Is Teynbourgh always this dusty? Yes.
Child, it always has been, since before my time and even my mama’s time. It was dust when she grew up, dust when she met my daddy, dust when she had me, dust my whole life and now yours.
The grove? Ah. But there’s a story for you. My gran told it to me when I was little, so I guess it’s fitting I pass it onto you now. Settle into your gran’s lap, and I’ll tell you how Teynbourgh became a dusty little town.
It wasn’t always so. We ain’t even a hundred miles from the delta, and the river runs to the east. Once upon a time, my gran said, the town was as green as the grove is now. The faeries in the grove minded their own and the folk in the fields minded theirs, and everything just plodded along.
What? Yes, faeries, child, winged folk. Well of course they’re real, real as the nose on your face, why do you think we don’t let you play there?
Anyway. No one is sure how it began, or how long ago, or who was the first – all that’s known is at some point the faerie women decided their littl’uns needed learning just like the field kids, so they began sending them to the school. They would carefully bind down their wings and clothe them in heavy woolen things that hid any bumps and lumps. The only thing they couldn’t disguise was their eyes – they glowed like gemstones backlit by the sun. But you know kids. They talk for a day or two, and then they become so wrapped up in their own little lives they forget all about the funny ones.
One such girl was a little plain thing named Lucina, but the kids knew her as Lucy. Always wore a handmade sort of dirty white wool jumper, real quiet and mousy, kept to herself. She answered questions when called on, but didn’t go out of her way to make friends, kept to her books instead.
How do I know she was plain? Well my gran went to school with her, saw her with her own two eyes. Only thing about her was her blue eyes, she said, ice blue like the sky at high noon. Gran said otherwise you couldn’t pick her out of a lineup, mouse brown hair, plain clothes, nothing to see.
Now, like I said, kids might fixate on a thing or two, but their minds are always a-racing and soon enough they focus on something else, but you get those bossy nosy types. The type that decide you’re beneath them in some way, and they think it right to remind you every chance they get. Like that one girl you had trouble with last year. Well, our Lucy had such a bother, and her name was Daisy. Real country bumpkin name, and she had the plump face, red hair, and second hand dress and ribbons to prove it, but since that dress came from the city she thought herself queen of the schoolyard. Gran never liked her. Never crossed her either though – she could make your life unbearable if you did. Now, Lucy never did a thing to cross her, mind you. Only thing she did was show up plain and quiet, and try to make herself as invisible as possible, but the boys took turns cooing over those bright blue eyes. That was all it took.
Daisy was used to having all the attention from the boys, for her frilly dresses that had to be mended by her mama and the frayed pink ribbons in her hair. Sad state of affairs, but for farm kids, that was fancier than anything they’d ever seen, ‘til Lucy came along. She couldn’t make her dirt brown eyes sky blue, so instead Daisy turned her wrath on the girl, shunning her at playtime, making fun of her in class, and making up stories about her. The boys eventually ended up on Daisy’s side, but Gran said it was only ‘cause she had a couple second hand toys to go with her second hand clothes, and she only let the kids she happened to like that day play with them.
No, Gran said she never saw the girl cry, that’s the thing. Most kids, they get that kind of abuse, they react in some way, right? They cry or they fight back or they blab to the teacher. This girl, she’d just stare at Daisy curious-like, like she was trying to figure out what sort of social interaction was this, and how should she play it? Then everyone would laugh and Lucy would shrug and go back to her book.
Now Gran thought this mighty curious, and she had an inkling, so one day she made to follow this girl home. Her pops taught her how to hunt rabbits and squirrels, so she knew how to move quiet without being seen. Sure as the rain on a spring day, the girl entered the green grove up north. Gran swore up and down she saw her take off her sweater, and saw the great big monarch wings that grew out of her back, though Pops told her all the time she was a batty old fool for it. The grove was as dense then as it is now, can’t see a damn thing, but Gran knew what she saw. She didn’t tell a soul back then, not until well after me and my brothers were underfoot. Mind, she had no love for the Daisy girl at all, but you could tell she regretted it some. That maybe if she had said a peep, things would’ve turned out different for the families involved.
After that Gran tried to be nice to Lucy on the sly, without attracting Daisy’s attention. Picking up her knocked down books after the bullies’ backs were turned, saying hi, things like that. Nothing real big and grand, but enough to keep her out of the crosshairs. She’d heard enough about the big war up north to be cautious, but in a kid’s small world the effects of the schoolyard queen’s wrath far outweighed big world matters.
The war? Right, the war.
It started – well. No one is real sure how or when it started. Once upon a time, faeries coexisted with humans and all was well and good and fine until all of the sudden it wasn’t. Armies formed up, magic got consumed, bodies laid to waste, it all spiraled pretty far out of control. Each side hated the other but if you asked them why they couldn’t ever tell ya. “Well, pops and gran hated them, and their pops and gran before them, so that’s just the way it is”, nonsense like that. Didn’t really make it this far south, you can thank them gods for that. I mean we heard about it, reports in the paper, but it was all far away. Crops get planted, they have to be harvested, goats gotta be milked, and no one nowhere here had time to worry about what them fancy mountain folk were up to.
The Starlings? That’s another story for another time, child, we’re talking about Lucy and Daisy here.
So Gran never breathed a word about what she saw, but the war being in the papers meant stories got into the kid’s heads, and turned into something wild. Always seems to happen in the young minds. You get old like me you either don’t have time or you forget how. So assumptions and rumors go around all over about the faerie folk, who they are, what they look like, what they do, and one day Daisy tells a whopper. While digging in the dirt at playtime with her two best boys, she claims that faeries turn us regular folk into pudding and slurps them up.
No of course they don’t, that’s why I called it a whopper.
Now, the boys didn’t believe her either, which made her right mad, and she went stomping off towards the trees. In between the sand pit and the trees were a line of rose bushes that marked the border, and accordin’ to Gran this is where Lucy liked to be during playtime, reading her books like usual. Daisy didn’t pay her any no mind, but she had gotten pretty loud and indignant with them boys, and Lucy had overheard.
Gran could see the difference in the girl’s face straight away. A narrowed side eye had replaced the wide-eyed curiosity she usually wore. She had heard what Daisy said, and she didn’t like it. Well why should she? She was just there to learn numbers and how it was a tiny seed became a giant stalk of wheat, not hear lies about her people. Gran saw the determination, the calculation, but still she said nothing, for fear of being laughed at – or worse, Daisy’s new target.
Lucy walked home quicker that afternoon it seemed, and all that evening Gran held her breath, waiting for the war to come south, but it never did. Next morning Lucy quietly walked in with her head down and Daisy pranced in head held high, boys following her like pups, and all was normal. Gran let out the breath she’d been holding all damn night, and they spent the morning learning division and what you can do to deter bunnies from your crops. Lunch came and went without incident, and then the kids were let loose in the yard for playtime.
Now everything had been normal, so Gran had forgotten all about the impending doom and barely thought to keep an eye on things. She was having a right old time swinging on the old wheelbarrow tire swing, jumping off halfway up in the air like a damned fool. Good thing kids bounce. Well she lands and looks up to discover Daisy and Lucy playing happily in the dirt like they was old friends from way back, the boys off in another corner of the yard sulking. Dread filled Gran’s stomach, but she still didn’t say a thing about it to no one.
Why not? Well. Maybe you’re too little yet to truly understand this – then again you’re right in the thick of it all so maybe you do. When you’re a kid the world is big and new and there’s so much coming in from all sides you can’t help but focus on yourself. There was a big math test that afternoon, and when she got home, my great-gran expected her to tend to the goats all by herself, seeing as the mare was about to give birth and all. Never mind the fact she didn’t think she’d be real successful convincing any adult folks that something bad may or may not happen. Things always seemed to work out in a kid’s world, and so she hoped it’d all play out okay.
Still, she kept her eye on these sudden new best friends, who kept whispering conspiratorially the rest of the day. Math test done, then a bit of art to wash away all the hard stuff, and soon the kids were turned out of the school and shooed home. Gran ran all the way home, nerves giving her more energy than usual, but when she got there the mare was right in the middle of birthing and she forgot all about the doom.
Would you now? Ha! Well it’s a right messy state of affairs, but next time ol’ John’s mare pushes out a new one, I’ll take you along to see.
Anyway the girls at school may as well not have existed the rest of the evening, until Gran was out milking the goats and checking how dry the wheat was yet and caught sight of Daisy and Lucy walking towards the grove. Gran stopped dead in her tracks, a cold fear washing down her throat and through every vein. Daisy was done up even fancier than usual, with an extra set of ribbons in her hair, and even Lucy seemed to have a new gleam about her. She watched the girls disappear into the grove, and until the day she died she swore up and down she saw lights moving within the grove, like candles floating in the air.
Now, Gran weren’t a monster. She considered all evening the possibility of telling her folks. In her heart she knew something dreadful was gonna happen, but when the adults violently dismiss the presence of the winged folk in their little town and say you imagined it all, what are you supposed to do? So she kept quiet. Next morning when she woke up, she noticed the wind blowing down from the grove. It gets windy, here, sure, but this was a right gale wind, like the type before twisters. Not only that, but there was a thick dust on the wind that almost choked a person. Didn’t seem right, at all. She crept downstairs and ate her breakfast in silence so that my great-gran could tell something was bothering the girl.
“What’s in yer head this mornin’ child?” she asked.
“Ma what happens if you eat a winged folk’s glamour?” Gran blurted out before she could stop herself.
Great-Gran chuckled, relieved it was just tall tale silliness and not something more grand. “Well now the stories that went round about when I was yer age, they said ya turn to dust and blow right away on the wind.” Gran said she never told her ma why she all of the sudden went white as snow and bolted out of the house without finishing her oats, and her ma never asked, figuring it weren’t none of her business anyhow being a grown-up and all.
Gran ran all the way to school, the wind blowing dust at her back the whole way. Teacher let her in as she pounded on the door, but on account of her being pretty early, she was the only one there. “Right crazy wind this morning isn’t it?” the missus said brightly. “Just popped up out of nowhere and only dust for it to blow around. Maybe it’ll rain later and we can search for worms for our science period!” Gran just stared at her, out of breath, unable to voice what she knew, her sense of tragedy hemmed in by the teacher’s cheeriness. Made her think maybe she was really the right crazy one, seeing things that weren’t there.
She settled into her seat and tried to pretend everything was normal, but she kept looking back at the door nervously. Kids started filing in, but there was no sign of Daisy, or Lucy. Soon all the kids but them two were there, and though the teacher frowned at the two empty chairs, she shrugged and continued on starting class, until there was a knock at the school door.
Teacher shut the door most of the way due to the wind, but Gran could still hear muffled adult voices, and recognized them as Daisy’s parents. Her heart sank down into her feet as she heard the urgency and fear in the mama’s voice. The teacher spoke in soothing tones, then came back into the schoolroom, walking slow with a frown on her face.
“Children, I have troubling news,” she said, drawing herself up straight and clasping her hands, almost like she was holding herself together. “Daisy has been missing since last evening. Have any of you seen her since school let out?” Gran glanced at Lucy’s empty seat, visions of the two girls walking towards the grove in her head, then at the teacher’s desk where the morning paper sat neatly folded. There had been a right bloodbath in the western prairie the night before, between the forest and the mountains. These skirmishes went back and forth all the time, but this one hadn’t been in the human’s favor. Miserably, Gran scrunched down in her seat and said nothing.
“Saw her go home after school,” one of Daisy’s boys offered up. “But our goats got the pink eye so I was takin’ care of ‘em all night, didn’t see or hear nothing else.” Other kids offered up the same, such as it is with farm kids and farm chores.
“Lucy ain’t here neither,” one of the other boys said, side-eyeing the other empty chair.
“‘Isn’t here either’,” the teacher corrected, “and yes that is something I’ll look into also.” She pursed her lips. “Children, if you see or hear anything, please come to me straight away. Let’s get back to our lessons.”
Well, no, she didn’t say nothing then, but let me get on with my story, child.
Like I said, Gran kept her mouth shut. The world outside was too big, and a winged folk in her presence with the stories in the paper being what they were, she was too scared to speak up. Gran was pretty sure she was the only one who had an idea about Lucy, and she weren’t about to stir that particular pot.
Lucy never did come back. Town threw themselves into searching for the two of ‘em – some thought maybe some traveler grabbed ‘em both – and every time a group wandered close to the grove, they lost one of ‘em and the town got dustier and dustier. Soon people were told to give the grove a wide berth – no one could prove a thing, but the disappearances and the dust made everyone nervous. Gran was right miserable every time the dust came up, but fearing for her own life and her family, she still kept her mouth shut.
Life went on in little Teynbourgh, for a time. They never did find Daisy, and no one but Gran knew a thing, and soon the story dried up like the leaves in fall and blew away. Took Gran growing up and having her own littles to realize how much hurt the girl’s parents must feel. They went to their graves never understanding what happened.
Soon the winter chill dropped off and the sun came out longer and hotter, and the end of the school year whipped up in a dust bowl. Teacher let the kids loose to their families and their farms for the growing months, and even though it was still a buzz of excitement and chants of ‘no more lessons’, there was an undercurrent of sadness. Even bullies had a right to be, and disappearing kids was a fearful thing besides.
Actually, child, she did see Lucy that summer.
It was from afar, though. She’d been hunting, and the weeds of the plains and the crops were so high up she didn’t notice how close to the cursed grove she’d gotten. She popped up out of the wheat and the sudden wall of green startled her back down to her butt. She looked up and saw Lucy perched on a top branch, her wings fanning her face. Her ice blue eyes stared down on Gran, but her face was still plain, not a hint of malice. Gran gulped and threw herself back into the wheat towards home.
Years passed. The war up north stopped, after a fashion. Gran grew up, passed her classes, met Pops. Had my mama and her sister and brother. They got their own little farm, raised up their babies with the animals and the crops. Like I said before once Gran had her own littl’uns underfoot she thought more and more about Daisy being lost like that, and ached for her parents. They were gone by this time, and I think she right regretted not confessing to them ‘fore they went in the ground.
Every now and then she’d go huntin’ by herself, just to be with her own thoughts a bit. This time – I think my mama was about five, almost time for her to go that little school room her own self – Gran purposefully found herself by the grove. She stared at it from between the wheat, a frown on her face. She said she’ll never quite know what came over her then, what it was made her stand up full and walk to the entrance. She stood there, glancing up into the trees, her arms crossed, tappin’ her foot like she did when the babies were testing her patience good. There was the slightest rustle – Gran’s hearing was sharp till she died, thanks to her huntin’ skills – and out came Lucina.
Her face was smooth as a babe’s still, but the lines were sharper, the breasts and hips were fuller, and she was a might bit taller. Faerie wings are like dog paws – they come out full size and they gotta just grow into ‘em, so they didn’t seem as huge as Gran remembered. Those blue eyes were still the same, though.
“Hello Julie,” Lucy said softly.
Yes that was my Gran’s name, too. Mama named me after her.
“I know what happened,” Gran said, her voice tight. “I’ve always known and I’ve never said a word.” Lucy smiled, a strange careful smile like she was hiding something in her mouth.
“Seems doubtful you came here just for me to thank you,” she said. Her voice had changed with the years. Deep, and gravelly, like. Like her throat was full of pebbles.
“I got my own babes now,” Gran said. “That Daisy was a right pain in the arse but her parents didn’t deserve to go in that cold ground never knowin’ what happened with their little girl.” Lucy stared at her like she used to back in the school days, but she weren’t wide-eyed anymore. She peered more like, calculating her next move.
“You never were her target, Julie,” Lucy said, crossing her own arms. “Not like me.” Gran didn’t quite know what to say to that. The faerie was right, but it didn’t make it better.
“You could’ve said something. You should’ve said something,” Gran finally spat out. “The teacher, or -“
“I told my mother,” Lucy hissed. “I did what she asked of me.”
“And made this town dusty as an old cellar corner!” Gran exclaimed. “Brought the war south!”
“Don’t be foolish,” Lucy snapped. “This town knew nothing of that war.” But Gran noticed a flash of something in the faerie’s eyes, a bare moment of guilt, before they went hard again. She sized Gran up, then turned around to stalk back into the grove.
“I could still say something,” Gran called after her. “Won’t help her parents none, but you’d still pay.” Lucy stopped and turned her head back towards the woman. This time she grinned fully, revealing sharp canine-like teeth.
“But you won’t, will you?” Lucy said. Gran gulped, and tears sprang to her eyes, thinking of her babes as Lucy took another couple steps forward.
“Don’t you hurt my family!” Gran said, her voice a little higher and panicked than she woulda liked. Lucy stopped again for a moment, then flapped them wings of hers and landed in front of Gran in one jump.
No, no, baby girl, don’t get scared on me now. What did Lucy say? Ah. Well. I’m an old woman, child, the words ain’t comin’ to me. Long story short they agreed it was done and over and no one else need be hurt or lost. But they learnt something. It’s always better for everyone to just get along, without the bullying and the threats and needless loss and so on. You take that lesson with you, hear? We’re all just bumbling along with whatever it is we’ve got, tryin’ to make the best go of things ‘fore we end up in a dirt hole. Doesn’t pay anyone no glory to be mean to other folk just because you don’t like the looks of them, you understand? Good girl, now I’ve taken up enough of yer afternoon with my story, you go on out and play outside. Mind the wheat, don’t trample it to bits. Good girl.
I know you heard it all, you blue-eyed rat. I done what you asked. It’s over now, hear? That Starling boy made sure of it in the north, I’m making sure of it here. Gran’s pact ends with me, see, Teynbourgh won’t get any more dust from me or mine. Gran might’ve not had the heart to kill you like she promised but I swear on her grave and my mama’s, I do. I do. You leave my family alone now, understand? It’s done.