Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Faerie Tree

The Faerie Tree

There’s a faerie tree in my front yard. Its branches are gnarled like an old woman’s fingers, knobbed like her knees, and the trunk hunches down like she’s reaching for my house. Mamaw said the hole at the base of faerie trees is where faeries come out or rush in or leave gifts if it’s big enough, though I was too young to remember. She says I was fussy in any arms that weren’t hers or the tree, least ’til I got used to everything. When I was real little, Sister says she could always find me curled half in the tree if I’d toddled off, like I fell asleep tryin’ to find Mamaw’s faeries. Still, after she showed me, I was scared to sit in its big open lap for a time, scared faeries would rush on out and into me, and I would have wings beating in me and they’d fly me far from home, just buzzing along like a balloon through the clouds.

Tonight I want to be flown away. Sister got married and didn’t tell me, she got married and didn’t tell nobody. She didn’t tell Momma, she didn’t tell Pa, she just up and got married and brought that man home. I don’t like him. He’s tall and skinny, a beanpole of a man with straw for hair and black buttons for eyes, and rough, gunnysack skin. His smile’s like still water, stagnant and sick, a birthing ground for things that’s just born rotten. I don’t know what she sees in him. He drawls and haws and hums all the time, don’t say what he mean, and look at us like we’re fools. He’s all wrong inside and his face ain’t right either. Ain’t normal—like their marriage. Sister used to be strong. “I’ll have a fairy prince, or nobody,” she’d say, “and fairy princes ain’t real.” But here she is come back from boarding school with a man and a ring and a baby on the way.

Oh, Momma ain’t happy. She’s pretending to be, but she’s not and told me so. “That sister of yours gone and got herself knocked up and had one of Those weddings. Don’t know where she got it from. She weren’t ever getting married, and now here he is. This is your Pa’s side, Marianne. Only your Mamaw done something that stupid, God rest her, but at least we got your Pa. That damned school’s lucky it’s empty right now. Come fall term, I’m raising hell.”

Except Sister’s quit school, quit and married and gonna have a baby, and I don’t like it one bit. I go out to the faerie tree and mosey around, looking for little wings before I sit and lean back and relax. It’s dark but still warm, and the ground’s soft, its new green poking up around my bare toes. From against the tree, big leaves hide the moon, but I can see clear through the windows into the house. The bottom floor is dark; the second floor is Sister’s room, and my room that was Mamaw’s before she passed; the top floor is Momma and Pa’s room—they have the whole attic to themselves. They were gonna move into Sister’s room so’s they didn’t have to climb so many stairs, but now they’re gonna stay put until Sister’s got a place.

In Momma and Pa’s room, they’re arguing. I can tell even though they’re hugging and putting on nightclothes. They argue real soft, so you can’t hear them, but I can tell by their feet, ’cause Momma always gets the urge to run when she’s angry, and you can hear her skip-step-stop from down below and know she’s in a tizzy. When I heard that I put my dress back on and came out—no sense trying to sleep while she’s banging around. I can see her now, and she’s as fired up as Pa is tight and still. They’re talking about Sister, I know it.

Sister and her scarecrow husband are in her room. She’s got a double bed, so I know where he’s sleeping tonight. They just better not do anything under Pa’s roof. From under the faerie tree I watch him kiss her, watch her close her eyes, and see him look straight out the window—at me. I freeze up, and then I think he can’t see me. But he stops kissing Sister and pulls the curtains closed, and I know if he tells Momma I saw him she’ll lick me for being nosy.

The faeries in the tree start buzzing behind me, like a nest of wasps getting ready to swarm. I know it’s them, I saw ’em once, when Mamaw called ’em out to set me straight. I think about Sister’s man and I’m tempted, fierce as Jesus in the desert, but I don’t. Mamaw told me the price she’d paid for letting ’em loose; said giving up her grand-baby’s the hardest thing she ever done. Sure, she got back her son and he raised up our family with Momma, but sometimes she must’a looked at us and just hated.

I ain’t scared of the faeries no more, and they never do speak, but I learned they get loud when my heart does, so I try to feel quiet. The night air is warm and the breeze is cool. I breathe deep and stare at the dark. Fireflies float everywhere, winking like the stars I can’t see through the branches. I don’t want to face Sister’s husband in the morning, but I know I have to. I don’t much like the idea of him sleeping on the same floor as me, but Sister will protect me if it comes to anything. Pregnant or not, Sister’s always stood up for me.

• • • •

In the morning, Momma’s cooking eggs and Pa’s asking Sister’s man questions at the table over coffee. What does he do, who’re his parents, how did he meet Sister. You know, questions. Sister’s helping Momma when she’s not sitting quiet at the table with her hands folded in her lap like a big china doll. When I finish setting the table I try asking questions too, try to get Sister to talk, but she won’t. I start how the girls at school start—“How did he propose?”—even though I don’t care about that. I remember they all looked at me strange when I said so, like they knew I was Different. Wrong. Not a real girl. I pretended I cared after that, and Momma nods when she hears me ask, “What was the wedding like?” and I know I done right in her eyes. But Sister don’t answer, just sits there, and I’m done pussyfooting around like it’s fine when it ain’t, and I snap. “You’d never pick a man like that, so how’d he get his dirty claws into you?”

“Marianne!” Momma bursts out my name like I cussed in church.

Pa thunders, “Hush!” right behind her. They look at me sideways, like I ain’t got manners, or maybe like I just ain’t right, like I’m Different. “Men are speaking,” Pa says finally, but he don’t say go cut a switch, so I scrunch up and hush up and sulk. Sister don’t wink at me like usual though, just stares at her hands until Momma calls her to help bring out breakfast.

There are eggs and pancakes and my mouth would water on any other day at the thick smell of hot batter on the skillet, but today I’m too busy glaring at the beanpole to be hungry. I hate him already, but I know he’s turning Pa around. It’s like Pa can’t see his scarecrow face. I know Momma don’t like him, but if Pa likes him she’ll make do and pretend. That’s how it always is.

“So, Marianne, do you cook?” the beanpole asks.

I tell him, “Yessir,” but that’s all I say, and my face tells him I don’t like questions.

Before Pa can get on me again for being rude, there’s food on the table. Momma’s smiling and Sister’s just a quiet young lady, a pretty, empty face I can’t reach. Something don’t feel right, but don’t Momma or Pa notice, and I can’t tell why. So I eat quiet-like and pretend I’m a lady. Pa’s talking to beanpole again.

• • • •

That night I go back to the faerie tree and sit by the roots. I don’t know why, but I feel safer here, and something’s wrong in the house. Momma likes beanpole now and so does Pa, and Sister’s so quiet I don’t know what to think. He just sits there with those black button eyes and that doll’s sewn-on smile on that gunny-sack skin. I don’t know what they’re hearing that turns ’em round, but he ain’t getting to me. The faerie tree buzzes and lightning bugs flicker. Momma and Pa put on their nightclothes and get into bed. They don’t talk tonight, just sleep.

Sister’s curtains are still open and I can see in. The beanpole wraps his arms around her, hands on her belly, and all at once I think his hand’s gonna change to a bear claw and cut the baby out. But his hand stays normal, and his black button eyes look out the window, right at me. He smiles that sewn-on smile, and I hate him and I’m afraid of him, and I ain’t used to either one. The faeries in the tree buzz with my beating heart. I can’t tell if their wings are shaking the tree, or if it’s my heart beating so fast I’m shaking all on my own.

I watch, pressed back far as I can, as he lets go of Sister and walks to the window. He leans out, staring at me, then leans back in and closes the curtain.

The buzzing don’t get quiet and I don’t feel quiet. I’m scared to go inside, but I do. When I get to the second floor, he’s standing in the yellow light from Sister’s room, waiting for me.

“Marianne,” he says, “I get the feeling you don’t like me.”

I don’t know what he’s really after, but I know he don’t care what I think. I know enough now to play along, so I do; no sense proving I know he ain’t right inside. I say, “You seem like a decent man,” like I’m reading Mary for the nativity play, “you just treat my sister right, you hear?”

He laughs like a toad, says “Sure thing,” and shuts the door. I hold my breath and tiptoe past, scared that door’s gonna open and he’ll jump out like the bogeyman. But the door don’t open and when I get to my room I latch the lock and turn on all the lights so no shadows can get me while I’m trying to sleep. I stay awake all night, afraid to shut my eyes, staring at the door and reading the Good Book like Momma does when she’s upset. When dawn comes, I know I’m safe. When dawn comes, so does sleep.

• • • •

When I get up I don’t smell cooking, but I’m so tired I don’t notice. I put on a sundress and wash my face and go to the kitchen and realize Momma’s not at the stove like always, and Pa’s not at the table with his coffee. There’s no one in the kitchen but Sister, whose hands are in her lap at the table, and the beanpole, who’s halfway on the side porch with the Sheriff.

“Marianne, sweetie,” Sheriff says when he sees me. “We missed you at Delilah’s birthday last week. You catch a cold?”

“I weren’t sick. I hate parties,” I say, watch him eye me like something ain’t right. “Why you here? Where’s my momma and pa?”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry why? What’s wrong, sir? Where’s Momma?”

He makes me sit down at the table and then he says, “I’m afraid your momma’s passed, your momma and your pa. Last night they both passed in their sleep.”

“What?” It’s like he cut my strings the way my body goes loose, and I think if I’d been standing I would’ve fallen on the floor. Sister don’t move, don’t come and put her arms around me. I stare up at the Sheriff. It don’t make no sense. “They . . . they died? How?”

He nods, but he don’t answer my question, and it still don’t make sense. I look at Sister, but she ain’t looked up from her hands. I look at beanpole, like maybe Sheriff’s got the wrong house, and his hair is still straw and his skin is still gunny, but his eyes are real eyes and his mouth ain’t sewn on, and I’m scareder now than when he stopped me in the hall late last night. Then I see the hearse through his legs, black and long to hold bodies, and two deputies barrel in with a stretcher, and I know I gotta see for myself before my folks are gone.

I run to the attic before they can stop me. I pull up the stairs and lock the trap door behind me. My momma and my pa didn’t die in the night. It’s not right, it’s all wrong, like that beanpole ruining Sister. I just know when I see them things’ll be right again.

But I see Momma’s face, and her eyes are black buttons, and I see Pa’s still face and his mouth is sewn on, and I know he done something, that damned beanpole did something, and I’d pay most any price to get him gone—get him gone yesterday, before he hurt my folks.

I can call the faeries. Mamaw showed me how. He’s just like Pa’s sickness, like a blight on my family, and just like Pa’s sickness, they can take him away. Sister’s not right, but at least she ain’t dead. She took care of me ’til he came along. I’ll just take care of her ’til she’s all right again.

They’re banging and hollering at the floor, bunch of menfolk all angry at the hysterical girl making their jobs harder. I say goodbye to the only parents I’ve ever known, even pray like they’d want, then I open the trapdoor and lower the stairs and come down, and I go to my room. Beanpole wants to have words with me, but it ain’t his place. He ain’t my sister, and he ain’t my parents.

’Cause of him my parents are dead.

I latch the door in his stolen face and lay in my bed and start crying. I’m hungry and angry and sadder than I’ve ever been about anything, carryin’ on like families at funerals, but I ain’t never felt things deep enough for that before, not even for Mamaw, and I’m proud of this grief—I wallow in it, feel real for a spell. It hurts in my chest, like my heart’s a bird fell out the nest and broke its neck at the bottom of the tree. Then anger burns through. I may not be the real Marianne, but I’m the one they got, and I’ll do right by my parents like they did right by me.

If the faeries can’t save ’em, they’ll save Sister or I’ll kill him myself. Come nightfall that man will be gone.

• • • •

When I wake up, it’s almost dark. I’m hungry and scared stiff of going through the house without Momma to protect me, without Sister to protect me, with the beanpole still here. But I need a knife and some fruit, so I compromise. I crawl out the window, scurry down the roof to the gutter, climb down, and sneak through the porch to the kitchen. I grab an apple from the table and Momma’s boning knife, then hurry out to the faerie tree like that man might show up any minute. I curl close between the faerie tree’s legs and try to think while more tears leak hot down my face. Mamaw said faeries are crafty little shits, and words are important, and hard sacrifice. I make myself eat but save some for the faeries.

Come sunset, I know what to ask.

I cut my thumb when the sun’s just disappearing, and the faeries’ wings are buzzing with my heart. I press my blood to the dirt in the hole in the tree, and I say I need help, and they come. The fireflies pinwheel and scatter like smoked out bees as the air turns to honey in my lungs. There’s a strange pull, tugging where my thumb meets the earth, like my blood is well water being drawn out from deep underground, and then faeries start bubbling up from the ground, shake off dirt, unfurl dragonfly wings, and dart out of the hollow. Each one gone yields two more coming up, and there’s more climbing out of the sides of the hollow like ants climbing down from high up in the trunk. The faeries glow steady and dim, like ghost lights through a fog. One lands on my knee, nails digging like claws, and we look at each other real quiet.

It looks just like the rest of ’em flitting around, but there’s weight to it, weight like the curl of a copperhead, and I know it’s in charge like I know it ain’t human. It’s the size of my finger, naked and fearless as a baby, like a flat-chested, crazy-haired doll with no nethers to hide. It’s got big, black doe eyes, but they look at me fox-like: wild, wary, and meddlesome.

The faeries pinwheel around but hover close, like they’re waiting. The one on my knee reveals teeth like a shark, but its voice rings out clear as a sweet, tiny bell. “What do you want, and what will you give in exchange?”

I try to breathe easy. “There’s a man killed my parents, hurt my sister, and got her pregnant. I want him dead yesterday before dark. I want every trace of him gone. You get rid of him, I’ll give you the baby.” It’s his, probably wrong as its pa, and I know Sister ain’t wanted kids ’til later anyway.

The faerie smiles, and it ain’t a nice smile. “But what will you sacrifice?”

It knows I don’t want that wrong baby somehow, but that’s the price Mamaw paid, and I don’t know what else to give. “I got a gold ring,” I say—Mamaw’s old wedding ring. Momma thought Sister would get it, kept harping on it when she found out, but when I offered to give it over she looked at me like I look at Sister’s man—like I was wrong inside, like the ring should mean more than it did. I ain’t tell her Mamaw maybe gave it hoping someday I’d be normal, or maybe hoping what she done wouldn’t touch Sister through that band. That husband only gave her my Pa, and ’cause of Pa she got me. I know she loved me, but that don’t always help.

Maybe the faerie knows that, ’cause it don’t want my ring neither. “I want a real sacrifice.”

“Well I ain’t got much ’sides that to give. What kinda thing do you want?”

The faerie’s mean smile gets nastier, and its teeth look longer. The other faeries stop darting like lost dragonflies, the crickets hush up, and the night air dies. “You must have loved your parents very much to want them back,” the faerie says, sweet as a salesman through those sharp, sharp teeth.

“Yeah,” I admit, but I’m all over scared. No good comes from telling faeries some things.

“We cannot bring back the dead, little Changeling, but we can give back your sister and take away the man and his baby. Will you pay our price?”

“Depends what you ask,” I say, like I ain’t made my decision before I called ’em up like I did, come what may.

The faerie’s face goes soft and dreamy, like it’s drinking good whiskey in a really soft chair. It says, “When you think of your parents, I can taste your emotion: all your love, your devotion, and your grief beyond my understanding. We do not feel as the humans do, child, and you’ll never feel quite like the humans do either. But you feel for your parents. You feel very much.” It turns sharp as its teeth. “I’ll take that emotion as payment.”

My heart drops and my eyes leak out tears before the words even make sense. “You wanna feel it?” I ask, but I know what it meant.

“I want to have it,” it says. “That’s a worthy sacrifice.”

“That’s too much.” Maybe I can haggle it down. “Take what I feel for my Pa. Takin’ both is too much.”

The faerie squares off like it’s rich folk and eyes me like dirt. “When last I saw you, Marianne,” and my name in its mouth quakes my bones loud as thunder, “you were half as high, and your grandmother called us out not to deal, but to warn you away from our folk. You know what manner of price our aid requires. Would you pay less than she?”

“Two is too much,” I say, quiet and scared.

“One for the man and one for the baby. I ask nothing to restore your sister in honor of your ties to us, but mark me well, Marianne, I could demand what you feel for her, too, and call it fair.”

“Oh,” I say, like I been shushed in church by the pastor himself. “The first price weren’t too high like I thought.”

We agree to the terms and I cut a slice of apple and eat half, and the faerie eats half, and the deal’s done. I’m shaking like it’s winter and I feel cold all over. I pray to Momma and Pa that they understand why I’m giving them up. I loved them the best I could, but they’re gone, and there’s Sister to think about now.

The faerie says bring Sister’s man to the tree and they’ll do it, and they’ll take my Pa when its done. The faerie says bring Sister down to the tree too, and they’ll take the baby and take Momma, and it won’t hurt none. I say bringing them down weren’t part of the deal, but the faeries just laugh like a bell choir and fly into the tree. The crickets start chirping and the night air starts breathing, and the fireflies slide back under the branches.

Beanpole ain’t been in the yard since he first came with Sister. I got no idea how to get him outside. I sit at the tree trying to think up a plan, but my whole head’s full up of Momma humming over the skillet cooking pancakes for breakfast, and the way Pa half-smiles when I bring him more coffee. I see Pa whittling on the porch steps while the sun dies over harvested fields, and Ma mending in her chair, laughing with Pa through the screen. There were evenings before Sister went to boarding school when we’d all set out there, all together, Mamaw telling fairy tales and Pa saying, “Sister, no princes ’til you’re thirty-five,” and Sister getting fussy while Momma just laughed. He never told me “No princes,” ’cause I never cared to be a princess like real girls, but I knew my family loved me through and through on those nights, even wrong inside as I was pretty.

I still wonder sometimes if the real Marianne would’ve been pretty as me, but maybe felt a lot more than I do, maybe cried just like Sister when Mamaw passed. If maybe she’d’ve grown up scared of snakes and spiders, and if she’d’ve crushed on boys and fit in with other girls, and not looked at people like I do most times, wondering why they think stupid things is so important. Now I wonder too: Would she have paid to save Sister like me?

I was little when Mamaw told me I weren’t the real Marianne, but only she knew. My Momma and Pa loved me like I was her, and it hurts to remember, but it makes me feel human as Sister, rememberin’, and I don’t want to forget.

I give up trying to plan when it hits me I won’t remember nights on the porch the same without my love for Momma and Pa, and without their love for me. I cry some more after that, and when my stomach claws at me I finish the apple, and then I watch Sister’s light go on and hate the beanpole more than ever for what I’m giving up.

Sister walks up to the window, a china doll trapped inside oily light, and I look at her and hate her too a minute, ’cause she brought that damned man into our home. Beanpole don’t come up behind her though, and I don’t see other lights in the house, and I wonder if he left on his own, and if he did, can I still keep my Pa? But then I hear the screen door clack shut, and the beanpole melts into a shadow just outside reach of the faerie tree’s branches, and I realize I ain’t got to bring him here at all.

“Come inside,” he says, stretching out his hand. “I promise you’ll feel better in the morning.”

Sister stands in her window, hands over her belly like Mary finding out her son’s gonna die. I look at her and I think of the faeries, and I feel mean as a razor. “I ain’t going in,” I say. “I won’t. I’m gonna sleep here tonight.”

“At least come in and let me get you a blanket,” he says all reasonable, like I don’t know what he did.

“I’m just fine,” I say, and I wait for the faeries, but they don’t come and I wonder if he’s not close enough. So I tell him, like I might be a tiny bit sorry, “I will take a blanket if you bring it here.”

He shrugs like a good man trying to make nice, and he goes and gets me a blanket and stops on the edge of the branches again. “Brought you a blanket,” he says, “Come get it and then I’ll let you alone.”

“Promise?” Like I ain’t planning to kill him.

“Yeah, I promise.” Like he ain’t a killer and a thief.

Sister’s still in her window, hands on her belly, but she’s looking right at me and all at once I’m afraid of her too. The faeries said they’d make Sister like she was, but what if they can’t and that’s why they said she was free? What if I’m about to give up Momma and Pa and I don’t even get Sister back like they promised?

My heart starts up thundering and the faerie tree buzzes behind me, and I realize I don’t want to move. I hate the faeries much as I hate that beanpole, but I feel safer touching the faerie tree and curling the boning knife in my hand. I’m afraid to go get that damned blanket.

“Come get the blanket, Marianne,” he says.

“No, I’m warm,” I say, and it’s true, I start feeling so hot I might sweat. I’m tired and hungry and he murdered my folks and he ruined my sister, and he has nerve talking with Pa’s mouth while he glares down at me with my own momma’s eyes. I want him gone, but first I need him to come closer. I’m waiting for him, eyeing him like those damned faeries eyed me.

“You won’t be warm in the morning, young lady.”

I ain’t his young lady. “Then bring it here, I ain’t moving.” If Pa heard my tone he’d make me go cut a switch.

“No, you come here and get it. Now. I mean it, Marianne. I’m in charge now, and I don’t want you catching cold.” When I don’t budge, he tries for sweet, and it works. “You wouldn’t want to disappoint your Momma, now would you?”

“Don’t you dare,” I yell like I’m throwing stones, and my mind’s all gone red with my rage. I run at him, quick and mad as lightning, and I stick him real good and he drops the old blanket on my arms before I can think.

Only then do I realize, piece by piece, like a quilt stitched together, just what I’ve done. The blanket is coarse in my hands, and the moon lights a gunnysack shade matching his skin. When I look up at his face, Momma’s eyes are black and smiling, and he’s grinning at me in my Pa’s proud half-smile. There’s no blood round the knife in his side, but his skin’s peeling at the shoulders, like a snake starting to shed for a new one.

His fingers ain’t fingers. They’re sharp as bear claws.

He swipes ’em at me.

I fall, but I can’t get my hands out to catch me. Then I see the blanket ain’t a blanket, just like he’s not a man: I’m gripping hard to a sack winding its way over my fingers, up my hands and wrists and arms to my shoulders. I thrash like a fish in a boat ’til I’m on my side, then I inch like a worm toward the faerie tree, screeching.

“Help me!” Loud, over my heartbeat, I scream, “Now, goddammit!”

That man’s close enough! If they don’t take him now he’ll kill me and they’ll get nothing and I’ll be nothing and I don’t know what else I can do. But there’s no lights, and then I’m yowling too loud to hear ’em buzzing if they do come, ’cause the beanpole drives his claws into my foot and yanks me close, lifts me high by my shoulders, and his mouth opens wide. It’s like a snake mouth, bigger than it has any right to be, and black inside with no teeth, just an eternity of nothing.

He breathes in.

It’s like his breath’s digging under my skin, fixing to rip it off, and it hurts more than his claws in my shoulders and where the sack’s seeping in. I scream and my voice feels skinned out of my body, and then over my pain I hear bedlam, and it’s coming fast. I feel the honey of oncoming power, and it soothes me, but the beanpole starts screaming and drops me to run. That’s when I see them, buzzing loud as a waterfall, streaming out like a river of light from the tree straight at him. They fill the darkness with light, bright as day and as pure as an angel of vengeance. When I strain up to see the beanpole, he’s covered in light. Faerie wings ripple over him like they’re breathing, a seething army of ants covering him head to foot while he’s in there screaming. It’s horrible, the sounds of buzzing and chomping and him screaming like the faeries missed his vitals when they hit. Then he chokes and goes quiet, and it stinks of sour blood and sawdust and old, rotten eggs. The faeries is still loud when beanpole starts shrinking, smaller and smaller like they’re ants on a carcass, ’til he’s all but gone.

I can’t even think to feel glad when it happens.

’Cause when beanpole starts shrinking, my mind starts through memories of Pa as I lie in that unnatural light. And while beanpole’s shrinking, what I feel about those memories shrinks with him, ’til that’s all gone too.

I think on those nights on the porch, and they still feel so strongly of love and of family, but now something big’s missing, and I feel a strange ache. I wanna slap at the faeries that land on my arms by the dozens, but the sack crunches to nothing under their sharp teeth, and I’m afraid they’ll keep eating, so I lay real still and hate them deep down.

Up in her window, I see Sister start to cry, and her hands clench her belly, and she looks sharp at me. Then she’s gone, run right out of my sight, and there’s galumphing through the house, then she’s running through the screen door and coming straight for me.

She sweeps me up in her arms before I can blink. “Thank God you’re okay,” she’s crying messy, “I was so afraid for you.” Says, “I’m sorry” and “forgive me, please.”

“What was he,” I ask her. “What’d he do to you?”

But she don’t answer, just rocks me and wails like a baby.

“It’s okay, Sister,” I tell her. “It don’t matter. He’s gone now. We’re okay.”

She makes a sound like she’s laughing and crying both into my hair, and I hug her with my freed arms, scraped raw by the sack.

Then the buzzing starts again, and faeries swarm in, hornet mad as the air goes thick and bright with their light. They’ve come for the baby, I know it, and I hold Sister’s hands when she swats at the faeries like she don’t know just what they are.

Sister’s eyes roll back when the fairies rush at her belly and disappear and reappear through her dress and her skin. I catch her and lay her down on the grass beanpole trampled half under the tree. The faeries crash wave after wave of light into Sister’s swollen belly. Then she gurgles and my knee is wet in the grass by her thigh, and a black, rotting stain’s curling up her pale nightdress. I pull the fabric so the oil slick baby oozes onto the grass, move Sister away from the spill, and then look at the thing. It’s gunny-skinned and sharp-clawed, and smells like its pa when he died.

I hold Sister close. She shakes and keens but don’t wake. As faerie light swarms the baby, I feel Momma go too.

The faeries fly back into the tree, drunk as anything on my feelings. Their leader streaks by me and don’t even look over. Then the lights are gone, and the faeries are gone, and that damned man and his baby are gone, like my Momma and Pa.

For a few minutes it’s just me, then Sister wakes up and it’s just me and Sister. We huddle alone under cold, distant stars, while the land sprawls out empty for miles. Sister cries on my shoulder, but she’s Sister and not a china doll, and I cry ’cause I have her and she’s all I got.

I think, that’s the last of it, now it’s all done. Sister’ll take care of me and we’ll be a family like before she left.

I should’ve known better.

Sometimes I look at Sister now and the holes in my heart feel sharp as Momma’s boning knife, and hate settles over me like a blanket, like silence. I think of Mamaw those times, seeing me every day at the end of her life and just knowing I weren’t Marianne, and it was her fault, but she couldn’t tell nobody.

That’s sacrifice: giving what you can’t give so people you love get along better. Not telling what you gave for them while they rub that pain right in your face and you can’t say a word, least not one they’ll believe.

I sacrificed my love for Momma and Pa so’s Sister could get along better. She don’t remember the night the faeries came. Just wakes up the next day with no baby. Doctor says stress from Momma and Pa must’ve made her miscarry, and grief made her forget. He says, “Get some rest.” Then he takes me aside and says to me, “You take good care of your sister, Marianne.” And he asks how I’m doing without Momma, and I try to sound sad, but all I feel is the hole where my love got ripped out, and I must look real strange ’cause his eyes get real sharp.

Doctor looks at me like the girls at school look at me: Different. Wrong. Not a real girl.

At the funeral I don’t cry and the mourners all look at me: Different. Wrong. Not a real girl.

And Sister and I are laughing under the faerie tree one day, months later, when she don’t cry as fast and hard missing our folks. “You remember on the porch when Pa said, ‘no fairy princes ’til you’re thirty-five’? I guess I should’ve listened.” And she laughs up through the leaves. And I laugh, but it’s hollow, and I ache missing what I can’t feel anymore ’bout strangers I used to love. And Sister says, “What do you miss most? I miss those nights on the porch.”

And I look at the hole in the tree like the hole inside me, and I think, “I wish I could miss them,” and it gets real quiet, and when I look at Sister I know I said it, and she heard it, ’cause she’s looking at me: Different. Wrong. Not a real girl. Like I’m a stranger, and she’s seeing me for the first time, and she just don’t understand. I clear my throat, say, “I wish I could miss them less,” like I just talked too soft and the evening wind stole the last word.

Sister smiles all sad, and nods like she believes me, and she acts just like always the rest of the night. But since that day, sometimes she looks at me sideways, and I think when the faeries took Momma and Pa, they took Sister from me even as they were giving her back.

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Kathleen Kayembe

Kathleen Kayembe

Kathleen Kayembe is the Octavia E. Butler Scholar from Clarion’s class of 2016, with short stories in Lightspeed and Nightmare, an essay in Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, and previous publications with Less Than Three Press. She writes romance as Kaseka Nvita, co-hosts the Write Pack Radio weekly writing podcast as herself, and lives on Twitter as @mkkayembe. A longtime member of the St. Louis Writers Guild, she organizes write-ins instead of movie outings, and falls in love with the world every time she uses a fountain pen. You can find her in St. Louis, where, when not at the day job, she is generally freelance editing, walking her dog, running Amherst Writers and Artists writing groups, scribbling stories into a notebook with an odd little smirk, or playing obnoxiously sensible RPG characters who won’t let party members die.