Sylvian, by Rain Patterson Owens

2020 Scott Imes Award

A bead of cold sweat dripped down my back. My throat constricted and threatened to strangle itself. The world  funneled in a kaleidoscopic blur but my thoughts were clear and thunderous. They warned of danger that wasn’t there and possibilities that’d never happen. All I knew was  the loudest thought of all was that I needed  to leave.

Nothing about this was correct; from the long fake hair sewn onto my own, to the lengthy silken hand embroidered dress that made people look at me differently. I stared at my mud covered heels and scratched in between the wefts of sewn in hair.

Even far enough away from the bustle and the soft azure glow of the wedding party my heart still pounded in my ears. My jaw and eyes still throbbed from the force of clenched teeth. What had my therapist said again about when this happens? I took a deep breath and focused on anything but what I had been feeling. I concentrated on the smooth cool press of my dress gathered between my even colder hands, and the tickle  of damp grass on the  exposed skin of my open toed shoes. I inhaled. The familiar comforting scent of wet dirt and fresh rain upon grass filled my lungs. Muscles in my neck began to slacken and I drew my eye to the sky. Black silhouettes collected in branches. I counted the number of perched crows along the tree line. Forty seven crows stared back at me. Finally When the wind rustled the old red oak  trees around the house’s perimeter I sighed out the tension in my body.grounded.

“Baff up”. That’s what auntie Monifa had said when inviting my mother and the rest of my family to the wedding.She had made a point to look directly at me. I couldn’t remember at the time which auntie she was or why she had been standing in my mother’s kitchen staring me down as if to say. “ Naya girl don’t bring me no wahala” As if making sure I dressed up like a dainty woman could keep me out of trouble. 

My mother had smiled and made me promise that for one evening I had to play pretend. She had laid on the motherly guilt about what had happened at our last family gathering. How she had to endure the looks and shameful gossip from the others about me. I could be whoever I wanted outside the family but inside I’d always be her little girl Naya. Reluctantly I submitted and little did I know what that bargain would entail. After my mother and sisters had gotten through with me I was staring at a completely different person in the mirror. Long cascades of dark wavy hair tickled my ears and the back of my neck. The shimmer of gold eyeshadow pleased me but the way my family’s eyes sparkled at the sight of “their daughter” didn’t. The only thing about the wedding I took any interest in was picking out my shoes. They were beautiful cold steel heeled pumps.This delighted my relatives. They would be put out if they knew the real reason I picked them. They’d call me superstitious but I knew better.

The way I saw it I had two options. The first was to throw myself back into the thick of the wedding party. Back to a crowd of judgmental faces and my own intrusive thoughts. I could go back and face my fears like a good therapy patient. Or…

The call of my name was a distant whisper as I panted sprinting into the tree line. The crows scattered giving me something to follow. The cold misty air was a warm welcome on my face. My metal heels sunk into soft playdough like earth. Running through the forest was always when I felt the most myself. There I was free from judging eyes or social pressures. It was there that I met my most treasured person. A person I always turned to when the world seemed too much. Sylvian. They gave me my first taste of magic with a hagstone necklace I never took from my neck. To the outsider it just looked like a smooth rock with a hole through its center. I knew better though. If you looked through the hole it gave you the ability to see through the veil of faerie. It may also have more properties but I have only ever parsed out a few. I gazed back up at the crows and remembered what Sylvian told me to say if I ever needed to find  them.

Sometimes magic  requires a little bit of faith and a verse from the heart. But if I were honest with it I’d also say it included a whole lot of dumb luck. Magic is like trying to hold water in outspread fingers. It is a pretty fickle art and does what it wants. I inhaled and rubbed my necklace before starting a little spell of my own

“Crows,crows as far as I see
Lead me to an offering tree”

I paused watching the murder ever soaring. It took a moment before the crows regarded me mildly and shifted direction en mass. This was either success from my incantation or coincidence. Either way I followed changing direction.As I turned my foot caught. I mourned the pristine hand stitching of the dress’s hem as it snagged on twisted branches and trailed through the dirt.

The murder began to slow and gather in clumps on a rather old and twisty tree. The crows cawed and preened as they perched. The tree looked nearly identical to the rest around it. Beyond it’s mildly odd look nothing about it seemed exceptional. But this was the tree the crows chose so there must have been more to it. 

With the hagstone over my right eye I began to scan the tree. I didn’t get very far before something made me double take. Switching back and forth from my naked eye to the hagstone I couldn’t believe it. In the tree not only were there crows but snickering black winged faeries. To the naked eye they looked like the rest of them but my cherished necklace showed me the beady eyed creatures they were. Of course. Faeries loved hiding in plain sight while us humans are none the wiser

I ignored the impish creatures for my intended goal. The rest of the tree was ordinary until I got to the bottom. There at the base was where I found what I was looking  for. The hole was diamond shaped and the size of two palms. Glowing words scrawled under the knot. I had found the altar of the offering  tree! My excitement was short lived with the message on the tree. “Going empty handed is never advised” I read aloud.

 I should  have thought it through what I was even going to do when I got to the offering tree. Typically I had coins or little nip bottles of alcohol I’d pinch from my mother on me for offerings. All I had on me now was a handbag full of junk and no trinkets to offer. Faeries will often accept jewelry but the only other jewelry on me other than the hagstone was a metallic gold hair clip borrowed from my mother’s braid shop. Faeries like shiny things well enough. I hoped that would be enough to appease them. I pressed the hair clip into the knot and started a spell I had recited many times before.

“Sylvian, Sylvian
Fair folk of the tree
whose roots stretch far-”

The chatter from the tree grew louder and I lost my concentration. I tried to shush them but a gust of wind shut me up instead. I staggered. Hair whipped violently in my face. That’s when I heard it. The sound of footsteps and a distinctive crinkle of heavy fabric. A branch above snapped from an invisible weight and ground leaves scattered with a thud. My hair clip began to levitate in its place. “Why sister look at this trash a fleshbag left at our alter” a disembodied voice said.

I hesitated to touch my hag stone when another voice breathed hotly on the back of my neck. “ Bringing this plastic filth. I say we take it’s toes in apology” Through my stone a portly thing with greying skin stood before me. She donned a red cap fresh and moist. Its scarlet dye dripped down her brow. She licked at the droplet a peak of razor teeth teasing behind chapped lips.

She smiled a toothy grin at me and nodded to her sister. “I believe we’ll come to a correct payment” Great, the one in front of me was a redcap faerie. I braved a look at the one behind me. Another red cap except instead a blood red cap she sported boots not nearly so fresh or moist as her sister’s. She looked identical to her sister. If not for her thinning hair and bald patches I’d be hard pressed to distinguish the two. Redcaps had the delightful habit of soaking their personal belongings in the blood of enemies. There were many things I began to regret. The wedding party was where I should have been, not here. I had run from my inner monsters headlong into real ones.

“Now ladies I am sure I have something in my bag-” The redcap’s head wet with blood slammed into my chest. My heel dug into the earth and snapped. The ground shot out from underneath me. I felt my head bounce off the ground. Once. Then twice. Rolling over I clutched my abdomen. My stomach cramped up with nausea from force of the blow. I was on my knees when another strike from behind flung me forward. I forced my head up.  The evening sky sparkled out of my vision for a few seconds. I didn’t have time to do anything but grab at my broken heel lodged in the ground before small arms grabbed at my shoulders thrusting me onto my back. Something grabbed my left hand and engulfed my index and pointed finger in a warm wet cocoon. Panic rose. I brushed the rough edge of the broken heel against my fingertips and reeled it back.

I wildly swung, eyes closed, until I felt contact. The metal heel sunk in with a squelch, pop, and sizzle as the iron burned itself into wet flesh. The red cap rolled away yelling “My eye ! It took my eye!” I could have ran but I doubted they’d let me go that easily. Finally I saw an opening for negotiation. I scrambled through the mud towards my bag. While The redcaps, I assume were regrouping, I snatched at the opening flap of the bag and threw it’s contents to the ground. The soft crunch of leaves seconds later alerted me they were no longer as preoccupied as I had hoped. Feverishly spreading my belongings out I prayed I found what I was looking for quickly. I had something to offer other than the many pens, notepads, and anxiety meds lying before me. Now if I could find the item. It was then that I spotted it. Neatly wrapped in wedding party napkins was my ticket out of this.

My hand barely grasped the object when a foot came down on my wrist. With the other I reached for the hag stone. The red booted faerie peered down at me at me and sneered. “ It’s always like humans to try and get out of paying one’s debt. Look at my sister, you even took from her” Her sister stood off to the side dejectedly cradling her eye “It’s always take, take, take, with nothing to offer” She ground her crusty scarlet boot into my wrist. Before she could do anymore I yelled out my plea.

“I have something to offer!”

The redcap leaned over “Do you now?”

“There are sweets wrapped in this napkin” I gestured with my free arm. The bundle rose from my hand. It unwrapped itself in mid air a cascade of crumbs spilling out. Inside it was pastries and candies pilfered from the sweets table at the wedding.

She hemmed and hawed before saying, “What will you give my sister for the eye you took?”

“Her eye!? She tried to take my fingers!”

“You made a bad bargain” I could practically sense the shrug in her voice. I held back an exasperated sigh. My hand started to numbly tingle. I blew a strand of hair out of my face and a great idea revealed itself to me. I grabbed my stone.Taking another look at the red boot faerie I figured I had something to bargain.

“What if I gave you something instead?”

“Me?” the faerie looked at her sister who nodded approval “what would you offer?”

My eyes stayed on the top of the red boot faerie’s head. Thin and balding yet she still styled it in intricate braids pinned up with gold pins.

“ You want something from my body. I’ll give you this hair. Have it as your own”

 She touched her braids with a  hungry look on her face. One that said she’d scalp me for my hair if she had the chance. The pressure of her boot lifted. I felt her long sharp scratchy fingers lightly picking up locks of the hair and running them between her fingers.

It was  tricky and slow going cutting the thread attaching the wefts of hair to my own with the dull knife they had  handed me but the Redcaps seemed pleased enough. I made sure to keep the tracks and lace closure intact. When I was finished they realised the deal they made. The mass of fake hair laid at their feet the Redcaps huffed scooping it up. Bargains with faeries are binding and I never offered up my real hair. The deal was done.I didn’t need My hagstone to see that they realised they had made a poor bargain.  I let the hag stone swing loosely and grabbed the wrapped sweets to start my spell again. Placing the napkin in the tree knot I started my incantation once more.

Sylvian, Sylvian
Fair folk of the tree
whose roots stretch far
whose movements are free
your dear friend awaits
unbridled with glee
Draw back the veil
no delay I bid thee

The knot slowly rumbled before it stretched and grew into a large archway covered in deep red glistening mulberries. Sylvian’s door. Sylvian’s home was in between realms. It was neither the land of faeries or my own. They preferred solitude while they worked. A pang of uncertainty crept it’s way into my thoughts. Not wanting to come all this way for nothing I dusted off my clothing trying to look halfway presentable. A familiar aroma of tart citrus, and cinnamon relaxed all tension in my body as I neared. Blinding light engulfed me. I Stepped through the archway. The ground disappeared beneath my feet and I fell.

It was a slow fall. I counted the seconds I would stop and float for no reason at all. This was a very different door than the last ones I had been through. Usually I’d end up opening the front door of Sylvian’s home but this door seemed to be a bit different. I was slowly floating towards a courtyard. I got a clear view of below as my descent drew closer to the ground. Rows and rows of trays covered in leaves sprawled the space. I deftly landed no cobblestone. At the end of the row was the tall lithe figure I could identify even 100 yards away if I had to. Sylvian turned to me long gossamer carmine sleeves billowing behind them as they briskly bounded. Their finely embroidered silk boots came to a stop two feet in front of me. 

            “And whose portal did you fall out of?” Sylvian asked, a grin on their face

“Got into a scuffle with a couple of red caps. I’ve had worse scrapes-” Before I could finish Sylvian was grabbing at my hands turning them over, inspecting. They grabbed at my foot with the broken heel. Their brows furrowed and they gently put it down to tend to the other. They began to finger the intact shoe when I pulled back. “ Iron heels. I…wouldn’t want to hurt you” I explained “ I already took an eye today”

At that Sylvian laughed “ I told you to wear iron to scare off unwanted faeries for good luck and here you are weaponizing it.” they looked me over once more taking in my tattered dress and simply braided hair “Good.” Sylvians laugh was deep and hearty. It vibrated smoothly off their throat and infected me with a quivering smile. I shucked my shoes to the side and followed Sylvian as they walked.

If Sylvian knew the effect they had on me they never let on. Sylvian was neither man nor woman but sylvian was my everything. They were everything I wanted to be and everything I wanted to possess. Never have I felt feelings for a man or anyone else before them. I don’t know what that makes me other than a person in love with another person. Albeit a person with a few extras.

 Sylvian blinked their two sets of wine colored eyes. Something that should have been horrific was so enchantingly beautiful to me. The way Sylvian wore their makeup. Always perfect and well placed. The way their top set always seemed to give away what they were thinking. Like it took effort to control them all at once.

 I was too caught between my own thoughts to notice Sylvian had started up a conversation. “You are a bit early and perhaps a little overdressed”  They picked up a wooden tray with leaves.

            “I was at a wedding party”

            “Oh,who died?”

“What? No. no one died…is that a faerie thing?” Sylvian  shrugged placing the tray down on a glass table. I Continued on brushing past that they didn’t outright deny anything,  “…Anyways I was at a wedding for some lady I barely know full of people I definitely don’t and I couldn’t take it anymore” I took a few leaves in my hand. “People telling me over and over how they loved my new look and were happy I wasn’t  like one of those people”  As if the way I look dictated who I loved. The leaves crumbled and fell from the stress of my compressed hand. “and I had to smile through it all until the world became too thick to even breathe in”

Sylivian smoothed the crushed leaves from my hand back into the tray. They slowly ran a hand up and down my arm before leading me to a bench. “ Obviously you need to talk and I cannot have you mussing up my work. What is it about the way you look that worries you to such ends? Tell me Ember”

Ember. That was the name I had introduced myself as. Sylvian never questioned what I told them about myself. Only accepted what I would give them. They patted the seat next to them and I sighed sitting down. “I like looking a particular way where people can’t make assumptions. Where they have to guess and may never know because honestly it’s none of their business. I hate how people treat me in these clothes as beautiful as they are. Delicate. Feminine. Like someone I’m not.” Sylvian clasped my hands in their own. Our eyes met for a few seconds. I swallowed the smothering sensation in my throat. Heavy like guilt yet light like hope. “I…just want to openly be who I want, love who I want, and have people leave me alone”

“You could always stay with the fair folk” Sylvian smirked. I snorted

“ Hm yes, the society where murder may be on a wedding agenda”

“We are a very accepting people”

“ I think I’ll pass. Besides you I can’t even see faeries without my hagstone and that’s because you want to be seen” I lightly shuffled a few stones beneath my toes ignoring the intense stare Sylvian was giving me. Their upper eyes crinkled and uncrinkled an attempt at concealing an emotion I couldn’t quite place. This conversation was becoming more heavy than even my original venting had intended.

I cleared my throat changing the subject. “ Anyways, what are you doing out here?”

“Thought you would never ask! Come, see!” Sylvian jumped from their spot and darted off to a row of trays. They motioned me to them. The trays held more than leaves. There were pale mint green caterpillars creeping over cotton ball cocoons.

“Silk moths, for my newest fabric. They spend their days munching on my leaves”  Sylvian said mulberry leaves sprouting from their wrist.  “Soon they will metamorphose into adults and I will harvest their cocoons.” They spread their leaves out on the tray. The caterpillars happily took Sylvian’s offering, small heads bobbing up and down in feast. “There are many ways to procure silk. I believe humans boil the cocoons to preserve the silk’s quality”

“With the moths inside? That’s terrible!You..don’t do anything like that do you?” I couldn’t take my eyes off the squishy creatures. So small. So vulnerable. Sylvian let a caterpillar lazily slink over their fingers and picked up a fuzzy egg shaped cocoon They caressed it with a thumb.

“They have nibbled on my leaves and were nourished from my body. A game of give and take. I would be within my right to take back what I have sustained”

“And if I asked you  for something, being able to see faeries, what would you ask for in return?”

“A kiss” Sylvian’s face made no expression “and a bond” Sylvian placed the silken cocoon in my hand, Folded my fingers over it, and breathed deeply on them speaking words I didn’t understand.

The milky white cocoon began to swell warm and hefty in my hand. It wriggled and squirmed hatching before my eyes. Cracks of light pierced the cocoon slicing it in half. Emerged with Wings sparkling of freshly fallen snow was a moth. It flitted about it’s downy body tickling the tip of my nose.

“When your world becomes too much for you to bare Ember, take solace in mine” Sylvian with a finger gently removed the fluffy creature letting it dance away. “If you want one less thing to fear I will give it to you”

 One less thing to fear in an entire world that frightened me was very enticing. A kiss and a bond is all it’d take. All four of Sylvian’s eyes seemed to sparkle, their cheeks plump and flushed. The soft mass of raw silk dropped from my hands. I clasped the sides of Sylvian’s face. A long silence stood between us. Sylvian looked at me expectantly unmoving. Their dark skin and mossy long hair glistened under the moonlight. In the silence I found myself staring at their softly parted lips “I…”, I said suddenly very self conscious of what I was going to say next “I want to see with your eyes” I finished an unspoken acceptance between us of what that meant.

“As you wish “ Sylvian whispered leaning in. I shut my eyes praying they didn’t notice the tremble in my fingers against their neck. Their breath lingered  on my cheek as they bent down to meet me. Generous lips pressed against my eyelids. My breath hitched. A forceful exhalation left my pursed lips. Fear is so shockingly similar to tripping stupidly all over your own soft squishy feelings. I couldn’t tell if I was having a panic attack but it felt like my heart was going to squeeze itself into oblivion.

 When my eyes opened they felt light and tingly. Through blurry vision I could still see Sylvian’s dazzlingly wide toothy grin. Sylvian backed away gently pulling me from them. I put a hand to my chest to find there was nothing there. I searched for my hagstone on the ground but when I looked up there it was in Sylvian’s hand. I squinted but nothing seemed to help my vision. “It is getting late” Sylvian said. Before sylvian’s figure completely obscured from my view Sylvian crushed the stone between their fingers as easily as one would crumble a clump of dirt. They smiled slowly blurring from my vision “go back to the party Ember. I shall be here when you need me…and when I need you”

 When my vision cleared I was back at the old offering tree of the redcaps. It was astonishing how much of the world I never really saw before. Small little hedgehog faeries shuffled about on the forest floor rolling redwood pine cones. The offering tree was alive with chatter. In its branches the two redcaps sat. The red boot one had decided to don my weave sloppily haphazardly slapped on her head. She leaned into one of the crow faeries, a nice piece of juicy gossip on her lips. They all giggled kicking down leaves. To think I was afraid of such silly creatures. I suppose your demons appear easier,smaller when they can clearly be seen

“You know it’s rude to talk about people secretly right in front of them” I called up to the tree.

“Oh you can see us now eh? It’s a much kinder action than a knife in the back.”The one eyed redcap said. Fair enough.

“Sorry about the eye” I motioned to my own in sympathy

“eh,I would have bit a few of your fingers off” she shrugged

“Ah…well…either way. If your sister wants hair like that done properly you can come by my mom’s shop anytime…for a price”

She cackled, rocking herself back and forth on her branch. “ you’ve been around fair folk too long. I’ll hold you to that offer fleshbag”

I smiled at that and left. Back to the wedding party. Back to a human world that made even less sense than magical creatures.