a short story by Meghan Brunner
That whole “faery tithe to hell” thing is bunk, a story humans invented to scare each other around their fires. I’d like to remind you that humans have sacrificed each other for millennia. First it was to gods, and now it’s to corporations.
Personally, I’d take this Hell they keep talking about. At least it’s honest. You don’t have to pretend to like it, and nobody tries to convince you that it’s as good as you can get.
You’ll be wondering, of course, what one of Themselves could possibly know about corporations. I’ll tell you: more than I ever wanted to.
It’s not what you think. I don’t live among you, disguising myself as a human except for a pair of poorly hidden pointed ears. There’s been some interbreeding over the years, sure, but we don’t pose when we do it. Why would we? You don’t run around pretending to be a monkey when you’re looking for a tumble, do you?
Maybe you do. I shouldn’t judge.
The reason I know about corporations, though, is that humans built one right on top of my forest, which they now claim they “manage.” In case you didn’t know, that’s a fancy way for saying they know better than nature when a tree ought to come down, and never mind who might be living in it. Why, my cousin’s had to move four times because of them, and it’s no good taking down their special yellow ribbons. They just put them back on.
After a while they built paths through my forest. They must’ve heard the old saying about how you have to stick to the road or you’ll be lured off forever. Not sure why they thought we’d want to lure most of them off; the people sacrificed to corporations usually aren’t the best and brightest that were offered to the gods, if you catch my drift. Perhaps they weren’t smart enough to find their way out without that hard black stuff under their feet.
Can’t blame them for wanting to see our trees, though. They are beautiful, and the faery mound is exquisite. They seem to have realized that, too, because they hold strange rites on top of it, playing odd games and chanting phrases in a ritual called Team Building. It’s led by a group called Human Resources, and I can see why. Seems like they treat their humans like any other resource they touch: use them up and throw them away. Even their high priestess is hollow-eyed, and between you and me, I think she must’ve angered a particularly cruel trickster spirit for her hair to look like that.
Or maybe just the master of the mound. He lives down there, you know, and he’s not fond of the noise.
The trails are good for people-watching when we’re bored, though. People in suits, women in strange shoes that not even a brownie with a hangover would be mean enough to cobble together. They go in groups, chattering and laughing about nothing. Sometimes they walk by themselves, chattering and laughing about nothing. None of the other humans look at these people strangely, though, so they must’ve been brought up with some manners.
Or perhaps such madness is too normal among their kind for them to take notice of it.
But once in a while you see one like Him.
He had thick spectacles, shaggy hair, his hands in his pockets, and clothes I wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear. If I wore trousers, that is, which I don’t. Still, they looked fine on him. He had a thoughtful way about him, and sometimes he’d stop and stare up at the clouds.
He looked like maybe he realized he’d been sacrificed.
I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him, truth be told. And I was bored. So can I be blamed for wanting to play with him?
It wasn’t much at first. Making a bit of light or a shadow he couldn’t explain—just to see if he’d notice. Most of them wouldn’t recognize us if we jumped on their heads. We can drop all the nuts on them that we want (and believe me, we have) and they say things like “Must’ve been a squirrel.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with being a squirrel. If you are one, that is. Which I’m not. But I have a couple good friends who are squirrels, so I don’t want you to think I’m prejudiced. Some people are. Just not me. It’s just that I’m not, actually, a squirrel.
And besides, everyone knows no squirrel has aim that good.
This one, though—he looked. He tried to find the source, and when he couldn’t, he’d get the strangest expression on his face, like the Old Ones do when they talk about the days when the humans that walked through our forest left us more for offerings than empty cups and food wrappers.
It was the first time I’d ever seen one of them look like that. Mostly they get scared and walk faster.
You can see why he piqued my interest.
I began to watch for him. He’d come every day when the sun was halfway between high-sky and long-shadows. I even learned which paths he’d take so I could follow him.
It was just a diversion, you understand. Nothing more. But I’d find myself looking forward to his visits, thinking about him at odd times.
I flattered myself to think perhaps he knew I was there and hoped to catch a glimpse of me. He did start walking closer to the trail’s edge, peering a bit more into the trees.
And then one day he stepped off the path.
My heart stopped.
He looked around—first left, then right, as if to see if anyone would be around to call him back.
I wondered if he wanted someone to. Was he just testing the waters? Playing with the idea of walking off into the dangerous, wild bits where he might not come back?
Maybe he didn’t want to come back. I admit, my breath quickened at the thought. We hadn’t had one to keep and play with for years—and that’s years in our time, not yours. And this one might adore us properly, might sing and play and tell tales. I don’t mind saying that we needed a bit of fresh imagination; every party (and we have a lot of parties) was always the same, and there’s only so much of that even we can take.
He reached to the front of his trousers, and there was a strange noise, and then he…
Well, he made water on the tree.
I haven’t laughed so hard in ages. The tree’s dryad certainly didn’t think it was as funny as I did, but can I be blamed? The look on her face as he stood there, and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it!
She was one of the ones who’s particularly full of herself, too. She had it coming.
I was especially looking forward to his visit the next day, wondering if he’d maybe do it again. When he stepped off the trail, I nearly jumped up and down and clapped in anticipation. He was nowhere near the previous day’s tree, but there were a few others in the area I wouldn’t mind getting the same treatment.
He didn’t disappoint me, though not for the reason I expected. He’d brought a flat, brown cake with him and placed it oh-so-carefully on top of a round, grey rock.
Then he stood, turned, and walked back to the trail.
I looked at the cake a long time, stunned and wary. It’d been so long since anyone left us anything… but I’d been smart enough not to tell anyone about my pet, so I had him all to myself.
Same with the cake.
It was really, really good cake, although maybe I should’ve saved a bit for later instead of eating it all at one go. Still, it did nothing worse to me than one of the fairy feasts—which is to say I waddled off to sleep for a few hours and felt fine after.
Can I be blamed for hoping he’d bring one the next day as well?
He did! This one was pale with brown spots. Just as good, though.
The third was square instead of round, and thicker, covered by a delightful, almost painfully sweet frosting.
You can see why on the fourth day I couldn’t sit idly by. There is magic to threes, you know, and one good turn deserves another.
I should’ve known better—but you have to understand, for folks like us that kind of feather isn’t stranger than something off a bluejay. Just prettier, all streaked with colors you don’t have names for. And the critters that drop them—I don’t think you have a word to call them by, and the one in my language wouldn’t mean a thing to you—they don’t mind if you have their feathers, so long as they’re done with them. Most of us have one or two in our pockets, so why would it be strange for me to leave one on the ground just before he walked around the bend?
He stopped, of course, and stared at it, set off so brilliantly against the black road, shimmering in what was left of the sun that faded fast now that the leaves had begun to fall and the deer had taken an interest in each other. I knew humans, and soon it would be too cold for him to visit. I wanted him to have something to remember me by.
I just sort of forgot what those sorts of feathers do to humans—when they can see them at all, that is.
He picked it up, twirled it between his fingers, stroked it in awe.
I smiled, well pleased with his reaction, and hoped perhaps he’d bring two cakes tomorrow.
And then he tucked it in his hat.
And for the first time, he really saw.
His eyes widened, and he stared around him in wonder. Didn’t say a thing, just let out a little sigh of contentment.
He stopped right at the trail’s edge, right at the corner where the shimmering faery-path crossed the hard, black one. He put his toes right to the edge and looked down at them for a long time, his breath making puffs of slow fog in the cold air.
And then he looked up at me.
And then, feather still in his hat, he stepped off the trail.
In 1994 Meghan Brunner auditioned for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival—and things haven’t been the same for her since. Over a decade later, with two books and a Unicorn Award*, she’s still picking up speed… and loving it.
*lifetime achievement award for entertainers at the MN Renaissance Festival
© 2011 Meghan Brunner. All rights reserved.