September Stories (9/5)
So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, you can find the full list here.
Finders Keepers By Danielle Davis
I remember it clearly because I was dating Todd then. To celebrate our two-month anniversary, he wanted to take me to the movies. There was a new Terminator movie out, and he was fair to bursting to see it.
"We'll go on opening night. That's always the best showing," he confided with the air of one who knows. He always seemed to know the best way to do everything. "Even if we have to stand in line for a couple of hours, it'll be worth it. Because that's how much you mean to me." Then he chucked me under the chin with his bent forefinger the way his dad always did with his mom. I always asked him not to do it. Same story with the way he'd always say, "Have a little faith, Faith" and then laugh like it was the first time he'd ever said it.
Not that it mattered.
Though standing in line for two hours sounded thrilling, I had been more interested in going to the Festum Extraordinarium, or the Circus of the Extraordinary, that was coming to the FedEx Forum that weekend. Nobody really knew how to explain the festums extraordinarium then. (They'd only just begun cropping up thanks to the new discoveries in Scotland, the Canary Islands, and in Antarctica, where someone figured out how to cross into the fey realm and return back. With proof.).
But back then the whole idea was still new. And one was coming to Memphis for the first time.
Part acrobatic circus, part carnival of wonders, the festum extraordinarium was different for every city. It depended on what creatures and acts the owners had acquired along the way. Sometimes different festums would trade certain acts, if the creatures were, well....extra extraordinary, but folks could usually count on each festum being different than the last. (Remember this part, because it'll be important later.)
They were such strange attractions that they became their own thing--even though it became common knowledge that "festum" mean "circus" in Latin, people never called them circuses. No. They were always festums.
Anyway, Todd had zero interest in them because they didn't feature famous people or explosions and because the kind of people from school that would recognize him at a movie theater didn't usually attend them. He liked to be recognized, Todd. It validated certain things for him that he never articulated, but that I later came to understand anyway.
Funny the things you see later, after the filter’s worn away.
I’d talked him into getting tickets, even though he was still quite vocal about his dislike for it. “Fairytales? Mythological creatures?” he scoffed. “Watch, this is all going to turn out to be one big hoax, like global warming. It’s so quixotic, I’m surprised you’re even interested in this sort of thing.” Which was Todd-speak that indicated he thought me immature and naïve for my curiosity.
And at that point in my life, I worried he was right. Todd had a masterful way of misdirecting, of being able to share his opinion on a thing without actually mentioning it. His superhero power was that of being oblique. I admired it so much. It always seemed to involve some delicate turning of a phrase or careful nuance of body language as he said it.
In return, I became as finely calibrated as a tuning fork to the way he said things. With a casual phrase, he could have me anxiously trying to remember what I said that wasn’t to his liking. One glance could make me rethink my entire outfit choice for the night or feel like a goddess. I was so interested in this guy, the handsome guitar player who hit on me when he came through my checkout line at the grocery store, that I wanted to get it right. All of it. Around him, I felt a sort of frantic electricity as I strove to behave as expected with the least amount of correction from him.
So for me to insist anyway was a big deal. It was an even bigger deal that he listened.
You know how the FedEx Forum is more like a huge covered arena? Despite Todd’s disdainfully hovering eyebrow or his slight commentary on the people that shuffled through the entrance with us, I was excited. I expected the arena in the middle to be decked out like a traditional circus, with small bumpers designating different performance sections and the bleachers rising up all around the whole area like a mountain range of squeaky, foldable seats.
Instead of walking through the doors to the sight of a filling amphitheater, we saw a tent planted in the middle. It looked like an old circus tent, except the topmost supports were asymmetrical, giving the whole tent a slanting, crooked appearance. The tent material was thick enough that it was impossible to see any light filtering through, and it was patterned in an unsettling combination of thick black and purple stripes.
“They can’t even get the tent set up properly!” Todd snickered as he placed a hand possessively over my shoulders as we looked for our seats. It was an awkward embrace for a thin aisle so I had to contort sideways and crab-step down the stairs to avoid the oncoming traffic of people going up.
We had to ask an usher where to find our seats, since none were printed on the tickets. He informed us there were no assigned seats, and that we were to enter the festum tent when we were ready. I noticed a curious half-smile on his face as he said it—and that wasn’t all--, but Todd didn’t. The moment he heard we didn’t have seats, he began craning his neck around to see if anyone else was seated. Perhaps getting special treatment he should ask about.
“Did you see that?” I hissed in his ear as we walked away from the usher. Todd steered me toward the entrance to the festum.
“Do you mean the don’t-give-a-damn-about-my-job attitude or the mildew smell of his uniform?” Todd didn’t look at me as he spoke. He was too busy scanning the crowd for faces he knew.
“No, the weird way his hair was around his usher’s cap. It kinda looked like he had…” Horns is what I’d been about to say. But my internal tuning fork for Todd’s mood began to vibrate in a way that made me pause. I didn’t want him to think I was naïve. I also didn’t want to see the amused condescension on his face as he informed me about the special effects they guy probably used to heighten the mood of the place. Just a gimmick. A hoax. Like everything else we were about to see tonight. This would be said in the tone of someone who knows about such things.
“…dandruff,” I finished lamely, hating myself a little. But it produced a positive effect.
Todd smiled down on me, the smile he used when he was proud I was on his arm. “Eww. Someone should have told him.” In a tone that implied he would have liked to.
I glanced over my shoulder at that, just a little peek, and found the usher staring at me with that strange half-smile. Like he knew what I had almost said. And he knew why I hadn’t said it.
Of all the things I saw that night, he was the most normal.
I'm not going to try to explain everything that went on under the canvas ceiling of the Festum Extraordinarium that night. It was both incredible and otherworldly.
There were smells I couldn’t identify, but that made my body flush with terror, shooting adrenaline speeding through my body. Then the scent would change and I’d feel a tingling wetness in my lower belly and thighs and hear my own breathing panting quickly through my lips. When I glanced at Todd beside me, though, his face would show some other emotion, like triumph or confusion, so I knew that whatever we were smelling, it acted in different ways for different people.
I saw, or thought I saw, a woman transform into something with a serpent’s body and waving green tendrils for hair. Then, when I’d blink, she’d be a performer in a brightly colored leotard, waving a hula hoop once more.
Certain areas of the rooms we were shepherded through—all by ushers who looked identical to the usher that told us about the seats outside the tent, as if there were multiple copies of himself stationed throughout the festum—would shimmer like a 3D image. Tilting my head one way made the room look like a fully furnished Victorian sitting room. Tilting it another made the room look like a dungeon, where a body hanging from one corner leered at me and winked.
Even now, my memories of that night play tricks on me. Some of the things I remember have reappeared in my dreams, while others seem to happen in varying orders of events. Sometimes the fairy room appears at the end of the tour and at other times it’s somewhere in the middle.
But it’s the fairy room I remember most vividly. Partly because of what was in it. But partly because of the woman standing outside of it.
Goldie Torres. That was how she introduced herself. A plain, unassuming black woman with hundreds of long, perfect braids of hair that fell to her hips like a beaded curtain. I remember she was in a navy polo shirt and plain khaki skirt, like she was a tour guide at the zoo or something. Only her shirt bulged in places that it shouldn’t have and sometimes the bulges moved as if fat snakes were moving underneath.
Somehow—and I don’t remember how—we’d lost the crowd we’d walked in with. That’s one of the other things about my memory: I remember vividly some rooms where we’re surrounded by people, even up to the room before the fairy one, but I don’t remember at what point we lost them. However it happened, we ended up alone.
Goldie had something about her that I liked immediately. It could have been the soft, intelligent way she spoke. Or the way she never seemed to make unnecessary movements, and when she did move, it was with a fluid grace that made her appear confidently relaxed. It was very soothing overall.
And in her presence, Todd finally shut up.
He’d been commenting almost nonstop in my ear since we walked in, though the things he commented on where mundane things like the scent of a room or the temperature in the tent or the way one of his shoes was rubbing a blister on his right foot. He didn’t make a single comment about any of the oddities I saw. It was as if he couldn’t see them. Wait, no…he’d have commented on an empty tent. But whatever it was he saw didn’t seem to be the same thing that I did.
But around Goldie, I didn’t hear one offhanded comment about anything. So it was in complete silence that we entered the fairy room.
The room was small—maybe 10x12 at the most. Black curtains acted as walls that sealed us off from the rest of the world once the curtain door was drawn shut. Two-tier shelves lined the room and made a three-sided box, from where we stood at the entrance, around a support pole in the center. Small tea lights hung like the gaps in a chainlink fence all around the curtains. Still, though there had to be two hundred of them, it was still too dark to see how they were attached to the fabric.
On the shelves were jars. And in them were fairies. At least two dozen of them, each within their own oversized Mason jar covered by a thin mesh duct taped over the opening.
Goldie acted as the tour guide. She moved as fast or as slow as we did around the room and told us about each fairy we bent to examine.
In one jar, a small naked figure stood staring defiantly up at us with eyes made of ice chips. “An ice fairy,” Goldie said in a soft voice. The figure was about as tall as my hand if I measured from wrist to the tip of my middle finger and looked to be male, though his genital area was smoothly rounded like a child’s doll. His skin glittered all over with a fine dusting of hoarfrost. On his head were small, frosted icicles of hair that stood up like a hedgehog’s quills. His hard wings, attached to his back near his shoulder blades, formed sharp geometric triangles of ice fractals. They fanned the air in spurts like a butterfly.
In another, a spider fairy. As tall as the first, this one appeared to be female, but with the same rounded genitals and small, pert breasts that had no nipples or areolas. Her wings, though, consisted of firm black spines that flexed and unfolded as a spider’s legs might. The sections in between consisted of thin cobweb strands that fluttered gently when the fairy moved its wings. Goldie told us these fairies were born flightless, with only the spider leg spines in place. The fairy had to collect actual spider thread and weave its own wings before it could fly. Like the spider, the fairy caught small insects in its wings for food. But when I leaned forward, squinting, I asked about the large hairy tusks that curved out of her mouth and covered the bottom half of her face. Goldie informed me those were the fairy’s mandibles and pointed out the sharp black barbs at the end. “That’s what the females use to inject the poison into their mates after intercourse.” I stared into the fairy’s eyes, the two large black orbs on top and the smaller four in a row below them, and wondered what she was thinking.
Another jar on the opposite side of the room contained nothing but a darkness that even the candles behind it couldn’t seem to penetrate.
“What’s that one?”
“A starry night.”
“Why’s it named that?” But when I moved closer, I noticed the two small pinpricks of white light that came into view.
“Those are what it uses to attract prey. Much like the…” Goldie frowned at the ceiling, searching for the word. “You know, the fish with the light on its head…?”
“Anglerfish?” I supplied, and Goldie snapped her fingers as she grinned at me.
“Yes! That’s it.”
I gave Todd a sideways glance, surprised he didn’t comment on my useless knowledge of deep sea creatures. It was the sort of thing he would have done earlier in the night. I was starting to enjoy the fact that in here, within the festum, I seemed protected from it. The thought made me smile.
Goldie knew them all. She offered small bits of information at just the right times. This one only fed on the morning dew it collected from holywoods, a rare species of flower found mostly in the Caribbean. That one defended itself by shooting poisonous darts as fine as slivers from the dark spots on its back. The one with the metal shavings in the bottom was an alchemical fairy that made intricate geometric sculptures from them when it got bored.
All had stories. And all were just as fantastic as the next.
Finally, at the end of the tour, Goldie stood before us near the door with an expectant smile on her face. She was looking at me. Todd, oddly enough, just stared at one of the lights on the curtains with a small frown on his face as if he was trying to remember something elusive.
“Now,” Goldie grinned, “we have a moment to ourselves. You have an interesting name, Faith. It has great significance to some of our kind.”
“Your kind?” I repeated. But Goldie didn’t answer. Instead she just smiled at me in a way that suggested I already knew the answer.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come through today. But only a few who were worth actually seeing.” She brought her face close to mine. “You are worth seeing.” Her breath smelled like honeysuckle. In my peripheral vision, I saw movement from something under her shirt and heard a sound like many voices whispering. Wait, wait, they called.
She walked behind me and strode over to a fairy jar resting on the upper-tier of the opposite corner shelf. When she returned, she held out the jar cradled carefully in her long-fingered hands and gestured for me to take it.
Inside was a small fairy sitting on the clear glass bottom with her arms loosely circling her knees. A burgundy cascade of hair covered her naked figure. She was grinning at me. When I brought the jar up to eye level, she lifted one hand to wiggle her fingers at me in a mischievous wave.
“What in God’s name am I supposed to do with a fairy?”
“You like her?” Goldie asked. “You may take her. She will bring you luck.”
I cast a wary eye at the fairy, who gave an enthusiastic nod as if to lend support to Goldie’s words. When she grinned, I saw her teeth were sharp needles.
“What kind of fairy is she?” My voice sounded cautious, but in truth, I was already planning how I was going to keep her in my room without my parents finding out. How to keep her hidden at school—maybe in my locker…?—and if she’d help me pass my Calculus midterm next week.
The fairy chastised me with a theatrical frown, as if to say for shame, and shook her head.
“Her power is unique. Her kind is called a finder fairy, though the name is a bit deceptive. She doesn’t so much find things that are lost, like your car keys, so much as she reveals things that were once hidden.”
“And what sort of thing do I need found?”
Goldie’s eyes filled with a sense of knowing. I had no doubt, then, that she knew what was on my soul and had compassion for what she saw there.
“Where are her wings?” I asked in surprise, for I just noticed she didn’t have any.
“They are there. But she doesn’t want you to see them yet. Don’t worry, that will change once she trusts you.”
The whole situation was surreal and yet my intuition told me this was going to happen.
“I can’t accept this.”
“Then borrow her for a while. Come visit me again the next time we’re in town, and bring her back with you.”
That, I found, I could accept.
Todd, meanwhile, still stood in the same stance I’d left him in. When I put my arm through his, he jumped, startled, and asked in a distracted voice if I was ready to go. I glanced back at Goldie, who nodded, and then told him yes.
I slipped the fairy jar in my purse, careful not to jostle her, and left.
On the ride home, in my Prius, Todd broke up with me. It wasn’t me, he said, it was him. He couldn’t handle a girl who could change her own tires and who laughed loudly in crowded places like nobody else was around and who danced in the rain without caring if other people saw her do it. In general, he concluded, one who didn’t act like she didn’t need a damn hero to rescue her.
“And I need to be the white knight,” he pleaded. “I need someone who lets me do the heavy lifting once in a while. I’m afraid we’re just not compatible.”
He was right about that part, but wrong about the rest. I had no idea where his rambled list had come from, since I didn’t know how to do any of those things. But my intuition told me this was necessary. So, however little I understood it, I let Todd Basker break up with me on our two-month anniversary.
And that was just the first step.
Years later, I tried to give the fairy back. She brought me all manner of luck, but she required a lot of attention. By that time, scientists had been able to identify almost 200 species of what they called fey fauna, and the subject was already being taught in school Biology classes.
But I never saw anything called a “finder fairy” ever appear in the lists. And trust me, I looked.
As a last resort, I called the manager of the FedEx Forum and asked for the contact number of the last Festum Extraordinarium that rolled through there. He said no such one ever had. When I faxed him the ticket stub I’d saved from that magical night, he laughed, congratulated me on a well-executed prank, and hung up.
Since then, I’ve gone to several festums, but few of them have fairy rooms, and of the ones that do, none of them are guided by a strange, black woman named Goldie Torres. And none of them have heard of a finder fairy.
She sits on my desk now, in my dorm room at Rhodes University. Though she sits in plain sight now, my roommate hasn’t once commented on it. It’s as if Mary can’t even see her.
So I’ll tell you this: if you ever have a chance to capture or acquire a finder fairy, do it. Pay any amount, go to any length. Because even though I was willing to give mine back, it’s not like they’re not worth the effort. And honestly? After a while you get used to the work.
And another thing. If you ever attend a Festum Extraordinarium and make it, strangely alone, to a fairy room run by a woman named Goldie Torres? Tell her thanks for me. I think she’ll remember my name.
Total Writing Time: 3 hr., 11 min.