"The Business of Thorns" by Shannon Phillips is original fiction from the anthology Speculative Story Bites. Get the whole anthology from Amazon, Kobo, or World Weaver Press.
So, flower fairies, yeah. Cicely Mary Barker drew us as little nymphets with buttercup hats and dragonfly wings, having tea parties with mice or some twee shit like that. I think Cicely knew Morning Glory, and Glory’s always been fanciful. Her seeds are laced with a psychedelic compound, you know—and not one that’s particularly friendly to humans that go chasing that high. Neural damage, convulsions: Cicely was epileptic.
I’m not slamming Glory, though. We’re the same type, her and me: wild, rambling, greedy for life. We take root anywhere and we’re damn hard to kill.
Like this one time--
It was St. Louis, 2014. I’d been up all night drinking moonshine with a bunch of teenage witches and I had a wicked fucking hangover. I pulled my Che Guevara cap down low to shade my eyes and shouldered my way into McGurk’s.
Early afternoon, midsummer’s day, the place was quiet and dim. It would get packed towards evening, when the band started playing and the college students showed up, but for now it was a refuge. I spotted someone I knew and nodded to her as I made my way to the bar.
“Blackberry,” she mumbled into her pint. She didn’t look any better than I felt, but then, Poison Ivy rarely did. Bumps and rashes all over her pallid skin—she didn’t have to wear it like that, but she did it as a kindness. Kept the mortals from brushing against her.
Me, I’m not showy. I can clean up real pretty when I feel like it, but that’s not often. I’d settled into the form of a tall, rangy twentysomething with glossy black skin, sloe eyes, and full, berry-kissed lips, but mostly I hid it under brimmed caps and slouchy cargo pants. My come-hither/fuck-off schtick: it’s how I do me.
Don’t be picturing the wings, though. It takes a certain kind of person to see the wings—the younger the better—and most of the time, if they can’t be seen, then they’re not even there. Circular fuckin’ fairy logic.
“What’s the sitch?” I asked Ivy as I settled in across from her with a glass of bitters. I know my slang is out of date, but I do the best I can, all things considered. Plants aren’t great at snappy repartee.
Ivy shrugged and hunched over her Guinness. “Haven’t seen you much,” she said. “Lately.”
“Found a bunch of girls,” I said. “They go under a bluff to do spells, Ouija board shit. Half believe in it, you know. Enough to see me, sometimes. Another year, they’ll think I was just a story they made up.”
“Little girls,” Ivy said, the jealousy raw in her voice.
I made a little dismissive motion with my hand. “We’re not talking about the Cottingley cousins here,” I said. “They skip school, swipe hooch, light some candles under the bluff. They’re drunken Hoosier witches. One of ‘em will get herself knocked up within the year and then it’ll all be over.”
But I only said that because I didn’t like the avarice smoldering in Ivy’s eyes. I loved those girls. They were poor, yes, but they had fire and grit and secret, splendid dreams, and when they left me (which they would, I wasn’t lying about that part) they would carry my blessing with them.
“Lucky,” Ivy said. I took a pull of my drink and looked away. I couldn’t deny it. Underneath the hangover I was still buzzing from the night before. To be seen—really seen—by a mortal: it’s a rush, it’s the kind of hit that can keep us going for years.
Ivy moved her glass, dragged a finger through the ring of wetness left behind, and muttered something I didn’t catch.
“What was that?”
“Careful,” she said, still mumbling. “Careful of them.”
I nodded, but she wasn’t done. “Last one I had who could really see me, he died,” she said.
“Anaphylactic shock.” Her eyes were fixed on the table.
“Oh, Ivy,” I breathed.
She looked up then, green eyes startlingly clear in that ravaged face. “I never touched him,” she said flatly. “And I heard Clover lost one the same way.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ivy’s mouth twisted. “What would you have done? Nothing to be done.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “Someone, some thing, fucking with us? With our kids? I will damn well do something about it.”
“What, you’re some kind of detective now? The crime-fightin’ flower fairy, is that right? Gum shoes and butterfly wings?”
“Fuck right off with that,” I said, but gently. “You know, you know, if this is happening, it’s only happening to the weedy types. Fuckin’ Hydrangea isn’t dealing with this shit.”
“You could ask Rose,” Ivy said.
Ivy looked down at the table again. “No,” I said, more strongly.
“You two were close once.” She’d gone back to mumbling.
“Don’t talk about Rose to me. Don’t talk about what she was to me. Cultivated little bitch.”
“But she has more,” Ivy said softly. “More human children than any of the rest of us. If there’s a pattern…she’d see it.”
“Sheeyit,” I said, and drained my glass in one long swallow. And then I made Ivy tell me everything about that kid who’d died.
I left McGurk’s thinking about Rose. Petals like white snow; black berries and black wings; a crush of juice like wine, or blood. These are my elements, and for whatever reason they are elements that I also share with Rose. Blood, snow, ravens, thorns. Above all, she and I share the business of thorns.
You never have to walk far to find roses. They’re fucking ubiquitous. I just kept going until I found a pot of straggly climbers somebody had left on a brick stoop. Then I wrapped my hand around the stems and squeezed until I felt the sharp pain, my palm pierced in a half-dozen places.
“Rose,” I said aloud. “We need to talk. Three o’clock, Shaw’s garden.”
My skin healed as soon as I let go of the thorns. I swiped my hand against my pants to brush away the blood, and shambled on down the sidewalk, scuffing my combat boots with every step. Gum shoes and butterfly wings. Or maybe I should style myself Flower Fairy PD—homicide division.
I changed as I stepped inside the rough stone walls of the botanical garden. Didn’t mean to, couldn’t help it: we respond to our surroundings, and the garden has some Rubus cultivars. Now I was wearing a white cotton eyelet-embroidered sundress, and I’d lost the hat—my hair was styled instead in textured, intricate Bantu knots. At least I kept the Doc Martens.
Rubus is the blackberry genus, if you’re not up on your Linnaeus. It also includes dewberries and raspberries, but I’ll tell you about my pesky little sisters some other time. Rubus is part of the subfamily Rosoideae, in the family Rosaceae—what does that sound like to you? Yes, the Rose family, the Rose subfamily, the Rose every-goddamn-thing. Roses everywhere, roses for miles: in Shaw’s garden there are thousands of them. I don’t know the exact number, but she would.
She was there as soon as I thought about her. Blowsy and overblown in designer jeans, a corset-styled top that pushed her tits up to her shoulders, ridiculously huge sunglasses and a wide floppy hat. Her hair was a shade of auburn that could only come from a bottle, and it fell down her back and shoulders in perfectly-styled ringlets. Spray-tanned skin, too much blush, too much lipstick—I’m sure they called that color Vamp, or Whore’s Red, or maybe I Fucked a Fire Truck. She blew me a kiss.
“I hate your lipstick,” I said.
The perfect bow of her mouth drew down in a pout. “Then why did you want to meet me here? Your hair is so pretty like that.”
I ignored the compliment and answered the question. “Because otherwise I might remember why I liked you. It’s not a social call, Rose. Poison Ivy thinks someone is killing the humans who can see us, and I came to ask if you’d noticed anything.”
She pulled down the sunglasses so I could see her unamused stare. There was something real—mascara and liquid eyeliner laid on with a trowel, yes, but even that couldn’t hide the strength of will behind her dark eyes. She held me in a gaze of velvet and steel. “If anything was hurting my children,” Rose said mildly, “would I be here talking to you?”
And effortlessly, like it was fucking nothing, she spread her wings. They aren’t what you would think—not a monarch, not a birdwing, nothing gaudy and eye-catching. No matter what face or form she wears, Rose always has the wings of Leptosia nina—the Psyche butterfly. They’re compact and mostly white, striated with subtle gold and green tones, with two black “eyes” and velvety dark tips. Breathtakingly delicate, classically beautiful: when she has the wings on she could make stone weep.
My heart suddenly hurt. I couldn’t even look at her. I remembered the brush of those wings against me. I remembered ancient times, wild places, endless days and starry nights, our limbs twined together like our roots, her mouth flowering against me. Her beautiful hidden petals. Promises whispered, oaths sworn. Broken, but not forgotten.
Don’t ask me what happened. You people happened. You gave her gardens and vases and wedding bouquets. You gave me weedy plots and stony ground. Not that I would have chosen anything else—just that I can’t stand what you’ve made of my wild Rose.
“Ivy said it looked like an allergic reaction.” My voice came out hard and angry. My eyes were still fixed on a point in the distance, but on the edge of my vision I saw Rose go still.
“Allergies,” she said, just the one word. So I looked at her again. “They’re…so much more common…now.”
“You know something.”
“Two,” she said. “Two in the graveyard. One played Bloody Mary at a sleepover with her mouth all stained with strawberries. They said it was the strawberries, after. And one went into the woods with a hand-held camera, right after that movie about the witches came out. Stung by a bee. He’d never been allergic before, but it can come on any time. They say.”
“Ivy told me—hers was playing one of those games, where everybody wears capes and pretends to be vampires or something. Brushed up against a patch of something running around in the dark.”
Rose’s eyes held me. “Bloody Mary. Witches. Vampires. Blackberry—what if they’re not dying because they can see us? What if they’re dying because they can see something else, too?”
Cold chills ran up and down my arms. “Shit,” I breathed, thinking of the Oujia board under the bluff. Thinking of a gaggle of teenage girls who might be waking up just about now—who might be thinking about going back to collect the candles and things they’d left behind. And what easy prey they would be, alone and undefended. In fact, thinking of the place, I could almost feel a shadow passing through it…”Shitshitshitfuck, I have to go.”
“Blackberry, wait—” But I didn’t hear the rest. I was stepping from stem to stem, as we can do when we’re in a hurry: Rubus fruticosus in the garden. Rubus armeniacus planted as an ornamental in somebody’s back yard. Bad idea, that one’s invasive: give it a couple years and they wouldn’t have a yard anymore. But from there I could reach a wild bramble of canes, and another. And another.
One of my thorn-patches shared a grove with Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy. “Ivy!” I yelled as I passed through. “Follow me, I need you!”
And then I was there. The sour smell of hooch still hung in the air, and the rocks were littered with bottles and half-melted candles. The girls weren’t here.
But something else was. I could definitely feel it—not under the bluff, but nearby. Above, and getting closer, almost like it was…nosing around. I probably wouldn’t have been able to sense it if I hadn’t been so jazzed with magic from the night before. But it felt nasty.
I found another cane bramble on top of the bluff and stepped into it. That took me much closer to the Bad Thing. I almost felt like I should be able to see it…
There. A wavering shadow, a patch of cold. Full daylight in midsummer, and this wicked piece of mojo was still able to manifest. Not good.
“What the hell are you,” I said, striding forward. I stomped hard enough that the buckles on my boots jangled with every step. “I mean, ghost, I can see that. But are we talking bandit hanged at a crossroads on a full moon’s night? Adulterous wife betrayed and drowned by her lover? Suicide?”
Closer and closer, and I could see it better—or it was getting more solid. A woman with the face of a flat-iron, wearing the long skirts of a century past, and an apron filthy with blood. Blood also soaked her sleeves and hands, and dripped down her arms. In one hand she held a small glass bottle; in the other, a large wooden spoon. “Oh, I see,” I said in a tone as bored as I could manage. “Poisoner, huh. Garden-variety murderess. Whose kids did you kill first? Your own?”
“Don’t look at me,” she hissed, though her voice was something made of wind and rain and moldering leaves. I couldn’t hear her words, not really: I felt them, scratching along my bones. “DON’T LOOK AT ME!”
And as she screamed, her broad face distorting with hatred and rage, she lunged at me, swinging that spoon, and I gave up all pretense of keeping my cool as I scrambled back. It sliced through the air, once, twice—I didn’t know what it would do to me if it hit, and I didn’t want to find out.
Let me tell you something about how flower fairies fight. Not well, that’s how. We’re fuckin’ flowers. What we do…is lure. Misdirect. Entrap.
She came at me with her bloody spoon and I let her back me up all the way to the edge of the bluff…and over it. I stepped straight back into thin air. But before I dropped, I reached out and grabbed the front of her filthy apron, and I took the spoon-wielding maniac with me.
It was a gamble; I wasn’t even sure she’d be solid enough to touch. But she was—guess she had to be, since she was trying to slice me up or whatever. We both went over the edge of the bluff.
And I pulled on all my power, the memory of my girls gazing at me through a haze of moonshine and wonder, and I fluttered to the ground on Black Swallowtail wings.
The ghost fell much harder, dissolving into a swirl of shadow as she hit the ground. That wasn’t going to be enough, I had no illusions: if regular dying hadn’t slowed her down, an extra dose of it probably wouldn’t help much. And sure enough, the shadows and the cold chill just got darker and deeper until her ugly face and bloody skirts coalesced again. But I thought she looked a little fainter this time.
“I’m still looking at you,” I said. “And I still don’t like what I see.”
“Don’t look at me!” I thought it might be all that she could say. Maybe she was a real person, once, or maybe she was just some kind of psychic miasma given form and power through a century of sensationalistic murder trials and true-crime novels. Either way, she didn’t have much left in the way of a mind. But raw angry power—yeah. She had that.
This time as she came at me I leapt backwards, using the wings to get some lift, and I touched down just lightly enough to do it again as she followed up. Zig-zagging through the trees in fluttery hops, one step ahead of a homicidal ghost and her bloody spoon: it wasn’t my idea of a fun afternoon. But it did take my mind off the hangover.
And I knew where I was going. Don’t throw me in the briar patch, Brother Fox…there was a lovely big one I’d used to get here. Blackberry canes near thick as your wrist, and higher than your head. One more leap, and I came down right in the thick of it.
The thorns didn’t hurt me, of course. And she followed me, as I’d hoped she would, slicing and whacking her spoon at the brambles--that I felt, but distantly, like the barest scrape.
“Babies, pretty babies,” I whispered, digging deep for all the magic I had. “Grow for mama.”
The response was slow at first—but only at first. Tentative, wavering, the blackberry vines reached out. Tangling in her skirts, twining ’round her ankles, looping up and about her waist. The vines tightened once they had her, biting deep into her ghostly form, though she was already so bloody it was impossible to tell if they were hurting her.
“Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me!” She was still laying about her with that spoon like the madwoman she was, but the vines were reaching for her arms. They were growing up her torso and feeling towards her neck.
But at the same time, something was happening to me. The pain, just scratches at first, was getting worse. Stinging, and spreading. And I felt—sick, dizzy. The wrongness of her, it was affecting me somehow.
“What are you—doing—” I choked out. My lips were puffy, my face was numb, and my throat was closing up.
“Don’t LOOK at ME!” the ghost snarled.
“No,” said Poison Ivy. “Look at me.”
Poison ivy makes flowers, you know. Otherwise it couldn’t have a flower fairy. It makes pretty little clusters of yellow-white flowers on a stalk in the summertime, and in the fall the flowers yield to small pale berries that the birds eat. I’m telling you this so you can understand the hidden beauty and secret grace that Poison Ivy manifests: how to those who understand her, she is bountiful and generous.
Certainly she was beautiful to me, in that moment. She wrapped her arms around the ghost, ignoring my brambles, though I could see the thorns tearing her skin. And the vise suddenly lifted from my throat—I coughed and coughed, but I could breathe again.
The ghost was still struggling, but my vines had her now. An ugly red rash had suffused her skin—I couldn’t see it on her hands, not under all that blood, but it was all over her face. “If it’s a poisoner’s war,” I said hoarsely, “I’ll bet on Ivy.”
“I’m not so sure,” Ivy said faintly. “Blackberry, I don’t feel good.”
“Hold on, Ivy,” I said. “Don’t let her go. We can do this.”
“We need—” Ivy said, and broke off into a choking wheeze. But I knew what she had meant to say.
“She can’t get here,” I said. “There aren’t any roses nearby.”
“There’s…you…” Ivy gasped.
I smelled it, then: the scent of roses, rising all around us. It was the most egregious, wanton display of power I have ever seen. The smell came first, and then from full-out nothing they grew: uncurling tendril by tendril and leaf by leaf from the bare ground. Rising and stretching and twining themselves shamelessly with my own vines. And finally—though it was the work of moments—they blossomed, unfolding in the five pale petals of the wild rose.
And she was beside me.
She looked much different here. She’d lost the sunglasses and the hat. Her hair was windswept, pulled back in a casual knot. Her jeans were grubby and torn. She had Psyche wings and a thunderstorm in her eyes.
“So this is what killed our children,” she said, looking at the bloody ghost.
“Currently killing us,” I coughed, and Ivy made a strangled noise of agreement.
“Well, we can’t have that,” Rose said, and took my hand. She put her other palm on Ivy’s shoulder.
The next words she spoke came out of my mouth too—and echoed with Ivy’s voice as well, although by her face she was just as surprised as me to find herself speaking.
“We are Ivy, Rose, and Blackthorn,” we said in unison. “By leaf and vine we lay you down, we bind you in the summer sun.”
“Don’t looooooook at me,” the ghost moaned.
“By petal and wing we lay you down, we bind you in the rains of spring,” we said. She was fainter now. Definitely fainter.
“By berry and seed we lay you down. We bind you in the fallen leaves.”
“Don’t…look…at…me…” It was the barest whisper.
“By thorn and root we lay you down. We bind you in the frozen earth, to fall and sink and rise no more. We are Ivy, Rose, and Blackthorn. Where we grow you cannot bide.”
And there was nothing. My vines fell to the ground. The sunlight streamed warm all around us.
I dropped Rose’s hand. “Next time ask,” I said nastily, “before you pull a stunt like that one.”
“Oh, next time ask, before I save your life?”
“Just because you’ve got more magic in your little painted toe than the rest of us will ever have all put together doesn’t mean you can just…take people over and put words in their mouth!”
“You’ve got nothing to be jealous of, Blackberry,” she said.
“Okay, see, that. Number one, that is exactly the sort of patronizing and condescending thing that people say when they think you ought to be jealous of them. Number two, I would never be jealous of you. You know what they say about horticulture.”
“I have no idea what ‘they’ say about horticulture,” Rose said haughtily.
“You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.”
She slapped me then. Can’t say I didn’t deserve it, or even that it wasn’t exactly what I was aiming for. I just couldn’t stand to see her like that—like I remembered her. It hurt too much, because she wasn’t my Rose any more. Not really.
“‘Kay,” I said. “Later, skaters.” And I skipped out.
I knew that Poison Ivy would thank Rose properly—Ivy’s really a sweetheart that way. I guess you can afford to be nice when you’re poisonous. But some of us need our thorns.
So yeah, I guess you could say that was my first case. I branched out some from there, no pun intended. There’s still not really a Flower Fairy PD, but there probably should be. They should make me a lieutenant or a captain or some shit. Not that I’d ever wear the uniform.
But gumshoes and butterfly wings, yeah. Gotcha covered.
Shannon Phillips lives in Oakland, where she keeps chickens, a dog, three boys, and a husband. She likes old things, wild places, tall tales and the people who tell them. Her short fiction has appeared in Dragon magazine and the anthologies Fae and Love Hurts, and her novel The Millennial Sword won the 2014 IndieReader Discovery Award in the Fantasy category. Occasionally she blogs at joshannonphillips.com.
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