Eight days ago there was only me and Ten Motes. The house was thick with quiet, rigorously anti-fairy, clean as my five polished pink toes. Aileen had everything under her thumb.
Then a golden shimmer of fairy dust settled on little Linnie, and then a golden mass appeared on the doorstep, disguised as a person. The world turned slick with upside-downs.
Oh, Gabriel, there’s heaps of things you don’t know from being stuck in iron.
Let’s start when the children reported the fairy in the attic.
Fred, with Some Input from Linnie’s Shimmer
“Jonah says there’s a fairy in the attic.”
“Linnie!” said Aileen. Her earring fell to the glass vanity top. “We never say things like that. Good people do not let fairies live with them.” She scooped up the drop of diamond, fastened it in her ear. The trembling earring sparked gold on the mirror. “And you know the attic’s off-limits.”
Linnie watched the diamond glitter. “Can I have one to play fairies with?”
“That’s enough talk of fairies from you,” said her mother. “I have a function to go to. Be good.” She nodded at the woman in the doorway as she left. “Miss Smith, run the magnets over her.”
Miss Smith the one-legged governess took Linnie to the kitchen, pulled the magnetic wand from the cupboard. Linnie’s shimmer fled, and I had to concentrate hard on holding my shape. I only had a hazy notion of what went on above me till the wand was put away and the shimmer of fairy dust settled over Linnie once again. “You’re clean, I guess,” said Miss Smith dolefully. “Talking about fairies is your father’s bad blood coming out in you. I’ll figure out exercises to correct that.”
You catch more humans with glitter than smoke. Linnie was enough your child to know that. She dimpled. “Will you show me again how your flesh knee connects to your artificial leg? It’s amazing.”
“Of course it is,” said Miss Smith. But she smiled in that smug Miss Smith way and talk of new exercises was dropped.
Once Linnie had satisfied her curiosity about Miss Smith’s leg, she trotted up the stairs to Jonah’s room to see if he would show her his fairy now. Jonah’s door was shut tight and Linnie pounded. “Let me in! I won’t break anything this time.” But the door refused to open. She howled. “I’ll get Miss Smith!”
She didn’t expect this to work, but the door flickered and dissolved. She had never seen it do that. She darted in before it could reform.
Jonah was not in his room. But his blimps were—they sailed a smooth follow-the-leader around Jonah’s bed, slalomed the hanging lights, and vanished into the closet.
Linnie got down on her hands and knees and watched as a blue-trimmed blimp bounced behind Jonah’s rain boots and disappeared into a narrow gap in the wall. When Linnie stuck her hand through the gap, she felt carpet on the other side.
But Linnie knew this trick now. She raised a fist at the wall and looked at it with that powerfully gloomy Miss Smith stare. The wall shimmered into stairs.
“Linnie!” Miss Smith’s bassoon voice.
“I’m playing blimps with Jonah,” Linnie called back.
“One-half hour,” Miss Smith said. “Your reading lessons won’t do themselves.”
“Right ho,” said Linnie.
She disappeared up her brand-new stairs.
Ten Motes on Aileen’s Earring
I cluster on her diamonds where I won’t be seen. There is very little of me, and it is hard to think. I am supposed to gather her words, share them later with the rest of me.
“One fairy-basher,” she says to a servant, a Miss Color-Name I have already forgotten. Her language is brutal and coarse as she tries to be like them.
There are women talking, and she moves closer. There is one here who holds my love’s old office, whose name I will remember when I’m complete. A hard woman, who smiles at my love and talks cruelly of drowning changelings when she is gone.
“Aileen,” she says. “I haven’t seen you since your concession speech, after all that…unpleasantness with your love life. How are the dear, dear changel…children?”
Miss Color-Name brings my love the fairy-basher, a blue drink with chunks of lime. I wish they weren’t tasty. I haven’t had anything to drink in 1,872 days.
“They’re doing well,” my love says.
“I can’t remember; are they in school now?”
“Group schools are so common, don’t you think? Hard to get a real education with all those dim-witted children around.”
The hard woman’s lips tighten and another woman laughs a pistol shot laugh. They bare their teeth in that wicked human way and the fairy-basher is so close to my perch on the diamond earrings and oh do I want a drink.
I get distracted at this distance from my mass. Once I was hiding on a girl’s golden dress and I forgot I was someone and I went home with her and through the wash.
I can sit half of me on my love’s lip and taste, just taste, and then I’ll go back to watching.
Come on, Aileen. You made me thirsty.
Fred, plus Linnie’s Shimmer
“Where are the fairies?” said Linnie.
Jonah sat on the forbidden attic windowsill where anyone could see him, staring down at the front porch of the house. Worse, the window was open and the blimps bobbled out, circled the sycamore, and bobbled back. “It’s one fairy,” he said, “and it’s hiding. How did you get up here? The door was locked.”
“Made the wall open,” said Linnie. “Can’t you do that?”
“No,” said Jonah.
“How’d you come up, then?”
“The fairy told me where to find the key. Duh.” He twisted on the sill, fiddling with the remote to the blimps.
Linnie looked around, but there was no golden whirlwind in the attic like Jonah had described. “So where’s the fairy?”
“Most of it’s on the front porch, but I don’t think it wants us to know that.” He pulled up his jacket hood and kicked the wall. A blimp shied away. “Anyway, there’s still a little bit up here. By the stuff Dad left.”
Linnie ran to that corner. There was a shimmer around their father’s iron trunk, flecks of gold and diamond.
“Fairies sure are dirty,” said Jonah.
“Look at that dust,” said Jonah. “I didn’t know he’d get on everything. I hate him.”
Linnie laid her head on the roughened metal lid. How did fairies feel? The bits of fairy slipped around her hair and fingers, warmed her like a good-night kiss on her cheek. She lay there and looked at Jonah sneering on the windowsill through a halo of whirling gold. Fairy dust stuck to her eyelashes.
The whirling kept her from noticing Jonah’s shuddering at first. His hand jerked and the blimp remote sailed through the open window. He reddened with spasms.
Linnie ran, grabbed the front pockets of his jacket. His body tilted backwards, and Linnie thought this might really be it, that he might fall out the window, and she might go with him. She braced her feet against the wall under the window, pushed backwards with all her might. Her body was a rigid arch, her hands tight on the ripping pockets.
Jonah spasmed again and fell on her. Linnie’s butt and then head clunked hard against the floor and her brother was a dead weight on her shoulder. His translucent hair poked her cheek. She squirmed out from underneath. Usually she would roll him onto his back, unless she was really mad at him, but this time she just lay there panting.
“Stupid brother,” she said. He probably couldn’t hear her, not when he was separated from his body like that.
The fairy dust that had been around her dad’s iron chest floated over as if to see the excitement. It hovered over Jonah, then settled around him in a shimmer, a golden cloak you could only see from the right angle.
If it was trying to protect Jonah, it was too late. Linnie had done that all on her own when the grownups couldn’t.
“Stupid fairy,” said Linnie.
Dust Escapes, Becomes Kayley
On the front porch of Elderwood Hall, a girl appeared, built from a wind of gold dust. It dropped into place for shoes, legs, body, and when the last bit of dust flicked into the last lock of gold hair, she shook herself and colorized.
She did not press her hand into the magnetized iron lock. She could not do that. So she sighed with impatience, tossed her hair, and knocked a lame old-fashioned knock. She hoped Miss Smith and Fred answered.
Cousin Kayley wasn’t the real cousin Kayley, but of course you know that, Gabriel. The real cousin Kayley played flute and was moody and hated her Aunt Aileen who had caused all the whispers of immorality. This Kayley sparkled in a way that the other did not. It took me less than a second to know it was really part of us, but at least five minutes to realize Jonah must have opened your trunk. I wondered what you told him to get him to open it. Did he think it would fix everything? Did he even remember you, his disappeared dad?
I got Miss Smith to send the maid to fetch the children. Jonah dragged his feet on the stairs. He hooked his arm around the stair railing and kicked the parquet floor. Linnie set both feet on every step.
“You remember the kids,” said Miss Smith to Kayley. “Linnie is five now, and Jonah’s almost eight.” Jonah stared at the floor. “Straighten up, Jonah,” she said. “What’s wrong with you?”
He kicked the floor. Linnie kicked the floor.
“He had an episode,” Linnie whispered.
Miss Smith wobbled. “Nonsense. He hasn’t had an episode since he was five.”
“He hides it.”
“This is horrible,” Miss Smith said. “Jonah, is this true?”
He looked at Linnie, back at his feet. “No. I was just messing with her.”
Linnie went white. She ran, her pink shoes slipping on stairs.
“What a thing to pretend, Jonah. Now everything’s upset.”
Miss Smith started to go after Linnie, but I kept her leg rooted. I knew Kayley must be here to work our charm on the little half-humans.
“Come on Jonah,” Kayley said. “Let’s go find Linnie.”
Ten Motes on Aileen’s Lace Collar
I’m on the collar of her dress. I laid myself in a pattern to hide. Sometimes patterns help me think. I think I have a hangover.
She is telling Kayley that she can stay while Kayley’s parents are abroad. I can plainly report her words, but I have spent 1,873 days at the post of my love, and I can say my love is suspicious.
“Don’t try to go in the attic,” she says. “Don’t let the kids go up either, if they tell you they can. It’s locked and only I have the key.”
“Skeleton in the closet?” says Kayley.
“Don’t be smart with me,” says Aileen. “If Gabriel did get out, you’d be just the sort of naïve kid he’d be soft and charming to. Get what he wants and then destroy your life. You stay away from the attic.”
“Gotcha,” says Kayley. Her eyes are brown and wicked, but underneath she is gold and diamond. I envy her mass. I want to leave my lace collar and go be part of a larger self. But I am at the post of my love and I must stay.
My love stands after Kayley is gone, flipping a rag doll back and forth between her long fingers. There is not enough of me to intuit what that means. Even 1,873 days is not long enough for ten motes to divine all her different stillnesses.
My love squeezes the doll’s chest. Then she is heading toward the east wing. I think she is going to the attic and I am excited.
She is, she is.
My love slides her key into the lock and the door opens onto the stairs to the attic. I am to burst. I have not been here in 1,873 days, when I was the first ten motes to find the tiniest gap in the iron and slither through one mote at a time, sent to head for the post of my love.
It has been a long time that I have been listening; long by myself. I saw when at last there was enough of me to make Fred, and then a shimmer to hover around the changelings, and then suddenly this morning there was the huge mass of Kayley. But they are confusingly big and I can’t connect to them. So much of me is still bound in iron. Fred shares with the shimmer on the little girl, and I am jealous of even that contact. I hope there is some of me loose in the attic; I know I am more than Fred and Kayley and shimmer. If not here, then much of me is still hidden, and I don’t know where I am.
My love crosses in faltering steps to the iron trunk. I am so excited I can’t maintain my pattern, and I move within her lace, swirling with delight.
She sinks to her knees, her fingers touch the lock—then they press to her lips above me, and her lace collar shakes, so she is crying. Her arms fall to the trunk, her head on her arms. I am captured between her collar and the skin of her arms, but from skin I can slide out and away and settle on one silver strand of hair. I slide with the movement of her head.
There is dust in the attic, but it is plain ordinary dust like we hate to mingle with. I am the only golden mote around.
I need another drink.
Fred, plus Jonah’s Shimmer
“Do you guys know what changelings are?” said Kayley.
Linnie was facedown on her bed. Jonah hung in the doorway to the bedroom, half in and half out.
“Come in closer, will ya?” said Kayley. “You know what the word means?”
“It’s a swear,” he said. He stepped in just enough to let the door swing shut and pulled his hood up, tight around his translucent hair.
“Sorta. Not really. It means someone with one human and one fairy parent.”
Linnie, muffled by pillow. “I hate fairies.”
“What’s to hate about fairies?”
“I hate fairies too,” said Jonah.
Cousin Kayley sunk to the floor and pulled her knees to her chest. “Can you guys keep a secret?”
“I’m a changeling.”
Linnie lifted her tear-stained face from the pillow.
“You are not.” Jonah tugged his hood lower so he couldn’t see Linnie. “Aunt Beth and Uncle Stuart are human.”
“It’s easy for fairies to look human,” Kayley said. “There’s so much mass to each fairy, they can totally be two humans. Or three. Fairies can hide what they are for years as long as no one suspects. But it’s hard to hide forever. Like the girl who runs the shoe shop; she’s one, but she keeps it secret. Don’t say anything cause if she gets thrown out of town there’ll be no place to go for awesome sandals like these.” She stretched out her foot to show Linnie.
“Nuh-uh,” said Jonah.
“Uh-huh,” said Kayley. “They’re the awesomest shoes ever.”
“No, I mean,” said Jonah. He squished his face up. “Who else?”
“Oh,” said Kayley. “Well, there was like this woman in town who used to be on the city council. She had a secret boyfriend who was fairy. He was her assistant, and he also used part of himself to run for office and be her political friend guy. Fairies are so super smart that dividing themselves makes them seem more normal and human. He had fairy friends who were passing and human friends that maybe suspected, but everything was cool ‘til some conservative dope found him dusting in the golden town hall dome with three other fairies.”
“What’s dusting?” said Linnie. She pulled stuck strands of hair from her cheek.
Kayley whispered. “The fairies spread out and mix their dust all up with other fairies. Humans think it’s gross but they’re jealous. The woman was so mad that she locked him up in her house and sealed off the room.” She jumped up. “Hey, you kids ever slide down your stairs on a mattress?”
Linnie sat all the way up. “You can do that?”
“Duh. No,” said Jonah.
Kayley was already stripping sheets from Linnie’s bed. “Come on. Let’s go play being otters.”
Fred plus Shimmers
After Kayley pretended she was a changeling, the kids slowly opened up to her. I helped keep Miss Smith away from them. Encouraged her to sit down and put her half leg up, and rationalize that Cousin Kayley was earning her keep by babysitting. And because Kayley had all our fairy charisma, she worked her magic on the kids much more quickly than any real cousin Kayley ever could.
In a week, Kayley had Linnie and Jonah playing fairies behind the shed. The ground was clover and dirt and shaggy grass, and the leaves of the last lilies were yellowing. A good stomping ground.
“Because I’m a changeling, I can do some things real fairies do,” Kayley told them. “If I concentrate, I can move my hand through my own body.” She held out one arm and chopped it with the other hand. Her fingers passed right through.
“Not very useful,” said Jonah. “Unless maybe you had a broken bone and you could fix it.”
“Maybe,” agreed Kayley. “At first I did it accidentally and it was frightening. But now it’s wicked cool. So I can do that and be like a totally real fairy, but you guys will have to pretend stuff.”
“Linnie can go through walls,” said Jonah.
“Oh yeah?” said Kayley, playing it cool. “That’s cool stuff. It’s so stupid that boring humans can’t do that.”
Jonah plopped down on the shaggy grass and leaned against the shed. “Fairies can read your mind,” he said. “I bet that’s why people hate them.”
“No, they can’t,” said Kayley. “First they have to settle their dust all over you so they can pick up your body’s cues. Then they’re smart, so they guess based on that. They’re pretty good guessers. And kinda stuck-up, so they’re sure they’re right. But they can be dead wrong. Depends on how much mass they have concentrated. Fairies spread out.”
“That’s what Jonah does,” said Linnie. “Spread out.”
Jonah wrenched his jacket around him. “I do not.”
“Oh yeah?” said Kayley. “That’s an awesome trick. I bet your dad would like to see it.”
Jonah looked at Kayley for a long minute, and the shimmer on him suddenly knew that he knew.
After all, Jonah was the one to open your trunk when some of our motes whispered to him. He watched the fairy dust spill out, he watched Kayley form, and he now knew—because Kayley had told him—the properties of fairies.
“Okay,” he said finally. “Dad.”
It’s a pain intuiting through shimmers in the garden with the rest of me back in the kitchen, propped up on a table. But a good pain, a challenge pain. The satisfaction in our art comes from mapping patterns, laying our motes along seemingly arbitrary intricacies until bang! the pattern is clear. Don’t you think so?
Long, long ago we only knew to spread ourselves out. We drifted in coppery forests and golden meadows, dusting with each other. Back so long I can hardly hold the memory, we started playing solid things. Lizards and butterflies—new ways to enjoy the sun. Later we played at humans, and our humans played at playlets, speeches, drama, artform piled on artform. Then it was fantastical creatures with mock civilizations, as we outdid each other in imagination. But then real humans changed all our old patterns. The humans poisoned our homes with heavy metals and interference and so we took their shapes, with cilia-thick lungs and hard, hard skin. We lost much, but we gained new patterns to explore.
It will be impossible to ever know all the patterns, I think, or at least I will be so advanced by then that this particular puzzle will be gone from memory.
Dust loves playing at forms. It’s hard to let that go.
Fred plus Shimmers
And in the end, did we really need Kayley’s fairy charisma? Jonah remembered you, after all. And Linnie was ready all along. One part-of-a-fairy and two changelings went up the secret stairway in Jonah’s closet to let the rest of their father out of his iron prison. “I can’t touch the trunk,” said Kayley. “It’s iron.”
“I can,” said Jonah. “But I already opened it—that’s where you came from. There wasn’t anything else in there.”
Kayley grimaced. “I know, but then where’s the rest of me? Let’s just try it.”
Jonah grabbed one corner and Linnie the other and together they opened the iron trunk. But it was dust-free. Jonah stuck his hand in and groped around the bottom, but there seemed to be no false drawers.
“Did you see where the rest of you was put?” said Jonah. “I don’t know, feel it?”
“Nope. My part was locked away first. I can’t think through iron.”
“If you’re in the house, you’ve gotta be here,” said Jonah. “It’s the only spot we’re not allowed in. Maybe—can you tell if anything in the attic looks different?”
The attic was a jumble of junk, walls of brick and plaster, low raftered ceilings. Jonah’s blimps lay in a deflated pile under the windowsill. It seemed a hopeless question, and yet…
“Hang on,” Kayley said. “I’m gonna shimmer myself. You cool with that?”
“We’re cool,” said Jonah.
Kayley rippled gold, then broke apart into a million motes that flew through the attic. Golden dust settled on everything.
Linnie coughed, inhaling dust. Then, eyes huge, put her hand over her mouth.
“It’s okay,” said Jonah. There was gold dust all over his eyebrows, nostrils, lips. “They’ve been doing this forever.”
For a moment, the attic gleamed like a treasure chest. Then the wind started in reverse, and the dust flew back together and formed Kayley, on the other end of the attic. She didn’t bother to colorize. “It’s this brick wall,” she said, smacking it. “It doesn’t match my old memories.” She shimmered through it, squealed, shimmered back. “There’s the box! But I can’t open it; it’s all iron. Jonah, you opened the last one.” She was blurry with excitement.
“I can’t take my body through the wall,” said Jonah.
“I can,” said Linnie.
“But I can separate and go with her,” added Jonah. He laid down on the floor, and this time he hardly shook at all as he detached part of himself from his body. “Ready,” he said faintly.
Linnie glared at the brick. From her point of view the wall dissolved, but from Jonah’s point of view Linnie dissolved and stepped right through the brick. “I’m in,” she called, and the separated Jonah slid along after her.
All that was in the brick room was a metal box, no bigger than Jonah’s blimps. Linnie tried to pick it off the floor, but it was enormously heavy. She bent to raise the lid.
Out in the attic, Aileen burst in, followed by Miss Smith and the maid. “Gabriel,” she cried, pointing at Kayley. “I thought you were using her to let you out. But you’re not Kayley at all. You’re Gabriel.”
“Like, duh,” said Kayley.
Then Aileen saw Jonah’s body, comatose on the floor. Her mouth opened and she fell beside Jonah, cradling his chest to hers.
Behind the brick wall, Linnie’s fingers kept slipping off the hasp. “It won’t let me touch it.”
Jonah’s voice, hovering above her. “It’s cause there’s fairy dust on your fingers. Get out, Dad.”
The golden shimmer slipped away from her fingers and back through the brick wall so there was none of us to see the exact instant when we were freed. All of us in that little room must be, had to be, in that impenetrable iron box.
There was an instant when time hung in the air and all our motes seemed to whirl in place.
Then the iron box opened, and I poured forth.
I am rushing and wild.
I am free.
—not in trunk
—nor jewel box
I need a drink.
That goes double for me. Do you know how annoying?
to be a leg.
Lame, you want lame? I was totally this girl—
And I in a trunk.
I’ve got you beat; ten motes in a diamond’s eye
—let me share when Miss Smith forgot and shaved me
—show how Jonah tumbled down flat
—let me say: my love
—You are still my love.
Let me say—
“I need a drink.”
“Yes, sir,” said the maid.
From the other corner there was a shriek as Miss Smith fell to the ground. “My leg! Where’s my leg?”
I swear, the part of me that had been stomped around on as Fred was selfishly amused. I would almost have let her keep me ’til she got her sea-legs back, except I badly needed reintegration, particularly with independent Fred. Parts of me had gathered a lot of data in the 1,879 days while the rest had gathered only the blackness of two iron trunks. I would stay overly dense for a few days while I sorted myself out.
“Gabriel!” It was my love. Jonah had slid back into his body at the same time I did, and Aileen held him to her side, keeping one arm around him. “Gabriel, you give her old leg back this instant. What did you do with it?”
I hate these questions. “Don’t remember.” I sounded like my seven-and-a-half year old son. Aileen could always do that to me.
“Oh, my leg,” said Miss Smith, clutching at her flesh knee.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” I said.
“With what money?” said Aileen. “I don’t have the clout to hire you now, and you can’t run for office again. Everyone knows what you are.” Her lip trembled, and I remembered resting on it, drinking fairy-basher. “Everyone knows what we were.”
“I could reshape,” I said awkwardly. “Be a stranger come to town.”
She shook her head. “Things are stricter for newcomers. Magnetized locks and X-ray testing. There’s no place for you here.” Jonah shook his head “yes,” which I chose to interpret as he thought his mother was wrong. I hoped he wanted me to stay.
“Here’s your drink,” said the maid. It was blue with chunks of lime; either she remembered I like those damn things or she has an unexpected sense of humor. I took a long, deep swallow, the first real drink in five years.
“How will I run after the kids?” moaned Miss Smith.
“I know where her leg is,” said Linnie.
“It’s behind the piano. I thought it was a spare.”
“Run and get Miss Smith’s leg, please,” said Aileen to the maid. She wavered where she stood, clutching Jonah, and I thought she wanted to run to me and fall into my arms, but no matter how many motes I settled on her, I would never know for sure. My theory of myself is that I stay with the puzzles that intrigue me the longest. My love is veined with deep and hidden streams.
“How would we live?” she said.
“One theory,” I said cautiously, “is that we could live here, and be in love.”
“It’s just not done,” she said. “Fairy-human relationships aren’t appropriate.”
“Neither are changelings,” said Jonah. He wiggled free from Aileen’s arm, pulling his hood all the way off. His hair was iridescent like my own. “I want to go to school, Mom.”
“I might lose my job again.”
“If Jonah’s going, I’m going,” said Linnie. I looked down and found she was holding my hand. She smiled up at me, with dimples.
“You’re both going to school, and I’m not going back in that trunk,” I said. “I’ll stay home and raise the children. Teach Jonah how to handle his splitting and Linnie—well, Linnie can go through walls, but it’s not causing you problems, is it?”
“But who knows what talent they’ll develop next?” I pulled Linnie toward me, ruffling her hair. “Choose all or none.”
“Well…” said Aileen.
“It’s just not the same,” Miss Smith said. She stomped between us, wavering on the dumb metal leg. Her arms flailed.
I sighed. There are always sacrifices to living among humans. “Weekdays and alternate Saturdays only.” I took a sip of my fairy-basher, then added: “And not ‘til next Tuesday.” Fred needed a firm squashing.
“Oh, thank you. I’ll be real careful with you.”
I looked at my love with all my mass. The rise and fall of her cheeks had reshaped themselves in the last five years. Her hair was streaked with silver. I think I will color mine to match. “Stay with me, Aileen,” I said softly.
Deep inside, ten motes whispered: My love, my love.
And then Aileen ran to me and threw herself into my arms.