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Milk Sister (Excerpt)by Niko Silvester
The little girl sat alone on the curb, leaning back against a big oak tree. The tree was overgrowing the power lines and was slated to be cut down later in the week. Calls of "Mad, Mad, Madeline," echoed from down the street, followed by laughter. "Mad, Mad Maddy sitting in a tree," she heard. She pressed closer to the bark. "K-I-S-S-I-N-G." The children were getting farther away, pedaling on their bikes and shrieking, but the girl could still hear them. "First comes love," called one voice. "With a tree!" howled another. "Then comes marriage," sang a third voice. Then all three children: "Then comes baby in a baby carriage!" "A tree-baby!" they shrieked. Then they were out of hearing range.
The little girl sighed and turned her face to the bark. She'd only said it was bad to cut down such a nice tree. One of the branches reached her window and tapped the panes when it was windy. She'd seen tiny, twiggy men capering among the leaves. They'd grab hold of a falling leaf, and glide with it to the ground. They made her laugh.
She sniffed now, and wiped her tears against the bark. There was a cleft in the trunk just next to her cheek, not big enough to be a hollow. She could just see inside if she turned her head just so.
A pair of eyes reflected the light with a bright green glow, like a cat's. "Hello, little man," she said softly.
A tiny brown hand reached around the edge of the bark and caught at a bit of her hair. "Pretty black hair," a scratchy voice said, just loud enough for the little girl's hearing. "Pretty blue eyes. Play with us."
"You need to run away," she said, and reached out one finger to carefully brush against the little man's hand. He felt just like the tree. She'd never dared speak to the twig men before, let alone touch one. She felt suddenly happy, never mind the cruelty of the neighbourhood kids, or of the city council. "They're going to cut down your tree."
The hand holding her hair tugged sharply, much harder than its size said it should be able to. "Bad humans," the voice hissed. Another tug made the girl cry out. She pushed at the little hand with her finger and felt a sharp pain there. She pulled away from the tree and looked at her hand. Her finger was bleeding from two neat punctures. The little man was gone.
"It's not me," she said. "I want to stop them." She put her finger in her mouth and tried not to cry again. There was no one she could tell about the little men who lived in the tree. Dad would scold her for telling lies, and Granny would scold even more because the story would sound too much like folktales. "Nonsense," Granny would say. "Pure nonsense."
"It doesn't look like much," said Maddy. The famous Fairy Flag of Dunvegan castle was a ragged length of yellowed silk, nearly brown with age. It looked as if it had had little pieces randomly clipped out of it for years before it was framed and mounted on the stone wall. There were faint decorative marks still visible on it, but not enough to tell what the pattern was.
"It's why your mother married me," Dad said.
Maddy turned away from contemplating the Flag and regarded her father. "What?" she said. Dad didn't talk about Mum much, but a lot of things had changed recently. Like suddenly packing up and moving to Scotland. Maybe this was just another one of those changes.
Dad grinned, another surprise, as the few times he'd related stories about Maddy's mother he'd always spoken in a soft voice and looked like he was blinking back tears. "It's true." He turned from Maddy and stepped closer to the Flag. "Well, not this piece of fabric specifically. The whole Macleod fairy connection." He looked at Maddy again. "Your mother was always going on about fairies. She used to joke that she only married me because I'm a Macleod, and the Macleods have fairy ancestors. One fairy ancestor, anyway."
It was more information than he'd ever given her about her mother in one go before. All Maddy really knew about Mary Macleod, nŽe Fletcher, was that she'd had family in Scotland and had died giving birth to her only child, Madeline Fletcher Macleod. Mary's cousins were already in Aberfoyle, readying the cottage that Dad and Mum had owned. Dad still owned it, but it had been rented out for fourteen years, while Dad raised Maddy in Canada.
"I always wondered why Granny used to call Mum 'that fey girl you married'," Maddy said, looking thoughtfully at the Flag.
"Granny didn't approve much of your mum. She always thought I could do better, whatever that means."
"I wish I'd known her. Mum." Maddy leaned against the wall next to the flag and stared down at her feet. "At least I'd have liked to know about her."
"I know, Maddy girl. I should've told you things. Everything. And I will. I promise I'll make it up to you."
Maddy nodded, but didn't look up. Sometimes it was easier to pretend she'd never had a mother, that she'd sprung full-formed from her father's head like Athena from Zeus. Other times, like when she saw her schoolmates' mothers taking them shopping at the mall or cheering them on at volleyball games, she wished she had a mother like everyone else she knew. A normal mother, who baked cookies and took her daughter to the office on "take your kid to work day," and who scolded her for her lack of common sense. According to Granny, though, Mary Macleod would not have been such a mother.
Maddy had overheard her paternal grandmother talking quietly with her father's oldest sister one Christmas. She hadn't meant to eavesdrop, but she was walking by the bathroom where her relatives were fixing their hair in preparation for a trip to the grocery store for more butter to make shortbread. She heard her mother's name, and paused; no one talked about Mum when Maddy was around. It was as if they thought Maddy would turn out as bad as her mother, though what was wrong with Mum, Maddy never quite figured out.
"Sometimes I think it's a good thing that Mary Fletcher passed on," Granny said. Granny would never call Maddy's mother Mary Macleod. That would mean she'd have to acknowledge that her son had married the other woman.
"You think?" said aunt Susan. "Madeline might have been a more . . . normal child, if she'd had a mother."
"She'd have been worse than she is if Mary Fletcher'd had the raising of her. That woman was a strange one, and no mistake. I never did see what our Christopher saw in her."
"Oh Mother," said Aunt Susan. "She wasn't all that bad. She loved Chris, anyway, and he loved her."
"All that talk of fairies. I hardly think that's a fit topic to teach a child. Nonsense, all of it, and she'd have had poor Madeline believing every word. But Christopher will see to it she never hears a fairy story."
"He can't bear to hear them, now. They remind him of poor Mary."
Maddy had pressed back against the door, hardly able to move. They thought she was abnormal? Her own Granny and Auntie Sue? Just because she liked trees and tried to warn people that the environment was in danger didn't make her abnormal.
"Does she talk about seeing things any more?" asked Aunt Susan.
"Oh no," answered Granny, a strong tone of satisfaction in her voice. "We trained her out of that early on. It only reminded Christopher of the things Mary Fletcher used to say. I swear, every time that child said she'd seen a 'little man' or a dead child or some nonsense, he looked about to cry."
"No," said Aunt Susan, drawing the world out to emphasize her disbelief. "Our Chris's too much a proper man to cry."
"He didn't cry," said Granny, annoyed. "I only said he looked as if he could. I thought for sure Madeline would turn out fey like her mother, but we scolded that nonsense out of her."
Maddy had had to force her breath to calm and quiet. Granny's mention of 'little men' had made her begin to remember things.
"You look lost," Dad said, bringing Maddy back to the present."
Just thinking," she said.
"What about, oh Princess of the Macleods?" Dad liked to give her fanciful titles when he thought she needed cheering. She wondered if he'd done the same for Mum.
"Why'd you never tell me stories about the fairies? About the Macleods and all the things Mum liked?"
Dad didn't answer right away. It was his turn to look a little lost. He cleared his throat and rubbed a hand through his hair. "Well," he said. "I guess it was just too hard to talk about the things your mum liked, to talk about her."
"For fourteen years?"
"It's a long time to grieve," he said. "I think I'm about done. So I'll tell you about the fairies now."
"Granny wouldn't like it," Maddy said, absently.
Dad looked at her funny, like he was about to ask her something, but then he just said, "No, Granny Macleod wouldn't like it. But Nanny Fletcher would have me skinned if she were alive and knew I'd neglected your education."
Dad took Maddy's arm and they walked together through the castle. He gestured back at the Flag as they left the room, and around them at the castle. "There are several different stories about how the Macleods of Dunvegan got the Fairy Flag, and not all of them involve fairies."
"So why 'fairy' flag, then?"
"Because, you imp, the most famous and most popular stories have fairies, and the Macleods are said to have fairy ancestry, Flag or no Flag."
"Of course," said Maddy, using her best "wise scholar" voice.
"Long ago," said Dad, "on this glorious and legendary Isle of Skye, there lived the Macleods."
"Macleods live here still," Maddy pointed out.
"Hush, you, I'm trying to spin a tale. Long ago the Macleod of Macleod fell in love with a beautiful woman, and she with him. Turns out she was a fairy, though, so they couldn't just marry and get down to the business of producing a family. With fairies there have to be contracts, because fairies are a tricksy folk. So they set a limit for the marriage at twenty years. Beyond that, they supposed, the Macleod would have aged too much and his fairy wife not at all. For twenty years they were happy, but when the time was up, they had to part."
"If they were truly in love," said Maddy, "would it matter that he aged so much?"
"Would you want to be married to an old man when you were still young and lovely?"
"Maybe. If he were my true love."
"Well, maybe they weren't that in love then."
"Da-ad . . ."
"I don't know Maddy-Mad. I didn't make up the story."
"Couldn't she have taken him to Faery with her?"
"I don't know. Maybe you should ask the tour guide."
"I think we lost the tour guide."
"Then we shall have to venture 'round the castle on our own."
"Yes, of apple of my eye?"
"Stop talking funny and finish the story."
"Right. Story. Where was I?"
"The time was up and they had to part."
"They were still in love, but the terms of the contract specified twenty years--" Maddy snorted but Dad ignored her. "--so they took a last walk together, and when they reached the Fairy Bridge, which is not too far from this very castle, she went off to Faery and he came home alone. But first she gave the Macleod the silk scarf she always wore about her neck. 'Take this,' she said. 'Wave it as a flag when you most need help. Three times this Flag will save you, and thus you will know I love you and am always with you.' And then she crossed over the bridge and was gone. And the Flag has twice saved the Macleods when they most needed help."
"Was the bridge called Fairy Bridge already, when they went there to say goodbye?"
"I always thought it was named for her, but I really don't know," said Dad.
Their slow meander around the castle had brought them back to the entrance. Maddy wanted to see the Flag again, so they climbed the stairs up the "fairy tower" once more to regard the faded silk again.
"So it still was one more time left in it?" Maddy said.
"So the story goes. Once more it will save the Macleods."
"It really doesn't look like much," Maddy said again. "But it looks like a lot more now that I've heard the story."
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