Let’s be clear on one thing: Bordertown is made up. Fictional. Not real. You can’t find it in the World Book Encyclopedia or on Google Maps (I’ve tried). Writer and editor Terri Windling invented it in the 1980’s, and invited a bunch of writers in to share and populate the place, a city in our world but slam-up against the border to Faerie (or Elfland, or the Realm; call it what you like, it’s the same place).
It’s a rundown, punk, jerry-rigged kind of city, where magic works sometimes and technology works sometimes but neither works reliably, and runaway humans and elves converge to find real magic or make art or just construct a way to survive in a place they can call their own, or make their own.
So Bordertown exists, sure, but on paper (or pixels) only, and in the imaginations of the writers and readers who’ve created and loved it over the past few decades. That’s the official story, anyway. That’s what I’d tell you if you asked me at my official job, behind a library reference desk. But the truth is that I’m not entirely convinced.
Because once you start looking, there are little bits of Bordertown all over the place, right in our own world. Like the woman at a bookstore a couple of weeks ago who I overheard saying wonderingly to her friends, “You mean this is Three LIVES Book Shop?? I always thought it was called Three ELVES Book Shop!” And I thought, well, well, there must be some upstarts who think the Border literary scene can handle an alternative to the venerable Elsewhere Books and have opened a rival bookstore. Obviously news of it has leaked out somehow, whether this woman knows that’s what happened or not. In the Bordertown in my head, there’s definitely a Three Elves & Company Booksellers now.
Or the shock of familiarity I got in Copenhagen last summer when walking through the entryway to the Freetown Christiania squatters’ neighborhood /commune/social experiment, and seeing the explosion of street art and graffiti, hashish stalls right next to peddlers of souvenir T-shirts and (unmedicated) baked goods, tourists mixing with scruffy longtime residents, dogs wandering in the streets, teenagers on bicycles zipping past. The feeling of a place that’s a little apart from the regular world just past the gate: a little rough, a little wild, a little more touristy than it used to be but still recognizably itself. A place people come to when they don’t fit in anywhere else. The woman who sold us our “Save Christiania” magnets said proudly that when runaways arrive at the Copenhagen train station, the police pick them up, but when they turn up in Christiania, the authorities know they’re in good hands and leave them be. Oh, right, I thought; just like the Digger Houses.
Or the bottle of Mad River Soda (Black Cherry Explosion flavor) I bought in Vermont in 1996. The translucent red liquid inside eerily resembles what I’ve always figured the water from the famed Mad River—that runs straight from Elfland through Bordertown—would look like. That bottle has been sitting on my desk for fifteen years. I’m sure it’s just soda, really, and not River water, known to be hallucinogenic and powerfully addictive to any humans foolish or desperate enough to imbibe. Almost sure it’s just soda. Almost completely sure….
But not sure enough to open the bottle and drink it.
Elisabeth Kushner is a librarian and writer who’s crossed a few borders in her life and now lives in Vancouver, BC. You can find her short story, “Changeling,” in the Tor anthology The Essential Bordertown.