by V. F. Thompson
Lights and sounds and heavy air, all around.
The man accepts the drink with grateful weariness. Tipping the bartender with a hollow smile, he raises the glass and sips. Some fruit he can’t quite place, fine Irish crème, and a sprig of fresh mint. The bartender flickers in the swirling colors, his impish face mirroring the smile before turning away.
He closes his eyes, head swimming. The music cavorts and capers around him, tousling his hair and teasing his ears. It is like heavy scented oil, smothering the mind in sensations. Seeking solace, he sips his beverage. It tastes sweet and sad. It is familiar to him, though he can’t place where he has tasted something like it before. Electric beats grasp his brain and squeeze, hijack his heartbeat and force it to pound along. The air is salty-slick from life and sweat, undercut by glimpses of a fresher, fleeting smell.
A glance towards the dance floor, where bodies cease plurality and became one undulating thing. In the center stands the high tree, glistening in the twirling candy-wrapper colors that bounce every which way. An enormous silver-wooded oak, leaves scattering the dance floor and crunching underfoot. Looking makes him dizzy. Looking made him remember.
Absent fingers slide down a russet hand, itching to rub a silver ring that isn’t there.
Drink still unfinished, he stands to leave.
With nowhere to go, he sits back down.
A pretty blond boy in a tank top smiles at him from over the shoulder of a burly man in a leather jacket. His teeth flash blue, then green, then red in the changing lights. The man smiles back, through the other end of a telescope. The boy is young and bright. The man is too tired to be young and too young to be this tired. They are worlds apart.
The room dips. Surely he hasn’t drunk that much. It spins round and round like ribbons around the maypole before righting itself with prompt dignity.
He could dance. Lose himself in the crowd. Forget his voice in the voices of others.
He doesn’t want to lose himself.
He doesn’t want to forget.
He doesn’t want to remember.
“You’ve got that look,” says a gruff voice. His head turns. There, next to him, is an older gentleman nursing a glass so tall that even at half-mast it looks almost empty.
“I’m sorry?” the man asks. Music gobbles up his voice, but the stranger seems to hear it just fine.
“You’ve lost something,” says the stranger. He sniffs, clearing his throat. The colored lenses of his sunglasses catch the bouncing lights and throw them away. Creases fall across his jowls; jewels of sweat glisten on his brow.
“I’m afraid you’re wrong,” the man says, shaking his head politely.
“Bullshit,” the stranger replies, punctuating it with another sip of his drink. It twinkles, golden and shimmering. “I’d know that look anywhere.” His fine-grain sandpaper voice doesn’t rise over the music, doesn’t cut across it. Rather, it barrels a path straight through it, carelessly shouldering the sound out of the way. It is a voice that could have worn down mountains were it not so worn down itself.
“I haven’t lost anything,” the man says, thoughtless fingers brushing empty ones. And then, before he can stop himself, before he knows why: “I gave something away.”
Silence bubbles around them and pops as the music intrudes. Pink lenses flash at him as the older man stares through him. A harsh donkey bray snort, too sad to be laughter and too bitter to be anything else. “Yeah,” the stranger says. “Me too, kid. Me too.”
And then, his voice weaving through the music like glimmering threads, he begins to speak:
A tale to tell, a tale to hear, I bring
Of when I lived another greener life
Would you believe that once I was a king?
Afore I handed my land unto strife?
Rolling hills and rolling waves of wheat
Silks and pott’ry and red vineyards fine
Skies pink and blue and green all at my feet
Air thick with Magics rich and sweet as wine
Spriggans grin’d in soot-dark barrow hills
Pixies dipped and danced in forests green
Over hills where Pookas leapt and ran…
… wait, no, I…
In halls where dancing and music mocked sleep…
… All was as it should be in those days…
… Er, damn, my drink doth make this verse a toil…
Where was I?
Forget it. I always hated those crusty old verses. I can never quite get the iambs and trochees sorted out… Right. You miserable gits just forged right on ahead, with your gears and your steam engines and your goddam TV antennas. You forgot, or you chose to forget. It didn’t matter then, sure as hell doesn’t matter now.
It didn’t matter how many Changelings we left. “Damn, what an ugly baby,” you’d say, and raise the little bastard like it popped out of your own wombs. Didn’t matter how many plates we rearranged in your houses, or how many pots of gold we hid. Didn’t matter how loudly we blared our music in November on the rath. You just stopped giving a damn.
Bit by bit we forgot too. We forgot, and we ventured out into your world to find new lives.
I stayed, of course, and I wasn’t alone. But as I watched my land empty, I felt my faith fall. I was not alone. We broke our world—and something else came to fill in the cracks.
Swift, it was, too. Some of us called it the Rot, some of us called it the Decay, some of us didn’t call it jack diddly shit because we were too busy crumbling to dust. Rolling over the land, consuming, eating everything it touched. Maybe it was alive, some thing from who-knows-where that saw an opportunity and pounced. Maybe it was just our own foolish loss of faith. And maybe it was the land losing faith in itself.
So here I am, stuck here in this goddamned bar. The goddamned music’s too goddamned loud, but hey, the drink is good at least.
You see this? This is the last of the mead made with honey from Faerie’s hives. The last of it. Taste it. Go on! Taste it.
Does it taste like guilt? It should. You forgot. You all forgot. Does it burn like shame on your tongue, in your damned human throat? It bloody well should!
It does for me…
Looking at the sleeping man, he puts his lips to his glass. The sour-sweet flavor of the mead still singes his tongue, tainting his own drink. Poor old son of a bitch. Batty as an old church tower, of course, but still. There had been a sadness in those eyes so profound that it had burned through the lenses of his glasses. What has happened to him, the man wonders, to drive him to such fanciful ramblings?
Around them, people laugh and cry and live. He wonders if they hadn’t heard the man’s ranting, or if they simply don’t care.
Unconscious fingers slide over empty fingers.
As he sips, he realizes where he has tasted the flavor before. It was the taste of his husband’s lips. It is the taste of old church bells whose song had grown morose with age and rust. It is the taste of old pages that have long since withered to yellow, the text bleeding itself into illegibility with age. It is the taste of the air here in the bar, beneath the sweat and heat and boiling colors.
He takes another sip.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that,” says a voice. This one worms its way through the music, slipping through tight spaces in the sound.
He turns to see a younger man leaning against the bar. His black T-shirt is tight enough to swiftly execute any imagination, his jet-black hair plucking colors from the air and trying them on before discarding them with idle carelessness. He too wears sunglasses, though in the shifting lights, it is impossible to tell the color of the lenses. He cocks an angular thumb at the man passed out over the counter. “He gets like that sometimes. I’ve tried to kick him out, but he always just finds his way back in.”
“It’s all right,” the man replies. It was, too. As crazy as the old rambler might have been, there had been an odd splendor in his words. They had melded with the music, clasping hands with the beats, whittling away the surging, jumping notes to reveal the lament underneath. Even now, the music seems only to be a mask over that melancholy taste in the air.
“Suit yourself,” says the young man. A marker slips from his pocket, and he doodles something obscene on the counter. “As for me, there’s only so much of his rambling I can take.”
“Who is he?” he asks.
The young man looks up from his artwork. Though it is impossible to tell behind the glasses, he is sure that the young man winks at him. “You heard the old son of a gun, didn’t you? He’s a king.” He grins with teeth that are too perfect, as if they have been laid in place rather than grown. “Though between the two of us, he’s just as much of a queen as the rest of ’em.” He cocks his head towards the dance floor. “Care for a dance?”
He looks at the young man in the tight shirt, and he looks at the dance floor. He looks at the oak tree, and he looks at the door across the room where a burly bouncer hovers and watches. He looks at his naked hand, at his empty glass.
He shakes his head. “No, thank you,” he says. “I think it’s time for me to go. It’s getting late.”
“Isn’t that all the more reason to dance?” asks the young man. He slips the marker back into his pocket, evidently satisfied with his defacement. A drawing crass enough to make all but the seediest sailors blush adorns the counter. “Still, have it your way.”
The man stands, nods a thank-you to the bartender, and walks off into the crowd.
By the bar, the one they once called Robin Goodfellow swipes a glass from a passing waiter, grimacing at the taste. Beer. Even worse, American beer. Still, he takes another sip, watching as the man is swallowed by the music and the lights. It’s a shame, he thinks. He was a rather handsome fellow, too.
He doesn’t bother to see whether he reaches the doors or whether he is lost to the crowd. Instead, he looks at the old man asleep on the counter. A two-step tango of uncharacteristic sincerity twirls over his lips before dissolving into the light. He sighs, running fingers over the old man’s sweat-slicked head.
“Goodnight, my king,” he whispers, his voice the softest of backbeats to the music.
He turns, slipping off into the colors to enjoy himself. Passing a pair of arguing lovers, he whistles in their direction. Immediately, they fall into a tearful embrace. Once again he dons that well-worn grin. With the big man asleep, there is much mischief to be wrought tonight.
Behind him on the bar the Fae-King sleeps
Lids and liquor drap’d o’er well-worn eyes
Reverie into his mind does creep
In nighttime dreams in Faerie fields he lies.
V. F. Thompson is a writer whose work primarily focuses on the relationship between the real and the mythic and the way that they intertwine. Her stories have been published in several small press magazines and anthologies. In addition to the fantastic, much of her work focuses on queer and LGBT themes. She currently lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she also performs as a living statue. When not writing, she can be found drinking a strong cup of tea, devouring comic books, or concocting new recipes.