She collects fairies in the same way lepidopterists collect butterflies. Her workroom, an old conservatory, is full of glass cabinets, of wide, flat drawers filled with wax trays, of bell-jars crowding benches. Each find is meticulously catalogued in silver ink on black card: genus, name, date, location, identification number. She measures their height, their wingspan, takes a polaroid of each one, thinking that maybe someday she will publish a catalogue.
She finds her specimens in the oddest of places - slumped on windowsills, in the service entries of cheap hotels - but in the city it is to be expected, there are no mushroom patches for them to congregate around, no hawthorn bushes to perch in. Once she found a pair of lavender-wings under the Alice statue in the park, and it made her smile a little at their confusion. Another time she plucked a barleybird from a pile of pillowcases in Macy's, looking around carefully before dropping it in her handbag. She feels like she gives them a home of sorts, even if they are pinned to velvet-covered wax, or posed carefully on a branch beneath glass.
Of course they are dead, or close to it, when she finds them. It's hard to even see live fairies, let alone catch them, and anyhow she prefers not to catch, doesn't want to hunt or stalk. It is useful, then, that death seems to catch them by surprise, to trip them up so they slump mid-flight. Those that are not dead are unconscious, and if they have not stopped fluttering by the time she gets them home, a quick swipe of ether finishes their struggle. She wonders occasionally just how long they live. It might be years. It might be days.
A new find never fails to make her heart beat faster. She thinks that maybe she has developed a sense (of smell? she doesn't know) that leads her to the little creatures, tucked behind trashcans, half-hidden in shrubs. It's the wings, the strange translucent glimmer, that she spies first, always such entrancing colours. It's tempting for her to just stare, observe the ungainly sprawl they make, little limbs spread and mouth wide open, showing pointy teeth. She has made sketches, too.
Gloves are always necessary to pick them up and to handle them until she has cleaned them with rubbing alcohol. Only when they are brushed and brilliant does she allow herself to touch them, palepretty flesh soft beneath her fingers, and the wings like those of moths, scales falling at too harsh a touch. Early on in her collecting, she rubbed her eyes after touching the wings of a speckled strawberry, and had suffered sharp rosey sparks in her vision for days.
For some reason fairies are drawn to museums.
She clips the little metal M onto her shirt and stands in the stairwell for second, listening. It's conceit that she can hear them, really, but sometimes she swears there's a faint hissing, tinkling sound, and she follows it today, trailing around after the tourists through the Egyptian wing. A flash against the black stone looks like a trick of the light from the windows, but it isn't, she knows it isn't. She walks hurriedly, feeling her skin prickle.
She tries again at the Guggenheim, but it's harder to hear, the spiral building concentrating sound too much; the tinkle-hiss evaporates and she has to just hope for luck. She tries the permanent collection for there are less people there, easier to hear. Her gaze swings back and forth over the Kandinsky. After an hour it is hard not to feel dispirited and so she makes her way down the ramp to the gift store to buy postcards.
It is when she is collecting her change from the cashier, watching people flow in and out of the revolving door, that the same flicker-flash that taunted her in the Met appears against the glass. She grabs her postcards and nearly trips, running, but she is right today, because there, in danger of being crushed after flown into the turning door, is a small blackberry fairy.
She scoops it up quickly by the lilac tunic, careful not to touch wings or skin, and drops it in her bag. No-one has seen, no-one has noticed, but she flushes hot and panicked at the thought that it might be alive, properly.
There's a patisserie a few blocks away and she walks briskly there to buy a slice of sponge cream cake, grateful that the French are so particular with their cake boxes. Standing on the sidewalk as the sun goes down on the west side, she picks away at the top layer of sponge, barely tasting the frosting. The blackberry fairy is motionless when she lifts it from her purse and places it in the cake box, its pale skin the colour of the cream.
When she arrives home it is nearly dark. She is methodical as she shuts all the doors and windows in her workroom, careful to place glass containers and specimens away, before she gingerly places the cake box in the centre of the table. For a few minutes all she does is sit, watching the container for signs of movement.
There are none.
She untwists the box-top slowly and pulls the flaps open to peer in. Immediately there is a blur as the fairy darts upwards, flicking crumbs as it hovers up at the glass ceiling like a moth, looking to escape. The box is empty save for a few cake crumbs and smears of cream. When she looks up at the ceiling, skyline jagged and sparkling through the dirty windows, the fairy is nowhere to be seen.
She pulls on her pyjamas and brushes her teeth, trying to be quiet, to listen, because the smell and the faint buzz are there like whispers in the room, and it's frustrating when she lies on her bunk by the window and tries to sleep. At half-past two she pads to the little fridge and pours out a saucer of cream, dips her finger in and licks.
She wakes late - unusual, as she tries to rise early and look around her neighbourhood before the street-cleaners appear. The room is stuffy and hot from the closed windows and her head aches, her vision takes a while to adjust. When she does focus she scans the room, and there on the table on hands and knees in the saucer, is the fairy.
Stock-still, captivated and unwilling to move, the collector watches its wings - an amethyst and gold pattern - shiver and shake. It is crying, and its tears are blackberry-coloured, rolling down pale cheeks into the saucer when it dips its head to lap at the cream.
The contrast between the pearly cream and the bruisepurple blackberry is mouthwatering, literally; she feels saliva rush in her mouth as she steps forward-
-but the fairy is quick, it flits up, above her head in half a second, its wings a shivery blur when it hisses sharp crackly noises at her. It is fast but she can follow its path, up to the eaves again, seeking out corners, and it slips into a drawer that is slightly open. Her drawers above the cabinets are accessible only by stepladder; for a moment she considers climbing up, but for now it seems quiet.
The tears have swirled into the cream a little, seven dark drops bleeding at the edges. Meticulously she uses a dropper to separate the purple liquid from the white, transferring the tears into a small glass bottle. All but one. The last one she leaves in the saucer, dabbing her fingers in the cream around the drop, licking them clean and dipping, until all that remains is a tiny edge of white around the tear, and she picks up the saucer and swipes her tongue across it to collect the tear, to taste and swallow.
-blackberry strawberry raspberryboysenberrynectarinepeachaprico
-and she sees how she will do this. The fairy, caught, exhausted, limp between her fingers, and she is dizzy with the thrill of holding it alive and twitching. Gently placing it on the wax tray, muslin covering the shiny wax so the wings won't stick, careful positioning. Small pieces of ribbon, fine satin, to bind its ankles and wrists so it can't kick and scratch-
-more, still, but dulled to a low urge, something insistent but not desperate, the dark forest taste addictive at the back of her throat and the lustrous heat sleek under her skin-
-spreading its wings, holding her breath to miss the veins when she pins through the intransigent gossamer, right wing then left, a small moment of satisfaction and disgust when it wriggles under the pins. Pricking the fairy's foot with a fine needle, sharp and sudden, glass dish at the ready to collect blood, blood that has to be more potent, richer than tears.
But it hurts. She must be feeling the needle prick in sympathy, and it stings, and in the corner of her vision she sees a tray flung to the floor and realises that she is still sitting, slumped and decadent, the saucer discarded and broken on the floor and trays are falling, no, being pushed by the fairy, its hissing loud and terrible. Almost like screeching in her ears, unbearable up close because it is biting her again and when she looks down there are small chunks etched in her forearm, on her hands.
She flings the window open, the sash thudding loudly against the frame, and the fairy flies out in a furious blur. It is gone almost immediately.
She clutches tightly around her vial of tears.