About Fairies

About Fairies

illustration by christopher silas neal

Enjoy this new original short story by author Pat Murphy. In “About Fairies,” Jennifer and her co-workers create fairy lands for a toy company, all the while cultivating their own personal fairy worlds....

This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

I’m on my way to the train station when I find a mirror leaning against a chain link fence. People often abandon stuff on this street, figuring that someone who wants it will take it away. And someone usually does. San Francisco has many scavengers.

The mirror, a circle of glass about the size of a dinner plate, is framed with pale wood. The wood is weathered, soft against my hand as I pick it up and peer into the glass. My reflection is silvery gray in the morning light.

My car is parked just a few feet away. My bedroom, high in the attic of my father’s house, needs a mirror. I figure it’s serendipity that I have found this one. I put the mirror in the trunk of my car and hurry toward the station.

The first time I went looking for the train station at 22nd Street and Pennsylvania I passed it three times before I finally found it. I think of it as a secret train station. There’s just a small sign by the bridge on 22nd Street. Beside the sign is a long flight of steps leading down, down, down to train tracks that run along a narrow ravine squeezed between Iowa Street and Pennsylvania Street. A concrete platform beside the tracks, a couple of benches, and a ticket machine—that’s the station.

As always, I stop on the 22nd street bridge and look down at the tracks. They’re about twenty feet below the bridge—a big enough drop to break your leg, I’d guess. Probably not enough to kill you, unless you dove over the edge and landed on your head.

As I walk down the steps, I look up. Far above me, the freeway crosses over 22nd Street and the train tracks—a soaring concrete arc supported by massive gray columns on either side of the tracks. Morning sunlight slips through the gap between the bottom of the freeway and Indiana Street to shine on a patch of graffiti that decorates the base of one column. The great swirls of color are letters, I think, but I can’t read what they say. Whatever the message, it’s not for me.

As I wait for my train, I watch swallows flying to and fro, carrying food to their chicks. The birds have built nests on the underside of the freeway. They don’t seem to care that semis and SUVs are thundering over them at 70 miles per hour.

When I return in the evening, I’ll hear frogs chirping in the stream that runs in a gully just behind the benches. Beside the stream is a tiny marsh where rushes grow.

I like this forgotten bit of wild land, hidden away beneath the city streets.

# # #

My name is Jennifer. I am on my way to a toy company in Redwood City to have a meeting about fairies.

I met the company’s founder at an art opening and he said he liked the way I think. I was a double major in art and anthropology, and we had had a long conversation (fueled by cheap white wine) about the dark side of children’s stories. As I recall, I talked a lot about Tinkerbell, who tried to murder Wendy more than once. (My still-unfinished PhD dissertation is a cross-cultural analysis of the role of wicked women in children’s literature, and I count Tinkerbell as right up there among the wicked.)

Anyway, he hired me to be part of his company’s product development department. He told me he liked to toss people into the mix to see what happened.

After he hired me, I found out that he had a habit of hiring people for no clearly defined job, then firing them when they didn’t do their job. He hired me, then left for a month’s vacation. He is still gone. I wasn’t sure what my job was when I reported to work three weeks ago. I still don’t know. But this is the first steady paycheck I’ve had in a couple of years and I’m determined to make sure that something positive happens.

Today, I’m going to a meeting about fairies.

Tiffany is the project manager. We met by the coffee maker on my first day. While we were waiting for the coffee to brew, I found out what she was working on and chatted with her about it. She invited me to come to a few team meetings to “provide input.”

The company is creating a line of Twinkle Fairy Dolls. Among three to six year-old girls, fairies of the gossamer-wing variety are a very hot topic. That’s what the marketing guy said, anyway. He was at the first meeting I attended, but he hasn’t been back since.

Each Twinkle Fairy doll will come with a unique Internet code that lets the owner enter the on-line fairyland that Tiffany’s team is developing. In that world, the doll’s owner will have her own fairy home that she can furnish with fairy furniture. She will have a fairy avatar that she can dress with fairy clothes.

It’s a rather consumer-oriented fairyland. Players purchase their furniture and clothes with fairy dollars—or would that be fairy gold? And if it’s fairy gold, will it wither into dead leaves in the light of day?

These are questions I do not ask at the meeting.

Today the question that Tiffany wants to address is: what sort of world do the fairies live in? Is it a forest world where they frolic in leafy groves and shelter from the misty rain under mushroom caps? Or is it a fairy village with cobblestone streets and thatched huts, maybe surrounding a fairy castle? Or is it some mixture of the two?

“Why don’t we just ask marketing what they want?” says Rocky, the web developer. The temperature is supposed to top 100 today, but Rocky is wearing black jeans, black boots, and a black t-shirt from a robot wars competition. He strolled into the meeting late without apology, his eyebrows (right one pierced in three places) lowered in a scowl. He wants to look surly, but his face is sweet and soft and boyish and he can’t quite pull it off.

I suspect Rocky is not happy to be on the fairy project. Tiffany mentioned that another team is working on a line of remote control monster trucks. I think Rocky would rather be developing an online Monster Truck World.

Tiffany shakes her head. Her hair is very short and very blonde and very messy. She’s in her late 20s and tends to wear designer jeans, baby-doll tops, and mary janes. “We want to be authentic,” she says.

Jane, the project’s art director, stares at her. “Authentic? We’re talking about fairies here. In case you didn’t know, there aren’t any fairies.” Jane can be a little cranky.

I step in to help Tiffany. She’s kind of a ditz, but I like her and she seems to be in charge of some important projects. A useful person to befriend. “I think Tiffany means that we want our fairies to match the child’s concept of fairies. We want them to feel authentic.”

“Sherlock Holmes believed in fairies,” says Tiffany. “Isn’t that what you told me the other day?”

Did I say “kind of a ditz”? Make that “entirely a ditz.” “Not quite,” I correct her, trying to be gentle. “Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who wrote Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies. Back in 1917, two little girls took pictures of fairies in their garden, and Doyle was certain that the photos were real.”

“What were they?” asks Jane. “Swamp gas?”

“Much simpler than that,” I say. “About 60 years later, one of the girls—in her 80s by that time—admitted that she had cut the drawings of fairies out of a book, posed the cutouts in the garden with her friend, and taken the photos.”

“Arthur Conan Doyle was fooled by paper cutouts?” Jane is intrigued.

“People believe what they want to believe,” I say.

“I’m thinking of something like Neverland in Peter Pan,” Tiffany says. She has moved on. A ditz, but a ditz with a goal. “Somewhere with lots of hidden, secret places.” In Tiffany’s world, secrets are wonderful and fun. “And it’s filled with beautiful, sweet fairies with gossamer wings. Like Tinkerbell.”

Rocky snorts. “Sweet?” he says. “Tinkerbell was never sweet.”

Surprised, I stare at him. He’s right. In the book, Peter Pan, Tinkerbell was a jealous little pixie who swore like a sailor and did her best to get Wendy killed more than once. I didn’t think Rocky would know that.

# # #

After the meeting, I go to the balcony for a smoke. The balcony—a narrow walkway just outside the windows of the cafeteria—is the smokers’ corner. In California, smoking has been banished from restaurants, offices, and bars. You can smoke in your own home, but just barely. Filthy habit, people say. Bad for your health. And second-hand smoke is dangerous for others, too.

I smoke three, maybe four, cigarettes a day. Not so much. I figure you have to die sometime. I take a drag, feeling the buzz.

At the edge of the balcony there’s a brick wall topped by a waist-high rail, an inadequate barrier between me and the sheer drop to the street. I lean on the rail and look down. Five floors down.

I hear the door open behind me. “Those things will kill you,” Rocky says. He is tapping a cigarette from a pack. He leans against the railing beside me, looking down. “Just far enough to be fatal,” he says.

He’s not quite right. You can survive a fall from five stories if you hit a parked car. The car gives just enough to cushion your fall. I know. I’ve done research.

“I was impressed at how well you know Peter Pan,” I tell him. “Most people only know the Disney version.”

He almost smiles. “The Disney version has no balls,” he says.

I laugh.

Rocky’s scowl returns. “What’s so funny?”

“Hey, it’s a long tradition,” I say. “Starting with the play where Mary Martin played Peter. Peter Pan doesn’t have any balls.”

He doesn’t smile. I’m sorry about that. For a moment there, I kind of liked him.

# # #

Late that night, I sit on my bed, re-reading Peter Pan. When I was ten, the year after my mother died, a friend of my father gave me a copy. The woman who gave it to me, one of a series of unsuitable women Dad dated, was under the mistaken impression that it was a children’s book. I read it with horrified fascination.

Disney made Peter Pan into a jolly movie with just enough adventures to be cheerfully scary. The book is not like that. Neverland is not all sunshine and frolic. Beneath every adventure lurks a deep and frightening darkness. Peter Pan was fascinating and terrifying. He was indifferent to human life. “There’s a pirate asleep in the pampas just below us,” he says. “If you like, we’ll go down and kill him.” Death is an adventure, Peter Pan says, and nothing is better than that.

One of my cats makes a sound and I look up from the book to see what’s bothering him. The mirror that I found near the train station is leaning against the far wall. My cat, Flash, stares in the direction of the mirror, his ears forward, his tail twitching.

Everyone knows that there are things that only cats can see. In my house, Flash is the cat that watches those invisible things. He frequently gives his full attention to a patch of empty air for hours at a time.

Godzilla, the other cat, usually can’t be bothered with such nonsense. But tonight Godzilla has taken up a post beside Flash, staring at the same emptiness.

“What’s up, guys?” I ask them. But they just keep staring in the direction of the mirror that I found on my way to the train station. They are vigilant, concerned. They don’t trust this mirror.

I pick the mirror up and set it on top of the bureau. Flash jumps on top of the bureau where he continues to watch the mirror with great suspicion.

The phone rings.

It’s Johnny, the owner of the board-and-care home where my father has lived for the past six months. Whenever I stop by to visit, Johnny tells me how Dad has been doing and fills me in on details that I don’t particularly want to know. I have learned about the need for stool softeners and socks with no-skid soles. I have discussed the merits of different varieties of walkers (one called, without irony, the “Merry Walker”).

My father was once an archeologist. My father was once a member of Mensa. My father was once a very smart, very sarcastic, somewhat hostile man. Of all those attributes, only the sarcasm and hostility remain.

A few weeks ago, when I was visiting Dad, Johnny told me that my father had threatened to kick one of the other residents in the balls.

“He gets very angry,” Johnny told me. “It’s the Alzheimer’s.”

I nodded. It wasn’t really the Alzheimer’s. Dad had never suffered fools gladly. He considered most people to be fools. And he was always threatening to kick some fool in the balls.

I think Dad became an archeologist because dead people didn’t talk back. Living people were far too troublesome.

Johnny prefers to blame my father’s idiosyncrasies on Alzheimer’s. Johnny is a sweet guy who chooses to believe that people are inherently nice. But tonight, Johnny is facing a challenge. “Your father won’t stop talking,” he says.

I can hear my father’s voice in the background, but I can’t make out the words.

“He’s been at it for two hours. I’ve told him that it’s time for bed, but he won’t stop.” Johnny sounds very tired.

“Let me talk to him,” I tell Johnny.

I hear my father as Johnny approaches him. He is delivering a lecture on burial customs. “A barrow is a home for the dead,” he is saying. “In its chamber or chambers the tenant is surrounded with possessions from his life.”

“Your daughter needs to talk to you,” Johnny says.

Dad doesn’t even pause. “A shaman would be buried with his scrying mirror; a warrior with his weapons,” he continues. “A fence or trench separates the barrow from the surrounding world.”

“It’s important,” Johnny says. “She really needs to talk to you.”

“Yes?” my father growls into the phone. His tone is that of a busy man, needlessly interrupted. “I’m teaching just now.”

“This is Jennifer, your daughter. I called to tell you that it’s late. Class is over.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This is your daughter. You’re running late. It’s time for class to be over.”

“I was just wrapping up.”

“You’d better let the students go.” Wrapping up could take hours. “They have to study for finals.”

“They’d better study.” His voice is that of a demanding instructor. Then a pause. “I have to get ready myself,” he says, as if suddenly remembering something.

“Get ready? For what?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow.”

Several times over the last few months, my father has mentioned that he is going on a trip. Sometimes he’s going to an important excavation. Sometimes he’s leaving because the conference he was attending is over. Sometimes he’s not sure where he’s going. I’ve learned not to ask.

“You can pack in the morning,” I say. “You’ll have time then.”

“All right,” he says. “In the morning.”

In the morning, he will remember none of this.

# # #

While I’m waiting for the train at the 22nd Street Station, I walk along the tiny stream that’s just a few steps away from the concrete platform. It’s a muddy trickle, enclosed in a culvert for part of its length, then widening to shallow puddles that support clumps of wild iris surrounded by pigweed.

Frogs live in that stream—I hear them croaking in the evening. But they’re hiding now. No matter how hard I look, I never catch a glimpse of them.

The steep slope above me is covered with tall grasses and wild fennel, with a few blackberry bushes working their way up to becoming a thicket. Toward the end of the platform, some city workers have been clearing the brush. I glance down at the bare ground.

It’s an old habit, developed over many summers spent at archeological digs. Out in the field, I’d be looking for shards of broken pots or chips of worked stone, indications of ancient settlements. Here in the city, I’m just looking, not expecting to see anything more the glitter of broken beer bottles.

But the morning light reflects from the edge of a pebble. I stop, pick up the stone, and examine it more closely. It’s very tiny worked flint—about a centimeter long. I can see minuscule circles, each just a couple of millimeters across, where someone has flaked away the stone to make a sharp edge.

I hear a rumble in the distance. The train is coming. I put the tiny tool in my pocket, no time to examine it further. I hurry back to the platform.

As the train pulls away, heading south, I look out the window at the brush-covered slope. The city is filled with wild things. I once saw a family of raccoons crossing a major thoroughfare on their way to check out the dumpster behind a fast food joint. A possum with a wicked grin (way too many teeth) and a naked, rat-like tail regularly strolled through my father’s backyard. Coyotes live in Golden Gate Park.

If there are frogs and raccoons and opossums and coyotes, why not other creatures? Small, wild, living in the gaps, in the gullies, in the ravines, in the half-hidden places underneath.

# # #

At today’s meeting, Tiffany wants to establish the specifics of our particular fairies. Tiffany believes in fairies that fly on shimmering wings (made of child-safe Mylar, I think). Her fairies are similar to Tinkerbell, but not so similar that they’ll trigger a cease-and-desist order.

Jane wants the fairies to hearken back to the classics. Think Midsummer Night’s Dream and Yeats. Her fairies wear elegant green dresses. They have a queen, of course. At fabulous parties, they dance all night. Like me, Jane lives alone. Unlike me, Jane seems to mind.

Rocky’s fairies sleep late. They are dark-eyed and sultry, dressing in black and looking for trouble. I think some of them are transgender, which makes sense if you really know Peter Pan. When Wendy returns from Neverland, she tells her mother that new fairies live in nests on the tops of trees. “The mauve ones are boys and the white ones are girls,” she says. “And the blue ones are just little sillies who are not sure what they are.”

That’s from the book, not the movie. I don’t think Disney believes in transgender fairies.

The way I figure it, you can choose what kind of fairies you want to believe in. I finger the stone tool in my pocket. In the foggy chill of San Francisco’s summer, my fairies wear clothing made of tanned mouse leather. They are grimy, hardscrabble fairies that chip tools from stone and drink from the stream. They hunt in the marsh with stone blades and feed on frogs’ legs. They’d mug Victorian flower fairies and take their stuff.

“What do you think? Forest or village?” Tiffany is polling the meeting, getting each member of the team to vote. Rocky says city; Jane says forest. It’s my turn.

Wild or civilized. “Can’t we have it both ways?” I ask.

Why not? Dirty little fairies, crouching in the litter by the stream, chipping stone into knives, strapping blades onto spear handles made of pencils and pens that commuters had dropped. My kind of fairy.

# # #

I spend the rest of the afternoon working on visual concepts for the fairy forest. For the fairy huts, I figure I should use all natural materials.

The traditional Celtic huts have stone walls, and I just can’t see the fairies going to all that effort. After some online research, I settle on huts that looked like ones built in eastern Nigeria. The walls are made of bundles of straw, tied side by side. The roof is made of reeds.

The shape of the huts reminds me of acorns—smooth sides, textured cap. I figure Tiffany will like that. And I think the fairies could manage to build huts with straw.

In my sketch, the huts are tucked among wild blackberry brambles. Poison oak twines among the blackberry branches. I don’t think these fairies want company.

# # #

After work, I go to the board-and-care home to visit my dad. I stop by the grocery store on my way and buy a basket of fresh raspberries. These days, I always bring something to eat. Finger food is best. Grapes, raspberries, blueberries. Something he can pick up and eat, no utensils required.

We sit in the living room, my father in a recliner and I in a straight-back chair. We eat raspberries.

I’ve learned not to ask many questions. Questions are difficult. More often than not, he has no answers. Or his answers relate to the distant past. Or halfway through an answer, Dad forgets what he was saying.

I tell my father many things these days. He likes to listen. When he listens, it does not matter that words are slippery and sentences betray him.

“I found this on the path to the train station,” I tell him. I hold out the tiny stone tool. I’ve been carrying it in my pocket since I found it. “I can see tiny chips where someone has been working the stone, flaking away bits to make an edge.”

My father examines the blade. His hand shakes. The skin of his arm is marked with dark purple age spots. He gives the stone back. “Microlith,” he says. Basically, that’s a technical term for “tiny worked stone.” Not saying much I didn’t already know.

“I found a mirror the other day,” I say.

“That’s good,” he says. A complete sentence. Short enough that he can get through it without losing his way. Sentences are trickier than you realize, long and twisty. It’s easy to get lost.

“I need....” he begins. He’s pushing his luck now, working on a longer sentence. What does he need? “I need a mirror.”

“Really? I’ll bring you the one I found,” I tell him. Does he really need a mirror or is that just the word that came most quickly to mind?

He nods. “Don’t forget.” Another easy sentence.

I care about my father in a grudging sort of way. My mother died when I was nine. She committed suicide, jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Even as a child, I recognized that she was a drama queen, a flamboyant woman given to grand gestures, to great joys and great depression. Today, she might be identified as bipolar.

My father, on the other hand, is solid and unemotional. After my mother’s death, Dad took care of me in an awkward, casual, ham-handed sort of way. I never went hungry and I never got hugged. It was a balance, of sorts.

I take after my mother. I understand drama, I understand depression, and I understand the appeal of the dark and foggy waters below the bridge.

“Don’t forget,” my father says again.

We eat raspberries in companionable silence.

# # #

Godzilla is sleeping on top of the mirror, which is lying flat on the bureau. He was there this morning when I left for work. He is there when I get home. Usually, he supervises when I open a can of cat food for him and his brother. But tonight he jumps down from the bureau only after I set the food on the floor. He eats quickly, then returns to the mirror, gazing into it intently, sniffing it carefully, and then lying down on top of it once again. Curled up, he completely covers the glass surface.

When I sit down at my desk, I pat my lap and call to him. He lifts his head and regards me with that slit-eyed look that one of my friends says is how cats smile. He’s not about to leave his post.

His brother, Flash, is prowling the apartment restlessly. Every once in a while, he walks past the bureau and looks up at his brother. Then he resumes his patrol.

Cats have theories. Every cat owner knows that. The cats can’t and won’t tell you their theories. You must deduce the theories from their behavior. Then you have theories about the cats’ theories. If you modify your behavior in response to your theories about their theories, you may change their theories. It is an endlessly recursive loop. The viewer affects the system. It’s Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle with cats.

I let Godzilla sleep.

I am doing online research about fairy fashions. To draw convincing fairy clothes, I figure I’d better know what people think fairies wear. It’s edging up on ten PM, and I have to be up at six in the morning to catch the train, but I’m not sleepy at all. When I’m insomniac, I find doing research online very comforting. I used to walk on the Golden Gate Bridge at night—but doing research online is safer.

I find information on Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies. I find a discussion of pygmy flints, blades of worked stone that some claim are made by the little people. I find hundreds of images of Victorian fairies—pretty ladies with delicate wings.

Somewhere along the way, I find Rocky’s blog.

Mostly it is one of those extremely tedious personal blogs that I am amazed that anyone writes and even more amazed that anyone reads. A description of an art opening he attended. Photos of his friends (all in black, of course). Discussion of his plans to attend Burning Man. And a long list of fairy links.

Rocky, it turns out, has done a lot research that he has not shared with the rest of the team. He has links to fairy porn. (Yes, of course there is fairy porn.) He has links to sites considering the connections between fairies and alien abductions, as well as sites about the original Celtic fairies—amoral creatures that are capable of great malevolence. In Celtic tradition, when someone died people said that they went to be with the fairies. Being touched by a fairy, according to one site, was commonly recognized as the cause of a stroke.

No sweet and beautiful fairies. No gossamer wings.

# # #

At the next meeting of the fairyland team, Tiffany gathers ideas for the portal to our fairy site. At Disney’s fairy site, the splash screen has a sprinkling of fairy dust and the words “Believing is just the beginning.” Then pictures of fairies appear. Tiffany asks the group for an image and words that will capture the essence of our site.

“A black mirror,” I say. “A portal to another world. And the words—clap if you believe in fairies.”

I don’t see the need to specify the type of fairy you might believe in. Dark-eyed and sultry; sweet-faced and dressed in pink. That doesn’t matter to me. Clap if you believe.

Rocky smiles a little. “That could work,” he says.

After the meeting, Johnny calls to tell me that my dad is in the hospital. Apparently Dad forgot that he could not walk without a walker. He stood up, and then fell down, fracturing his hip.

I go to the hospital after work. I bring the mirror and set it on one of the chairs in my father’s room. He won’t remember that he said he needed a mirror, but I do.

Dad is sleeping. The nurse says that he was cursing all day. He said he was going to kick the doctor in the balls. “It’s the Alzheimer’s,” she says.

I nod, letting her believe what she wants to believe. Clap your hands if you believe that my father doesn’t really want to kick the doctor in the balls.

I am not clapping.

I explain to the nurse that we have a DNR, a “do not resuscitate” order for my dad. No heroic measures, I explain. Just keep him comfortable.

Clap your hands if you believe in death.

Believing in fairies is much easier, I think. Death is an end, an emptiness, a darkness. People want to believe in the light. Go to the light, they say. We fear the darkness and the unknown, the fairies in the ravine, the world behind the mirror.

I set the stone tool beside the mirror. I sit by my father’s bed and watch him breathe. His arms are loosely strapped to the rails of the hospital bed. The nurse had told me that they had to strap him down. He kept trying to get out of bed. His leg was broken and he couldn’t walk, but he was still trying to get out of bed.

My father’s life has been shrinking over the past few years. After I went to college, he lived alone in his Victorian home. When he couldn’t get by on his own, I helped him move to an apartment in a senior residence. Then he moved from that apartment to his room in the board-and-care home. Then he moved from that room into this shared room in a hospital, where all he has is a bed and a table and a curtain that separates his space from that of another old man with a table and bed.

My father is not conscious. He is lying on his side, his spine curved, his legs bent. A sheet covers him, but I can see the outline of his body through the fabric. He looks smaller than he ever has before. The tube that snakes from beneath the sheet is dripping a cocktail of painkillers into his veins.

My father is dying. That’s clear.

Here’s a question. Do I stay and keep watch? Sit by his bed and do what? Read a magazine? Think about his life? Not such a happy life, by my lights.

What would I like, if I were the one lying on the bed?

I would like to be left alone.

So I go home, leaving the mirror and the stone tool on the table by the bed.

Clap your hands if you believe in death. Clap your hands and my father will die.

Actually, I’m kidding about that. My father will die whether you clap your hands or not. My father will die, I will die, and someday you will die. You can applaud or remain silent and death won’t care. You can choose to speed up your death—by plunging from a balcony, from a bridge—but all the clapping in the world won’t put death off forever.

Some discussions of death make it sound all soft and warm, like falling asleep in a feather bed. But falling asleep implies waking up again, and Death means not waking up.

Not being here.

Being with the fairies.

An hour after I leave the hospital, a nurse calls to tell me my father has passed away.

Here’s what I think happened: My father curled up into the fetal position. He curled up as small as he could. Then he curled up even smaller, then smaller, then smaller still. You might not think a person could shrink, but my father had been shrinking over the last year, growing shorter with each passing day. So he shrank until he was small enough to slip into the fairy mirror. When the time was right, the fairies came through the mirror and took him away with them.

You see, new fairies are not born. They are transformed through the fairy mirror.

Flash and Godzilla could see that the way was open. Cats notice that sort of thing. So they blocked the way—sleeping on top of the mirror to keep the fairies in and to keep me out. They were protecting me. They aren’t stupid. They know who opens those cans of cat food.

My father left his worn out body behind, dressed in the unfortunate hospital gown. Like a snake abandoning its skin, my father slipped out of his body and emerged in the mirror. He felt better. All the life energy that remained in him was concentrated in his smaller form.

Right now, he’s hunting for mice among the stalks of fennel and the blackberry brambles. He took the stone tool with him. He’ll scavenge a pencil dropped by a commuter, lash the stone blade to the end to make a spear, and go hunting for frogs.

That’s what I choose to believe.

# # #

I stop by the hospital to make arrangements for the body that my father has left behind. A kindly social worker helps me, giving me the name of a mortuary, telling me where to call to get copies of the death certificate, offering words of sympathy. Eventually I leave, taking the mirror with me. There’s no sign of the stone tool among my father’s things.

Late that night, I take the mirror to the train station. Light of a half moon is shining down on Pennsylvania Street. I walk down the gravel road, alert to every noise in the bushes around me.

When I reach the train tracks, I head south. No one is there. The graffiti artists are taking a night off. Their past creations look gray and black, the colors invisible in the moonlight.

A short distance from the benches and ticket machine, the tracks go into a tunnel. I lean the mirror against the wall beside the tunnel entrance. Somehow it seems right to put it by the tunnel mouth, near the entrance to the underworld. Well, maybe not quite the underworld—it isn’t a very long tunnel. But it’s the closest thing to an underworld there is around here.

My father had smoked when I was young. My early memories of him are tobacco-scented, wreathed in smoke. The father in those memories is strong and tall and energetic. He could sweep me up and toss me in the air, swing me by my arms until my feet left the ground.

I take a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and I tear the cigarettes open, one by one. I scatter the tobacco on the ground in front of the mirror. I am mixing my magic systems, I know. Native Americans offered tobacco to the spirits. The frogs call; something rustles in the bushes. An opossum? A raccoon? Something else?

I sit by the train tracks near the mirror for a time and think about death. Every now and then, someone will commit suicide by walking in front of a train. Such a noisy, messy, industrial way to go.

I leave the mirror and head for home. That night, I surf the web.

On Rocky’s site, I find that he has been working on a fairyland. When I log in, I am given an avatar.

This is not a fairyland that would meet with Tiffany’s approval. Yes, there are leafy groves, but the trees are gnarled and menacing, draped with Spanish moss. Little light reaches the forest floor and I have the sense the creatures other than fairies lurk in the shadows.

There’s a fairy village, but the mud huts are neither elegant nor appealing. The carcass of a mouse, marked with the wounds that killed it, hangs curing in the shadows. There are no fairies in residence.

I explore Rocky’s fairyland carefully. In the dark bole of a hollow oak I find a tunnel that goes down, down, down into the underworld.

I move my avatar through the darkness, the way illuminated by faintly glowing marks on the tunnel walls. I reach a dead end. A wooden door, closed with a bar and a large padlock, blocks my way.

I lay my hand on the door and the words “THIS WAY CLOSED” glow on the bar in neon green. I know what to do.

I reach out to the letters and touch the D, then the E, then the A, T, H. Death. Each letter winks out when I touch it. When I touch the H, the padlock and the bar dissolve. The door opens.

I stand by the open doorway, looking into a dark and misty world. I listen—and in the distance, I hear the low wail of a train’s horn, the rumble of metal wheels on tracks. I catch a faint scent of wild fennel and tobacco.

Listening to the train rumble in the distance, I know the way is open, but I don’t need to go there. I close the door.

# # #

At work the next day, I see Rocky in the lunchroom and pull up a chair next to him. “I visited Fairyland last night,” I tell him.

He glances at me, startled.

“I particularly liked your attention to detail in the hollow oak,” I continue.

He can’t help himself—he is smiling now. A little smug, more than a little arrogant.

“Nice trick on the password.”

That surprised him. “You opened the door?”

My turn to nod. “Obviously, I didn’t go in.”

He is considering me now—eyes narrowing. “Maybe later,” he says.

“That goes without saying.” I study him for a moment—face soft as a boy’s, the arrogant confidence of the young in his eyes. Forever young. “I’ve been wondering where you got the name Rocky,” I say. “Nobody names their kid Rocky.”

I’ve been thinking about Rocky, a twenty-something web designer with an attitude and an obsession with death. Could he be something more?

Do you believe in Peter Pan? A boy who never grows up, a boy who knows his way to fairyland and back, a boy with the power of death in his hands? When Disney made a movie of Peter Pan, they kept the happy moments, but left out the essence. When Wendy’s mother thinks about Peter Pan she remembers this: when children die, Peter Pan goes partway with them. Partway to fairyland where the dead people are.

# # #

The next day, at the 22nd street train station, I look for the mirror. It’s gone. Perhaps someone who needed a mirror picked it up. I hope they have a cat.

I sit on the bench by the tracks, sketching in my notebook as I wait for the train. In my sketch, two fairies crouch beneath the feathery fronds of a fennel plant. They wear war paint, stripes of color on their cheeks that help them blend with the shadows. One holds a spear made from a chipped stone point lashed to a pencil. He looks a bit like my father when he was younger and happier. The other fairy wears a Tinkerbell skirt, but she has a stone knife at her belt. Her face is in the shadows, but she has dark hair like my mother. It is sunny where they are. I’m glad of that.

These two are hunting for mice, I think. Tiffany’s fairies drink dewdrops and sip nectar from flowers. Mine prefer protein.

The fairies look purposeful, but content. They have a simple existence: a hut to live in, mice and frogs to hunt. But that’s enough.

The sun shines on the hillside covered with fennel and blackberries, on the concrete marked with messages that are not for me. In the stream, the irises are blooming.

 

“About Fairies” © copyright 2012 Pat Murphy

Art copyright © 2012 Christopher Silas Neal

36 comments
beerofthedark
1. beerofthedark
Love it! Just beautiful, lyrical and real.
Irene Gallo
2. Irene
I loved this story and I love what Chris Neal did on it. This was a pleasure to work on all around.
beerofthedark
6. snikitiki
My day stopped, time standing still. I read and liked this. The clock has started its ticking. I'll come back and spend more time with you, Flash, Godzilla, and the fairies. Promise.

Thank you.
beerofthedark
7. sprintfish
Excellent story! I really enjoyed it.
Pamela Adams
8. Pam Adams
Shakes head, comes back to reality- Wow. Just wow.
Oliver Scroll
10. Minuteman2589
This was wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing. I entered and left and felt like I grew somewhere in between. I'll be showing this to everyone I can. Brilliant.
Chuk Goodin
11. Chuk
Good story. I like the art even better now that I've read it.
N. Swain
14. Jabberwocky
This is really a gorgeous story. I usually pass by stories with fairies; very glad I did not here.
Emma Bull
15. emmabull
Pat Murphy's stories make me look at the world around me, blink, and look again. See what's there, they say. See what could be there. See what isn't there, but should be, what must never be there and is.

And lo, she does it again.
beerofthedark
16. sabbx
Excellent in its tone and excecution. As a fellow Bay Area resident, there are some wonderful regional touches to this. Hope to get the full edition...
beerofthedark
17. Heather M O'Connor
What a lovely blend of the magical and the everyday. If only we all lived in such a world. Thanks for a wonderful read.
beerofthedark
18. Teka Lynn
Marvelous and full of small marvels.
Lynda Dagdeviren
19. alanyalynda
Lovely story...makes you look at things with a different perspective - when always looking at the bigger picture you forget what is happening around you, her details remind there is more to see than we realise..
beerofthedark
21. stan campbell
fairies? Oh sure.

Then read anyway.

Whoa! Wonderful story. Lots to think on later.
Jeff Schweer
22. JeffS.
Very nice story. I liked the contrasting descriptions of fairies depending on the source. Very nice indeed.
Ben HM3
23. BenHM3
Great story, really enjoyed it. (And am not a fan of "fairy stories" at all. Until this one.)
Ben HM3
24. BenHM3

Great story, really enjoyed it. (And am not a fan of "fairy stories" at all. Until this one.)
Wei Cho
25. C.S.
Wow. I was actually pretty wrapped up in the faery world the author created. I didn't even felt the abrupt drag into the story, but it was progressing slowly and subtle. That was great!! The details of the Peter Pan story sound interesting enough. HOnestly, I've never read Peter Pan before, just watched the Disney movie. You have aroused an interest in me. I shall definitely read to find out more about this Neverland as being where the spirit of dead children go to. Also, pretty scary shit. Amazing, just amazing. I thought faeries were all loves and smiles, but they are scary.
George Shirer
26. grshirer
Lovely story. Too many people in the world are like Tiffany. Their knowledge of fairies is the sugary-sweet pap that Disney spoon-feeds them. They don't know the stories of the Sidhe, of the Unseelie Court, changelings replacing human children and fairy lovers crumbling to dust a hundred years after they return from their trysts.
It's good that there are stories like this to inform the ignorant and remind the rest.
Well done.
Cynthia Ahmar
27. tenkuu
I've never read the original Peter Pan book, but this has made me want to look for it. Thanks.
beerofthedark
30. thisbikeisatardis
When I was little I wished fiercely for Peter to come and get me. I read the book over and over. This brought me back to that state of holding my breath and wishing. Well done.
beerofthedark
31. N.R.
Amazing story! Best thing I've read this month!
The only thing that bugged me was that archaeologist was spelt wrong :)
kate si
32. katansi
Lovely and thankfully not saccharine. Made me think of Brom's Child Thief. I love the original fairy stories about them being dangerous.
beerofthedark
33. GrubLord
I've been looking around the net for good short stories, and boy am I glad I finally found this site: this story here has single-handedly proved to me that mastering the short story form is worth my time.

Excellent voice, and the attention to detail is fantastic. Everything works. My compliments to the author. =)
beerofthedark
34. Colormonger
Wondeful story, well told. I'd like to see it published in F&SF...
beerofthedark
35. JCothron
What a fine story! I read the part about the fairies in war paint and was reminded of The Wild Girls. Thank you.
Diana Thrasher
36. Sisildi
This was fantastic! Kudos to the writer. Loved it, thank you.
beerofthedark
37. JBowker
Thank you. Any new work by Pat Murphy is a gift.
beerofthedark
38. LSytsma
Poignant. The seams between life and fantasy are near invisible.

Wonderful!

Thanks for sharing.
beerofthedark
39. Ed Lesperance
Though I emailed you privately, this story deserves mention here as well.
Is there an annual award for "Best Short SF story of the decade?"
--------------------------

I liked the way you blended the legend into the reality, incorporating the microlith (I, too, am an anthropologist), the protective cats, death and the darker side of fairies. Your characters and locations were varied and quite believable, which made the legend and cat behaviour so much more believable. I wish I had the vision to write like you do. Your story will stick with me, close to the surface, I think. Not many do.
beerofthedark
40. Ed Lesperance
Though I emailed you privately, this story deserves mention here as well.
Is there an annual award for "Best Short SF story of the decade?"
--------------------------

I liked the way you blended the legend into the reality, incorporating the microlith (I, too, am an anthropologist), the protective cats, death and the darker side of fairies. Your characters and locations were varied and quite believable, which made the legend and cat behaviour so much more believable. I wish I had the vision to write like you do. Your story will stick with me, close to the surface, I think. Not many do.

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