The Other Crowd
Maple Solstice Waldron
Roisin extinguished the last candle before deserting the warm little hut, careful not to whisper the rushes laid thick upon the dirt floor. She cast one last look at the empty space beside her mother, the soft indent where her brother used to be, illuminated by the flickering shadows thrown by the crackling fire. He had been missing seven days now. Not a soul had heard of him, not a single witness to place him on the road. Mihail was a sliver of a child, worn thin by a harsh winter full of boiled cabbage and bread crusts. He wouldn’t last two hours on his own, let alone a week. A small part of Roisin believed that if he was already lost to the otherworld, she would feel it. The last few days had torn her asunder, left the pieces of her grief scattered across the hearth and mingled with her mother’s. Her Ma only burrowed into the safety of her cot, the peace of the heather where the real world couldn’t touch you. Dead or not, Roisin knew she had to bring his body back. He belonged at home, not lost to the cruel abyss of the bogs or left to rot in a field.
The chill night air slid its fingers through her auburn hair, the long tresses only partially concealed beneath her thick shawl. She felt the depth of her solitude in the stillness of the early spring, the wind singing gently through the tall grass. Her neighbors would think her a fool to walk past the fairy fort at night, but the fairies were as good at finding things as they were at taking them, and Roisin knew no other option. There were stories of mortals who traded favors in the forbidden bushes, the gnarled branches and vines the fairies called home. True, most humans unlucky enough to meet the fair folk ended up crumpled on the forest floor, their necks twisted the wrong way.
She crept through the eerie stillness, not a bird or beast to witness her. She walked for what felt like hours, each step forward revealing only waves of emerald, interrupted only by the burning embrace of nettle clinging to her wool skirts. Roisin plunged forward, ignoring the stinging at her ankles, trying not to listen to the fearful voice in her head that begged her to forget about her little brother. The field finally yielded, not to the familiar crescent of hawthorn bushes that held her only chance to bring Mihail back home, but to the maw of a dark wood, yawning damp and ancient in the sparse moonlight. Roisin paused, one foot stretching into the forest and the other firmly on the familiar earth of the field.
A scream hurtled through the night, raw and shrill. It came from somewhere in the inky depths of the trees, slicing through the shadows. Roisin dashed after it, nearly slipping on the spongy beds of moss lining the unfamiliar path. Her thin leather soles were meant for days gathering herbs, not sprinting through the night after god knows what. The scream came again, closer this time, harsh and guttural in Roisin’s ears. She ran faster, legs burning as she leapt over gnarled tree roots, stones skittering beneath her battered feet. The wind seemed to match her pace, swirling around her in an earsplitting roar that drowned out the visions of Mihail flailing in the river, his last words swallowed by the current. She could barely remember why she was running.
Roisin felt herself being flung forward, as if someone had dropped down from the canopy of leaves above and drove all their weight between her shoulder blades. Shooting pain flooded her torso as she gasped for air, her heart thudding to a tune she couldn’t quite interpret. The rough earth beneath her was no comfort, prodding into her aching spine.
“I’ve been told you’re looking for us.” A young raven-haired woman loomed over Roisin’s prone form, dressed in a pale gray gown that trailed behind her. Her eyes shone in the gloom, an unnatural icy blue.
Roisin swallowed, looking away from the woman’s piercing gaze. “I’m after my brother. He’s been missing for a week and there’s nobody alive that’s seen him.”
The woman considered her, kneeling on the leaf-strewn ground. She reached out a slender hand to the younger girl’s bruised cheek, smirking as she flinched. “Am I not alive, child? We walk among your kind and on the edges of the world as we have always done. I am no spirit.” She stood, brushing her hands on the iridescent folds of her skirt. “You are foolish, but I have what you seek.”
Roisin grimaced as she attempted to sit up, the warped boughs of the hazel grove around them twisting into tentacles in her blurry vision. She wished she was back home, sweeping the hearth and lighting candles for Mihail’s safe return, but she would never see him again if she escaped now. “You have seen my brother?”
“A woman has taken him. She is like me. It is difficult for us to have children on our own. He wandered into our wood with hunger in his bones. She meant no harm. The boy needed a mother.”
“He has a mother. Mihail cannot live abroad. Not in that other place.” Roisin felt behind her, her hands weak and clumsy. She needed a stick, a rock, anything to defend herself.
“He is dearly loved by my people. It will cost you to return him.” The woman smiled, revealing rows of jagged, yellow canines, a trace of predator in her quiet beauty.
“I will give anything. My mother will die without him.” Roisin tugged the comforting weight of her shawl further around her shoulders, fingering the unraveling ocher thread.
The woman scoffed, drawing closer to Roisin’s aching form, the cool fog curling around her ankles. “The boy was half-starved when he was found. Brittle as a bird. He will die with her if she is not careful.”
Roisin groaned and pulled her defeated legs into the safety of her chest, the forest leaving its mark in the scratches and broken skin. “My father passed on before the harvest. The winter left us bleeding. Our cow has given milk but three times this month, and there were many before then where she gave nothing. The sheep were picked off while we slept. He starves as I do. It is not for lack of love or kindness.” She tried to ignore the stinging in her eyes, the fire in her cheeks. She could not lose her brother too. No matter how difficult it was to tend to cabbage that turned to black slime, to wander the road with a beggar’s cup, to choose between stomachs and the sharp promises of their landlord.
The woman stole across the clearing, closing the space between them. Her breath smelled like the deep licorice of bitter-vetch and the rotten sweetness of the blackthorn, death in the spring. “Another must take his place.”
The words barely registered in the fear-filled cavern of Roisin’s mind. She gazed into the steel winter of the woman’s ancient eyes. For a moment, she looked not a woman, but the faded face of a corpse, tinged blue in the quiet clearing. She shook her head, and the woman appeared again, her ruby lips pursed.
“Why? Why take anyone at all? He belongs here. He was born here. Humans do not last long in your world.”
The woman laughed, the sound skittering through the trees. “My people are nearly forgotten. You appease us with milk left on windowsills, a loaf to bless your harvest, a tin of tobacco. In the old days we took your children. We nurtured them through the cruel turns of the seasons and the bloody affairs of men. You have forgotten our names. You forget that we were like gods once, with every mortal clamoring for our favor. Fear is not the same as worship. We need your kind to stay alive.”
Roisin wondered if her mother had noticed her absence. If she had the same desperate thoughts she did, enough to make a deal with those that walked in shadow. In all the stories, it was a maiden or a lost boy or a man without a lick of sense. A brash youth rants to his neighbors about the Hawthorn tree right in the spot he wants to build his new barn. The neighbors warn him in vain that the tree belongs to the other crowd. They don’t take their property being messed with kindly. He wakes up in the chill of dawn, drives his axe into the trunk, and realizes his leg is severed below the knee. Roisin knew her fate the moment she left the warmth of the little hut and strode across the fields she’d known all her life. She wanted to save Mihail, didn’t she?
“I will go in his stead.” Roisin reached out to the woman, her hand open in offering. She ignored the ceaseless thudding of her heart, the part of her that screamed for her to run far from this place, to abandon little Mihail in the land that time forgot.
The woman closed her hand over the girl’s and leaned forward, pulling her from her bed of oak leaves and trampled mushrooms. Roisin felt the pain leave her legs, the spring air seeping through her thick skirts. She felt as if she could stand again, clinging to the thin frame of her otherworldly companion.
“It is not like mortals to give themselves freely. I have known men braver than you who have cowered at my feet. Men who let their wives remain between worlds in the interest of their own preservation.” The woman curved her arm around Roisin’s waist, supporting her as she regained herself. “He will return at sunrise.”
Roisin nodded and focused on memorizing the glen around them. The ferns crawling up the path, waving gently in the wind. The thick curtain of leaves that drooped down from every direction, obscuring every pinprick of moonlight. The carpet of moss spread beneath her, disrupted only by the leaf-strewn earth. “Where will I go?”
The woman whispered, “Through the brambles, past the old oak tree, and down through the twilight. It is a place that is and is not. Do not be afraid, child. No harm will come to you.”
Roisin only nodded. The tears came heavy and unrelenting, salty and bitter. She burrowed her face into the fairy woman’s shoulder, into the smell of dew and rotting wood.
She felt the night vanish around her, nothing but the wind to hold her as the ground disappeared. In just a few years, Mihail would not remember her. She would be a ghost, a name to be passed around on the solstice and Samhain. A candle in the window.
Sara Cho Stailey is the owner and creator of Liminal Heart Studio. She dabbles in woodblock printing, oil painting, and watercolor. Her handmade whimsical creations are inspired by nature and animals. Favorite subjects include anthropomorphic animals, rabbits, figures, and surreal landscapes.
Sara Cho (Stailey) (@liminalheart_)
Maple Solstice began her writing career beneath a rosebush, while she waited for the Goblin King to kidnap her. She won a CCA (Conference Choice Award) from San Diego State University for her first novel, How Ramòn Died, in 2018. She’s currently writing her second, a love letter to family curses and the people who break them.