The State Street Robot Factory
He’s been building up inventory for a while in preparation for the gift-giving season. Phalanxes of pocket robots stand on his bookshelves, his eating counter,
I had come into some money and with it, purchased four hundred acres of land. I signed the lease in early fall, when the forest was a patchwork quilt of color. It was old-growth outside of Sudbury, east of the airport. On a clear day, you could spot the plume from the Inco Superstack, sitting on top of the largest nickel smelting operation in the world. The closest town was Skead, a sawmill community half-an-hour away. My property was accessed by a one-kilometre stretch of private road. It wasn’t what you’d call deep bush. But it was good enough for me.
I called in some personal favours, put in a well and a septic system, and had my cabin built before the first snowfall. It was modest and modern, spacious enough for a bachelor. The contractors had unearthed a fair number of arrowheads and I kept all of these in a wooden box on the fireplace mantel. On Christmas Day, I packed a thermos, put on my snowshoes, and set out with my dog Jackson to explore the edges of our new domain.
I was looking for evidence of snowmobile trails. I didn’t want to have to fence in the property, but would if I had to. I carried a telescoping walking stick, and had my old Browning 22 slung over my back, good enough against coyotes. I wasn’t too concerned about anything larger. Any wolves ranging this far west of Algonquin would be shy as hell, and black bears wouldn’t be out until the spring.
Late-afternoon sunshine drenched the fields. Snow capped the goldenrods and cattails, and lay heavy in the red pines, occasionally cascading down in curtains of white. Jackson bounded like a hare, circling widely and disappearing for minutes at a time. We came to a stand of black spruce that marked the margin of a bog. Now that it was winter, I was eager to explore the opposite shore. I tramped forward, poking ahead with my stick in case of hidden water. When I got to the far side, I pushed up through dense snags and was surprised to discover an old logging road.
I paused to catch my breath. I knew I was still on my property, as its eastern limit was the Wanapitei River. The road, running north by south, was overgrown and appeared to have been unused for decades. It was clearly impassable by snowmobile. It wasn’t marked on any of the maps I’d scoured. If I’d stepped through a wardrobe and encountered a lamppost, I couldn’t have been more delighted. The red and white pines soared fifty metres above me, grandly majestic.
I whistled and called for Jackson. He was a rescue dog I’d only recently adopted, adolescent and perpetually wide-eyed. When a friend first brought him to me on Thanksgiving Day, I could count his ribs and the vertebrae in his spine. He slept at the foot of my bed, and had nightmares that would wake us both. He’d since put on five kilos, and would now sometimes rest his head in my lap. I whistled again, but he was nowhere to be seen.
I collapsed my stick, unslung my Browning, and proceeded back along the way I had come. I discovered his tracks at the edge of the bog. They ascended a steep bank farther down the shoreline and I had to remove my snowshoes to follow. His tracks proceeded northward where, to my amazement, they met a second set of footprints that turned back on itself. The pair continued side-by-side along the centre of the old road. The second set appeared to be those of a barefoot child.
My breath formed frosty clouds in the air. When I looked more closely, I noticed the big toe on each foot was slightly elongated, and the others splayed like those of a frog. The hairs prickled all across the back of my arms. I set down my rifle and took off my gloves. I poured some hot tea from my thermos and sipped gingerly, scanning the forest. I did not whistle for Jackson a third time.
A passenger jet pencilled a white line across the cobalt sky. It would be dark in a couple hours. These were sidhe tracks. I cursed silently, debating whether I should return to the cabin for supplies or continue on. I’d be lucky if I ever saw Jackson again. My one chance was to give chase without delay. I strapped on my snowshoes and repacked my thermos.
A flock of grouse exploded from the underbrush, storming upwards through the trees. I looked for what had startled them and saw a young fox poised by the side of the road. Oddly, it was missing its tail. I had a slice of fruitcake in my pocket which I took out and unwrapped. I broke off a corner and tossed it in the fox’s direction. The creature retreated a few steps, its eyes bright and hard. It kept glancing between me, the piece of cake on the snow, and my rifle leaning against a stump.
“Gun,” said the fox.
“Friend,” I said. I shuffled away from the rifle. I raised my arm and pointed in the direction of the tracks. “Dog?”
The fox’s ears trembled. “Burnt hawthorn,” it said, eying the cake.
I knelt and tapped my chest. “Friend.”
The fox shook its head. “You be afraid.” It glanced once up the road before vanishing into the underbrush.
I swore again under my breath. I rose and snatched up my Browning. I emptied the magazine and refilled it with the silver cartridges I kept in the breast pocket of my flannel shirt, just in case of situations like these. It was a Belgium antique, inherited from my grandfather. I pulled back on the breechlock and loaded the chamber.
The truth was, I was afraid. Sidhe were dangerous and unpredictable. I’d rather deal with coyotes or trespassing snowmobilers any day. When I looked again, the corner of fruitcake was gone. I placed the remainder on a morel-spiked mound. I shook out the crumbs from the wax wrapper, crumpled it up and shoved it into my pocket. Grimly, with Pépère’s Browning in hand, I hurried north along the road in search of my dog.
“New World sidhe,” said my grandfather, slamming down a bishop, “are little bastards.” He rapped his temple with his knuckles. “Not all there in the head. Tore through my pumpkin patch back in ’82. Ruined my best cukes! Would’ve won at the county fair that year if it weren’t for them.”
I was drinking with Pépère, which meant I was playing chess with Pépère. I was only fourteen-years-old, which meant it was a scotch and soda for me, and scotch on the rocks for him. It was our own little secret. I loved him for it. Rule was if I ever beat him, he’d serve up a second round. For years, I learned to nurse my highball all evening during our weekends at his cottage. My job was to make the popcorn. I always added extra butter, melted in an iron skillet over the wood stove. Pépère had a heart condition and was on a strict diet. It was our own little secret. He loved me for it.
“I thought the sidhe were good folks,” I said, pushing a pawn. I wasn’t sure how we’d gotten onto this topic. I think it started after we’d chased the racoons from the boathouse earlier that evening. We’d just finished a feast of pan-fried bluegill and I was stuffed. My sips of scotch and soda were going down great.
“That’s Old World sidhe, Pete. Back home, they are good folks, guardians and healers. But these ones came across on the wooden ships by accident centuries ago, along with Cabot, Hudson, Champlain, and the rest.” His knight bounded across the board. “The native spirits won’t take them in, so they’re on their own. Sometimes they end up in the cities.” Pépère wagged his gnarled finger. “City sidhe,” he intoned, leaning forward and flaring his eyes, “are the most dangerous kind.”
“Dangerous?” I crammed my mouth with popcorn and advanced my rook, but my mind wasn’t on the game anymore.
“The sidhe orphans here, they have no tribe, no mound of their own, no fairy kings or queens to rule over them and keep them in line. Check! They go mad with loneliness and despair. They get into mischief, making trouble for others, just so they can forget for a moment where they came from. They go bad.”
The hairs stood up on the back of my arms. “How can they go bad?” I whispered. “They’re nature spirits. How come the natives won’t take them in?”
“I suppose in some places they do. But the native powers are protective of their land. There’s not much left, is there? Little enough to go around what with us white folks stomping about, mining and logging, breaking our treaties, setting up shop. Little enough left to share with the sidhe. It’s your move.”
“Mémère was Métis,” I declared.
Grandpa blinked and sat back. He downed his drink and tossed the ice over his shoulder into the fireplace. “That she was, bless her soul. And your great-grandmother was a pureblood Ojibwe princess, and your great-great-grandfather was Chief Abotossaway himself of Manitoulin.” He reached across the table and planted his enormous callused palm on top of my head. “That’s one eighth royal Anishinaabe in you, Pete, my boy. The government might not recognize it, but fuck those gawdamn cocksuckers in Ottawa. Don’t you forget.”
“No, sir. I won’t.”
The fox had said it wasn’t far. But that was by fox reckoning. I followed the two tracks half-an-hour before I reached the end of the road. My cheek was badly scratched and my knees bruised from climbing through bramble and tripping over dense fallen timber. It struck me that this debris was more than natural old forest decay. The way had been deliberately and methodically snared and blocked.
The road ended at the edge of a glade. Something had stopped the prospectors from encroaching farther. The pines all around were untouched continuous-growth, well over three centuries old. I gulped down some more of my tea and wished I hadn’t given away all of the fruitcake. The daylight was draining fast from the forest. The canopy was just catching the last amber rays of the sinking sun.
Towards the far sloping end of the glade crouched a hawthorn tree, its crooked trunk and twisted, spreading branches stark against the sky. Years ago, it had been blasted by lightning. An enormous scar ripped down its side. Jackson’s tracks led right up to it. There was no sign of the sidhe. I approached warily, rifle levelled at my waist. Long, sharp thorns adorned its branches. Clusters of blood-red haws big as crabapples glistened, veiled in ice. Near the bole, the earth was bare of snow, carpeted with frost-burnt grass and brittle yellow leaves. The air was dead quiet. Not a single bird sang. My own breathing seemed loud as a steam locomotive.
A splash of golden fur. Jackson was lying at the base of the trunk. Tentatively, I whistled and called out. His head lifted and he peered over his shoulder, regarding me with plaintive eyes. “Jackson, c’mere, boy.” He whined but did not rise. I circled the tree and stood over him.
He was not bound, nor did he seem hurt. I knelt and extended a hand. I knew he startled easily and would sometimes snap. On this occasion, he only lay down his head again and switched his feathery tail. I rubbed the thick fur behind his neck and carefully felt his individual limbs. He whined again. He seemed unable to move. I knew of the symptoms of fairy riding in horses and other livestock, paralysis in the spine due to sidhe riding on them, but I had never seen it in a dog before. Left out on the open ground like this, he would undoubtedly die from exposure. “Goddammit,” I shakily exclaimed.
Laughter nearby. A little child’s voice, but like the rattling of knives. I jumped back, swung to the left and pulled off two rounds on the Browning. The explosive reports were thunderous. I caught a glimpse of a pale, elfin figure dashing through the trees. I fired again. Behind me, Jackson began barking in a fit of panic. For a moment longer, I watched the empty, darkening forest. I went to my dog.
It took me a while before I could calm him down. I stroked his head and massaging his limbs. He might’ve been nothing more than an animal, but there was no such thing as a dumb beast. His whole body was trembling with agitation. I think eventually he fell still out of sheer exhaustion. By that time, it was approaching dusk. I kept my eye out for movement in the trees. I was sure the sidhe was watching us, laughing. I was furious, but I did not let that emotion overcome me.
I slung my rifle over my back, knelt, and picked Jackson up in my arms. Overhead the sky shone a deep cool blue. A few stars twinkled in the east. With an effort, I tramped across the glade and returned to the old logging road where shadows welled in pools across the forest floor. Jackson cried pathetically. I kept murmuring his name over and over again, and calling him a good boy.
The outline of the road was apparent, paralleled by mounds and pits and the towering pines. The paralysis from the fairy riding might last a few days at most, but I didn’t have the luxury of time. I had hours before the temperature plummeted and daylight vanished altogether. My pace was painfully slow. I strained my eyes. I could not afford a misstep. Twice, I was forced to stop and rest. Each time I held Jackson’s head and tried to have him drink out of the thermos cup. His pink tongue lapped at the warm tea and I was grateful for the trust he had in me.
I was on the road almost an hour before I starting thinking I had overshot the bog. My shoulders ached and my arms were beginning to shake. I could no longer feel my fingertips or toes from the cold. If I heard a toothy laughter from the forest’s darkness, I ignored it as best as I could. I had been on the lookout for the stand of dead trees, but I realized now I must have passed it by. I drew a ragged breath, wheeled clumsily, and started back north again.
An animal barked, a single sharp note. Behind me, I spied an indistinct form in the centre of the road. The fox’s eyes gleamed. It turned and trotted south a pace, then stopped and glanced back. It barked again.
I cleared my throat. “Home.”
“Cake?” it asked.
“Cake.” I recalled the wax paper crumpled up in my pocket. I swallowed, my mouth dry. “No more cake.”
The fox cocked its head. “Home.” It darted off the road. Impulsively, I followed. I pushed my way through heavy snags, careful to shield Jackson’s face. I staggered and fell sideways, half-sliding down an embankment. I abruptly emerged under bright moonlight at the edge of the frozen bog. The snowfield was luminous. I had been mere metres away, and ready to turn back. The way home to the cabin now was clear. I pressed my cheek hard against the top of Jackson’s head.
“Thank you,” I gasped.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of reddish-brown in the trees. The fox was already gone.
Grandpa dozed in the bow of the canoe. I concentrated on my J-stroke and manoeuvred us close to our favourite fishing spot. It was a shallow inlet filled with mossy logs and lily pads, a perfect hiding spot for bucketmouths and bronzebacks on a hot summer’s day. I floated us in and threw down our lucky anchor, two horseshoes tied front to back so none of the luck might spill out. I wore a big straw cowboy hat and my swimming trunks, just in case I wanted to cool off before heading back. I picked out a circle hook and rigged it with a five-inch minnow. Today, I was after the king pike himself, top of the food chain. “Knight to bishop four,” said Grandpa.
I glanced up in surprise. “I thought you’d fallen asleep.”
“Asleep! When in your slim-pickin’ twenty-one years have you known me to fall asleep during a game?”
“You were snoring, Grandpa.”
“I was? Well, I must’ve fallen asleep. It’s those damn sidhe, y’know, casting glamours and charms all over the place. That one back in the woodpecker tree, I’ll bet she did it, just to spite me.”
We had in fact drifted past a woodpecker tock-tocking on a craggy cedar. I had thought Grandpa was sleeping then. I cast out my line. “You think?”
Grandpa raised the brim of his bill cap and scowled. “It’s your move.”
“Pawn to knight five, check.”
“King to rook two. Your mémère would never put up with this. She had the old abrahadabra in her. She’d be having those fairies doing her laundry and sweetening the well water at the drop of her shoe.”
“Grandpa, you’re rocking the boat. I thought the New World sidhe had all gone bad.”
“Oh, most have, orphaned stir crazy in the wilderness. But you just gotta show them you mean business, who’s king of the castle. But whatever you do, don’t get them angry. A sidhe can be vicious as a wolverine. Now take that one back in the woodpecker tree. She’s still pissed with me for not waltzing with her on the lily pads under the moonlight back in the day. That was fifty years ago! But to her, it’s like I’d snubbed her at last night’s county dance. That one’s had it in for me ever since.”
“Why didn’t you dance with her, Grandpa?”
“’Cause I was in love with your mémère! What are they teaching you in college these days? A man’s got to plant his heart, stick it where it counts. Give it a place to put down roots, then it’ll grow. Can’t go pickin’ up and dancing with every boy or girl or sidhe that comes your way.”
“I don’t know, Grandpa,” I laughed, “sounds like fun.”
“Careful, Pete. A handsome lad like you with all that sun in your face, they might take a hankering to. Then you’re done for. Put you to sleep and you wake up fresh and dreamy-like, only to discover everyone you’ve ever known or loved died a hundred years ago. How’d it be if you dozed off this afternoon and woke to find me all dentures, rusty pacemaker, dust, and bones?”
“Don’t say that. That doesn’t happen.”
“Pete, don’t disrespect the order of things. These sidhe might’ve gone lost their marbles, but they still understand the order of things. It will happen. You ready for it when it does? You playing or what? It’s mate in four, Pete. There’s no escaping it.”
I asked Grandpa to tell me how. He did. And he was right.
The fairy riding lasted for two more days. During this time, I didn’t leave Jackson’s side. I made him as comfortable as I could by the cabin fireplace and slept on the couch next to him. He drank when I brought water to his mouth, but he wouldn’t eat, not even his favourite treats. On the third morning, I awoke to a crashing din. Jackson’s rump and wagging tail were sticking out of from under the kitchen sink. He had pulled out the bag of dog food and ripped it open, knocking over pots and pans stored alongside.
Later that evening, I stood at the window nursing a beer and watched the heavy silent snowfall settling down on the land. Jackson lazed by the glowing embers of the fire, chewing on his favourite toy. He seemed none the worse for his ordeal. But I was restless and ill at ease. The sidhe was still out there.
The next day, I filled a backpack and took my Browning from its rack on the wall. Jackson barked excitedly, pawing at the front mat. “Jackson, sorry, but you’re not coming. Not this time.” I’d made sure he was watered and fed, and had done his business. I eased myself outside and shut the door. I strapped on my snowshoes and headed back to the hawthorn tree.
The sky was overcast but it was early in the afternoon. Animal tracks were visible in the deep fresh snow: red squirrel and rabbit, deer and what looked like a marten. The boughs above were abuzz with nuthatches and black-capped chickadee. A pair of blue jays jeered harshly. A bald eagle soared far overhead.
I reached the stand of black spruce and crossed the bog. At the other side, I hacked an opening through the snags with my axe. By the roadside, I hammered an iron hook into a stout hemlock and hung up a hurricane lamp. I lit the wick and set the flame to low. It wasn’t a London lamppost, but it would do. I proceeded north.
I took my time clearing a path along the old road. Three hours later when I was done, I unzipped my jacket and rested on a log. I devoured a stack of sandwiches, washing it down with strong hot tea. I tossed a few crusts towards the chickadees. I’d brought a wedge of fruitcake, but saw no sign of the fox. While I ate and drank, I studied the gnarled tree at the far end of the glade.
Powerful magicks were connected with the hawthorn, a known gateway to the fairy realm. The English Separatists’ ship Mayflower was named after the tree. Christ’s crown of thorns was said to have been fashioned from its branches.
When I was done eating and feeling refreshed, I packed everything away. There were traditional methods of dealing with sidhe, dating back a thousand years: protocols and rituals, offerings to be made. It was possible this entire glade was a fairy hill of sorts. The Otherworld would be closer at times of dawn and dusk. I checked my watch. It was still two hours until sunset.
To pass the time I explored the edges of the forest. I estimated I was five kilometres north of the McVittie hydro dam. I identified yellow birch and jack pine, and a healthy stand of sugar maples on the farther ridge. I came across signs of elk, fresh droppings and craters in the snow where they had been digging for grass and leaves. I had my binoculars on me but saw no activity in the trees. I did spy a spot of vermilion on the ground. I zoomed in closer. It was the fox.
I tramped into the woods and stood over its body. If I was unsure this was the same fox, these doubts were dispelled by the missing tail. After a while, I knelt and gingerly brushed the snow from its face. Its throat had been savagely cut, the head almost severed from the body. Frozen blood caked its fur. Its eyes were open, staring blindly. I took out the fruitcake, unwrapped it and lay it next to the corpse. I spent half-an-hour gathering what stones I could to build a cairn. I tore my gloves prying them from the earth. My palms bled but I felt no pain.
Old World sidhe would not behave this way. They were protectors of the natural world and all its creatures. If I was angry three days ago, today I was deeply disturbed. I took out two horseshoes from my pack. I placed one on top of the cairn. The other I hooked through the front of my leather belt.
When I looked up, I was startled to see an enormous raven perched above. I had no sense for how long it had been watching me. I composed myself and nodded politely. “Good afternoon,” I said. I turned to go.
“Wait,” it said. Unlike foxes or other talking animals, ravens very rarely spoke. My bare hands clasped and unclasped the cold iron at my waist. The old creature hopped down to a lower branch. Its pinions were frayed and I noticed it had only one eye. It peered intently into my face. “You mean to battle the ghost?”
It took a moment before I realized it was referring to the sidhe. “The ghost, right.” I glanced towards the glade. “Well, I was actually hoping to parley.”
“Parley?” the raven croaked. Even missing one eye, the look of incredulity in its face was unmistakable. “You will not succeed.”
“It stole my dog the other day. I’m not asking for anything, only that it leaves us in peace. I’ll stay away from this place if it wants me to. But the road and the land beyond is my domain.”
“The Old Woman ghost is not at peace,” the raven declared. “It steals and hoards precious things. It hurts us. It will not bargain. Will you kill it?”
“With all due respect, I’m just here to keep the peace.”
“Good,” said the old raven, “then you will kill it.” It studied me sidelong. “Favour?”
“You want a favour, from me?”
“After you kill the ghost, return my eye.”
I stared at the half-blind raven. My torn palms began to sting. I drew the old forest’s pungent odours deep into my lungs, the crevasses of my heart. The sky above took on a numinous, burning glow. I shouldered my pack and picked up my rifle. “After this is done,” I promised, “I will return your eye.”
“Have you heard of the Temagami Anomaly?” asked Grandpa. I concentrated on the winding dirt road, careful to keep my cigarette outside the driver’s window of my truck. “There’s something deep underground, stretching from Lake Wanapitei to Bear Island. Something massive and powerful, pulling on the Earth’s magnetic field! The natives have known about it for millennia. Lots of deep lakes and ancient rocks up that way, good place to vision-quest.”
“That’s where we used to fish, Grandpa,” I said. “We used to have a cottage up in Temagami.”
“Was it? I’d forgotten. I used to have a cottage? We used to go fishing there?”
“Yep, we did.” I glanced at Pépère in the passenger seat and patted his knee. “You taught me everything I know about fishing, Grandpa. You and me.”
“What about fairy paths, ley lines, and nastawgan? Did I teach you about those? Temagami is full of them, ancient native trails, criss-crossing the lands for thousands of miles. If you know where to look, you can go anywhere you want.”
I butted out my cigarette and pulled onto Highway 17, making sure to look both ways. “We can go anywhere you want, Grandpa.”
“I should’ve danced with her,” he said.
“I should’ve danced with her when I had the chance. ‘Just one dance,’ she said. I was young then. I could’ve gone to college, I was that smart. But I stayed back on the farm. The sidhe asked me to dance. Her skin, it was like, hell I don’t know, like the belly of a trout. She was so beautiful. Why didn’t I dance with her?”
“Because you were in love with Mémère.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. How could I forget your mémère? Y’know, strange thing is I’m thinking about that sidhe a lot more these days. What would’ve happened if I’d danced with her?”
“You always warned me about the sidhe, Grandpa.” I lit another cigarette. “Accept their invitations and sometimes people disappear and never come back.”
“What about you, Pete? You gonna leave me and never come back? And why are you smoking that gawdamn cigarette?”
“I’ve been smoking all weekend, Grandpa. It never bothered you.”
Without warning, he reached across with his right hand and slapped me hard. The cigarette fell between us. The truck swerved. I swore out loud and pulled over onto the side of the highway, spraying gravel. Grandpa was shouting. He was shouting in a way I couldn’t understand. I looked for the cigarette but he was hitting me again, this time with his fists, raining blows down onto my shoulders and neck as hard as he could.
“Pawn to king four!” I exclaimed, climbing backwards out of the cab. Grandpa tried to climb out after me, but his seatbelt pinned him. He’d broken my sunglasses and cut my temple. I whipped out a handkerchief and held it to the side of my head. “Pawn to king four.” He stared, slumped over the driver’s seat, panting and wide-eyed. He had some of my hair in his fist.
“I don’t want to play,” he said. “I want a drink.”
“C’mon, Grandpa,” I said, “you love to play. You gotta give me a chance here. Let’s play a game. Please, just one game. For me, Grandpa, for Pete.”
“Why are you crying?” said Grandpa.
“’Cause I broke my sunglasses and cut myself. It’s okay. So whaddya say? Pawn to king four. One last game before we head back. We can have a picnic here, right here on the side of the road. We can build an inukshuk, mark the spot. Years from now, we can drive by and say, this is where we had our last game.”
“My stomach hurts.”
“It’s the seatbelt, it’s cutting into your gut. Why don’t you sit up. You’re putting on some weight there, Grandpa. What’ll the ladies think? Why don’t I help you with that, okay? You want some water? Let me get you some water.”
“I want to go home.”
“We are, Grandpa, we are going home.”
“I want to die.”
I found and tossed the burning cigarette out of the cab. I gave him some water, holding the bottle up to his mouth. Afterwards, I sat in the driver’s seat, my hands in my lap. Clouds drifted over tall cornfields. Cows grazed in a pasture nearby. The highway cut a perfectly straight line through the rolling countryside. I studied the streaks of blood on my handkerchief.
“I’m not going to leave you, Grandpa.”
But he only gazed out his window, looking at the cows. He was drooling. I wiped the spittle from his chin.
Twilight. I approached the hawthorn tree. Against the fiery horizon, every tortured branch seemed to quiver with life. The evil-looking thorns bristled. Some legends said Merlin was imprisoned forever by his lover Nimue inside a hawthorn. She had been sidhe, an undine, an ancient water spirit.
I took off my snowshoes and secured them to my pack. I withdrew my grimoire, little larger than the palm of my hand, bound in snakeskin, dog-eared and acid-stained. I was not so cunning in the art of spells, unlike some I knew, but I was competent enough. I opened the grimoire to the page I had earlier marked.
I looked for the Evening Star in the west. I drew a breath and centred myself, the way Pépère had taught me. I began to speak the spell of invocation. Something boomed in the forest. Branches were breaking from the weight of the snow. I did not allow myself to be interrupted. A slow gust of wind sent spirals of frost up into the air. The red fruit shivered, cracking their icy skins.
When I was done, I closed the book. I slipped it into my pocket and picked up my rifle. It had grown quiet and very still. I noticed flies buzzing about the base of the tree. I turned in a slow circle.
I saw the sidhe.
She stood waist-deep in snow at the far end of the glade. She had the appearance of a little girl wearing a thin, colorless dress. It seemed she had arisen from below, clumps of snow clinging to her limbs, her shoulders and close-cropped hair. No tracks led up to where she stood. She clambered up out of the snow and began walking towards me. She looked like a survivor of the Holocaust. Her eyes were completely black. She carried a knife in her left hand.
“Parley,” I said.
She quickened her pace, her bare feet making no sound at all. She raised her knife over her head. “Parley!” I shouted.
She laughed and broke into a run. She made a hideous noise, like an animal being butchered alive. Her tongue was grey, her teeth like those of a muskellunge. I raised my Browning. “Stop! Parley! Stop!”
She leapt at me. I recoiled and fired. She twisted in the air. Her body struck the snow, cracking the crust. I staggered backwards, horrified. She should not have been able to approach so close, not while cold iron protected me. It would have meant excruciating pain for a creature like her.
I circled her body which lay face down at a broken angle. I crouched low, forcing myself to breathe through my nose. A spidery white hand crept forth. I jerked back and raised my Browning.
Painstakingly, the little hand grasped the shiny spent rifle cartridge in its fist. She turned her head and regarded me. Her eyes were sapphire flecked with gold, lashed in opaline. Slowly, the light drained out of them. At the very end, her lips curled into the hint of a smile.
It began to snow.
I knelt next to her. When I turned her body over, I discovered she had fallen upon her own blade. I could not find any wound where I had struck her with my bullet. I gathered her close in my arms. After a while, her body crumbled into crystalline ashes that ascended into the sky.
I picked up the sidhe’s knife and drew myself to my feet. When I lay the knife at the base of the hawthorn tree, the roots twisted and parted, revealing an entranceway. In the den below, thick with maggots and flies, I discovered many things. There were arrowheads and skulls, and stranger artefacts, among them the splendid fox’s tail and a coil of Jackson’s golden hair. Behind a bee comb filled with honey, I found what I was looking for. When I emerged, the raven was waiting.
“It’s done,” I said. “Here.”
“Thank you,” said the raven. It plucked its eye from the palm of my hand, hopped across the snow and took to flight, wings beating heavily. I watched as it disappeared over the treetops. Although the forest appeared still, I felt many presences. Some of the artefacts would also need to be returned to their owners. I was less sure of what to do with the others.
For the time being, I needed to rest. Jackson was waiting for me. I gathered my belongings and headed back home.
He’s been building up inventory for a while in preparation for the gift-giving season. Phalanxes of pocket robots stand on his bookshelves, his eating counter,
I feel the tack prick harder than it did this morning, because with T there was something abyss-like that might have swallowed me, had he
“I’m Fiona,” I say, holding out a hand. When she shrinks away, I back off. Some people who come to me don’t want to be