Twice upon a time, in the Land of Far Away, there was a fairy who lived in a mushroom.
The fairy’s name was Megz, she was four hundred and ninety three years old, which isn’t at all old for a fairy, and she had lived in a lot of places, but now she lived in a mushroom.
Oh, it was a very modern mushroom. It had indoor plumbing and air conditioning and piped pixiegas for cooking and everything. It even had WiFi. Fairies aren’t behind us in the really important things, at all.
But this fairy was very unhappy, because the problem with the Land of Far Away was that it was, actually, very far away, from everything. Even the fairy’s neighbouring mushrooms were so far away it took her a telescope to see them, and as for going into town for an evening out, forget it. It would take a substantial section of even a fairy’s enormous life to get there and back, and by the time she got there, it probably wouldn’t be evening any longer anyway.
So Megz was discontented and unhappy, and you really don’t want to see what an unhappy fairy looks like. In fact, not even Megz liked what she looked like in her mirror, and she decided that she’d have to do something about it.
But what could she do? The only way she might look like a fairy who wasn’t unhappy and discontented was to be happy and contented, and there was as much chance of that in the Land of Far Away as...well, something not being far away.
So she decided that she would have to go away from the Land of Far Away.
This was, of course, easier that it sounded like, because this is the modern age. So Megz turned on her laptop and went to a travel website. And then she was stuck.
There were so many choices! With all the wide, wide worlds to choose from, what was she to do?
She looked through destination after destination, looked at cities great and small, at quaint towns with cobbled streets and at skyscrapers that brushed the stars and bumped the moon on her way. She scrolled through so many places that they seemed to merge into a blur in her mind, until she simply gave up and tapped a choice at random.
This should teach everyone a valuable lesson: never, ever, make choices at random. Seriously, don’t.
Oh, no, she didn’t end up in ISIStan and get her head cut off or something. It was much worse than that.
The place she chose was an ancient city, a city so old that time itself was merely half as old as it, a city which had been old when the gods had sowed the galaxy with life, old when the gods themselves were still forming out of the primal dust. It lay out on an island, carved into the sides of a volcano, which was the only thing which was even older than it; a volcano which had been extinct before the sun condensed out of the corpse-gas of bygone stars.
The name of this city? It does not matter. We can merely call it the City.
The City lay so far from everywhere that to get there would normally have been almost impossible for the fairy, but for one little fact: it was so far from everywhere, and the Land of Far Away was also so far from everywhere, that they ended up being rather close to each other. So there was actually a ferry to go there, and the fairy booked passage on it with no trouble at all.
So she put on her favourite black and white dress and got ready for her journey. She didn’t take any luggage along. Fairies really don’t need all that much anyway.
The ferry set sail from a jetty built on the shore of a sunless sea, under a sky of stone. It was a ship with no sails or engines, which ran on energies sucked from universes yet to be born. The ferry was grey as the stone overhead. Apart from a small and cubical superstructure at one end, it was flush and featureless, with not even anything for the passengers to hold on to, let alone sit on. But then Megz was the only passenger anyway.
At first she tried to talk to whoever it was inside the superstructure, but there was no reply, and when she went up on her toes to try and peer through the little slit that was the only opening in its flat smooth surface, all she saw was darkness. The ferry simply moved through the water, under the sky of stone and along the sunless sea.
So Megz lay down on the deck, careful not to get too close to the edge, because she saw that long black shapes swam in the water near the ferry, and she had an idea that they had hungry bellies and sharp teeth. She lay on her back and looked at the endless grey stone sky overhead, and, little by little, she fell asleep.
She woke with a literal bump. The stone sky overhead was gone. She was looking up at a much stranger sky, one in which a blue sun seared its way across a yellow shining blaze dotted by black drifting clouds.
Sitting up, she saw that they had arrived. Up above her, stretching almost to the yellow sky, was the volcano, and, carved into its side, rising tier by tier, was the City. Just the sight of it sent shivers of delight down to the tips of her toes, and in an instant the sadness and discontent fell away from her, so she looked like a happy fairy indeed.
There was a small welcome delegation waiting at the pier. It consisted of tall pale men and women with no hair, wearing grey robes that fell to the ground around their feet. Actually, from the way they moved, Megz couldn’t tell if they had feet. They smiled at her and bowed.
“Welcome, Megz the fairy,” one said. “You’re the first visitor we’ve had in a hundred years, and we have come to bid you welcome to our city.”
“We hope you’ll stay a good long while,” another told her.
“And enjoy every moment,” a third added.
“Thanks,” Megz replied, feeling a little inadequate. She let them lead her up the path towards the city. Once she looked back, and saw that the ferry was already sailing away, back the way it had come. She tried to recall whether she’d booked her passage back, and for when, and couldn’t.
“It doesn’t matter,” she thought. “Maybe if they’re so nice I won’t want to go back anyway.”
The City was tall and beautiful, and rose up towards the sky for what seemed to be forever and ever. And as she walked up the path into it, more and more people gathered around her, until there were so many that she felt as if she was herself an island, a dot of black-and-white in a sea of grey.
They took her to a high building near the top, only a short distance below the rim of the extinct volcano. “This is the place we’ve chosen for you to stay,” they told her. “You can live here as long as you like, and we’ll look after all your needs. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“I’ll help you find your way around,” one of the hairless people said. It was a woman, tall and thin, her face an ageless mask. Megz remembered her as the first person who’d spoken to her when she’d landed from the ferry. “No, don’t thank me; it’s a pleasure.”
So Megz had rooms at the very top of this building, which was at the very top of the City, and could see down all the way to the sea. And it was a very nice room indeed, better even than Megz’ mushroom. Her guide, who had followed her in, introduced herself as Zgem.
“That’s just the reverse of my name,” Megz said.
“Yes, isn’t it? Everyone in the City has a name that is the opposite of that of a person in the outside world. When one of those people visits, the person with the opposite name becomes his or her guide. That’s why I’m yours.”
“Really?” Megz replied. “That’s interesting.”
“There are so many things that are interesting here,” Zgem said. “You’ll never exhaust them all. Everyone who comes her says they want to stay forever.”
“And do they?” Megz asked. “You said the last visitor was a hundred years ago.”
“Yes, it was a very long time. But we always love having visitors. Would you like to rest?”
“No,” Megz began to say, and then suddenly realised she was rather tired. The journey on the ferry had apparently drained her more than she’d thought. She yawned. “I think I’ll lie down for a bit,” she said.
“You do that,” Zgem told her. “I’ve left a selection of fruit and rose-flavoured water for you here. I’m going now, but when you’re up, I’ll come back.”
So Megz ate some of the fruit, which was delicious, and drank a little of the water, which was cool and refreshing and smelt faintly of roses. Then she lay down, and went to sleep.
It was a strange sleep. She wasn’t awake, and she wasn’t really sleeping, but she dreamed. And in her dream she began asking herself some questions.
She remembered how the people had all known she was coming, even though she’d only booked her passage on the ferry and hadn’t actually made any contacts in the City itself for accommodation or anything like that. She remembered that Zgem had been waiting right on the pier for her, at the head of the crowd, and then she recalled that the guide hadn’t actually answered her question about whether the previous visitors had stayed forever, as they’d wanted. And she remembered, too, that the guides had exactly the opposite names of the visitors...and that she’d somehow felt extremely tired after only a few brief moments in Zgem’s company, even though she’d slept most of the way on the ferry.
She woke suddenly, shivering, and the conviction was strong upon her that she had to leave, that she had to go away at once. Night had fallen; the sky through the window was white, and dotted by the black pinpoints of a million stars. Under her window, the city fell to the sea in a series of terraces of towers of surpassing beauty, filled with menace of a level that made her shiver.
For a long moment she stood at the window, looking out at the City, her mind frozen with fear. And then she heard a noise in the next room, as though someone had just arrived...
Now, of course, Megz couldn’t fly. Real fairies can’t, just like they don’t wear tiaras or have wands with stars at the end. But she could climb, very well indeed, since being a fairy she was little more than air and light and was almost as weightless as a feather. Pausing only to look once over her shoulder, she slipped out of the window and down the face of the building, crawling down hand over hand as fast as she could.
Once, far overhead, she seemed to see a face looking down at her through the window she’d left by, an expressionless face like a mask; it was watching her, quite calmly and unemotionally. Then she looked down again at the wall, and kept climbing down. And she didn’t look up again.
They were waiting for her when she reached the street, at least twenty or thirty of them, and they gently lifted her away from the wall and held her so that she couldn’t run. One of them peered at her and shook his head sorrowfully.
“And we were thinking that you’d stay with us, Megz,” he said. “For shame.”
“Let me go,” she said, looking around desperately for a way to escape. “Before that woman, Zgem, comes down and drinks me. Because that’s what this is about, isn’t it? When someone comes, you give him or her a guide who’s the exact opposite, as tall and pale as your visitor’s short and dark, say, and with the exact opposite name – and the guide drains the visitor dry of all energies. It’s what feeds them, doesn’t it?”
The man smiled drily. “Not quite, Megz,” he said. “You see, the visitor belongs to everybody. The guide merely has the first rights on him or her. Once he or she’s done, and usually the guide takes care to make it slow and painless for the visitor, it’s everyone else’s turn.”
“But you couldn’t wait, could you.” It was Zgem, who had evidently just descended, peering over the man’s shoulder. “So there’s no keeping it slow and sweet – for you. You’re everyone’s property now.”
“I expect you’ll be tasty,” the man said. “As full of energies as you are, you should be.”
As they moved in, Megz drew in a deep breath, and then wondered if it would do any good to scream.
The fairy Megz closed down her browser and shook her head.
“Too many choices,” she said. “And what’s the point of going anywhere anyway? What happiness can I find that I couldn’t here, with just a little bit of effort?” She walked to the nearest gill of her mushroom and dropped lightly to the ground.
“I wonder if the neighbours would like a visitor,” she muttered to herself. “Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
Her head thrust forwards determinedly between her hunched shoulders, she stalked towards the next mushroom. It might take time to reach there, but she would.
Given a little while.
Confused? You shouldn’t be.
All this happened, you know, twice upon a time.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015