“I hope you don’t think you’ll be assigned to a princess,” the woman told the fairy. “It isn’t like the old days.”
The fairy squirmed on the seat of the plastic chair that faced the woman’s desk. The chair was human-sized, so the fairy’s feet did not quite touch the floor. “I don’t want a princess!” she squeaked. It was not entirely true. But these days, no fairy could become a girl’s godmother unless the agency approved her application, and it was best to tell humans whatever they wanted to hear.
The agency woman stared sternly down the bridge of her nose at the fairy. The fairy thought the woman pretty, in a severe way, but her gray suit with its wide shoulder pads was neither stylish nor flattering, and the only jewelry she wore was a sparkly bracelet on her left wrist. “There are too many stories,” the woman said, “of fairy powers being wasted on frivolous gifts to princesses, while those who needed assistance were ignored.”
“What about Cinderella?” the fairy said.
“Cinderella had a roof over her head, three meals a day, and a warm place to sleep.”
“But she wanted to go to the ball!” the fairy chirped. She couldn’t help bouncing a little in her chair, and she clapped her white hands together. Oh, what a tale that was! The pretty scullery maid in her shimmery dress, her glass slippers that rang out like bells on the ballroom floor. Not real glass, of course, how horrible it would be to have a shoe crumble at the end of a pirouette, and to land with your bare foot on the shards—
“We are not in the business of sending girls to dances!” the woman said. “Have you been listening to anything I’ve told you?”
“Yes!” the fairy exclaimed, delighted to be asked a question with such an obvious answer. The tips of her wings fluttered, stirring up a breeze that lifted the edges of the loose papers on the woman’s desk.
The woman slapped her hands over the papers. Her bracelet tinkled like fairy chimes. “Sometimes I think we should have left you with the princesses. These are real little human girls we’re talking about, not pets for you to dress up as fairies and show off to your friends until you’re tired of them.”
After her interview, the agency sent the fairy home with a glossy brochure printed in bright, cheerful colors. The title of the brochure was: Rules for Fairy Godmothers.
- Do not offer to teach your child to fly. Mortal children do not have wings, and can be injured or killed jumping from trees or tall buildings.
- Do not offer to find a fairy lover for your child.
- Do not attempt to help your child marry the prince, or the president, or the prime minister. This is unhealthy for both child and statesman.
- Do not discuss life in the fairy realms.
- Do not invite your child to visit you in the fairy realms.
- Do not give clothing as a gift. Most mortals do not consider spider silk frocks appropriate attire.
So many rules! The fairy felt a heavy weight on her chest, like lying down and having someone pile large flat stones on her. Had helping mortal children always been so complicated?
But oh, it was so worthwhile! Other fairies had shown her pictures of their children, beautiful brown girls with big gap-toothed smiles, skinny arms thrown around the necks of their fairy godmothers. Some girls sent letters, and pencil crayon drawings of trees and unicorns and stars. The fairy wanted to decorate her bower with clever drawings and letters that said, Dear fairy godmother, I love you very much and I hope you will visit me soon, because I am waiting for you. She wanted a mortal child to talk about at parties; she wanted to be able to tell the other fairies how much better her child had done this year in algebra, how her child was speaking to boys with greater confidence, and receiving compliments on her hair and complexion. In fact, the fairy wanted so badly to help a child that when she thought back on her interview—the parts that she remembered—she was so anxious that she could not keep her wings from twitching.
After a week of waiting that felt like an anxious eternity, the fairy’s application to become a godmother was accepted. She was assigned to a little girl named Fabiana, in Brazil. Fabiana and her mother and sister lived in a house of red cinderblocks glued together with a mortar so soft and crumbly that they could pick holes in it with their thumbs. The roof was a sheet of corrugated steel coated with frosty white zinc, the floor was dirt, and the door had been fashioned of old wooden boards of various sizes, nailed to long planks and then propped in front of the entrance. Sometimes an older brother lived there too, sometimes Fabiana’s father, who was not the father of the older children.
Fabiana was seven. At first she did not seem to know what to think, and cringed when the fairy tried to touch her hair. But after a while, seeing her mother at ease with the fairy and the human woman from the agency, she emerged from trying to hide behind her mother and gave the fairy a shy but affectionate hug. Fabiana and the fairy were exactly the same height, so it was easy for Fabiana to whisper in the fairy’s ear: “You’re so pretty! You look just like I wanted you to.”
“See!” the mother cried. “You said you wanted a fairy godmother, it’s all I heard about for months, and see, now you have one.” And the mother laughed, and she kissed the fairy, and so did the sister (although the sister’s kisses were more reserved). The agency woman took pictures of everyone and promised to print copies for Fabiana and her family.
Fabiana and the fairy went for a walk, Fabiana leading her fairy godmother by the hand, showing her the neighborhood. The house faced a two-lane paved road, and cars and buses rattled along in a constant racket of honking and clanging metal, but the narrow alley behind the house and the street beyond that were rutted dirt. Bikes and scooters rushed past the two of them, kicking up clouds of swirling dust that made the little girl cough until the fairy conjured a dust-free bubble to surround them, and then Fabiana gazed up at her with such gratitude that the fairy thought her heart would burst.
Fabiana had a narrow, pinched face, and she was so skinny that her collarbones stuck out like rails above the loose neck of her faded Sleeping Beauty t-shirt. The young men on scooters, or sitting on upturned buckets behind their houses, hooted and whistled at the fairy as she and Fabiana passed by. “Oi, fairy!” they called. “Nice ass!” And, “Show me some fairy love!” Some were so pretty that the fairy was tempted, but she remembered Rule Seven: Do not become romantically involved with any mortal who lives within one hundred miles of your child, or who is acquainted with your child in any way.
The fairy did not know what to talk to Fabiana about. If life in the fairy realms were not a forbidden subject (Rule Four), she could have chattered on for hours about the parties she had attended in the last month alone, and all the dresses she and her friends had worn, how they had styled their hair with live flowers and birds. She could have talked about sailing down rivers that flowed from lost gardens, of banquets under silk pavilions, where guests ate and drank so much they dropped like flies on the grass and slept for two days while friends celebrated around them. But she was not permitted to speak of those things, and since Fabiana did not seem to have any stories of her own to volunteer, the fairy had to try and think of things to ask her.
“Do you like school?” the fairy asked.
“Yes,” said Fabiana. “It’s okay.”
“That’s good,” said the fairy. “You should study hard. If you do well in school, you will have a better life.” That was one of the things that her agency pamphlet on being a good fairy godmother had recommended she say. “Science and math are especially important.”
“Why?” Fabiana asked.
The fairy stopped. She tilted her head from side to side, considering. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “But someone told me that they were. For mortals.”
“Did you study science and math?”
“No.” She didn’t think she had. But it was hard to know for certain. Who could remember what had happened last year, let alone centuries ago? She had a glimmer of memory sometimes, almost a dream, a young mortal with intensely bright eyes, drawing diagrams for her with bits of sharpened charcoal, trying to explain something … the fairy could not remember. “Fairies don’t go to school.”
“Then I don’t want to go to school either,” Fabiana said.
“Oh, Fabiana, you must!” The fairy snatched her pale hand away from Fabiana’s brown one and clapped both hands together under her chin. She hopped up and down, and her fluttering opalescent wings lifted her several inches above the ground. “Fabiana, you must never stop attending school, because if you do then the agency won’t let me be your fairy godmother anymore.”
“Oh.” Fabiana’s face was downcast. “Don’t go away. I like having a fairy godmother. I like you.”
The fairy was so happy, she could feel her face and wings glow. “I can’t stay here, Fabiana, but I’ll always come when you call. I promise.”
The girl threw her arms around the fairy, burying her face in the fairy’s shoulder, and the fairy knew she had said all the right things.
The fairy told all her friends and cousins about the little mortal girl. She decorated her bower with photographs of the two of them, mounted in heart-shaped frames cut out of lined white paper and covered by pencil crayon drawings. She hung a huge Brazilian flag from the ceiling, filled her shelves with handmade pottery and lapis pendants and purses decorated with seedpods and carved nut shells.
At first, the fairy visited Fabiana every week. Fabiana grew rounder, her cheeks fuller. Rule Eight said, Do not give your child fairy food, and Rule Nine said, Do not give fairy gold or precious stones to either your child or your child’s family, but it could not possibly be wrong to take Fabiana’s mother shopping for human food, and then for a refrigerator to keep it and a microwave and new pots and pans with which to cook it. And if she gave Fabiana’s mother the Brazilian money she received from the merchants as change for her fairy gold … well, the agency did not need to know about that. So Fabiana did not look so hungry anymore, and the entire family had lovely new clothes. Every time the fairy visited, Fabiana’s mother greeted her with kisses, and even the older sister deigned to smile when the fairy swooped into their tiny one-room house.
The fairy visited every week, but then her very best friend was having a party, and of course the fairy had to help her decorate and cook and find the perfect dress, and that took two weeks, and then the party itself lasted two weeks, and it was another two before the fairy felt sufficiently recovered from the festivities to leave her bower, and then the most delightful fairy man who had seen her dancing at the party came to throw himself at her feet and pledge his undying love… Almost three months had gone by before the fairy remembered Fabiana, and that she was overdue for a visit.
The fairy thought she must have come to the wrong house. The shack was empty, not only of people but of possessions: the new refrigerator and microwave, the water bucket and plastic wash basins and pots and pans, the scraps of foam mattress that the family used to sleep on, all their blankets. The door was gone, and the corrugated steel roof, and part of the front wall had been knocked in, smashed brick cinder blocks strewn all over the dirt floor.
But then she saw the Snow White key chain she had bought for Fabiana, forgotten under a pile of kitchen rags, and as she poked through the rags she saw some of the old, frayed underwear that Fabiana and her sister used to wear.
Had the family moved to a different city? The fairy dove out the doorway and fluttered into the street, barely missing a speeding car that swerved to avoid her with a volley of Portuguese curses from the driver.
“Fabiana?” the fairy called. “Fabiana!” The house next to Fabiana’s had a curtain instead of a door, tied back to take advantage of the cooling evening breeze. The fairy poked her golden head inside. “Hello, do you know where Fabiana is?”
The interior of this house was much like Fabiana’s had been. A large, sagging woman sat on a stool, watching a tiny television set with terrible reception, two girls and a boy curled up next to her. One of the girls was doing homework, although there wasn’t much light.
The woman saw the fairy, and leaned over to switch off the television. The girl who wasn’t doing homework protested. The woman didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked at the fairy.
The fairy wondered if perhaps the woman was not very clever. She was about to repeat her question, when the woman finally spoke.
“They’re gone. They didn’t feel safe after those men came and took everything.”
“Men? Why would they do that?”
A slow smile curved the woman’s mouth. “I’d heard you fairies were loopy, but I never believed it before.”
Loopy? The fairy tossed her head and flitted away, although not without a backwards flick of her hand to turn the television set into an ancient laptop computer with no modem or network controller. Cries of dismay followed her down the street to the next house.
The man in the next house wouldn’t talk to her, nor the two women sitting in the alley behind the house after that. Eventually she learned that Fabiana’s mother had moved the family outside of town, near the river, though no one would tell who was responsible for driving them away.
The fairy found them living under a blue tarpaulin, in an encampment of other families. The mother and older sister wouldn’t speak to the fairy, and turned away when she tried to speak with them. But Fabiana ran to her, bawling. She threw her skinny arms around the fairy.
“You didn’t come!” Fabiana wailed. “I called you, and you didn’t come!”
“But I didn’t hear you call!” the fairy protested. And yet, even as she said it, a worm of doubt wriggled inside her. There had been a day when her thoughts returned to Fabiana again and again, though she hadn’t known why. But she had been so deliciously distracted by her lover, and it was so difficult to hear or remember anything else when one was in love…
“Tell me what happened,” the fairy said.
It had been half a dozen young men, not from the family’s immediate neighborhood, but from a few streets over. They had insisted that the family must have fairy treasure stashed away in their tiny house, and when the family denied it the youths had torn the place apart searching, and beaten Fabiana’s father and older brother. The father had spent a week in the hospital with broken bones, and when they released him he didn’t come back to Fabiana’s mother. The brother had left, too. The thieves had taken everything of value. Fabiana’s tears started anew when the fairy produced the tiny plastic princess she had rescued from the rubble.
It took the fairy several hours to track down the men who had robbed Fabiana’s family. The two teenage boys who often hung around in the alley smoking and drinking beer, watching younger children play football, said at first that they didn’t know anything and hadn’t seen anything, but that was before the fairy filled their ears with the sound of tinkling bells, and made their feet itch and itch until the boys tore their running shoes off and scratched long, bloody gouges on their soles and between their toes. We’ll tell you anything, they wailed at last, just make it stop! And they did, and she did, though not before letting them itch for another five minutes or so, to teach them a lesson for not telling her the truth right away.
She did worse to the robbers. One she made unable to sleep, because mortals went insane and died after only a few weeks without sleep. Another she paralyzed from head to toe, all except involuntary muscle functions, so that he could not open his eyes or respond in any way to those around him, but still heard everything spoken in his presence and kept his ability to feel physical pain. One she cursed with unquenchable thirst, another with insatiable hunger. The fairy delighted in imagining a new punishment for each one. No thief in that town would ever dare to steal another child’s fairy gifts.
“This is not acceptable,” the agency woman said.
But the fairy was angry. She made no concessions to human custom, ignoring the chair set out for her and hovering cross-legged at eye level, her wings fluttering a furious rhythm.
“Stealing is unacceptable. Stealing my gifts is unacceptable. They’re lucky I didn’t do worse.”
“This is exactly the sort of abuse that the agency exists to prevent,” the woman said. “Spiteful fairies inflicting vengeance on any mortal who squints the wrong way at one of their favorites. Or any mortal who doesn’t show enough appreciation for one of their gifts. Or who forgets to invite them to a party.”
“They beat up Fabiana’s father! They could have killed him!”
The woman made a dismissive gesture with her hand. The silvery jeweled bracelet on her brown wrist jingled as she moved.
“They wouldn’t have beaten him at all if it weren’t for you!” the woman said. “We told you not to give them money. And what do I hear? The girl’s mother bragged to everyone in her neighborhood that you gave her more money each time you visited than she’d ever made in a year of work.”
The fairy hadn’t really heard any of that. “What’s that on your wrist?”
The woman jerked the sleeve of her suit coat farther over her wrist, shoving the bracelet inside with her fingers. “Never mind what’s on my wrist.”
“It’s a fairy bracelet, isn’t it? Oh! You had a fairy godmother too, when you were a little girl! Was it me? It wasn’t me, was it?” She clasped her hands together. “I’d feel so terrible if I’ve forgotten!”
“No,” the woman said. “No, it wasn’t you.” She looked tired, tired and sad. The fairy longed to throw her arms around the woman, to kiss her hair and smooth cheeks until she smiled. But humans couldn’t forget their sadness the way fairies could.
“You can’t be a fairy godmother anymore,” the woman said. “For Fabiana, or anyone else.” She paused. She fiddled a little with her bracelet, almost as if she didn’t realize she was doing it. “I’m sorry.”
The fairy was sorry too. But maybe it was best. She didn’t ever want Fabiana to look at her with this woman’s sad, tired eyes.
“Can I at least say good-bye?”
The fairy took Fabiana to Brasilia for their last day together. They rode the bus. The fairy had wanted to take Fabiana on a winged horse, so they could see the airplane-shaped layout of the city from high above, and swoop down over the roofs of the government buildings, perhaps even wave to the president. And if he happened to notice how pretty Fabiana was … but the agency woman had forbidden it.
The agency woman had not been happy to hear that the fairy was taking Fabiana to Brasilia’s two big shopping centers. But that was what Fabiana most wanted to see; she had not been interested in architectural masterpieces, or walking by the shores of the artificial lake surrounding the city, or attending a football game. So the woman had relented, on condition that the fairy must not buy Fabiana any more clothes or toys.
“Look!” Fabiana said, her eyes wide. She pointed to a full-sized poster display in a store window. “The lady in the picture looks like you.”
“She doesn’t look like me at all!” the fairy protested. “She doesn’t have wings.”
“But she has such pretty hair,” Fabiana said. “Like gold.”
All the models in the pictures decorating store windows and floor displays had golden hair and pale hands and faces. The fairy thought it was strange, now that Fabiana had drawn her attention to it. Most of the women shopping looked more like Fabiana.
Jewelry wasn’t clothes, not really, so at a store that sold inexpensive trinkets the fairy let Fabiana pick a charm to wear around her neck on a silver chain, and Fabiana chose a unicorn with rhinestone hooves. The woman at the store grumbled when the fairy tried to pay with a small coin of fairy silver, something about cleaning out her cash register.
“Here,” Fabiana said, “let me see the bag,” so the fairy handed her the plastic bag of reais notes and coins from the pizza shop where they had eaten lunch, and Fabiana counted out the proper amount.
“You can have the rest of the money,” the fairy told Fabiana, after, trying to give her the bag. But Fabiana shook her head.
“I don’t want those men to come back,” she said.
“They won’t. I made sure they won’t bother you ever again.”
“There’s always other ones,” Fabiana said.
It was dark when the fairy took Fabiana home. The agency had found the family another house in a new neighborhood, so they wouldn’t have to live under the blue tarp anymore. It was still only one room, like the last house, but this one had a door that could be locked from the inside, and a window with glass panes.
Outside the house, Fabiana clung to the fairy, pressing her wet face into the fairy’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry I won’t see you anymore,” the fairy said. “It’s made me very happy to be your fairy godmother.”
Fabiana didn’t say anything, and that made the fairy sad. She didn’t like to be sad.
“Be a good girl. Listen to your mother and sister, and study hard every day.” Fabiana made a face, but that was the sort of thing the agency recommended fairies say. Perhaps if they found out she was still saying all those things, they would ask her to be a fairy godmother again, and she could help another child as she had helped Fabiana.
The fairy flew away into the cool night air. When she looked back, she saw that Fabiana was still standing outside the house, watching her go, the silver and rhinestone unicorn pendant sparkling around her neck like a fairy charm.