By E. L. Chen
27 March 2006
"Damn it," Phil said, fiddling with the knobs of the stereo. "Ever since we crossed the border I can't get any stations."
"Keep your eyes on the road," Joyce snapped.
Phil swore and flicked off the radio. Great, Joyce thought. Now we'll have to talk to each other. Something that seemed so easy in front of their marriage counselor, but when alone one might as well ask for the moon on a string. She cranked down the window, welcoming the deafening blast of air. The wind was as hot and dry as the shimmering desert surrounding the highway.
"You sure we're on the right road?" she said.
Phil rolled his eyes. "I know exactly where we're going."
Do you? Do you really?
He said, mockingly, "East of the sun and west of the moon, right?"
Joyce said nothing.
She kisses the small pink forehead, tugs at the perfect little toes. "Good night, honey," she says. The baby burbles happily. She turns out the light.
Silence, as quick and sharp as a knife.
An icy draft lifts the hairs on her arms, caresses the open neck of her robe. A scent like rotting rose petals chokes her nostrils.
"Aisling? Aisling, honey?"
She creeps toward the crib, joints stiff with terror, trying to remember what the nurses had told her about SIDS.
The baby cries. She nearly weeps with relief.
The baby cries again—a sickly, colicky cry, not Aisling's healthy gurgle.
"Where's the next hotel?" Phil asked as dusk fell like a curtain over the horizon. Since they had crossed the border there had been nothing but pavement and sand stretching as far as they could see. Joyce couldn't remember when they had last passed another car.
"I don't know." She shivered. Without the sun to keep it at bay, the cold crawled up her bare arms, leaving gooseflesh in its wake.
Phil sneered. "Lonely Planet doesn't make guides to Faerie?"
She hugged herself and said, "I told you, I don't know what we'll find here." Except Aisling. "There. That looks like something."
A building squatted on the jaundiced desert ahead. As they approached, Joyce saw that it was a motel. Phil pulled off the highway and into the empty parking lot.
They staggered out of the car. The gritty air scraped Joyce's throat. The tinny jingle of door chimes danced on a breeze and an iron-haired woman emerged from the motel office. She wiped her hands on her apron. A keyring hung at her waist.
"Jesus, what a hag," Phil muttered. "You can talk to her. I'll unload the trunk."
The old woman spat on the ground and called out, "You want room, yes?" Her accent was vaguely European.
"Yes," Joyce said, striding toward her. "Um . . . do you take American dollars?" She had emptied her safety deposit box before they'd left, but she didn't want to part with her grandmother's jewelry unless she had to.
The old woman's mouth stretched over crooked yellow teeth. "Who does not?" she said, cackling.
She named a price. Joyce rummaged in her purse and pulled out her wallet and a photo of Aisling. "I'm looking for my daughter," she said, showing the picture to the woman. "Have you seen her?"
The old woman nodded. "Yes. I see her. Two, three weeks ago. In wood, she is."
"In wood, all journeys start. In the morning," the old woman added, waving Joyce's frown away. She tugged a long, skinny black key from the keyring. Joyce scoffed at the sudden notion that it had been fashioned from human bones and teeth.
"Room 12," the woman said. "Wake-up call, eight-thirty."
Joyce and Phil lugged their suitcases and cooler up the chipped concrete steps to the second-floor landing. Joyce opened the door to their room and switched on the light. Pink-framed seascapes hung above the two double beds. A stack of white towels and plastic-wrapped disposable cups sat on a long, low dresser. A flesh-colored rotary telephone perched on the nightstand. Joyce was certain that if she opened the nightstand drawer, she would find a Gideon Bible.
"No TV, no AC . . ." Phil hefted his suitcase onto the closest bed.
"I think it's charming," Joyce said, slapping her bags onto the other bed. The temperature was comfortable and he had never watched much television anyhow. He was just trying to make her sorry that she had dragged him on this road trip. Especially when she had leveraged his guilt about Nikki to coax him to come.
Phil grunted and headed for the bathroom. "I'm taking a shower."
"Don't drink the water," she called after him.
He emerged after Joyce had finished a makeshift dinner of bottled water and crackers. He took an apple out of the cooler and bit into it. The juices ran down his chin and into his graying chest hairs. The mattress groaned as he sat, his paunch swelling over the snug band of his boxer briefs.
What could Nikki have possibly seen in him? Joyce's eyes suddenly burned, because another woman had seen something magical in Phil to which she was blind. She retreated into the bathroom, intending to brush her teeth, but instead she stared in the mirror at the creases around her eyes and mouth.
She didn't know when it had happened. Perhaps it had been gradual, like Phil's late nights at the office. Or perhaps it had been instantaneous, like Aisling's disappearance. All she knew was that one day she'd woken up and discovered that the carefree girl she'd once been had been replaced by a middle-aged cliche.
Laugh lines, people call them. Ha. She made a face, and the lines bunched and deepened.
"You'll be sorry," Aisling screams, her green eyes screwed up into wrinkled slits. "My real mother's gonna show up one day."
"Oh, is she," she says. "Well, then maybe she can buy you this doll. Because I'm sure as heck not going to get it for you today, young lady, if you keep up this behavior."
"My real mother's a queen. A beautiful queen in a land far, far away. One day she's gonna take me away, and then you'll be sorry."
"Really," she says. "We'll see about that."
They woke to a rumbling that blossomed from the motel's very foundation. "Jesus," Phil said, sitting up in bed. The plastic cups danced across the dresser; the seascapes rattled in their frames.
Joyce flung back her covers—she had defiantly chosen to sleep in the other bed—and just as abruptly as it had started, the rumbling stopped. A plastic cup dropped to the floor. It cracked under her foot as she stumbled to the window. Phil grunted and returned to sleep, exhaustion overcoming curiosity.
Joyce pulled back the curtains and squinted. The desert sand glowed with a milky blue light. She looked up at the moon. Only in stories was the moon as large and round as a wheel of cheese, and bright enough to illuminate the darkest night—and thus it was so, in Faerie.
She shielded her eyes and scanned the horizon. A black, bristly ribbon like a mustache unfurled along the edge of the visible world, growing larger with every heartbeat until she could discern the tops of trees. It reminded her of the marching woods in Macbeth, until she glanced down and discovered that the woods weren't moving—they were.
Where there should have been pillars supporting the second-floor landing, two long, scaly legs protruded. A chicken's legs, striding across the desert, kicking up sand and scrub in their wake, balancing the motel's weight on their fat thighs.
Joyce yanked the curtains closed and tumbled back into bed. She pulled the covers over her head to hide her shaking from Phil. You were prepared to do anything to find Aisling, she reminded herself as she fell into an uneasy sleep.
The shrill ring of the telephone roused them in the morning. Joyce fumbled for the receiver and assured the old woman that they were awake. Phil checked his watch and frowned. "Why is it still dark outside?" he said.
Joyce knew; she had seen the black forest.
The station wagon appeared to be sitting where they had parked it—only it sat on mulch instead of pavement. Phil stared at the car, and then up at the towering edge of the woods. The moon hung low and round, igniting the tips of the trees with blue light. Behind the motel, however, the sun burned in a cloudless cerulean sky.
The motel office jingled open. "Always is night, in wood," the old woman said. She pointed to an opening in the wall of trees. A glimmer of moon-touched gravel escaped the darkness. "Here. To your daughter, this road takes you."
"Thank you," Joyce said. She held out their room key. The old woman shook her head.
"Keep it. You will need," she said. "You and I, we are same. Women bound to home. Others see types, not women."
"Thank you," Joyce said again. She pocketed the key and returned to the car. Phil fidgeted in the driver's seat, drumming on the wheel with his fingers. "Over there." Joyce pointed at the unpaved road. Phil switched on the headlights and ignition. As he stepped on the gas, two massive chicken legs uprooted themselves from the ground behind them and the motel scampered away, back across the desert.
The forest parted and swallowed them whole.
A glimpse of red caught Joyce's eye. A young girl was skipping on the side of the road, adjusting the hood of her scarlet cloak. A few seconds later, amber eyes peered out of the shadows, large and hungry like a wolf's. The beast bared its teeth at Joyce and then was lost in the station wagon's rear lights.
"Something out there?" Phil said, deploying the power locks.
"No." A beautiful child with ebony-black hair and white skin darted between the trees, sobbing. A grubby waif wearing a dress made of barrel slats, or perhaps of nettles—no, it's a donkey's skin, Joyce realized with revulsion—picked her way over fallen logs.
As they drove, she saw other girls walking in the woods: some despondent, some determined, some richly dressed, some poorly dressed. And some, like Donkeyskin, barely dressed at all. But they all trudged in the same direction, searching for—
No. Joyce remembered the fairy tales she'd read as a child. They don't know what they're going to find, or even what they're looking for. All they have is hope and optimism and their own wits.
She envied them.
And then she saw a flash of ash-blonde hair.
The girl stumbled over the brush in her jelly sandals and denim mini-skirt, a bulging backpack weighing down her shoulders. It was Joyce at age eighteen, searching for her first class on her first day of college.
Joyce remembered that day: a blur of fear and breathlessness and anticipation. Was I ever that naïve? she thought with both disdain and wistfulness. She peeled herself from the window. Her eighteen-year-old self slipped away behind them, back into the past where she belonged.
"I wanted to name her something sensible," Phil suddenly said, as if he had mustered the courage to speak for hours. "Like Mary." After his mother, that bitch. "But you had to insist on that weird hippie name."
"It's Gaelic," she said.
"Whatever. If Aisling had a normal name, she'd fit in more at school, and she wouldn't be so difficult—"
"And so it's my fault? You're never home—"
"It's not my fault I've had to work late."
"Working late? You don't have to call it that anymore."
His ears reddened. "I told you, it's over between me and Nikki. It's been over for a long time. Damn it, I've tried to make it up to you. How much longer are you going to punish me?"
She turned away and gazed out the window again. There were no more wayfaring girls to be seen.
Phil navigated a sharp curve in the road and slammed on the brakes. "Jesus," he said.
The road ended in the middle of a clearing, as if whoever had carved out the path through the woods had walked away one day and forgotten about it. Joyce stared at the expanse of brush and undergrowth. Tears scalded her eyes. It's not fair. There should be something here. This can't be the end.
She opened the car door and stepped out. "Turn on the high beams," she said. Phil flicked them on, and to her surprise he turned off the engine and stepped out as well.
The beams illuminated a tall hedge at the other end of the clearing. Trees rose thickly on either side, forming a cul-de-sac. Joyce picked her way across scrubby weeds and birch saplings, unsettled by this pocket of new growth tucked in the heart of an ageless forest. Phil followed. "Must've been a fire here some time ago," he said, kicking at a ragged tree stump surrounded by knee-high saplings.
"It's a wall," Joyce said. Even with her head craned all the way back, she could not see what lay on the other side. She tugged at the tightly interwoven vines to test their strength—and gasped. What she had thought were narrow leaves were actually thorns.
"Great, just great," Phil said. "I knew this trip was a big mistake. We should just turn around and go home."
Joyce blotted her bleeding palms on the hips of her jeans. "So you're going to give up on Aisling, like you've given up on our marriage?"
"I have not given up on our marriage. If I had, would I be here?"
"If you hadn't given up, you wouldn't have slept with Nikki."
Phil closed his eyes. "Not now, Joyce. Can we figure out how to get out of here first?"
The car's headlights suddenly dimmed, plunging them into semi-darkness. "Damn it," said Phil, "don't tell me that the battery's dying—"
They turned around and saw the dragon.
Joyce had always imagined dragons to possess a majestic beauty. This creature, however, was unlike any fantasy illustration she'd ever seen. Two small, milky, piggish eyes were embedded deep within the folds of its narrow head. A long, scrawny neck coiled atop a bloated body. Its greenish-black scales were filmy and tatty, like a shedding snakeskin.
The dragon screeched with fury, revealing teeth as thick and blunt as an old elephant's tusks.
"Jesus," Phil breathed. "Joyce, get back. Get back!"
Joyce stepped backward. Thorns tangled in her hair.
Phil veered to the right and dashed toward the trees. "Hey, over here!" he shouted, waving his arms.
The dragon turned toward Phil. The station wagon's headlights broke through from behind the beast's body and struck the wall. The dragon reared its serpentine neck. "Watch out!" Joyce screamed. A curling tongue of fire lashed out. Phil dove into the forest's undergrowth. Trees burst into flame.
"Phil!" Sulfur seared Joyce's throat.
"I'm okay!" he yelled over the roar of fire and dragon. "Get back to the car. Go."
"I can't leave you—"
"Forget about me! Just go, get out of here while you can. I'll hold off the—shit!"
"Phil!" She heard the snap of twigs, and then the hiss of breath.
"Go!" he rasped.
Joyce sprinted to the car. Its high beams shone in her eyes. She dashed blindly for the driver's side—and smacked into what felt like a crumbling concrete pillar.
She stumbled backward and blinked, trying to clear her sight. The pillar was actually a stout, black, twisted tree that looked as if its leaves and branches had been singed off. A heart-shaped knothole sat at eye-level. Joyce put one hand on the tree and the other on her hip to steady herself—and she remembered the old woman's room key in her jeans pocket, as black and bone-like as the deeply ridged tree bark.
She took the key from her pocket, jammed it into the knothole, and twisted. The tree split in two halves. The inside was hollow, save for a plain gold box the size of a picnic cooler. The box was warm and throbbed gently beneath her palms, as if it were alive.
"Damn it, get in the car!" Phil shouted. He was out in the open again, dashing back and forth in front of the vine-thick wall. The dragon shrieked, too slow and clumsy to follow him closely. It raised a claw and swatted at him as if he were a mosquito. Joyce heard the crunch and roll of a body on a forest floor.
"Phil!" She wanted to run to him, but the dragon was already turning around, squinting at the car's headlights. She hefted open the lid to the box. Inside, on a velvet cushion, something dark and wet and slimy pulsed.
Joyce picked up the heart, dropped it to the gravel, and brought down her foot. The heart burst under her heel. The dragon shrieked once more, and dissolved into a falling curtain of ash.
Joyce collapsed against the car, hugging herself. She didn't feel glad or triumphant, only tired. "Phil?" she called out.
She staggered into the clearing. Flame bathed the trees around her. "Phil?" she called again, her heart pounding in her ears.
Phil crawled out from the charred brush, his hair rumpled and sooty. Blood oozed from scratches on his face and arms, and an ugly gash split the shins of his khakis.
"Don't move," Joyce said. She dashed back to the car and dug out a towel and a bottle of water.
To her surprise, Phil began to laugh when she started sponging away the blood and dirt. A deep, joyous laugh—not the bitter grunts to which Joyce had become accustomed.
"I—I can't believe I did that," he said, tears washing away the soot on his cheeks. "I didn't know that I could . . . that I was capable—"
I didn't know either. She and Phil had been on the same road all along, even though it felt like they had grown apart. She should have recognized the loss of confidence. The frustration. The boredom, and yet fear of change.
"I was going to end it, you know," he said, his face serious again. "Even if she hadn't broken it off and transferred to the head office."
"I know," Joyce said, although she knew he was lying. The man he'd been then had been too weak to end the affair, just as he'd been too weak to end their marriage before he'd started sleeping with Nikki.
"It was a stupid and cowardly thing. So stupid." He shook his head. "It didn't make me happy. It only screwed things up worse. I swear, if we get out of here, with or without Aisling, things are going to change."
He squeezed her hand. Joyce squeezed back. She knew it was only the adrenaline talking now, but the memory of his courage would stay with him when they got back.
"I don't know how you do it," he said. "I don't know how you put up with all this crap—from me, and from Aisling."
"I don't know how I do it either." And she realized that fairy tales were never about being rescued by Prince Charming and living happily ever after; they were about persistence and self-preservation and making the best of what you had.
"What the hell—" Phil released Joyce's hand and stared behind them. The vines slithered up the wall, revealing copper-bound wooden doors in a lattice of stone slabs.
The doors creaked open.
Something that looked like a mushroom with eyes and a penis waddled into the clearing. "All hail Mab, Queen of the Faerie!" it proclaimed in a gravelly voice.
Joyce and Phil clambered to their feet.
Joyce smelled her first: overripe fruit, decaying mushrooms, animal manure, and, of course, rotting rose petals. The Queen of the Faerie strode through the doors, butterflies clinging to her child-sized, sexless body. A circlet of dragonflies adorned her brow. A naked youth trotted behind her on all fours, a collar of roses about his neck. Joyce frowned. There was something familiar about her, although she had never seen anything so beautiful and terrifying before.
Mab pinned Joyce with her gaze, and Joyce recognized the almond-shaped green eyes, the pointed chin, the upturned nose and coarse black hair.
They were the same as Aisling's.
"Well?" Mab said. Her voice was high and petulant, like a little girl's. "You destroyed my guardian and earned this audience. What do you want?"
Joyce swallowed and said, "I've come for Aisling."
Mab raised an eyebrow. "Which one?"
"It's my life! You don't own me!"
"As long as you're living under this roof, young lady—"
"I hate you! I wish I was never born! I don't belong here! I'd run away this instant if I could—"
The door slams. She storms downstairs.
"Maybe you were too hard on her?" he says.
"Don't you dare tell me how to raise our child. Maybe if you were home more . . ."
"Damn it, Joyce, what do I have to do—"
She says, "I don't have time for this."
She stomps up the stairs. Raps on Aisling's door.
"Aisling," she snaps.
She flings the door open. Her daughter is gone. An icy breeze streams through the room, carrying the scent of rotting rose petals on its back.
Mab sighed. "It is so hard to keep the secret of Faerie these days. Changelings do not sicken and die as they once did, thanks to modern medicine. So many of my wayward children return, or spend their lives trying to find that magic they cannot name."
"Where's Aisling?" Phil demanded.
Mab smiled. Joyce had not known that it was possible for such a small mouth to hold so many teeth. "You came for one girl; you may leave with one girl. Who will it be?"
She clapped her hands, and two more mushroom men scurried out of the gate, each guiding a veiled figure by the hand. "A mother knows her child better than she knows her own heart," she said, beckoning Joyce forward. "Choose."
The figures were covered from head to toe in white lace. Joyce stepped in front of them. "Aisling?" she breathed.
A thin, trembling voice emerged from beneath the first figure's veil. "Mom, it's me, please take me home, I want to go home."
The second figure spat, "Screw off. I'm not goin' anywhere."
"That one," Joyce said, pointing at the second figure. "She's my daughter."
Mab cackled. The mushroom men tore off the veils, revealing two teenaged girls. The first had Joyce's blue eyes and Phil's brown hair. The second's almond-shaped green eyes narrowed into slits beneath a crooked fringe of black hair, and her mouth twisted in a scowl.
"Foolish woman," Mab said, placing a long-fingered hand on the scowling girl's arm. "This is the changeling with whom you have lived for the past fifteen years."
"That's what I said," Joyce said. "She's my daughter."
"Mom," the first girl said, her face shining with tears. "Please. Take me home."
"Joyce—" Phil said, grabbing her wrist.
Joyce shook him off. She closed her eyes briefly, then said, "I'm sorry. She's the one I came for." She pointed to the second girl. "Come on, Aisling, we're leaving." Aisling glowered.
"Not yet," Mab said.
"Ha," Aisling said.
"I have not shown you your third choice," Mab said. She clapped her hands, and two more mushroom men tottered into the clearing, followed by a girl with ash-blonde hair.
"Are you sure this is the way to Freshman English?" the girl said, her brow furrowed. She glanced up and saw Joyce. "Oh, hi! Are you the prof?"
"No," Joyce whispered, unable to look away from her eighteen-year-old self. Was I ever that young, that pretty? What happened?
The girl's face fell, and then brightened. Joyce had forgotten how easily she smiled in those days. "You know, you look a little like my mom," the girl said cheerily.
Staring at her, Joyce realized that it wasn't the youthful looks that she missed, but everything else she'd once had: spirit, fearlessness, and a readiness for change.
Mab nodded. "Yes. You can have all that back. Just choose—"
"Unbelievable," Aisling said, eyeing the young Joyce. "When I wore a skirt that short, you grounded me for a week."
Joyce blinked and realized that her eighteen-year-old self wasn't the only girl who possessed those forgotten qualities. She said, "The English department's in Winton Hall. Look for the clock tower; it's directly behind it."
"Thanks!" the young Joyce said. She spun on her heel and strode back through the gate, her knapsack bouncing on her back.
"It is not too late to reclaim your innocence," Mab said. "Or be reunited with your long-lost blood kin," she added, gesturing to the first Aisling.
Joyce shook her head. "If I could take them both, I would. But she's not the one I came for."
"Bite me," the green-eyed Aisling said, crossing her arms.
Mab bared her teeth again. "One more offer," she said. "Leave her here, and you may stay too."
"I don't think—" Joyce started.
Mab raised a slender hand. "Hear me out. In Faerie, you will never grow old," she said, her child-like voice deepening into a hypnotic whisper. "You may change your appearance at will with piskie-dust glamours. You may raid the mortal realm for pretty boys to keep on a lead. You will be as dear to me as a sister, and Aisling—both of them—will be feted as princesses of the land. Every day will be more delightful than the last, and every night a revel."
Joyce laughed. "You must be kidding me."
Mab raised an eyebrow. "You would defy my generosity? What is there at home for you? Nothing but old age and rot and your faithless husband. Nothing but toil and struggle and loss."
"No," Joyce said.
"Why not?" Mab asked, pouting her bow-like mouth, looking both insulted and mystified.
"She's my daughter. I'm her mother," Joyce said. "It's my responsibility to do what's best for her. She'll never learn how to stand on her own here, if you spoil her with luxury." She'll never have to make the hard journey that all wayfaring girls make. She'll never have her inner strength tested. She'll never learn how to make choices, and fight for them. "This isn't the life I want for her."
Aisling stamped her foot. "What about what I want?"
Mab spread her hands. "She has said it three times now, sweet, so it is true. You are her daughter. You will go."
Aisling's mouth dropped open. "No! You said I could stay! You're my real mother—"
Mab shook her head. "No. She has come far and fought hard for you. She loves you and fears for you in a way that I never will. She is your real mother, and always has been, even if you do not share her blood. And anyway," she added, "I do not think my Aisling wants a sister."
A bird-like shriek sounded from the first Aisling, and suddenly the glamour lifted, revealing a grubby, giggling thing, all pointed teeth and gangling limbs and scales. Phil recoiled in horror. The blue-eyed creature that had once been their flesh-and-blood child clung to Mab's leg, hissing at Aisling. Mab stroked its bramble-like hair.
"You have chosen well," Mab said. "I would not have liked to give up my fosterling."
She marched through the gate. The first Aisling and her pet youth scampered after her. The mushroom men followed and closed the gate behind them.
"Jesus," Phil said. "That took balls."
Joyce nodded but there was no time to reflect on what she had just done. Later, at home, she would allow herself to remember her fortitude. First things first. She enfolded her daughter in a fierce hug. Aisling rolled her eyes and made no move to return the embrace.
Joyce stepped back, wiped the tears from her eyes, and yelled, "Don't you ever run away again. Do you know how worried we were about you? Do you know what trouble we went through to look for you? Your father and I nearly got vaporized by a dragon."
"Really?" Aisling said, impressed and perhaps a little disappointed that they had survived.
"Are you trying to send us to an early grave? Are you?" Joyce threw up her hands. "Why do I even bother? Get in the car."
Aisling stuck her hands in her pockets. She kicked at the halved tree trunk. The golden box had disappeared.
"You're already grounded for two months, young lady," Joyce said. "Do you want to be grounded for life?"
Aisling got in the car.
"Stupid," Aisling said, glaring out the car window at the hurtling scenery. "I can't believe you did that. You could've lived forever. We could've lived forever."
There was more awe in her voice than contempt. Joyce met Phil's eyes, and for the first time in months, they smiled at each other.
Aisling slumped back in her seat. "So . . ." she said. "When we get back, can I get a tattoo? Mab had a really cool one on her—"
"No," Joyce said.
"Why not?" Aisling folded her arms across her chest.
"Because I'm your mother," Joyce said, savoring the power and love in the words, "and I say so."
"Da-ad," Aisling whined.
"No," Phil said. "Your mother says so."
The station wagon raced along the lonely highway. A faded sign streaked with dust and bird droppings sprung up on the side of the road: YOU ARE NOW LEAVING FAERIE. In the distance, a motel jogged across the horizon on long chicken legs.