Conjunctions:74 Grendel’s Kin: The Monsters Issue

The Moon Fairy
Sofia Samatar
Illustrations by Del Samatar

When the Moon Fairy arrived, blown in through an open window one summer night, we were all surprised by how much it resembled Sylvie. Of course, it was much smaller—no longer than Sylvie’s forearm, the perfect size to take its place among her forgotten dolls—but its small, shimmering face was a tiny image of hers, like a portrait cleverly formed from beaten tin. The fairy was found against the bookshelf, lying on Sylvie’s discarded bathing towel, fast asleep with its wings folded along its back. Despite the astonishing grace of its form, it was clearly alive and breathing. When it woke up, it yawned so prettily, we all gasped.

     Thus began the time of the Moon Fairy. At first, we thought it would fly away, and left the window open for that purpose, but it seemed comfortable in the house, and soon took to sleeping on Sylvie’s pillow, using her long hair for a blanket. During the day, it was rather paler than at night, almost transparent. After it startled Mother on the stairs, nearly causing her to lose her balance (she complained about it for a week—“Control that thing!” she said), Sylvie made it a little frock of red worsted, with openings for the wings, in which it flitted about as gaily as a kite. She also sewed minuscule undergarments for it, and a red cap with a bow, from under which its bright hair billowed like candy floss. It submitted to being dressed without complaint, closing its eyes. Sylvie taught it to eat cracker crumbs from her finger.

     The Moon Fairy liked white foods: crackers, shortbread, rice, and milk. It disliked wine, loud noises, Uncle Claudius Eppenberg, and the cat. In fact, poor Mittens, whom no one loved more than Sylvie, was given away to the neighbor children soon after the fairy’s arrival. From the window on the landing overlooking the neighbors’ garden, Mittens could be observed in her new circumstances, mewling piteously as the children forced her into doll clothes, tied her up in a wagon, and dragged it over the grass. “Poor creature!” Sylvie was heard to murmur, standing at the window. However, she made no attempt to rescue the cat, which had scratched her darling’s wing, leaving a gash that took days to heal. As she looked down, holding the curtain back with one hand, the Moon Fairy curled up in its customary place on her shoulder, sighing placidly and nuzzling her neck.

     It really was a charming creature. It smiled, laughed, turned somersaults in the air, played hide-and-seek among the clothes on the line, danced when Ellen played Chopin—did everything but speak. In the evenings, when its energy tended to rise, it would fly round the room up close to the ceiling, emitting a happy buzzing sound. Sylvie said it was singing, but Uncle Claudius, who often dropped by in the evening to have a drink with Father, opined that the buzzing was caused by the movement of the fairy’s wings, “in the manner of a bumblebee or other insect.” “Nonsense,” said Sylvie, frowning. She disliked hearing the fairy compared to an animal. Since the fateful evening when the young man she’d been walking out with that summer (the son of some family friends, a law student with excellent prospects) had rashly referred to the Moon Fairy as “your new pet,” he had been forbidden the house, and the increasingly desperate telephone messages from him we wrote down were crumpled up unread. Unfortunately for Sylvie, it was not so easy to get rid of Uncle Claudius, an “almost doctor,” as she called him rudely behind his back (he had never actually completed his studies), who, since his automobile accident some years before, had been living on the proceeds of the lawsuit, and had nothing better to do than read, play with his shortwave radio, and drink Father’s brandy. “The vibrations,” Uncle Claudius went on, unperturbed, leaning heavily on his cane (he could never tell when he was not wanted) and peering up at the Moon Fairy with his bulging, yellowish eyes, “may be providing it with a new sensation, one unobtainable on the moon, where there is no atmosphere. Apparently, this gives it pleasure.”

     The Moon Fairy’s response to this speech was to crouch on the curtain rod, growling and spitting with rage. The change in its manner was so unexpected, and its temper, despite the distortion of its features, so adorable, we all burst out laughing—none more loudly or wickedly than Sylvie. “Come, Claudius,” Father chuckled, taking his elder brother’s arm to lead him toward the library and the bottles. Finding his dissertation drowned in mirth, Uncle Claudius obeyed, still muttering about the Sea of Tranquility.

     After that, one had only to pronounce the words “Uncle Claudius” and the fairy would crouch, alert and bristling, its face twisted into an expression of captivating malice and a small whine issuing from its throat. John amused himself like this for days, shouting “Uncle Claudius is coming!” until Sylvie told him to stop. As for Uncle Claudius (who really was obtuse), he gave Sylvie, for her birthday that August, a rare book called On Human Interactions with Lunar Sprites, which she promptly shoved under the bed.

     Autumn came. During thunderstorms, the Moon Fairy would rush into Sylvie’s arms and hide its face in her bosom, weeping and trembling. She made it a dress of dark-green felt. She made it a little rabbit-skin coat with matching fur boots, hat, and muff. She walked about town with the fairy on her shoulder. A man from the newspaper came and took her picture, and when it was printed, we noticed again, as if for the first time, the startling resemblance between the fairy and Sylvie. It was like a second Sylvie, mute, argent, and lighter than air. Nothing pleased her more than to hear people say this. In restaurants, when waiters exclaimed over the uncanny coincidence, she blushed happily and left them an extra tip.

     There was something of a squall when Sylvie refused to return to college. Father was furious over the money he had wasted for two years, and called Sylvie an empty-headed lump, to which she replied that he had only sent her to college to get her married and off his hands. “I can marry perfectly well,” she said, “without knowing about the French symbolists.” Father said she had better do it then, at which Mother cried and the Moon Fairy hissed like a teapot. Sylvie, however, smiled coolly. “Come, Father, be reasonable. I can’t keep a fairy in the dormitory.” This statement was so inarguable, and the inseparability of Sylvie and her fairy so patently obvious, that Father was deflated. None of us could imagine Sylvie without the Moon Fairy anymore. At times, there even seemed to be a kind of brightness about Sylvie’s skin. It was almost as if she were becoming a lunar creature. One night, when Mother came down to make sure she had turned off the gas, she screamed at the sight of a strange old woman in the living room. It was Sylvie. In the moonlight, her hair looked white.

     She began to sleep later and later in the mornings, the fairy tucked under her hair. The two of them stayed awake late at night, often coming downstairs when the rest of the family was in bed for a midnight supper of toasted almonds and cream. In the morning, Mother found their cups in the sink. Sometimes one of us awoke to the sound of the sewing machine, like a distant airplane. Sylvie made matching lace nightgowns for the Moon Fairy and herself, and matching white fur slippers and fleece robes. Soon they wore nothing but these snowy garments. They grew peevish during the day. Sylvie complained that the fairy wouldn’t let her do anything—and it was true it pulled her hair if she tried to play music or read—but she wouldn’t hear of leaving it with someone else. The one time she did so, during her illness just after the Christmas holidays, was a disaster. Ellen volunteered to keep the fairy in her room (she had always been a little jealous of Sylvie, the creature’s clear favorite), and the door to Sylvie’s room was closed and locked. What was our amazement and distress the following morning, upon finding the Moon Fairy stretched before Sylvie’s door in a dead faint, and Ellen utterly vanished! Only when Father went to the back closet for his galoshes did he hear Ellen shouting and crying from the mud house. The mud house—so called by the family for generations, no one knows exactly why—was a shed near the back fence, originally built to house garden tools, but cleaned up and fitted out with a table and chairs, and even a woodstove and a chimney, for the amusement of the children. Here, Ellen informed us once she was able to speak coherently, the Moon Fairy had lured her in the middle of the night, dancing just in front of her, all radiant with moonbeams (“Oh! So beautiful!” Ellen repeated, sobbing), and once she was safely inside, it had pinched her horribly all over her face, so that she fell down behind the table (and she had the marks of this treatment on her still—tiny fierce pinpricks, like a rash), and then flown out and locked the door. Ellen called for help and banged on the door, to no avail. Fortunately she had some matches and a stub of candle in her pocket (a thing expressly forbidden, but Father could scarcely complain, under the circumstances), and was able to light some bits of charred wood in the stove. Otherwise—as the doctor informed us severely when he arrived—she might have come out of the mud house frostbitten or worse. Ellen was put to bed under quilts, and the Moon Fairy laid on Sylvie’s pillow. It had knocked itself unconscious against her door. Its face was purple for days.

     We might have read of such incidents in the book Sylvie had received from Uncle Claudius Eppenberg, On Human Interactions with Lunar Sprites. We might have read of Elizabeth Dobb, who, walking over the heath one night, was struck by a ray of moonlight and left with “a limpet between her breasts.” This “limpet” could not be detached without danger to the patient, and would eat nothing but white sugar and ether, a demand that eventually beggared Elizabeth’s family. We might have read of the young Abbé de Beaumarais, a bright intellect with a promising future and favorite of Marguerite de Navarre, whose health was destroyed by “a silver light lodged underneath his hair.” Of this luminosity, he wrote: “My beloved twin! He is all heart; reason maddens him; even now, as I attempt to describe him, he pricks my eardrum.” We might have read of the Japanese nobleman and painter known as Lord Sparrow, who built an entire palace to house a creature no bigger than a grain of rice. Though these stories offer no solutions, they might have prepared us for what was to come, but we did not open the book until the summer was well advanced, until Sylvie was no longer sleeping in her room, and Martha Evans, who “did” for Mother once a week, discovered the book under the bed. Then, with horror and compassion, we read of Apalus, son of Threpte, who blinded himself with an awl after his moon spirit suddenly left him, because he could no longer bear to see the light. And we read of Nuru el-Uyun, daughter of the sultan of Zanzibar, who, after nearly a year of close companionship with a mysterious girl as graceful as a sprig of night-blooming jasmine, was deserted by her friend, and sank immediately into a wasting illness, characterized most gruesomely by the destruction of her fingernails, or perhaps (the manuscript describing her case is, regretfully, damaged) by the mutilation of both the nails and the fingertips, an illness from which the princess, so fortunate by birth, was never to recover, and which is known as al-Inhitat al-Qamari, or “lunar decline.”

     “The most terrible thing,” wrote Andreas Vogeler, a gifted composer whose career was abruptly stifled, from the Swiss sanatorium where he lived out the dregs of his days, “is that I do not know why it came, and I do not know why it left. I spend my days thinking, not only of what I might have done to avoid its arrival, but of what I might have done to keep it near me. Most of all, I think of those ordinary men—clerks, art dealers, estate agents, and the like—who live their entire lives, full of small joys and sorrows, successes and crises, without an inkling of either how happy or how wretched it is possible to be. Such people seem to me like magical beasts. And yet there is no reason why my life should not have been like theirs, for I was a person like anyone. It is the contemplation of this—the absence of reason in my having been, as it were, moonstruck—that prolongs my shattered state.”

     One evening we tried to determine the last time we had seen Sylvie happy. (Father left the room when the conversation began and shut himself up in the library, for his bruised heart cannot endure this kind of talk.) We decided it was at the beginning of April, when the cherry trees were in flower. The tree outside Sylvie’s window was particularly thick with blossoms, almost impossibly heavy, so that one felt it must bow down to the ground. She stood at the open window in her nightgown. Her bedroom door was ajar, the room flooded with moonlight extending nearly to the threshold. The dense perfume of the cherry tree too reached us in the hall. Sylvie appeared to be talking to herself, but we soon realized she spoke to the fairy, which hovered about her face, darting and whirling in a strange ballet. “My love, my love,” Sylvie murmured. “My little heart. My silver dollar. My night witch.” She laughed softly and touched a finger to her lip. It was John who realized that she was placing grains of sugar there, which the fairy was lapping up with its own mouth.

     A last flash of pure joy in a time of dread. The fairy had begun to leave her. It disappeared for an hour and was found rustling in the pantry. Its face was sharp and impenitent. It flew to the top of the cherry tree and had to be coaxed down with a dish of honey. When she went out, Sylvie took to tying a thread around its ankle, the other end of which she secured to her belt. One day, when she was knotting the thread, the Moon Fairy bit her finger, leaving a small raised welt like a beesting. Sometimes, in the midst of apparent harmony, an evil look came over it, and it flew at her, scratching her neck or yanking her hair. Sylvie grew wan. She began to lose weight. Ugly spots came out on her skin. She complained of a constant “fluttering” in her stomach. It was the terror of the approaching end. She could not cease her vigilance for a moment. She stalked the Moon Fairy, which turned on her, baring its teeth. It refused to wear the clothes she had sewn. It tore up its little nightgown. One night—who knows how, for the windows were closed—it left for good.

     “They breed on the moon,” wrote an anonymous sufferer from Thrace, “they come down to earth, they dazzle us with their incandescence, and they go, without logic or hope of appeal, bound by no known law. Since she left me, I am unmoored.”

     In June, a few days after the Moon Fairy had flown away, and almost a year to the day since its first appearance, Sylvie received a visit from the neighbor girl, Marjorie Pierce, who found her lying flat on the floor beneath a window. Without getting up, Sylvie described a “dark fire of horror” blazing over her life, and advised Marjorie to strangle Mittens the cat. Marjorie departed in tears, and the doctor was summoned. He found Sylvie in perfect health, but in the evening she walked from her bedroom down to the kitchen, pressed against the wall and scraping her mouth along the plaster with such force that she left a long carmine streak. It was as if she wanted to erase her mouth. Her lips were badly torn, and several teeth broken. She was sent to hospitals in New York, Vermont, and Basel. Now she lives in the mud house, where, after much anguish, Mother finally agreed to place a chamber pot and bed. This solution may seem cruel—we have certainly been censured by the neighbors as a family deficient in feeling—but such people cannot know how the grief of a person abandoned by a Moon Fairy can destroy a house. One would not say, today, that our house is happy, but it is functional. The walls are freshly painted, and Ellen is engaged. As for Sylvie, she sits in the mud house, staring at the table. No one likes to go there, except, as it happens, the Moon Fairy’s old enemy, Uncle Claudius Eppenberg. He says that he and his niece are both victims of accident. He sits for long hours at the table with her, listening to his radio. If you pass through the garden, where the mud house stands covered with vines, you can hear the sound of the radio, very thin, like the chirping of crickets, and if you have the courage, you can pull the vines aside and peer through the thick, dirty glass of the only window. There you will see Uncle Claudius, perhaps fiddling with his radio, perhaps feeding Sylvie something out of a bowl, perhaps merely discoursing to her on some subject that has crossed his mind, blinking his yellow eyes in the half-light. And you will see Sylvie, her hands motionless on the table. She wears a stained plaid dress, buttoned at the throat and wrists. Her mouth hangs dark. If, inadvertently, you move the leaves at the window, gauzy shadows drift across her face. Then it is as if the moon is peeping out of the clouds, shining on her, and withdrawing its gaze again, and you feel, for an instant of absolute, clenching terror, that she is going to turn her eyes on you and strike you to the heart. However, she doesn’t move. The moment passes, leaving a throbbing in its wake. She floats there, oddly detached, like a being immune to gravity. You would not guess that this was a girl who had received every advantage. She no longer looks like our Sylvie. She no longer looks like anyone.

Sofia Samatar is the author of five books, most recently the memoir The White Mosque (Catapult). Her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer), won the World Fantasy Award. She lives in Virginia.
Del Samatar holds a BA in fine arts from Rutgers University. He lives in New Jersey, where he is pursuing a career as a tattoo artist.