Bruce Glassco

 

GLAMOUR

 

            When they kicked Gillian’s future husband out of Faerie on his seventeenth birthday, they didn’t give him much time to pack.  He was allowed to take three things – at least Gillian understood why it had to be three, sitting shivering and numb beside him on the back seat of his ’70 Chevy Impala while he tried to explain everything.  The arm he had around her shoulders seemed uncomfortable and strange as their combined breath turned into November frost on the windshield.  There were many things about his story that she didn’t understand or believe, but she had read enough fairy tales to know why the number had to be three. 

            Six years later, after they were married, Drew made a special box for his treasures and kept them in their bedroom closet.  The most beautiful to look at was the Longbow That Never Misses Its Target, a femme fatale with deadly curves.  After a few years, though, she made him stop using it in bowhunting season, unsure what to do with the blue-eyed, white-furred squirrels that he kept bringing home, or the wounded rabbit that knew five words of English, or the corpse of a stag with a tiny crown nestled immovably between its antlers.  The Wallet of Unending Food she finally persuaded him to throw away when their daughter was born, for its everlasting contents had never been very tasty, and in the end were beginning to grow putrid and stink.  That left the Nut-Brown Jacket, which didn’t have any special properties that she could see, except that her husband always looked particularly handsome when he wore it.  His thinning hair seemed suddenly thicker and raven-black, his softening features became chiseled like some late-night action hero, and his eyes flashed when he looked at her like a falcon seeking its mate.  Sometimes he would come up behind her and slip his jacketed arms around her waist, and she would feel herself growing weak against his body the way she had during their first starry kiss.

            As the years passed and their daughter grew, the burning curiosity she had felt towards all things Faerie on that first November night gradually cooled.  Sometimes whole weeks would pass when she would forget that her husband had spent his childhood as the plaything of beings less human than any television aliens, distracted as she was by all the minutiae of dry cleaning and car payments and mortgages. 

            After their daughter had left for college, though, there came a night when Drew was out bowling, and Gillian came across her old high school senior yearbook on a shelf she was dusting.  The first picture in the book was of her and Drew on the school lawn, him with his arm around her shoulders, and the jacket giving him all the splendor of a year’s worth of spontaneous summer days and dancing fall nights.  As she stared at the picture, the jacket’s smell came back to her in a rush, leather and deerskin, flowers and crackling ozone.  Before she knew what she was doing, she was kneeling in the closet and opening the chest, feeling the scent wash over her like her own lost youth.

            As she drew the jacket out of its resting-place and shook it, the air was suddenly filled with whirling flakes of light like shattered pearls, like distant fireflies, like momentary flashes from a Fourth of July sparkler.  Wherever they landed, they clung for a moment and then disappeared like melting snow.  She realized then as she looked around that whatever they landed upon was subtly changed.  The carpet was no longer worn but thick and inviting, begging you to dig your naked toes into its luxuriant, deep fibers; the jogging shoes were once again the sneakers you dreamed of in childhood, the ones you knew would make you jump higher than dreams and run faster than regret.  Suddenly never a mirror was so otherworldly in its hidden dark depths and dazzling true reflections, never a doorknob so brassy and turnable, never a wall with paint so like a waterfall of pure white silk.

            When she was able to tear herself away from the unexpected beauty, she decided to experiment.  When she shook the jacket over the back of an armchair, suddenly never a chair had seemed so comfortable, so deep, so tempting with its warm embrace that her legs began to ache with the passion to lose herself in its billowy cushioned softness.  Then she took it downstairs and rubbed it across the kitchen counter, and the beige Formica around it gleamed like a kitchen in a Mr. Clean commercial, or like an unscuffed ballroom floor lit to reflect the dazzling heels of a whirling technicolor Fred and Ginger.  When Drew came home he found her with the jacket draped around her shoulders, staring into the bedroom mirror at a dazzling red-haired beauty she had never imagined she could become. 

            He put his arms around her from behind, and for a moment the mirror showed a breathtaking couple who might have advertised Brazilian vacations.  Then the image began to fade, until all that was left was a middle-aged man and woman with the average distribution of wrinkles and extra pounds.  Her neck, which moments before had seemed a soaring Pre-Raphaelite cathedral spire, once again reminded her of a chicken, and her hair returned from the color of dangerous fire to the color of rust.  His midriff remembered gravity.

            “It always fades,” he said softly in her ear.  “But the jacket’s made from the stuff, so there’s always more.  See?”  He shook it gently, and again for an instant the air was filled with twinkling motes like distant stars.

            Later that night, in bed, he explained it to her.

            “It’s called Glamour,” he said.  “As near as I could figure, it’s what Faerie is built out of.  All of it: trees, grass, palaces, everything.  Even the fairies, the way rock candy is made out of sugar.  The Queen had a brownie executed once for stealing some eggs, and there wasn't any blood or spine or anything when the headsman lifted his ax.  The inside of his neck was the same shade of green as his skin.”

            He was lying behind her, so she didn’t have to worry about the expression on her face when he mentioned the Queen.

            “After that,” he went on, “the head and body just eroded to dust and blew away.  That’s the stuff that the jacket is made of.”

            “I see,” Gillian replied distantly.  Her excitement at her discovery had faded, and she remembered belatedly why long ago she had quit pestering Drew for his stories of the Other Side.  No matter what the story was when he began to tell it, at some point the narrative would always turn to the Queen, and then his voice would take on a wistful tone that he never seemed to use for any other subject.  He knew that mentioning her annoyed Gillian, but he didn’t seem able to help himself.

            “Executed a brownie?  That doesn’t sound like her.”  She kept her tone neutral.

            “Oh, She didn’t have much choice.  The eggs belonged to the King of Eagles, and there was a big diplomatic uproar – it’s a pretty interesting story, actually, if you’d like to hear about it...”

            “Some other time, dear.  It’s been a long day.”  She rolled over and turned out the light.

            Perhaps a few flakes of glamour were still sticking to her, for that night her dreams were more thrilling in their pageantry, more achingly vivid, more breathtaking to lose than any other dreams she could remember, so that when she rose to the surface of wakefulness she felt robbed and alone.  It was still the middle of the night, and Drew was a warm lump beside her.  She realized suddenly that her cheeks were wet, that she was weeping bitterly in absolute silence.  Her husband never woke up as she sobbed herself back to sleep.

***

            Three months later, a messenger arrived through an open bedroom window.  In the long tradition of the Faerie court, it was a raven, and a pale green calling card was tied to its leg with lavender yarn.  “They were always about a hundred years behind us in terms of etiquette,” Drew said as he untied the knot while the bird hopped and fidgeted.  “They loved things like calling cards.  Languages of flowers.  Birthstones.  I remember a tea ceremony that lasted for three days.”

            The name on the card was an unreadable spiderweb of loops and whorls.    Above the name, a date and time were printed in block capitals.  She recognized both the writing and the printing.

            Suddenly Gillian was sixteen again, filled with the panic of a ringing phone.  “It’s him,” she said.  “The Other one.”

            The card seemed a thousand miles away from her, and she had to struggle to remember what day it was.  “Oh, he was always terrible about remembering to ask in advance, always showing up at the last instant and expecting me to be ready...oh, when does it say?  How much time do we have?  What day...?”

            “It’s today,” Drew said quietly.  The doorbell rang.

***

            When he was sixteen, Drew Philips was to the girls of his high school what an industrial-strength superconductive magnet would be to a pile of paper clips.  It wasn’t just that he was good looking, though he could have made a dozen Hollywood studios rich from his smile alone.  It wasn’t his good manners either, though parents of other sons were fond of using him as an object lesson in that dying art, nor was it the even-handedness that led him to court the overweight wallflowers with the same unflagging intensity that he showed to the cheerleader fashion queens.  It wasn’t even his wonderful unpredictable imagination, though all the girls talked about how he could make a trip for ice cream seem like a quest for the Holy Grail.  No, what made Drew Philips irresistible was his confidence.  His manner seemed to say that he had already navigated the reefs and shoals of adolescence a thousand times before, and that if you stuck close to him he could chart you a course with the same effortless grace.  So they did stick close, boys and girls alike, whenever he turned the intensity of his gaze toward them.

            No one was more surprised than the bookish Gillian when he asked her to the Junior Prom.  Like the other girls she had featured him in her secret fantasies dozens of times; he had captained pirate ships that claimed her as plunder in the roaring oceans of a hundred sweaty nights.  To see him sitting next to her in his car on dry land was so thrilling that she had to clutch tight to the door handle and remind herself how to speak.

            The other girls told her that Drew had a special way of dumping you that didn’t make you feel bad.  They said that he had a knack for making the last date so romantic that you didn’t mind it at all, as if the whole relationship was a sad movie that was perfect at just its own length and no longer.  Gillian didn’t want to think about that, so she decided that as long as it lasted, she’d at least try to match his famous imagination.  She sensed in him a burning desire to get over or under or around the small-town dullness they lived in, and so she tried to top his schemes.  He took her out roller-skating at midnight, and she blew her baby-sitting savings to rent a hot-air balloon for an afternoon.  He taught her how to tickle trout out of the stream, and she taught him how to snorkel in the lake, swimming beneath him facing upward, their legs fluttering in unison as she looked up at the rippling green surface and his clear gray eyes looking down through his mask at her. 

            They never told each other their plans in advance, but they would hear each other’s knock on their windows, and away they would go.  The weeks turned into months and still they dated, and not even the naked envy of her classmates could pull her off the giddy mad cloud that she lived upon, morning and afternoon and night.

            A week before his seventeenth birthday, while the two of them were having a furtive picnic on the roof of City Hall, they were interrupted by an enormous black bird landing beside them, holding something long and flat and white in its beak.  Gillian couldn’t tell whether it was an envelope or just a piece of bark, but whatever it was, Drew took it and examined it gravely, and then he gathered up the picnic cloth and the plastic forks and the potato salad and hurled them out into a sudden wind that rose from nowhere, so that together they flew like a banner of regret across the October sky.

            A week later, on his birthday, the two of them were walking to school through a fog thick as an unremembered dream.  Suddenly he stopped, turned, and kissed her.  “It’s my last day,” he told her, and before she could ask any questions he kissed her again.  “Thank you.”  Then he pressed something wrapped in silk into her hand, turned, and walked away into the fog.  That was the last anyone saw of him for twenty-four hours.

            The next morning, he walked out of the fog again, offering no word of explanation to his frantic parents or the police.  The rest of the day they kept him in bed.  Everyone could tell he was different somehow, but no one could say how, and the doctor checked him and said he was healthy enough.  Anyway, everyone knew that Drew had never been sick a day in his life.  That evening, he asked if he could see Gillian, and his parents grudgingly let him take the car.  It was in the car’s back seat that he told her his story, while frost traced early November stars on the windows.

            “I have to tell someone or burst,” he told her as soon as soon as he had parked the car in their favorite spot.  “You’re the only one who might understand, Gill.  I don’t know if They can really care about people, but I think that he came about as close as They can come with you.  Do you know how rare that is?”

            “What are you talking about?”  Gillian asked stiffly.  She had her hands jammed in the pockets of her winter coat, sitting next to him on the back seat, watching her breath and his rising in clouds.  She was wondering if she was about to be dumped, but was beginning to realize that something far stranger was going on.

            “Oh, this is hard...I should start at the beginning.  The other Drew...the one who’s been living in my place here for the last seventeen years.  He isn’t human.  He’s a Changeling.”

            Of course she didn’t believe him.  She thought that his imagination had finally run away with him right over the edge of sanity, as he sat beside her and told her of his seventeen years in the Faerie court.  He told her of the hard work of his days as a page, how the lords treated him as a slave and the ladies as a pet.  How he learned to hunt and dance and sing in the high treble that no young fairy could imitate. 

            “Then,” he said, “when I was sixteen, the Queen finally noticed me.”  After that he sat silent for a while.

            Eventually, of course, he had to take Gillian to the place where he had hidden his three treasures.  He blindfolded himself, and she watched him use the Longbow to shoot the last straggling maple leaves off a tree so distant she could hardly distinguish it in the half-light.  She helped him take a feast out of the Wallet of Unending Food, and saw for herself that the volume of mushy apples and stale bread could never fit back inside.  Slowly, she began to believe.  She’d spent half a year with the other Drew, and already she saw that this was someone different.

            “But if you’ve spent all your life in…this other place, then how did you know to ask for me?”  She didn’t look at him as she spoke.  “Do you have any memory of me at all?”

            He was tasting a pear from the Wallet, and he made a wry face and put it down.  “There’s a place,” he said, “a kind of hill, betwixt and between.  The Queen told me yesterday that it was time to go, and sent me there to meet Him.  He’s done this many times before, you know.  He made a fire, and then we...how do I put this?  I guess you could say that we baked a cake.  He poured in all of his memories of the last seventeen years, and I poured in all of mine, and we mixed them together.  When the cake was ready, we broke it in half and ate it.  We shared each other’s memories.  A great kindness, really, so that I would know the world I was coming back to.  Does that make sense?”

            “So you remember...?”

            “I remember everything, yes.  But don’t expect me to be what he was.  I’m not.  As They would say, I’m only a mortal.”

***

            The two of them kept dating for the rest of their senior year, as much from habit as anything else.  Gillian listened with wonder to his stories of the Faerie court, and at times he seemed so otherworldly that she could almost believe she had the old Drew at her side once again.  Later she realized that those were the times when he was wearing the fairy jacket.

            She noticed that the envy of the other girls had died down considerably by the time of the Senior Prom; Drew was no longer pestered by blushing beauty queens begging him for a dance.  For the first time ever, pimples were seen on his face. After graduation they went their separate ways to college.  Gillian dated other guys, but the liveliest of them seemed dull compared to her memories of the other Drew, the most serious of them immature.  Eventually she realized that she was doomed to love a figment, and when she met Drew in his jacket at their five-year reunion, she fell into his arms almost gratefully.  Half a figment was better than none.

            On the morning of her wedding, she opened her jewelry box and took out the gift that the other Drew had given her before he walked into the fog.  It was a silver pendant in the shape of a crescent moon, with a hinge on its side.  She kept no other jewelry in the box, for the silver made anything else beside it seem like a candy necklace melting in the rain.

            Next to the necklace in the box was the note that had been tied to it.  In Drew’s awkward block capitals it said OPEN THIS ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, and it was signed with his beautiful but illegible script.  She had picked it up and put it down in an agony of impatience at least once a day for the previous six years, and she opened the clasp at last with trembling fingers. 

             It was filled with sparkling dust, which, when she let out her breath, flew up in a cloud and shimmered out of sight.  But all the guests agreed that never a bride in the history of their town had shimmered down the aisle so heart-tuggingly gorgeous, never a gown so radiant, never before a summer’s day so perfect, or a night so drenched with stars.

***

            In all the years of their marriage, there were two questions that she had never dared to ask her husband: whether he knew how to find the gates that led to the Other Side, and whether he knew where the other Drew had gone.  She felt in her bones that if she were to take a single step down those roads, she would be lost forever, not only to her family and her world, but to herself.  When she heard her first love knocking on her front door, she realized in panic that in twenty-five years she had learned nothing, nothing at all that would help her resist his touch.

***

            He had not changed a hair since the day he walked into the fog.

            Still seventeen glorious years old, still dashing as a pirate king and handsomer than any teen-age idol, he smiled his dazzling grin and kissed her on the cheek as soon as he had crossed their threshold.  He was wearing traveling clothes from a bygone era, rough breeches and a sky-blue tunic.  A scarlet feather trailed extravagantly from his cap.

            “Miss me?” he said smiling, shaking Drew’s hand, bowing to Gillian, his princely eyes taking in the front hall that suddenly seemed worn and shabby compared to him.  Gillian stood by the door and didn’t know what to do with her hands.

            “Come into the kitchen,” said her husband.  “You’ll have come a long way.  Your messenger only just got here, but we’ll be happy to fix you something.”

            “Ravens,” murmured his younger double.  “Many thanks, many thanks,” They showed him the way, and he sat at the kitchen table like a king on his throne, with the two mortals perching on their chairs on either side like eager petitioners.  No one made a move to get any food.  He looked from one to the other and chuckled. 

            “Ah,” he said, still smiling.  “It’s been a long time for you two, hasn’t it?  I was so glad to hear when the two of you knit up your destinies.  You’ll have to show me the wedding pictures sometime.  And how is your daughter?  She’s – what – five?  Eleven?”

            “Our daughter is eighteen,” Gillian said slowly.  “She’s a freshman at Stanford.  She got an amazing scholarship -- she’s terribly bright.”

            “Oh, splendid, splendid!  When I heard about the birth I arranged for a few Morae to come over and fate her up a bit.  They were so pleased...not much call for fairy godmothers these days, eh?  Glad to hear it’s working out.”

            There was an uncomfortable silence.  Gillian was the first to remember her duties as a hostess, and she opened the refrigerator to make sandwiches.  She was thinking, “Once upon a time I hopped a boxcar with him.  We rode for twenty miles.  What happened to that girl?  Will he wonder?”  She was beginning to decide that she did not like the way their guest was making her feel, and she was experiencing the beginnings of a new emotion that she could not yet name.  Aloud, she said, “How long do you plan on staying?”

            “Oh, after ages and ages of petitions, the Queen’s finally granted my request for a new Changeling spot.  I’m on my way to the Hill Between to get reshaped, and then it’s a few more sweet years of milk and pies and candy.”  He seemed enormously pleased with himself.  “But I wanted to stop off and see you folks one last time before I give this body up.  If you see me again, you surely won’t recognize me as an infant.”

            Gillian noticed that her husband was practically biting his lips to keep from blurting out a question, and she took pity on him.  “What I’m sure Drew is dying to ask you,” she said, “is how things are going with the Queen.”

            “Oh, that and all the court gossip,” her husband said politely, glancing gratefully at her before returning his full attention to their guest.

            There was a great deal of court gossip.  The two Drews finished off an entire plate of sandwiches while they talked, the smooth tones of the fairy alternating with excited questions from the mortal about Lord Whatsit and Baroness Whomever.  Sitting across from them, left out of the intrigue and adultery and deceit of the Fay, Gillian had plenty of time to examine the emotion that was growing inside her like old embers blown by a strong wind.  At last she recognized it.  It was anger.

            Partly it was anger at the way he was ignoring her.  The most thrilling thing about the changeling Drew, she realized now, was his attention.  When he focused on you, you knew that you were the most fascinating creature in this or any other world.  Being ignored by him was like falling off the map of the universe.

            Why was that, she thought?  Why should that ridiculous feather stuck in his cap on the table seem more alert, more alive, more real than both the two mortals and all the rest of their kitchen put together?  The kitchen she loved seemed cheap and shoddy, pasted scraps of tin and cardboard next to the splendor of their inhuman visitor.  Worse, worst of all was her husband.  How could she ever have imagined that she loved this overweight, uncultured slob?  Compared to his double he was ignorance, ugliness, sloth, and decay.  The Changeling’s perfection made every flaw as blatant as bird droppings on the roof of a new Corvette.  Gillian realized that she was standing now, the room dimmed by tears.  The two Drews stared at her in surprise.

            “It’s you!” she whispered fiercely to the visitor.  “I blamed it all on your Queen, but you’ve been just as bad!  Every falling-off in our marriage, every disappointment, all the distance and the pain and the disillusion, all of them came from you!  Why, why did you have to get born here of all places?  Why couldn’t you stay back on your own side of the fence?  Why give us glimpses of a world that we can’t ever have?  Why did you have to feed us both these damned stupid useless dreams...?”

            Her Drew was shocked to speechlessness.  The other Drew looked mildly amused, as if he had heard all this before.

            Gillian didn’t know if she was trying to save her marriage or destroy it for good.  She just knew that, now that she had started, she had to see it through.  She grabbed the visitor by the front of his tunic and pulled him to his feet, blizzards of Glamour swirling around his shoulders.

            “Go away!” she cried.  “Take your damned Glamour and go!  Quit making everything in our world look like cheap dimestore trash!  Promise never to come back so we can finally quit looking for you, so we can live in the world the way it is and not keep comparing it to some stupid perfect fairy dream.  Is that too much too ask?”

            The changeling put out a hand to her, and she pushed him desperately hard in the middle of his chest.  He fell backward and sat down heavily on the kitchen floor, Glamour flying around him like fireworks.  Gillian collapsed to the floor beside him, her head in her hands.  “I’m sorry,” she wept, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t take it anymore.”

            Eventually, she felt a cautious arm going around her shoulders.  She buried her face on her husband’s chest and sobbed.

            Slowly, the other Drew rose to his feet and adjusted his clothing.  Then he knelt beside the human couple and rested a hand on both of their shoulders.

            “Gillian,” he said softly.  “There’s something you need to know about us.  Gillian, we can’t love.  Not me, not the Queen, not any of us.  She picks you up like a bargain-bin paperback, out of boredom, and drops you for the same reason.  Mortals can love us – in truth, some of you can’t love anybody else.  But we can’t love you back.  Did you ever wonder why I dated you for so long, when I had the whole school to choose from?”
            Mutely, Gillian nodded.

            “The Folk have to exchange gifts, Gillian.  Have to! For every favor a reward, for every ill deed a punishment.  I owed Drew here a great gift of thanks for seventeen years of his life in this glorious world of yours.  I dated all the girls in his school until I found the best one, you.  I gave you to him and him to you.  You were the best gift I could find.  One of the best in all my lifetimes, truly.”

            Gillian raised her tear-streaked face to his, and he leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead.  Then he stood and strode to the back door.  On the threshold he paused.

            “I need to give you something for your hospitality.  Would either of you like to go with me to the Hill Between?  Drew knows how lovely the view is from up there, and you can just see across the border to the Other Side.  It isn’t far.”

            Gillian’s husband didn’t hesitate.  “I can’t go,” he said.  “My wife needs me here.”

            Gillian looked from one to the other, her vision blurred, and as she looked she found the way of seeing that she had been seeking unconsciously for years.  She saw all the stupidity and ugliness in her husband that was not a reflection of her teenage lover, but at the same time she saw the Drew who was the father of her children, the Drew who made her laugh when he acted like a clown, the Drew who loved her as she loved him.  Wiping away her tears, she smiled at the man beside her.

            “I think...I think I’m all right now, dear,” she said.  “I don’t want to see it, but you go ahead, for old time’s sake.  A look across the border is fine.  I know you’ll be back soon.”

            “Really,” he said, wavering, “I don’t have to go, if you’d rather I didn’t...”

            “I insist.”

            Finally, with reluctance, he agreed.  “I’ll be back by suppertime,” he said.  She held his hands briefly, then turned away.

            “I know you will, dear.”

            When the other Drew opened the back door, the yard was filled with fog.

***

             With the men gone, Gillian surveyed the kitchen.  From end to end it was covered with a thick coating of Glamour.  Never a faucet had gleamed before with such potential for clear crystal outpouring; never a frying pan so hungry to transform food with its warmth.  The refrigerator rose majestically like the Ice Fortress of the Snow Mage, and the floor was the worst of all.  In its polished reflections it seemed to hint at an impossible upside-down realm of castles and towers and temples that would haunt a person’s dreams forever, by being so near yet so unreachable.

             I’d never be able to cook in it again, Gillian thought.  The teakettle would whistle arias, and I’d be too afraid of finding gold coins from some king’s treasury in the oatmeal, or cracking an egg and letting loose a basilisk.  That world beneath looks like a fine place to visit, but this is where I have to live.

             From the closet she brought out a whiskbroom and a dustpan.  On her knees, careful not to look too deeply into the reflected world, she began to sweep up the Glamour.  At first it resisted her, but after she had scrubbed out a corner it began to come away in flakes.  Each scuff and gouge and stain and scrape that she brought back from beneath the Glamour’s smooth perfection reminded her of her family, their clumsiness and carelessness and unthinking love.

             Two hours later, the kitchen was back to normal, and her copper dustpan was full of shining dust (never in human memory a dustpan so capacious, never a broom so bristling and eager to sweep).  For a moment she hesitated, her foot near the pedal of the kitchen trash can.  Then she changed her mind.  She found an empty jam jar in a cupboard, washed it, and carefully funneled in the Glamour.  Then she screwed the lid down tight and set it in the window to catch the late-afternoon sunshine while she cooked dinner.  It shone like a beacon to her husband when he emerged from the fog a short while later.  Never before was glass so transparent yet gleaming, never a cylinder so pregnant with possibility, never sunlight refracted with such blinding golden dazzle.  Like the epitome of all containers it stood, the finest jar in this or any world, so that even after the sun had set it glowed on with its own eternal light.

All art that is true has one message and one message only. It is this: We must try to learn how to love one another before the stars go out.

That's the only story that matters. Even the most dreadful tale of horror exists simply to remind us of how very cold the night without stars will be.