to reach with Alec unable to find work once again and this new stirring in her belly; when Rosalie looked at her seven children she had begun to see just huge, hungry mouths where their faces used to be. Someday Rosalie was sure they would eat up her and Alec and one another and the world entire. Who could want so much?
By the time her seventh baby (Ariel) was born, Rosalie had taken to her bed most hours of the day. When she rose (if she rose) it was late in the night, and she wandered through the little house in her flannel nightgown, stopping to stare out each window. Glorianne, at twelve, was the oldest of the girl-children and the only one with Rosalie’s yellow hair. She slept in a little room, a little bed with two of her sisters. She often heard her mother get up and the creak of her feet on the wooden floor.
“Mama,” she would say. It was like a cry.
The wind hissed and sputtered through the dark cracks of the house that Glorianne’s father had built in a hurry three springs past. Glorianne’s older brother Derek was fourteen and that was old enough to do the work of a man, raising barns and building other little houses about the town. He had told Glorianne that their house would not survive another winter. He had started putting away part of his pay for tools (Papa’s had all but rusted, lying out in the yard through a season of rain) to fix the roof up, at least. Glorianne picked sweet, wild cherries from deep in the forest where folks didn’t like to go and sold little buckets of them outside the mercantile. Together, they had raised almost thirty-seven dollars.
Sometimes Glorianne thought about the little glass canning jar filled up with change and crumpled paper notes, almost thirty-seven dollars worth, underneath Derek’s bed. Sometimes she thought about snaking her hand into that jar and taking some of it. Not all. Just what was her share. And then she would run out of the house before anyone’d ever even knew she had gone. It kept her up nights, sometimes.
“Mama,” she would say, standing in front of the window that didn’t have any glass in it. It did have, once, but Papa and Derek had gotten in a bad fight and Derek’s elbow had gone clear through it, shattered the whole pane. It was the only time Glorianne had ever seen her mother cry, crouched there on the floor with a bright scattering of glass all around her feet. She never could figure out if it was rough fighting that got her sad, or the loss of the window. They all knew, of course, that they would not have another one.
Rosalie would shake her head at her daughter and point out through the sightless window. In the winter, they had to stop up the empty space with butcher paper and boards. “The fairies are dancing tonight,” she’d say.
“Mama,” Glorianne would say again, sounding delicate and awfully weary, “there’s no fairies out there.”
Rosalie traced her name in the dust on the windowsill, “there’s fairies everywhere. My mother always said that. They like to be where people are, but you’ve got to be good to them, or else they can be dreadful cruel.” Every full moon night, as regular as clockwork, Rosalie would leave a loaf of fresh brown bread on the back door step for the fairies. It was just about the only thing she would cook these days, though they could scarce afford the flour. It galled Glorianne to see it in the morning, just a pile of crumbs and the rest vanished into the hungry mouths of wild animals.
Eventually, Rosalie would allow herself to be guided back to her bed, where Papa slept on obliviously. Glorianne would tuck her back in and pull the quilt up underneath her chin. “Thank you, baby,” Rosalie would say, and pat the girl’s hand. “I’m just so tired right now,” she would add, in apologetic tones. Glorianne nodded, Glorianne did not understand, but she had an idea that some things weren’t to be understood. Especially the things inside her mother’s head.
“I know, Mama,” she would say. And then she would leave her parents in the darkness and go back to her own bed, where she didn’t sleep and instead thought about a glass jar nearly half-full of change and paper money.
Everything changed three months before Glorianne’s thirteenth birthday, when she was boiling a pot of split pea soup for dinner. One of the ladies Derek had helped build a house for had given him a five pound sack of dried peas, for free, in addition to the money he got anyway. Glorianne had stretched it out, and she had been well-pleased with how long it had lasted. She’d dumped the last of it into the pea soup and that they could reheat for a few days at least. Even a big kettle of soup didn’t last long with nine bellies to fill.
It was very near to done, was bubbling away just fine and she was just about to call the rest of the children in when she watched as the whole pot overturned, dousing the fire and running in sooty gray streaks across the wood floor towards her feet. For the rest of her life, Glorianne would feel a hot sticker of guilt when she thought back on that day and how her first thought was for her belly, and how empty it was, and how she had counted on that soup so dear. It was several long seconds before she even registered the screaming of her seven year-old sister, Sonya, who had overturned the thing on her right arm. And when she went to the girl and comforted her, it was, at first, half-hearted and half-scolding.
But Sonya did not cry. The little girl was a weeper by nature, always fussing when she scraped a knee or someone brushed her hair too hard and now she just lay limp in Glorianne’s arms. That first sharp scream done with, she stared up at her sister silently and her whole body quaked and shivered.
In her head, Glorianne reeled through the names of people who would be able to help. Derek was helping Mr. Parrish harvest his west field. Papa was on another of his hunts for work, which were always mysterious and fruitless and days long. All the rest of the children were too young to be of use to her and they stood around her now in an urgent circle. “Jamie,” she snapped. The boy (who was just nine years old) looked up at her with dazed eyes. “Go run into town and find Miss Amy Pritchard.” Amy Pritchard had come out to the little cabin last winter, when baby Ariel was stuck inside Glorianne’s mama and she’d managed to save the both of them. She was not a doctor of course, she just helped out women in their time, but Glorianne couldn’t think of anything else to do. Jamie just stared up at her, uncomprehending. Glorianne snapped her fingers loudly. “What did I just say?”
“Go…go into town and find Miss Amy Pritchard,” Jamie answered, sounding small.
Glorianne nodded, “get to it.” In her arms, Sonya was a limp weight. Heat radiated off her burnt skin and seeped in through the cloth of Glorianne’s dress. “Hey,” Glorianne said, jostling the girl, “hey, baby.” Her body moved with the motion of Glorianne’s and she stared up at the ceiling sightlessly.
“Mama,” Glorianne said, bursting into her mother’s bedroom.
“Mhm?” Rosalie sat up and wrapped the warm blankets around her. She looked like a painting of a woman, like her face was smeared or only glimpsed through dirty glass, like the bible story Glorianne had heard them read at funerals.
“You gotta get up, Mama.” Glorianne drew back the corner of the bedspread and deposited Sonya underneath it. The girl moaned once, a weak, hopeless sound, when the edge of the blanket scraped over her burned skin. “Sorry, baby, sorry,” Glorianne said, touching her feverish forehead. Rosalie sat there for a moment, looking down at her little daughter in a misery. She studied her, like she was a cat born with two noses or a strange flower found upspringing in the garden. She got out of bed, swaying on her feet. Standing there in her stained nightdress with her hair snaggled and ratted all around her head, Glorianne thought she was like a picture in a horror-book. The Mad Woman appears.
Amy Pritchard arrived sweating from the long run out to the cottage and she had fair ruined the brim of her white hat with it. The first thing she did was wash her hands at the pump, scrubbing underneath the fingernails with the clumsy brown soap that Glorianne had made herself. From her pockets she produced small, squat bottles with no labels on them and reels of white bandaging. “Send word to your brother,” she told Glorianne. Then she shut herself up in the room with Sonya and she didn’t come out all night.
Rosalie sat before the fireplace, still in her nightdress. She ran her fingers absent-mindedly over the bumping, coiling terrain of her yellow hair. Rosalie had never told her children how, when she was younger, she used to have hair that went down past her feet. On washing day, she had to lay out in the sun with it stretched out around her like a haze, like when the wheat pods explode in the summer and send the yellow-gold stuff out to inhabit the air. She did not think her children would believe that once men used to come from miles around just to see her.
Glorianne stood with her back against the back door. Periodically, her stomach would cramp up, so hot and sudden that she would gasp at the force of it. Outside on the back step there was a fresh-baked loaf of bread and it seemed to her that she could smell it through the wood. Derek sat at the table in front of her, his head bowed over the little pile of bills he had retrieved from the glass jar. It would cost the lion’s share of it, paying Amy Pritchard for her time. The clock that their papa had made for their mama back when they were courting ticked on and on and there was nowhere to go.
Jaime and the rest of children were sleeping where they had dropped by the time Amy Pritchard emerged from the bedroom. Another night, Glorianne might have shook them awake and shooed them up to their beds, but tonight she only watched them curl up small in front of the fire’s yellow glow. “She’s gonna live,” Amy Pritchard said, tucking tendrils of hair behind her ears. Her hair was slick and dark with sweat. “She’s gonna have some real bad scars, though.” Glorianne remembered oily redness of her skin, all down her arm and creeping urgently onto her chest.
Amy Pritchard laid some twisted scraps of fabric down on the wooden table and Glorianne realized that they must be what was left of Claire’s dress. “You folks are awful lucky,” she said. The clock on the wall ticked. Still awake, Rosalie stared into the fire as if she didn’t hear.
If you asked her, even many years later, Glorianne couldn’t properly say exactly what it was that drove her from her bed that night. She would like to think that it was her righteous anger, her budding sense of justice, but she often suspected that it was merely the great, animal hunger that quaked her belly and drove the sleep from her.
She knew where all of the creaking places in the floor were and, unlike her mother, she moved across it without a sound. The door opened easily and the night air rushed inside, cool and dark. It rustled at the skirt of her nightdress. For a moment, as her eyes adjusted to the dark, she did not even see the creature crouched on the stone step.
She had imagined that the fairies her mother talked about were…small things. Glowing things. Things like lightning bugs; things with wings. The thing on the stoop was nearly as tall as she was and it had thin, spindling limbs. She could see the movement of muscles underneath its pale skin. The thing looked up at her. It had a clever, dangerous face and ragged dark hair. In its two hands, it held the as-yet unbroken loaf of bread.
Glorianne did not know what made her do it. Any other day, she would have screamed, run away, slammed the door and hid in her bedroom. But it seemed like her whole body had been hollowed out by fear and hunger and, almost before she realized it, she had reached out and snatched the bread right out of the thing’s fingers.
How was it that the bread was still warm? She stared at it as though she had never seen anything of its kind before. And then the fairy on the stoop tilted back its sharp face and began to laugh at her. It opened its mouth and asked her what seemed to be a question in some slithering, chirruping language.
“I don’t understand,” Glorianne said quietly, so as not to wake the children still curled up on the floor inside. The fairy studied her for a moment and then spoke again, this time in careful, unaccented human speech.
“What is your age?” the thing asked. It was wrong, hearing human words out of its sharp, blue mouth.
“Near thirteen,” Glorianne answered uncertainly, the overwhelming strangeness of all this dawning on her. The fairy on the stoop stood up like some terrible paper doll unfolding. It was taller than Glorianne. It cocked its head to one side and leaned forward until one long rope of cool hair touched the sweating flesh of Glorianne’s cheeks. The fairy bent its face to look into Glorianne’s eyes. It smiled then, apparently pleased by what it had seen.
“Not too old,” the fairy said, leaning back. Glorianne was not sure what that meant. She stared down at the loaf of bread in her hands, it seemed small now. All the warmth had gone out of it and it was cold and heavy against her skin.
The fairy stretched out one hand. Its fingers were so awfully, terribly long. But that, for the first time, was some-thing Glorianne understood. Standing there on the front stoop, she did not think about her sister breathing fast and shallow in the back bedroom, or her listless, hollow mother, or her brother with the scars on his hands like a man’s. She thought about the faintest breeze that had come up from the forest. It shook the leaves on the trees and it smelled to her like cherries ready for picking. The people were afraid of the forest. But if you were brave, if you were desperate, there were sweet things to be found there.
Glorianne reached out and took the fairy’s offered hand. It felt slick and uncertain like a frog’s skin. They turned together and moved towards the forest and farther and farther away from the yellow light of the open door. Until the starry darkness ate the both of them, swallowed them whole.
Nicole M. Taylor’s fiction has been published or is upcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Shimmer Magazine and elsewhere.
Filed under: Jabberwocky 12