Four Trees for a Name
by Zach Hauptman
Firsts are powerful. They’re seeds devouring the last of their nutrients to grow towards sunlight. They follow patterns laid out by the lines of the universe–a riot of roots that grow into flowers, the first thorn on a blackberry bush precisely placed, even when the thorn pierces a thumb.
But firsts are deceptive. Energy undirected can kill. Split cells become cancerous.
The Fair Folk devour firsts, are made of energy in potentia. Follow their promises on the lines laid out exactly and reap the benefits. Step off the path and never find your way home again.
This is why humans are such fascinating creatures. Potential energy is converted to action, breaking patterns and putting them back together. Creative energy is the peculiar synthesis of habit and creation. Beneath the bark of our defenses, the fae, like mistletoe, seem young and soft but are deadly and pointed towards the heart.
* * *
In the earliest memories, all you knew was the pair of iron shears hung with red ribbon above your crib, a mobile that you watched turn in air currents. And then you closed your eyes and slept.
* * *
This is what happened the first time you met a fairy.
You were six, and finally allowed to sit on your own horse at the Golden Gate Park Carousel. Your hands were sticky from the bar of pink popcorn your mothers bought, and you left fingerprints on the mane of your caramel-colored horse. The only things you knew about fairies were what you learned from Peter Pan, and even then you knew better than to believe technicolor lies.
The horse was one of the ones that didn’t move, so you could watch the dingy carousel glass and line of children waiting for their turn without getting sick and falling off. Somewhere on the third rotation, you saw, in a space between older children, something broken with glassine skin and wings that sputtered and flapped at the wrong angles.
With the bravery of a small child, you climbed down from your horse. Probably it was a good thing that the carousel was coming to a stop then, because even now you’re not sure you wouldn’t have just taken a leap of faith off the platform. Maybe your mothers called to you, but you had eyes for cotton candy blue dandelion hair and wings with edges that stuck out at 90 degree angles but somehow still managed to fly just far enough ahead of you that you had to run a little to catch up across the expanse of pavement. It settled beneath a tree, the sweep of dirt and grass extending out to lap at the edge of the sidewalk.
“I want to play with you,” it said, and it had too many teeth. “Tell me your name.”
When your mothers swept you into their arms, two steps into the span of dirt and just before the line of flat-capped yellow mushrooms curved into an uneven oval, the fairy hissed and bared silver needle fangs. It sounded too loud, as though you’d left the sounds of shrieking kids at the carousel far away.
At school the next day, the wind whipped your hair into knots so tight your mothers had to cut them out, and the scrape on your leg from where you fell off the swings looked like a hemicircle of too sharp teeth.
The iron nail sat beside your backpack the next day and, though your mothers never said anything, you pocketed it and hugged them both.
* * *
The second time you met a fairy, you were better prepared.
At an awkward fifteen years old, you’d taken to your mothers’ habits with zeal, reading anything you could find on fairies and discarding most of it. You carried dried rowan berries in your pocket and wore unfashionably chunky iron necklaces, your mothers’ original iron nail always safe on your person. Sometimes you counted the leaves on clovers because you read that a four-leafed clover could grant you Sight. (One mother suggested you just buy some from the internet, and you argued that it had to be naturally picked or it just Didn’t Count. Your other mother told you it was best not to see Them.)
You stopped using your given name at school. The name your mothers gave you itched under your skin, not quite right and not quite wrong. Letting dozens of students and teachers call you by a name that tugged you in the wrong directions felt like pouring your secrets into hands that were sieves. Instead you insisted on being called “Yew”, which your teachers thought hilarious and your classmates decided was grounds for shoving you in puddles.
Maybe after nine years of being left alone, you could have decided the cotton candy blue hair and teeth and impossible broken-glass wings were just runaway imagination; your mothers’ reactions the understandable over-protectiveness and humor of any vaguely superstitious parents. Maybe if they’d been more skeptical, you wouldn’t have offered half your cold pizza to the woman sitting under the hawthorn shrub outside the principal’s office when she asked for food. In that other world, you might have called a teacher about the stranger or, like your classmates, you wouldn’t have noticed her existence at all.
But you did, and you didn’t and you did and she unfolded and unfolded, like she was made of paper that was shoved into a tidy bundle the shape and size of a human. When she smiled, you noticed that her teeth were straight and white and flat.
“What’s your name, child?” she asked and her voice shivered the air, unreal cotton muting the sound of cars passing.
You bowed your head, mindfully polite, and reached into your pocket for the iron nail. The iron screw you pressed into service as a pendant already hung hot and heavy against your chest.
“Shall I guess it, little girl?” Her white smile spread, snow-clean tombstones in a grin that shouldn’t have fit on her face.
“Please don’t call me that,” you said. Your fear was a ball of cold fire just below the iron pendant. “I’m not. Ma’am.” Half the fear was for her and half the fear was for you, because you’d never said it before, and the power of first spoken was with an impossible woman who was smaller than a well-pruned shrub, but who you were certain could dwarf you.
She laughed like ants crawling along a branch. “So very like your mother you are. She was willful once too.” You didn’t ask which one, were sure that it was the one who made sure to wish on every dandelion and saved fallen feathers on the sidewalk because she ‘made a promise once, and it’s important to keep your promises’. The one who only ever used iron scissors and tied a red thread around her wrist.
The folding woman licked her lips, long black tongue curling in and out. “Willful and full of will. Full of words and bonds. Do you know what she swore to our care in exchange for the love of one of our own?” Her eyes were featureless. They made the air shake, made you want to throw up your pizza, your secrets, vomit your name from the pit of your stomach.
“Yew,” you said, because it was better than nothing, and better than giving the name your mothers had given, the name which scratched the inside of your head, was too tight and too loose by turns.
She tipped her head, and the world twisted on its axis. “Me?” she asked.
It was all you could do to shake your head. Somewhere a bell was ringing. It didn’t seem like you’d spent an hour standing by the hawthorn bush, but that was the class bell. The folding woman flinched up, her tongue curling back into her mouth, and oxygen rushed back into the world. You clasped the thick iron screw with all your might, turned and ran into the school building. You left the rest of your lunch bag with her.
When you left school that afternoon, she was no longer under the bush, but your lunch bag was. Inside was a single fat brown toad.
You named him ‘Ash’.
* * *
Every human being has a name. Most people think their name is what their parents gave them at birth. Some people reject that name, choose another that suits them and doesn’t hang loose. Some people are seasonal, picking a name, discarding it, selecting a new one.
What most people don’t realize is that a name isn’t clothing. It’s the bark of a tree, semi-permeable armor that lets in nutrients and wards off predators. A human being doesn’t choose a name, they grow it.
This is why the Fair Folk like names. Like termites or cordyceps or rot, they have none of their own. They need to get under defenses to grow.
* * *
The third time you met a fairy, your iron nail had long since worn a hole in your pocket.
Your mothers were old but still blissfully in love. One of them collected feathers from the sidewalk; the other one cried at haircuts and laughed at funerals. They moved to the North Bay, claiming the ocean air was good for them, and they liked to take picnics in the cemetery across the street. Every time you visited there were more mushrooms on their lawn, no matter how often they tried to get rid of them. The second time you brought your lover to meet them, she downloaded a mushroom identification app and made a game out of counting the species.
Your names rubbed to pieces between your fingers. Your coworkers still called you “Yew”, but you discovered another name for your lover to whisper against your collarbone when it was only the two of you and an orange cat curled up on the bed in your two-room studio.
When she said it like a prayer, her lips against your throat, for the first time you felt a warm shiver slide up your spine– a perfectly tailored suit of spidersilk. That night was the first night you let her pull off your loose button-up, tug up the tight compressor binding your chest into the correct shape, whisper her love of you against a body that never felt quite right. Her hands on your hips made you feel at home in your skin. She cupped the parts of you that were too big or too small, and in turn you kissed her fingers, her eyelids, her lips, her thighs.
The two of you drowsed together, the window open to let in the pale night of the city, fingers leisurely exploring expanses of skin made blue in the light of the moon. Safe, surrounded by concrete and steel in a part of the city the fae rarely think of and never visit.
Some time past midnight she slid out of bed, feet making barely perceptible sounds against the hardwood. Half-asleep, you thought nothing of it, except the way the city descended into something muffled as though a librarian had hushed all human sound. Her footsteps were louder then, the pat-pat-pat of paws in undergrowth. Roused, but half-dreaming, you followed her. When you touched your hand to the doorknob (brass and steel, human enough to sting), you pulled yourself out of the sticky dream-mire. Your body sung with the urge to follow her out and down, naked as you were, body unguarded by constricting, thoughtfully constructed layers. Your public face, your public name.
If your feet made a sound, you didn’t hear it.
The stairs down to the street were longer than they should have been, and the cool linoleum became tile became concrete and rock and lichen until you were no longer in your safe city of iron and somewhere far beneath the streets, beneath Muni and BART and sewers and electricity.
The white petals of angels trumpets brushed your shoulders, dipping their poisonous heads. Foxglove bells tapped your ankles, and heart-shaped gooseberry flowers rustled like rain when you heedlessly spilled your blood on their thorns. The long scratches on your hips, your belly, your arms and legs didn’t matter, the stones cut your feet so you left bloody footprints. Even if you could have stopped, you wouldn’t. You pushed through a hedge covered in frozen rose hips, the points pricking mercilessly.
This was the third time. No cotton-candy needle-teeth pixie this, nor an impossible woman huddling folded underneath a bush. The Fairy Queen, surrounded by her Gentry, teeming mass of shapes dancing stately waltzes, jigs, each to their own circle. Here, a horse so dark it sucked the light of its surroundings, neck covered in sparkling mardi gras beads. There, a woman so sharp and flat she disappeared when she turned sidelong, fog spilling out from beneath her feet. A princely man charming until his smile wrapped around his head like a zipper, hands– so many hands– detached from his arms and each holding a different blade.
In the end it was easier to keep your eyes on The Queen. She, at least, kept some semblance of human form, though it was too perfect– the dangling lure of some creature just barely kept in check, hiding its true form. Her hair spilled down her shoulders and above her head, like a vast thundercloud that limned her glowing pallor. Her eyes sparked nebulae, the fascination and deadliness of deep space. You took a step towards her, stumbling, barely keeping on your feet when her presence was a physical pressure. You couldn’t look anywhere else, your eyes drawn inexorably to her presence, the vast open space in her chest overflowing with bleeding petals and framed by sharp white points of rib. You took another step. She held out her arms. There was only a third step to take.
“Tell me your name, girl,” she said.
Your lover, from where she lay stretched on a bed of wild California roses, hooked thorns tearing rips in your favorite sweatshirt and staining it bloody, laughed a yipping laugh. Her mouth was a coyote muzzle of canines and fine-pointed teeth. “Yew,” she said, her voice full of pain and love and delight, “tell her.” She held your name between your teeth.
“Ma’am,” you said, like you once said before you knew yourself as well as you do now, “Please don’t call me that. I’m not.” You bowed politely, and only your lover’s wild yips of laughter and pain broke through the unyielding desire to bend your knee to The Queen’s will. You swallowed your name whole, a seed in your belly just beginning to sprout.
The wild dancing froze, each fairy circle screaming wild mirth as The Queen stood. Her open ribs bled feathers and petals and ichor, and she loomed above you. “I was promised the name of your mother’s first girl-child,” she said. Her voice reached into your bones with shattering intensity. A name is as good as first blood. “I will have it. Or do you defy me, girl?” The cavernous forest spun, fae beautiful and horrendous spilling around you, and only you and she and your lover stayed still, though the world threatened to tip you out into the void.
Without iron, without rowan or red thread or clothes, you fought, staring at the lines of blood etched into your arms, spooling down your lover’s thighs as though they were the ribbons on which your mothers hung iron shears and horseshoes. You mouth tasted of metal. An eddy of anger swirled in your chest and you watched your lover smile, her lips curved to bear canines in threat. “I am not a girl. I am not a maiden. I am not a woman. Three times I say it and three times I disavow. You have no hold over me, and you will not take my name.” The words spilled from your mouth in a rush, unraveling a knot that you hadn’t known was there.
The vast presence leaned over you, blackness of void and luminescent glow wrapping you in an embrace. You stood still, unable and unwilling to hide the shape of your body– the sharp points of her ribcage wrapped around, tearing into your soft cheeks, rounded chest, sloping hips, enfolding, tasting the truth of your vow. Standing there in the blue-green dark, you held tight to the way your lover made you feel at home in your too-big too-small body, smoothed out the curves, held your name and your heart so you felt right again.
When The Queen made a sound, it was like wind rustling petals, and the desperate laughter of The Gentry faded into the background until it was only you and her and your heartbeat. “You can’t keep my lover,” you said, feeling somehow brave. “I offer,” and you paused because what did you have that you could bargain with? “I offer my first,” and faltered again because what first did you still have to offer? Your first kiss, stolen by a boy in high school you never liked. Your first time, unsatisfying but intentionally done. A million human firsts unlikely to satisfy a queen of fairy. Your first child, in potentia but unlikely. “My first name,” you said and waited.
The pounding of your pulse was the only sound for an eternity. No flutter of fae wings, no screams or stamping of feet, not even the vague rustle of shifting petals within a massive ribcage. And then the points of bone receded from your flesh. An acceptance. Into the darkness of her cavernous body, you whispered the name your mothers gave you, and felt lightheaded.
In the light of morning, the cat shoved his cold nose in your face, whiskers tickling until you gave in and slid from the bed. Your feet twinged in remembered pain, but no bloody footprints inscribed your path through the doorway into the kitchen. A strange sense of normalcy descended– kibble in the cat’s dish, eggs, cream, bread and assorted breakfast ingredients assembled on the counter. “In the grey evening light,” you hummed as the skillet heated up, “o’er the waves let us go.”
Bare-legged and curled on the couch with a mug of overly-milky tea, your lover had no cuts and her sweatshirt was untorn, but her teeth looked a little longer and sharper when she smiled at you over the breakfast of french toast and eggs.