Friday 10 August 2012

Short Story: Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs

'Tis the night before Easter, when all through the house not a creature is stirring, not even a–

No, wait a moment, there is movement.

Barely there, a small figure floats through the house. There is a suggestion of wings — hard to say for sure... look too hard and perhaps not... but look away and there is a shimmer, a suggestion. What is obviously supposed to be a wand is not obviously a wand. The figure's frou-frou dress projects a prettiness that belies beauty, a deep and timeless beauty. The sparkling tiara cheapens her necklace, all filigree and finery. It looks out of place above the strong lines of her face.

Her hair is practical, coiled into a bun, tied and pent-up. Subdued but ill at ease with its sensibility. In her eyes there is weariness and something lost. But look closer... there is wisdom, command, passion.

She flutters up the stairs, pausing on the landing to caress and converse with the cat. The cat purrs and nuzzles in return before descending the stairs in search of a night out, shedding domestic pretence with every step, heading out to reclaim an untamed heritage — hunting, fighting, mating and more. Primal and necessary.

To work. She floats across the landing and through the sticker-covered door. She was here two full moons past, little has changed. The floor is action figures, toy cars and scattered books. Posters, cards and calendars paper the walls. Nursery wallpaper is visible in the gaps — a little too young for the boy asleep in the bed. He is outgrowing the room his parents prepared for his arrival seven winters before. Soon he will outgrow the beliefs they provided for him.

She is distracted back to work by the hiss and wail of the cat outside. She checks beneath the boy's pillow. He still believes. But the hourglass of that belief has almost run its course. Only a few more visits. She completes her exchange and leaves.

She pauses on the landing.

Something else stirs. Neither mouse nor cat. Something other. Something older. Something like her.

A figure steps out from the shadows. Tailcoat, shirt, cravat and breeches cover fur. A worn leather satchel is slung over one shoulder. His yellow eyes are narrowed. His ears are tall, upright and alert. His face is crossed by a fresh scratch, his buck teeth stained by blood. Cat blood.

"It has been a long time, Easter Bunny." He would dislike that name.

"Tooth Fairy." She is used to it. "I was in the garden doing my rounds. I sensed a presence indoors.... It has been a long time."

"Not long enough. You should have remained outside."

His whiskers twitch. He looks her up and down. "Nice wand."

"Staff. You have seen it before."

"I remember it being... bigger."

"What does the bag hold? Fabled eggs? Or stolen goods? What have you taken? Oh yes... the life of that poor cat. What a great and worthy garden warrior you must be! What tales of daring can those witness ears recount? Mighty foes felled, magnificent feasts, treasures found? Cats and chocolates and children's playthings."

"Silence! Do not mistake me for the part I play in this fairy-tale masque."

"And yet, Bunny, even that is more than I see before me."

"Fairy, I am the March Hare and more." He draws himself up, shadows and light falling around him. "I am Alde Hara! I am Bringer of Spring, Master of the Hunt, Lord of the Dance, Convenor of Night, Herald of the Moon!"

"And servant of Freya! Or did that memory somehow become lost and rotten in the addled larders of your mind? You betrayed me, Hara. You stole what was mine.

"All were trapped. We were weak and afeared. Belief was dying all around us and you fled. You slew my handmaidens, destroyed my hearth and halls. My brethren, my beloved cats, my chariot... all in flames. Kith and kin, kindle and tinder, you felled and razed them all to escape with my syncretic right. Fertility was mine to rule, mine to become. It was my path from one pantheon to another. My right. You took it and fled."

"I saw a chance for survival. I took it. I regret–"

"Do not insult me with unfelt apology! You come forth but once a year — or when it suits you. You deliver eggs and trinkets — if you feel like it. You do what you bloody well please and still you endure! I sought refuge amongst the Fae. I was tolerated without welcome. They took pleasure in seeing the queen of the Valkyrie diminished, humbled and hiding in the forests like a common fairy."

"Life was but one of your domains. Death another."

"And what has that become? Dead teeth. I once commanded the souls of fallen warriors, guiding them from the fields of their death to the halls of their valiant kings and proud fathers. Now? Now I buy children's fallen teeth. I work every night, every bloody night! Barely have I time to think, let alone curse you in all your names."

"That is maybe for the best."

"Enough! I will not be mocked by a delivery boy, a thieving knave, a miserable old hare in rabbit's guise."

The satchel of eggs and toys falls open to the floor. He throws down his jacket. Pretence cast aside, he leaps. She steps forward, swinging her staff, catching his stomach, tumbling him across the landing. He springs up, teeth bared, laughing, dancing from foot to foot.

"Yes, Freya, birds and cats are no sport. This is what makes us alive."

He bounds across the floor, spinning a high kick at her head, connecting. A crack. She falls back, staff flying.

Shaking her hair, she rises, fragments of tiara fall to the floor. Her hair unfurls — golden, flowing, elemental. She straightens to a fuller height, shoulders back, arms to her side, smile wicked and sharp. Light and shadow shift across revealed wings, feathered and full. Her eyes on him, she reaches down for her staff.

"Bunny, you are history."

They circle and fight, their moves becoming bolder, their clothes more torn, their cries and calls ever more base. Their eyes wilder with every taunt and blow, the trappings of their masquerade shed and spill across the floor.

They are not so real that their fight wakes those asleep in the house. But they are not so unreal that time does not weary them to deliver a fall.

He goes down, she is on him.

"Enough?" She pins his arms.

He smiles up at her, panting. "Do you expect me to yield, Freya?"

"I am victory. I am life and love. I give and take these as I please." Laughing, elated, released, she throws back her hair. "You may no longer be in my service, Hara, but just now you are mine. What do I expect of you? I expect you to do my bidding, to yield to my yearning. When we fight there is passion. I will have my satisfaction. That is my right!"

"And who am I to deny a goddess of love?"

"Denied...." She sighs. "It has been a long time."

Fighting and rutting. Primal and necessary. Barely distinguishable.

'Tis the small hours of Easter, when all through the house much is being stirred as these two are aroused.

The landing is a shimmering field of ripped garments, shattered toys, scattered teeth and small change. Two myths lie side by side.

"Tell me, Freya, what of the others? I know of only a few who made it."

"Alas, a few is all that made it. When the beliefs changed most were stranded. Without belief the old realms began to fade, taking with them all those who remained behind. The paths out became narrow or lost or led to other fading realms rather than new ones or the realm of Man. Some who made it took new roles. By right or by graft or by theft." She looks at him and then away. "Others lingered for a while, but faded as they passed from the minds of folk into the halls of memory, forgotten into folklore or less."

He hesitates. "Your brother?"

"Frey... Frey did not make it. He crossed to this world, but found no harbour of belief or place to make his own. Worlds' end and Frey's doom had been foretold, but not like this. There was no great war of reckoning, only slipping from being... without conflict, without valour, without prophecy. His loss was to have been to the sword, not to evanescence."

"I am sorry. There is barely enough belief to sustain those of us who, in one way or another, survived. We are fewer, less than we used to be. Time trickles ever down the hourglass neck. Few grains separate us from the sands that rest your brother and the others."

"Hara? Silence. Your mood has grown dark; I am caught in its shadow. We have enough light and belief for now. It is only slight, and perhaps only brief, but the hourglass tilts in our favour."

Their eyes meet. He nods and looks down. They stand and gather together the tatters of their things.

"Be seeing you, Tooth Fairy."

"Farewell, Easter Bunny."

'Tis the morning of Easter and the work of the night is far from done.

Many children will awake to disappointment, perhaps believing a little less when teeth are found and eggs are not.

But the restored belief in the self and the renewed belief in the other is currency enough to trade for more than a sunrise, enough to stay their fall through the coming seasons and their sunsets. For now, at least, these myths endure.

"Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs" was first published with The Liminal. More background here.

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