From the author: A bad fairy and a good boy bond over a mutual love of beekeeping.
We are not born. We do not grow. We abide in the somber places of this world, where time has no meaning and magic may thrive. And there are rules of conduct for these places which all good fairies know. But I was no good fairy. The rules did not live in my blood, though I did my best to compensate. I hid in my work, content to let the others enchant the creatures who strayed into our apple grove, until my place at the edges of our grove was remarked upon, and I became a part of their games.
A human child was toddling through the undergrowth. Its shoes were soiled with apple mush, and it stank of soap and rot. I was stroking the back of a worker bee and sampling her pollen, to distract myself from the tittering fairies that swarmed around its head.
"Skin as smooth as mushroom caps!"
"Hair as black as nightshade!"
All nonsense. “Nightshade” comes in a prolific variety of colors from potato to eggplant and none of it looks like hair. I frowned and hid myself among the coneflowers as the others flit about like lightning bugs. My people fancy poetry, but it doesn't fancy them.
They were chanting the first part of the rules, "strayed from the path, strayed from the path," which brought the child into our jurisdiction, and I could feel their eyes and laughter pointed at me, right where I was hoping to go unnoticed.
"It's your turn," they said.
"We are immortal and time has no meaning in the apple grove. Do your busy bee work yesterday."
I raised protest, but their lights blinked away and they were gone, vanished into the bark of a tree or a wisp of fog, leaving me alone with the bipedal thing that tumbled through the grove. I crooked my finger and directed a poor little honey bee out from under the creature’s foot before she was crushed, then I took a deep breath and counted my worries down from ten.
Alright. I am prepared for this. I knew one day I would have to be the ice cold fairy queen and lead astray some little boy. We all do it eventually. I just wish I might have avoided it for another thousand years. Long enough for the time outside the grove to eat up that highway that appeared three hundred queen bees ago. My companion under the coneflowers filled her sacks with pollen and buzzed away. She was right. I had a job to do. And because the rules do not come naturally to me, I had to find the notes I'd left in the knot of a birch tree.
Traditional Aesthetics re: Fairy Queen
Lots of Angles
Smile full of Knives
Eyes made of Ice
Maybe wear a dress
I looked down at my teensy bare feet, brown skin gone gray at the soles with pollen and dust, knees shiny with beeswax. Under the word "dress" I had sketched a figure that might have been myself, covered shoulders to soles in a smudgy charcoal shroud and wearing a crown of antlers. It looked... complicated. I didn't care to waste much energy glamouring up an ice queen for one little boy. Not with autumn encroaching all around us and the bees woefully understaffed.
I was willing to manage tall. At least taller than the boy in the grove.
As per the notes regarding Entrance, I flit across his field of vision, let my gold light catch his eye then wink away, so he knew something magical was about to happen. Just as his back was turned to the mile marker I stepped out into the heart of the grove at a towering four feet six inches.
And I forgot what I was meant to say.
Greetings? No, they don't talk that way anymore. Hello was too informal for a queen. Hadn't I written down a line somewhere? And now the child has turned around and I'm fumbling with the pockets of my tutu.
He stared at me. My tutu felt a little tight, and wrong, and altogether far too orange for anyone over the height of three inches. I drew my hands slowly out of my pockets, treating this creature like I would an angry wasp. Perhaps if I moved slow enough he'd forget he saw me at all.
My wings buzzed of their own accord at the bright sudden noise in my grove and the boy's mouth fell open at the sight of them. "A fairy!"
"Hi." I straightened my shoulders. He was impressed with my wings, as he should be. I have forewings and hind. Both sets were opaque white and segmented by sturdy black veins that keep me steady even when the winds are strong. I flexed them from my lower back and arched my eyebrows. I did not need an antler crown. "Yes, mortal. I am the Queen of Fairies."
"What's your name?"
It was my turn to look struck. Fairies are a race of yous and heys, and anyone further outside a shout wasn’t worth considering. I know at one point I had a list of fairy names to give to humans, but I couldn't think to what was written on it. Nor did I have the time to hunt through all my birch bark papers find one suitable.
I must have hesitated too long, because the boy took a step closer to my fearful countenance and thrust his grubby hand at me, nearly mucking up my tutu.
"It's okay, fairy. Don't be scared. My name is Frank! Maybe I could call you Peasblossom."
The boy's face reddened and he pursed his lips, "Well you don't look like a Titania."
"I would despair to look like something I am not."
"Then what do you like?"
"I like bees."
"My jiji has an apiary!"
"It's where he keeps bees."
I nodded to him, keeping my nose up and my eyes staring down like a queen. "Bees keep themselves. It's why I care for them."
"The queen cares for bees?" His face was all twisted up in ugly confusion and I wasn’t surprised that he did not believe me. Bees are difficult for fairies, all structure and work. Their beauty is more abstract than that of flowers. But I loved them and so I worked to learn their language and I made myself useful to them so they would something-like-love me back. Bees are not difficult for me.
I stuck my hand in the pocket of my tutu, and found the hole in its corner. There’s always a hole in fairy pockets, where we can find what we need. I reached through it all the way to the hive and I broke off a chunk of honeycomb from under the fuzzy buzzing bodies. A worker kissed the end of my finger and I rubbed against her head.
"What are you smiling at?" asked the boy.
I set my face back to angles and knives and thrust the chunk of wax and honey at him. "Eat this,” I said, allowing some pride to show through my icy mask. The honey was very good, thanks in part to my work on nectar ratio. Too much blackberry makes for ill-colored honey.
He paled at the golden morsel in front of him, and cautiously took it from my hands.
"Will it trap me here?" he whispered.
Trap. I knew of a precedence for trapping, but my notes made no mention of it, and it had completely slipped my mind. "It will not." I wasn’t sure what magic traps a boy in a grove.
He sniffed at the honeycomb, smiled, then popped it into his mouth.
I collapsed my glamour and flit away overtop his astonished face to seek out further instruction.
One fairy and another one were dancing over the lower branches at the northern end of the grove. Their feet pounded against the wood and rained overripe apples down on the heads of two furious squirrels. They paused as I arrived and laughed that I had already finished my queenly duties.
"Hey! What do I do with it?" I asked.
"Have you fed it yet?" asked one.
"Just some honey."
"Oh no, not honey! Honey is real. You should feed humans fake things."
"Yes! Present them with the most beautiful, delectable fake things, and they will gorge themselves, savoring every bite, all while they wither away. It's hilarious!"
"Fake things." I don’t like fake things. Real things were hard enough, and I couldn't comb the bee hive for parasites while monitoring the slow decay of a child. "Can't one of you do this?"
They tittered at me. "Go away, you! It's your turn!"
So I went, darted round the apples and back to the heart of the grove. The boy was chewing on the wax, already finished with the honey. It was crumbling around his teeth and gums, threatening to fall out of his open mouth. The bees, daring things, were coming back to the flowers near his feet. He wobbled when he saw me, crushed an aster under his toes, and the bee that had been collecting it zagged around him.
I snapped into my glamour and stood tall above him, ordered him to stand still, and the stupid boy fell backward on his bottom.
He cried. I shivered at the sound, my wings buzzed, and I searched my tutu for more honeycomb, but when I presented him with another bite he only screamed harder.
"I don't want to live here!"
"I don't want you to live here!" I shouted, and the tears went out of his eyes.
I frowned, a real one with my real face of arches and curves. "No." It was my turn at queen. He was mine to do with as I wish. And so I stepped outside the rules. "What use are you?"
He wiped his tears into tracks of dirt across his face and picked himself up from the ground. "I can count to one hundred, and I have read three books all on my own." He was a proud child and probably insulted that I didn’t want to glamour up a feast for him to wither away at.
Numbers to one hundred were of some use, but there were far more numbers than that in the hive. His three books interested me. Books were where humans kept their memories. Humans were social creatures. Cooperative, but unlike bees and fairies their knowledge was kept outside themselves. The system lacked elegance, but its opportunity for specialization outmatched the bees by far. Perhaps the boy could become useful, if given time to grow. But there was no time inside the grove. "Go away. Come back when you have read one hundred books on honey bees."
His eyes grew wide, his little mouth a hard line. There might not be one hundred books on bees. There might not be one hundred books. We do not have anything to read but what we write in the apple grove and I am the only fairy that has found a use for writing.
"I'm lost," said Frank, his last thin coin to wager. It was fake.
"No you're not." I pointed the path out through the nettles to the glinting mile marker that shone like a beacon for the highway. Someone would surely come along in their truck and rescue the little boy. I kissed my thumb and poked his forehead with it, unwilling to touch the boy any more than that. Who knows where it's been? But that minor blessing would ensure that whomever came across him would not wish to harm him, and I stood to send the boy out of my apple grove.
"Will you come with me?" asked Frank at the birch tree that marked the end of the grove.
I would not. There is too much time outside these trees and it does not care for fairies.
"Did you let him rot and make a wind chime of his bones?" asked another.
But I did not need a wind chime and I take my meals with the bees.
"I sent him away," I said around the woven grass twine in my teeth. The hive was in danger of falling and I was reinforcing its bond to the tree.
"Ah! Advanced work, that. He'll be back and begging for your favor, and that's when the real games begin."
I grunted and they flew away giggling over the best ways to enchant little boys.
The next day it was summer and he came back to me in big stomping boots and long black hair that reached his shoulders. I resumed my tall but he had grown so much that I had to stretch it out by another half to keep towering above him. My glamour was thin and runny at that height. My head felt squeezed on either side. I wore no tutu, but had a crown of buttercups wreathing my close cropped hair, and a yellow feather skirt that reached down to tickle my feet and cover my dusty soles. He recognized me as surely as I knew him, and he bowed so low that his hair swept the ground.
"Frank. How many?"
He looked confused for a moment, but I waited. Humans age quickly and their memories are slow. "Books? Ninety one. I even wrote one."
"So you've failed."
His lip quivered in an ugly way, but I had touched him once, so I didn't hate his ugliness. "It's a lot more if I count scientific journals, but you said books and..." He rummaged about his jacket and I saw two little lights flicker above his head. The fairies were investigating my human. Stupid things didn’t remember that I'd enchanted him only yesterday.
"Shoo. Off with you." They'd insisted I be his fairy queen and there's no take backsies from fairies.
He pulled a book out of his bag and threw it at my feet.
"I'm sorry." There were tears in his eyes. "I wrote that for you. I thought it’d be enough."
I picked his book up from the ground. "A gift freely given, and now I am indebted," I said, more to myself than him. There are so many rules for fairies, but that was the one that lived in my veins.
His face was on the back. That long black hair was tied up on top of his head and a smile tortured out of him and onto the page. I couldn’t read it. My own writing was a system invented for the purpose of tracking bees, but I was impressed as I thumbed through the pages. The symbols were neat, uniform, and even smaller than my own. I had over a thousand hive cycles recorded on birch bark and it didn’t amount to half this number of squiggles. I would have to make him read it for me.
"Have you always had antennae?"
I closed his book and glared. "I don't change. You do."
"But you're taller than me now."
"Yes. That is part of the rules." An achingly beautiful part of the rules. Six feet nine inches was tearing my head away from my feet, and were it not for the skirt of feathers weighing me down I was certain my body would explode in a puff of pollen.
"I studied bees because of you. It doesn’t matter that I'm allergic, I love them anyway." His voice caught and he stared down at his boots. "I asked your name when I was here last and that was bad manners. That's a part of the rules, too, right? I am sorry I asked for your name."
I shrugged and felt my height begin to slip, but his head was already bowed and my dominance here was indisputable. I was tired of the work it took keeping my head so far from my feet, so I gave up being taller than him and slipped back down to a comfortable four feet six inches.
He smiled, then giggled, then pointed at me and gleefully swiped his hand over my head. "I knew it! You do change!"
He was wrong.
"I am always myself!" I shouted, and my wings unfurled from their careful position over the feather skirt. I hovered over him and the bees picked up around his feet and he looked more afraid of those little honey bees than he was of me and I wanted badly to hurt him for it.
"Stop! Call them off!"
"What?" I touched back down to earth and motioned the bees away from him with my antennae. "You think I'd sacrifice their lives just to hurt you?"
He paled and shook his head. "It'd kill me. I carry epinephrine, but it can't save me if an entire hive attacks."
I had his book in the pocket of my feather skirt and it was heavy when I thought of it; all those pages dense with squiggles. I knew time from my notes on bees, and I knew the vast number of dead bees all those squiggles stood for. Time cost so much to mortals and Frank had spent so much of his on something that could have killed him. It was beautiful.
"Seriously? I don’t see you for twenty years and you only smile when you think about my death?"
"You are a good boy, Frank. You have placed your love wisely." In the bees. Where love belongs. I rummaged through my pockets to reward him with a chunk of honeycomb, but he was sullen when he took it, and he muttered that he didn’t feel very wise.
We worked together that summer. In my smallest self I cleaned and dressed the wounds the honey bees sustained from parasites and Frank in the only self he had built boxes to efficiently house the hive. Every day he read to me from his book. Many things I knew, but I did not know the taste of honey from flowers far away from my grove, nor did I know that a human could care so much for bees.
"You are keeping him here until his family dies and a hundred years pass and he goes home to a world not his own, aren't you?" asked a fairy when I was away to gather nettles for his dinner. I was biggish then, four feet six inches, to hold enough to sate his hunger. I'd been biggish most the summer.
"So you're just going to let him prick himself on a bee and die? That's boring," said another.
He was at the other end of the grove counting larvae for me, his hands so close to the most protected members of the hive, but none would sting him. I smiled. "No."
The other fairy flew close to my face, her body so small against my human sized frame, and she gasped as she realized the meaning of the nettles in my arms.
"You are feeding it real things. Ew, gross, you're in love with a human!"
I was in love with bees. We loved the same things, and he was of more use to me than fairies. They did not care for anything at all but rules and play. I took a mushroom from the bundle in my onion flower skirt and bit it clean in half for all the grove to see. The fairies fainted in the air from disgust, and I left them lying in the nettles.
The leaves were turning. The bees were staying close. Frank finished his book and I told him to leave. Not for long. Long enough to go back to New Mexico where he had studied and to procure honey from that place where the flowers were different than the ones near my grove. He wanted me to come with. In a little plastic tank as my smallest self, or human shaped and wearing his biggest jacket to hide my wings. He didn't argue when I said no because he knew I was a fairy and I could not leave my grove. There are rules.
The other fairies knew that, too. They waited until he was sleeping and I was out of sight before they stole into the hive and captured my bees in a cage made of woven grass.
They hovered over him and shook the cage, stirring the bees, then they dropped it onto his head and it burst.
His screams pierced the quiet of my grove and I didn't understand until I saw the bees swarming, the dead ones crushed in a woven cage, the rest angry and stinging him because he was close to their rage. He ran through the grove with his arms flailing about his head, crying, begging, his words slurred through swollen lips. I found the queen, closed my hands around her and begged with my antennae for her to quiet the hive, then I flew to where he twitched on the ground.
"Effin- effin-” His hands searched wildly through his jacket while the bees calmed around us and sunk to the ground in sorrow for what they had done. He pulled a plastic cylinder from his pocket and pressed it into my hands, miming that I break the end. I pulled the tube apart and found a stinger underneath. He hit his thigh over and over and I realized the sting was for him. He yelped as I shoved it into him, but his breathing grew less ragged, his gasps less short. "It's not enough. I need to get to a hospital."
I pointed. He knew the way out. I never hid it from him, never meant for him to stay and die here and wither away to nothing. He was too useful to be toyed with and forgotten.
"Too far," he said. "I can't make it alone."
His heart was pounding, his skin pale. I stood him up underneath my shoulders and used my wings to steady us, and I walked us outside of the grove.
It was cold there. Heavy. The trees were dark and close. His arms hung around me like dead things and were it not for his heart pounding next to my ear I'd have dropped him like a corpse.
My wings buzzed and then twitched and then stopped around my rose petal skirt that was dropping its petals as I carried us through the forest. In my ears I heard the buzzing of my bees, but I could not look away from my task. We moved slowly, the hundred feet to the highway dragged on and on and my skin was chalky when we reached the road. He was slumped over me, his arms grasped tight around my neck.
"Your hair," he said as a chunk of it fell down to my feet. There were many years outside the forest grove that had been waiting for me. My wings were curling away and crumbling, but he was gasping and his eyes bulged in his face. "Go back."
I shook my head. There was no car here to take him and if I had to fly on failing wings he would find his hospital. He would survive.
"Please, you can't die. I love you. I love you and I don't even know your name."
"We don’t have names, Frank." I growled as a tooth fell out of my mouth. I checked the rest with my thumb but they weren’t loose yet. “There are no fairy queens, and none of us are special. There’s no need for names when we’re as much the same as any other.”
"No!" he said, his hands on my shoulders, his hair clinging to his head from sweat. "You’re different. In my head I call you Apiary.” He was laughing through his swollen face, his sweat, his tears. “Apiary fairy.”
A bee landed on my head. Another on my shoulder. The hive was around us in the forest and the queen was with them. She crawled into my pocket and the hive became my grove. The decay stopped in my body. My wings flexed out and away and I tested the air. I was strong enough to lift him. Strong enough to carry my grove far away from here.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.