It is 1961. The sun is occluded by the walls and shutters of the school. The fresh spring air is kept locked away. And Mr. Dobbins drones on.
“In the past,” Mr. Dobbins says, “women were forced to labor in drudgery. But those days are over. By the year 2000, every housewife should have a dozen advanced fairies to aid her in her household tasks.”
Tina is a girl. She’s a little under 12 years old. Her hair is long and golden and it never gives her any trouble. She sits in an almost indelicate pose, sprawled as if to claim her seat and every seat around it. She’s one of the pretty ones, one of the lucky ones, and none of the teachers ever criticize her.
“Managing your fairies is very important,” says Mr. Dobbins, “because they will happily claim your soul to pay off the teind. Can anyone tell me what a teind is?”
Ben raises his hand. No one knows why he’s taking Home Economics, but the school won’t stop him.
“It means that they have to pay souls to the lower kingdom every seven years.”
“That’s right, Ben. It’s important to make sure that you pay your fairies only a reasonable wage—acorns and nuts, used eggshells, pipe ash, and the like. If you let them get uppity, they’ll demand more than you can afford.”
The girl in front of Tina—two seats forward, one to the side, the closest anyone ever sits—raises her hand.
“Mom says fairies are bad,” says Eleanor. “She says you have to feed them with a . . .”
Eleanor blushes brightly. “I mean—”
“I believe you mean a witch’s lactation assistant, or WLA,” says Mr. Dobbins. A few of the kids laugh. Eleanor turns redder. “And no. Nobody does that. In the modern day, fairies are our tools, not our masters—expressions of who we are, flowing from the heart to reshape the world.”
“Mom says it’s black magic,” Eleanor says. “That it’s wrong.”
There’s something crawling under Eleanor’s dress. Tina watches in fascination as it moves across her back, as one black, delicate, and hairy leg emerges from the neck of the dress and brushes against Eleanor’s spine.
“She’s a God-fearing woman,” says Mr. Dobbins. “But ever since people started building the future, it’s been easy to confuse the power of the human spirit and the power of the Enemy.”
“Both ways?” says Eleanor.
“Maybe so,” says Mr. Dobbins. “But I think she’ll come to see, in time, that fairies are our future—something we’ve built ourselves. In the meantime, why don’t we all practice setting out milk for the fairies? You can sit it out, if you want, Eleanor.”
Everyone stands up but Eleanor and Tina. They go over to the workbench, with the dishes and the milk. They pour out the milk.
“Just leave it by the door,” says Mr. Dobbins. “Then we’ll see if any fairies come to clean the erasers.”
The class leaves the milk by the door. They sit down.
The back of Tina’s neck itches. “Something’s missing,” she says.
“Let’s give them a moment,” says Mr. Dobbins. “Quaere verum—‘seek the truth.'”
Tina stares at the room. She cannot escape the mounting sense that there is something wrong.
A second, questing leg emerges from the back of Eleanor’s dress. The edge of a green-furred body is visible now. It is strangely flat.
It does not seem quite real to Tina that people should be doing these things. That they should be pouring out milk for fairies. That they should be speaking in the tongue of witches and priests. That the light in the room should be so hollow and so empty.
“Oh!” cries Eleanor, suddenly. “There’s one!”
There is a fairy, nothing more than a stirring of dust in the shape of flesh and wings, lapping at her milk. It looks up at Eleanor briefly, ferally. Then it swirls away.
Eleanor rubs at the back of her neck. The thing under her dress slides out of the way, smoothly, with the grace of a snake.
“The fairy looked nasty,” says Ben.
“It did,” says Eleanor. She sounds unhappy.
“It looked right at you,” Ben says. “I bet that it was looking for your WLA.”
“Mister Kingsley!” snaps the teacher.
Eleanor ducks her head. The creature emerges onto the back of her neck. It unfurls glistening insect wings.
“Hey,” says Ben. “There’s something on the back of Eleanor’s n—”
Tina moves. She does not hurry. She stands, and steps forward twice, and her hand plucks the creature from Eleanor’s neck. She holds it by its wing, and her other hand takes the other wing, and it squirms pathetically.
“Is this yours?” she asks Eleanor.
Eleanor shrinks back.
“Do you make these things?” Tina asks. Her eyes do not reflect the light. “Is this the kind of future that people like you dream out of yourselves?”
“Get it away,” Eleanor says. “Please, get it away.”
“It’s whispering,” Tina says. She looks down at it. “Can you hear what it’s saying?”
“Please!” Eleanor says.
So Tina rips it in half. It bleeds ichor on the floor.
Eleanor looks very small. She looks like a puppy who’s just been fed and then kicked after weeks abandoned in the cold.
“Thank you,” she says.
“This is wrong,” Tina says. She goes off to her seat. She looks at everyone. She can see it. They are not people. They are shells and facades, going through the motions of a life.
She does not listen to the rest of the class. She does not pay attention to anything else. But then there is Ben, standing there, looking at her, and the class is over, and he is saying, “. . . there is a thing, under my bed.”
She looks him up and down.
“I have to jump into bed every night,” says Ben. “Or it’ll grab me, and pull me under. And eat me. Ever since I was six.”
“It’s not my problem,” she says.
Ben looks at her. He has puppy eyes too. Suddenly, she finds him hateful and contemptible and weak.
“Will you eat mud for me?” she asks. “Will you cut your hand with a knife, just this deep,” and she holds her fingers next to one another, “and call yourself my slave?”
Ben looks down.
“Then I’ll help,” she says.