Come Not Near Our Fairy Queen
By Carl Lind
THE SUN WAS A VIOLENT CRIMSON in the west as he strode up the flagstones toward the old house. It was nestled all by itself at the end of the lane, and his footsteps echoed forlornly. In the sanguineous twilight he could see that the lawn had been allowed to grow untended, the grass tall, and weeds had been permitted to infiltrate and disrupt the uniformity of the Kentucky Blue. It didn't surprise him. He knew Maybelle had been out of the country for a while -- he hadn't even realized she was back until a few hours ago. As he stepped up onto the low porch the door fell inward before he even knocked and a stocky, white-haired woman gestured him hurriedly inside.
Non-plussed, he did as he was bid.
She hastily closed the door, throwing the bolt, then she sagged against it heavily. She was dressed in what he had come to associate as her usual, casual way: faded jeans and an untucked checkered shirt. She stared at him for a moment. "How's your father?"
It was almost a ritual greeting with them. Maybelle had been his step mother for all of five years, and though she and his father had fallen out, he and she had remained friends. "Fine," he responded, as always. Like Freemasons exchanging a secret greeting. "I thought you were still in Africa when I got your call. What--?"
She silenced him with a curt shake of her head. "I had to tell someone, so I figured it should be you. But you have to promise to hear it all before...before judging."
He pursed his lips, frowning. "What's this about, Maybelle?"
Again she stared, unspeaking. Then she sighed and stepped past him, heading toward the kitchen. "What do you know about fairies?"
He almost stumbled as he started after her. "Uh, as in a gay slur or as in '..at the bottom of the garden'?"
"As in the little people."
The small kitchen table was already set out with a pot of coffee and two cups. She settled into one yellow, flower-patterned vinyl chair, and he, after a moment, did likewise. "I suppose as much as anyone with a passing interest in the subject. The word is French or something, isn't it? Though we tend to associate it with the Celts these days. And stories of magical little people are widespread among various cultures and continents."
She looked at him, for the first time an amused twinkle in her hazel eyes.
"Well, you asked," he said. "And I am a writer. Now it's your turn."
She curled her hands around her coffee cup, as though to shield it from prying eyes. She thought for a moment, then nodded curtly, as if answering her own unspoken question. "I was in Zimbabwe, doing some research for the Zimbabwe government, overseeing an excavation of an ancient settlement that had been unearthed near a little farming community. There were no hotels or anything in the area, so I and the rest of my team made arrangements to board with some of the local villagers. I stayed at the house of a young woman, her kids, and her grandfather. Her husband was off working at a lithium mine. We became rather cordial after a while, and would sometimes while the nights away just talking. Particularly her grandfather. He was a bit of a Shakespeare buff as it turned out, though he'd had very little schooling and had never seen an actual performance. He joked that the stage was here," she pointed at her brow, "and that none of his actors ever missed a cue.
"Anyway, one night we got to talking about A Midsummer Night's Dream after his granddaughter and her kids had gone to bed. He laughed about how silly it was. Not silly as in funny, which is what it's supposed to be, but silly as in stupid. I asked him what he meant. He said fairies weren't like that at all. He'd seen them.
"He wasn't a drunkard, and he didn't seem crazy, so I was mildly curious about what he meant, or at least what he thought he meant. When pressed he said that there was a fairy colony not too far from the village, but when I tried to drag some details out of him, he lost any air of garrulity and kind of clammed up. I figured he thought I was just some white imperialist looking to laugh at his beliefs, and I didn't press it. Still, I mused about it off and on after that, my curiosity kind of working a hole in my belly.
"A few weeks later, following that late night conversation, our work had to be halted for a few days. A couple of my team came down with a bug and some equipment we were expecting had got held up in Maputo, so I had a few days with nothing to do. I asked my friend about these fairies again. He still seemed tight-lipped, but I tried to impress upon him that I was a scientist, that I was genuinely curious to see these fairies...or at least where they lived. On hearing that I didn't necessarily have to eye-ball one of the little people, but would be content with just a look-see at their home, he seemed to relax a little.
"Actually, at that point, I began to get a bit uncomfortable. It had dawned on me that he hadn't clammed up because he thought I'd mock him, but because he truly didn't want to talk about them. He actually seemed scared.
"We made arrangements for the next day, assuming my equipment didn't arrive, to set off on our little expedition. Morning arrived, my equipment didn't, and so we set off with a supply of water and a few sandwiches to tide us over. It was a long walk, but fairly level country, and he figured we could be there and back before night fall. It was the dry season, very hot, and the ground was hard and parched, the Spartan greenery a little on the brownish side, and by the time late morning arrived I was beginning to regret my curiosity. But I wasn't about to complain. He was older than me and I was damned if I was about to break before he did. It was just about noon when he gestured for silence and flattened himself on the parched ground. I did likewise. Then he bellied his way through some low brush and halted. I squeezed up beside him.
"'There', he whispered, stabbing a gnarly finger out at the sun-blasted clearing beyond.
"I squinted, then made out a huge mound about a hundred metres away. It stood about two or three metres high and at first I didn't know what it was, then I realized it looked like a termite hill. I glanced at my companion, a wry grin on my lips, thinking this had all been some sort of elaborate prank, but I stopped grinning. He didn't look amused. He looked scared as he glanced nervously about. I couldn't quite believe that he didn't know what a termite was, and his English was too good to think we had been talking at cross purposes.
"'Let's go,' he said. 'You've seen it, now we go.'
"I told him to wait while I used my binoculars to take a better gander at the thing. Even in closer focus, it looked like a termite hill, though the dark little entrances might have been slightly bigger than normal. More like mouseholes. 'I'd like a closer look,' I told him.
"'No,' he said, harshly. 'Now we go. If you leave the fairies alone, they leave you alone.'
"'And if we don't leave them alone?'
"He shuddered. 'Very bad,' was all he would say. Reluctantly I followed him in retreat -- he was my host, what else could I do? At the time I was inclined to dismiss the whole incident as, at best, a sidetrip into local superstition.
"Something soon changed my assessment of things.
"The next day the new equipment finally arrived and I got back to the main business of the excavation. My friend was a bit agitated for a day or two, avoiding our nightly chat sessions by going to bed early, but after a few days he seemed to calm down and things were more or less back to the way they'd been.
"About a week later one of my team, a student working toward a doctoral thesis, unearthed a shard of pottery with painting on its surface. It was just a fragment, and badly faded, but it seemed to depict a group of men -- possibly an army, but as I said, it was only a fragment -- being attacked by tiny, human figures!
"I was flabbergasted. The excavated settlement was thousands of years old. I saw no way there could be a direct cultural continuum between those who had made the pottery and the current inhabitants of the area. The crude illustrations even intimated a North African, even Egyptian, origin, completely unrelated to our hosts. Yet here seemed to be a repetition of the idea of some sort of indigenous fairy -- for lack of a better word -- population.
"I was determined to investigate further. I couldn't say anything to my friend, since he would obviously oppose the idea, nor was I willing to say anything to my colleagues, from fear of being laughed at. The next day, leaving my team to continue in their tasks, I set out toward the strange hill.
"I followed the same route, even bellied up under the same bush, then waited. The sun was hot, the ground almost painful to touch, and as time progressed, I began to feel just a little silly. Nothing stirred about the hill. But it occurred to me that that in itself was odd. After all, if there were no little people, surely there should have been something -- termites, ants, whatever. So, though my body wanted to go home, I stubbornly stuck around.
"Eventually, something did stir. Sweat was in my eyes and the glare of the sun didn't help, but something seemed to be moving about one of the entrances. A line of little figures started down the slope of the mound -- termites I assumed, though I should have realized they were too big for that. I dragged out my binoculars and adjusted them, focusing on the little parade.
"Have you ever been hit in the stomach? That's the only way I can describe it. This sudden, painful loss of breath, followed by a wave of nausea was my initial reaction as the lenses focused.
"It was a parade of tiny men. Men! Not even black men, which would have seemed more -- but no, it was impossible no matter what the pigment. But here they were, about two dozen white men -- clothed. I must make that clear. They were clothed, with flat hats, and jackets, pants, even little boots.
"I couldn't breathe so I had to lower my binoculars and try to calm myself. By the time I had regained some sense of calm, and looked again, they had gone. I suddenly felt all jittery, like I'd drunk too much caffeine. I wanted to jump up and run about in a circle. I resisted, and this urge too passed. I knew I had seen something monumental, something that could change history, biology, religion...everything. But as I reflected over it, trying to play the image of the little line of men over again, something nagged at me, something had seemed odd about them -- if men no more than three or four centimetres tall wasn't odd enough. But I couldn't put my finger on it.
"I stole away. As I headed back I decided I wouldn't tell anyone...yet. Call it arrogance, call it intellectual avarice, but I wanted to get enough information to publish before every other would-be Darwin descended on the scene.
"Ignoring my official duties, I returned the next day, this time with a sand-coloured blanket that I could use as a crude kind of camouflage. I stretched out beyond the brush, closer to the mound, then threw the blanket over myself and waited.
"Again the little fairies began to bustle about, and from this closer vantage I studied them more carefully through my binoculars. They were definitely tiny people...there was something weird about the eyes, but I was unable to make them out clearly enough to say in what way. But I at least began to realize why I had thought them odd the day before: observing them more closely, I noted how grim their little faces were, how humourless they seemed as they set about on their unknowable tasks. They did not speak amongst themselves. They moved in a rigid line, with one slightly apart, as though an overseer. I began to suspect that, whatever else, these fairies were not living in a democracy. In fact, it smacked a little of a chain gang.
"They returned about an hour latter carrying twigs and leaves and berries. I realized it had been a foraging party.
"Once they had disappeared back into the mound, I got up and left. I was half-inclined to tell the others, to see if anyone had any suggestions as to how better to glean information. They seemed to live mainly in their hill, and I wasn't going to get any idea of their culture or behaviour just by observing the occasional supply train. But I resisted. It was too early to give up, I thought.
"The next day I departed again, ignoring the dirty looks from my team who felt I was neglecting my responsibilities. I think maybe they thought I was having a tryst with a local man. Anyway, I returned and the previous day repeated itself. I waited, a group left the mound in silence, I waited some more, the group returned. This time, after a few minutes to make sure no stragglers would come upon me, I rose and cautiously approached the mound. My heart was pounding in my chest, my mouth dry. Every step sounded to my ears like a clap of thunder. If I was discovered, I wondered if the fairies spoke English. Coming up to the dirt monolith, I was able more clearly to make out pathways etched into the face of it, and the almost symmetrical design of the openings. It was more elaborate than what you would expect to occur naturally, but not so ostentatious that it automatically screamed intelligence. I wondered if this might be on purpose...after all, doubtless the fairies didn't want to draw attention to themselves. Mythology usually had it that the relationship between the big and little people was uneasy at best. Kneeling, I peered into one of the entrances, but could see only darkness, nothing more. The tunnel obviously turned off at an angle. No cry of alarm sounded, though, no fairy sentry came out, brandishing a pike and telling me to begone to my land of Brobdingnagian.
"I was frustrated by my singular lack of progress. I cocked my head and listened, half expecting to hear fiddles playing, or the little people making merry with wine and dance. All was silent save for a curious raspy sound. It was eerie, in the stillness of midday, I alone, miles from anyone, and that awful sound like the hiss of snakes. Gradually I realized it was the sound of movement, of hundreds of little bodies bustling back and forth. The fairies were inside, going about their business, dutifully occupied, industrious, not wasting time on frivolities of dance or song or merriment. Again I had the grim image of an Orwellian dystopia, of a people under the heel of a dictator. When I brought their existence to the world's attention, what then? Would sanctions be employed? Would enticements be offered to encourage them to join the liberalities of the 20th Century?
"I tried to rise, but my knee had grown numb during my crouch. I listed, tried to gain my balance, and instinctively reached out to the nearest object to catch myself. My palm hit the fairy mound with a loud thuk! and granules of sand and dirt cascaded down. The nearest entranceway collapsed. I was horrified. There was no way they were not going to notice that. I turned and stumbled away, my numb leg only gradually returning to life. I threw myself under my blanket and turned, not really expecting it to provide adequate cover.
"A stream of the little people poured out into the sunlight, searching out the source of the assault upon their sanctum. I stiffened, at any moment expecting them to notice the odd lump quivering some distance away.
"Just as I was sure to be discovered, an antelope happened upon the scene. A hapless, bedraggled creature obviously separated from its herd and badly malnourished. The fairies saw it. There was no sound, no call that I heard, but instantly a swarm of little men surged out from every entrance of the mound and washed down toward the pitiful creature. It snorted and started to whirl away, but too late. Fumbling with my binoculars I glimpsed little glints of metal in little hands. The fairies carried knives! The swarmed up over the antelope, till it disappeared beneath a second skin of squirming, tiny bodies. The creature began to scream and blood was everywhere. I had once observed piranha attack a buffalo in South America. I had expected -- hoped -- never to see that sight repeated...and certainly not on dry land. Within minutes, no more than three or four, the antelope was just a pile of bloody bones and the fairies, smeared head to toe in gore, carted their trophies back to the mound, obviously concluding that it had been the antelope that had blundered into their home. A party of the little people remained behind and set to work on the more arduous task of breaking up the bones themselves -- a predator eats the flesh alone, but men have uses for bones. Even in this they were efficient. In less than an hour, nothing remained to betray what had transpired.
"I felt sick. I wondered if that would have happened to me had I been discovered. I reasoned not. I argued that they would have recognized me for a fellow intelligence. But I also remembered my friend's terror of the little people. I hurriedly rose and gathered my things. Sweat, that had nothing to do with the heat, soaked my palms.
"I stepped back unconsciously, and something crunched beneath my boot.
"I knew what it was. I knew. Even before I turned. Slowly, I looked down at the mangled form of a little fairy man. He was so badly crushed, I was torn between hoping I hadn't killed him...and, for his sake, hoping that I had. I needn't have worried. He was quite dead.
"I remembered my friend's comment: 'If you leave them alone, they leave you alone.' Otherwise: 'very bad.'
"I hurried back to the village in a bit of a daze. Without explanation, I made arrangements to quit the camp the very next morning. I was too confused, too unsettled, to do anything else. I returned home and you were the first person I called."
He stared at her for a long time in the ensuing silence, his coffee cold and untasted before him. "That's quite a-" he started to say at last, then stopped, selecting another track. "Why not say anything to anyone? I mean, why keep it a secret?"
She settled back in her chair and frowned. "I don't know. No reason and many reasons. It's so big, so...so...how do you begin? How do you set out telling the world that something exists that most of us accept doesn't? Besides, I kept picturing the fear in my friend's eyes, and the pictograph depicting battles with the fairies. I don't know if we should know, really -- or whether I'd be a modern-day Pandora. And there's something of a personal fear, too. I stepped on one. I got out of there because, frankly, I was scared. I guess I'm worried about drawing attention to myself."
"Well, that's all very sensible. I guess-"
"You don't believe me," she said matter-of-factly. For the first time since she had commenced her narrative an amused twinkle sparked in her eyes.
"I wouldn't say that. I believe you believe. I believe you witnessed, experienced, something."
"I wish I could be as dismissive as you, as confident."
"If only you had some proof. A photograph, a tiny boot even."
She stared at him blankly. "What? Didn't I-?" She touched her palm to her brow. "I must not be thinking straight. Wait here." She rose and vanished into the darkness of the next room.
For the first time, he realized how dark it had grown outside. He fiddled with his watchband for a moment, then straightened as she returned. She set an opaque jar in the centre of the table.
"I didn't exactly come back empty-handed...though it was the devil to smuggle it through customs." She hastily unscrewed the cap, hesitated then as if unsure if this was the right thing to do, then upended the jar. Something spilled onto the table. He peered at it, then leaned forward to get a closer look. At first glance, it looked like a twig from a tree, with tiny branches. Then he made out loose-fitting bark that he belatedly identified as almost, possibly, resembling, sort of, clothes. Whatever the thing had been, it was badly mashed. If it had been human, it was hard to confirm that now.
"My God," he breathed, not quite sure what to think.
"I know," she said, "it doesn't look like much, but a lab could probably draw some pretty enlightening conclusions doing some DNA scans and what have you."
"Are those wings?"
She frowned, but didn't look too closely. "I don't know. I didn't notice any wings on the others, but I'll admit I haven't had the stomach to examine this one too closely. I just wrapped it up and that was it." Hastily, as if confirming her feelings of distaste, she used the jar lid and quickly shovelled the thing back into the jar, then secured the lid. "Well, what do you think now?"
"I think," he began carefully, "that you should find a lab you trust and get that thing looked at. And get some pictures before they have to tear it apart anymore than it already is."
"I thought you would."
He looked at her, hearing the heavy, resigned timbre to her words. "Look, I know you're wigged out, and probably feeling a little guilty, but it was an accident. But why don't you think about it? Put it in the freezer so it won't decompose anymore than it has, and sleep on it. I'll think about it too. Tomorrow we can see if things look any different in the morning. O.K.?"
She smiled wanly. "I should've married you instead of your old man."
He grinned and gently squeezed her arm. After a moment, he left.
As he walked back to his car, parked at the curb, his mind raced around and around. He couldn't quite accept all that Maybelle had said, but there was certainly something odd about whatever it was she had brought back from Africa. He slammed the door, then just sat with his key in the ignition, staring at the moon. Then he shook his head and went to turn the key.
Something hit the windshield.
He jumped, then instantly realized it was simply a June Bug -- except a June Bug was much fatter than the skinny thing standing upon the glass. He inhaled sharply, almost crying out in horror, as in the next instant a flood of tiny figures surged en masse up his windshield. He whirled about, but the side and rear windows were likewise coated, occluding the moonlight. He was breathing heavily now, straining to get in the air as his heart thundered painfully in his ribs. He quickly tugged at the window cranks, making sure there was no minute opening. He fumbled clumsily for the glove compartment, got a flashlight in his numb fingers, then dropped it. He clawed across the dirty floor mat before grabbing it again. Righting, he sent a beam of light stabbing up through the glass at the living carpet.
Man-like figures squirmed and jostled for position on the glass, staring at him with stony little faces and weird, dark eyes. Staring at him. Their tiny feet made an incessant, almost maddening tek-tek-teking sound as they shifted from foot to foot. A glint of webbed silver caught his eye, and he angled the beam of light upon one of the creatures, bigger than the others; female, with silver, almost transparent wings -- the only one he could see so endowed. Because of her size, her eyes were more obvious than the others' of the little people. Weird, multi-faceted orbs, almost crystalline in appearance.
His jaw sagged and the beam careened wildly as his grip loosened on the flashlight.
Maybelle and he had assumed that fairies were little people, like in the stories -- some kind of off-shoot of humanity. And of course that would be how pre-industrial man would have viewed them. It hadn't occurred to either of them that the superficial similarity might obscure a radically dissimilar ancestry. A pteranodon and a bat are physically reminiscent, he knew, but that doesn't make the former a prehistoric chiropter.
Maybelle had likened the fairies' incessant drudgery, their humourless, industrious lives to that of an oppressed people, slaves. That wasn't it, he realized. A winged king and queen, and a population devoted to their every whim, every flicker of their multi-faceted orbs?
They were insects.
Intelligent, tool-wielding, clothes-wearing, ridiculously more advanced than any other creature of the insect kingdom -- they had tracked Maybelle half-way around the world, after all -- but insects nonetheless. And doubtless as cruel and ruthless as any other in God's most uncompromising of kingdoms. He thought of spiders who liquify, then suck free, the insides of still living prey; of wasps laying their eggs in living hosts; of the very coldness of hive-civilizations where the individual is but another tool. Compared to all that, the predatory brutality of a lion or alligator was warmest compassion.
And Maybelle had killed their king.
He slammed closed the air vents with flailing fists, an almost hysterical scream on his lips, the constant scraping of their little feet, the penetrating glare of their cold, dead eyes combining with his imagination to flay bare his nerves. He scraped at the keys, but only succeeded in his frenzy in dislodging it from the ignition. He flung himself forward to snatch it from the ground, and slammed his head savagely against the steering wheel.
What little light there was blinked out, then on again. He wasn't sure how long. A second? An hour? Slowly, clutching his throbbing head, he realized he could see the moon.
The fairies were gone.
Stiffly retrieving the keys, he scraped blindly at the ignition until it settled into the slot, but a sudden, dawning light of reason broke upon the darkness of his panic. Slowly he turned to regard the silent house. He slammed down on the horn, again, and again.
Nervously, eyes wide for any sign of the returning creatures, he rolled down the window and called, "Maybelle! Maybelle!"
Again, the house remained still.
He swallowed nervously, then, marshalling all the courage he had, cranked the door open a centimetre. Nothing happened. He swung it wide, and set one foot on the grass. Again, he remained alone. Rising carefully, he raced across the grass to the house. The door was not locked. He entered cautiously. "Maybelle?" he called. The kitchen light was still on, so he headed down the hall toward that back room. "Maybelle?"
The room was empty.
Shards of a broken jar lay scattered on the linoleum. Whatever the thing was it had contained, no lab would be able to ascertain. It was gone. So was Maybelle.
He slumped into one of the yellow
kitchen chairs. Perhaps she had been right, he thought. No one should
be told. Perhaps it was best that the two worlds don't collide, that
romanticized myths and cheery folktales don't become crushed beneath
cruel reality. Perhaps...
He remembered her story about the antelope.
He began to tremble.
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