Fay woke on the floor of a large kitchen, her feet twisted in a ragged cloth she supposed was meant to serve as a blanket. She stretched and sat up. She vaguely remembered she had fallen asleep in the clearing after eating a fairy fruit. She could still taste its sweet tang, sticky in the back of her throat. She tried to swallow and shuddered.
The kitchen was made entirely of wood. The floor was wood, as were the walls and ceiling. The counters and the shelves were carved out of the walls in smooth swooping arcs that flowed with the wood grain. Even the table in the center of the room was wood. It grew out of the floor, branches twisting into a lattice work so tight, it was perfectly smooth.
The room had no hearth, no stove, nothing that could burn, which considering the amount of wood was not shocking.
Many of the shelves held a variety of glass bottles and jars full of a variety of liquids and odd objects. They reminded her briefly of her papa’s study, which had held all his scientific specimens. Remembering why she had come into Fairyland in the first place, she turned away from them and headed for the open door.
She passed by the table, which held a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, nuts and cheeses. Her stomach grumbled as she passed, but Fay had had quite enough of fairy food.
Fay stepped outside into a small open area beneath the trees with a small fire burning and a kettle suspended above it. “Hello,” she called out. “Hello?”
No one answered.
She looked back to the house and jerked in surprise. The house was not a house, but a tree. Fay walked around it in a few steps -- it was only about ten feet around -- and then came back to the front to stare through the door into a kitchen that was far to large to fit within the tree. She tried to make sense of what she was seeing, but it gave her a headache. She shook her head and turned away.
Fay didn’t know whose tree-house this was, or how she had got there, but all that mattered was her papa wasn’t there and she needed to find him. She picked a direction at random and strolled away through the trees.
It wasn’t long before she started to feel ill. Not long after growing ill, she became dizzy and collapsed into a prickly bush.
Everything hurt. Every muscle and bone sang with pain. She tried to breath, but she felt as though there was a rope knotted in her gut that lead straight back to the tree-house. She followed it back on her hands and knees, unable to even stand. The closer she got to the tree, the more her pain eased.
A thick figured woman stood near the fire, with her hands on her hips and a smug expression on her face. Her eyes were cold, slimy, stagnant pools.
Fay swallowed and tried to smile. “Um. Hi,” she managed. “I’m F--“
“Get up,” the woman said. “Get up, and get to work.”
“What?” Fay shoved herself to her feet. “I don’t understand.”
The woman strode over to Fay and slapped her across the face. “I found you,” she said, “so I get to keep you.”
Fay held her stinging cheek and stared.
“Didn’t get far, did you?” The woman smiled and grabbed Fay by the hair. “I bound you to the tree. It’s better than a leash. You’’ll do what I say, when I say, you hear, and you won’t upset me, because if you do, I’ll feed you to wild dogs.”
Her whole body shaking, Fay nodded. The woman shoved her aside. “Now get on into the house and scrub the floors.”
Fay did as she was told.
* * *
The tree belonged to Vervain, and Vervain, Fay was sure, was a witch. Her tree-house held many, many rooms, some tall and thin, some short and wide. Fay cleaned them all. Fay scrubbed floors, scoured pots, washed dishes. She cleaned the little bottles that lines the shelves and swept dust from dark corners. She beat rugs, changed and washed bedding, wrinkled her fingers in sudsy water to wash clothing.
The cleaning wasn’t so bad. The worst was when Vervain made Fay drink her potions and spells to test them. One potion made the world seem swoony for a whole day. Another made her fall desperately love with a caterpillar for a several hours. A green slimy looking mixture, turned Fay into a frog, but only half way, her skin green, her legs rubbery and flippered, and her eyes bulging painfully. One black, bubbling potion made it so she could hear the shadows speak, and Fay was so ill after drinking it that for days she was sure she was going to die.
Time passed in this manner. Whether days, weeks, or months, Fay wasn’t sure.
While dusting out the shelves one day, Fay found a silvery spider’s web in the corner of one of the upper rooms. In it’s center sat a slender gray spider with long black legs. Light glittered off the silk strands.
“Beautiful.” The word escaped Fay’s lips in a hushed sigh, the tension in her chest easing for one small moment and allowing her to smile.
Fay turned. The little hob who worked for Vervain stood in the doorway. He was a mere three feet tall with knobby knees and gnarled hands. Several branches grew from his forehead like horns, and when he was happy, little green sprouts appeared. The sprouts never lasted long though, for the witch was always making someone miserable.
Fay watched him work sometimes as he leapt from shelf to shelf, pulling ingredients from the colored bottles and gathering them together on the table for Vervain’s potions. Fay didn’t know his name. All the witch called him was hob -- stupid hob, damned hob, idiot hob. For a long time Fay thought that was his name, until she finally figured out that the witch called him hob because that’s what he was -- a tree hob.
“What? Why?” she said, startled that the hob had spoken to her, since he never had before. “It hasn’t done anything to you.”
“Vervain hates spiders,” he said. “Kill it, or she’ll be angry. Kill it, or I’ll kill it.”
Fay looked from the hob to the spider and back again.
The hob strode toward the spider. Noticing this, Fay leapt to the web and swooped the spider into her hands. She darted to the window, threw it open, and tossed the little grey spider into the air. It arched up and a moment latter cast out a thread of silk. It drifted gentle down to the ground, the breeze carrying it away from the tree-house.
She turned back to the room, feeling triumphant. “There see. Now there’s no harm done to anyone.”
The little hob glared.
Fay wiped the webbing from her palms and stretched out her hand to the hob. “I’m Fay.”
He didn’t move. “I know who you are.”
She lowered her hand, unfazed. “What’s your name?”
He grumbled to himself, mumbling for a full minute about humans and the stupidity of girls, and then finally said, “Bupkis. My name is Bupkis.”
Fay laughed, delighted. “It’s nice to meet you, Bupkis, the tree hob.” Smiling, she reached for the broom and began to sweep the remains of the spider web from the corner. “You know, you’re the first fairy I’ve met in Fairyland. Unless you count Vervain.” Fay spun toward him. “Does she count? Is she a fairy?”
Bupkis waived away the question. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I didn’t think so,” said Fay, returning to her work. “I figured she was just a witch.”
Bupkis said nothing, and when she turned around he was gone.
* * *
Vervain often moved house, which she would do by leaning over the branch woven table in the kitchen and whispering strange words to it. The entire tree rumbled, then shuddered, then rocked, drawing its roots up out of the ground like tentacles. The roots settled themselves atop the ground like many feet, lifted the tree up, up, up, and then the whole tree-house strode through the woods, graceful as an insect.
Fay stood in one of the upper rooms, leaning against the glass of the window. Below her, she could see the tops of the trees rushing by as the tree-house walked.
“Astounding!” Fay said, swaying with the movement of the tree. “How does she do it?”
“She doesn’t,” answered Bupkis, grumpy, which seemed to be his daily mood.
“What do you mean?”
“The tree does it, all on its own. She tells it where to go, and the tree obeys.” The hob sat on the top of a bureau, his mottled lips puckered as though he had bitten into a lemon.
Fay tilted her head. “Why does it obey?”
“Why do you obey?” he said bitterly. “Why do I?”
She sighed and studied her bare toes. She knew why, because they had no choice.
Bupkis stared out the window at the passing sky, his expression blank. “She came one day and cut out the heart of my tree to make her home. It was my tree and it was my heart, but she cut it out and hid it. Now she owns both my tree and me, and there’s nothing we ever can do to be free.”
“Not without the heart.” The hob dropped lowered his head to his knees and wept sticky sap tears.
Fay crossed the room and sat next him, placing her hand on his back. So softly she wasn’t sure whether he would hear, and yet it seemed to loud with Vervain downstairs and so near by, she whispered, “Well, then. We’ll just have to find the heart, so both of us can break free.”
[To read more Fay Fairburn stories click here.]