They were born from a flower deep in the pine forest of the Highlands, hiding in the earth, gasping for air. Angry from years of imprisonment, they pushed the stem above ground, erupting rough through mud like air from a geyser. We called this flower the creeping lady’s-tresses, and its flowers spiral around the shoot like stairs, itching to feel the sun. My little friends were desperate for the sun too, but they weren’t ready to leave their home comfort yet. They drank in the light when the dense forest leaves let it pass through the heavens and to the ground. When the night came, they pulled the pale petals around them like blankets and rested. And waited.
I ventured into the forest many summers back to hunt for mushrooms. Such is the way with young ones, my mind grew bored and retreated to worlds of fancy. I strayed from the path. Dreams of princes and far off lands led my wandering feet to a clearing. I do not recall if this part is accurate or my mind recreating scenes for me, but in the clearing, the light shone through the trees – those pines so heavenly scented – and cast a spotlight on the flower. Of course, maybe it simply was there on the ground, quite obscure, but then how would I have been so drawn to it, if the sun did not guide me?
The flower’s buds seemed to move – wriggling and writhing. They reminded me of a dead bird I once saw that I try to forget. I thought at the time, the bird was alive – perhaps sleeping, but soon I realised its movements were not natural at all. The skin beneath its feathers crawled and pulsated, like its whole body was a heart. And from its eyes and beak and holes, out crawled maggots. A city of white worms feasting and breeding.
In the forest I was scared I would see those parasites again. Though I knew they could not hurt me, the very idea of them, the desecration of the dead, made my armpits hot and prickly.
I dropped my half-full basket to the soft forest rug and padded over. I crept forward as slowly as I dared, imagining myself a vine sprouting new stems. But the closer I got the more I realised it wouldn’t be maggots. No, how childish of me. It would be butterflies or bees. I dropped to my knees, pressed my cheek to the moss, and looked inside the flowery house.
Children of the village had heard of faefolk but they were nothing like the beautiful creatures I saw that day. Their skin shone like pearls and their hair was as gold as the light from the sky. Chubby cheeked they smiled at me, and I smiled back. What delight I had found. The faeries could not speak, they were but half-formed things. Yet, we had an understanding. I pulled out some cheese from my basket and laid it at my feet. An offering for these small gods. They took crumbs and bid I return to them. The sun was falling behind the trees and so the petals acted like curtains and drew closed. I gathered my things and crept out of the forest.
I returned every day for a month, though they were not always open for visitors. If the sun was hiding in the clouds or it rained, their homes were shuttered up. I could only return to the village disappointed. I spoke words to them and one day they spoke back. They told me of their dreams. To travel, to see beyond the flower and the forest floor. I understood because I felt the same. I wanted to leave the Spey and travel further afield. Perhaps south to the capital, or even across the border and down, down where people laughed and partied and feasted on foreign delights. They could grant me that – if I helped them leave this forest. They drifted into my open hands and danced across my palms. Their tiny feet whispered up my arms. My little friends gathered in my hair and kissed my ears.
For years they waited. I forgot them, the flower and the clearing a distant memory, a dream, a fun scene I had imagined for myself when young. All the while they buried deep in my skin and lay seeds. I was 16 when their crops finally ripened for harvest.
He was the smith’s boy, tall and gangly. His arms were chestnut brown from the sun and rippled with muscles. They were my favourite feature. I would purposefully brush against them, or trip so he would catch me in them. He’d smile down at me, a crooked, beautifully bashful grin, and steady me on my feet. He made me forget my wish to leave. Though I did not realise, my little friends had taught me how to catch his eye and bury myself in his mind. The boy would lie awake at night and think of me, how my eyes shone with impossible brightness, how I radiated warmth, how I seemed magical.
That night we sat by the loch, side by side, both nervous with youthful excitement. The moon shone down on the waters, reflecting our faces. We caught eyes in the surface and both blushed. He turned to me and I knew what would come next, my heart racing, lips parting. But when he looked on my face his features contorted with horror. The boy’s mouth dropped open in a silent scream. He scrambled back, fingernails piercing the mud.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, though I felt my voice was not mine. The sound from my mouth was high, eerie. Taunting. My first love pushed himself up from the mud, kicking the earth into my face. He fled. When I looked at my reflection in the water, all I saw was my own beautiful face staring back, smiling.
The smithy’s son never woke up in the morning, and my little friends were full.
It carried on much like that for the years to come. Friends, family, lovers – all would get close to me and die. Soon the village was empty, and it was time for me to move on. My little friends had helped me – I was free from the Spey, I could leave. On a sunny spring morning, I packed a bag for my journey south. My hands brushed against an old kettle. My sleeve buffed the metal clean, and I brought it to my face. The kettle fell to the ground with a clang to wake the dead, my hands shaking. In the reflection I saw what everyone else had seen. My face was not my own. It was wicked, features sharp and cruel. And my skin, oh my skin. Writhing. Crawling. Pulsating. Tiny creatures moved beneath it, making their home my flesh. The skin on my quaking hands, up my arms, it all moved, bubbling. Outside I vomited and cried. I remembered the maggoty bird, and I remembered the flower, the creeping lady’s tresses.
My feet betrayed me as I tripped and stumbled my way to the forest, back to the clearing. I knew exactly where to go. And there was the flower in all its horrific glory. My knees flung to the ground. Earth stuck under my nails as I dug and dug and dug and pulled the flower from its root. The root was black and rotten and stinking. I threw it down and trampled it beneath my boots.
But it was no good. The flower was not their home anymore. I was.
At the village I lay down on the final tombstone. It was my mother’s, she was the last to go. She stayed, not wanting to believe the whispers, what was so obvious, but she could not bear. My little friends comforted me. They sang sweet songs in my head, told me the truth of it all. I would never be able to leave if not for them. The inevitable marriage to the smithy’s boy would have doomed me to stay there forever. My parents would grow sick and old, and I would be forced to look after them until I was sick and old. Death was the only escape. Fear was a dull ache in my chest, barely noticeable, drowned out by their singing. A faery flew out of my mouth and kissed my nose. “Do not cry, sweet child.” And how could I? They were my friends, my everything.
But now, decades on, a valley of death behind my shoulder, I do not want them anymore. They make me do horrible things. Unspeakable nightmares. I wear shawls and rags to hide my writhing skin, and keep to myself, to my hut in the forest, undisturbed. Perhaps it has been centuries, I cannot be sure. It has been far too long. Far too many deaths follow in my wake. Apart from my own. I do not die. How can I die? I have already died. My death came to me the moment the faeries crawled under my skin. Maggots make homes in the dead.