Rooms Available double-checked that his plastic kirtle and tinsel belt were shiny and presentable, and then hurried inside the Castle of Lost Buttons, at the edge of the Garbage Mountains.
“Oh, Rooms, it’s you!” shrieked a young sprite wrapped in yarn and brandishing a pair of bottle caps.
“Hello, Twenty MCG. Are you playing any music tonight?”
“Oh yes!” she replied, bashing the bottle caps together rhythmically. “Do you think you’ll steal something nice this year?”
“No, this year I’m presenting the challenges,” said Rooms, puffing up his chest and holding out the purple jar filled with those important slips of paper.
“Oh. That’s boring.” She looked crestfallen.
“Actually, it’s an honor acknowledging my great expertise with the Large City people and my fine-tuned skills at recognizing difficulty of acquisition, usefulness, and value,” Rooms Available said, exasperated. Silly young thing, he thought, can’t wait for her turn to compete. Looking at it from entirely the wrong perspective!
“Can I peek at them?” she asked, reaching out to unscrew the jar’s lid.
“Of course not. That would be interference. You’ll just have to wait with everyone else. I wrote them all myself and I think they’re quite well done.” She really was an irritating sprite.
“Rooms Available, come over here. We’re about to start,” called one of the judges from a large red couch against the wall.
“They’re about to start? I’m late,” cried Twenty MCG as she flew off, frantically banging her bottle caps together.
Rooms hurried over to the judges.
“Sit down. The couch is quite comfortable,” said Judge BYOB, pulling up the red cloth to reveal a soggy paperback. Music started as fairies overhead banged bottle caps, scraped rusty forks, and blew through panpipes made from straws.
This year’s forty contestants, every fairy past spritehood who had not yet abandoned adventure for more scholarly pursuits, settled onto the dried-leaf floor before the red couch. Every eye in the room watched Rooms Available’s jar. It quivered, as though all this intense concentration might shatter it, although the effect really came from Rooms’s trembling hands.
“Sodium, as youngest fairy, you may go first,” called out Judge BYOB. “Draw wisely.”
Sodium stood. His blue wings fluttered nervously, and his forehead glistened with sweat. Rooms Available held forth the purple jar. The young fairy reached in and swirled the papers around. Finally, he plucked one out.
“A timepiece!” read Sodium and settled back on the floor. The first challenge had been assigned. The youngest fairy now had until the next full moon to beg, borrow, or steal the best timepiece he could. If he did well, he stood to gain a great deal of admiration from the other fairies. The most glamorous and exciting adventures would be immortalized in tales for all the fairies of the castle to hear—until stories of something else wonderful came along.
“Better If,” called out Judge BYOB.
Better If’s ears pricked up at hearing his name. He strutted to the jar and reached down to the very bottom. He yanked out a scrap and unfolded it. Dramatically, he cleared his throat.
“The heart …” Better If paused. He started again, haltingly, without his former bravado. “The heart of a woman / who’ll warm me in cold.”
A mutter spread through the crowd. This challenge was highly unorthodox. The fairies fluttered and buzzed with chatter.
“A heart? What’s that?” asked Twenty MCG.
“If it warms you, it must be burnable!” said a tiny it-sprite.
Throughout the hall, he-fairies, she-fairies, it-fairies and sprites of all kinds whispered excitedly to their neighbors. This was a most mysterious challenge.
The commotion gave Rooms Available several moments to calm himself before anyone could notice that he had turned bright red, or that his wings were twitching uncontrollably.
Rooms wearily rubbed his eyes. The last contestant had asked some very difficult questions. And he was most decidedly not looking forward to the next fairy.
“Better If’s approaching,” said Judge Body Wash. Its job was to time the questioning. One quarter of the clock face with the challenger for each competing fairy, and no more. The fairy could use his, her or its time to ask questions, clarify the challenge, or seek advice about going into the Large City.
The questioning was often necessary. It had been added after an incident some years past, when a rather stupid fairy named Made In had been given the challenge of “Fierce” and, instead of finding a weapon or inventing a frightening disguise, she had tried to coax a Rottweiler back to the Castle of Lost Buttons. Fortunately, she had not succeeded.
Oh dear, thought Rooms Available. This would be quite embarrassing. He still didn’t know how a scrap of one of his personal Large City experiments, writing a poem thingy. had gotten into that purple jar. And now he had given a bizarre challenge to a fairy eager to prove himself.
“So,” said Better If as he stepped through the door, “what is a woman?”
Rooms Available sighed, then started to explain.
ARE YOU THE ONE? SWF, 27, beautiful fit brunette, seeks professional male with good sense of humor, 30-55, for LTR. Enjoys literature, film, and jogging.
Today I am meeting an SWF named Audrey (What is that? Shrimp With Family? Song Wholeheartedly Fatal? Don’t know.) I found out about her in the newspaper pages Rooms Available showed me. He seemed quite helpful, but a bit nervous. Audrey is a woman, which is like a giant she-fairy, but not quite. She didn’t decide to be a she! They don’t do that here at all.
“Sense of humor” means jokes and laughing. But no pinching, or poking, or yanking on feet when flying. Oh right, no flying. I have to use a glamour to look like a wingless giant.
Rooms said women like flattery and flowers and candy. And shiny things. We have that in common. And pretty words and soft stuff and—he said so much so fast! He gave me several pages of advice that everyone in the Large City knows. I hope I do all right. I wonder how I’ll get Audrey’s heart.
It started out so well! I said my name was Lloyd. (How dull that would be if it were true.) To dress my glamour, I picked out a face and clothes from a magazine. Then I waited in a big building filled with big people drinking coffee. I did the talking small with Audrey, and she talked small back. I wanted to tell a joke, but couldn’t remember one that wasn’t about flying, so I used some of Rooms’s advice.
Audrey should have liked flattery. And imitation is the sincerest form of it, right? And sincerity is good. Or did I read that wrong?
She was talking, and I noticed how silvery shiny her earrings were. So I added an earring to my glamour. She had two earrings, and they both matched, so I put in a second one. I was almost done making my green shirt red like hers, when suddenly her eyes bugged out as if she smelled rotten mayonnaise. She almost tripped over her chair, she got up so fast! Then she ran away. It must be infuriating not being able to fly.
So I didn’t get Audrey’s heart. But I did see it! Redder than her shirt, and glowing in her chest. It seems like a decent prize, although I don’t know what anyone would use it for.
LOOKING FOR LOVE. Me, a vivacious SBF who likes long walks, reading, and golf. 23 years old, 5’5″ and 135 lbs. You, a NS/ND SM, 20-40, who’d like to meet a pretty, smart woman for coffee, and maybe more.
A new woman, Mary. SBF? Silk Burnt Fire, or maybe Silicon Bone Future. She seemed friendly. Confident. Her heart shone boldly. Of course I was nervous—this is all so strange to me.
I tried to give her a nice gift. Beetle husks are shiny and pretty. But she made it quite clear she wasn’t pleased with them at all. I was picking husks out of my hair for days.
YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE. Attractive SWF, 38, looking to meet someone different, SWM. Enjoys tennis and long chats by the fire.
I brought pink flowers for Maureen. That part went well. I thought I’d try “Honesty is the best policy” from Rooms’s advice. It obviously isn’t. (I didn’t think it would be. Seemed a bit stupid.) And since it isn’t, I’ll lie and say that Maureen liked me and my stories. And she didn’t tell me to stop acting crazy, and she didn’t scream, and I didn’t get thrown out onto the street.
I don’t think Maureen really wanted to meet someone different.
No woman will ever give up her heart to me. I’m just not convincing. And even if I was … the hearts, they seem so bright and wonderful. I can’t imagine anybody giving one away.
Maybe Rooms was wrong about talking someone out of her heart. Could I snatch it out of her chest? It looks a bit big to carry, almost the same size as me, but airy, as if it could float up into the sky.
ARE YOU AS BORED BY EVERYONE ELSE AS I AM? Red-headed SWF, 21, seeking someone to stay up late talking to.
Sarah. Sweet Winter Foamflower.
I hate working the phone. It’s beyond awkward. Getting the mouthpiece down, then dropping in the coins, then dialling. And then hovering by the mouthpiece, doing some big-voiced glamour. Reading off the notes from Rooms Available.
I was so busy concentrating on all that, I barely noticed when Sarah started yelling at me.
“Look, just shut up! I don’t want to talk to any more creeps. I definitely don’t know why I thought anything good could possibly come of announcing ‘Lonely young redhead here’! I don’t care who you are. I’m hanging up.”
I shrieked at her, dropping the voice glamour.
“Well, I don’t care who you are, either! And I’m never going to win any rotten heart from any stupid she-woman, with all those letters in the stupid newspaper, and the phoning and the coffee. I hate every minute of it, and it’s a waste of my time! I’ll go back empty-handed. I hate the Large City, and everything here is stupid and—”
I drew a deep breath to yell some more, but Sarah was laughing. Rooms mentioned laughing and jokes.
“You know,” she said, “you sound like a real pipsqueak.”
“I bet I’m the squeakiest pip that ever squeaked,” I said. I hoped this was a good thing.
There was a long pause.
“So,” she said finally, “what’s your name, anyway?”
“No. Better. If.”
“What kind of a name is that?” She sounded confused.
I was upset. “It’s a perfectly good name. I picked it myself.”
“You named yourself?”
“Of course. All sprites do. When we’re born and ready to fly out of our paper wrappers, we pick a name from the words printed on them.”
“So, then, you’re better if what?” She giggled.
“Better If fairy. Better if impressing everyone or playing tricks. Better if I had a heart.”
“What the heck do you need the heart for?”
Hoping that honesty wasn’t the worst policy, I told her all about the Scavenger’s Challenge Ball.
Sarah asked me to call tonight. We talked about her school, and my hovel and the Castle of Lost Buttons. She doesn’t understand it-fairies at all.
She asked, “Don’t they have to choose to be hes or shes?”
“Of course not! They can be its. There’s always the three choices.”
“But what if they don’t want to choose any of them?” She still seemed confused.
“There’s about two fairies I know who didn’t pick any of them. They usually fly together, but if they’re by themselves, no one knows how to talk about them.”
“That is incredibly strange,” said Sarah.
“So, what is a heart for?” I asked. I wanted to ask why it’s so bright, but that might be rude.
“For love mostly. And gushy poems. When it’s not pumping blood, of course.”
“So is one valuable? Or useful?” I wanted to make sure I had this right.
“Valuable? Well, yes. Useful? Well … ” She sighed. “I’m not using mine.”
I got very excited.
“Can I borrow it?”
“How long would you need it for? How would you get it out of me? Would it hurt?”
“About seven days, I think I can just pull it out—the hearts don’t seem completely attached to their owners—and I don’t know.”
“How very reassuring.”
“Could I borrow it, please? I’ll give you something in trade.”
I thought hard. Then I remembered something at the foot of the tallest Garbage Mountain—a shiny mirror in a wooden frame.
“A beautiful mirror for a beautiful lady,” I suggested.
“And when would it happen?” asked Sarah.
I told her.
I waited in the forest, on the edge of the castle’s grounds, with the mirror for Sarah. It turns out her head wasn’t really red at all. Her heart glowed like the others, though, but less brightly. Maybe it’s shy.
She said, “I can’t believe I’m here.” And “You’re so tiny! And your blue wings!”
I flew onto her open palm. It was almost as big as me. If I hurt her when I took her heart, she could crush my feet or pull my wings off.
I faced her. “Close your eyes and relax.” I still didn’t know what I was doing.
Reaching into her chest, I touched her shining heart. It warmed my hands. I pulled away, and the heart came with me, my arms stuck in it up to the elbows. It felt as if they were in bright sunshine.
“Oh,” said Sarah.
“Does it hurt?”
“No, but I can tell it’s missing.” Her voice was quiet.
I flew up with the heart, past Sarah’s left ear.
“Thank you. I’ll meet you here in seven days,” I whispered.
I swooped in and kissed her ear, but I’m so small I doubt she noticed.
“You know,” she said, “I think it’s much better to have a heart than not to have one.”
She picked up the mirror and walked off.
“This is so incredible,” said Rooms Available. “You really got one! You managed to—erm, not that this wasn’t a challenge as reasonable as any of the others.”
Rooms examined the red heart Better If was holding. It was nearly the young fairy’s size. Its glow seemed subdued, but still illuminated Rooms’s den.
“Pfft! It’s not like it was hard to get,” Better If said, fiddling with his wings. “I can’t wait to present it to the judges.”
Rooms’s hands twitched at having something so exciting to study. Maybe even experiment on. “You’ll keep it here until then, of course. For safekeeping. Wouldn’t want it to get damaged.”
Better If seemed startled and shook his head hard. “No, there’s no reason it won’t be fine in my hovel.”
Rooms made a strangled cry. Denying him an opportunity like this? What a vexing fairy!
“Rooms, could you get the door? I think I could shove the heart through it, but …” Better If was clearly ready to leave.
The old fairy held open the door.
Better If called back over his shoulder, “I took some notes while I was on my challenge. I left them on the shelf for you.”
“Better If! Twenty MCG found a script of Twelfth Night in one of the mountains. Come and help us act it out!”
Sodium wants me to play.
“You’re so good at doing the voices. Come out, Better!” Twenty MCG yells.
I don’t make a sound. They’ll fly away soon. I’m too busy to join them.
The heart fills up my house, casting a glow that makes the room look as if it’s underwater. I can fit my whole self inside, and then I’m warm all over, up to my wing tips, down to my toenails, and cushioned by invisible softness. There’s three days left until the judging, and I’m going to spent them all curled up inside the heart. But I don’t think I’ll tell that to Sarah.
© 2009 Shivaun Hoad, first published in Cicada