Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a small townhouse on the edge of a village in Ontario that few people would be able to find on a map. He lived there with his mother and his dog but not with his father, who had left some time before. The house was as you might imagine; the strange blend of immaculate and messy that is the domain of the perpetually overworked. Kitchen counters and toilet bowls gleamed with an iridescent shine even as shoes were piled haphazardly in the darkest furthest corners of the closet.
The boy was named Kieran, an unusual name in that part of the country, but not so unusual that it singled him out among his peers. As a result, he was not unhappy, but was generally considered a bit odd. Perhaps it was his oddness that led him to make the decisions he would come to make.
It began when their beloved spaniel mutt Nell got very sick very quickly. It pained Kieran to look at her. She was the kind of dog who wagged her tail at the slightest provocation; who smiled the same guileless dog’s grin that shines in peoples’ minds long after their friend is dead and buried and gone. She laid in the corner of their living room where it was dark and cool and her chest rose and fell like the bellows of a blasted forge. Seeing this, Kieran looked to his mother, who shook her head sadly for she had no answers.
“It’s a natural thing,” she explained. “Nell is old. This happens to animals. We have to love them as much as we can because their lives are far shorter than ours. We have to give them everything we can. It’s what they deserve.” Her voice was sad and restrained. The dog had been her own, once. Many years prior, when she had first moved to that small town that cannot be found on any map, she had selected the dog from the local animal shelter. That unnamed dog who would be named Nell had smiled incessantly at her from behind the gaol walls as the howls and barks and cries of other dogs hovered about her ears with the smell of the shit and piss and the dog had not seemed to care the slightest about any of that, not so long as she was looking in Ellie’s eyes.
Ellie was Kieran’s mother, though he did not call her that.
Within twenty minutes, Ellie had completed the necessary paperwork. Fifty dollars and a lot of wheedling had convinced the employee at the animal shelter to let the poor dog go without reference calls. Ellie considered later that perhaps she should have been worried about getting a dog from a shelter who seemed so willing to shirk the rules, but she consoled herself with the knowledge that her haste had been driven largely by the abhorrent conditions and so anyone similarly looking to bypass the waiting period would likely have the same altruistic sensibilities in their heart.
Now her heart was seeking to betray her. She had filled it so full of love for this poor small beast that she now would be forced to watch as the dog whiled away its last hours in the corner of a living room that was furnished with old argyle-patterned couches that Ellie’s father – Kieran’s grandfather – had called chesterfields. Ellie and Kieran sat on a chesterfield and he cried into her breast, the act of which awoke some atavistic maternal fire inside her, and so she leapt to her feet and said taxes be damned bills be damned mortgage be damned we’re going to save this dog’s life. And so she scooped up the little dog in her arms. The poor thing whimpering a low whine like a tyre slowly deflating. They walked out to their sports utility vehicle, the one that got surprisingly good mileage even if it looked ugly as sin, and put the dog in the back with the seats folded down. Kieran laid out a small grey blanket with a flannel lining for her and Nell opened her bleary red-rimmed rheumy eyes and saw him and thanked him in that quiet way that dogs – especially sick dogs – do.
“Okay,” said Ellie. “I need to get to the vet quick. But you still have homework. There’s no sense in us both being gone and you not getting your homework done, so please stay and do some work. I promise it’ll be better than sitting around.” She reached into her wallet and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and a ten-dollar bill, which together made thirty dollars. “Here’s some money for pizza. Order whatever you like. Don’t worry about saving me some.” She leaned forward and kissed Kieran on the top of the head. “Be good, and let me know if you need me. I’m going to get Nell saved.”
Kieran was a brave boy, and he certainly didn’t mind being home alone, but the thought of being apart from his beloved dog in what could be her final moments was almost too much to bear. Tears began to fill his eyes like milky ponds swelling with springtime thawwater and Ellie saw this and pulled him close before he could say anything more. “Hey,” she said. “None of that, now. I’m not going to let anything happen to Nell.” She put a finger under her son’s chin, tilting his head back until he looked back at her. His eyes were blue and bright, abyssal sapphires. Ellie sometimes wondered how she could have created something so beautiful. How could anyone? She turned her brown eyes to his blue and said “It’s going to be okay. But if nothing can truly be done, I promise I will let you know and that you can take a cab or an Uber and come to the clinic to say as many good-byes as you want.” Kieran nodded back and she was satisfied. She climbed behind the wheel of the sports utility vehicle and closed the door. The roar of the engine. She waved mutely from behind the windscreen and reversed out of the driveway and into the street which was shining hotly with the afternoon sun and then she drove down the street to where their road met another road and then she was gone.
Kieran stood dully in the driveway, unsure of what to do next. He considered actually doing his homework for about half a second before he decided that that would be a very poor use of his time. He did fully intend on ordering the pizza but he wasn’t close to hungry yet, especially with the raw sewage of emotion roiling around inside his belly. He walked into the house in a daze. It seemed smaller when he entered, as if a giant had approached the house and placed a giant pinstriped plastic straw down the chimney and sucked up as much air as it could. Kieran thought then of the explorers who had found King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, and what they must have felt when they travelled down the tunnel into a place not touched by man in thousands of years, not since the last robber had left and the blistering sand had smothered the dead. He looked at the dark corner where Nell had lain and the image of a golden funeral mask shaped and worked to match her pointed grey muzzle overwhelmed him, slapping him with a claustrophobia so intense that he rushed to the bathroom on the first floor, the one where his mother kept two sets of towels; the good kind that was for guests and lived under the sink as well as the bad kind which were raggedy and stained and were out all of the time when no guests were around, and he threw up, retching hideously until the white virginal porcelain was stained a technicoloured ochre. Then he got up, wiping his mouth with one of the bad towels. He knew then that he couldn’t stay in the house. Not while his mother was away and Nell was sick and they weren’t there. He returned to the kitchen where the keys his mother had had made for him at the hardware store hung from a hook on a Spider-Man lanyard. He grabbed them and pulled them over his head as if he had won a very boring medal and then he left through the back door of the townhouse, locking it behind him.
Their townhouse, while not terribly big, was still considered nicer than most because it abutted a large and dense forest right on the edge of town. Kieran walked out to the backyard where the grass had grown long and ragged like lousy hair but it still glimmered with a kind of brilliance in the late day sun when the air hung heavy like a withheld breath and the mites and mosquitos and no-see-ems played as semi-sentient motes of dust. The forest beyond waiting in sullen silence. Kieran locked the door behind him and then slipped ghostlike into the trees.
The paths beyond were seldom trod. There was a proper trail two kilometers to the west where the local conservation authority used trimmers and blowers and other tools to shout back the forest, paving the way so that people could walk without fear of poison ivy against their ankles or of the spiders’ webs stretched like gossamer clotheslines between trees. Kieran didn’t like walking those trails because walking was exactly what it was. He came to the forest to seek adventure, not to walk through a museum. He had done so since he and his mother had moved to this place shortly after the divorce. It had begun with brief sojourns in the early morning. He had always taken care to pack a water bottle and a walking stick, and he wore long pants and long socks to ensure his ankles were covered to protect him against some of the threats listed above. It was not long after that that he had read The Lord of the Rings and discovered the Rangers, the super-human breed of Men who walked through the wilds of Middle-Earth, blazing new trails and defending those they loved from harm. He had begun to range too. He developed a keen sense of direction which guided him deeper and deeper into the forest. Sometimes he took Nell, but not often, since she was old and would not be inclined to travel far. He made sure to do his rangings only when his mother was at work for she would certainly worry if he disappeared for hours while she was at home. Besides, she couldn’t understand. The woods had brought him more peace than he had thought the world capable of providing.
It was this desire for peace that drove him into the woods after his mother had left. He walked slowly, without any real destination in mind. He wove between trees that stood heavy and solemn with a fangornian presence, running his hands along the bark, feeling the grooves etched into each tree; the knots, the whorls. Touching them grounded him in their world and pulled him away from the one behind him, the one where all the sorrow and misery seemed to reside. The forest murmured with a threatening quiet. As if his footfalls were an obscenity. He travelled further, each step another chance to forget. His thoughts turned to Nell and then his mother and then back to the dog. He cared deeply about them in the way that children do, which is to say unconditionally and without any fear of a parting.
Kieran pushed the thoughts aside. He had spied a path that veered away into the brush. He frowned. He hadn’t walked that far yet. How could he have come across something he’d never seen? Bristled greenery covered the trail, all burrs and thorns, but he thought he saw the faints imprints of some animal. A deer, perhaps. Maybe a coyote had chased it this way. Could there be something beyond? He rounded a tree to the other side of the shrubbery then saw where the trail continued. It was an emaciated, pathetic thing, but it was there. He stopped and listened. The wind passing through the trees above sounded like waves. A memory rose in his mind of his mother and father and him at the beach along with Nell. She gambolled in the surf, leaping with all of the joy that youth could bring. Seagulls cried and wheeled overhead. The sand hot beneath his feet, in his toes, in his bathing suit. It didn’t matter. The day was perfect. It was also gone. Kieran shook his head, trying to rid himself of the thoughts which redounded against one another. With little else available to him, he followed the trail.
It flowed like a muddy trickle deeper into the woods to the places where the trees grew heavier still and hid their faces from the sun as if in mourning. No sound of insect or bird or rodent here either. Shale and limestone began to jut out of the earth. Kieran scrambled over them to follow the trail, which seemed now to be rushing away from him with a terrified urgency. He broke into a sprint. His shoes weren’t really made for running in the woods, and he was old enough and smart enough to know the risks of catching his foot on a root, but knowing this didn’t make it matter because nothing mattered more than finding the end of the trail. This is why Kieran was so surprised when it ended suddenly. He wasn’t sure what he expected to find; he was too old to believe in leprechauns with their pots of gold, and he knew nobody lived in these woods.
The fork in the tree at the trail’s ending was unlike any he had ever seen. It parted near the base, spreading wide in the middle before closing again at the top. After that, the tree grew as normal. A light shone through the hole. Kieran couldn’t see from where; the grove was cast in the same shadows as before. The sun would be westering soon anyway, and west was behind him, the way home. He bent down to look through the tree. He furrowed his brow, confused. Still on his hands and knees, he leaned around the forked tree until he could see beyond. Then he looked back. It was the same as it had been, but the view through the tree appeared clouded and cataracky.
The golden light still shone through.
With a trembling hand, Kieran reached into the tree, passing his fingers through the light. There was a uterine warmth on the other side. It seemed to draw him deeper. He climbed further into the tree, bringing his body beyond the light. He exited out the other side of the tree, then climbed to his feet, wiping dirt from his knees and elbows. He scanned the forest, trying to get his bearings. The forest had not changed, but was suffused with the same luminescence that he had seen through the tree. If there was a source to it, it could not be seen. It seemed to exist all around him. He stepped further into the forest, a strange mix of curiosity and apprehension driving him onward. He did not travel far before he found the stump.
It was a short, squat thing, totally desiccated and yet somehow flush with life; some kind of mossy grass grew across its scalp and short white flowers ringed with spearshaped petals poked up from their berths in that verdant lawn. Below this garden, in the face of the stump itself, were carved small doors alongside which tiny windows peered out. The designs on these doors were intricate and lined, perhaps to match the stump itself in some capacity. The windows were simple things, with frames that reminded Keiran vaguely of hermit crabs in their homes. A long root reached down into the earth with grasping fingers and on it was carved a path leading to one of the doors. Unsure of what to make of this discovery, Kieran did the only thing any polite person would consider: he knocked on the door.
The door stood implacable for a long moment. Kieran watched it for so long that his eyes began to water. Then, just as the surreality of the situation began to impress itself upon him, the door flung open, and a grey-white light like the clouded moon flitted out hummingbirdlike from the chamber beyond, spinning and leaping in great arcs around the clearing until it at last came to rest in the air in front of Kieran’s face. His eyes quickly adjusted and fixed themselves upon the figure which floated before him.
“Hello,” said Keiran.
“Hi,” said the creature, “I’m bztstz.” This was not her true name, of course; the fae language is impossible to render with any human alphabet. Hearing it, Kieran chose to nod along and avoid addressing her by name whenever possible.
“Um,” said Kieran, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve never seen anyone or anything quite like you. What are you?” He asked this question with the blunt naïvité that all children possess.
“I’m a faerie,” said the faerie, rising to Kieran’s face. “Ain’t you ever seen a faerie before?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, take a good look, because you’re seeing one now!”
So Kieran did take a good look. It still wasn’t what he expected. When he thought of faeries, he thought of Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. This creature before him didn’t look anything like her. For one, her dress was vaguely orpheline, scratched and tattered and it looked like it had been made with leaves or a bit of burlap, maybe even a few loose twigs for a spine. Her hair was a tangled mousebrown mess which sprawled across her head, not the neat blonde bun that Tinkerbell wore. More than that, her whole aspect lacked the warmth that Tink projected and was instead replaced with an animalistic eagerness, ferretlike and nosy. Worst of all were the teeth: whenever the faerie spoke, her mouth revealed yellowed and holed shark’s teeth which encircled the whole of her maw, even the inside of her cheeks.
This was all a lot for Kieran to take in. So instead of reacting to anything concerning her appearance, he asked the most obvious question he could think of: “are you able to grant wishes?”
“Sure!” she said. She did a short circle in the air and was clearly excited to demonstrate. “But not for free! Oh no no no not for free!”
“Well, what would you like in return? I have thirty dollars.” Kieran proffered the money, splaying the two notes apart like he’d seen people do in movies. He was more than willing to pay thirty dollars, an astronomical sum to him, in order to make his wish.
“People money? Sfstszs!” she spat, a terrible curse in the faerie tongue. “No, I don’t need no people money. I just need food! Food food food. D’ya have any?”
“Not on me, no. I think I saw some mushrooms on my way in, but you probably know about those already. Oh, I know! I have some blackberries back home in the fridge. If you don’t mind, I can go back and get them.”
“Mushrooms? Berries? Not a chance! No, I need meat! Bloody and fresh! D’ya have any?”
“I mean, I was about to order a pizza with pepperoni on it–”
“Not pig not hog no no no I want something new! Something special!”
It was at this point that Kieran understood the way she was looking at him. She was hovering dangerously close to his face. Some drool had escaped her mouth and fallen down the front of her shift. Kieran made a fist without realizing it. He had never been in a fight in his life, but he was confident he could win a fistfight against a person no larger than a bird.
“No need for violence!” cried the faerie. “No need at all. I’m small, don’t need much to go on. Small amount of meat lasts long time!” She thought for a second. “Tell you what! Let’s trade! Tiny bit of meat, something you don’t need. Then I’ll do magick!”
Kieran considered this for a moment. There were surely parts of himself he would sacrifice to make a wish. Bits of flesh nobody really needed. His first thought was his appendix, but the access was an issue. Then he realized that there were so many superfluous parts to the human body. The tip of the nose, the earlobe, the male nipples . . . even some of the fingers were bordering on extravagance. Truthfully, when have he ever used his pinky fingers other than for making promises?
“Alright,” he finally said. “I’ll trade you for a wish.”
“Deal! Deal deal deal!” The faerie brimmed with excitement, crossing back and forth in the air in front of him. “What do you wish for? Gotta tell me if you want it! Can’t do no magick if you don’t tell!”
Kieran looked at her, thought about it for one second more, then nodded. “I want my dog to live forever.”
“And what do you give?” The faerie’s teeth seemed to gleam wickedly in the aura she emitted.
“My pinky finger. You can have it.”
“Good! Deal! Done! Dog will live forever.” The faerie swooped to his fingertips. “I’m ready, are you?”
Kieran didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” he said. “Go ahead.”
The faerie launched herself at his pinky finger, wrapping her mouth around it like a leech. Kieran closed his eyes. There was an intense flash of pain, then an icy numbing sensation. He looked down at his hand. Blood oozed from the stump of his finger just above the first knuckle. It looked to be clotting already. His eyes met the faerie’s. She was holding his finger, licking at the wound on the aft end. “No pain, right? Thought you’d like that. Means you might decide to help me again.”
Kieran nodded. He supposed that made sense. “I should go now,” he said. “I need to see my dog again.”
“Of course,” said the faerie. “Go back through the tree. Then on to home. Come back if you need anything else!”
So Kieran left that place, returning back through the hole in the tree. When he passed beyond it, the world seemed darker, sharper somehow. The sun had now drifted beyond the horizon. He walked toward its bed as the shadows climbed the trees around him. Nighthings began to stir in the canopy above him and the soil beneath his feet but he paid them no mind. He knew these paths.
The light on the back porch was on when he approached the townhouse. It glowed impudently and Kieran was glad to see it as he approached the door, pulling the key out of his pocket. The wound on his hand had fully dried and now ached faintly. He realized then that he would need to think of some explanation for his mother, who would certainly not be happy to see him missing a finger. He turned the key and opened the door.
Any further thinking was then interrupted by a bounding sound of footsteps, two short joyful cries and a dog’s paws against his stomach. Nell had leapt up at him as soon as he opened the door and he laughed and scratched her muzzle and let himself be carried to the floor by her weight. She licked his face and his cheeks and whimpered with excitement to see him, wagging her tail ferociously. Kieran held her and told her that he loved her just as much as she loved him.
“Kieran? Is that you?”
Kieran looked up, stuffing his hand in his pocket. His mother stood in the hall. The dim light of the single table lamp lit her from below, making her look older than she was.
“I was worried sick. I come home and you’re not here . . . we’ll have to talk about that later, but I’m guessing you can see that now’s a time for celebrating.” She crouched down by him and Nell and the way the light played against her face changed, revealing her for who she was. “It was the most incredible thing. She was lying there, with the vet’s stethoscope against her chest. She was doing that horrible panting thing from earlier where it sounded like she was struggling to breathe, but then she just perked up as if it had never happened. She literally leapt off the table while the vet and I watched. The vet said she’d never seen anything like it. She still took some blood and ran some other tests, but she didn’t know what to say . . . by all signs, our sweet girl is totally healthy.” Ellie wiped her eyes. It hadn’t felt real until she had told Kieran. She bent to Nell’s head and kissed her.
“That’s incredible,” said Kieran. He looked at Nell. “I’m so glad you’re okay, girl.”
“Did you even get to ordering that pizza?” asked Ellie. “I’m starving.”
“I uh . . . I got distracted,” said Kieran. “Do you want to order now?”
“Sounds like a plan, sweetie.” Ellie stood up. She looked from Kieran to Nell and smiled. Everything was going to be okay.
Kieran watched her leave the room, then pulled his hand out of his pocket. Nell looked at it with dogeyed curiosity. She sniffed the open wound, but did not lick it. Instead, she laid down and placed her head on Kieran’s lap, sighing a slow canine sigh. Kieran stroked her head with his other hand, running his fingers through her coat. He traced the furrowed lines they drew and began to think of what else he might want to wish for.