The hospital room was dark as a sunken ship, and musky with the stink of the fairy. Fungus the colour of rotten milk had grown over the walls, and the floor was filigreed with the tree roots that had sprung from between the creature’s fingers and legs. The green light from the heart monitor blinked like it was brushing away a tear. Don’t tell it your true name, I heard my mother reminding me. Don’t eat any of its food. Don’t offer it your firstborn child. I’d been struggling with a knot in my shoelaces, barely listening to her. Ever since my mother had checked into the oncology ward, I’d felt as if I was neck deep in a dream, sloughing through the mud of sleep in search of solid ground. The fairy wasn’t real; none of this was real. Any moment now, the hypnotist would snap his fingers, and I’d be back at home, burning my fingers on too-hot oven chips and begging Mum for another ten minutes on the computer.
The fairy was the size of a young child, with pale, translucent skin and eyes as huge as a squid’s. I pulled up the only chair and helped myself to some water from the dispenser. The fairy was staring at me again. Every time I came in, it would study my face, making eye contact at every possible moment. There was something almost sinister about the way that it kept watching me.
“We’re looking a bit on edge today,” said the fairy. “Bad night’s sleep?”
“Why me?” I said. “Why do you keep asking for me?” It was the first living fairy that anyone had ever seen, and the nurses had orders to give it whatever it wanted. It only wanted to talk to me.
“Everyone else in this hospital is terrified of me,” the fairy said. It was ripping the leaves off a bunch of roses my mother had bought it, letting them drift to the floor like a flock of green birds. “I haven’t seen another fairy for three hundred years. And I’m probably dying.”
“Cara in room fourteen isn’t scared of you,” I said. “And she’s the funniest person I know. I’m just a weirdo.”
“I find you interesting,” said the fairy. It shut its mouth quickly, gaze lowered.
“Okay. But why?”
“Do I need a particular reason?”
“Just tell me!”
I didn’t realise that I had been yelling until I saw the fairy’s throat tightening, its hand reaching for the panic button. In the darkness of the room, its eyes seemed brighter than ever, nocturnal, carnivorous. My mouth went sour with fear. I closed my eyes and waited for the snap of the hypnotist’s fingers, waited to wake up.
Then the fairy sighed. The room stopped holding its breath.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m not myself today, it’s the stress-“
“You look exactly like a friend I once had,” the fairy said.
I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes until the world flushed red. “Geez, you should have told me,” I mumbled, the words burning my lips. I wondered what my mates from school would think- stuck in a room with a grief-stricken, dying fairy. Through the cracks of my eyelids, I saw the fairy shrug.
“You can leave, if you want,” the fairy said. The fairy’s skin was white against the shadows, like the corpse-flesh of a regency prince. Its throat fluttered like the needle on a broken compass. “Your choice. Obviously.”
Even with my head turned down, I could feel the fairy’s gaze, as persistent as sleeplessness. I thought about my mother’s candlewick fingers resting in mine, her voice hushed to a prayer. I realised that I might not have long to make her proud. I tilted my chin up and sat back down on the edge of the chair, feet poised to run.
In the first year of King Edmund’s reign, Isolda was sixteen, and I was as old as the south wind that teased her hair loose from its bindings. In spring I was the apple blossom that bloomed in the orchard; I watched her skin ripen under the flowers that flamed across the roof of the village. In summer I was the panting of the swallows that flew down to drink from the millpond, taking to the air again as she ran past. In autumn, I settled on the windows as frost and waited for her to breathe on the glass . She told me in March, just as the snow was starting to melt, but of course, I already knew. By then, half the village knew. Maybe she held off telling me because she was afraid.
“I’m getting married,” she said.
I was at the table, chopping onions for a poultice. I’d worn my human body for the whole winter, and I felt like an overripe fruit about to burst its skin. She twisted her dress in her hands as the knife thunked against the table. In the last war with the Danes, I’d driven that knife into a man’s eye. I turned it over in my hands and remembered the way the man screamed.
“We’re having a ceremony at the inn,” Isolda said. “Ed and I want you to be there.”
Outside, the garden was infected with sunlight. The cat had caught a baby bird and was killing it slowly.
“I’m warning you again,” I said. “Don’t do this.”
I chanced a look at her. Her smile was as thin as her father’s ale. Her breathing was stilted.
“We’ve been to see a witch.” She looked around as if she’d just woken up, and I was a remnant of her dream. “The witch said that it’s gone. The curse.”
“The witch doesn’t know anything. There isn’t a single spirit left in all of the Saxon kingdoms who’s powerful enough to undo the curse.” I stared at the benchtop, avoiding her eyes. “His bloodline is destined to die out. None of your children will live.”
Isolda closed her eyes. Outside in the village, I heard someone scream.
“Even if the curse isn’t gone, there are more important things to life than having children.”
“Having kids is your best shot at unconditional love.”
“He loves me unconditionally.” Her eyes were as deep as the sky, and her body was the landscape. Trapped in my human skin, I twitched like a rabid dog, ready to bite anything that moved. I didn’t want to save her against her will. I wanted her to realise she would be miserable. I’d had thousands of years to wish humanity back into the womb of the ocean. An eternity to eliminate people like Ed from the gene pool. But now I was as human she was, and the knife shook in my hands.
“Not even a curse from the most powerful being in the kingdoms will stop us,” Isolda said. She smiled at me like a Lord looking down on a peasant. I could sense the nervousness in the back of her throat. “We’ll find a way to be happy.”
“And if it doesn’t work out?”
“Even if it doesn’t work out,” she said, “I will never love you.”
Just for a second, the noises from outside stopped, and there was a moment of absolute quiet. The July light had bruised our skin golden, and when I looked across the room, her bright hair was burning. My mouth pooled with spit. I picked up the knife and kept chopping the onions. All that was human in me was vanishing. She had burnt it away.
Isolda walked over to the window and placed her forehead against the glass. She was talking now, something about the barley harvest, trying to fill the silence, painting the walls while the house was burning. Her voice wasn’t loud enough. I could barely hear her.
“I’m a little worried about the wedding, because he’s been having terrible stomach pains,” she said. “We think he ate some spoiled meat.”
I stopped chopping the onions. Slowly, I put down the knife and turned to her.
“Stomach pains? I can help with that.”
“Yeah. I mean, technically it’s forbidden, but Queen Mab will never find out.” I walked over to her side of the table, my movements casual. “The offer’s there, if you want it.”
She smiled uncomfortably, as if her gut was warning her against it. “That’d be great.”
“Just a moment,” I said. I bent over the bench and gave a few short, sharp coughs. Then I straightened up and spat something into my hands. It looked like a small gem. It had the clarity of a diamond, but instead of being white, it was a deep, cunning red.
“This is a pellet of fairy blood,” I told her. “Give it to him tomorrow morning, with lots of water. The stomach pains should be gone by evening.”
“That’s so sweet of you. You shouldn’t have.”
There were tears in my eyes, but it was probably just the onions.
The next morning, the sky was a painful blue, while a treacherous late-summer frost melted on the grass. By midday, the death knell was sounding in the chapel, and word was spreading through the village like a blush on a maiden’s cheek. On the Lord’s Day, before Mass, I saw a cart carrying Ed’s body from the house up to the chapel. His eyes- one blue and one brown- were still open.
It might have been years since those walls had heard laughter. Not the cloistered giggles of the nurses on their night shifts, but the sound of blood through a narrowed vein, each pulse a torrent. I imagined the doctors pausing with their scalpels buried in muscle, my mother waking and twisting in her sweaty bedsheets. The fairy sprayed shortbread crumbs as it told me the story of someone injecting a ferret with caffeine. In the last hour, I’d felt myself loosening, like a seedling unfurling as the earth thawed. I’d stopped thinking about the cancer, the treatment, and hadn’t even noticed.
The fairy picked up a shortbread biscuit and set it down on the plate without biting it. It had stopped laughing.
“Changing the subject,” said the fairy, “But how’s your mother doing?”
I felt as if I’d been bitten. I made myself swallow my biscuit, work up some spit. When I opened my eyes, the fairy was still there.
“She’s alright,” I said. I tried to adopt the voice of a nurse, soft and clinical. “Doctor Rey says that this new drug reduces chest pain in sixty to eighty-five percent of patients.”
“I’ve been puking blood for two centuries,” said the fairy, “And Doctor Rey is still full of bright ideas.”
The shadows of the trees shook in a gust of wind, as if the sun was turning away from the window. My body reacted before I realised what the fairy had said. My mind was asleep, but my skin was awake. It crawled.
“So? What do you mean? What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying that she could be sick for a very long time. She could die really slowly.”
I clenched my body tighter and tighter, until my muscles prickled and sparks flickered behind my eyelids. Every child learns the trick of disappearing; flattening our bodies to the width of photographs, our faces airport terminals carpeted with smiles. I stared at the white lino and imagined myself stepping sideways into the walls, my mother closing her eyes to join me. If we were ghosts, we could escape from the cancer, from the fairy’s bright eyes. But then the hot five seconds was up, and I hated my body for breathing and blinking and pumping blood. The fairy was eating shortbread.
“You don’t want to watch that happen,” said the fairy. It put the shortbread down, wiped its hands on the sheets. “You don’t want to spend ten years watching her die.”
“And you’re saying this why?”
“Because I want you to know why I’m going to help you.”
Afterwards, I mostly remembered details. The lichen on the walls frothing like the hem of a christening gown. My bloody fingernails. The fairy’s crooked yellow teeth.
“I don’t know what you’re on about.” The air seemed to fizz like static. They’d told me that the fairy was still capable of small acts of magic. The thought hit me like a pressure drop. I didn’t want to think about it. It was impossible not to.
“Hang on a sec,” said the fairy. “This could take a minute.” The fairy leaned forward over itself, as if in pain. Then it started coughing. The coughs were wet, heavy, thick as custard. It sounded as if there was a creature in the fairy’s chest, trying to get out. The heart monitor sped up as the coughing intensified. Finally, the fairy retched and spat something out into its hands. The object was a tiny stone, about the size of a diamond on a wedding ring. It was black and cold to the touch.
“It’s a pellet of stomach bile,” the fairy said. “It will help with the pain, and with fatigue.” The fairy stared at my elbow as it spoke. “For about a year after the day of ingestion.”
I knew I couldn’t disappear, so I kept my eyes open. A couple of nurses walked past the room, their footsteps pattering the lino like rain. The floor was surprisingly clean. Nothing about the room had changed. Whenever I was desperate, I expected a bushfire, a choir of angels. Some drastic altering of reality. I still expect that. I’ve never learned.
“Why should I believe you?” I said.
“You don’t have to take it, of course. But she needs it. You need it.” The fairy tried to meet my eyes, gave up. It gave a small shrug. “It’s up to you.”
When I was a kid, time was my plaything: I would put myself into a trance to speed it up, track the path of spiders on the wall, spin a teacher’s mumbling into knights and dragons. Now time was cellular, clustering in her alveoli, sinking into the lines on her face. She said that she wanted to do triathlons again. She said that she missed singing. I felt the gem cool my sweaty palm.
“Tell me some more about it,” I said.
I told myself that it was my mum’s body. I told myself that she should at least have the option. I imagined her turbans being sold at Vinnies, saw her running until the footpath ended. The future passed through me like an opiate, but I never felt the prick of the needle. I only saw my mother, swallowing the gem and smiling.
Twenty minutes later, I left the fairy’s room with the gem cold in my pocket. I walked slowly, making the journey last. I waved at the other patients and looked out the window at the sunset. I remember that I was whistling.
Author: Hannah Vesey is a thrift-store-clothed coffee addict with a passion for eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. Her fiction focuses on mythology, scientific discoveries and moral dilemmas related from neurodiverse/autistic perspectives. You can find more of her work on her Instagram @hannah_vesey_.
Artist: SaBelle Pobjoy-Sherriff is a third-year visual arts student minoring in film. Her art practice has an in-depth focus on ideas of narrative and mythology, and tends to border on the obscure. She utilises illustration and sculpture to create vibrant worlds and creatures. You can find more on her Instagram @SaBelleeee.