A SHORT STORY
BY RUSSELL UNDERWOOD
We talked for a long time in my box, and since most of the early conversation went "You're shitting me"; "No, I'm not," I'll skip all that. Suffice it to say, little diary, that the story she told me is wild as all hell, but whether it's true or not, she at least thinks it is. As for whether I do, well, let's say I'm still reserving judgment.
This, anyway, is what she said: Her name is Tatiana, and her folks aren't from Russia but from Elfame, which you and I might know better as fairy-land. Her father's some minor noble in the seelie court. The ones in the seelie court are more or less the good guys in Elfame, she says, but the way she talks about them, they sound like a bunch of snobs. We'll get to the bad guys in a minute.
Well, her father's always putting on airs, has all these ambitions to be a bigwig in the court, but his lands -- what there are of them -- are in a backwoods part of the kingdom. Ol' dad's got another problem, too: He never could turn down a wager.
Now, one thing about Elfame: They got their own version of the draft there. It's called the teind. It's like the draft we used to have in that they only take the young, and rich people's kids can usually pull strings and get out of it. Of those that can't, some escape across the border -- only their border ain't with Canada; it's with the World.
That's about where the similarities end, because Elfame's young don't go to fight in any war. They just go off to die -- one-seventh of them anyway, every seven years. Another not so nice thing about Elfame: Their landlord's the devil, and their children's lives pay the rent.
Seems the Good Neighbors descend from angels who fell to Earth instead of Hell after the Great War in Heaven. And the teind's their little arrangement with Old Scratch that keeps 'em out of the pit. The whole damn deal, top to bottom, reminds me of that old line about the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons -- and on the daughters, too, in this case.
See, when the teind came around this time, Tatiana got the nod. It shouldn't have happened, she said. Her dad might me a minor lord, but noble's noble after all, and under normal circumstances she wouldn't have been picked. But like I said, her father's a gambler, and that changed the deal. What happened, the old man was layin' bets with his opposite number on the unseelie court. (That word again. Here's where we come to the bad guys.) Trouble is, he was losing bad, more than he could afford, and he was getting desperate. So when the unseelie lord spoke up with a little proposal, Tatiana's dad jumped at it. And lost. And what he lost, of course, was Tatiana, who got signed up for the teind even before the names got drawn. And that's why, two days ago, she escaped across the black water river to the World.
The way she tells it, she's only got to stay gone until sunrise tomorrow. But until then, the servants of the unseelie lord will keep dogging her, hoping to drag her back to her doom.
Told you it was a weird story, and maybe I should have just dismissed it out of hand. But I know lies when I hear 'em and, to this girl, the story was real and true. Not that that means much, necessarily. You hear all kinds of "true" stories around the cardboard city -- true enough to the people who tell 'em, anyway. But this girl don't strike me as a nut and, besides, there's something about what she told me -- something about Elfame -- that strikes deep in me, like she'd reminded me of something I forgot long ago.
Maybe you think I'm crazy, too, old diary, but I know what I felt in that alley, and I know the word that popped into my head. I also know that when Tatiana talked about her homeland, it felt like she was talking about my home, too.
Home. You laugh. I never had a home, I know that. These streets, this city, are the only places I ever remember knowing. But I dream sometimes of another place -- a place you can't even describe with words, full of life and magic and great wonders such as you read about in fairy tales. And those dreams seem so real to me, the way Tatiana's story is real to her. Maybe we're both just fools. But something's after her, that's for sure. And whether I can help or not, I guess I've about made up my mind to try.