A butterfly flutters overhead, dips and curves on cosmic air pockets, and fades into the evening sky. A crack takes shape in the tiles under the left claw foot of the cast iron hot tub. At first a fingernail edge, it breaks out into a split moon. The tile snaps in half. From now on, the water in the tub slants a little and makes it easier for the night fairies to sit on the porcelain edge and dip their toes into the flower-scented water. Their skin ripples silver like jewelweed leaf submerged under a moving current.
The water stagnates. Grass grows. Tiny white flowers and budding fruit trees fertilized by their fallen crops of rotting fruit offer the only nectar around. The night fairies darken and begin to blend into the blackness as the waterline in the tub recedes beyond their reach and turns black-green with algae and dead insects.
Engine in the distance. Gaseous, oily smell. The overrun driveway is overrun. Uphill from the hot tub, the rambling house tenses. Asleep under the wilting white flowers, the night fairies begin to dream.
Legend ventures forth from the coughing confines of his car. Faded yellow, it has brought him this far. As he slams the door, the vehicle sighs and goes quiet. The key is still in the ignition.
The sun is luminescent overhead. The man is pale, an albino with golden eyes. He dons a broad-brim hat of woven grass. The brim is dyed red. He digs in his pockets for the key to the house; it barely fits because of the rust. The battered door creaks inward. Dust and bottled love make his nostrils flare. Legend sniffs to clear the tears from his eyes.
A cat streaks past him hissing. The jolt gives Legend his first taste of hesitancy, but he steps past the threshold.
He sees her as a little girl sitting on the bottom of the stairs in a grey plaid dress. A ghost without a face stands behind her plaiting her hair.
Legend turns left. His boots touch the worn rug carpet on the floor, but the strands tickle his feet. He enters the living room.
He sees her in a dark purple dress, laughing as she sits on an ottoman and tries to strap her feet into a pair of glittering silver shoes. They cost ten dollars despite having been left behind at the inn by an actress passing through. She worked all summer to earn them. The left heel broke off before she made it out the front gate.
The purple of her dress begins to fade into the gloom. Legend tears open the clammy yellow curtains at the windows to revive her.
The kitchen is next at the head of the hall that starts at the front door. Here two spinster ghosts are whisking smooth raspberry jam. Legend finds a row of wax-sealed bottles on the plain wood countertop near the stove and a small silver tray enameled with the letters N E C T A R.
He sees her dart into the kitchen to taste the sweet mix cooking down thick on the stove. Her red lips purse as she licks. Her voice echoes in the small room before exiting through the broken window above the sink. “Too sweet. Mum’s secret ingredient is a dash of salt.”
In the corner of Legend’s eye, the saltshaker trembles. The pepper shaker responds by vibrating.
He saves the upstairs bedroom for last. Her door is yellow and the paint peeling. Light blue bedspread and no curtains. A lava lamp, ghastly green, is still cycling on the windowsill. Vintage radio player tuned to a classical music station. It is off.
Legend turns it on.
He sees her dangling her legs off the bed, swaying a little, and deciding to dance. Light on the polished floor, she twirls until her essence flies past the lava lamp and drains away.
The radio station blinks out. Alone in the anguished silence, Legend sinks to his knees and grieves.
The night fairies are too tired to observe the man through more than hooded eyes. Compared to the buried ladies, he is tall and moon-white pale. He wears a sunhat while crawling around the garden beds outside the house and gloves to protect his hands as he tears up weeds and digs the soil. He leaves behind the broad-leafed rhubarb plant, but aggressively uproots raspberries trying to sow themselves in the lawn behind the kitchen. He downsizes a mint patch with much panting and rescues a thyme cluster from a forming thistle bed.
From along the stone-edged beds, he collects broken shells and pewter plates, small silver cups and spoons, and chipped saucers into a pile on a low garden table under the honeysuckle bower.
The night fairies sigh. It has been a long time since anything but dead leaves, dirt, and stains gathered in the dew cups and nectar receptacles. Flies are all that come to the vessels now.
Loud crashes and faint hints at classical music issue forth from the house long after the man has tidied the outdoors around the home. Peeking over the windowsills, drowsy in the sun, the night fairies begin to turn white as they watch the man.
He talks to himself as he works, cleaning each room as though it is his forever home. Half asleep, the night fairies consider him more encapsulating than the buzzing flies.
Legend finds it wading through the silky-smooth grass in the yard. There was a path once, but he can barely see it. It is a thin strip of hard-packed dirt where no grass grows, and plantain has sprung up.
Legend wrinkles his nose at the four inches of black, clogged water at the bottom of the tub sitting out in the sun. He steps on and almost trips as a collapsed bamboo screen buckles under his boots. A rusted water pump with a still-working handle spurts out frigid water when he cranks the lever. A pail with a hole in the base lies on its side, home to moss and a handful of warring spiderwebs.
He sees her, naked shoulders visible above the bamboo screen. A fire under the tub heats the sea-blue water. Rose petals and bath salts scent the stream. She darts out from behind the screen, flinging a flimsy throw behind her, and splashes into the tub. She is a nymph under the stars, her head tilted back, and her auburn hair tied up in a messy bun. She looks at him and laughs, flicks water at him with fingers wrinkling in the liquid.
Legend walks slowly back to the house. Something, her perhaps, dies in the air behind him. The space congeals.
Gone a short time, he returns with a red tin pail and a short-handled brush. The water he pumps numbs his hands, but he drains the tub of its infested water and begins to wash down the porcelain walls. He feels her smile return.
The night fairies gather on the moss around the water pump. The man is using the tub. He has cut down the grass around it and even placed a screen of willow branches where the old bamboo one used to stand. The air is tinged with smoke and the definite aura of bath salts so old the grains were one solid clump in the bottle.
The man lies in the water until the fire beneath the tub dies and his skin shrivels. He walks back to the house on bare feet wrapped in a blush pink bath towel, one arm stretched out like he is holding a beloved.
He forgets to drain the tub. Though it is a little salty, the night fairies gather on the white enameled edges and dip their toes in until the water stings.
Legend finds an old book in the kitchen. On faded paper, the pages are etched with hand-drawn flowers and plants. Each rock and shell and moss tuft are carefully detailed. Her sisters drew and colored the plants, but she wrote about them.
Simple, neat words about potions and essences, bathwater and lotions. Black ink. Probably a quill. Legend cannot find the quill.
He sits at the kitchen table with his feet up on a second chair. Jam on his bread, he reads. He glances up. He sees her.
Out in the kitchen garden she is rubbing her skin down with a creamy lotion. She never would tan. He loved that about her. Tiny fingers and toes, she rubs until her whole body glistens. Donning a white cotton shift with loose sleeves, she runs up the stone path to the kitchen door. She never enters.
The page numbers in the book are held in the hands of small fairies. Some have black skin, others white. Each being is delicate and precise and leaps off the paper with its presence.
The garden beds are drawn in black and white. Legend spies the pewter cups and plates and loose silver penciled in among the rocks. She has labeled each one. Honey, moon water, hydrangea essence, rose petals, geranium lotion, jam, dew.
Legend finds the rose petal saucer broken in two as he sets the little receptables back in their places among the rockery of the garden. He improvises with his ash tray. He has not used it in a long while.
He sees her smoking. She breaths in the dawn in one fragile breath and exhales a beautiful dusk, the silver cigarette holder a part of her hand.
Small bottles at the back of a kitchen cabinet are labeled in her hand but barely half-filled. Legend finds honey and dabs jam from the jar he opened into a tiny silver cup. A small matchbox post office he finds in shambles under a growing hollyhock while setting out the saucer for dew he repairs and tucks between the young beginnings of two hibiscus bushes.
He relaxes in the hot tub again under the stars. The space is big enough for her to sneak in beside him. This time he uses a fresher bottle of bath salts mixed with dried flower petals and summer scents. She tied the ribbon around the bottle. She put a little piece of herself inside.
He walks up to the house with her later, turns on the radio, and waltzes with her in the spacious living room. She wears her silver strap heels found under the sofa and makes them match by breaking off the second heel.
In the morning the honey and jam, moon water and lotion cups are empty. No ants in sight. A drop of dew remains in the sacuer under the hollyhock.
Legend finds a note in the post office. On paper no bigger than his fingernail clipping, he cannot read it, yet he finds he knows what it says.
She is here on the land from whence she came. She is here in the pieces of what she used to do, alive in practice.
Out under the stars the night fairies splash in the cool tub water to wash the sticky honey off their faces. A moth dips and curves overhead, flutters on galactic air pockets, and drifts into the gloaming sky.
One night fairy writes a note, lips pursed, fingers clenched on her pine needle pen. She leaves it in the post office and sits down to the last tastes of jam. In the kitchen, Legend tastes her on his tongue.
Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash
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