by C.S. Fuqua
Faeries have their eye set on a young victim of domestic abuse, but they haven’t considered a kid could be so smart or determined to survive.
“Circle” is based on an event of domestic abuse and involves mythical beings who hitched a ride from Europe to the Americas with their human counterparts. This story currently appears in the collection Walking after Midnight ~ Collected Stories, available through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other bookstores.
Cattle for pleasure run.
Child, dearest, protection won.
End our days with dances sweet.
Ripen slowly, feast of feasts.
—from Chants of the Glaistig
Dylan collapsed to his knees in the doorway, helpless as his dad grabbed a fistful of the woman’s hair and sprawled her across the car’s front seat. Her head butted into the passenger door, her legs still dangling out of the driver’s side. His father stepped back and slammed the door once across the woman’s shins, again, and then again.
“You wouldn’t just go!”
He slammed the door again.
Dylan clasped his hands over his ears in a useless effort to shield himself from his mother’s familiar screams.
“We’re leaving,” she’d told the boy not two hours earlier. “We’ll stay with Sis for now. Pack some clothes and get in the car.”
Dylan had hurried, hoping they’d be gone before his father arrived home. But his mother had stalled, packing an iron, a photo album, towels. She’d even washed dishes and swept. Finally, she appeared in the doorway, and Dylan sighed relief, but as his mother started down the steps, his father’s pickup rattled into the driveway.
“Get inside the house,” she told Dylan.
“Mom,” Dylan pleaded. “Let’s just go.”
As Dylan started up the steps, his mother met the man as he got out of the pickup. Dylan’s father tried several times to get past her, but she blocked his path, once even pushing him back.
Cows moved in a confused mass through the pasture. Penny, Dylan’s horse, snorted and galloped back and forth across the five-acre parcel, weaving deftly between the cows, up to the fence, snorting and neighing toward the house, then racing back to the far end. Dylan and his parents lived in the countryside, but houses weren’t so far apart that people didn’t meddle in the business of their neighbors, although they were careful never to place themselves between a husband and wife when it mattered. They’d strain to hear and see whatever they could until, finally shaking their heads in moral superiority, they closed their doors and tsk-tsked themselves to sleep.
“You never leave it alone,” his father bellowed. He drew back a fist.
Dylan’s eyes rolled into their sockets, his body falling as he fainted back into the living room. His head smacked the floor. His mother screamed again, and Dylan groaned, his senses struggling to return. He rolled onto his stomach and lifted himself onto his hands and knees, wishing the fall had killed him.
We should’ve been gone by now.
But they weren’t, and the boy felt powerless.
His father cursed.
He crawled through the living room, into the kitchen, toward the back door, mind swimming with eyes locked on that screen door and the lacquered darkness beyond. Like his dog before it died last Christmas, the boy nudged the door open with his head. He pushed himself to his feet, picking up speed as he jumped from the porch, feet toppling a dozen mushrooms that had popped up since sunset. He fled in a faltering run for the woods. Deep among those trees lay refuge—a circular clearing where he’d often sought solace, but never before at night. He could rest there, get his bearings, and figure out what to do next.
On some nights, odd sounds had formed strange harmonies within the woods, beckoning the sleepless boy to his bedroom window as his parents, bruised after another fight, hormones raging, wrestled and coupled in their bed like the animals they’d always been. For months, he toyed with the notion of escape, unable to come up with a plan. Then tonight, when escape seemed a real possibility, his mother had blown it, and he now understood that escape didn’t mean getting away from only his father, but his mother as well.
Halfway across the backyard, he stopped, realizing he needed a flashlight. He started back, but fear welled up. He stopped. Started. Stopped.
His mother’s scream broke sharply off.
He froze. He’d have to do without the flashlight. He spun back toward the forest, toward dark and thick shadows cast by the ascending moon now well into in the sky.
During Dylan’s first ten years, he’d believed every kid’s parents were like his own, violent and domineering, unreasonable. Then he’d stayed a night at a buddy’s house. He’d sat in silent dismay at the dinner table as his friend’s parents talked about their days at work, asked the kids how school had gone, discussed their disappointment with the president, their concern over international events. They’d laughed and acted the same as those fake families in books, the ones who seemed so bizarre and unreal to Dylan. But the book families were not so bizarre and unreal after all. It was Dylan’s family. A couple of weeks later, his friend asked when could he stay over at Dylan’s. Dylan made excuses at first and began to withdraw gradually from all his friends, eventually avoiding all friendships until he was quite alone in his prayers for escape.
He drew up at the property’s edge and looked back toward the house. From here, he could see his parents in the pool of warm porch light that spilled into the front yard. His father twisted away from his mother and tried to reach the house. The woman’s face glistened as she clutched for the man, pursuing him now with a noticeable limp. She abruptly stopped and clenched her hands into fists. Her voice became a tangle of shouts and accusations about which the boy had no desire to know but could not shut out.
His father tried once more for the house, but the woman grabbed him again. As he turned, he fished a knife from his pocket, the blade sliding open.
Dylan pivoted away, and the forest swallowed him. He fled blindly through filtered moonbeams. Thin branches whipped him across the face and arms, raising welts and drawing specks of blood as his parents’ voices grew fainter. He ran on and on, hoping he was running in the direction of his special place.
Dylan flew forward, his feet vanishing from beneath him, caught on a small log concealed in deep shadow. His chest slammed against the dirt, breath exploding. He rolled onto his back, gasping until the pain eased and he could breathe without struggling. His eyes focused on a few faint stars between branches that wavered in the breeze.
He listened, but the voices of his parents had echoed to silence. He remembered the knife in his father’s hand and wondered if perhaps they had finally killed one another. He immediately dismissed the thought as a simple wish. They were probably inside now, making up the way they always did.
We should have been gone for good, he thought bitterly.
Dylan got to his feet and brushed dirt and leaves from his shirt and jeans. His breath trembled as he squinted into the darkness.
Yes, faintly in the distance. He cocked his head slightly, tried to get a bearing on it, and started walking. The breeze shifted and the sound rose sharply—a fiddle, drums, voices—then faded as the wind ebbed. Perhaps someone had turned a radio loud to drown out his parents’ idiocy, to give the listener an excuse for not taking action, not interfering.
Dylan pressed through the undergrowth toward his special place, pleased by how well his eyes were adapting to the moonlight, fascinated by how leaves reflected dully like weathered metal. Again the wind stirred, and again he heard the sound of music.
He walked on and, moments later, stepped into his special clearing. He looked up at the sky, a perfect circle of stars, bordered by tall pines that pointed toward the heavens. That same circle of sky during the day was one reason Dylan liked it here so much. When he lay on the ground, hands clasped behind his head, his thoughts would hitch a ride on a cloud. He would lose himself among worlds unknown, worlds where boys didn’t fear fathers and mothers, where parents settled differences without fists, without shouts, instead with common-sense negotiation and compromise.
The moon bathed the boy in metallic gray. The pines stirred. And the air slowly, almost imperceptibly, began to shimmer. The breeze shifted, and music ignited. A violin on one side, drums on another, voices and laughter all around. Trees and shrubbery flickered; shadows danced in sudden incandescent glow.
Dylan scrambled to his feet, spinning full circle, trying to discern from where the music originated, but all he saw were mushrooms that encircled the clearing.
Light brightened. Music surged. Shapes emerged within the glow, and he saw men and women nothing like he’d seen before. Most of the men, in rags of pants, shirtless and shoeless, were skinny as twigs, though some had bellies the size of basketballs. The women were either fat or skinny, none between, and the skin of both women and men shone sickly pale and slightly green in the firelight. The women stood taller than the men, but only a few taller than Dylan. The women—some topless, a few dressed in flowing gowns, others completely naked—pranced in a laughing, dizzying dance while banging on small tambourines or plucking, strumming, or bowing stringed instruments that resembled guitars and fiddles. Round and round they jigged, giddy and apparently oblivious to the boy.
Dylan retreated in the same direction from which he’d come, but one of the little beings suddenly danced before him, bounced him two steps back for each one he took. He sat hard on the cold ground and dropped his head forward in exasperation. His only refuge was no longer his.
“The boy doesn’t dance,” someone sang.
Others chimed with the music: “The boy doesn’t dance, the boy doesn’t dance.” The words repeated, again, again.
Fingers pecked at Dylan’s arms as the beings danced past. Then came a pinch, and he twisted around to find an old man half his size, ears pointed, hair as red as clay, grinning and hissing down at him.
“Gonna dance, gotta dance, gonna dance?” The old man’s lips bared jagged teeth under their haggard grin.
Another hand touched him, and then others—on his shoulders, arms, belly, legs.
“Leave me alone!”
“Leave me alone,” one of the female-things sneered. Others chanted, “Leave me alone,” their pitch increasing to frenzy.
Hands slapped him. Fingers pinched. Tiny knees nudged into his back and shoulders. Dylan covered his ears, squeezed his eyes shut. The boy felt tears coming to his eyes, but he refused to cry. He hadn’t allowed his parents to break him. Why should he allow these things?
Fingers twisted into his clothing, and his shirt began to rip. He felt the sting of a switch against his back, and a welt rose. A cackle of laughter broke around him, and the switch swished through the air to sting again. He scrambled to his feet, searching desperately for escape but found no break in the circle.
“A fine one,” a voice squealed. “To fetch and carry, to dance and play, to be and not to be.” Laughter rose. “A youthful servant proves this our lucky night.” They chanted, “Our lucky night,” and danced frantically around and around.
Dylan set his feet and swung blindly, his small fist connecting with the shoulder of the closest being—a thin, short thing with pointed chin, devilish ears, and black eyes that glittered with firelight. The tiny thing recoiled, its face reflecting both shock and rage at the boy’s insolence. It bared jagged teeth and growled. Then it lunged.
Dylan cringed to protect himself, the same way he had cringed from his parents’ hands and belts and switches. He brought his fists before his face, bracing for the strike, clamping down, closing his eyes and mind to the pain that was about to take him.
The music halted, swallowed by an abrupt, consuming silence. Only the crackling of kindling dared make a sound.
Slowly, Dylan drew his hands down, fingers uncurling. His eyes opened to take in something even more alien than the things he’d already encountered within his clearing. A muttering whisper erupted around him, words confused with only one clear enough to discern—Glaistig—but even that sounded like gibberish to him.
Dylan’s eyes fixed on the entity. She appeared to be floating, adorned in a long cloak of green with golden markings that meant nothing to him. The pallor of her face and arms vibrated in the moonlight. She sneered at the beings that surrounded her. She held her hand out and opened it, and the fist of the tiny man-thing who had lunged at Dylan tumbled to the ground, jarring open on impact. Dylan glanced around, found the being who had attacked. It was glaring at the stub where its hand had been moments before. The man-thing howled and fell to the ground, rolling, spitting, and cursing—just like his father.
Dylan had been riding Penny bareback in the pasture when his father stormed toward him from the house.
“Didn’t I tell you to take care of the cow pens?” the man shouted. “Did I say anything about riding that damn horse?”
Dylan drew a deep breath and clicked the horse on across the field to meet his father, to explain that he’d finished the pens. As the horse trotted up to the man, Dylan’s father grabbed Dylan by the arm and yanked him off.
The horse reared, front feet flying out, barely missing the man’s head. Dylan’s father shoved the boy aside and grabbed the reins dangling from the halter. When the horse’s front feet landed, the boy’s father slammed a karate chop between the horse’s ears, connecting with the top of Penny’s skull, necessitating a trip to the hospital for x-rays and cast fitting to a broken hand.
“This boy is a human child, imbecile,” the woman said as the man-thing’s howls subsided. Her sneer melted into a gentle and consoling smile as she turned to Dylan.
“What do you care?” the man-thing growled. “You have the cattle. Drink the parents. This is our party, Glaistig.” He scampered over to his detached hand, scooped it up with his good hand, and scooted away in a grumbling cower.
The woman’s gown fluttered in the breeze, and Dylan thought he saw hooves instead of feet below, but that couldn’t be right. She moved closer, cautious and gentle.
“You’re the Enzor boy.”
She smiled, but her eyes narrowed as her gaze washed over him, examining. “They’re fighting tonight.”
He felt his face redden.
“What difference,” seethed one of the beings, “whether he’s boy or man? He can serve well for time and time to come. Dance the boy into man,” it rasped, “and feast.”
The woman replied with only a glare that challenged it to silence. It slipped behind a big-bellied male thing sporting a long beard and bushy brows, and both faded into the darkness surrounding the blazing fire. The crowd fidgeted, eyes on the woman.
“I need to go.” Dylan took a step in the direction back home.
“Too late for that,” hissed one of the half-naked female things. The boy stopped. “Time, time, time to dance and dance and dance. And to eat. We must eat while Glaistig drinks. Take your drink, fresh and sweet!” She looked directly at the woman, eyes craving approval.
Music struck up, bow to string, hand to drum, and the beings began to dance around the boy and woman. With each pass, Dylan felt their warm breaths against his skin, damp with age and death.
“You can remain as they wish,” the woman said to him.
“Must stay, must stay,” the chant began.
Dylan glanced up at the ring of sky above the clearing. The moon appeared lower in the east than before, as though the world had turned backward.
“I have to go home,” Dylan said with finality.
The woman in the robe knelt to face him directly as the chant continued. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Scaredy, scaredy, scaredy,” the bearded being taunted.
Tornadoes of iridescence spun in the woman’s irises. Dylan looked away.
“My horse,” he said. “Dad…” Tears welled as he recalled his dog stretched on the cold ground the Christmas before, each breath forming a diminishing cloud in the chilling air, blood oozing. Without Dylan, who would stop the man from killing Penny in rage just as he’d done the dog?
The woman considered the boy for a long moment. Her eyes softened, and she smiled even as a new chant rose: “Slave, slave, acting brave. Train him well; time will tell. Slave, slave.”
The woman shifted around. “Get on my back.”
“Get on my back,” she demanded, and Dylan leaned in against her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders as she slid her own arms back around his legs and lifted him. The boy gasped at her strength, a power that he’d felt before only in his horse. She lunged through the tightening circle of dancers, and broke free of the clearing. Shadow cloaked the forest more than before as the boy tried to glimpse the moon through black limbs that shielded the sky from view. The woman’s hair swam around his face, and he smelled unmeasured time, cold and filled with lives forgotten.
In the distance, he heard a scream. His heart raced.
“Time is not the same,” the woman said. “Not when you enter and leave a ring.” The woman drew up. “The night, their fight—it’s only begun.”
In the distance over the agitated lowing of his father’s cattle, a shout sounded and then another scream.
The woman moved on, the screams of Dylan’s mother growing louder, the curses of his father clearer.
“The cattle are frightened,” the woman said. “They need to be calmed.”
We should have been gone.
“That choice has vanished,” the woman said.
A chill raked through the boy. Had she read his mind?
When they broke free of the forest and into the pasture, Dylan slid from the woman’s back and started back for the woods, but the woman glided around to block his path. She took him by the shoulders, her hands warm, strong. She smiled, the flesh of her face silken in the moonlight.
“You’ll be safe,” she said softly. Her grip tightened suddenly, and he felt himself lift off the ground. “But you must first go back.” The next moment, he was in the doorway of his house.
“You can never just leave it alone,” his father bellowed.
Dylan’s eyes rolled, body falling out of the doorway as he fainted into the living room. His head smacked the floor.
Dylan opened his eyes, and the ceiling gradually came into focus. Red and blue lights flashed dimly through the room, lighting up the front window and doorway each time. He raised up, found that he was not on the floor where he’d fallen, but on the couch. Muddled voices from the front yard drifted in through the open doorway. He strained to make out the words, but all he caught was “trampled” and “blood.”
Words from just outside the door came more plainly. “Ain’t hardly a drop left in her,” a man said, the wonder evident in his gruff voice, “and not a drop on the ground, like it was sucked out.”
Dylan pushed himself up from the couch and stood. He weaved to one side, woozy, but then he got bearings enough to cross the room to the front entry.
The screen door opened as he reached the doorway. A tall man, his belly a bit bigger than the waist of the pants he’d tried to stuff it into, stopped short. His flushed jowls puffed with a concerned smile.
“Good. You’re awake. Paramedic said you’d be okay, that you’d only fainted, but that knot on your noggin’s gonna smart for a while. Best you get back over to the couch and sit down a bit.” He stepped fully into the room and turned Dylan gently back to the couch. The boy sat on the sofa as the man looked down at him, his eyes soft with concern.
“Rough night,” the officer said softly.
Dylan lowered his head, his cheeks warming with embarrassment. The officer drew a heavy breath and rocked back slightly on his heels. His lips pouted in consideration as he looked around the room. Finally, he sighed and settled his gaze on the boy.
“I’m sorry, son. I knew some things about your dad, how he could get a little mean sometimes.”
Dylan almost laughed at the officer’s choice of words—a little mean.
“Son…” The man paused, searching. “What’d you see tonight?”
Dylan glanced down. “Mom and Dad fighting.”
The officer drew a heavy breath. “Ain’t no easy way to say this, son. Something bad happened after you passed out.” The boy looked up. “I’m sorry, but your dad—well, it looks like he killed your mom. And then…” He scratched his head. “Damnedest thing I ever saw. Was he drinking, son?”
Dylan said nothing, the news about his mother roaring around in his head.
“Wouldn’t surprise me none, and it’d explain a lot,” the officer said. “You got what—about thirty head of cattle?”
Again, Dylan made no reply.
“It’s okay, son. I understand, but I gotta tell you what happened. After he did what he did, your daddy went down in the field. Them cows must’ve been real spooked.” The officer cleared his throat. “Your daddy must’ve lost his footing or something…I don’t know. Can’t really explain it. Ain’t the cows fault either, not really.”
Dylan’s eyes glazed as the meaning of the words sank in. Both parents, dead.
Penny neighed in the distance.
The officer sighed. “I’m sorry, son.”
Dylan bowed his head to conceal his face, uncertain whether he was about to cry or laugh.
“I went through your mama’s purse, found her sister’s name and number,” the officer said. “We gave her a call. She should be here any time now. Better to stay with one of your own until everything gets settled.” The officer patted the boy’s shoulder and started out. He paused in the doorway. “I’ll be here till she comes. You’ll be fine.” He appeared to want to say more but unable to find the words. Finally, he stepped out, let the screen slam shut.
Dylan rose and walked slowly over to the front door. In the yard, paramedics lifted his mother’s body onto a gurney, covered her with a sheet, secured her, and loaded her into the ambulance where his father’s body had already been placed. As the ambulance doors closed and the engine started, a car came up the driveway and stopped near his mother’s car. The door opened and a woman got out, pausing long enough for her eyes to find Dylan’s. His breath caught.
She had traded the flowing dress for slacks, blouse, and shoes that didn’t seem to fit properly. In the pool of porch light, Dylan saw that her once pallid cheeks now bore a soft blush. The woman conferred briefly with the officer and then crossed the short distance to the house. Dylan remained in the doorway, uncertain of what to do as his gaze bounced back and forth between the woman and the officers getting into their cars.
The woman stopped at the bottom of the steps and spoke in a voice only for Dylan.
“Don’t you have a hug for your aunt?”
Dylan took a step back as the woman came up the steps, opened the screen door, and stepped inside.
The woman knelt and drew him into a close embrace. “My sweet, dear boy.” He resisted, but her embraced tightened. “Warmth,” she purred. She sniffed his ear, savoring, her small breaths chilling his skin. “We shall dance a million nights.” Her tongue flicked out to touch his neck, icy saliva chilling. She moaned so quietly, Dylan wasn’t sure if he’d really heard her. “You taste like your mother.”
“No!” Dylan pushed the woman with all his strength, sending her sprawling backward.
He raced out of the house as the taillights of the last officer’s car vanished around a curve. Breathless, he bolted for the pasture beyond fresh mushrooms that had sprouted up around the house.
Cows lowed and scattered as he scaled the fence. The horse neighed in the far corner, tail up, ears perked. He clapped his hands, and she sprinted through the frightened herd up to him. Dylan grabbed her mane with both hands and swung off the fence onto her back. He straightened and looked toward the house as the woman rushed toward him faster than he’d ever seen anyone move, arriving at Penny’s side in a breath.
“To protect and then to enjoy,” she hissed. “I’ve earned that privilege.”
She grabbed for the boy as his heels dug into Penny’s sides, his legs locking.
The horse reared and spun, and the woman’s hands slipped away from the boy as she fell to one side. Penny’s forelegs churned outward, and Dylan heard a soft, thick sound.
Dylan’s chest pounded under his panting breaths. Cattle clotted in the pasture corner nearest the house. Lights flickered inside. Music and laughter rose. Shadows danced across the windows. The breeze surged.
Dylan lay against Penny’s neck, one hand caressing, one hand clutching mane.
“Come on, girl.”
The horse turned, picking up speed toward the back fence, gauging the leap into the dark woods beyond.