3,700 Words

The last of the fairies worked in a charnel house, taking apart the beasts that came dead under her hands. In her youth, she had been the last and least of three; now she was the only living one, and even fairies must earn their keep.

At night, when the knacker men went home, she made creatures out of meat and bone and scraps of skin. It was an act of creation to balance out the destruction in her days. When she had stuffed the little puppets full, she licked her fingers and wrote their names on the outside of the casing in blood and spittle.

The smallest ones would come alive immediately and toddle out through the massive doors. Eyeless, they looked around at the city before them; lungless, they squeaked and squalled their delight; mindless, they scurried into the shadows, to spread malice and alarm.

I never said she was a good fairy, you know.

The first of her charnel children were small and held together mostly with magic. But, as she learned the way that animals fit together, the way sinew embraces bone and organs entwine under ribs, they grew more complex. She sewed them together with needle and thread, murmuring to herself. They took longer to wake up, and they lasted longer once they did.

She spent months making birds or bats or something in between the two. The slaughterhouse did not do birds, but she found a winter-killed crow and studied how it fitted together, the delicate keel bone and the folded wrists of wings. (She had little interest in feathers, but scraped sausage casings made excellent wing membranes and were more easily sewn up.)

The first dozen or so were flightless. Not by design, but from ignorance. They tried to fly and fell to earth, where they rolled and flopped like rabid bats, and the fairy grumbled because she knew that she had not quite got it right.

One morning, in the gray light before dawn, she launched one out the door and it spread its wings and flew.

It had no head—heads were, to the fairy’s way of thinking, largely superfluous—but it had immense wings and it flapped them like a goose. It soared across the city and was caught by the wind. She saw it rolling in midair, struggling to steer, and then it was swept away out of sight.

The fairy smiled in the shadow of the great killing chute.

The next bird she built had a tail studded with sow’s ears for a rudder. It churned the air like a slave galley, wallowing on the wind, but it rose and fell and corrected itself and rose again.

She built many more after that, and came back to them whenever she was feeling particularly cross. The people in the poor part of the city began to whisper of things that crawled across the thin roofs, making wet, rubbery sounds; of piles of offal found in the gutter that not even the dogs would touch.

When she had mastered the art of flight, the fairy began to branch out. She made river swimmers and great, undulating serpents and many-legged things that scurried on feet of pointed bone.

She made human-like ones too, of course. Fairies find that sort of thing amusing. She made charnel children that walked on two legs and she put pig tongues in their mouths to make them speak.

In the poor part of the city, they began to talk of things that passed the doors in the night, calling nonsense to each other in papery voices.

Yes, she did once make a beautiful one. Do you think I don’t know how to tell a story? She made one with translucent skin and the eyes of a stillborn calf, and she taught it to sing and to sigh.

But this is not that creature’s story.

Eventually, the slaughterhouse workers figured out that something strange was going on. It took longer than it might have, because the fairy’s glamour could still haze mortal minds, but they began to notice that more scraps were going missing than could be explained by simple theft. And it occurred to some of them, slowly, that she was always there, that she did not seem to go home at night. At first, they might have thought that she had no home to go to, which had no shame in it, but gradually they learned differently.

Nevertheless, the fairy was allowed to continue. She was an enormously skilled worker, and if you believe that butchery is unskilled labor, you have never tried it for yourself. And to give her credit where it is due, when she worked, the beasts walked calm to their deaths instead of fighting. When the ancient horses came to be knackered, she stood beside them and then they did not fear the smell of blood, and they died tired but easy, and went on to whatever waits for old horses on the other side.

Goats respected her. Goats respect very little, but they recognized some of themselves in her, and so they gave her what courtesy goats give to each other. (This is hardly any, of course, but a trifle more than none at all.) The Judas goat that worked in the slaughterhouse considered her a colleague instead of a necessary annoyance.

The human workers may not have wanted to consider her a colleague, but between fear and respect, they grew used to it. Jobs were not so plentiful that many could afford to lose theirs. And everyone knew, of course, that the owner would side with the fairy … the owner, and his strange mistress with translucent skin and huge calf eyes, who could only sing and sigh.

§

A few seasons after the fairy mastered birds, a spotted mare came to the slaughterhouse.

She was a draft horse mare and her legs were feathered with long white silk. She had hooves as large as dinner plates and a coat like the night sky in reverse—white dappled with flecks of black. Her neck was arched and there were marks on her coat where a harness had worn against her skin.

The fairy rarely spoke aloud, but she looked into the mare’s face and said, “This one should not be here.”

The foreman looked up, startled. He would have taken that from no other worker, but he respected both the fairy and the Judas goat as creatures who were not like him, but did their jobs and did them well.

“She is past foaling,” said the foreman, “and hay and grain is very dear. The owner cannot feed her and cannot sell her. So he says.”

The fairy reached up her thin gray hands and caressed the draft mare’s cheek.

The mare looked into the fairy’s eyes and turned her head a little to lip at the gray fingers. She knew perfectly well where she was and the fate that awaited her. If the fairy had to guess, she would have said that the mare was bleakly amused.

Until then, she had not known that horses were capable of such complexity. The mare’s eyes were an education.

“They mean to kill you,” said the fairy quietly.

The mare knew. The mare had served men faithfully and well, hauling loads and bearing foals, and now they had failed to hold their end of the bargain. She would have rather been tied to a great load and hauled it until her heart burst, that she might die in the traces, but it had not been given to her to choose.

The foreman waited. He kept his eyes on the floor, respectfully, as if he were in church. He knew that what was passing between the mare and his best butcher was not a canny thing, and he knew also that he would not speak of it to anyone.

(He was wrong, incidentally. Many years later, as he lay dying, he would tell the priest at his bedside. “Was it a sin?” he asked, when he had finished. “Should I have stopped her?”

The priest was old and he had seen things that they had not taught him in seminary, and he said, “Some things, I think, have nothing to do with sin. They are simply none of our business.”

The foreman was comforted, and he laid back in his bed and died not long after. But this is not his story either.)

The fairy stood by the mare’s head while the knackers came, and the men with hammers. She was close enough to hear the mare’s last thought—“Ah, well”—and the strength and bemusement and resignation in that thought woke a rage in the fairy’s chest that she had not felt since her sisters had died.

When the bloody work was done, she drove the other butchers away and set to work herself.

A man named Throat, who had worked at the slaughterhouse for only a few weeks, tried to argue. He went and found the foreman and brought him back so that he could see the fairy, hunched over the hide and the hooves and the heart like a great gray rat.

“She’d not doing what she’s s’posed to,” said Throat.

The fairy lifted her head and looked into the foreman’s eyes.

Perhaps the glamour slipped just a little, or perhaps the foreman had already seen too much. He turned to Throat and shouted that when he was the best worker in the slaughterhouse, he could damn well do what he pleased, but until that time, he’d keep his eyes on his own business and his tongue behind his teeth.

The foreman was not given to shouting, and he regretted it later. But as I said, this is not his story.

“I will make something great of you,” whispered the fairy to the horse’s bones. “I will make something that no one has ever seen before.” And her knives flashed in the dim light and blood spread over the pale white hide and stained it the color of a city sky at night.

§

She did no more work on the line that night and no one questioned her. The men—and yes, a few women—who worked in the slaughterhouse closed up the doors and shut the gates, sluiced the floors and cleaned their tools. The foreman was the last man out, and he turned off the oil lamps and closed the door, leaving the fairy in the darkness.

She did not mind. She could see by heat and starlight. Her small knife moved as surely in the dark as in the light.

It did not stop moving even a few hours later, when Throat snuck back into the building.

He probably thought that he was being stealthy. His footfalls were muffled and he breathed silently though his mouth (although this is usually wise in a slaughterhouse, in any event). He waited for his eyes to adjust so that he did not blunder into anything in the dark.

But the building was very quiet and his footsteps were very loud to the fairy’s ears. She waited until he was only a few paces away, and said, “Why have you come back?”

Throat halted. She could see the surface of his mind and her death was in it, waiting on the point of his axe.

“You’re doing wicked work,” said Throat. “It ain’t canny. It ain’t right.”

“That is true,” said the fairy, licking a bit of thread to stiffen it. She threaded it deftly through the needle, while Throat worked himself up to the point of killing.

“You shouldn’t be doing it,” said Throat. “It’s devil-work.”

The fairy laughed, and Throat flinched away from the sound. “Fairy,” she said. “Not devil. We are not the same, though we recognize each other when we meet in the street—”

“You shouldn’t be doing it!” said Throat again, louder.

“So, stop me,” said the fairy, her back turned to him.

It took him a moment more. His mouth worked and he wanted to have said, “I will!” right away, but he had waited too long and now it would seem stupid. The fairy loved how human that was, that he was about to try to kill her and he was still worried that he had spoken up too late.

“I’ll stop you now!” he said, a little too loudly, as if that would make it seem like his idea, and then he leapt forward and swung the axe.

Glamour was far easier to work in the dark. She was three feet to the right of where he thought she was. The axe cleft the air with a whistling sound.

She caught his leg in one hand and flung him aside. Her right hand never slowed with the needle and thread. The back of Throat’s head struck the floor and his legs shuddered and spasmed like a spider.

Even the least and weakest of fairies was a match for anything but iron.

The fairy tied off the thread neatly and rose to her feet. Throat was still alive, but the blow to his head would likely have killed him. The fairy finished the job, coolly, and laid him out next to the body of the spotted mare.

His brain was a warm, gray bird, still alive and fluttering inside his skull. She plucked its wings and cast a few essential bits aside, leaving the rest for later … and that was the end of Throat’s story.

The fairy had little use for him as a living being, but as a scaffold of bone to hang her creation on, he would be very useful indeed.

§

The fairy worked all night and most of the day. It was the holy day, when no one worked and the great doors remained closed, so the fairy was able to take her time. Light shone through the cracks in the doors, thin bars shining down on her and catching flecks of bone dust in the air.

Throat had been a large man, but not large enough for her purposes. She cracked his ribs open and threw his heart aside. Human hearts were small and complicated things. The mare’s heart was large and purposeful. She rebuilt the lungs around it and closed it up in ribs cobbled together from horse and human bone.

Then came shoulders large enough to flank the ribs, and hips built out with draft horse muscle. The scaffold began to seem too short, so the fairy broke the creature’s legs and splinted them up again, longer and stronger than before. Still human-shaped, but larger, a body fit to carry the weight of the horse’s heart.

The fairy examined Throat’s genitals and found them unnecessarily complicated. Female parts were far easier to replicate with knife and magic, and it was not as if the horse-hearted creature would need to reproduce itself.

Herself, now.

Nerves were delicate, troublesome work, and the fairy used magic to knit them together. Most of it, though, was needle and thread and sinew and bone, over and over, long enough even for a fairy’s fingers to tire.

It was not so bad as spinning straw into gold, this spinning of cold meat into live flesh. Straw gouged and jabbed her fingertips until she left bloody streaks across the piles of gold, and this was soft. But it was still cold, stiff work, and the fairy was not so young as she had been.

She rose at last, on the edge of twilight, to stretch and grimace. She had rebuilt her creature’s face, wrapping the delicate mare’s skin over Throat’s skull. Some of his teeth had been bad, and a horse’s molars would not go easily in a human mouth, so the fairy had picked up pig teeth from the floor and slipped them into her creature’s gums.

Her back ached. This was a greater work than any she had ever made. Bringing it to life might kill her, or at least drink the better part of her magic dry, but she did not care. It was too important to finish her creation and see it live and keep the oath she had not quite sworn to the spotted mare.

She stood in the doorway and rubbed her back, watching the bats and the nighthawks swooping over the rooftops. And then—yes, one of her flying beasts, a little roly-poly one that always seemed on the edge of crashing but which always righted itself just in time, barreling through the air while the bats shrilled alarm around it.

She smiled and turned back to her creation.

Nearly done, now.

Now there was only skin and hair to braid up around the flesh. This, too, was delicate, troublesome work, but she had renewed energy now that she was close to finished.

She left the long, white feathers at the back of the legs—how could she not?—and pulled the mane down the back of the creature’s neck and spine. She had to stop often now and go to the water butt to wash her hands and sluice blood away from the speckled hide.

The second time she did this, the hide twitched, like a horse shivering to flick away a fly. The fairy nodded. Usually her creations came to life much sooner.

She had not quite begun to doubt, but relief fired her hands anyway, and made the work go swiftly.

And then, quite suddenly, it was done.

The fairy looked for things to do, things left undone, but there was nothing. The stitches were small and neat and exact. She snipped a single loose thread and then she licked her finger and wrote a word across the creature’s forehead.

“Breathe,” she commanded.

The creature lay silently for a long, long moment, and then she inhaled, deeper than a human could. Her chest rose and fell and the great mare’s heart beat under her ribs, so loud at first that the fairy could hear it—thud. thud. thud.

“Up!” said the fairy, and the creature rolled to her feet.

There was a fraction of an instant when the working nearly failed. The femurs ground in their sockets, their heads like hammers against the bone. Horse and human marrow flowed together, held with twine and stitches and fairy magic, and almost—almost—could not hold.

Up,” growled the fairy, feeling years of her life peeling away like blistered skin. A little less of eternity, a few decades less in the slaughterhouse. No matter.

The creature swayed a bit, then locked her legs and stood. Nearly seven feet tall, solid as stone, a great living beast with human mind and horse’s heart.

Her chest rose and fell again, and something caught, like a fish-hook under the fairy’s heart. And pulled and pulled and … held.

The mare-woman turned her head from side to side, looked down at the fairy, and then she dropped down to her knees.

The fairy inhaled sharply, afraid that something had gone wrong—was it the legs, had she left them too thin, had the bones not meshed as they were supposed to—and then the mare-woman bowed her head down to the fairy in obeisance that was half-equine and half-human.

“Up,” said the fairy again, deeply pleased and even more deeply exhausted.

The mare-woman rose and towered over her.

From a distance, one would think the creature a large human. Close up, the differences would be more obvious, but that was not the fairy’s problem. Once she set them loose, they found their own way.

“Go on, then,” said the fairy. She wanted to sleep. Perhaps she would go to the room with the calf-eyed charnel bride and take a few hours rest on a real mattress. “Go on.”

And when the mare-woman looked at her, puzzled, she shook her head and shooed her out like a housewife with a chicken. “Go on! Shoo!”

The mare-woman went.

When she stepped onto the wooden stairs, they creaked under her weight. The fairy watched her walk away, one powerful, deliberate step at a time.

She wished that she’d been able to make hooves work, but the balance was always a problem when your creatures walked upright.

“Go to the river,” she called after the mare-woman. “Wash off the blood.”

The mare-woman turned and dipped her head. She lifted her face, sniffed, and then strode off in the direction of the river.

The fairy’s last sight of her was a shadow, monstrous and beautiful, spreading across the stones behind her.

The mare-woman walked through the streets in the dimness. Throat’s memories, half-gone and half-useless, nevertheless included city and river. And blood, as a thing to be washed clean.

This is the beginning of her story, though the rest is not yet written.

As for the fairy, she leaned against the wall, exhausted. The power had gone out of her like blood flowing from the jugular, and she was more tired than she had been since her sisters died.

She had made a great thing. Whether it was good or evil or neither or both did not much matter. Heroes and monsters are equally impressive, in their own way.

I will never make anything so great again, she thought.

A human might have felt disappointed. The charnel fairy mostly felt relief.

She dozed a little and woke when her sleeve jabbed her. She had threaded the needle through it, to keep it out of the way. The tip was still sharp.

She stifled a yawn.

The sun was not yet up. And there were still a great many scraps leftover, and some of them were too obviously human. It would be inconvenient if anyone found them.

Well …

Humming to herself, she picked up what was left of Throat and began to piece together another leather bird.

Originally published in Jackalope Wives & Other Stories (Red Wombat Studio, 2017).

 

T. Kingfisher is the vaguely absurd pen-name of Ursula Vernon, an author from North Carolina. In another life, she writes children’s books and weird comics. She has won a couple awards, including the Hugo, Sequoyah, Nebula, and Alfie.

 

This is the name she uses when writing things for grown-ups. When she is not writing, she is probably out in the garden, trying to make eye contact with butterflies.

3 Comments

  1. Beautifully strange story!

  2. I think Jackalope Wives & Other Stories came out in 2017.

    • You’re right. I’ll correct it. Thank you!

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