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- Child abuse
What Charlie Brewer remembered most about the morgue was the smell. “Cancer,” the doctor had said, but that hadn’t described xer parents on adjacent tables, emaciated beyond recognition, filling xer nostrils with a rotten egg stink like mud at the bottom of a pond.
At the funeral, xer mom’s cousins eyeballed xer graying undercut and murmured perfunctory hellos and left as soon as the preacher was done. The caskets were closed, the service short. Thank whichever god who ruled such things that xer parents’ life insurance was enough to cover the burial. Pretty much the best gift xer parents ever gave xer.
At the end of it someone approached xer. Later all xe would remember was the smile. Over-practiced, teeth over-white. “I expect you’re the new landowner,” the smile said, and nodded as if they were old friends. It was only ninth or tenth on the list of disorienting things that happened that week—just some predatory realtor or lawyer, no doubt—and Charlie barely gave it a second thought.
I miss you, Charlie texted to Nita. The family cemetery was on a hilltop, and was the only place in the county where Charlie had found cell service. Hungry young trees ate the older graves. Maybe their roots would offer up the skull of xer great-grandmother one day, or the thigh of the grandfather who died when xe was a baby. This is HORRIBLE.
Five minutes later, Nita sent xer a broken heart emoji. Miss you too, bun. I’m so sorry.
A second message buzzed through in the same packet of data. It was from Carmichael, xer department head. When will you be back? Some things to discuss.
After a handful of nights spent crying with Nita, who was leaving for a yearlong position in Stuttgart, Charlie went back to the home xe had escaped nearly twenty years before, every worldly belonging crammed into the back of xer Honda.
The well-water there was as foul as it had been all through childhood. Night was sweltering. Crickets and frogs screamed.
Xe paged through the musty paperbacks still stacked beneath xer bed, Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, covers pulpy in the 1950s style. The smell of the cheap old paper, thick with notes of dust and smoke and vanilla, pulled xer down into childhood. Xe used to tuck them under xer arm and head into the woods behind the farm. Xe would read the summer away while xer feet wrinkled in the little rock pool beneath the waterfall, jewelweed flashing dew like diamonds. Xe drank straight from the creek whenever xe felt thirsty. The good clean water tasted nothing like what came out of the well. Those days were the best days, when xe didn’t have to tiptoe around Dad’s sullen silence or Ma’s eggshell temper.
Charlie’s eyes couldn’t focus on the words, the smudged print bleeding into the brown paper. Frog song made it impossible to think. Sweat made it impossible to sit still.
Dreamless, xe drifted downstairs—and found a swamp. Old linoleum shimmered under a sheet of water spattered with moonlight. Ferns and horsetails hid the walls, choked the back door. Broken logs slumped out from the pantry. Gnats and mosquitos found xer arms and neck.
I’m dreaming, xe thought, feeling mud beneath xer toes. The kitchen swamp smelled of growth and rot, the sharp spice of wood-punk and mycelia, the fresh hay brightness of ferns, and under it all a dank note of sulfur, like eggs, like decaying things sunk in mud, like—
Like after the hospital, when xer salivary glands wouldn’t stop stinging and xe thought xe needed something to weigh down xer stomach but the bargain-menu hamburger had come up instead, red with ketchup, there in the McDonald’s parking lot under the billboards next to the highway.
Xe sloshed to the kitchen sink and found an enormous frog glaring at xer from the basin. Xe stumbled back, almost losing xer footing on a submerged root. “I’m sorry,” xe murmured, then felt ridiculous.
The frog blinked at xer, slow, eyes fathomless in the moonlight. Charlie imagined xe could feel its annoyance, something cold-blooded and ancient and heavy-boned.
“I’m sorry,” xe said again, and found xerself in bed, legs twisted in a ratty sheet, covered in sweat and mosquitos from the open window. The frogs and crickets were silent.
Xer temples throbbed, as if xe’d been up drinking. Xe rubbed xer eye and winced, working xer aging joints into something like a lotus pose on the mattress.
There were traces of dried mud beneath xer toenails, etched in the whorls of xer soles. Xe traced a fingertip in widening gyres, dusting the mud away.
Loading xer Honda’s hatchback with gallon after gallon of distilled water, sweltering in the Wal-Mart’s shadeless parking lot, Charlie caught a whiff of something green.
“Ah, Dr. Brewer,” a blandly pleasant voice said behind xer shoulder.
Charlie turned to face a too-wide smile and a suit whose only distinction was looking far too expensive for the occasion. Then xe saw the eyes, pupils too dilated for the daylight. From some angles the face looked masculine—like when the light caught the edge of the jaw—but the eyes seemed feminine, for lack of a better word. A lioness pacing her cage. Charlie found it hard to look away from those eyes, yet still couldn’t say if they were brown or green. Sometimes the sun lit them and made them seem gold.
The smile didn’t change. “That factory water is tasteless stuff. I don’t know how you drink it.”
“Our old well,” Charlie began.
The person nodded again, as if that explained enough. “I believe I have the advantage of you.” They stuck out a hand. Charlie reached to shake it, automatically, but they instead proffered a business card. The lettering was black but turned gold when xe tilted it.
There was no address, no email, no phone number.
“I’ll get right to the point,” the stranger—Hawthorn, Charlie supposed—said. “My business is in water. Don’t worry—we aren’t one of those companies that buy up water rights and tap out everything from beneath the locals. I’ve lived here my whole life”—Charlie caught a note of unlike you beneath the words—“and I can tell you that our county has some of the finest spring water left in all creation.”
Hawthorn’s accent was impossible to pin down. Their words swayed from Appalachian to Received Pronunciation, all within the same sentence. Yet somehow it seemed organic, not at all affected.
“You want my water rights,” Charlie said. Well, good luck with them, xe almost added. If that well-water touched xer lips one more time, xe’d rather drown in it.
“I had them already. From your dear parents.” Hawthorn paused, as if in token respect, but their eyes never left Charlie’s. The respect for the dead—now that seemed affected.
The funeral. Charlie suddenly remembered the stranger there, the lawyer asking after the new landowner. Xe couldn’t recall what the lawyer had looked like, but the suit seemed familiar, as did the steady smile.
“You had them?”
“The agreement was until the end of their natural lives. Now you’re the landowner.”
“I don’t—I don’t remember any equipment. No—pumps.” Now that xe thought about it, Charlie realized xe didn’t have the first idea what water extraction looked like. Xer mind had immediately filled the gap with images of oil wells, pumpjacks nodding like thirsty dinosaurs. Xe felt ashamed to be ignorant of something so fundamental to urban civilization.
Hawthorn smiled again, and for a moment it seemed genuine. A hint of humor crept into their voice. “It’s a small-scale operation. I believe the word now in vogue is artisanal. There’s no need for pumps or machinery. Sun and Moon forbid we harm a single tree.”
Sun and Moon? “I don’t really understand.”
“Ah! With your permission, Dr. Brewer, I’d be delighted to visit your farm and show you what I mean.” The spontaneity of the smile was gone, displaced by something predatory, an edge to those over-white teeth. “Shall we say, seven p.m.? Daylight will last us long enough to see the spring.”
Holding the stranger’s card, Charlie nodded, mechanically, still unsure what was happening.
“Wonderful.” Hawthorn bowed to xer, grabbed xer hand. Brushed lips—soft as moss, soft as summer—to xer knuckles. “Seven it is.” Charlie stared as they strolled to a shining new truck parked a few spaces away. It still had temporary tags from the dealership.
Xe typed out a dozen different messages to Nita, deleted them unsent. How do you tell your fiancée Hey, so I invited this creep (who might be a fey lord) to my isolated house in the middle of the hills, and yeah, still no phone signal? Or My kitchen turned into an ancient swamp last night and I almost puked on a frog the size of a Thanksgiving turkey?
Instead xe sent Got a business card from someone who offered to buy my water rights. Says it’s “artisanal spring water.” Probably won’t be worth it, but I might invite them out to hear an offer.
Nita’s status immediately turned green. Charlie imagined her in Stuttgart, phone on the pillow, notifications turned on just so she wouldn’t miss a message from Charlie. Charlie nearly cried at the thought while Nita typed a response.
I know money’s tight. I support whatever you decide to do. <3 Just be sure they aren’t some front for a multinational. Don’t want them draining the whole aquifer!
Charlie smiled through tears. I don’t even know how water pumps work. I feel so ignorant.
Oh, bun! It’s okay. We’ll wiki it up together. I love you!
I love you so much. Get some sleep, please. I’m about to head home, probably no more signal until tomorrow’s town trip. Let me know how tomorrow goes!
Charlie watched Nita’s affectionate emojis bubble up in their chat, then stared at the Wal-Mart through the Honda’s windshield, at the drink machine charging $2 for a plastic bottle of water shipped here from some other town, some other spring.
It occurred to xer then that Hawthorn had never spoken of payment.
Lud-in-the-Mist had tumbled from xer bed onto the floor.
Xe picked up the book and its spine cracked open to Master Nathaniel’s visit to the city of the dead.
Xe didn’t like how it stirred the hairs on the back of xer neck. Xe wanted to be in Stuttgart right now, or back in the comfort and former stability of xer old life in Columbus.
Charlie didn’t like how the bullfrogs weren’t calling this evening. The air above the holler was too still, too hot, the light too flat. Leaves hung limp, as if hushed before a storm, but no downdrafts came.
Xe poked around the house and the tumbledown barn, half-heartedly looking for anything of xer parents’ xe hadn’t sold, anything xe had missed. Xe settled on one of Ma’s carved walking sticks, hearty hickory coated in lacquer. It had fallen behind the dead fridge. Xe brushed bits of dried fern from its tip. It must have been there since Ma’s last walk in the woods, whenever that had been.
At seven, Charlie peeked out the front door to see that the black truck was already parked behind xer Honda. Xe stuffed Lud-in-the-Mist into xer back pocket with a sense of silly superstition, hefted a backpack with a flashlight and a gallon of water inside, and wrapped xer hand tight around Ma’s walking stick.
Xe looked up to see Hawthorn on xer porch, still in their immaculate suit, smiling that practiced smile without a drop of sweat or a single hair out of place. Charlie shivered.
“Good evening to you,” Hawthorn said with a slight bow.
“Hey.” Charlie adjusted xer grip on the stick. “After you.”
Hawthorn didn’t stir at first, their eyes scanning into xer house and noting details, maybe things Charlie couldn’t see. Xe stepped forward and closed the door behind xer, and heard a single frog chirrup from behind the house.
Hawthorn smiled at xer as if seeing xer for the first time. “Ah! Yes. Of course. You might not know the way.” Xe sensed a hint of aspersion in their tone: How little you’ve noticed in your time here.
Hawthorn set a ground-eating pace up the hill behind the house, across the fields that used to be farmed but now grew summer hay xer neighbors mowed each year. Somehow Hawthorn glided through the hip-high grass with little effort, scarcely bending any stems in their wake. Charlie struggled to keep a few paces behind them, getting xer boots caught in the dense grass, warding grasshoppers and spiderwebs from xer face. The sun, low but insistent, melted sweat from xer skin. Xer fingers found thorns and sharp seeds xe didn’t remember from childhood.
“It isn’t far,” Hawthorn called over their shoulder.
They reached the edge of the woods, where invasive rose and honeysuckle tangled into an impenetrable screen. All the secret childhood ways through the thicket had grown over and disappeared. Charlie half expected Hawthorn to wave a hand and command the brush to part. Instead they crouched down, pulled a tangle aside, and smiled. “After you.”
Beside them, Charlie inhaled despite xerself. The daydream smell of hay-meadow. A hint of rain-pool in a rotting stump. A cinnamon touch of spores from a moldering log.
Yeah, definitely a fey lord, xe thought. You couldn’t fool a (former) associate professor of English and folklore.
Nita would probably tell xer to kneecap the bastard and get the hell out of there. Spend the night in the Honda at a highway rest-stop, figure the rest out in the morning.
But the woods were the comforting woods of xer childhood. Understory of laurel and pawpaw and sassafras, canopy of tuliptree and hickory and maple. The forest wrapped around xer, welcomed xer, encouraged xer. It felt cooler just a few steps into the trees, more bearable. Late golden sun streaked through gaps in the leaves, alighted on a patch of mushrooms steaming on a log.
Xe wiped sweat from xer eyes and watched Hawthorn duck and rise smoothly beside xer. Their eyes were definitely green now, sparkling with gold and a hint of starlight. Their suit didn’t change in any way xe could describe, but it fitted differently, its texture shifting, knitting onto them like a doe’s hide. The television smile was gone, the teeth unapologetically sharp: a predator in their element.
I’m a predator too, Charlie told xerself, readjusting xer grip. Xer heart pounded all the same.
Hawthorn flashed a shark grin. Charlie felt that xe’d passed a test just now, saw just a hint more respect in Hawthorn’s eyes.
Hawthorn led the way, but Charlie knew exactly where they were going. Around the base of a sandstone spine, through a notch in its boulders—once a path, now a riot of ferns. Down an uneven slope, through a tangle of laurel, shimmy through a glade of stinging nettle. And there at the head of the holler was xer childhood waterfall, the trickle of the tiny creek over an overhang of sandstone.
But Hawthorn kept going, stepping up the ledge as easily as Charlie might have strolled through the Columbus rose garden. Xer parents had stressed to xer that anything beyond the waterfall was Trespassing, a word which always mingled the threat of punishment with a tang of gunfire, a ward and a spell to lock xer out of the woods beyond. Weighing the threat of Trespassing against the thrill of defiance, young Charlie had decided xer books were escape enough, and left the ridge alone. Xe had no memory of venturing any farther.
Charlie grimaced and sweated and grunted up after Hawthorn, aware that they watched xer with a disdainful twist to their smile. At the top, xe stood fast and drank from xer water jug while Hawthorn watched with inhuman stillness.
“I don’t know how you drink that,” Hawthorn said, as xe packed the jug away once more. “Best sweet water in the world is right here.” But they didn’t point to the creek; they nodded upstream.
Charlie waited for Hawthorn to set out again, but they waited, eyed xer, made no move. “After you,” they said.
Charlie thought, Yeah, okay, I don’t trust that one bit.
But twilight sweeps fast through the forest, and in the rising gloom Hawthorn seemed to … expand. Spread outward, inch by inch, into the dark. Their outline seemed to get caught on low branches, pulling and stretching into the shadows.
Xe weighed xer options—run away now, or see this through and maybe don’t anger the fey one—and clenched xer teeth as xe brushed by Hawthorn and led the way upstream.
The balance between the two of them veered as xe trudged on. Now xe seemed to move unencumbered through the forest, stepping over branches and avoiding ankle-killing rocks in the half-light, while Hawthorn stumbled and grimaced their way forward step by step.
Charlie saw frogs—just one or two at first, staring with odd silence from trunks and fern fronds, then a handful that watched xer from a sycamore’s exposed root, and suddenly they were everywhere, their eyes gleaming green.
Xe hopped xer butt up onto a moss-draped log, too high to step across, and felt the lump of Lud in xer back pocket.
In the book, when Master Nathaniel sets out to rescue his children from the land of Faerie, it turns out to be one and the same with the land of the dead. The dead mingle with the fey; both are named the Silent People.
Xe looked over xer shoulder. Hawthorn’s feet were snarled in briar. They didn’t make a sound as they fought and twisted and jerked their way free. They caught Charlie staring and xer heart dropped in their cold, hungry glare.
A frog peeped, almost too soft to hear, from a hollow in the log. “What do I do?” xe whispered back, but then Hawthorn was behind xer and xe never got an answer. Xe slid down from the log and pushed on.
At first it seemed a trick of the failing light, but at last Charlie couldn’t ignore that the forest was changing.
A dragonfly the size of a raven whizzed by xer hair, chased a moment later by another. Moss covered everything, ground and log and branch. The familiar nettles and jewelweed along the creek had been replaced by a spindly brake of horsetails and clubmoss which scraped xer hands and left sticky pollen that would not rub away. Hawthorn, who had ignored the stinging nettles, winced whenever the horsetails brushed their skin.
Charlie looked up and saw that the familiar canopy had turned into a spindly arch of scaly, twisting branches. Strange phalluses rose to xer height and beyond; it took some time to realize they were mushrooms, rooted into the earth like trees. An unfamiliar chill haunted the summer twilight.
“There,” Hawthorn croaked, voice now scarcely human.
The creek bubbled out from beneath a solid bed of coal. Charlie walked toward it, lost in a daze of magic and twilight. Behind xer, Hawthorn hissed out loud with each step, muscling forward, gasping, moving the next foot.
A frog the size of a tire stared from the pool beneath the spring. Other amphibian shapes stirred downstream, ancient things with boomerang heads or the jaws of crocodiles.
Charlie stopped. Xe felt winded now. Xe let the backpack slip to the ground.
“Keep,” Hawthorn wheezed, digging a clawed hand into xer shoulder, “going.”
Charlie didn’t take xer eyes off the giant frog. Xe shook their hand away and stepped sideways, not one foot closer to the spring. “What did you give my parents in exchange?”
“You … ungrateful … monkey.”
“Tell me. Or I go home and invite every damn frog inside with me.”
Hawthorn flexed their hands (when did they become such spindly claws?) and snapped their teeth at xer. Their jaws had lengthened; they moved awkwardly when shaping words. “I’ll eat you before you get there.”
“And the land goes into probate with the county. You seem to care who owns the land. You seem limited by permission.” Charlie took a deep breath. This forest smelled nothing like the woods xe had known, yet it stirred something deeper, fossilized memories of pitch and clove cigarettes, crushed beetles and broken rocks and—somehow—the scent of used paperbacks. “Good luck getting some probate judge out here with you.”
The two of them glared at each other. The sky turned indigo above the primeval forest.
“I rewarded them,” Hawthorn snarled, “with water from the spring. I would have given you the same, you unutterable fool.”
“Water from the spring,” Charlie said, not understanding.
Hawthorn lurched toward xer and xe skipped away, but instead of attacking they sank to their knees and dipped their snout to the creek and drank. The frogs stirred and murmured unhappily. Hawthorn slurped with their tongue, long noisy gulps that reminded xer of movie dinosaurs tearing into flesh.
Hawthorn rose beautiful, resplendent.
Their eyes glowed with starshine. Their features smoothed into something more human, yet fiercer, lovelier. They became a vision of twilight, of wildness. Their claws retracted into long-fingered hands, shapely hands extending to xer, beckoning.
Despite xerself, Charlie stepped toward them. Spiraling into the orbit of those eyes, forgetting the frogs, the woods around them. Forgetting the smell of the morgue. Fireflies glimmered around xer, strange beetle-ish fireflies the girth of xer thumb. They fell along with xer into Hawthorn’s gravity.
What else was there to lose, after all?
Water touched xer lips, cupped in Hawthorn’s hand.
The first thing xe tasted was sulfur.
Xe shoved and coughed and kicked Hawthorn away. Xe choked on the water as it burned and slid down xer throat. It tasted like steam, like smoke, like whiskey. It tasted like death, decay. Xe fell to xer knees, retching.
The world swam.
Xe sank, cells melting, rooting downward into the primordial dirt.
Xe was a child again, aglow in summer green, scampering up cliffs and trees. Xer Ma had never slapped the back of xer head hard enough to crack xer teeth into the table. Xer Dad had never shut the door in xer face when xe came crying, xer legs ablaze with ants. Nothing awful had ever happened, would ever happen.
Xe leapt from the highest tuliptree and soared above cities and watched them undo themselves, releasing their bricks like spores, suburbs sloughing away into fields. Forests ate highways backward into the cities. Coal plants swallowed carbon and sank it in neat layers back into the earth. Farms grew crops of wilderness. The sun, the sun and the moon, the golden glow of starshine on silvery leaves. Rain graced jewelweed, beaded on the feathers of a heron.
Pure water, the pure sweet water. Tears flowed from xer in springs.
Xe felt lithe, full of sap, full of spring. Xe felt like xe hadn’t felt since high school: alert, joints easy, muscles full and ready for anything. Xe sprung to xer feet in one motion. Hawthorn towered above xer, a fey radiance, but xe felt ready to take them on, ready to end this sham here and now.
And then xe deflated. Xe felt the sting where xe had overexerted xer knees, the ache where xe had twisted an ankle. Xer heart thudded back into place and xe felt trapped by lungs two sizes too small. Xe tasted sulfur, deep in the pit of xer throat. Xe retched again, doubling over.
“The water loses its essence as it flows,” Hawthorn murmured in xer ear, hands now soft and tender, easing xer to a sandy bank to rest. They caressed xer cheek, smoothed the shirt on xer shoulders. “Think of what it will be, fresh from the spring. That old sweet water, clean from the rock.”
A frog hopped next to xer boot, then another. Hawthorn snarled at them. Xe looked over to the spring, where the giant frog sat enthroned, its features a permanent frown.
The book in xer back pocket, the swamp in xer kitchen.
The stench of xer parents, rotted away from the inside on those slabs at the morgue. The lingering taste of sulfur.
The frog filling the sink.
The book was a message left for xer—that was obvious. A communication xe hadn’t put together until now.
The land of Faerie and the land of the dead were the same. They mingled freely, the silent folk. But neither was a place for those who wanted to keep living.
Charlie looked at the thorn-whip trees and the shadows of ancient amphibians prowling the water. It didn’t matter which was fey and which was dead. This pure sweet water had dissolved xer parents. This was no place for xer.
Xe nodded, ever so slightly, to the frog on its throne. Hawthorn tightened their grip on xer shoulder. Xe felt their claws again, felt them pierce xer skin one by one.
Xe took a breath. Closed xer eyes. I love you, Nita. “I do not give you permission to use this spring.”
Hawthorn screamed, a gale ripping bark from trees, a punch in the gut summoned from the depths of the earth. Xe wanted to brace xerself, wanted to go out with heroic poise and thoughts of Nita, but xe was numbed, stunned, blank. Xer ears sang. Xe didn’t know which way gravity was taking xer.
Silence, broken at last by the gurgle of the spring, the first tentative croak of frogs. Xe felt half-buried in forest loam. Xer head pounded, xer mouth felt like it would never be clean. Xe rubbed xer eyes open. No Hawthorn, only a dragonfly the size of xer arm, and the red eyes of a primeval amphibian stalking it from the streambank.
The frogs gave xer no thanks, no mystical token of gratitude. Which, Charlie supposed, made sense. Human stories of fey and dead alike are built to human scale. Xe doubted xe would understand thoughts with the tectonic weight of a million years beneath them. Maybe that’s why they had used xer old paperbacks to commune with xer, made xer do the work of figuring it out for xerself. Maybe they had no psychological referents in common.
Xe waved at the frog in the spring, felt silly when it didn’t respond. Xe clicked on xer flashlight and limped back downstream. As soon as xe turned xer back on the glade the woods were the woods xe knew from childhood: the trees had familiar leaves, the fireflies were small and orderly, the smells made sense again.
Xe knelt beside the waterfall pool for a time and had a damn long cry. The stories didn’t tell you how beaten and used you’d feel after a run-in with Faerie. They didn’t say how claw-wounds would throb and how your shirt would stick to the scabs and make them bleed afresh.
Reading books here as a child, the escape of the fantastic. Xe wished—almost—that xe could go back to that. Not the rest of childhood, just that summer feeling of solitude, feet in the pool, no parents behind you. No one to hurt you.
The water from the pool was the best xe’d ever tasted.
Xe found xer pack where xe’d dropped it. Poured out the water from the gallon jug. Filled it there, in the dark.