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Igms issue 43, p.4

IGMS Issue 43, page 4


IGMS Issue 43

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  "Oh fie! You see not what I mean at all." He continued to hold me against him. I laced my fingers through the silky strands of his hair, patches of moss and vines tickling my fingers.

  He kissed my forehead. "Is that what all these tears are about? Not hunger or the prince forcing himself on you? You cry over a trifle."

  I pulled away. "Love is no trifle to humans."

  He tilted my chin upward, the warmth of his breath brushing against my lips. My heart raced. "Have you fallen in love with me? Has my indifference made you suffer?"

  I lifted my face, pressing my lips to his. The warmth of his touch sent a thrill through my core. He held me in his arms with such tenderness, I could believe he loved me as my father had loved my mother.

  He broke away, his tone harsh. "Katy, this is foolish. You will grow to love me more and more, and I will remain dispassionate. I am not like your father. I can never love you."

  My heart lurched at words I knew to be true. "But I love you."

  He huffed in frustration.

  I circled my arms about his neck and kissed him. His rigid posture softened and his fingers caressed my arms. That constant emptiness in my belly shifted to a new kind of hunger. I imagined my mother's magic coursing through my veins. Aspen would love me before long.

  His lips curled into a stiff smile, as though he tried to look happy for my benefit. "If this is what you wish and I can't persuade you otherwise, I will take you as my bride."

  I expected my father to be pleased, yet he frowned. "I will give my blessing for this union on two conditions, Aspen."

  "Yes, my lord," he said, bowing his head. I squeezed his hand.

  "First, you must promise to always provide human food for my daughter."

  "I already do as much."

  "Quite so." My father bestowed a smile with such kindness that my heart grew warm. Then his expression grew serious once again, his fatigue fully evident in his eyes. "And you must promise you will never eat human food. It will cause more pining than you could ever imagine."

  "Yes, sir."

  My gaze swept over his aspect. "Is that what happened to you?"

  He hugged me to his side. "Yes, child. Your mother gave me fruit and I ate of it. I only have known sorrow since that time."

  When my father announced that we were to be wed, the fairy voices raised a chorus of cheers, though no mouths smiled. No eyes held delight, save my father's. The prince scowled. The queen married us at once.

  I was happy for a time. Aspen and I frequented the patches of in-between world whenever we pleased, and I ate my fill. Only, I was never truly full. Always an emptiness lingered.

  Aspen was a good husband. He tried to make up for his inability to love by pleasing me in any other way he could; bringing me gifts of flowers or fruit, stroking me with tenderness and attempting to smile. Though I appreciated all these tokens, none touched the pining inside me. No matter how he pretended, I knew he didn't love me.

  He comforted me when he saw this sorrow in my eyes. "I have been thinking on this," said Aspen, one eve as I sat at the stream under a sliver of moon. "Your father said his sorrows began when he ate human food. That's when he changed, yes, but it was when your mother left that his sorrow began." He held up a blackberry. "If I were to eat this --"

  "No. It's poison for Fay." I slapped the berry from his hand.

  "If I ate a bit of fruit, I would long for you and I would have you. That is love, is it not? There would be no harm in it if you should stay here and continue to love me."

  I stroked his mane of mossy hair, staring into his beautiful face. I hated to imagine his heart in anguish. "I will grow old and die. You will despair for all eternity, just as my father."

  "You are half fairy. You will live a long life, especially now that you are in this realm. You've stopped aging since coming hither. There will be no harm in it." He held up another berry.

  My voice rose in desperation. "My father made us promise."

  "I want to love you. I have no fear this is the right choice."

  I reached for his hand, but he'd already placed the poison on his tongue. His entire aspect relaxed, his brow coming together in thoughtful concentration. His lips twitched, blanching before my eyes.

  Aspen half-moaned, half-laughed as he leaned against me. He buried his face in my hair, covering my neck with kisses. "Is this what love feels like? Is this wonderful ache in my chest happiness or sorrow?"

  I laughed too, tears spilling down my cheeks. My heart felt close to bursting with joy. He pulled me into his lap, kissing me with a passion he'd never been capable of afore.

  For a moment in this forever land, we lived happily ever after.

  Shortly after I learned I was with child, my loving and doting husband said to me, "There's someone I should like you to meet."

  He walked slowly to the feasting tables, his gait lacking the vitality it had once had. He didn't give the foods a glance, but my belly whined with complaint at the fragrance of roasted veal covered in glazes and surrounded with mountains of vegetables. My mouth watered as I stared at the glistening pies with the same hunger I had when I'd first arrived in the fairy kingdom. The food stole my attention so completely, Aspen's introductions were but a distant lullaby.

  He squeezed my hand. "Katy? I would like to introduce you to John McLean."

  I smiled with embarrassment as I took notice of the man. His hair was red, brighter than the Scotsmen I'd once met, his eyes a tad too green to be human. His face, though scarred and blemished, was still of unearthly beauty, a slight glow to his ruddy skin.

  "You're part fairy, too?"

  He gave a hearty chortle. "Right ye are, lass."

  He bit into a scone heaped with jam and chewed slowly, not ravenously like I would have.

  My husband said, "John lived most of his life in the human world, raised by his father who stole him away from his Fay mother as a child."

  John set down the scone on a gold plate with more willpower than I ever would have been able to do. "Yer husband found the story of me upbringing goodly amusing. I was like ye are, I'd guess. Living in the human world and always a-hungerin' for anything I could get me grubby hands on. Me father always said I'd eat him outta house and home, but most lads are that way, so he dinnae think much of it. I always felt like I was 'bout to starve to death, and then I found a fairy ring and came hither but days ago. Tales say not to eat fairy food. But I ate it as a child. So I ate it again and the strangest thing happened. I felt full!" He laughed and slapped his knee.

  I gazed across the clearing at Queen Maeb's pet child, still cramming food into his mouth, demanding the servants bring him more. He was no longer the young boy I remembered, but an adolescent, now grotesquely obese, lost in rolls of fat.

  "That wouldn't be you," Aspen said. His lips looked leathery and cracked under the light of the will-o-wisps. "That child is human and made for human food. You're part fairy. If neither human food, nor food from the world in-between suits you, then we must presume Fay food is what you need."

  I sat with Aspen in a patch of the world in-between, an array of foods spread out before us. Before me were fairy-made pies and pastries, a whole chicken basted in herbs, rich puddings, and the juiciest fruits imaginable.

  This would be the remedy to all my woes. Or the beginning of them.

  My fingers trembled picking up an apricot. I looked to Aspen, memorizing the graceful slope of his nose, the viridian of his deep-set eyes. Where there once had been plump, pink lips were the start of gray blisters. Yet even knowing that the same might happen to me couldn't deter me from eating the fruit in my hand. Hunger, the ever-present monster, still clawed at my belly.

  I closed my eyes and bit into the tender flesh, the sweet-tart perfection exploding on my taste buds. It was more heavenly than any food I'd tasted. I took a greedy bite, juice dripping down my chin. This was pure bliss. I tilted back my head and closed my eyes, brilliant colors blinding me. As the last morsel melted away, I realized my belly felt f

  Tears of joy burned in my eyes. I moaned with satisfaction.

  "Do you want more?"

  I stiffened. That wasn't Aspen's voice. It was that of an old man. I blinked away my tears. My husband was no longer regal and glowing. His face was shriveled and gray, his nose long and pointed. His long, spindly fingers, gnarled like the roots of a tree, clutched at my hand.

  Razor sharp teeth filled his smile. The man I loved had been replaced by a goblin.

  I screamed and recoiled.

  "My love, what is it?" He tried to smooth his claws over my hair but I drew back further.

  I lifted up my skirts and hastened away -- to where I knew not.

  "Katy, run not. Let me make all well," the voice of the old man said, lagging behind me.

  I thrashed through the brush, creepers clinging to my legs and my hem catching on burrs. As I wrenched my dress free, I saw I was no longer clad in the golden gown, but my own attire of rags. My fingers were no longer freckled, but the pale, mossy hue they had been before I came to the fairy realm. An irregular pace crunched over twigs behind me.

  Is this what eating fairy food did? It wasn't so much a poison, but an awakening.

  "Come back," he called. "We'll be happy at last."

  I pushed myself on, unable to face the idea of eternity with a monster. A chaotic and disjointed thunder came from ahead, shrieks and squeals layered over the booming of drums. I ran through a mass of clumpy moss and spiderwebs, and came upon the fairy ball.

  It was gray and gloomy, lit only by lanterns hanging overhead which I had mistaken for will-o-wisps afore. The revelers, men and women with pointed faces and gnarled limbs, stomped their feet and twirled to the noise. The singers screeched a chorus that raked the insides of my ears. Hunched, insect-like servants carried platters to the tables where goblins crammed their faces with jellies, meats, and savory dishes. The aroma wafted closer, rich and inviting, but not taunting as it had once been.

  I looked for a familiar face in the mob of monsters. At the far end of the ball sat a tall waif, twisted and bent on her throne, eyes glowing with a green iridescence like a beetle.

  The adolescent nearest the queen crammed food into his sugar-crusted face. The humans in the crowd gazed into the eyes of the fairies they danced with, seeing not the world I saw, but the lie that hid it. The red hair of John McLean caught my eye as he munched on a biscuit. He was no longer the beautiful half-fairy, half-human, but something grayer and darker, his nose longer and crooked, his flesh dull and waxy. I felt my own nose, wondering what I looked like in reality.

  "Katy?" a shriveled old man asked, approaching slowly. From the smile on his blistered lips I knew he was my father. "What ails you, child?"

  I smoothed a hand over his knobby cheekbone, feeling pity. This must have been what my mother had seen, why she protected me from their food. Only she hadn't known I would need fairy food. Had I been raised here like John McLean, mayhap I could have grown accustomed to the sight of these creatures.

  My father must have recognized that look of pity mixed with revulsion. He shook his head.

  A goblin crashed through the dancers and fell to his knees before me, snatching up my hand. His eyes were filled with genuine sorrow, something I had never seen in anyone other than my father and for that reason I knew this to be Aspen. I forced myself not to pull away.

  His voice was a strange growl. "You're no longer filled with pining. You'll be happy now. You've made me happier than any Fay in my kingdom." A hopeful smile revealed the rows of sharp teeth in his mouth. "Say you love me still, Katy."

  "I want you to take me home," I said.

  The cottage was no longer cloaked in jewels. It was in shambles. I had no idea how much time had passed.

  "I'll use magic to return your home to the beauty it once was," Aspen said, waving his hands about.

  Nothing happened. Still, he admired it as if something more was there than I could see. "I'll visit you. I'll bring you food from the fairy world for you and our child." He took my hand and kissed my fingertips. Adoration twinkled in his beetle-like eyes.

  I looked away, as much repulsed by his goblin-like appearance as disgusted with myself that I had done this to him. I couldn't tell him what he'd become to me. The love I'd felt for him was still too deep that I didn't wish him more heartache. As it was, I feared he would go mad from pining for me.

  He hugged me, and because I wanted him to feel joy rather than sorrow with his human heart, I closed my eyes and kissed him. I imagined a glowing face with sparkling viridian eyes as I bid him farewell.

  I smoothed my hand over the swelling of my belly. Through me, my own child tasted fairy fruit. And she will crave it and crave the fairy world. If I tell her my story and all I learned in the fairy realm, she will have a choice: the illusion of beauty, yet forever pining for something more, or the satiation of hunger served with the ugliness of truth.

  Perhaps her choice will leave her more contented than mine left me.

  The Man in the Pillbox Hat

  by Mjke Wood

  Artwork by Nick Greenwood

  * * *

  Owen laid the mobile phone back onto the smooth, yellow tree stump that served as his table. It had a full charge and three bars of signal. The only reason it wasn't ringing was because nobody was calling him. He didn't want it to ring, but until it did that knotted rope of anxiety that coiled in the pit of his stomach would only grow.

  He was being stupid. He should have gone to meet Carol. He should be standing to attention, now, on the pitching deck of the USS John F Kennedy, the token male amongst the dutiful and obedient Astronaut Wives Club. He had chosen, instead, the company of his sheep and his goats on his hill farm overlooking Coniston Water. He had chosen to stay in a place where there was no TV and where the only mobile phone reception was up here, on top of the small hill behind his farmhouse.

  He loved this exposed position and soon the rain would come, Owen could smell it in the breeze. He had no shelter and he didn't care. He had the rough bench that he had fashioned as a boy with his own hands; he had the tree stump table his father had crafted; he had mobile phone reception, of sorts; and he had the finest view in all England. What more could he ask?

  Well, he could ask for the safe return of Carol, his wife. Carol Dawson, the first woman -- the first person -- ever to set a footprint on Mars.

  He could ask. Part of him wondered, though. It was a nasty, selfish dark side that Owen hated and that he tried to lock away and subdue. But the creature was there, cajoling, asking the question: Do you really want her back? Really?

  Because she had changed. How could it be otherwise? She had been to Mars.

  And these thoughts had nothing to do with choice. A safe return was not a foregone conclusion, it never had been. But now? Well there were problems. The heat shield: the press were giving the crew fifty-fifty. Hell, fifty-fifty had been good odds at one time, in the space game.

  Two things could happen: Carol Dawson and her fellow astronauts might soon be home, safe.

  Or they might be ash.

  And one way or the other the phone would ring.

  It was something to do with explosive bolts. They knew about it from the start, two years ago, when stage-four separation had lit up the mission control panels like Blackpool Illuminations. Damaged electrical insulation they said. The shield could separate prematurely. Or not at all.

  The six astronauts had considered the risk. There were two landers, either of which could be used for Earth or Mars re-entry. Ample redundancy. Until after they used one. NASA had weighed the risk and the political fallout, but had allowed the crew a vote. Six ayes. None of them had any intention of going all the way to Mars just to slingshot straight back home.

  That was when Owen knew for sure that he had slipped down to second place, losing out to a red, airless, desert world.

  He loved Carol, there was no question about that. He wanted her back with a yearning that bordered on physical pain. But would the C
arol Dawson that had seen the sunrise on Mars be the same Carol Dawson who used to wake before dawn to come fell running with him, just the two of them, at peace with the mountain? Would she be the same Carol Dawson who used to sit with him on Dow Crag under the star-filled, new-moon sky, waiting for the gold of an Earthbound sunrise? Waiting for their sunrise.

  They had been for a pre-dawn run on that final morning. They had shared their dawn moment with fifty photographers, fifty panting, sweating, disgruntled paparazzi, but that sunrise had not belonged to them, just as Carol no longer belonged to him. Now he had to share her with the world. Owen supposed he and Carol had been on the front cover of every newspaper on the planet that day. He didn't know for sure, though. He hadn't bought a paper.

  Why don't they just stop at the International Space Station on the way back? Many had asked this. Call in for a few days. Tea and biscuits and a friendly chat with the Station residents, then bomb back down to Earth in a Soyuz.

  Well, sorry, it doesn't work like that. You don't just slip into a gentle low Earth orbit, because when you come back from Mars you are barrelling. The way to slow down is to plunge into the atmosphere, performing a series of tricky aerobraking skips to burn off speed. It's a "pants on fire" maneuver, delicate, violent, and dangerous. Even when the heat shield is good.

  There was a sound, a vibration from his phone. Owen snatched it up.

  "Hello! Hello!"

  Nothing. A phantom. A cruel trick of the wind.

  Owen inspected the phone for the fiftieth time. Full charge. Three bars. When they called, he would know.

  He placed the phone back onto the tree stump. He stood and stretched and revelled in the solitude that surrounded him. Not quite solitude. In the distance, an ant-like procession of day-glow ramblers; red, yellow, orange; slogged their way up the Walna Scar Road towards Goat's Water and the summit of The Old Man of Coniston, an arrow straight formation of humanity, each consumed in his own world of pain and wonder. They were not sitting at home glued to the TV, praying and keeping vigil like every other member of the human race, as the media would have us believe. Nor did they pay any heed to the lonely Astronaut Husband who stood on his hill watching them, waiting for his phone to ring.

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