The Elsewhere Child
He was supposed to take my memories when he brought me here, the seelie knight, who had been commanded to escort me home with a simple “take it away, it’s too old now and it bores me” from the noble who had kept me for the past while. I traded him my singing voice for them though, and now where once sweet music poured from my lips only hoarse and untuned notes fall out without any of the tempo or melody they had before. Now I think I made a bad trade. It might have been better, if I didn’t remember, or remembered something else entirely.
I stare at the boy next to me in the circle, I was asked to join this circle as a way to make me feel part of something, part of a circle. They call the circle a support group for abducted children. Children who were abducted and got away, that is, I don’t think there’s a support group for those currently abducted. Their abductors wouldn’t allow them to attend, I suppose. The boy is speaking about the man who touched him, speaking of the horrible way he loved that man, because he was a child, and he had to love someone. Are his memories true? Or is he like me? Did a faerie take him away, and replace the memories from Under the Hill with these tragedies? Why? Did he commit some crime? I cannot say.
I am fascinated by the girl who sits next to the girl directly across from me in the circle. She tells us to call her Angie. She wears ratty clothes, not the sort of poor chic that seems to be an underlying trend, with jackets made of patches and ribbed cloth sold at malls, but real grunge. The tears in her sleeves reveal razor scars, her hair is short, she wants to look tough, she wants people to cross the street to get away from her when they see her coming. She is not tough. She is nervous, always nervous, always afraid, though she hides it well. None of these things are too interesting to me, those things I can see anywhere, but I thought context would be important so that the fact that she’s a pathological liar would not be the only thing you knew about her.
She is a pathological liar.
Her lies fascinate me.
After group chat, I take her aside and we talk, sometimes just for a few minutes, sometimes for hours, and I watch her fabricate thousands of untruths, from tiny white ones to huge fantastical ones as bright and colorful as her life has never been. Some days, I believe everything she says and some days I question each word, trying to figure out her secret.
It’s a strange thing, I was taken before I really knew my name, and each faerie that’s kept me (I was a pet for them) called me something different. Do I even have a true name? I’ve been Jane Doe since I showed up, stumbling barefoot and confused into a police station moments after midnight (at least the knight knew to leave me near a place of authority), so I’ve been introducing myself as Roe, like the deer. They ran my DNA through the missing children’s database (I didn’t understand what that was at first, was shocked at how closely humans had approximated magic with computers), but there was no match. I told them I didn’t know how long ago I’d been abducted, and suggested that it might have been before the database was made. They laughed and said I was eighteen, and DNA technology had been around much longer than me. I tried to explain that time was different where I had been kept, but they simply patted me on my head and told me they were sure that it seemed that way to me at the time.
They stared at me worriedly when one of them brought me a McDonald’s Happy Meal, and I asked what she wanted for it. She told me nothing. No one here ever asks for anything besides courtesy in return for their food, but old habits are hard to break. Even now, in my foster home, I cannot help insisting that my hosts confirm that this food is a gift freely given. They asked me to help them cook and I broke down in tears because there was a cast iron skillet on the stove (“Please don’t make me, iron burns, iron burns, and it gets under your skin and makes you go grey and lifeless like a flower severed from its roots, plea-please, please don’t make me”). It took them an hour to convince me that they weren’t trying to force me to poison myself, and the food burned (“I said I would help you, you asked me to cook and I agreed, but, but please don’t make me, it burns, it’ll burn me!” “It’s alright darling, you don’t have to cook if you don’t want to.” “But I said I would! It was an oath!” “We’re sorry, we wouldn’t have asked if we’d known it would upset you, you can help some other way if you like.” “You… absolve me of my oath?” “Yes, of course we do darling!”).
I am more comfortable with iron now, I am not one of the Fair Folk, after all, it will not harm me. Correction, a blade of iron would harm me, but not because it was made of iron. It does, however, mess with my glamor.
It is a difficult thing, growing up bathed in magic and yet to have none of your own. A pixie once spoke of how she envied my hair, and I said, on impulse, “do you want it?” So a trade was made. She gave me the ability to change my appearance, and she walked away with my hair. I expected my hair to grow back after a time though… it did not. With my glamor I can have the appearance of having whatever hair I please, and sometimes I change it daily, but when I sleep or when iron is near my bare head is revealed. It is assumed by my hosts and everyone around me that I have many wigs, I have told them I do not, but they don’t believe in magic, so they insist on believing this instead.
I hide when I hear thunder, duck into a bathroom and put everything on backward and inside out if I’m in public, or simply sit quiet if I’m home. The first time I did this, it shook me to my core when someone told me “You know, your shirt is on backward.” I started to panic, until I realized that I could see myself too. It was a revelation, discovering that there was something humans could see that the Good Neighbors couldn’t.
It still boggles my mind how much people throw away, tears and menstrual blood caught on napkins, or gifts from that one aunt that they held onto for so long for the sentimental value but can’t keep now because they have to move into a smaller apartment, or the shirt they can’t wear anymore because it smells like their ex. They could trade these items to faeries for so many things, and yet they simply throw them away. What a waste.
My hosts insisted I should have a proper education, and after three years of homeschooling (to get me caught up) I applied to attend the local state college. There I found more people who fascinate me the way Angie does. There’s Lisa, who fights for animal rights, and Kyle, the leader of the Gay Straight Alliance group, and Riley, who’s going into the Peace Corps next year because they want to help the world. I ask them all the time why they do what they do, what they expect to get back, and they tell me that ideally they’ll make the world a better place, and that will pay them back eventually, but that they don’t do it for what they’ll get back, they do it because it’s right. I don’t understand. There’s Cheyenne, who always gets into intense political debates with other people over dinner in the cafeteria, and she believes so intensely about things that don’t even affect her, and she fights for them, and she tells me she does this because it’s right, and I don’t understand. I’ve never met anyone who cared about anything other than themselves Under the Hill. Faeries can’t lie, they can’t go back on their word, they honor their deals and make sure you honor them too, they repay debts and ensure they’re repaid in turn, they amuse themselves playing or squabbling over power, but they do not do things for free. They don’t care about things for free. They don’t defend the innocent, protect the weak, or forgive the ignorant. The culture shock coming here is bewildering.
If I could I’d honor my debts, leave a pile of gold at the doorstep of everyone who’s done me a kindness, but I have not the magic to do so. The drainage ponds hold no sirens, the falling snow has no frolicking pixies between its flakes, there is no magic for me to use here… or is there?
Perhaps I can’t call upon the magic Under the Hill, perhaps I can’t summon gold or make deals with darklings, but I can find magic here, I’ve seen others do it. I’ve seen a moon so beautiful it sends shivers down your spine captured by a little lense-box and put onto thick shiny paper. I’ve seen songs and stories written with such emotion that it moves those who hear them to tears, to laughter, to dancing, to life. I’ve seen kitchen witches cure colds with hot chicken soup, and I’ve seen holy men ward off tricksters they can’t even see with the power of their belief.
Perhaps I can find a way to create my own magic, and do what other people seem to strive to do to repay their debts. Perhaps I can make the world a better place, and learn the magic of humanity. And as for the places where magic does live? Where the boundary between worlds is thin and the drainage ponds and snowflakes carry faerie magic within? …I think I’ll be staying far away, for my part. I might still have a lot to learn, but I think I like it better here.