Mama tells me this place is magic, but I don’t see it at first.
The cool air of fall is only just giving away to winter chill, but there’s not a single red leaf beyond these gates. The few trees standing are bare-limbed and white, as if death permeates the very soil of this place, sapping life out of every living thing. Three words arch over our heads as we walk through: ARBEIT MACHT FREI, work shall set you free. Mother clutches our suitcase in her left hand — the only piece of luggage allowed the four of us. She had packed and re-packed it. Things went in, things came out. In the end, most of what was taken with us was food. Father added a watch and some earrings, saying quietly, “in case we have to trade for more.” Her right hand squeezes my cold finger painfully tight but I say nothing. A hundred people are ushered through the gates behind us.
I am eight and I hear father whisper to my brother, “we can work. If we can work, we can live.”
My mother says to me, “it’s alright. This is a fairyland. We’ll only be there for a little while.” I don’t know if Joseph believes either of them. Six years older and at least two heads taller, he’s a solemn young man with few words to say on his best day. But that no longer matters, because before he can answer, there is a barked order from the fairyland soldiers and we are separated. I turn and father and Joseph are gone, the back of their heads disappearing in the opposite direction in a sea of people. My mother is sent another way. I see her open her mouth to call out to me but I cannot hear before I am pulled yet another way. Just like that our family is broken apart as if it had never been whole in the first place.
“Don’t be scared.”
It takes me a moment to realize he is speaking to me. I stiffen my back and raise my head as high as my four feet and two inches can manage.
“I’m not scared.”
“If you say so.”
“I’m not,” I say, stubborn to the end. “My papa said we’re here to work, and so long as we work, we’ll be OK, and I can work. It’s just a fairyland.”
He looks at me — a boy barely taller, barely older than myself, with deep, sad brown eyes like that of an old work horse. “OK,” he says. There are only children around us now. Children torn from their parents, standing shivering in the colorless autumn air like lost chicks. Then men appear. Tall men in pressed uniforms holding guns. Their hard eyes look surreal, as if they are imps wearing human faces. We are walking as they bark in their gruff tones.
“Don’t be scared,” he says to me again. Our hands brush and wordlessly we link our fingers as we march.
His name is Ethan. That’s the first thing I learn about him as we begin our work together at this dreary fairyland. The days pass in a blur and that’s for the best. We rise at dusk and clean, then pause to be fed a thin gruel that more teases our empty bellies than fills it. Then we clean some more. What we’re cleaning, I choose not to think about. Because to do so would make the long, cold, gray days that much harder, that much more unbearable. So I keep my head down and clean. Black soot, red blood, brown dirt . . . it’s all the same when wiped into a bucket. I survive by not allowing myself to think in this bizarre, terrifying world.
My mother was right — this place is a true fantasy. A dark, terrible fantasy but a fantasy nonetheless. This place of masters and slaves, gods and subhumans, dark doorways and mysterious chambers, is nothing but someone’s story. None of it is real. No one is human. They are all fairies drifting about around me, kicking up dust with their light feet.
At night, huddled on the bare floors of the brick building where we sleep, Ethan and I play. There is little to do once we’re fed our evening gruel and locked away. We spin rocks on the floor, toss sticks in our hands, and make up stories for each other.
“There is a forest out there,” I tell Ethan. “That’s what’s hiding us. All the forest and the fences. No one can see us. They’d walk by and they’d see nothing. They don’t know we’re in here until we get out.”
“You don’t know that,” he says, ever the realist. “I think they see us and they just don’t care. They don’t care about all the people they bring in here. All the babies and mothers they’re putting in the . . .”
“It’s not real,” I say, cutting him off. “It’s pretend. Just think about it, why would they do that anyway? What did babies ever do? They wouldn’t really put them in there. Not for real. They’re fairies and it’s all fairy games they’re playing. We just don’t understand.”
He looks at me with his tired, workhorse eyes and does not argue. I tell him about the soldiers who are really imps sent by the evil gods and the mystic doorway where no one ever comes out, as if I’m some grand expert in the matter of this cruel magic. I chatter on into the night and don’t let myself stop.
The next day I watch a new train of mothers and children — fairies — walk into the mystic doorway, to the mysterious chamber. An hour later we’re cleaning, and then the cycle repeats. I marvel at how things seem to disappear without a trace in there, and how they were sent home without anyone seeing. I don’t cry, though the girl who cleans with me does. Rivers of tears stream from her round face as we scrub away the black soot down on our knees, and the next night she hangs herself with a rope braided from straw.
“How come you’re not scared?” I ask Ethan one night, after the other children have gone to sleep huddled like abandoned sheep against each other.
“Who says I’m not?” he replies.
“You tell other people don’t be scared. Aren’t you scared?”
He shrugs. “I got an uncle who came in here,” he says after a moment. “And I know what happened to him. I just know is all.”
“You can’t know. Nobody knows where the fairies go.”
“He wasn’t no fairy.”
“We’re all fairies now.”
“I don’t want to be a fairy.” He looks out at the high barred window. There is no moon tonight. The moon can’t find us in fairyland.
“You won’t be a fairy forever,” I reassure him. “Once we get out of here, when we’re done with our work, you’ll go back to being human. We all will. My mama told me.”
Did she? Truthfully I don’t remember, but to think about mother hurts, like a million pins pricking my heart, so instead I think about fairies.
“What about you?” he asks me. “Will you go back to being human?”
“Of course I will,” I say, nodding with vigor.
“Then when we go back to being humans, I’d like to marry you.”
“Alright,” I say. “When we go back to being humans, I’ll let you marry me.”
I spend the winter as Ethan’s betrothed, a word I’d heard in one of many stories. I tell him often that “betrothed” means we will marry when we are grown, and that he better not fly off with some other fairy before then. He promises, and I do as well, until the bitterest days of winter came around and he catches a cold that never quite leaves. He coughs day and night, his lungs rattle like it’s filled with pennies. He does not eat and spends much of his time sleeping. His body grows thin and his face grows pale. He looks more and more like a real fairy child.
I stay with him at night and listen to his raspy breathing. In the daylight, I stay close to him and I work hard, scrubbing as fast and hard as two so the imp guards do not notice that he can barely lift the brush.
Sometimes I tell him about life after the fairy forest. We will have many children, I tell him. I want many girls and one boy. We will live in a house with big windows where water will run down on rainy days. He tells me he lived in a house with a window like that, and an old rocking chair in front of it where his grandmother sat and told him stories every night. He tells me those stories, when he can talk. Eventually he stops talking and the only chatter in the damp, cold night is mine. My voice fills the darkness in place of light.
“As long as we can get up every day,” I tell him. “As long as we can do that, we’ll be fine. We’ll get out of this forest and be humans again.”
The day comes when Ethan does not get up. I rise to find him laying with his face to the wall on the straw mat. He does not turn to me nor speak. Kneeling beside him, I shake him. Gently at first, then quickly, then hard as I scream his name and shriek for him to get up, please get up, as the guard imps drag me off him with their rough gloved hands.
“Get away from him!” I scream, kicking the nearest booted shin. “Get away you stupid imps!” One of them cries out and the back a gloved hand wallops me so hard I fall sideways. Something rattles in my mouth and I spit out a wad of blood and tooth. I see them pull Ethan off his mat. He doesn’t make a sound or fight. I stumble to my feet and grab at the hand wrapped around his arm and earn myself another wallop.
“Get yourself gone,” one of them snaps at me. “Unless you want to go into the soot box with him.”
I watch them drag him away by the arms, but I refuse to see the way his head listlessly hangs, or the way his eyes are turned up. Later that day I clean the black soot, half of my face swollen like a rotten peach, and refuse to think about who I might be scrubbing off the dirty floors.
I eat without tasting.
I sleep without dreams.
New kids arrive often. Some of them still have that hopefully look in their eyes. Sometimes they even talk about their family, their friends, their home. Fresh young fairies who haven’t seen the soot box and the mothers and babies who walk into it. The older kids disappear often, too. Some taken away by the imp guards, some by way of the high windows, and some braid their own rope like the round-faced girl.
I flit about like the fairy that I am, light and airy and alone. I hadn’t felt until now, the aching, oppressive loneliness that gnaws at my spine at night. My hands are so cold. When did my nails get so worn down? Why are there so many scabs at my fingertips? I stare at them incredulously. They look like someone else’s hands, someone else’s worn, bloody, frostbitten fingers. They don’t look like the hands of a fairy, but those of a cold, beaten, hopeless child.
Worn through as I am I cannot sleep. The nights grow long, and longer still. I run out of words, and I imagine fairies flying around me. Silent, shimmering fairies beckoning me to join them. They whisper for me to come, come to where Ethan is, where father and mother are, where Joseph is. I doze off in the chilly morning hours, my family, my betrothed, and silver, fluttering wings floating before my eyes.
I do not raise when the morning light hits my face. I feel it coming through the dirty glass, lukewarm and lifeless. I hear noises outside but I stay laying on the mat. My limbs are lead and my weak breath pushes my lungs out shallowly. My body is no longer my own.
Someone is shouting. Feet stamp the ground behind me as they run. I do not turn to look. They have nothing to do with me.
“They’ve come!” A voice shouts. A hand shakes me once and feet depart behind me. I think for a moment to tell them that I don’t care that the imp guards have come again, but I don’t. I lay there like stone and wait for them to drag me to the soot box. My head will loll like Ethan’s.
“Adah!” They shout again. “Adah, get up! They’ve come!”
I do not turn. The name sounds like someone else’s. I lay and listen to the noise and wait. Time passes, then heavy footsteps approach. Thick voices speak above me, one says “this one is in bad shape”, and large hands slide under me.
They carry me out into the lukewarm sun. I see dirty children, men and women with sunken eyes and confused faces, all walking towards the gate that reads ARBEIT MACHT FREI. They look as if they do not know what lays beyond those gates, as if their days in this mysterious land have made them forget the real world. Feet, so many feet dragging tiredly under weary bodies, kicking up clouds of dust that dance like fairies in the air.