The stream at the bottom of our garden was a crossing to the faerie world. At least, that’s what Gram always used to say. It was a thin, but steady, trickle of water, narrow enough to cross in one flying leap. In a few places, the stream tapered off so narrowly that it was barely a dribble. Yet it never ran dry. The stream guarded a dense thicket of trees and brambles that stretched for miles along the edge of the village. The forest of the fae folk, it was called, although never out loud. The trees stood dark and intimidating at all times, even on the longest and brightest days of the summer.
I had never set more than a few feet into the forest. Growing up, the older folk of the town had regaled us children with stories of missing villagers that had struck fear into our tiny, young hearts. In one, a young boy, barely nine, had wandered into the forest and never returned, even after years of searching. In other tales, men heard voices calling, like sirens, and went off in search of the voice’s alluring source.
“Maybe they found the voice,” my Gram would always say, mysteriously, “But didn’t like what they found.”
The forest was dangerous, was the village consensus, and those foolish enough to risk a walk through the trees did so knowing that they might not ever return. And so, being a sensible and easily frightened young girl, it was easy enough to please my Gram and stay away from the foreboding branches.
The stream, however, was fair game. Anyone who’s ever grown up near a stream knows the infinite joy of it; the endless games that can be had, playing in a stream. There’s splashing, for one. And then there's pebble collecting and insect finding. And then, of course, there's the variety of stream-creatures I imagined myself as. A fish-girl, a water nymph, a half-crab, a river snail, a sentient piece of seaweed and, finally, a stream-troll, to name a few. And, of course, there was my favourite make-believe game: the one where I was a beautiful river faerie, guarding the forest from invasion from the terrible humans.
It was all pretend of course. Despite what my Gram had told me every night before bed when I was young, faeries and magical creatures weren’t real. Except, what was standing before me right now, dripping and misshapen and decidedly not-human, most certainly was real.
For a long, silent moment, I regarded the creature, unable to trust my own eyes. If it was a faerie, it was an odd-looking one. The thing stood just taller than me, although it was hard to tell, as it seemed to be exuding a sort of gelatinous, tar-black substance all over, that slowly dripped down onto the floor and into the stream. The creature was vaguely human shaped, and in the depths of what I presumed to be its face, two eyes peeked at me shyly.
“Are you a faerie?” I asked, curiously. The creature blinked at me and was silent except for the steady drip-drip-drip of its black slime. I sighed, trying to think of what to do. I couldn’t just leave it in the garden, it was about to rain. Several days of storms, according to the news. Besides, Gram had always insisted that you had to treat the fae with respect, or else. She never said what “or else” would entail, but the hard glint in her eyes had told me it would be Bad with a capital B. Unfortunately, despite her endless warnings about the forests and the fae, her actual information had been rather limited. I mentally went through everything she had told me. Don’t cross the stream, don’t enter a fairy ring, never give out your real name or ask for theirs and be on the lookout for riddles. All pretty useless, for this situation. I sighed again, feeling a headache coming on. I'd only been back from university for a few hours, and already I was contemplating inviting a monster into our home. I eyed the black slime. My mum would go mental if that got on any of the carpet back in the house, and she would be back soon. But what else was there to do?
“Should we get that- erm…stuff off of you?” I asked, gesturing vaguely at the ooze. The creature said nothing, just looked at me with its small eyes before tilting its head, slightly. I took that as a good sign.
“I have a bath. In the house,” I turned and pointed behind me. “I’m not sure that stuff will wash off all that well in the stream. But with soap or something… well, we might as well give it a go.”
The creature didn’t respond, and I sensed it wasn’t going to, so I turned away from the stream and walked slowly back up the garden path. There was a low squelching noise from behind me, and I glanced back to see that the creature was following, leaving a streak of black in its wake. Pleased at my own decisiveness, I bottled my panic and disbelief somewhere deep down internally and focused on the task at hand. Bath time.
The journey to the bathroom was exactly as agonising as I’d expected. I was fairly certain that the carpet on the stairs was permanently stained, and that was to say nothing of the puddles of slime it left in the kitchen. The creature had kept slowing to look around, at least, that's what it had looked like. It had seemed especially fascinated with the fridge and the fridge magnets, which had resulted in a veritable lake of black ooze. But, after a lot of cajoling and harassing, we’d managed to make it up the stairs. And then the bath itself was its own nightmare. There was the issue of whether to fill the bath up first, while the creature continued to make puddles all over the place. I was worried about making the water too hot, and accidentally harming the creature. And not to mention the soap. I wasn’t sure if creatures like this could have allergies, but there was always a risk. If I touched anything with aloe in it, I came out all over in a red rash. Who knew what sort of reaction would happen between this creature and lavender oil? During all of this panic, the creature was exceedingly unhelpful, answering none of my questions and offering no guidance, simply staring at me owlishly as I filled the tub and held up different bath soaps for it to inspect.
In the end, I settled on a fairly plain, unscented soap with no bubbles, as well as lukewarm water, and instructed the creature to get in. I picked up a loofah, overwhelmed at the mess before me.
“Right,” I said, with more confidence than I actually felt, “I’m going to scrub as much of this off as I can, if that’s okay?” The trusty, almost imperceptible head tilt was my only answer. So, I rolled up my sleeves, and placed one hand on the creature's thick, sticky shoulder, to steady myself. My hand sank down into the slime, with an awful glooping noise that nearly made me laugh. I soaked my loofah in water and started sort of scraping at the other shoulder, giving it my best effort.
Four baths later, an entire bottle of bath soap, and a whole slew of towels, loofahs, flannels and scrubbing brushes, and the slime creature was all but gone. In its place sat an almost normal looking girl. She was completely and utterly ordinary looking, in fact. Almost as human as me, sitting sullen and sodden in the tub, still yet to utter a sound. Except, actually, I noticed now as the last of the black water drained away, she wasn’t completely ordinary. Her skin had the slightest tinge of blue to it. And her eyes, as she continued to stare at me, were a bit off somehow. Unsettling. Although I couldn’t pinpoint why.
The gurgle of the plughole sucking down the last of the water made me startle, and I was suddenly aware that the girl was blue-tinged, sure, but also naked. Awkwardly, I looked away and said, clearing my throat:
“I’ll get you some clothes. And we might have to give you a bit of a makeover. Your hair, well…” I trailed off, sending the girl (creature? faerie?) an apologetic glance. Her hair was a horrible, tangled, wet mess. Getting the slime off her head had been the hardest part. She looked back at me, eyes harder than before.
“Sorry.” I said. “It’s just that my mum’s going to be home soon, and I don’t know how long you want to stay. And if she sees that you’re, well, a bit blue, she might freak out a bit. And chuck you out into the rain. And I don’t know how you got to be covered in that stuff and standing at the bottom of my garden but it was awful, and it smelt awful, and it felt horrible. And if you go back out there, then whatever happened to you might happen again!”
I stopped, suddenly realising my voice had gotten significantly louder and higher in pitch the longer I spoke. The girl was looking at me still, but with less of the hardness from before. In fact, now her face was doing something funny, her lips twisting in an unusual way. It looked, vaguely, like a smile. I smiled tentatively back, and then glanced at my watch. It was nearly five.
“Shit!” I looked helplessly around the ruined bathroom and back to the girl still sitting naked in the bath. I flailed uselessly for another second and then took a deep breath in and out. “Okay, right. My mum’s going to be back any minute now. We’ll dress you in my clothes and put some of my makeup on you so that you look less blue, and let’s just pray to god she doesn’t immediately explode. Although I suppose the mess all over the house is going to raise a few questions before she even sees you.”
I went to my room, and pulled out a long sleeved turtleneck and some joggers. That should cover a lot of the blue skin. I hastily grabbed my makeup bag, socks and underwear before heading back to the bathroom. On the landing, however, I paused. I stared at the carpet by the stairs, that only moments before had been irreparably damaged. The slime-stains and puddles had all vanished completely, without a trace. If anything, the carpet looked cleaner than I had ever seen it look before. I gaped. Everything just kept getting stranger and stranger by the second. Shaking my head in disbelief, I stepped back into the bathroom with my arms full of goods.
“The house is miraculously clean again,” I said, with an amazed laugh. “Don’t suppose that had anything to do with you?”
The girl in the tub just looked at me, exuding a faintly smug air, and smirked slightly. Or the faerie equivalent of a smirk, I suppose. It was kind of hard to look directly at her face, probably for some bizarre magical reason. I laughed again, a bit delirious.
“Okay. Just another crazy thing to add to this day of craziness.” I said and handed over my pile of clothes. Gram had always taught me to roll with the punches. Growing up in a village where people mysteriously vanished in forests really helped you to learn how to accept the stranger things in life. “Here, put these on. And then we’ll sort out the blue issue.”
I turned around to give her some privacy, even though I’d already seen her in all of her blue-tinged naked glory. I didn’t want to get cursed by the fae because I offended some random faerie's dignity. Then again, I wondered, did the fae even wear clothes? And who was to say that the girl behind me in the bath was even a faerie? Only Gram would know, but she wasn’t here to tell. A voice cut through the air, interrupting my ramblings. It was quiet and broken-sounding, as if the vocal-cords had been all cut up with knives.
“You can turn around.”
For a moment, I was struck dumb. The voice had this terrible, scratching quality, like nails on a chalkboard, that made all the hairs on my arms stand on end. I shivered. And then the implication of the voice hit me and I whirled around in astonishment.
“You can talk!” I exclaimed, stupidly, and then was immediately distracted by the site of this blue-ish fae girl in my dumb black turtleneck. I bit my lip, trying not to laugh. It didn’t look bad, but now I had a mental image of entire clans of fae dancing around doing magic and wearing turtlenecks at the same time. It was quite funny.
“I could not… Before.” The girl said, with what sounded like some difficulty. “I could not speak-
“Because of the slime?” I interjected, in an attempt to stop her from speaking. It sounded quite painful for her to get words out. She looked at me, looking faintly irritated. It was probably bad manners to interrupt the fae.
“Yes.” She said, slowly. “I…was cursed. I have been cursed for many years. You saved me.” Suddenly, she fixed me with her hardest, most intense stare yet, steel black eyes emotionless. I nearly took a step back, it was so intense.
“You saved me.” She repeated, voice stronger now. “Why?”
I shrugged sort of awkwardly, “Well. It was going to rain.”
A strange silence fell over the both of us, at that. She seemed content just to watch me, her expression curious, and I felt too uncomfortable to break the silence. But time was ticking by, and her skin was still quite blue. I cleared my throat and picked up my makeup bag.
“Could I put some makeup on you? To make you less blue?”
She looked at me, puzzled, so I took out my foundation and demonstrated how to apply it. I dabbed some across my own cheeks and explained, “See? It will make you look more human so my Mum doesn’t notice.”
The faerie gave me an amused little smile, and shook her head.
“Humans.” She said, derisively. And then, in a blink, she changed. No more blue-tinged skin, or strange eyes, or a shifting face. No more matted wet hair. She looked completely normal.
“Wow.” I said, suitably impressed. “Cool trick.” She glared at me, irritated again.
“It is no trick.” She hissed, taking a step forwards, and I placed my hands in the air placatingly.
“Okay, okay. Sorry. Not a trick” I said, and she stopped looking ready to attack, mollified. Mental note, do not insult faerie magic.
“What can I call you?” I asked carefully, fairly certain it was rude to ask a faerie’s real name. It was the right thing to have said, because she smiled properly at me, for the first time.
“You are an interesting human.” She said, ignoring my question, her tone of voice silky in a way that made me feel distinctly like prey being sized up by its predator. “You know some of the customs. You are not afraid.”
Except, she was wrong. I was afraid. I had been afraid since I saw her dripping with ooze in the garden, like some sort of monster. I had been deathly afraid of her shifting face, and glinting eyes, and her awful glass-scraping voice. Even now, as she stood across from me, looking like any other girl around, I could taste my own fear, like bile at the back of my throat. But Gram had always told me that, with the fae, there were far worse things than fear. As if reading my mind, the faerie cocked her head and nodded a bit, seeming pleased.
“Ah. You are afraid.” She said, teeth bared. “Good. You are not a fool, after all.”
I swallowed, unable to look away from her terrifyingly normal face. She drew herself up, magically growing in height inch by inch, until she stood at least a head taller than me. The shadows of the room seemed to shift up the wall with her as she grew, and all the light moved to focus on her, in a startling spotlight. I stared, paralysed.
“Human.” She said, voice scratchier and more piercing than ever. It echoed strangely in the small space, bouncing off of the tiled bathroom walls. “You have done a great service. For that, your debts shall be repaid. If you ever need us, you only have to call to the forest, and it shall answer.”
She fixed me with one last penetrating stare and in her eyes I saw a truly terrible promise, a promise that sealed my fate with one damning look, forever. And then, before I could utter a single word in reply, she was gone. Vanished without a trace.
The bath was clean and dry. Not a single black puddle could be seen, anywhere. There was only a faint smell- a clean, sort of metallic smell, like the air after a thunderstorm- to indicate that she had ever been sitting in my bath, covered in tar-like slime, at all.