No one ever goes to the small grove where a woman named Jane likes to sit and pass the hours. The trees there, while close and stifling, are not nearly as oppressive as the air within her parents’ home. In the center of the grove is a well. It is long since it has been used; the stones that were so carefully placed together are crumbling and old moss rubs off on Jane’s silk stockings when she sits beside it, dreaming of freedom.
Jane is nothing like her parents. They are tall as columns and thin as rails and their hair is perfectly coiffed. Her mother’s steel corset is pulled tight as can be and her father’s waistcoat is never undone. Jane is short and plump and she bites her nails and her hair won’t hold its pins. Jane should have found a husband years ago, her parents say, and can’t understand why she doesn’t want one.
On a day that began just like any other, Jane went to the grove. The air was chill and leaves cracked underfoot as she slipped between the trees. Branches rustled over her head and her skirt snagged on a branch, causing a tear in the seam. Jane didn’t mind. She sank down by the well and plucked up a sprig of toadflax that grew alongside it.
As she did so, birds swarmed out of the limbs overhead and clouds covered the sky, casting the grove, and Jane with it, into purple shadow. From behind a tree stepped a young man. He was beautiful, it could not be denied. The planes of his face were pristine, his nose arched just so and his russet hair fell gracefully over one green eye. Jane was unmoved and unafraid. No man had ever shown any interest in her, and she was uninterested in them.
“What are you doing, pulling that flower up?” he said. “You should have asked me first. This grove belongs to me.”
Jane tossed her head. “My father owns this land. I’ll pull up any flower I like,” she said, “and I’ll ask you for nothing. I’ve been coming here for years and I’ve never seen the likes of you.”
It took only a moment for him to reach her side, and once there he snatched her by her waist and threw her to the ground, his arms stronger than thick vines and his hands quicker than the birds that had fled at his coming. Jane struggled, but she was no match for him. When he was finished with her he rose, tied the string on his trousers and reached out a hand to help Jane up off the ground.
Jane stood on her own, brushing leaves from her skirt and pulling sticks from her hair. “I don’t want anything from you.”
“Pity, that, for you’ve already got something of me. I am Tim, a simple wanderer,” he spoke with a flourish, “until I fell from my horse and was captured by the Queen of Fairy. She carried me off and has kept me by her side ever since.”
“I don’t believe in faeries.” Janie laughed sharply, frightened now but too proud to show it.
“Your choice, Jane,” he sneered, “but believe this. You now carry my child, and unless you want to care for it for the rest of its life, you will be here, at this well on this very night. I’ll gladly claim what’s mine, but first you must free me.”
Jane put a hand to her belly and ran from the grove, his eyes flaming in the clouds above her. What am I going to do?
Jane’s mother and father were in the library, taking high tea, when Jane returned from the woods. Her mother set her cup down daintily.
“Jane, you are expected to join us. You know this.”
In the hall, the clock chimed.
“Jane, attend to your mother,” her father said.
“Look at me,” Jane said. “Can’t you see the state I’m in? A man has forced himself upon me!”
Her mother rose, dress rustling, and put a pale hand to her mouth.
“Do you see what you’ve done?” Her father cursed. “You have upset your mother now. Your behavior is unfitting, Jane.”
“It cannot be true!” Jane’s mother fell in a swoon.
Jane’s eyes were round in disbelief. She knew her parent’s found her distasteful, but surely even they would show concern at their daughter’s plight. No, it was not to be.
Her father’s face was a plum about to burst and his finger pointed like a cannon into Jane’s tear-streaked face. “You will leave this house by nightfall and you will not return, do you understand me? I have had quite enough of you. You will be the ruin of us.”
Jane ran to her rooms in a fury and once there, fell onto her bed. The fireplace was cold and empty. What would she do, homeless and with child? She didn’t want a child, had never wanted a child. The very idea horrified her. As she lay on the bed, contemplating her future, anger finally moved her. This was Tim’s doing. She would meet him at the well and do as he asked as long as in nine months’ time, he took the baby. She would go into the city when it was done and find employment. It wasn’t exactly the kind of freedom she’d imagined, but it would have to do.
The sky was dark and the grove was still when she arrived, but no sooner had she sat at the well than Tim appeared again.
“Are you considering my offer, my dear?”
“I have no choice, it seems.” Jane said.
Thunder crashed, shivering the trees, and Tim’s face turned the color of ash. “She is waiting.”
Janie looked up into a darkening sky. “What do I do?”
Tim bent down on a knee and whispered in her ear. “Grab me as we ride by, pull me down onto the ground.”
Janie raised an eyebrow. “Ride by?”
“You will see. Hold me, Jane. Do not let me get away.”
“What do you mean?”
“She will change me.” Tim stood, brushing the leaves from his trousers, and turned away. “I’ll be riding the black,” he called out as he walked into the woods.
Jane sat on the ground and curled up against the well. Who was this Tim, she wondered, and what did he mean? Fairies were the stuff of children’s stories, nothing more. He was taking her for a fool, but what else could she do? She needed him to take his baby away from her.
The evening passed slowly. Jane napped, but was woken by owls screeching overhead. She itched where some insect had left its mark on her thigh. After what seemed an eternity of waiting, Jane heard them coming.
It could only be them. From the west, the sound of engines crept slowly through the woods. She was frightened, for engines were rare things and she did not quite understand them. Metal and fumes, sockets and gears, these were the things of nightmares. She looked frantically around her, wondering how such a host would find its way through her little grove, when she saw a wide path open, threading its way between the trees and passing just beside the well by which she crouched.
From out of the woods came the first of the riders on a monstrous machine. Its frame was of pristine white metal, its engine was of brass with jutting bolts and gears that ground along by some mysterious current. It seemed as though someone had mounted an engine on a bicycle; smoke belched from tailpipes curled in the shape of two horns. As Jane’s gaze fell upon its rider, she believed. The queen wore a white suit, trousers and all, with a belt fashioned of brass and onyx. Her head was wrapped in a scarf to match and over her eyes were huge, insect-like goggles.
Next came a rider on a red bike, the deep hue of ripe cherries, with arching golden handlebars. There was a purr and spurt of rubber as the high front wheel rolled over a fallen log. His hair was Venetian red, the orange inside a fire, and his face was as sharp as a knife. His armored coat hugged his slender chest and his boots, soft golden leather buckled in bronze, wrapped tightly around his calves. Oh yes, Jane believed.
Tim was next – or she thought it was he. The machine was black and that was all she needed. Jane launched herself from her hiding place and grabbed the black rider by his waist, throwing him down onto the ground as his bike tipped and sputtered. The troop came to a halt.
He’d said the queen would change him, but that had meant nothing to Jane. Nothing, until she saw the queen smile and felt Tim’s body beneath her shift, grow small, smaller, until she held a fine babe in her arms. Its mouth opened and a terrible wailing sprouted from the depths of its lungs. A baby! Jane wanted to drop it; her mind instantly went to her belly and her eyes rolled back in her head. Was this the thing inside her? She wanted it out, out of her body; she did not care if it killed her. Death had to be better than this crying, spitting infant.
And yet, if this was Tim transformed by the queen’s power, she must hold tight, otherwise this is what she’d end up with. She clung tighter as the baby cried harder and time became one endless howl. Jane began to cry herself, her neck bowing until her forehead touched the baby’s own. Eyes on the face so close to hers, her breath warming the babe’s cold cheeks, Jane experienced an unexpected compassion. Her arms shifted so the tiny body rested comfortably on her chest and her hand began to stroke its fragile spine. A cough, a splutter of phlegm, and the baby grew still. Jane kissed its furry head and looked at the queen, whose smile grew even larger.
The moment of relief was hardly over when Jane felt the baby shift, its body elongating, sharp bones punching against her body where soft flesh had been, its face stretching as cheekbones rose like mountains out of the earth. Jane found herself clutching the waist of a hideous woman. Sores dotted her naked body and her black hair, what there was of it, was stringy and lank; it hung down over her mottled face like brittle vines in winter.
The woman coughed and her black eyes, once bright but now dim and rimmed with yellow ooze, fixed on Jane’s face. Jane, with a creeping horror, began to find the familiar within the woman’s gaze. Those brows, the way they grew almost together, that mole, the scar on her neck where a branch had struck her in the forest – it was herself she held, battered and broken.
Oh, how she wanted to drop that woman, herself with all of her sickness, the sore and aching body, the face that looked blandly into her own as if to say this, this is where your choice will lead you. Jane did not let go. In her own ugly face, Jane accepted her choice. She bent her mouth to her own crusty lips and gently pressed them in, the moment of contact sending a jolt through her body as the queen smiled again.
Suddenly, where limbs had been were stems, great thorny stems topped by a field of white roses. Janie painfully gathered them to her. The roses were unreal, the thorns were made of metal; they gouged at her arms and covered her in red welts and scratches. The harder she tried to grasp the bouquet, the deeper she was cut. She wanted to scatter the flowers, to throw them in the queen’s face. Jane didn’t even like roses, as far as flowers go; she always thought they were highly overrated.
Now, Jane felt powerful. She had passed two trials already, and wasn’t that enough? She didn’t need Tim after all, did she? No matter how her logic tried to free her from the roses, her hands would not let go of them. She thought then of her long skirt, and of how she could wrap the cloth around the stems and hold them. If she could just ease the pain a little bit…
But no. Jane thought of her parents, both as beautiful as the roses, both every bit as painful. Jane had been smothering that pain for years now, and enough was enough. She stopped struggling with the bouquet and instead embraced the roses, thorns and all, pulling them into herself so tightly that her skin was pierced in a thousand places. She hardly noticed as she buried her face in the flowers and inhaled their lovely scent. Awash in the perfume, she did not see as, one by one, the petals started falling. They dropped silently to the ground around her as Tim took shape among the naked stems.
The Queen of Fairy seemed more amused than angry.
“So, Jane, you have taken my Tim from me,” she said with a smirk. “You’ve got yourself a fine catch.”
“He is not a catch. He got me with child,” Jane said, looking the fairy woman straight in the eye. “I don’t want him. I just want him to take his baby and leave me be.”
The queen glanced at Tim, her lips curling cruelly and her eyes sparking. “Shame be upon you, Tim of the Lane. Did I not satisfy your needs?”
Tim hung his head. “She seduced me, Lady, I swear it. Never would I leave your side willingly, though you would not have me!”
Jane stood, outraged, and turned to the queen. “He is lying!”
The queen turned her eyes upon Jane and probed her for the truth of what had happened.
“You carry no babe, dear Jane, but if only I had known,” the queen turned to the crouching man, “I would have torn off your prick, my Tim, and put on you one of stone.”
Jane’s mouth hung open. She was not with child after all. The whole world seemed to open up before her.
“You are a strange one,” the queen said to Jane. “Would you like to come with me?”
She held out her hand to Jane, who took it without hesitation. The fairy woman pulled a spare set of goggles from out of a pocket and handed them to her.
“You’ll need these.”
Jane fixed the goggles to her face and settled onto the seat of the black bicycle. She cranked the handle on top of the engine and it sprang to life. The queen shouted and raised her arm and the host, in a billow of smoke and trailing the scent of sulphur, rode off into the night leaving Tim, alone at the well, in a pile of petals.
[Header photo: Deux-Sèvres, France.]