October 13, 2015
(Author’s Note: This story is available as a free download.)
The Head Fairy
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a little boy, Matt with his twin brother, Jason. They were very precocious and independent for two lads of barely six summers; they kept their own house, made their own meals, washed their own dishes, and minded their own livestock. They had to be responsible for themselves, as they had no parents or family to look after them.
Matt and Jason lived all alone in a small stone house with a thatched straw roof. There was a shed behind the house with two goats, two ponies, three pigs, and an assortment of cats, dogs, and chickens. To the side of the house, guarded from the animals by a picket fence, was a vegetable garden. As the livestock and garden had been bought and planted before the children found themselves alone, all they had to do was mind their upkeep.
A small stream ran through the land behind the livestock shed. This stream ran clean, clear, and fast. There were lots of large, meaty fish swimming in it. Crawdads hid in the mud, and turtles waltzed about like they owned the place. And in a way, they did.
For you see, turtles are wise and pragmatic creatures. They carry their houses on their backs. Now, because turtles spend so much time napping and looking for food, who do you suppose keeps their houses in decent condition? Obviously not the turtles themselves. No, the turtles have very special helpers to tidy up, tend the dishes, make the beds, and dust the shelves.
The turtles keep human servants.
But not just any human will do.
He or she must be a human with a demonstrated Need to Clean. A human with an obsessive desire to scrub and dust and check and double-check and vacuum and arrange and re-stock supplies, and most of all, the human must love to dust. Turtle shells have no windows, after all, so the dust can be hard to see until one sits down in a big pile of it and then spends the rest of the afternoon sneezing one’s fool head off.
How does a turtle nail down exactly which human is suitable? Easy peasy. They look for the tidiest cottages, the sheds and barns with no manure in the livestock stalls, the water troughs with no lichen or algae. The look for the villagers and farmers who beat their carpets daily, who empty the chamber pots every time, those who sweep the dirt from the dirt paths leading to their homes.
The humans with the reddest, rawest hands are usually the best bets.
It wasn’t always like this. The turtles used to have fairy servants, because the fairies were tiny and could easily fit into their Masters’ shells. The fairies would use their magic to quickly tidy up and set things to rights. However, the fairies did not receive anything worth having from this arrangement, and one by one, dropped out of the Turtle Internal Husbandry Program.
The Principal Turtle held a meeting with the Head Fairy to discuss the future. It was a brief meeting, considering the amount of tea that was drunk, but there you have it. Business leaders the world over tend to drink a lot of tea. It’s the nature of the beast.
The Principal Turtle and the Head Fairy decided that each fairy in service to a turtle would buy its way out from under the shell by providing an equivalent replacement service creature. Many creatures were interviewed for the positions: cockroaches (too ambivalent about dust), tiny tree frogs (too ambivalent about slime), worms (again with the slime, ewww), minnows (too floppy, dishes remained wet after drying), ants (they tickled, A LOT), centipedes (itchy), and black flies (too unhygienic). Finally, the Principal Turtle turned to the Head Fairy in exasperation.
“Gerald, honest to Pete, there is no creature as fitting as the Fairy for this particular job!” he cried. Gerald the Head Fairy shook his head side to side.
“I see what you mean, Pat, but my Fairies don’t want to do this job any more,” Gerald shrugged. “But what if…” he started, raised one eyebrow, and paused.
“Yes?” grunted Pat the Principal Turtle impatiently.
“What if you had non-magical fairies? Creatures who looked the same as us, who could do the same job, but weren’t magical? I mean, the magic part is no big deal, right? As long as the housekeeping gets done?”
Pat squinted in consideration. “I suppose that could work,” he agreed.
“Give me two shakes, I’ll be back in the morning,” Gerald answered and clapped Pat on the shell.
The dawn was breaking through the trees when Head Fairy Gerald knocked gently on Pat’s shell. Pat opened his eyes slowly, adjusted to the light, then they popped wide open. Two tiny trembling humans, the size of fairies but lacking wings, stood before him.
“See?” Gerald jumped up and down. The tiny humans bobbled and grabbed on to each other as the ground beneath them rumbled with the force of large fairy clomping.
Pat looked the humans up and down. A mated pair, no less, by the way they clung together. Pat raised an eyebrow and was silent a moment.
“What are your names?” he asked.
“I am Tom Barker and this is my wife Cynthia,” the male answered for both of them, maneuvered his body protectively in front of the female.
“Aren’t humans usually a big bigger?” the Pat the Principal Turtle asked gently.
“Yes, but we… we woke up like this! And then we were in a net and flying through the air, and we landed here with this big fella,” Tom nodded towards Gerald and Gerald’s proud grin.
“Ehh? Pretty goo…” Gerald started.
“Silence!” Pat commanded. Everyone flinched. Pat turned to Gerald the Head Fairy. “So, Gerald, you rescued these tiny humans after some wicked creature performed its magic on them? Is that how it went?” Pat’s eye twitched, a barely perceptible wink to Gerald.
“Ah, yes! That’s what I did! I rescued them with a spider web net! Smart, huh?” Gerald’s understanding of the psychology of the situation finally sunk in.
“My dear Mr. and Mrs. Barker. Have you any idea how this happened?” Pat asked the couple. They shook their heads ‘no’ in unison. “Hm. Well, I happen to be in a position to offer you safe housing, however, I would require something in return,” he said gently.
And that is how Gerald the Head Fairy freed his own people from enslavement by Pat the Principal Turtle and his Troupes. Together, the turtles and fairies scouted out the tidiest, most fastidious humans. Gerald and his colony magicked the humans to the appropriate size, and provided the turtles with all the tiny slaves they needed. The turtles framed themselves as benevolent saviors of the tiny humans, rather than slave masters.
This arrangement proved to work quite well for the turtles, and for the tiny humans, as long as no one asked questions. Human curiosity is a powerful force, however, more powerful than any magic. Inevitably, humans large and tiny began to wonder about the order of things.
Not only did the humans wonder, the livestock grumbled amongst themselves. The nanny goats in Matt and Jason’s shed supervised the boys’ activities, and discussed the situation with the pigs and sheepdog. All the mother animals agreed that although the boys were doing a fine job, they’d be better off with their parents. Humans took a very long time to raise their children; they weren’t supposed to be set into the wild this soon, were they? The ponies joined the barnyard chat, and soon all the animals were involved. A chicken thought she’d heard one of the boys sobbing at night. A dove had witnessed the boys clinging to each other during a thunderstorm. Something had to be done.
Shaggy Dog was sent to scout out the situation in town. Surely their parents ought to be about somewhere? Were other kids missing their kin? What the heck was going on?
Several hours later, the goats had been milked, the animals fed, the vegetables and eggs collected. Matt and Jason sat on the back stoop of their cottage, dirty and exhausted.
“I miss Mama,” whispered Jason. “Even though she was too busy scrubbin’ to listen to our lessons.”
“And I miss Papa,” sighed Matt, “even though he was always too busy cleanin’ up the yard to teach me how to ride my bike.”
“You think they’re ever comin’ back?” Jason asked. “I wanna go into town and ask, but then they might stick us in the orphanage if they find out we’re here by ourselves.”
“I dunno, but yeah, we gotta just keep fakin’ like we’re fine. Otherwise they’ll steal us and take our house and animals. We can’t let them get taken away. Someone’ll eat’em,” Matt explained. Jason’s horrified look and tears in his eyes obliged Matt to reconfigure his words.
“We’re doin’ fine, if you think about it. Ain’t no reason anyone should come out and question us. We just keep on doin’ what we’re doin’. We got summer break coming pretty soon, we can relax a little then,” Matt said.
A few hours later, just after dusk, the boys were having breakfast for dinner in the little cottage. Shaggy Dog came trotting up the lane with four other village dogs, each with a similar story: their masters had gone missing in the middle of the night. One dog had lost his young charges to the local orphanage, but another had managed to keep his young’uns safe and hidden in a similar fashion to Matt and Jason. The barnyard animals mumbled and grumbled. Where could they be? Had aliens abducted them? Was there some sort of magic afoot?
The doves were sent into the forest to gather intelligence. They flew to a cave in the hill nearby and spoke with the bats. The bats convened with the owls, and together they swarmed the night sky in search of information, people, magic, and flying saucers. Anything that might explain the disappearance of the local grown ups.
Now, it had long been known amongst the forest animals that the turtles had a special arrangement with the fairies. It was such a well-known and accepted arrangement, that no one really noticed when the housekeeper fairies lost their wings. And it wasn’t until a young owl named Bobby swooped down to grab a dormouse for a snack, that he noticed that the servant hanging up Pat’s washing didn’t shimmer, didn’t fly. In fact, had the housekeepers always dried the laundry in such a way? Seemed like those fairies had used magic for most of their duties.
Bobby Owl had a thought so profoundly shocking that he dropped his dormouse and rammed into a tree. He settled in a bough and thought hard as he studied the turtle neighborhood below. These housekeepers weren’t using any magic! These weren’t fairies at all! They were teensy tiny humans!
Bobby Owl took to the skies and searched out his family. He explained quickly and quietly what he’d seen and where, and they sent a scout group of owls and bats to the small stream behind Matt and Jason’s house. Sure enough, those servants were not fairies! The winged warriors took to the sky and set out to tell the others.
Bobby led a barn dove back to the stream so she could see for herself. She landed lightly next to Pat’s shell and crept around the side. In the gloom, she noted Mrs. Barker, Matt and Jason’s Mama, pulling washing down from a threaded clothesline! Mrs. Barker looked up from a washcloth bed sheet and gasped in surprise. Animals didn’t usually stalk this close to the shell at night. She dropped the washcloth and ran around the corner of the shell, inside to safety. The dove picked up the washcloth and flew back to the barnyard.
The animals regrouped in the shed. A low growl, a bleat here, a quiet whinny there. They decided to send the dogs to speak to the turtles and the fairies. The dogs were familiar and friendly, and the hostage-holders might listen to reason from them. They were also less likely to terrify the humans.
In the morning, the dogs trotted to the stream and formed a circle around the turtles. Shaggy Dog tapped on Pat the Principal Turtle’s shell. His head emerged slowly.
“Hrmph, umf, erm, good morning. What can I do for you?” he asked groggily as his head made a slow pass around the group.
“We’re here for the humans,” Shaggy replied. “You cannot just take them. Their children need them.”
“Nonsense. We’ve taken no one,” Pat grumbled. “Good day, sir.” Pat’s head disappeared inside his shell.
The dogs looked at each other. They could play hardball, but that would involve playing actual ball with the turtles, and the humans inside could get hurt. Shaggy knocked on Pat’s shell once more.
“Look, we know you have the humans. Maybe you didn’t take them, but you have them. You’re not using fairies anymore as servants. Why, I don’t know, and we don’t care. We need the humans back. Their children are not old enough to fend for themselves,” Shaggy entreated.
“Let the other humans deal with the brats,” Pat harrumphed and disappeared again.
A small human head poked out of the leg hole in Pat’s shell. Her eyes became big as saucers when she recognized Shaggy. She disappeared inside, then emerged once more, hand in hand with Mr. Barker. They ran behind a tree. The dove cooed to them until they climbed on her back, and she flew them to a high bough.
Mrs. Barker threw an acorn cap at another turtle’s shell. A small head peeked out the tail hole of the shell. Tom waved his arms wildly and the humans snuck out the back entrance of their prison. The dove flew them up to share the branch with Mr. and Mrs. Barker. One by one, each turtle shell’s servants escaped, ferried to a high tree branch.
Pat’s head slinked out of his shell. “That’s all fine and dandy that you’ve freed this set, but how do you suppose you’ll make them big again? How you going to make sure they don’t just take more servants?”
The dogs looked at each other and then back at Pat as he hissed, “You have til darkness falls once more, to fix the humans, and not make more.”
Back in the barnyard, the humans sat in a tiny circle, surrounded by the larger barnyard animals. Tom Barker related how worried Pat was that if anything happened to Gerald the Head Fairy, their way of life would be lost forever.
“Why’s he called the Head Fairy? Why not Boss Fairy? Or Large and In Charge Fairy?” Mrs. Barker pondered.
“He is bigger than the rest of them,” another woman pointed out, “and his head is disproportionately bulbous.”
Cynthia looked to Tom and Tom looked to her. All the humans sat bolt upright.
“We know what we have to do, everybody. Go, fight, WIN!”
Each human mounted a dove and took to the sky, as the dogs and pigs tracked the scent of fairy on the ground. Matilda Pig, Matt and Jason’s big sow, nosed out a spider web net near the turtle colony that smelled strongly of fae, and gave it to Shaggy. He nodded his understanding and shared it with the rest of his crew. The animals spread out in a wagon wheel circle starting from the turtles, moving outward. Matilda chose to stay nearby, in case Gerald returned with fresh humans.
As the animals searched and mumbled, Matilda’s nose itched. She sneezed. She eyed Pat’s shell with suspicion. He was inside, quiet as stone. Pat was the oldest and largest turtle in the colony, hence the title of Principal. She quietly eased over, closer to him. The scent was stronger. Yes, she knew that scent. She walked up to Pat.
“So, buddy. How’s it going?” she asked loudly, amiably. “Haven’t seen you round for a while, eh? I guess because ‘cause you’re gettin’ on in years?”
Pat’s head eased out of his shell. “Hello, Matilda,” he moaned gloomily. “Well, you know, I can’t get around like I used to any more.”
“So what can you tell me about your bale? You never really introduced us!” Matilda’s grunts echoed through the forest. Shaggy stopped in his tracks and reversed course.
“Well, now see that’s Roscoe over there,” Pat pointed with his snout, “and that’s his mate Jessica, and there’s the twins Jenny and Jane.”
“WOW PAT! THAT’S TERRIFIC! I DIDN’T KNOW YOU’D HAD GRANDKIDS ALREADY!” Matilda shouted. She noted a small knock inside Pat’s shell, towards the back. The dogs surrounded the turtles in the darkening forest, and the doves circled overhead before settling in the branches and into their coo-coo-rain-is-coming song.
“I GUESS THAT’S WHY YOU NEEDED SERVANTS, HUH? TO KEEP UP WITH THE HOUSEWORK?” Matilda asked.
“Why you shoutin’, Matty?” Pat asked, “I’m right here.”
“OH I’M SORRY. I FIGURED SINCE YOU WERE GETTING’ ON IN YEARS YOUR HEARING MIGHT NOT BE SO GREAT ANYMORE!”
Another knock inside the shell.
“SO WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO WITH NO SERVANTS? YOU GOT A BACKUP PLAN?” Matilda hollered.
“He doesn’t NEED a backup plan! Will you please STOP SHOUTING! My ears are too sensitive for all this racket!” Gerald’s complaints and head emerged from Pat’s back leg hole, just in time for Shaggy to grab him at the nape of the neck and pull him the rest of the way out of the shell. Shaggy clamped down hard on Gerald’s neck and he squeaked.
Dozens of fairies took flight, shooting tiny arrows at the animals. The bats descended upon them and ate the arrows, then ate the fairies. Upon ingestion, the bats grew larger, shimmering in the late dusk.
“We want our parents back!” Jason and Matt stood in front of their dog, the neighbor dogs, and all the forest creatures.
“You can have your parents back. But you’ll never have them big again,” Gerald grinned an evil smile, pointy teeth in his open mouth. “The magic to change them back is right up here!” Gerald pointed to his head.
“I can fix that!” yelled Jason and he charged towards Shaggy and Gerald with his father’s woodcutting axe. Matt held Gerald’s thrashing legs and Shaggy stood on Gerald’s shoulders as Jason hacked off Gerald’s head.
As the lifeless head rolled away from the neck stump, blood did not pour out.
Light poured out of the base of Gerald’s head, up, up, golden yellow sparks and dusty shiny photons floated up into the night sky. Tendrils of fairy magic drifted towards the former servants in the trees, into their ears and noses and mouths, and gently they grew into their former selves. The boughs sagged under the increasing weight, and the adults quickly clambered and shimmied down the tree trunks to the ground.
Mr. and Mrs. Barker ran to their children and scooped them up into tight hugs as the other adults hugged and wiped each other’s tears. All four sank to the ground to hug Shaggy Dog and Matilda Pig.
“It was Matilda’s racket that led us here to the stream!” Matt recounted. “We thought someone was hurting her, that’s why we brought the axe!”
In the hubbub of celebration, the turtles had backed away, down the banks and into the stream. Pat was slowly creeping his way to safety when Mr. Barker caught him by the shell.
“What do you think, kids? Turtle soup for dinner?”