The Family by Rab Ferguson

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They had lost Father. Amelia held Mother’s hand, the two of them giggling together as they made their way through the forest. They were surrounded by vibrant green: in the trees’ thick leaves, in the crunching undergrowth, in the moss that crept up the stones. The air smelled sweet. Even at six years old, Amelia knew this place was special. It felt alive, and free.

Amelia thought Mother had left Father behind deliberately. He’d been following the path, and she’d turned away, off into the trees. Amelia was holding Mother’s hand, and had no choice but to follow. She’d watched Father’s red hair grow smaller as he continued on unknowing. Mother’s mouth was tight as she led Amelia away, stepping over roots and ducking past branches. Amelia waited for Father’s thunderous shouting at any moment. As the distance between him and them widened, the tension faded, giggles growing in its place.

They arrived in a clearing, eyes damp as they tried to stifle their laughter. Amelia didn’t even know why she was laughing, only that a feeling like relief was washing through her.

“Look,” Mother whispered, a hint of mischief in her voice. She pointed at a boulder set deep into the earth. An oak tree grew on the bank above the stone, its roots dangling down over the precipice. Mother slipped between the roots, pulling Amelia with her. She placed one hand flat onto the stone and motioned with her head for Amelia to do the same.

“Feel that?” Mother asked. They were playing a game, Amelia knew, one that would not be allowed if Father was present. She put her hand below Mother’s. The stone felt strangely cold. There was a depth to the chill, as if it originated within the rock’s centre.

“It’s because of the fairies.” Mother’s Dubliner lilt was soft and low. “The ones who live inside the stone.”

Amelia stared huge-eyed at Mother. There was no such thing as fairies. Yet Mother had said there was, as if it was true. She’d never said anything like that before. Amelia’s mind went into overdrive, picturing the fairies crawling through the stone, tiny half-moth half-person creatures. As soon as she imagined them, one popped into reality.

Mother gasped, letting go of Amelia. The fairy, about the size of Amelia’s pinky finger, perched on the boulder. Her wings were translucent green, with darker veins spread through them like the pattern of a leaf. She had no mouth, only mandibles, tasting the air. The rest of her was human-like, a miniature naked lady with blonde hair like Mother’s.

“You’re like him.” Mother’s voice was awed. She held out her hand, and the creature fluttered over, landing on her finger. “Amelia, it’s beautiful.”

Despite not understanding how she’d made the fairy, Amelia’s chest rose with pride.

Worry clouded Mother’s expression. “I didn’t think this would happen. I just wanted to tell you a story for once. If—”

“What have you done!?” Father’s Northern Irish accent was harsher than Mother’s Dublin-born tones. He crashed through the thicket and snatched the fairy from Mother’s finger, the creature squirming in his balled up fist.

“You said you understood,” he spat at Mother. He brought his free hand to the fairy, cupping it between two palms like a baby bird. Mother was crying. Father crushed his palms together, the sound inside like snapping twigs. He dropped the fairy to the ground, a dead thing, mangled and broken. Amelia let out a cry, and ran towards Mother, but Father grabbed her wrist and pulled her to his side. His hand, tight around her flesh, was wet with the fairy’s blood.

Mother dropped to her knees on the forest ground. The squashed fairy lay amongst the leaves. In that moment, Amelia saw who she was like, and who she was not like. She and Father stood together, with the same red hair and the same freckled skin. Mother and the fairy were on the ground, blonde haired and clear skinned.

“You said you understood,” Father repeated, his voice full of hurt.

***

That night, after the drive back from the forest, Amelia heard her parents talking downstairs later than was usual. She crept down the stairs, straining to hear their hushed voices. It was difficult to make them out against the drift of the Atlantic Ocean. The sound was a backdrop to life in their isolated West Coast of Ireland home. At the bottom of the stairs, Amelia saw the kitchen door was ajar, the bright light on inside.

It was then that she heard Mother betray her. Father said that Mother didn’t understand Amelia’s condition. He said that she couldn’t support Amelia, and that by being there she’d do more harm than good. Mother agreed, and it broke Amelia’s heart. Mother was abandoning her, leaving her to fend for herself under Father’s rule. Sure enough, the next day Mother said goodbye, and the day after she was gone.

***

The plan was always for Amelia to be homeschooled. With Mother out of the picture, Father took full charge of her education. He worked early mornings as a postman, and when he returned home tasked himself with passing knowledge onto his daughter. He taught her about their bloodline, and the ability present within certain members of their family, like him and her, and some of their relatives scattered across Ireland. Her formative years were occupied with learning about every pain, conflict, and death caused by her family releasing imagined creatures into the world.

Amelia spent months chronicling the histories of the hidden people in Iceland, recording the narratives that Father recited aloud. The hidden people had been created by Niall Flynnigan, one of her ancestors who’d been taken to Iceland as an Irish slave. The creation of the invisible elves was a deliberate act of rebellion. Their callous acts of violence for the next eight hundred years were an unintended consequence.

In other lessons, Amelia drew sprawling maps of the forests of Western Europe, copying those drawn by Father when he was young. On these she highlighted where her fourth-great grandmother Eithne O’Fyne travelled, populating the woods with magical creatures in order to bring the world closer to the Brothers Grimm tales she loved. Father made Amelia note, with arrows indicating the locations on the maps, every instance of someone disappearing or dying in those woods after Eithne’s actions.

When Father spoke about the creatures made by their family, he always carefully avoided descriptive detail, instead emphasising their danger. The histories that best illustrated the threat were those of their own land: the blood-soaked tales of mortal Irish men’s desperate wars with gods, giants, and elemental spirits spawned forth from their family’s minds. By the time Amelia was a teenager, she had enough completed notebooks and rolled-up maps to fill a small museum. It would echo the tone of one dedicated to the atomic bomb.

Father punctuated these lessons with meditative exercises, aimed towards clearing the mind of daydream and imagination. Amelia was taught Father’s discipline, learning to keep her mind always partially blank, holding a void within herself ready to open at any time to swallow up unwanted thoughts.

Despite Amelia’s efforts, she still brought the occasional creature into existence. Watching Father put them down became a regular feature of her childhood. Before long, it no longer upset her to see them die. She wasn’t sure when the change took place, though she remembered being nine years old, watching dispassionately as Father snapped the neck of a small dragon she’d accidentally made while he was at work. He stored a farmer’s shotgun in a locked cupboard under the stairs, which he only took out if she created something big.

Father often made comments about “keeping to family”. He was of the opinion that prolonged contact with outsiders risked provoking the imagination. This view was shared by the selection of empowered relatives he kept in touch with, all of whom lived reclusive lives. He was a hardliner in that regard, not even letting Amelia speak to the drivers that delivered their grocery shopping. On rare occasions he allowed her to take trips with him to nearby towns, or Galway city, as long as she spoke to no-one.

Father sometimes spoke of his regret for marrying Mother, saying that she never could have been expected to understand. The slights against Mother didn’t bother Amelia. The memory of her betrayal lived on, even as the circumstances of it became murky with time.

***

After what happened next, there was one day Amelia talked about often, to show that there had been real love between her and Father. It was the day she accidentally made blue-sky birds in her bedroom. Amelia was sixteen, gazing out of the window in midsummer. It had been years since she’d last brought something to life.

The thought appeared with no warning, giving her no time to draw it into the void. She imagined birds the same colour as the sky, soaring free. Three birds rushed into existence, clattering around her bare room. They were the vivid blue of the sky, tufts of white cloud drifting across them as they flapped around her.

Father’s feet pounded up the stairs. Amelia felt anxiety like she’d never known, spiking up through her stomach and into her chest. He rushed into the room, and slammed the door shut behind him. Amelia burst into tears, surprising both Father and herself.

“Amelia.” He sat down on her bed, ignoring the birds for now. “What’s wrong?”

He was right to be confused. It had been a long time since Amelia had last been upset about a creature needing to be put down. The last two she’d created, she’d done herself. It had been almost three years ago, after the first time Father had ever let her go to Dublin with him. She’d trapped a twenty-legged spider under a glass, before lifting one side and decapitating the arachnid as it tried to escape. A week later, she’d thrown a mermaid out of her bath, watching it suffocate on the laminate floor.

Father leaned forward, his hands resting on his legs. “Don’t worry about slipping up. One tough day doesn’t discount all the time you’ve spent not doing it, and the progress you’ve made. You’re still doing well.” His voice took on a confessional tone. “I remember when I last did it. You’d only just been born. I was tired, and my guard was down. I thought of a story that I’d unwisely read when I was young. All of a sudden I’d created a creature called a minotaur in the house. I had to use the gun for that one, and it was a close thing that it didn’t get me first. A lot worse than a few little birds.”

“It’s not that.” Amelia looked up at the three birds fluttering around overhead, their blue blurred by her tears. “They’re beautiful. I wish for once we didn’t have to put them down.”

Father became stern. “You’ve studied the histories. You know how many people have died because our family let seemingly innocuous creatures live.”

“I know, and I know what we have to do. I just wish it wasn’t this way.”

His expression softened. “Me too, Amelia. Me too.” He looked down at his hands, then went on. “Let’s say this one time, it’ll be different. This time, I’ll catch them, get them in a box, and let them go by the sea? Then anytime you or I put something down in the future, we can remember that just once, we let the birds go.”

Amelia nodded. She knew he was lying, and that he knew that she knew. Setting them free would go against everything he stood for. He was willing to pretend though, for her. He spent the best part of an hour catching the birds, getting them safely into a shoebox. He left with the box under his arm, the birds tweeting inside. She watched from the window as he walked away along the grey beach, following the line of the sea. He didn’t look back, continuing on until he was out of sight of the house. When he came home, the box was empty, except for a single blue feather.

***

It happened on a Sunday in November. Sundays were different, because Father bought the newspaper. After he’d read it and shredded any pages likely to induce creation, he let Amelia read what was left. Father also checked the news daily on their decrepit Windows 95 computer, but said Amelia wasn’t ready for the imaginative influences of the internet.

This particular Sunday, Amelia lagged behind him as they walked along the grey beach. Three or four times a week, they walked together on the beach or the nearby hills. Even when it rained Father made time for their walks. If Amelia still wanted to go when it was raining, they’d get kitted up in Gortex boots, waterproof trousers and rain jackets, then head out. The walks were Amelia’s time, where she could talk to Father about whatever she wanted. They usually spoke about what she’d learned in her lessons, or what she’d read in the Sunday paper that week. On days like this, when she wanted to walk alone behind him, that was okay too.

There had been yet another article on global warming in the newspaper. The ice caps were melting. In London, people were protesting, gluing themselves to trains and lying across bridges. The situation made Amelia feel utterly useless. All that she, or any member of her family, could do was hide away from the world and try not to do any damage.

Something snapped under Amelia’s shoe. She stopped, glancing up automatically at Father. He continued along the tideline, unaware. She lifted her foot, and saw a broken pile of dried-out seaweed indented into the sand. The shape reminded her of the fairy, dead on the forest floor. It seemed as if the pieces of green-black plant could be the bones of that creature, refound so many years later.

The void inside Amelia yawned open, numbing everything. She could picture the fairy in her mind’s eye, as clearly as if it was there in front of her. Even so, nothing happened. The image passed from her mind and the numbness faded, replaced by a rush of anxiety. Her chest constricted, and breathing became difficult. She thought Father might be wrong about everything.

“Are you okay?” Father called back to her, having stopped up ahead.

“What if we’re the answer?” She shouted back. “What if our abilities could save everyone?”

His shoes slapped on the wet sand as he marched towards her. “The world doesn’t need more death, Amelia.”

“But what if it needs reflections? Maybe we need to see ourselves, mirrored in the creatures we make up in our own heads. If the world was full of dragons and elves and fairies, maybe we’d all take better care of it.”

They were face to face now. Father glared at her, something desperate in his eyes. “I know what’s happening in the world is scary. Our creatures can’t help protect the environment, or anything else. They only ever cause harm.”

“How can you be so sure? It’s been decades since someone has let one of them live. Would the fairy really have hurt anyone, or the birds?”

Father’s face flushed red. “You know our history.”

“But that history was written by members of our family like you, who don’t think we should use our power. Even within those histories, there’s so many stories about someone who thought it was worth making the creatures, and did it deliberately. They must have had some reason for thinking that. What if we created something good, like⁠—” Amelia paused, trying to create something pure to prove her point. Growing up in Ireland, despite Father’s attempts to shelter her, had given her glimpses of religion. She pictured white feathers, and a glowing halo. Against her will, the void filled her mind. Her breathing grew rapid as she struggled against it. She could see an angel, but couldn’t bring it into being.

Pain smacked across Amelia’s right cheek, and she crashed down onto the sand. Above her, Father’s hand was still flat from the slap. His own shock was written across his face. Amelia’s cheek stung badly. The tightness in her chest worsened, like her ribs were closing in around her lungs. She felt as if she wasn’t bringing in enough air. Dark spots danced on the edge of her vision.

Father stood above her. He looked utterly helpless. Amelia realised she had made a mistake. She should never have told him what she was thinking. He’d always be watching now. She’d be forced to live according to his instructions. The void would continue to grow inside her, killing every idea before it could be created, until her ability was entirely lost. Either that, or she’d try to break his laws, and eventually die at his hands. Father would do what he saw as necessary to prevent the creatures from being released, even though it would destroy him.

The darkness was closing around Amelia’s eyes, and her body felt fizzy and light and wrong. She was trapped, as she had always been. She could smell the salt of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s cold touched her feet, and then the world was gone.

***

Amelia woke up, damp sand encrusted across her side. There were icy flecks of the moisture across her skin. Where Father had stood, there was a creature made of ocean. Shoals of tiny fish swam through its body. Its teeth and claws were broken shards of sea shells. At its centre beat a slow jellyfish heart. Its black eyes, like those of a shark, watched her mournfully. It retreated into the sea, vanishing under the tide.

Amelia was alone on the grey beach. She was free, and bereaved. It was too much to feel at once, everything swirling within her. She refused to block any of it out. Her house was visible in the distance, on a flash of green grass above the beach. She started towards home, walking beside the water. There was work to be done.

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Rab Ferguson

Rab Ferguson is a York based writer of fiction and poetry. His short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines including Litro, Storgy, Under the Fable, and Beyond the Walls. His speculative novella The Dancer was described by Rising Shadow magazine as “one of the absolute highlights of the year”.

When not writing, Rab works with young people in a charity setting. He has a storytelling cape supposedly woven from folk tales, that can usually be found beneath his cat.

Rab has two more stories available to read on Storgy. For football and ghosts, click here https://storgy.com/2015/08/26/rab-ferguson-these-empty-stands/ and for an elderly couple visiting a late-night takeaway in their finest clothes, click here https://storgy.com/2015/08/26/rab-ferguson-these-empty-stands/

Rab’s speculative novella The Dancer is available as an e-book for only 99p here: http://www.unsungstories.co.uk/the-dancer-by-rab-ferguson. The Dancer was described by Shoreline of Infinity magazine as “exactly what you want from speculative fiction”, and by RagingBiblioholism.com as “an episode of Black Mirror waiting to happen”.

More free stories! For music and magic, click here https://www.litro.co.uk/2014/07/when-time-slows-down/ or for how we make people out of stories click here https://rabtales.wordpress.com/about/granddad-used-to-tell-a-story-about-oranges/

Follow Rab’s Twitter https://twitter.com/RabTales for updates on his writing and new releases.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

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