Image © Riley Vainionpaa 2019
|by Riley Vainionpaa||April 2, 2019|
I needed them to exist. I set the table for the ritual, spread a yellow sheet filched from the hall closet over it and placed an element in each quadrant. Fire was a tea light, plucked from the bag in the cabinet where my moms kept the bone china platter with the painted lilacs and their collection of limited edition Peter Pan plates. I always chose Tinker Bell. Water was the conch shell from that time we went to Mexico and the whole trip all I did was search for aluxes in the gardens outside our hotel, convinced the knee-high tricksters could get me out of the dance contest that night. Air was a feather I’d found at school, probably dropped from one of the Canada geese that liked to shit all over the soccer field. Randy Ayzer said it was dirty and said I was dirty for touching it. I told him everything in Sudbury is dirty, even if you can’t see it, because of the refinery fumes. Earth was a pebble from the driveway.
In the centre of the four elements, I set my wooden statue of Puck, the one I whittled every lunch period for five weeks to make sure I got his face right, the clever smirk and raised eyebrow and twirly skirt made of pine needles and bark. Resourceful Puck could get himself out of anything, ride leaves on wind or water and end up somewhere good. I took the wooden bowl I’d filled with twigs and raspberries from the bush behind the shed and placed it next to Puck, along with a copper penny because I couldn’t afford to give him crystals or gems. The dryer thumped through the basement wall as I chanted, “By earth, sea, and sky may I be protected from all that is not from the light and of good intention” and lit the tea light. My lank hair almost swung into the flame when I bent over. I picked a pine incense stick from the jar I kept on the bookshelf and rolled it through the flame. Smoke spiraled from the stick; I wove it over the table and continued to chant: “You wise ones of earth, sky, fire, and water, weave now your magic blessings in this place. Bring health, peace, and abundance into my home and make this your home, a dwelling place of joy and harmony. Blessings be always with you.” I pulled a ceramic plate from the bookshelf, set the incense down, and left it to burn. My fae place was set.
I had to set up my fae place in the basement because the round table my moms bought for me wouldn’t fit next to my bed, and because I hadn’t been allowed candles in my room. I was allowed to have books, though. I had books upon books, stacked and shoved in the shelves that lined my walls, and they all shared one subject: faeries. One shelf, wedged between floor and ceiling, held all of the fiction: Tolkien, Rowling, Hans Christian Anderson, the Grimm brothers, J.M. Barrie. Vast tales full of pixies with smug grins and elves with good work ethics and short tempers and trolls with drool slimed across their faces and tall angel queens who shone with white light, creatures usually found along the way of someone else’s adventure.
The other shelves were filled with the non-fiction. Most were scavenged from used book bins and the “free to take” cart at the library, but some of them were birthday and Christmas presents. I had to stack the oversized ones beside my closet to make room. When I pulled one from a shelf the rest would remain still and upright, they were wedged so tight. Some were so large they wouldn’t fit in my backpack, while others were little more than pamphlets, booklets I weaseled away at every Renaissance fair I could convince my moms to drive me to. I was good at convincing. Most of the books had laminated covers with bright illustrations and titles printed in fonts meant to look like worn stone, angular and bold. A handful were more subtle; their covers had no shine, the illustrations coloured in pastels. Two were bound in suede, thick and soft, the titles burned into the fabric. But my favourite lay on my nightstand, next to my sketchbook and reading lamp with the light bulb removed. It was the thickest of all my books, a tome bound in parchment, so wide it pushed my lamp to the edge of the table, a shatter risk. The cover was painted in watercolours so that the kelpie with blood crusted to the corners of its long mouth left trails of white as it galloped. From its mane dripped blue into the yellow eyes of a grindylow, whose green-grey tentacles curled around the stamen of a sprite. A jengu’s fat fish tail rippled opalescent under the title, A Comprehensive Guide to Fae and Other Creatures, and she stuck her tongue through the gaps in her teeth toward the selkie shedding her seal skin in a pool of grey just above the ornate calligraphy of the A. All of these creatures were intertwined, out of context, taken from their rivers and bogs and glens and woven together on dry parchment.
I left my fae place to work its power and tromped up the stairs to my bedroom, pulled my tome from its place and dropped it on my quilt. It spilled open to the two page spread on fossegrim. On one page was a large watercolour of a grinning maiden with blonde hair, her feet completely submerged in foam from the waterfall behind her, face turned to the sun. She wore a gown made of gossamer that was soaked at the hem and stuck to her legs. On the adjacent page was a block of text that detailed her mythology, how the fossegrim came from Norway and Sweden, how sprites of her ilk would guard those who ventured too close to the falls and put their minds at ease, keep them safe from the churn of the water and the churn of their own doubts.
I studied those pages, enthralled by the possibility of other worlds and other creatures, creatures kinder than humans, or crueler than humans but for better reasons. It turns out that if all you know how to talk about is faeries, other teenagers won’t like you very much. And they’ll let you know.
When I was partway through rereading the pages on sylphs, just at the part about how they don’t care to interact with humans, but give happiness and a sense of freedom to those lucky enough to glimpse them, my mum knocked on my door, then opened it a crack. She held a plastic laundry basket with one arm, pressed the handle into her stomach to keep it from falling. Thick locks of red hair fell over her face. They hid the scar from the time when she was my age and tried to pierce her own nose. That’s one thing I never tried. “Kendra, I found this in your pocket.” She took a piece of lined paper from the basket and dropped it on top of my book. I unfolded it to find the math notes I hadn’t been able to find last week, right before my trigonometry test. The equations bled through the paper; little veins of ink snaked away from the jumble of letters and numbers. It had gone through the wash. “Did the test go okay?” Before, she would have scolded me for being careless.
“It’s not like I’m going to use trig.”
She put down the basket in the doorway and sat on the edge of my bedspread with the rhododendrons on it. My tome sat open between us. “But you could use a high school diploma.”
“Failing one test doesn’t mean I’ll fail school.” I made tiny rips in the edges of the note, all the way around.
“I don’t know. Mr. Robinson hasn’t given them back yet.”
My mum took the notes from me and bookmarked my page, closed my tome, and pushed it to the side. “Don’t screw yourself over.”
I rubbed my wrist through my sleeve, ran my fingers over the rough bumps. Mum was a florist, not exactly a master of mathematics. She filled the house with hoards of practice bouquets she put together with flowers from the backyard. My other mom, Mama, had to take her to work every day because she refused to get her driver’s licence, so I didn’t necessarily trust her with my life choices.
“I’m going to start dinner,” she said, and picked up the basket. “Why don’t you shower now and then after dinner I can go over your homework with you?”
“Can I have my light bulb back? I won’t be able to see my textbook.”
“You know the deal. You can work at the kitchen table.” After my mothers took away my hot incandescent light bulb they decided that if I wanted it back, I had to join a club. Any club. Hopefully Drama. They wanted me to “express myself” instead of hurting myself. They didn’t realize there was nothing to express, and that was the problem.
I used the shower in the basement because the one upstairs smelled like sulphur and my mothers left their razors along the rim of the tub. I had to stretch weird to unzip my dress, the green one with the flippy skirt, and I kicked it into the corner by the door. The shower in the basement took forever to heat up, so I turned it on hot and watched the water dribble to life while I unhooked my bra and dropped it and my underwear on top of my dress.
The mirror across from the shower had a crack that ran down the length of it, just off centre. When I stood in front of it, the shower dribble picking up pressure behind me, the crack warped my left arm at the elbow so that it looked like it was bent backwards. It hadn’t always been there, the crack. I rubbed the raised white scars on my knuckles. Glass can’t heal the way skin can, but then, you can replace glass, if you want.
I stepped into the shower and curled under the scalding water. Water droplets dripped down the Tinker Bell stickers I’d plastered to the wall underneath the soap shelf when I was seven. The stickers peeled at the edges, and were so worn that they were discernible as Tink only because of the outline of her wings and the baubles on her shoes. I picked at the sticker of her with her arms crossed and flicked the wet paper under my fingernails into the pool of lukewarm water rising at my feet. The drain in the basement sucked, probably because of all the wet paper.
I washed my hair, though it was so thin it would be lank again by the next day, and then washed the rest of me. I ran the soap over my arms and tried to weave between the long, parallel scratches, each at a different stage of becoming a scar. Most were faded, but still a fair few glared red under the hot water.
When I was done, I shut off the tap and stepped out of the three inches of grimy water pooled at my feet. I wrapped a towel around myself and padded out of the bathroom, wet footprints left a trail behind me. My fae place was as I had left it, the incense burned out on the ceramic dish and the tea light nothing more than a charred wick stuck at a skewed angle in the hardened puddle of wax. I waited to feel the blessing take effect, to sweep through my home with peace and joy at its tail, but I felt nothing. It would take more than a statue and some incense to find my faeries.
After my shower, I went upstairs for dinner. Mum filled three bowls with spaghetti and set them on the island attached to the stove. She set the pot on an oven mitt in the centre, beside a glass vase so small the lip cut off halfway up the tulip stems. The water had to be refilled every other day because they sucked it up so fast. Mama sat beside me. Bags dominated the undersides of her green eyes, her brown bob pulled into a stubby ponytail at the base of her neck. She worked with Vale Limited, tried to get Copper Cliff to reduce their toxic emissions. They were a bunch of stiff-headed numpties, she said, but she managed to crack them more times than not, mostly, I think, because when she got stressed about something she got these wild eyes that made her look like she would shove a pencil in your neck if you disagreed with her. She pulled a crossword from between the salt and pepper shakers, took the pencil from behind her ear and opened to a new page. Her record for finishing one was ten minutes and thirty nine seconds. Her record for Sudoku was twenty-two minutes and fourteen seconds, and she could finish a thousand piece jigsaw made mostly of sky and grass alone in one night if she really tried.
“Caron, put it away, we’re eating.” Mum dumped three cans of iced tea in front of us and climbed onto her stool.
“It calms me.” She shut the book anyway and stuck the pencil into her ponytail. “I think we should go to Finland.” Another thing she did when she got hyper was plan huge trips, even though her job was the reason we never went anywhere. “I’ve been doing research, and in the north the sun doesn’t set at all in the summer, which could be very interesting. There are tons of lakes and woods and the water quality is supposed to be excellent and there are nine museums. Also, it said that Helsinki is very safe and small but still active and vibrant and it has plenty of sightseeing expeditions and we could go to Hietaniemi beach on warm days.” Mama’s eyes did the wild thing again.
Mum popped open her iced tea and poured it into a glass. “It’s only October. Let’s see how the next few months go before deciding anything.”
“But if we plan now we can get discounts and time off work.”
“Well, I could get time off.” Mum jabbed her fork into her bowl.
“I’m trying to do something nice for us.”
“We shouldn’t be worrying about trips right now. What about Kendra? What if something happens again? I need to save my vacation hours.” She dropped her fork.
“Kendra’s getting better.” I’m not. “Nothing else is going to happen.” I haven’t decided yet. “Spending time as a family will help her.” Sure.
“How would you know what will help her? You took what, half a day off the last time? Just enough to make sure she wasn’t dead.”
“If I had known that having no money coming in would help the situation, I would have taken the year off.”
I should have said something, told them to stop talking about me like I wasn’t there, told them that sitting around staring at me and waiting for something to go wrong like I was some faulty piece of machinery didn’t make me any more motivated to learn trig or make friends or get out of bed. But I didn’t, because it wasn’t about me, anyway.
“She needed you there.” Mum shook and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.
“What we needed was money for food.” Tears didn’t work on Mama. Whenever Mum cried, Mama would barely acknowledge it, like she thought it was some ploy. They could never scare each other, not from what I saw. They could never manipulate each other’s emotions, which I think is why they worked. I, on the other hand, didn’t have any emotions, which is why I didn’t work.
After dinner, Mum pulled her stool beside mine, pushed my dirty bowl and empty can out of the way, and made me take out my old trig assignments. “Mum, the test is over. We’re starting a new unit. This is pointless.” I tried to shake the last remnants of iced tea into my mouth.
“Learning is not pointless.” She took the can from me. “You won’t always get a grade for things, but you should still care. You should still try.” I doodled pixies in the margins while Mum studied the examples in my textbook. Across our tiny kitchen, Mama clanged the plates and pots in the sink extra loud, until Mum shot her a glare over Applied Math 10.
When she’d relearned everything she’d forgotten since high school, Mum took my pencil and wrote c2=a2+b2-2abcosC at the top of my notebook, then beneath it copied Example A from the text, explained every line as best she could. She gripped the pencil hard, but wrote lightly, her knuckles cut and scratched from arranging roses for people who could afford to talk with flowers instead of words. Her hands were moisturized, nails trimmed, but she couldn’t use sleeves to hide her cuts, could only pretty up the skin between them. I stared at the page, eyes trained to the scrawled example, tried so hard to focus, watched as my margin pixies plucked the numbers from the equations and tossed them about, volleyed the digits over the ruled lines. Mum punched something into the fancy calculator that cost too much and muttered, cleared the screen. She had no idea what she was doing, had barely passed math herself, but she wanted so badly for me to care about something other than a world she couldn’t live in. “Are you getting it?” Mum stared at me, teetered the pencil between thumb and index.
I tried to unfog my eyes, but she could tell I’d stopped listening. She lay the pencil across my notebook, let her grip slacken, eyes fall, shoulders sag. The legs of her stool scraped against the laminate when she pushed back, gave up, went to dry the dishes Mama set in the rack. She knew I didn’t care. What she didn’t know was that I couldn’t. She didn’t know how hard I tried, how much I wanted to, for her, for Mama, for me. It wasn’t there, no matter how badly I wanted it, and it was ruining us. I needed to leave.
I went to my room and laid out my plan for the night. I needed to summon the faeries. No more little tables covered in things I picked from the backyard. No more chants about peace and happiness. I would make it better. I would make them come, make them take me away so I could be happy and my mothers could be happy.
I searched through all of my books for the most powerful ceremonies I could find, gathered all of the information I could while I waited for my mothers to fall asleep.
Ten minutes before midnight, after I’d committed pages of incantations and rituals to memory, I shut all of my books and slipped them back into their slots on the shelfs. I grabbed my backpack from the floor and tiptoed around the house, gathered everything I would need, then slipped my boots over my bare feet and unlocked the back door, opened it as slowly as I could to try and stop the wretched squeak of the old hinges.
Outside, orange light from the city lights and street lamps blazed through the hazy winter sky, a perpetual sunset made of factory fumes and neon. I ran across the lawn and slipped through the trees, found myself in the clearing. My backpack made a crunch when I dropped it in the snow, and I kicked snow from the centre of the clearing until I had enough space to do my work. I pulled Puck out of my bag and set him in the middle, gave him room to breathe and work, then went back to the bag and rummaged until I reached the safety scissors on the bottom.
I stood in front of Puck, bowed, and dragged the scissors down the length of my forearm. I spilled the blood over the wet grass, watched it mix with the melted snow and run down the blades, careful not to get any on Puck. Then I looked forward at the leaves reflecting the toxic orange light, and started my incantation.
The books had pre-written incantations, spells tried and known to work in the most general of circumstances. But they stated, all of them, that the strongest spells came from the summoner, came in the moment and professed in plainest speech the desired effect. So I walked circles around Puck and chanted, “Take me, fair folk. Take me to your kingdoms and valleys, away from the smoke and fumes and yelling and emptiness. Take me and I will serve you forever, however you see fit, and never complain. Take me away. Take me away. Take me away.” I walked around Puck seven times, then sat in front of him and waited. It could take them a while; they had their own business to attend to, of course. I waited and wished I’d put on more than my gross cardigan with the unravelled hem. Blood trailed down my arm and pooled in my palm. I wiped it on the grass in front of Puck, more sacrifice for the fair folk. I swayed where I sat, forced my eyes open, leaned on my elbows and tilted my head towards Puck.
And then she came. I don’t know how long it was, but she came, glowed so bright she blocked all of the orange haze with white light, even though she only would have come up to my calf. She plucked me by my shirt sleeves from my place and flew me off. She didn’t give me time to grab my backpack with the spare clothes and sketchpad. It wasn’t windy but she flew so fast that my hair whipped in my face and my eyes stung. She glowed so bright that I couldn’t see anything but the backs of her wings as they pumped against the air. They looked to be made of leather, like the coat Mum bought for Mama last Christmas.
Eventually she slowed and descended until we met the ground. Her glow dimmed so that I could see what surrounded me: a desert of blue sand as far as the horizon on all sides. At the horizon the sand met a pure white sky; no clouds, just white. A castle sat in the distance, built of pearl and abalone, and it glittered though I could see no sun. She led me to the castle on bare feet, didn’t use her wings, and I followed her, sank into the sand with every clunky step of my boots. There were thick pearl pillars set into the front wall, and three towers on the left, right, and middle. I couldn’t see a door, but when we got to where it should have been, she plucked me off the ground by the back of my shirt and flew me right through the window in the centre tower. I got caught in the translucent curtains and dropped to the floor. Mama once tried to convince Mum to buy curtains like that, but she said they were impractical because they would still let in light.
A round glass table the size of a school desk sat in the centre of the room, covered in fruit. Plates of sliced oranges and ruby apples, clusters of grapes without a sour one in the bunch, and bowls of peeled kiwi and perfectly ripened pineapple. She led me to them and fluttered up to stand on the edge of the table.
“This is our entrance room.” Her voice was deep, a traitor to her size. She waved a dark brown arm to indicate the room. “The rest of the castle is off limits to non-residents.”
I couldn’t stop myself. “Is this it?” A bunch of sand and one castle hardly seemed like the Faerie Land I’d believed in.
“The castle is bigger than you’d expect.” She took a piece of pineapple and popped it into her mouth. Her lips were so thin that her mouth looked more like a slit in her face, but her eyes were so wide they almost reached her ears. “Once you eat, you’ll see the doors.” I reached for an orange slice but she grabbed my wrist. Her voice took on a rasp. “Once you eat, the windows will disappear. You will not leave.” I picked up the slice. Every day when Mum got home from work, she would cut up an orange and make me eat it because she said that the nutrients would boost my mood. She would actually sit there and watch me eat it, like I was a zoo animal.
I’d read enough about faerie food to know she was serious. It did something to your insides, bound them to the land the food was grown in, and if you left they could tear apart, tear out of you. I squeezed a drop of juice from the orange and caught it with my index finger. They wouldn’t have to fight about me anymore. They might actually save enough money to go on one of those trips if they didn’t have to pay Dr. Martin to listen to me not talk every other week. The faerie picked a piece of kiwi and bit into it.
“What is the rest of the castle like?” I stared at the orange like it might tell me.
“Vast. This castle is the centre of the faerie realm. If it exists in our world, you can get there from here.” Anywhere but home.
“I want to see it.”
The rasp came back. “You shall do no such thing.” Her teeth were thick and square, like floor tiles stuck in her gums, and she spat through them. “Contamination from outsiders will not be tolerated.” She gripped my arm, her fingers so long they wrapped easily around it.
I wrenched her bony hand from me. “I want to see. I want to know what you’re giving me before I take it.” What if the books were wrong? What if she wouldn’t let me see because the books were wrong? I’d never heard of a creature like this one. What if she existed and the other ones didn’t, the ones I’d hoped for? I picked at the peel of the orange. The faerie glared at me.
“If you are not prepared to give up everything, you are not worthy of our world.” I was prepared to give up everything for the world I dreamed of. But if this wasn’t it, I’d be stuck forever, stuck in some hellish realm, stuck without mothers who cared enough to fight about me, even when I wouldn’t fight. I rolled the orange between my palms. Then, I lifted it to my mouth, bit through the cratered peel. The world shook. Not just the castle, but the air inside it. A gilded door materialized on the opposite side of the room. The windows bricked themselves over. I spit the bitter peel on the floor. Too late to change my mind.
Riley Vainionpaa is a poet and professional landscaper who lives in a basement and feels safest in an IKEA. Her only real interests are death, faeries, and making-out. Her work has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and inconnu mag.