The Fairy Queen
by Lynn Buchanan
She made the first fairy by accident, with a twig she found under a hawthorn tree. It was a stick possessing the general shape of a human, with offshoots that resembled arms and legs, and a knot she called a head. Sitting in the shade of the tree, she wrapped a bit of twine around the twig’s torso, tearing off a piece of thread from the cuff of her sleeve and decorating the “arms” in tight white lines. With a ribbon pulled from her hair she clothed the stick, folding the silk into a tunic tied at the back with a bow. For hair she picked up a strand of leaves from the grass beside her, fastening the stem down the slope of the wooden face with three pieces of her own hair, pulled with a jerk and grimace from her skull and braided into a cord the color of sunsets. Last of all she attached to the twig’s back a set of butterfly wings, collected earlier that day from a trip to the garden.
When she was finished she held the doll up, touching the tips of her nails to her creation’s face, saying, “Here are your eyes.” Her fingers slid down a fraction. “And your mouth.” Spreading apart, they touched either side of the figurine’s head. “And your ears.”
“Dinner!” a voice called from the house at the base of the hill she sat upon. “Dinner’s done!”
Upon stepping into the house, before following the warm, smoky scents to the dining room, she climbed to her attic, up two flights of creaky stairs. By the light of a single cracked window, she trod past forgotten things: abandoned crates of over-used sheets the same faded colors as her clothing, musty-smelling trunks crammed to bursting with letters no longer in the minds of those who’d written them. A cluttered landscape, but one she tolerated, for it was hers, and hers alone.
Her bed was a frameless mattress shoved into the far corner, where the ceiling was so low she had to bend forward to avoid striking her head. From the oak chest at its foot, she pulled an empty preservatives jar, wiping dust from the glass before popping open the lid and dropping her handmade fairy inside.
She set the jar on the window sill, beside other toys she’d made for herself: stones with strings tied to them in clever knots, buttons strung on threads alongside the glass beads she’d found on the side of the road on the way to school, back when she’d still been allowed to go. She ran her fingers over each item, her treasures. Then she went down to dinner.
At the demand of bellies painfully aware of their hollowness, the family had started eating without her. A plate waited at her usual spot at the table–someone had put on it a serving of boiled potatoes. Nothing but potatoes, though. All the ham was gone, and when she reached for the salt and pepper, nothing came out of the little holes at the shakers’ tops.
When she returned to the attic, the sun had set, and moonlight marinated the jar’s stiff, angular occupant. She didn’t spare a glance at her creation as she put on her nightgown, fingering the holes in the hem of the skirt and rubbing at the ragged edges of the sleeves. She fell asleep as she always did, curled up on her side under a blanket faded from too many washings, doing her best to ignore the night air that wafted through the broken window. Her mind slipped into the many realms of her imagination, full of creatures made from cloud and sea-foam, fish scale and lizard skin.
She woke in the morning to the plink of something tapping on glass. She turned to face the window, and for a moment she stared, still and silent, at the jar on the sill. Face mashed up against the glass and hands splayed wide, the fairy within the jar stared back.
The fairy queen swung her legs over the side of her bed, setting her feet to the floor as carefully as one might ease their heels down upon a thin layer of ice. She reached out and lifted the jar with equal care. After an inspection, she tipped the container, making the fairy within trip and fall with a muffled cry, a tangle of slender limbs and kicking heels. The lid popped open with a touch, and the first fairy crawled onto her queen’s palm, shoulders hunched and wings shivering. Around her face fell strands of green hair that rustled like leaves, the silk of a ribbon dress puddling and pooling around her.
With hands the size of ladybugs, the fairy gripped the pads of her queen’s thumb and pointer finger. She looked up with eyes wide and wet, wood-grained lips moving to whisper her very first words:
“Mama, look what I made,” the fairy queen said once she’d dressed, pinched herself, and ascertained that she was, indeed, awake. She held the first fairy aloft in both hands, never minding how the tiny maiden cried a faint shriek of terror to be lifted so high, so fast.
“That’s lovely,” her mother said without looking, swinging her hip and the baby upon it, hands patting the infant as it squalled, fingers performing acrobatic feats as she alternated between soothing unsoothable wails and animating a damp cloth across the flour-dusted counter before her. She craned her neck at a noise on the other side of the kitchen, voice rising in a sudden snap. “Loran! Keep your fingers off those pies!”
The fairy queen watched her mother bundle away in a swirl of skirt and apron. In her cupped palms the fairy, trembling from head to toe, whispered:
“I’m so lonely.”
The fairy queen constructed the second fairy with a twig snapped from a rowan tree. She folded a cap for his head out of a rose petal and a sprig of holly, his clothing stitched using squares cut from her old skirts and socks. She bestowed upon him dragonfly wings caught around the pond, sewing the iridescent membranes to his back with needle and thread.
With a button from the sleeve of her favorite jacket she affixed his tunic upon his chest, kissed where his nose and mouth should be, and slipped him into the jar. For a night he soaked in lunar shine, the first fairy sitting on the windowsill and watching with hands earnestly clasped before her.
Come morning, the second fairy was sitting cross-legged at the bottom of the jar, arms folded across his chest. The fairy queen tipped him out and the two fairies embraced, showering one another in kisses and creating the first dance ring with their arms, swinging about and singing in high, tinkling voices while their wings fanned and snapped.
By nightfall, though, the fairies had become quiet. They crawled onto their queen’s pillow as she lay thinking about magic, wrapped themselves in her hair, and whispered a tiny duet, a chant too soft to stir a mote of dust:
For the fairy city, she picked a clearing far enough into the woods surrounding her family’s house so as not to be easily found, but not so hidden that no one could find her if they tried. Over the course of days that turned to months she cleared away unwanted stones and fallen branches. She replaced the debris with jar upon jar, filled with handmade dolls that took to life and emerged with rustles and clicks, giggles and laughter and fragments of song.
She planted toadstools and mushrooms, clawed moss from trees and delivered it by the armful, spreading it over everything, like jam on bread. She dug a tributary from a nearby stream, creating a river through her kingdom. The fairies planted daisies and Grass of Parnassus, Water Avens and meadowsweet at the water’s edge. They sang to thickets of gorse that grew into hedges taller than their queen, bristling with yellow blooms and thorns. Once she came to find a bed of wild pansies had grown overnight. When she lay down, the russet of her hair mingled with the royal purples and blues.
Not a day went by when the fairy queen did not leave her house with armfuls of twigs adorned in scrap fabric and boasting the wings of small creatures, prenatal fairies to be added to her jars. If anyone had asked where she was going, she would’ve said to her fairy kingdom. She would’ve invited them to come along.
But out of six brothers, three sisters, one baby, and two parents, no one asked.
Even so, she could never bring herself to stay in her kingdom–come night, she always stood to leave. And each time she left, her fairies clung to her skirts, hung from her hair, weeping. Pleading. Raising their voices in an endless chorus:
“Do not leave us! We are lonely! We are so, so very lonely!”
The fairy queen grew bold. She stole small bowls from the kitchen when her mother wasn’t looking, leaving the drawers she looted a fraction open, sticks left in replacement of dishes. She took pinches of expensive sugar from the brown paper sacks her father forbade her to touch, careful to leave the tops of the bags a little uncurled, a bit disturbed, each crowned by a delicately balanced leaf. In the dishes she mixed the water of the fairy city’s stream with the sweet white crystals, setting the concoctions out at the corners of the meadow to attract hummingbirds.
When she returned home that night, she looked at her parents expectantly. But her father only smiled and patted her head, asked if she’d had a fun day today playing out in the woods. Her mother was turned away from her, towards other children yelling of stubbed toes and hungry bellies, wailing accusations of mean pinches and providing explanations as to who started which fight.
Later, sitting huddled on her mattress, head ducked so as not to hit the low ceiling, wrapped tight in a blanket that didn’t stop the cold of the air wafting through the window beside her, the fairy queen stared at nothing with eyes that saw nothing. She heard a faint scramble, and turned her head to watch a fairy, the first of all the fairies, slip through the gap in the broken pane. The fairy flapped her wings and settled on a hunched shoulder, her hands tickling when they touched the curve of a cheek.
“Why must we be so lonely?”
“If I disappeared,” the fairy queen said one night at dinner, “I don’t think anyone would notice.”
In response the twins bickered about which had received higher marks on their school exams (the teacher had gotten them mixed up again). Adair and Aila tossed threats over the butter plate about taking one another’s blouses without asking. Oliver and Logan kicked each other under the table, making little Alexander shriek when he caught a passing heel. The baby was crying again, and Mother was scolding Loran for scooping potatoes out of the dish with his bare hands. Fiona had a book with her at the table and was busy reading it. Father had a distant look in his eyes as he spooned soup into his mouth, gaze staring past the chaos at some stray thought that made the edge of his mouth quirk with untimely mirth.
After dinner, while she helped clean up, the fairy queen tried one last time.
“Father, I am going to go and live with my fairies,” she said.
“Alright, Mab,” her father said, distracted by the need to snatch Loran’s wrist before his grease-shiny hand could steal a knife from the dirty cutlery. “Be sure to be back before sunset. Remember what your mam says–if you wait too long to take to it, your bed will get lonely.”
That night the fairy queen sat upright in her bed of wild pansies. She was wearing her favorite dress, which wasn’t hers but Fiona’s. Because Fiona was the eldest, she got new things, and this dress had been the fairy queen’s envy for years. It had long sleeves and a skirt that went well past her ankles. It was velvet, worn in places, true, but softer than the fur of a cat, and a deeper green than algae. The neck had little decorations sewn along its collar, ancient runes that the twins claimed they could read. Though they’d never tell her what the symbols said, even when she begged. Even when she cried.
In her lap stirred the baby, sleeping with his thumb in his mouth, eyes shut and face smooth and pale in the dark. Her hands rested on him, one cradling his head, the other draped across his chest. She could feel his heart under her palm. The rise and fall of his chest. The particular hiccups and rustles of his breathing.
“We’re lonely,” the fairies said, crowding around their queen, grasping one of her hands with twenty of theirs, twiggy arms stretching over the baby to reach her. Some hovered in the air, beating their hummingbird wings into pulsating blurs. They were excited–she’d never stayed with them for this long before.
“I know,” the fairy queen said. She’d made up her mind to wait for her family to come and get her–the way would not be hard. She’d asked the fairies to mark the path to their kingdom with flowers, flowers that would grow even if an early winter came and snow fell to blanket the entire world. Her subjects adored her; she trusted them to bring her family to her.
And she trusted her family to come looking. If nothing else, Fiona would be missing her dress.
Mother would be missing her baby.
“We’re lonely,” the fairies said, as if she’d forget. Their wings flapped, caught the moonlight in shimmers. “We’re so lonely.”
“Yes,” the fairy queen said. She slipped her hand from the baby’s chest, lifted her fingers to her face, pulling up dozens of fairies that showered her cheeks in kisses, hugged her ears and stroked her eyelashes, caught her tears in their thimble caps and leaf-waxen skirts.
“But don’t worry,” the fairy queen whispered. She cradled her fairies against her, as she would cradle them for centuries. As she would cradle this babe, and all the babes to come, stolen from wicker cribs, replaced with figurines of stick and thread and insect wing that made their parents shriek. As she would cradle the shoes and tatters of lost travelers, the foolish young men seeking fortunes, the silly young women looking for unicorns, both following paths of always-blooming flowers that only led deeper, deeper into the woods, further and further from the fairy kingdom where the fairy queen sat.
As she would cradle herself, her arms wrapped tight as a hug through the glistening rains of spring and the glowing winter snows, the copper tones of autumn and the scorching, relentless heats of summer. Ears straining for, but never hearing, her family’s yells, the tear of their hands through thickets of gorse too thorny and too thick to force through. The sound of her name being called again and again, the single syllable impossible to hear over the beat of fairy wings.
“Don’t worry,” the fairy queen said, to the flowers and moss, the stream and the moonlight. To the sleeping babe, and to all the fairies looking at her with shiny penny eyes and hopeful, clasping hands.
“They’ll come. They won’t leave me here to be lonely.”
About the Author
Lynn Buchanan is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in the foothills of some impressive, chilly mountains in Utah. She’s a 2019 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and has a master’s degree in creative writing. When she isn’t writing novels and short stories, Lynn enjoys drawing, watching Miyazaki films, and playing the oboe. She can be found on Twitter at @LynnBwrites.
About the Narrator
Eliza Chan is a writer and occasional narrator of speculative fiction. She has narrated for Pseudopod, Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. It amuses her endlessly that people find her Scottish accent soothing. Eliza has had her own work featured in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy 2019.
When not working on her current novel or reading, Eliza can be found boardgaming, watching anime, baby wrangling and dabbling in crafts. You can find out more at her website www.elizachan.co.uk or on twitter @elizawchan.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.