home with the fairies - vivian chiao
You take the train to the forest.
Your father sends you off. He drives you to the train station through the morning fog and weekend traffic, his untouched black coffee cooling in the thermos you bought for his birthday last year. You told him not to make you anything; you’ve been wide awake since you opened your eyes.
On the way over, the car jolting and shuddering on its crappy suspension, you stare blankly at the passing store-fronts. You arrive and find your platform and weave through the crowd of other bodies, all the while gripping the gilded invitation, thumbnails biting into the stiff white envelope as you rub the letter’s creases between your fingers, wearing them down to nothing. The ink should’ve run off by now, smeared all over your skin like a birthmark. It’s crisp when you look back down at it.
Where will it take you, your blood and connections? To the forest, certainly, but what will you find there? You are eighteen, reckless with curiosity.
You zone back into the conversation. You are standing on the platform. The train is coming. Your father is frowning at you, brow creased.
He looks at you, long and hard. He says, like he always says, “Don’t fuck with what you can’t explain.”
You’ve never met the people who birthed you. You hug him goodbye, arms tight around his neck, your old polka dot scrunchie pinned between your crossed wrists. You love him desperately, this man who has raised you so tenderly, loved you so well.
(The envelope says, at your parents’ request and you know it to be the insult it is.)
You board; you find your seat and put up your backpack in the overhead compartment. The conductor stamps your ticket and you watch out the window as your father fades into a plaid and denim smear in the distance.
This, you remind yourself, is what it means to grow up.
The train moves over the tracks, its steady rhythm settling you further into your bones with every beat. Out the window, the forest swallows the sky. Leaves swirl. Little woodland animals cry out. The web of power lines rises and falls and fades, finally, into the distance as you pass the reach of the city.
Beyond the train, there is the throbbing pulse of the forest. It’s always been in the back of your head but now it is a loud, insistent drumbeat.
What an old story you’re enacting now. One goes into the forest to meet the fairies. One goes because their baby brother was snatched, or their dear friend was lost in the woods, or because their mother is dying and they are desperate. If you were a girl, you might be going to save your imprisoned father from the ice prince’s castle. If you were a boy, you might be going to spare your parents from starvation, sister’s hand clutched in yours, breadcrumbs scattering from your fingertips to mark the way back to the land of mortals.
You are going for yourself. You’re not sure what that’s supposed to say.
What are you scared of when you’re alone, when you’re sitting in the shower with the lights off?
Monsters in the dark? Traffic accidents? The casual cruelty of strangers?
What about the Frankenstein construction of you, the seams pulling wrong on your limbs, your skin, your tendons? You are made of bone. That kills you. It rises from underneath your skin and pushes out like a bug trying to crawl from its old shell. Your ribs jut through your skin. Your shoulder blades bulge on either side of your spine, shifting, the foundation of your body twisting in place. It is inescapable.
The day after the envelope comes, you get home from high school and throw your backpack on the bed and get in the shower with your eyes closed because you can’t stand looking at yourself. When you have to look in the mirror, the glass reads: angular limbs and oil slick eyes, features blurred to something chimeric when you look for too long. The glass reads: come on, did you really convince yourself otherwise?
You close your eyes and touch the edges of your ears; they are round. The glass laughs and laughs: oh my poor sweet child.
Your father teases you, gently, about using all the hot water. You smile and smile and turn the water up to scalding anyway.
You get off the train in the middle of the forest. There is no platform, only a mossy clearing with a circle of mushrooms. The train pulls off, a man at the back saluting you briefly from his place at the window. He probably thinks you’re human and in over your head. Only one of these things is true.
They say the fae are beautiful and the fae are merciless. You do not know their rules. Fair enough; that is the problem of being a human’s child, of eating soft, real food for nearly two decades, of letting your fledgling senses dull to mundanity. This, you don’t have to be told. You can feel it, at the throbbing core of you, how something has been muddled too long to be clear now. But it is still a piece of you and it whispers, it wouldn’t do to be rude.
You walk past the clearing and the trees open up before you, the forest welcoming you. From nothing appears the dirt trail, covered in moss and fallen leaves. You follow it. Past the birdcages that hang from the canopy, where things you cannot see sing with hollow voices. Past the field of flowers that glow even behind your closed eyelids. Past the groves of trees where ripe fruits glisten on the branches, swinging gently in the breeze like hempen nooses from the gallows. Past the trickling waterfall choked with the corpses of butterflies.
You walk past all the temptations and horrors of the forest and arrive, finally, at the Summer Court.
There is a man and a woman standing at the end of the trail. They are at the mouth of a great tunnel formed by branches arching overhead, flanked by two ancient redwoods. The man is leaning against the one on the right, though when you approach he straightens, a long rolling motion like a cat stretching in the sun. The woman looks up from her nails and stares your way, unblinking.
Your mouth is spitless and empty of words. You hold up the unrumpled envelope and it is to your amazement that your arm doesn’t shake.
They look at each other. They look back to you, and you see, for the first time, the woman’s eyes dark as pools of melting chocolate, the man’s hair brown-black with glints of red in the unruly strands. They are about your height, though you are perhaps an inch taller than her.
The woman comes to your side first. There is a lilt to her voice when she says, “My dear, we have been waiting for you for so long.”
On your other side, the man presses his fingertips to your shoulder. Even through your sweater he is cool to the touch. “Darling,” he says, mouth soft around the endearment. “There is so much we want to show you.”
Your birth parents lead you, arm in arm, through the towering poppy flowers and twisting canopy. They are long-limbed and move with a boneless fluidity. You resemble them. This shouldn’t surprise you.
They are incomprehensible to you. Not only because of their Court, their unblinking eyes, the creeping realization that something in you calls to them, but also because Liliana speaks as if she has missed you and Brennus as if he has been planning this meeting for years. You have a loving family and enough friends. You don’t know what it is to long for an idea rather than the flesh and flaws of a person.
They lead you through roofless libraries full of crumbling parchment and open theaters where the actors fade into and emerge from shadows; they collect drops of nectar from the overgrown larkspurs, showing you how they shine golden and bright. The sun begins to set and the sunlight filtering through the canopy shifts from gleaming white to a soft dusky amber. They pause at a large, intricately carved table under a pavilion and announce that it’s time to stop for dinner.
“Will I be able to leave if I eat the food here?” you ask. You are holding a glass full of ice and mint-green absinthe. The hardwood table is set with cloth napkins, polished silverware, and plates upon plates of roasted hog, steaming venison, vegetables tossed in delicate sauce. Your stomach is turning between your hollow ribs. You can’t tell if it’s hunger or nausea.
Brennus smiles. Liliana laughs.
“My dear,” she says. You have noticed they do not call you Harper. “Those rules are for humans who wander into our woods.” She places a hand on yours, long nails tickling your skin. “And that hardly applies to you.”
“So I can leave whenever I want.”
“There are rules. We love our rules. But on the whole, you are exempt from the laws of which humans tell stories. After all,” she bares her teeth in a grin, “little point in trapping you.”
You tighten your grip on the glass and leave it resting on the table. Brennus catches your eye and smiles into his own cup. “So wary, darling,” he says. “No, drinking or eating here will not oblige you to stay.”
You don’t know if you believe them, but at their indulgent looks you raise your glass to your lips and down the entire thing. Spite is a poor motive for risking your life, but it’s what you’ve got.
The roasted hog is smoky and thick. The venison is tender, parting easily around your fork and knife. You gorge yourself on sauteed zucchini and stir-fried asparagus, work your way around to glazed carrots and mashed potatoes rich with butter, melting on the plate. The stacked tower of fruit in the center of the table is built of dusky peaches and delicate mangoes, a loose pile of faultless apples scattered among bunches of perfectly round grapes. You take a peach. It bursts in your mouth when you bite into it, juice running down your chin. After the entrees and the fruits, there are saucers of cream and wild honey, glistening in the bright moonlight. You dip your spoon into those too, gluttonous the way you’d never let yourself be at home.
Liliana and Brennus watch you with gimlet eyes and quirked smiles. They linger on the sweets, taking small bits of the honey and cream until they are scraping the bottoms of the saucers. They offer you the last bite of everything and you politely rebuff them each time.
When the food is gone, Brennus stands from the table and offers a hand to Liliana. She rises, and you hasten to follow. Even with the full meal, just as grand as any holiday feast, you aren’t stuffed. You feel as if you’ve eaten just enough to stave off hunger, as if everything on the table was this side of insubstantial.
They turn to you as one. Liliana offers you her arm. “Well, my dear? Are you ready to see the Queen?”
The Queen, Brennus explains, sits on her throne, which is in turn at the center of the Fair Folk’s place in the forest, the star around which the realm revolves. This is where they hold Court.
“But why are we going there?”
Liliana shrugs. Her elegant sun-browned shoulders shift under her turquoise chiffon dress. “Tradition, my dear.”
“More like decree,” Brennus says mildly.
Liliana scrunches her nose in distaste. In the twelve hours you’ve known your birth mother, it’s the most undignified expression you’ve seen her make.
“You know it as well as I,” Brennus says.
“And we pay accordingly, do we not?”
You look askance at them both.
Liliana purses her lips. Brennus says, “Humans have a few constants: death, taxes. The latter holds true for us as well.”
You haven’t seen them exchange any currency since you’ve gotten here. “What do you use to pay her?”
He smiles at you, at once fond and chiding. “Darling, we have missed you terribly.”
While you talk, they lead you through the winding paths. The route is erratic, doubling back on itself; twice you swear you pass the same crystal pool with multi-colored baubles floating on the surface of the water. They whisper to you, falsely sweet and tangibly familiar, and the deja vu makes you turn away and hurry down the path after Liliana and Brennus. You’re grateful for their presence. They navigate this place and its byzantine logic in a way that a human never could and you can only try to replicate.
There is no fanfare when you arrive at the entrance to the Court. It seems to meld with the greenery: only when Liliana puts a hand to your shoulder and angles your gaze, do you see the archway made of entangled vines. They writhe as you watch, like a nest of snakes.
“Here we are,” Liliana says, her fingers lingering on your shoulder.
You step forward and her hand falls off of you; they do not follow. You turn back. “You’re not coming with me?”
You haven’t spoken so casually since coming here; the question pulls itself out of your mouth without so much as a by your leave from the smarter part of your brain, the one that reminds you that these people don’t have your best interests at heart. But you have been spoiled by your father’s constancy. Abandonment has always been an abstract for you. Now it stings.
Liliana smiles placidly. Brennus wraps an arm around her waist.
“We will be with you,” she says. “In the crowd, but we will be there.”
You open your mouth as if to protest — stupid. Have you already forgotten that you don’t know the rules?
“Darling,” Brennus says, and his eyes are terribly soft. “Everyone goes alone.”
You leave them behind, in the end. You walk through the archway.
The Court rises up from nowhere. Now you are standing in the empty clearing beyond the arch. Now you are standing in the middle of an open coliseum, stone benches rising up around you in a semicircle. In her position in the shaded dais far off the ground, the Queen sits.
You bow instinctively. From the corner of your eye, you see her raise an indulgent hand, her long, thin fingers curling towards you.
You look up.
She is white-haired and violet-eyed, her skin dark as mahogany. Her dress is sleeveless and tumbles from the loop around her neck, wrapping loosely around her torso and spilling past her ankles. She leans forward from where she reclined on the high-backed wooden throne.
“Do you know why you are here?”
You swallow around the mirror-glass in your throat. “No.”
The Queen laughs. The fae sitting on the stone benches, dozens of unblinking eyes fixed on you, titter along with her. Somewhere among them are your birth parents. You dare a glance into the crowd, but if they are present, you cannot see them.
“No guesses, child? Nothing at all?”
“My parents,” you say. You bow to hide the grimace on your face. “They said you wanted to meet me.”
She hums in the back of her throat. Her aconite-purple nails flash briefly in the moonlight while she plays with the gold chain hanging around her neck.
“And what about yourself? What do you think of my intentions?”
You bow lower. The voice in your blood is singing, this is what always happens to changelings, and you know without knowing how that your life rests on the knife’s edge of the Queen’s approval. And the Queen is fae; she is nothing if not fickle.
“I would venture a guess that you meet many of the changelings of your Court.” The words rise past your numb lips. “I do not think I am so special to one so dignified and powerful as yourself.”
“So young and yet you speak so prettily, child.” She smiles. Her teeth are too big and too sharp in her face. “Get up, get up,” she adds, when you do not move. “Do not strain yourself on my behalf.”
You straighten carefully from your position.
“What do the humans call you?”
“Ah, a human music-maker. A good name. Not the one you were born with, but still. Who chose it?”
The Queen rises to her feet in a slow, fluid wave, more grace than flesh. “Harper,” — your name in her mouth is all wrong, an encroachment on previously safe territory — “my child, I have something to ask of you.”
“What do you request?”
She starts to descend from the dais. The crowd, which falls silent whenever she speaks, begins to chatter again, their high voices bleeding into one another as the Queen slowly winds down the stairs. Like the drumbeat on the train, their voices rise and rise, drawing out what you’d half-buried in the dirt of your childhood playgrounds, all those fever dreams of dancing elves and fairy rings and human bodies crushed by fool’s gold, how you used to wake in the middle of the night for every other full moon, how you used to jump from high places, convinced that you would —
She stops in front of you and they fall silent. Her violet eyes never leave yours.
“Tell me,” she says, “about the mortal world.”
You say, “Of course, your majesty,” and she raises her hand to your temple.
Your father hacks into the bathroom sink in the early morning, when he thinks you’re still sleeping. When he walks around your home, he trails his fingers along walls and the edges of furniture, anchoring himself, keeping a hand somewhere he can catch himself on. He coughs in his sleep, loud enough to wake the dead.
He is sick again. (Your father is always sick.)
This morning, he makes coffee for the both of you: black for him, sugar and cream for you. He never makes yours sweet enough — you don’t say anything because your actual tastes might give you diabetes before you’re thirty, but you don’t want to hear it this early in the morning.
He’s scrambling eggs on the stove when you stumble down the stairs, rubbing your eyes. It’s the weekend and your body has been blessedly allowed to sleep in. Your father, as always, rises with the sun.
He is laughing at you while he neglects to stir the eggs. “Hello, sleepyhead.”
You grumble something that could be generously construed as a greeting.
“What was that?”
“The eggs are burning.”
The eggs are not, in fact, burning, but it makes your father spin around in panic to the pan. He’s desperate to never repeat the one time he’d set off the smoke alarm at breakfast because he fell asleep next to the coffee machine. You like to infrequently give him shit about this.
He looks in, stirs the eggs, and gives you the stink eye. “Oh, very funny.”
“I’m hilarious.” You steal a sip from one of the mugs. Oh, ew. It’s his. You take the other and slink to the nearest seat by the kitchen table. There’s a plate of sausages already cooling on one of the placemats and you barely resist the urge to stuff it into your mouth with your bare fingers like a heathen.
“Harper,” your father says.
You sigh. You set the table.
You wait in your seat, chin propped up on one fist and half-falling asleep while he transfers the eggs from the pan to the plate with a flick of the wrist. The motion is deliberately smooth; you only catch the slight shake because you’re looking for it. He puts the eggs on the table between the sausages and hash browns. Your mouth waters.
He takes a seat, exhales, and sips his coffee.
He goes to pick up his fork. You reach for yours and go for one of the sausages.
He says, “That’s a new hoodie.”
You freeze. You look down.
You’re wearing a soft, worn black hoodie over your pajamas. It has MERLIN IN CHAINS, a metal band your father knows you despise, across the front in exaggerated white font. A cartoonish willow tree with skulls hanging from the branches wraps around the m in MERLIN. The drawstrings are ragged at the end, probably because your girlfriend has a habit of worrying them between her fingers while she tries to type her English Lit papers. (You have not told your father about said girlfriend.) You wonder if you can pass it off as a thrift store find, as if this hoodie isn’t the most atrociously designed thing you’ve ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on. You open your mouth to say you bought it recently.
“Fuck,” you say.
Your father raises an eyebrow. You try to will your fae powers, whatever those are, to make you turn into a puddle and sink through the floor.
He spears a piece of egg and sticks it in his mouth. He swallows it. He says, with devastating amusement, “New friend?”
You break out of the vision-memory with a soft gasp. It is like stepping out of the shower onto the cool tile floor, the air breaking over your face, steam escaping against your back. Fragments of it cling to you: your father’s rasping laugh, the fraying hems of the hoodie’s black sleeves, coffee bittersweet on your tongue.
The Queen inhales deeply, as if savoring the scent. You reflexively reach for what your father said when you got to the table — but there is only the flattened monochrome sketch of it, his face blurred, mouth opened soundlessly.
The Queen says, “Isn’t that nice?”
You stare at her. Half-foreign knowledge wells up inside of you, tinged with the Queen’s sibilant voice: that morning will play endlessly in some crystal pool, another little bauble of the Court. Quite possibly you will see it again, somewhere, but only as a stranger peering into a film. It will never quite be yours again.
The Queen tilts her head and narrows her eyes and you remember yourself.
“It’s one of my nicer ones,” you say.
She laughs. She sweeps the hair out of your face. You startle; you hadn’t realized she’d never stopped touching you in the first place.
She says, “Let’s do it again.”
Like a knife into ice, she pushes —
You are shaking when she lets you go, finally.
“Mm,” the Queen says. The air leaves her mouth in a long, pleased exhale. She looks down at you, on your knees and retching in the dirt. “I think that’s enough for now.”
You lift your head to stare at her. Your vision flashes ultraviolet: for a moment, the coliseum is shining marble, and you sit on a throne and wear a circlet of eyes, praying mantis wings splayed from your back. You are ancient and unknowable. Under you, your subjects sing your praises as they fight to the death in your name.
You squeeze your eyes shut and shake your head. When you open your eyes again to stare at the ground, you see only your white-knuckled hands clenched in the moss.
“You are an interesting one, aren’t you,” the Queen says cheerfully.
You wipe your mouth with the back of your wrist. “I respec—re—respectfully disagree.”
“Oh, no, I have to insist.” A hand settles on the top of your head; you freeze. She ruffles your hair as one would a beloved pet. “Stand up. Take your time.”
You want your father. Oh dear gods, you want your father.
Your vision wavers again: the ground is sand and bloody, the ground is mossy and only damp with your sweat. The Queen is you, is her, is an empty title after all. Who fills it is not the point, only that it is filled.
You press a hand to your aching eyes.
“Do you understand why you’re here?”
“A tithe,” you say. You cannot remember not knowing this. “There is a cost for living outside the Court.”
“Yes,” she says, pleased.
“I don’t — memories?”
She shrugs, unbothered by your casualness. “We aren’t what we were. The price of things changes over the centuries. Even the Court bends to time, when it must.” She tips your chin up with her hand and smiles thinly. “Though I could always go back to collecting in blood, if you prefer.”
You flinch. Her nails dig into your face. You feel something hot trickle down your chin.
“Ah,” you manage, “I’d rather not.”
The Queen’s mouth quirks and her eyes sharpen. You understand that expression, now, as fondness.
“I wasn’t kidding,” she says mildly. “You’re fascinating. If you last long enough, you might even become my favorite.” Her nail drags along the side of the cut on your face. She cocks her head to the side and stares as the blood wells up. “There’s something so gorgeously contradictory about changelings when they’re young.”
“Every fae gets tired of mortals, eventually.” She releases you. Your knees nearly give out. “But that’s not the point. You’ve lived well, Harper. Continue that so I’ll have something nice when I see you again.”
Where is your outrage? Where are all your clever arguments? Your tongue is slack in your mouth and you do not know if it is fear or resignation that stills your voice.
The Queen turns and walks away from you. You watch her go, relieved, and yet — bereft of her attention. She stops at the foot of the stairs.
“One more thing,” the Queen says. She raises her hand and the magic rises off of her skin like steam, swirling and twisting in the air.
It dives at you.
You do not have time to inhale before you are screaming.
You do not know if it is hours or days later when you come back to yourself, twitching and whimpering in the fetal position on the ground. Inside you there is tectonic drift: your organs settling, bones clicking into place. Your shirt is half-ripped and there is hot blood dripping from your back. You flinch and curl further into yourself and — there is something by your ear, fluttering.
You look over your shoulder.
Dragonfly wings rise from your back, unfurling malleable and slick, jerking and spasming with birth pains. They extend from your bloodied shoulder blades, exposed bone gleaming underneath your broken flesh.
From her place on her throne, the Queen says, “I thought I would give you a present.”
You take the train back. Your father meets you at the platform, pulling you into a hug as soon as he spots you. He draws back and holds you at arms length, asks how it was. Your mouth quirks up and your eyes sharpen.
“It was fine, Dad,” you say. “But I’m glad to be home.”