We first found her crouched over the pile of mid-autumn leaves. Handfuls in her hands. Shoulders hunched. She turned her head in a slow swiveling motion to regard us as she munched the browns and rusts and oranges and yellows.
“What’re you doing?”
“Eating autumn and the trees’ memories.”
She looked like a four-year-old except for the crest of feathers and backward-bending knees. Taking a last bite, she stood and ran away — awkward loping, half-hopping gait.
We had come across her while traveling out of our territory and trying to trade with outsiders, beyonders. Too many people had cleared out of the borderlands. Fey folken, too, were few and far between, and if harvest and game didn’t turn in our favor, not many of us would be willing to remain, either.
The old folks had warned us to be careful around her — “You never know with one of them aves-women,” they said — but we were young and wanted our own ways. She was foreign and strange. You see odd things on the borderlands, and it is easy to forget how some might sting or bite or shine you with glamour.
Like the time she talked of a friend, October Crescent Blade, but nobody ever saw him. All she did was point to the evening sky with its horned moon.
“Of course you can’t,” she told us. “He’s fey, and fey choose who may see them and when and how and are careful around people they know or think they trust.”
“Well, what’s your name?” we asked.
She responded in a poem — the language somewhat familiar to our ears.
Over and over again, her name rattled through the air.
We spit three times and took our leave of her.
Such are the encounters in the borderlands and far-gone twilight places.
“I have one year to become,” she said.
She sang of trees and tilled earth, spinning constellations, storm fronts and food caches, the tilting of the earth on its poles. Her hands fluttered as she spoke to us from the other side of a wobble-down fence. The fence posts facing her were scrawled with Fey sigils; sometimes the fence hummed while the triquetrous designs and spiral motifs pulsed with wan light.
(If you listen to her — they claimed — if you listen and fall prey to her word-glamour, you will rue the day. But we loved her mouth and eyes, her eyes full of old time and mouth sharp with the understanding of secrets like a poet or aged nurse.)
We wondered how so much song could come from so tiny a creature, her joints sharp on a frail frame. Little wonder, considering how she came and went, flittering here and there eating things like those autumn leaves.
In the village she came through open windows — the ones, at least, not lined with salt — and ate tiny buttons she plucked off clothes. Bric-a-brac vanished, but she always left lilting bits of old grammar to ease the way and make amends.
Needles went missing off one widow’s pincushion. The aves-girl disappeared for many months, and we said, “Surely she has died.”
Hoarfrost crept thick in the wells and began to cake the earth hard.
We coursed a deer through a field and into a hollow. Instead of scaring up the stag, we scared her after all that time at a deadfall. The dogs, full of hunt-lust, tore after her, but she glided and hopped away to the top of the deadfall and bounded into an oak and hurled nettle-barbed invectives at the dogs until they cowed, whimpering and heads-hung, away.
“We thought you were dead.”
Her face was covered with loam, and her teeth flecked with tree bark. Despite how waiflike she had appeared months earlier, she had hit a growth spurt. There is little rhyme or reason, and when the Fey folken grow from fledgling to maturity, one must be especially careful of the accompanying sortilege.
“We lost the deer,” one said. He spit three times toward the tree.
“Blame your dogs.”
“We only see you alone.”
“The fields don’t grow right, and sometimes game is scarce.”
She blared dark verses. Then, “I say blame the huntsmen and the farmers, and only part of the earth.”
“You said you were eating autumn. What else are you going to take?”
“Take? Only what’s given to me.”
“You steal from the villagers.”
“I give them song in return.”
“Little account when folks are scared.”
“They oughtn’t be scared of me,” she said. “I am just a girl.”
A quick staccato scolding followed.
We should have all defied her and continued the hunt, such as it was. Maybe when spring comes, it will be better, and we won’t be so dependent on the dogs and few guns and fewer tools after a trading trip beyond the village.
One of us found out the hard way not to mingle with the Fey folken. He wasn’t much more than a boy, barely a dusting of fuzz on his chin. He went chasing her word-glamour one day into a distant hollow. He came stumbling back across fields and hedges. Someone found him reclining against a tree trunk and staring far away and crying. No one really knows what happened. He rarely talked again — never of the incident itself — and he moved slowly the rest of his days.
Often he looked to trees and studied bushes at which he whistled every once in a while.
And cried often.
Winter blew in fast and spitefully after that.
The ground froze so hard, and our little valley suffered much under winter’s hand. A few too many of the livestock we had planned to trade to some beyonders by spring did not survive.
No wonder the aves-woman had foraged so many months.
All winter the only person to see her was an old man who claimed she swooped down out of a daytime full moon.
“She done killed another bird in broad daylight,” he had said. “Ain’t sure what to make of it.”
The winter wind snatched away his old man’s words.
We caught a glimpse of her flashing movements from the fence line.
I saw her tracks in the snow where she had foraged. Don’t believe even she found much.
We hardened ourselves for a season.
Good weather prevailed from spring on into summer. She only hovered at the edge of the village and gave occasional songs along with her fair share of taunting the hounds for their failure in the woods that one trip.
We were too busy to worry about Fey folken as planting season came, so we broke the earth to uncover secrets with our aging iron tools.
The glamour-muted young man went to her one evening. We watched as he wandered to the fence line.
On the wind came snatches of poetry.
I saw her enfold him in her spindly arms.
“She remembered me,” he said, his first words the better part of a year.
His spirit had calmed, and for a while his eyes cleared.
7: Tale Never Told
After much haggling with people out past the borderlands, we have a few more guns now along with modest powder stores. A few more agricultural implements besides. All this trading required much livestock we could still have used. We are unsure of our harvests as autumn approaches.
People thought they saw her the other day and picking through small piles of leaves. She wore a coat of black and white. Her crest had filled out to fall down to her neck. Quick, they said. Different now. Much different.
“Just like an aves-woman.”
How many more seasons she will eat, forage? Until then we will range farther, those of us remaining here.
A terrible storm came and blew down some fence line trees, and the fence no longer hums. We inspected the posts — now with so many strange carvings, just forgotten impressions in dead wood strung and wrapped with rusting metal.
Sometimes we hear her poetry, though, and well enough.
But the young man still cries.
|Berrien C. Henderson lives in the deepest, darkest wilds of southeast Georgia. He teaches high school Literature and Composition with a Southern accent. His mini-collection of Southern magical realism, Old Souls and the Grammar of Their Wanderings, was published recently by Papaveria Press. In his not-so-copious free time, Berrien pursues weightlifting and martial arts. He is represented by Kristopher O’Higgins of Scribe Agency.|