Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

La Peau Verte

1.

In a dusty, antique-littered back room of the loft on St. Mark’s Place, a room with walls the color of ripe cranberries, Hannah stands naked in front of the towering mahogany-framed mirror and stares at herself. No—not her self any longer, but the new thing that the man and woman have made of her. Three long hours busy with their airbrushes and latex prosthetics, grease paints and powders and spirit gum, their four hands moving as one, roaming excitedly and certainly across her body, hands sure of their purpose. She doesn’t remember their names, if, in fact, they ever told their names to her. Maybe they did, but the two glasses of brandy she’s had have set the names somewhere just beyond recall. Him tall and thin, her thin but not so very tall, and now they’ve both gone, leaving Hannah alone. Perhaps their part in this finished; perhaps the man and woman are being paid, and she’ll never see either of them again, and she feels a sudden, unexpected pang at the thought, never one for casual intimacies, and they have been both casual and intimate with her body.

The door opens, and the music from the party grows suddenly louder. Nothing she would ever recognize, probably nothing that has a name, even; wild impromptu of drumming hands and flutes, violins and cellos, an incongruent music that is both primitive and drawing-room practiced. The old woman with the mask of peacock feathers and gown of iridescent satin stands in the doorway, watching Hannah. After a moment, she smiles and nods her head slowly, appreciatively.

“Very pretty,” she says. “How does it feel?”

“A little strange,” Hannah replies and looks at the mirror again. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“Haven’t you?” the old woman asks her, and Hannah remembers her name, then—Jackie, Jackie something that sounds like Shady or Sadie, but isn’t either. A sculptor from England, someone said. When she was very young, she knew Picasso, and someone said that, too.

“No,” Hannah replies. “I haven’t. Are they ready for me now?”

“Fifteen more minutes, give or take. I’ll be back to bring you in. Relax. Would you like another brandy?”

Would I? Hannah thinks and glances down at the crystal snifter sitting atop an old secretary next to the mirror. It’s almost empty now, maybe one last warm amber sip standing between it and empty. She wants another drink, something to burn away the last, lingering dregs of her inhibition and self-doubt, but “No,” she tells the woman. “I’m fine.”

“Then chill, and I’ll see you in fifteen,” Jackie Whomever says, smiles again, her disarming, inviting smile of perfect white teeth, and she closes the door, leaving Hannah alone with the green thing watching her from the mirror.

The old Tiffany lamps scattered around the room shed candy puddles of stained-glass light, light as warm as the brandy, warm as the dark-chocolate tones of the intricately carved frame holding the tall mirror. She takes one tentative step nearer the glass, and the green thing takes an equally tentative step nearer her. I’m in there somewhere, she thinks. Aren’t I?

Her skin painted too many competing, complementary shades of green to possibly count, one shade bleeding into the next, an infinity of greens that seem to roil and flow around her bare legs, her flat, hard stomach, her breasts. No patch of skin left uncovered, her flesh become a rain-forest canopy, autumn waves in rough, shallow coves, the shells of beetles and leaves from a thousand gardens, moss and emeralds, jade statues and the brilliant scales of poisonous tropical serpents. Her nails polished a green so deep it might almost be black, instead. The uncomfortable scleral contacts to turn her eyes into the blaze of twin chartreuse stars, and Hannah leans a little closer to the mirror, blinking at those eyes, with those eyes, the windows to a soul she doesn’t have. A soul of everything vegetable and living, everything growing or not, soul of sage and pond scum, malachite and verdigris. The fragile translucent wings sprouting from her shoulder blades—at least another thousand greens to consider in those wings alone—and all the many places where they’ve been painstakingly attached to her skin are hidden so expertly she’s no longer sure where the wings end and she begins.

The one, and the other.

“I definitely should have asked for another brandy,” Hannah says out loud, spilling the words nervously from her ocher, olive, turquoise lips.

Her hair—not her hair, but the wig hiding her hair—like something parasitic, something growing from the bark of a rotting tree, epiphyte curls across her painted shoulders, spilling down her back between and around the base of the wings. The long tips the man and woman added to her ears so dark that they almost match her nails, and her nipples airbrushed the same lightless, bottomless green, as well. She smiles, and even her teeth have been tinted a matte pea green.

There is a single teardrop of green glass glued firmly between her lichen eyebrows.

I could get lost in here, she thinks, and immediately wishes she’d thought something else instead.

Perhaps I am already.

And then Hannah forces herself to look away from the mirror, reaches for the brandy snifter and the last swallow of her drink. Too much of the night still lies ahead of her to get freaked out over a costume, too much left to do and way too much money for her to risk getting cold feet now. She finishes the brandy, and the new warmth spreading through her belly is reassuring.

Hannah sets the empty glass back down on the secretary and then looks at herself again. And this time it is her self, after all, the familiar lines of her face still visible just beneath the make-up. But it’s a damn good illusion. Whoever the hell’s paying for this is certainly getting his money’s worth, she thinks.

Beyond the back room, the music seems to be rising, swelling quickly towards crescendo, the strings racing the flutes, the drums hammering along underneath. The old woman named Jackie will be back for her soon. Hannah takes a deep breath, filling her lungs with air that smells and tastes like dust and old furniture, like the paint on her skin, more faintly of the summer rain falling on the roof of the building. She exhales slowly and stares longingly at the empty snifter.

“Better to keep a clear head,” she reminds herself.

Is that what I have here? And she laughs, but something about the room or her reflection in the tall mirror turns the sound into little more than a cheerless cough.

And then Hannah stares at the beautiful, impossible green woman staring back at her, and waits.

2.

“Anything forbidden becomes mysterious,” Peter says and picks up his remaining bishop, then sets it back down on the board without making a move. “And mysterious things always become attractive to us, sooner or later. Usually sooner.”

“What is that? Some sort of unwritten social law?” Hannah asks him, distracted by the Beethoven that he always insists on whenever they play chess. Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus at the moment, and she’s pretty sure he only does it to break her concentration.

“No, dear. Just a statement of the fucking obvious.”

Peter picks up the black bishop again, and this time he almost uses it to capture one of her rooks, then thinks better of it. More than thirty years her senior and the first friend she made after coming to Manhattan, his salt-and-pepper beard and mustache that’s mostly salt, his eyes as grey as a winter sky.

“Oh,” she says, wishing he’d just take the damn rook and be done with it. Two moves from checkmate, barring an act of divine intervention. But that’s another of his games, Delaying the Inevitable. She thinks he probably has a couple of trophies for it stashed away somewhere in his cluttered apartment, chintzy faux golden loving cups for his Skill and Excellence in Procrastination.

“Taboo breeds desire. Gluttony breeds disinterest.”

“Jesus, I ought to write these things down,” she says, and he smirks at her, dangling the bishop teasingly only an inch or so above the chessboard.

“Yes, you really should. My agent could probably sell them to someone or another. Peter Mulligan’s Big Book of Tiresome Truths. I’m sure it would be more popular than my last novel. It certainly couldn’t be less—”

“Will you stop it and move already? Take the damned rook, and get it over with.”

“But it might be a mistake,” he says and leans back in his chair, mock suspicion on his face, one eyebrow cocked, and he points towards her queen. “It could be a trap. You might be one of those predators that fakes out its quarry by playing dead.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yes I do. You know what I mean. Those animals, the ones that only pretend to be dead. You might be one of those.”

“I might just get tired of this and go the hell home,” she sighs, because he knows that she won’t, so she can say whatever she wants.

“Anyway,” he says, “it’s work, if you want it. It’s just a party. Sounds like an easy gig to me.”

“I have that thing on Tuesday morning though, and I don’t want to be up all night.”

“Another shoot with Kellerman?” asks Peter and frowns at her, taking his eyes off the board, tapping at his chin with the bishop’s mitre.

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“You hear things, that’s all. Well, I hear things. I don’t think you ever hear anything at all.”

“I need the work, Pete. The last time I sold a piece, I think Lincoln was still President. I’ll never make as much money painting as I do posing for other people’s art.”

“Poor Hannah,” Peter says. He sets the bishop back down beside his king and lights a cigarette. She almost asks him for one, but he thinks she quit three months ago, and it’s nice having at least that one thing to lord over him; sometimes it’s even useful. “At least you have a fallback,” he mutters and exhales; the smoke lingers above the board like fog on a battlefield.

“Do you even know who these people are?” she asks and looks impatiently at the clock above his kitchen sink.

“Not firsthand, no. But then they’re not exactly my sort. Entirely too, well . . .” and Peter pauses, searching for a word that never comes, so he continues without it. “But the Frenchman who owns the place on St. Mark’s, Mr. Ordinaire—excuse me, Monsieur Ordinaire—I heard he used to be some sort of anthropologist. I think he might have written a book once.”

“Maybe Kellerman would reschedule for the afternoon,” Hannah says, talking half to herself.

“You’ve actually never tasted it?” he asks, picking up the bishop again and waving it ominously towards her side of the board.

“No,” she replies, too busy now wondering if the photographer will rearrange his Tuesday schedule on her behalf to be annoyed at Peter’s cat and mouse with her rook.

“Dreadful stuff,” he says and makes a face like a kid tasting Brussels sprouts or Pepto-Bismol for the first time. “Might as well have a big glass of black jelly beans and cheap vodka, if you ask me. La Fée Verte my fat ass.”

“Your ass isn’t fat, you skinny old queen,” Hannah scowls playfully, reaching quickly across the table and snatching the bishop from Peter’s hand. He doesn’t resist. This isn’t the first time she’s grown too tired of waiting for him to move to wait any longer. She removes her white rook off the board and sets the black bishop in its place.

“That’s suicide, dear,” Peter says, shaking his head and frowning. “You’re aware of that, yes?”

“You know those animals that bore their prey into submission?”

“No, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of them before.”

“Then maybe you should get out more often.”

“Maybe I should,” he replies, setting the captured rook down with all the other prisoners he’s taken. “So, are you going to do the party? It’s a quick grand, you ask me.”

“That’s easy for you say. You’re not the one who’ll be getting naked for a bunch of drunken strangers.”

“A fact for which we should all be forevermore and eternally grateful.”

“You have his number?” she asks, giving in, because that’s almost a whole month’s rent in one night and, after her last gallery show, beggars can’t be choosers.

“There’s a smart girl,” Peter says and takes another drag off his cigarette. “The number’s on my desk somewhere. Remind me again before you leave. Your move.”

3.

“How old were you when that happened, when your sister died?” the psychologist asks, Dr. Edith Valloton and her smartly-cut hair so black it always makes Hannah think of fresh tar, or old tar gone deadly soft again beneath a summer sun to lay a trap for unwary, crawling things. Someone she sees when the nightmares get bad, which is whenever the painting isn’t going well or the modeling jobs aren’t coming in or both. Someone she can tell her secrets to who has to keep them secret, someone who listens as long as she pays by the hour, a place to turn when faith runs out and priests are just another bad memory to be confessed.

“Almost twelve,” Hannah tells her and watches while Edith Valloton scribbles a note on her yellow legal pad.

“Do you remember if you’d begun menstruating yet?”

“Yeah. My periods started right after my eleventh birthday.”

“And these dreams, and the stones. This is something you’ve never told anyone?”

“I tried to tell my mother once.”

“She didn’t believe you?”

Hannah coughs into her hand and tries not to smile, that bitter, wry smile to give away things she didn’t come here to show.

“She didn’t even hear me,” she says.

“Did you try more than once to tell her about the fairies?”

“I don’t think so. Mom was always pretty good at letting us know whenever she didn’t want to hear what was being said. You learned not to waste your breath.”

“Your sister’s death, you’ve said before that it’s something she was never able to come to terms with.”

“She never tried. Whenever my father tried, or I tried, she treated us like traitors. Like we were the ones who put Judith in her grave. Or like we were the ones keeping her there.”

“If she couldn’t face it, Hannah, then I’m sure it did seem that way to her.”

“So, no,” Hannah says, annoyed that she’s actually paying someone to sympathize with her mother. “No. I guess never really told anyone about it.”

“But you think you want to tell me now?” the psychologist asks and sips her bottled water, never taking her eyes off Hannah.

“You said to talk about all the nightmares, all the things I think are nightmares. It’s the only one that I’m not sure about.”

“Not sure if it’s a nightmare, or not sure if it’s even a dream?”

“Well, I always thought I was awake. For years, it never once occurred to me I might have only been dreaming.”

Edith Valloton watches her silently for a moment, her cat-calm, cat-smirk face, unreadable, too well trained to let whatever’s behind those dark eyes slip and show. Too detached to be smug, too concerned to be indifferent. Sometimes, Hannah thinks she might be a dyke, but maybe that’s only because the friend who recommended her is a lesbian.

“Do you still have the stones?” the psychologist asks, finally, and Hannah shrugs out of habit.

“Somewhere, probably. I never throw anything away. They might be up at Dad’s place, for all I know. A bunch of my shit’s still up there, stuff from when I was a kid.”

“But you haven’t tried to find them?”

“I’m not sure I want to.”

“When is the last time you saw them, the last time you can remember having seen them?”

And Hannah has to stop and think, chews intently at a stubby thumbnail and watches the clock on the psychologist’s desk, the second hand traveling round and round and round. Seconds gone for pennies, nickels, dimes.

Hannah, this is the sort of thing you really ought to try to get straight ahead of time, she thinks in a voice that sounds more like Dr. Valloton’s than her own thought-voice. A waste of money, a waste of time . . .

“You can’t remember?” the psychologist asks and leans a little closer to Hannah.

“I kept them all in an old cigar box. I think my grandfather gave me the box. No, wait. He didn’t. He gave it to Judith, and then I took it after the accident. I didn’t think she’d mind.”

“I’d like to see them someday, if you ever come across them again. Wouldn’t that help you to know whether it was a dream or not, if the stones are real?”

“Maybe,” Hannah mumbles around her thumb. “And maybe not.”

“Why do you say that?”

“A thing like that, words scratched onto a handful of stones, it’d be easy for a kid to fake. I might have made them all myself. Or someone else might have made them, someone playing a trick on me. Anyone could have left them there.”

“Did people do that often? Play tricks on you?”

“Not that I can recall. No more than usual.”

Edith Valloton writes something else on her yellow pad and then checks the clock.

“You said that there were always stones after the dreams. Never before?”

“No, never before. Always after. They were always there the next day, always in the same place.”

“At the old well,” the psychologist says, like Hannah might have forgotten and needs reminding.

“Yeah, at the old well. Dad was always talking about doing something about it, before the accident, you know. Something besides a couple of sheets of corrugated tin to hide the hole. Afterwards, of course, the county ordered him to have the damned thing filled in.”

“Did your mother blame him for the accident, because he never did anything about the well?”

“My mother blamed everyone. She blamed him. She blamed me. She blamed whoever had dug that hole in the first goddamn place. She blamed God for putting water underground so people would dig wells to get at it. Believe me, Mom had blame down to an art.”

And again, the long pause, the psychologist’s measured consideration, quiet moments she plants like seeds to grow ever deeper revelations.

“Hannah, I want you to try to remember the word that was on the first stone you found. Can you do that?”

“That’s easy. It was follow.”

“And do you also know what was written on the last one, the very last one that you found?”

And this time she has to think, but only for a moment.

Fall,” she says. “The last one said fall.”

4.

Half a bottle of Mari Mayans borrowed from an unlikely friend of Peter’s, a goth chick who DJs at a club that Hannah’s never been to because Hannah doesn’t go to clubs. Doesn’t dance and has always been more or less indifferent to both music and fashion. The goth chick works days at Trash and Vaudeville on St. Mark’s, selling Doc Martens and blue hair dye only a couple of blocks from the address on the card that Peter gave her. The place where the party is being held. La Fête de la Fée Verte, according to the small white card, the card with the phone number. She’s already made the call, has already agreed to be there, seven o’clock sharp, seven on the dot, and everything that’s expected of her has been explained in detail, twice.

Hannah’s sitting on the floor beside her bed, a couple of vanilla-scented candles burning because she feels obligated to make at least half a half-hearted effort at atmosphere. Obligatory show of respect for mystique that doesn’t interest her, but she’s gone to the trouble to borrow the bottle of liqueur; the bottle passed to her in a brown paper bag at the boutique, anything but inconspicuous, and the girl glared out at her, cautious from beneath lids so heavy with shades of black and purple that Hannah was amazed the girl could open her eyes.

“So, you’re supposed to be a friend of Peter’s?” the girl asked suspiciously.

“Yeah, supposedly,” Hannah replied, accepting the package, feeling vaguely, almost pleasurably illicit. “We’re chess buddies.”

“A painter,” the girl said.

“Most of the time.”

“Peter’s a cool old guy. He made bail for my boyfriend once, couple of years back.”

“Really? Yeah, he’s wonderful,” and Hannah glanced nervously at the customers browsing the racks of leather handbags and corsets, then at the door and the bright daylight outside.

“You don’t have to be so jumpy. It’s not illegal to have absinthe. It’s not even illegal to drink it. It’s only illegal to import it, which you didn’t do. So don’t sweat it.”

Hannah nodded, wondering if the girl was telling the truth, if she knew what she was talking about. “What do I owe you?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing,” the girl replied. “You’re a friend of Peter’s, and, besides, I get it cheap from someone over in Jersey. Just bring back whatever you don’t drink.”

And now Hannah twists the cap off the bottle, and the smell of odor is so strong, so immediate, she can smell it before she even raises the bottle to her nose. Black jelly beans, she thinks, just like Peter said, and that’s something else she never cared for. As a little girl, she’d set the black ones aside—and the pink ones, too—saving them for her sister. Her sister had liked the black ones.

She has a wine glass, one from an incomplete set she bought last Christmas, secondhand, and she has a box of sugar cubes, a decanter filled with filtered tap water, a spoon from her mother’s mismatched antique silverware. She pours the absinthe, letting it drip slowly from the bottle until the fluorescent yellow-green liquid has filled the bottom of the glass. Then Hannah balances the spoon over the mouth of the goblet and places one of the sugar cubes in the tarnished bowl of the spoon. She remembers watching Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder doing this in Dracula, remembers seeing the movie with a boyfriend who eventually left her for another man, and the memory and all its associations are enough to make her stop and sit staring at the glass for a moment.

“This is so fucking silly,” she says, but part of her, the part that feels guilty for taking jobs that pay the bills, but have nothing to do with painting, the part that’s always busy rationalizing and justifying the way she spends her time, assures her it’s a sort of research. A new experience, horizon-broadening something to expand her mind’s eye, and, for all she knows, it might lead her art somewhere it needs to go.

“Bullshit,” she whispers, frowning down at the entirely uninviting glass of Spanish absinthe. She’s been reading Absinthe: History in a Bottle and Artists and Absinthe, accounts of Van Gogh and Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde and Paul Marie Verlaine and their various relationships with this foul-smelling liqueur. She’s never had much respect for artists who use this or that drug as a crutch and then call it their muse; heroin, cocaine, pot, booze, what-the-hell-ever, all the same shit as far as she’s concerned. An excuse, an inability in the artist to hold himself accountable for his own art, a lazy cop-out, as useless as the idea of the muse itself. And this drug, this drug in particular, so tied up with art and inspiration there’s even a Renoir painting decorating the Mari Mayans label, or at least it’s something that’s supposed to look like a Renoir.

But you’ve gone to all this trouble. Hell, you may as well taste it, at least. Just a taste, to satisfy curiosity, to see what all the fuss is about.

Hannah sets the bottle down and picks up the decanter, pouring water over the spoon, over the sugar cube. The absinthe louches quickly to an opalescent, milky white-green. Then she puts the decanter back on the floor and stirs the half-dissolved sugar into the glass, sets the spoon aside on a china saucer.

“Enjoy the ride,” the goth girl said as Hannah walked out of the shop. “She’s a blast.”

Hannah raises the glass to her lips, sniffs at it, wrinkling her nose, and the first, hesitant sip is even sweeter and more piquant than she expected, sugar-soft fire when she swallows, a seventy-proof flower blooming hot in her belly. But the taste is not nearly as disagreeable as she’d thought it would be, the sudden licorice and alcohol sting, a faint bitterness underneath that she guesses might be the wormwood. The second sip is less of a shock, especially since her tongue seems to have gone slightly numb.

She opens Absinthe: History in a Bottle again, opening the book at random, and there’s a full-page reproduction of Albert Maignan’s The Green Muse. A blonde woman with marble skin, golden hair, wrapped in diaphanous folds of olive, her feet hovering weightless above bare floorboards, her hands caressing the forehead of an intoxicated poet. The man is gaunt and seems lost in some ecstasy or revelry or simple delirium, his right hand clawing at his face, the other hand open in what might have been meant as a feeble attempt to ward off the attentions of his unearthly companion. Or, Hannah thinks, perhaps he’s reaching for something. There’s a shattered green bottle on the floor at his feet, a full glass of absinthe on his writing desk.

Hannah takes another sip and turns the page.

A photograph, Verlaine drinking absinthe in the Café Procope.

Another, bolder swallow, and the taste is becoming familiar now, almost, almost pleasant.

Another page. Jean Béraud’s Le Boulevard, La Nuit.

When the glass is empty, and the buzz in her head, behind her eyes is so gentle, buzz like a stinging insect wrapped in spider silk and honey, Hannah takes another sugar cube from the box and pours another glass.

5.

“Fairies.

Fairy crosses.”

Harper’s Weekly, 50-715:

That, near the point where the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny Mountains unite, north of Patrick County, Virginia, many little stone crosses have been found.

A race of tiny beings.

They crucified cockroaches.

Exquisite beings—but the cruelty of the exquisite. In their diminutive way they were human beings. They crucified.

The ‘fairy crosses,’ we are told in Harper’s Weekly, range in weight from one-quarter of an ounce to an ounce: but it is said, in the Scientific American, 79-395, that some of them are no larger than the head of a pin.

They have been found in two other states, but all
in Virginia are strictly localized on and along Bull Mountain . . .
. . . I suppose they fell there.”

—Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned (1919)

6.

In the dream, which is never the same thing twice, not precisely, Hannah is twelve years old and standing at her bedroom window watching the backyard. It’s almost dark, the last rays of twilight, and there are chartreuse fireflies dappling the shadows, already a few stars twinkling in the high indigo sky, the call of a whippoorwill from the woods nearby.

Another whippoorwill answers.

And the grass is moving. The grass grown so tall because her father never bothers to mow it anymore. It could be wind, only there is no wind; the leaves in the trees are all perfectly, silently still, and no limb swaying, no twig, no leaves rustling in even the stingiest breeze. Only the grass.

It’s probably just a cat, she thinks. A cat, or a skunk, or a raccoon.

The bedroom has grown very dark, and she wants to turn on a lamp, afraid of the restless grass even though she knows it’s only some small animal, awake for the night and hunting, taking a short cut across their backyard. She looks over her shoulder, meaning to ask Judith to please turn on a lamp, but there’s only the dark room, Judith’s empty bunk, and she remembers it all again. It’s always like the very first time she heard, the surprise and disbelief and pain always that fresh, the numbness that follows that absolute.

“Have you seen your sister?” her mother asks from the open bedroom door. There’s so much night pooled there that she can’t make out anything but her mother’s softly glowing eyes the soothing color of amber beads, two cat-slit pupils swollen wide against the gloom.

“No, Mom,” Hannah tells her, and there’s a smell in the room then like burning leaves.

“She shouldn’t be out so late on a school night.”

“No, Mom, she shouldn’t,” and the eleven-year-old Hannah is amazed at the thirty-five-year-old’s voice coming from her mouth. The thirty-five-year-old Hannah remembers how clear, how unburdened by time and sorrow, the eleven-year-old Hannah’s voice could be.

“You should look for her,” her mother says.

“I always do. That comes later.”

“Hannah, have you seen your sister?”

Outside, the grass has begun to swirl, rippling round and round upon itself, and there’s the faintest green glow dancing a few inches above the ground.

The fireflies, she thinks, though she knows it’s not the fireflies, the way she knows it’s not a cat, or a skunk, or a raccoon making the grass move.

“Your father should have seen to that damned well,” her mother mutters, and the burning leaves smell grows a little stronger. “He should have done something about that years ago.”

“Yes, Mom, he should have. You should have made him.”

“No,” her mother replies angrily. “This is not my fault. None of it’s my fault.”

“No, of course it’s not.”

“When we bought this place, I told him to see to that well. I told him it was dangerous.”

“You were right,” Hannah says, watching the grass, the softly pulsing cloud of green light hanging above it. The light is still only about as big as a basketball. Later, it’ll get a lot bigger. She can hear the music now, pipes and drums and fiddles, like a song from one of her father’s albums of folk music.

“Hannah, have you seen your sister?”

Hannah turns and stares defiantly back at her mother’s glowing, accusing eyes.

“That makes three, Mom. Now you have to leave. Sorry, but them’s the rules,” and her mother does leave, that obedient phantom fading slowly away with a sigh, a flicker, a half second when the darkness seems to bend back upon itself, and she takes the burning leaves smell with her.

The light floating above the backyard grows brighter, reflecting dully off the windowpane, off Hannah’s skin and the room’s white walls. The music rises to meet the light’s challenge.

Peter’s standing beside her now, and she wants to hold his hand, but doesn’t, because she’s never quite sure if he’s supposed to be in this dream.

“I am the Green Fairy,” he says, sounding tired and older than he is, sounding sad. “My robe is the color of despair.”

“No,” she says. “You’re only Peter Mulligan. You write books about places you’ve never been and people who will never be born.”

“You shouldn’t keep coming here,” he whispers, the light from the backyard shining in his grey eyes, tinting them to moss and ivy.

“Nobody else does. Nobody else ever could.”

“That doesn’t mean—”

But he stops and stares speechlessly at the backyard.

“I should try to find Judith,” Hannah says. “She shouldn’t be out so late on a school night.”

“That painting you did last winter,” Peter mumbles, mumbling like he’s drunk or only half awake. “The pigeons on your windowsill, looking in.”

“That wasn’t me. You’re thinking of someone else.”

“I hated that damned painting. I was glad when you sold it.”

“So was I,” Hannah says. “I should try to find her now, Peter. My sister. It’s almost time for dinner.”

“I am ruin and sorrow,” he whispers.

And now the green light is spinning very fast, throwing off gleaming flecks of itself to take up the dance, to swirl about their mother star, little worlds newborn, whole universes, and she could hold them all in the palm of her right hand.

“What I need,” Peter says, “is blood, red and hot, the palpitating flesh of my victims.”

“Jesus, Peter, that’s purple even for you,” and Hannah reaches out and lets her fingers brush the glass. It’s warm, like the spring evening, like her mother’s glowing eyes.

“I didn’t write it,” he says.

“And I never painted pigeons.”

She presses her fingers against the glass and isn’t surprised when it shatters, explodes, and the sparkling diamond blast is blown inward, tearing her apart, shredding the dream until it’s only unconscious, fitful sleep.

7.

“I wasn’t in the mood for this,” Hannah says and sets the paper saucer with three greasy, uneaten cubes of orange cheese and a couple of Ritz crackers down on one corner of a convenient table. The table is crowded with fliers about other shows, other openings at other galleries. She glances at Peter and then at the long white room and the canvases on the walls.

“I thought it would do you good to get out. You never go anywhere anymore.”

“I come to see you.”

“My point exactly, dear.”

Hannah sips at her plastic cup of warm merlot, wishing she had a beer instead.

“And you said that you liked Perrault’s work.”

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m just not sure I’m up for it tonight. I’ve been feeling pretty morbid lately, all on my own.”

“That’s generally what happens to people who swear off sex.”

“Peter, I didn’t swear off anything.”

And she follows him on their first slow circuit around the room, small talk with people that she hardly knows or doesn’t want to know at all, people who know Peter better than they know her, people whose opinions matter and people whom she wishes she’d never met. She smiles and nods her head, sips her wine, and tries not to look too long at any of the huge, dark canvases spaced out like oil and acrylic windows on a train.

“He’s trying to bring us down, down to the very core of those old stories,” a woman named Rose tells Peter. She owns a gallery somewhere uptown, the sort of place where Hannah’s paintings will never hang. “‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ all those old fairy tales,” Rose says. “It’s a very post-Freudian approach.”

“Indeed,” Peter says. As if he agrees, Hannah thinks, as if he even cares, when she knows damn well he doesn’t.

“How’s the new novel coming along?” Rose asks him.

“Like a mouthful of salted thumbtacks,” he replies, and she laughs.

Hannah turns and looks at the nearest painting, because it’s easier than listening to the woman and Peter pretend to enjoy one another’s company. A somber storm of blacks and reds and greys, dappled chaos struggling to resolve itself into images, images stalled at the very edge of perception. She thinks she remembers having seen a photo of this canvas in Artforum.

A small beige card on the wall to the right of the painting identifies it as Night in the Forest. There isn’t a price, because none of Perrault’s paintings are ever for sale. She’s heard rumors that he’s turned down millions, tens of millions, but suspects that’s all exaggeration and PR. Urban legends for modern artists, and from the other things that she’s heard he doesn’t need the money, anyway.

Rose says something about the exploration of possibility and fairy tales and children using them to avoid any real danger, something that Hannah’s pretty sure she’s lifted directly from Bruno Bettelheim.

“Me, I was always rooting for the wolf,” Peter says, “or the wicked witch or the three bears or whatever. I never much saw the point in rooting for silly girls too thick not to go wandering about alone in the woods.”

Hannah laughs softly, laughing to herself, and takes a step back from the painting, squinting at it. A moonless sky pressing cruelly down upon a tangled, writhing forest, a path and something waiting in the shadows, stooped shoulders, ribsy, a calculated smudge of scarlet that could be its eyes. There’s no one on the path, but the implication is clear—there will be, soon enough, and the thing crouched beneath the trees is patient.

“Have you seen the stones yet?” Rose asks and no, Peter replies, no we haven’t.

“They’re a new direction for him,” she says. “This is only the second time they’ve been exhibited.”

If I could paint like that, Hannah thinks, I could tell Dr. Valloton to kiss my ass. If I could paint like that, it would be an exorcism.

And then Rose leads them both to a poorly lit corner of the gallery, to a series of rusted wire cages, and inside each one is a single stone. Large pebbles or small cobbles, stream-worn slate and granite, and each stone has been crudely engraved with a single word.

The first one reads “follow.”

“Peter, I need to go now,” Hannah says, unable to look away from the yellow-brown stone, the word tattooed on it, and she doesn’t dare let her eyes wander ahead to the next one.

“Are you sick?”

“I need to go, that’s all. I need to go now.”

“If you’re not feeling well,” the woman named Rose says, trying too hard to be helpful, “there’s a restroom in the back.”

“No, I’m fine. Really. I just need some air.”

And Peter puts an arm protectively around her, reciting his hurried, polite goodbyes to Rose. But Hannah still can’t look away from the stone, sitting there behind the wire like a small and vicious animal at the zoo.

“Good luck with the book,” Rose says and smiles, and Hannah’s beginning to think she is going to be sick, that she will have to make a dash for the toilet, after all. There’s a taste like foil in her mouth, and her heart like a mallet on dead and frozen beef, adrenaline, the first eager tug of vertigo.

“It was good to meet you, Hannah,” the woman says. Hannah manages to smile, manages to nod her head.

And then Peter leads her quickly back through the crowded gallery, out onto the sidewalk and the warm night spread out along Mercer Street.

8.

“Would you like to talk about that day at the well?” Dr. Valloton asks, and Hannah bites at her chapped lower lip.

“No. Not now,” she says. “Not again.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve already told you everything I can remember.”

“If they’d found her body,” the psychologist says, “perhaps you and your mother and father would have been able to move on. There could have at least been some sort of closure. There wouldn’t have been that lingering hope that maybe someone would find her, that maybe she was alive.”

Hannah sighs loudly, looking at the clock for release, but there’s still almost half an hour to go.

“Judith fell down the well and drowned,” she says.

“But they never found the body.”

“No, but they found enough, enough to be sure. She fell down the well. She drowned. It was very deep.”

“You said you heard her calling you.”

“I’m not sure,” Hannah says, interrupting the psychologist before she can say the things she was going to say next, before she can use Hannah’s own words against her. “I’ve never been absolutely sure. I told you that.”

“I’m sorry if it seems like I’m pushing,” Dr. Valloton says.

“I just don’t see any reason to talk about it again.”

“Then let’s talk about the dreams, Hannah. Let’s talk about the day you saw the fairies.”

9.

The dreams, or the day from which the dreams would arise and, half-forgotten, seek always to return. The dreams or the day itself, the one or the other, it makes very little difference. The mind exists only in a moment, always, a single flickering moment, remembered or actual, dreaming or awake or something liminal between the two, the precious, treacherous illusion of Present floundering in the crack between Past and Future.

The dream of the day—or the day itself—and the sun is high and small and white, a dazzling July sun coming down in shafts through the tall trees in the woods behind Hannah’s house. She’s running to catch up with Judith, her sister two years older and her legs grown longer, always leaving Hannah behind. You can’t catch me, slowpoke. You can’t even keep up. Hannah almost trips in a tangle of creeper vines and has to stop long enough to free her left foot.

“Wait up!” she shouts, and Judith doesn’t answer. “I want to see. Wait for me!”

The vines try to pull one of Hannah’s tennis shoes off and leave bright beads of blood on her ankle. But she’s loose again in only a moment, running down the narrow path to catch up, running through the summer sun and the oak-leaf shadows.

“I found something,” Judith said to her that morning after breakfast. The two of them sitting on the back porch steps. “Down in the clearing by the old well,” she said.

“What? What did you find?”

“Oh, I don’t think I should tell you. No, I definitely shouldn’t tell you. You might go and tell Mom and Dad. You might spoil everything.”

“No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t tell them anything. I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Yes, you would, big mouth.”

And, finally, she gave Judith half her allowance to tell, half to be shown whatever there was to see. Her sister dug deep down into the pockets of her jeans, and her hand came back up with a shiny black pebble.

“I just gave you a whole dollar to show me a rock?”

“No, stupid. Look at it,” and Judith held out her hand.

The letters scratched deep into the stone—JVDTH—five crooked letters that almost spelled her sister’s name, and Hannah didn’t have to pretend not to be impressed.

“Wait for me!” she shouts again, angry now, her voice echoing around the trunks of the old trees and dead leaves crunching beneath her shoes. Starting to guess that the whole thing is a trick after all, just one of Judith’s stunts, and her sister’s probably watching her from a hiding place right this very second, snickering quietly to herself. Hannah stops running and stands in the center of the path, listening to the murmuring forest sounds around her.

And something faint and lilting that might be music.

“That’s not all,” Judith said. “But you have to swear you won’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“I swear.”

“If you do tell, well, I promise I’ll make you wish you hadn’t.”

“I won’t tell anyone anything.”

“Give it back,” Judith said, and Hannah immediately handed the black stone back to her. “If you do tell—”

“I already said I won’t. How many times do I have to say I won’t tell?”

“Well then,” Judith said and led her around to the back of the little tool shed where their father kept his hedge clippers and bags of fertilizer and the old lawnmowers he liked to take apart and try to put back together again.

“This better be worth a dollar,” Hannah said.

She stands very, very still and listens to the music, growing louder. She thinks it’s coming from the clearing up ahead.

“I’m going back home, Judith!” she shouts, not a bluff because suddenly she doesn’t care whether or not the thing in the jar was real, and the sun doesn’t seem as warm as it did only a moment ago.

And the music keeps getting louder.

And louder.

And Judith took an empty mayonnaise jar out of the empty rabbit hutch behind the tool shed. She held it up to the sun, smiling at whatever was inside.

“Let me see,” Hannah said.

“Maybe I should make you give me another dollar first,” her sister replied, smirking, not looking away from the jar.

“No way,” Hannah said indignantly. “Not a snowball’s chance in Hell,” and she grabbed for the jar, then, but Judith was faster, and her hand closed around nothing at all.

In the woods, Hannah turns and looks back towards home, then turns back towards the clearing again, waiting for her just beyond the trees.

“Judith! This isn’t funny! I’m going home right this second!”

Her heart is almost as loud as the music now. Almost. Not quite, but close enough. Pipes and fiddles, drums and a jingle like tambourines.

Hannah takes another step towards the clearing, because it’s nothing at all but her sister trying to scare her. Which is stupid, because it’s broad daylight, and Hannah knows these woods like the back of her hand.

Judith unscrewed the lid of the mayonnaise jar and held it out so Hannah could see the small, dry thing curled in a lump at the bottom. Tiny mummy husk of a thing, gray and crumbling in the morning light.

“It’s just a damn dead mouse,” Hannah said disgustedly. “I gave you a whole dollar to see a rock and a dead mouse in a jar?”

“It’s not a mouse, stupid. Look closer.”

And so she did, bending close enough that she could see the perfect dragonfly wings on its back, transparent, iridescent wings that glimmer faintly in the sun. Hannah squinted and realized that she could see its face, realized that it had a face.

“Oh,” she said, looking quickly up at her sister, who was grinning triumphantly. “Oh, Judith. Oh my god. What is it?”

“Don’t you know?” Judith asked her. “Do I have to tell you everything?”

Hannah picks her way over the deadfall just before the clearing, the place where the path through the woods disappears beneath a jumble of fallen, rotting logs. There was a house back here, her father said, a long, long time ago. Nothing left but a big pile of rocks where the chimney once stood, and also the well covered over with sheets of rusted corrugated tin. There was a fire, her father said, and everyone in the house died.

On the other side of the deadfall, Hannah takes a deep breath and steps out into the daylight, leaving the tree shadows behind, forfeiting her last chance not to see.

“Isn’t it cool,” Judith said. “Isn’t it the coolest thing you ever seen?”

Someone’s pushed aside the sheets of tin, and the well is so dark that even the sun won’t go there. And then Hannah sees the wide ring of mushrooms, the perfect circle of toadstools and red caps and spongy brown morels growing round the well. The heat shimmers off the tin, dancing mirage shimmer as though the air here is turning to water, and the music is very loud now.

“I found it,” Judith whispered, screwing the top back onto the jar as tightly as she could. “I found it, and I’m going to keep it. And you’ll keep your mouth shut about it, or I’ll never, ever show you anything else again.”

Hannah looks up from the mushrooms, from the open well, and there are a thousand eyes watching her from the edges of the clearing. Eyes like indigo berries and rubies and drops of honey, like gold and silver coins, eyes like fire and ice, eyes like seething dabs of midnight. Eyes filled with hunger beyond imagining, neither good nor evil, neither real nor impossible.

Something the size of a bear, squatting in the shade of a poplar tree, raises its shaggy charcoal head and smiles.

“That’s another pretty one,” it growls.

And Hannah turns and runs.

10.

“But you know, in your soul, what you must have really seen that day,” Dr. Valloton says and taps the eraser end of her pencil lightly against her front teeth. There’s something almost obscenely earnest in her expression, Hannah thinks, in the steady tap, tap, tap of the pencil against her perfectly spaced, perfectly white incisors. “You saw your sister fall into the well, or you realized that she just had. You may have heard her calling out for help.”

“Maybe I pushed her in,” Hannah whispers.

“Is that what you think happened?”

“No,” Hannah says and rubs at her temples, trying to massage away the first dim throb of an approaching headache. “But, most of the time, I’d rather believe that’s what happened.”

“Because you think it would be easier than what you remember.”

“Isn’t it? Isn’t easier to believe she pissed me off that day, and so I shoved her in? That I made up these crazy stories so I’d never have to feel guilty for what I’d done? Maybe that’s what the nightmares are, my conscience trying to fucking force me to come clean.”

“And what are the stones, then?”

“Maybe I put them all there myself. Maybe I scratched those words on them myself and hid them there for me to find, because I knew that would make it easier for me to believe. If there was something that real, that tangible, something solid to remind me of the story, that the story is supposed to be the truth.”

A long moment that’s almost silence, just the clock on the desk ticking and the pencil tapping against the psychologist’s teeth. Hannah rubs harder at her temples, the real pain almost within sight now, waiting for her just a little ways past this moment or the next, vast and absolute, deep purple shot through with veins of red and black. Finally, Dr. Valloton lays her pencil down and takes a deep breath.

“Is this a confession, Hannah?” she asks, and the obscene earnestness is dissolving into something that may be eager anticipation, or simple clinical curiosity, or only dread. “Did you kill your sister?”

And Hannah shakes her head and shuts her eyes tight.

“Judith fell into the well,” she says calmly. “She moved the tin, and got too close to the edge. The sheriff showed my parents where a little bit of the ground had collapsed under her weight. She fell into the well, and she drowned.”

“Who are you trying so hard to convince? Me or yourself?”

“Do you really think it matters?” Hannah replies, matching a question with a question, tit for tat.

“Yes,” Dr. Valloton says. “Yes, I do. You need to know the truth.”

“Which one?” Hannah asks, smiling against the pain swelling behind her eyes, and this time the psychologist doesn’t bother answering, lets her sit silently with her eyes shut until the clock decides her hour’s up.

11.

Peter Mulligan picks up a black pawn and moves it ahead two squares; Hannah removes it from the board with a white knight. He isn’t even trying today, and that always annoys her. Peter pretends to be surprised that’s he’s lost another piece, then pretends to frown and think about his next move while he talks.

“In Russian,” he says, “chernobyl is the word for wormwood. Did Kellerman give you a hard time?”

“No,” Hannah says. “No, he didn’t. In fact, he said he’d actually rather do the shoot in the afternoon. So everything’s jake, I guess.”

“Small miracles,” Peter sighs, picking up a rook and setting it back down again. “So you’re doing the anthropologist’s party?”

“Yeah,” she replies. “I’m doing the anthropologist’s party.”

Monsieur Ordinaire. You think he was born with that name?”

“I think I couldn’t give a damn, as long as his check doesn’t bounce. A thousand dollars to play dress-up for a few hours. I’d be a fool not to do the damned party.”

Peter picks the rook up again and dangles it in the air above the board, teasing her. “Oh, his book,” he says. “I remembered the title the other day. But then I forgot it all over again. Anyway, it was something on shamanism and shapeshifters, werewolves and masks, that sort of thing. It sold a lot of copies in ’68, then vanished from the face of the Earth. You could probably find out something about it online.” Peter sets the rook down and starts to take his hand away.

“Don’t,” she says. “That’ll be checkmate.”

“You could at least let me lose on my own, dear,” he scowls, pretending to be insulted.

“Yeah, well, I’m not ready to go home yet.” Hannah replies, and Peter Mulligan goes back to dithering over the chessboard and talking about Monsieur Ordinaire’s forgotten book. In a little while, she gets up to refill both their coffee cups, and there’s a single black and grey pigeon perched on the kitchen windowsill, staring in at her with its beady piss-yellow eyes. It almost reminds her of something she doesn’t want to be reminded of, and so she raps on the glass with her knuckles and frightens it away.

12.

The old woman named Jackie never comes for her. There’s a young boy, instead, fourteen or fifteen, sixteen at the most, his nails polished poppy red to match his rouged lips, and he’s dressed in peacock feathers and silk. He opens the door and stands there, very still, watching her, waiting wordlessly. Something like awe on his smooth face, and for the first time Hannah doesn’t just feel nude, she feels naked.

“Are they ready for me now?” she asks him, trying to sound no more than half as nervous as she is, and then turns her head to steal a last glance at the green fairy in the tall mahogany mirror. But the mirror is empty. There’s no one there at all, neither her nor the green woman, nothing but the dusty backroom full of antiques, the pretty hard-candy lamps, the peeling cranberry wallpaper.

“My Lady,” the boy says in a voice like broken crystal shards, and then he curtsies. “The Court is waiting to receive you, at your ready.” He steps to one side, to let her pass, and the music from the party grows suddenly very loud, changing tempo, the rhythm assuming a furious speed as a thousand notes and drumbeats tumble and boom and chase one another’s tails.

“The mirror,” Hannah whispers, pointing at it, at the place where her reflection should be, and when she turns back to the boy there’s a young girl standing there, instead, dressed in his feathers and make-up. She could be his twin.

“It’s a small thing, My Lady,” she says with the boy’s sparkling, shattered tongue.

“What’s happening?”

“The Court is assembled,” the girl child says. “They are all waiting. Don’t be afraid, My Lady. I will show you the way.”

The path, the path through the woods to the well. The path down to the well . . .

“Do you have a name?” Hannah asks, surprised at the calm in her voice; all the embarrassment and unease at standing naked before this child, and the one before, the boy twin, the fear at what she didn’t see gazing back at her in the looking glass, all of that gone now.

“My name? I’m not such a fool as that, My Lady.”

“No, of course not,” Hannah replies. “I’m sorry.”

“I will show you the way,” the child says again. “Never harm, nor spell, nor charm, come our Lady nigh.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Hannah replies. “I was beginning to think that I was lost. But I’m not lost, am I?”

“No, My Lady. You are here.”

“Yes. Yes, I am here, aren’t I?” and the child smiles for her, showing off its sharp crystal teeth. Hannah smiles back, and then she leaves the dusty backroom and the mahogany mirror, following the child down a short hallway; the music has filled in all the vacant corners of her skull, the music and the heavy living-dying smells of wildflowers and fallen leaves, rotting stumps and fresh-turned earth. A riotous hothouse cacophony of odors—spring to fall, summer to winter—and she’s never tasted air so violently sweet.

. . . the path down the well, and the still black water at the bottom.

Hannah, can you hear me? Hannah?

It’s so cold down here. I can’t see . . .

At the end of the hall, just past the stairs leading back down to St. Mark’s, there’s a green door, and the girl opens it. Green gets you out.

And all the things in the wide, wide room—the unlikely room that stretches so far away in every direction that it could never be contained in any building, not in a thousand buildings—the scampering, hopping, dancing, spinning, flying, skulking things, each and every one of them stops and stares at her. And Hannah knows that she ought to be frightened of them, that she should turn and run from this place. But it’s really nothing she hasn’t seen before, a long time ago, and she steps past the child (who is a boy again) as the wings on her back begin to thrum like the frantic, iridescent wings of bumblebees and hummingbirds, red wasps and hungry dragonflies. Her mouth tastes of anise and wormwood, sugar and hyssop and melissa. Sticky verdant light spills from her skin and pools in the grass and moss at her bare feet.

Sink or swim, and so easy to imagine the icy black well water closing thickly over her sister’s face, filling her mouth, slipping up her nostrils, flooding her belly, as clawed hands dragged her down.

And down.

And down.

And sometimes, Dr. Valloton says, sometimes we spend our entire lives just trying to answer one simple question.

The music is a hurricane, swallowing her.

My Lady. Lady of the Bottle. Artemisia absinthium, Chernobyl, apsinthion, Lady of Waking Dreaming, Green Lady of Elation and Melancholy.

I am ruin and sorrow.

My robe is the color of despair.

They bow, all of them, and Hannah finally sees the thing waiting for her on its prickling throne of woven branches and birds’ nests, the hulking antlered thing with blazing eyes, that wolf-jawed hart, the man and the stag, and she bows, in her turn.

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Caitlín R. Kiernan

Caitlín R. Kiernan by Kyle Cassidy

Hailed by the New York Times as “One of our essential writers of dark fiction,” Caitlín R. Kiernan has published twelve novels, including  The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl which are both being developed into feature films. Her short fiction has been collected into several volumes. In 2017, Subterranean Press will be releasing the latest collection, Dear Sweet Filthy World.

Caitlín studied geology and paleontology at the University of Alabama and the University of Colorado, and has published in several scientific journals, including the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.