Actions

Work Header

Here there are lights that will never go out

Work Text:

When Betty came back from the ratepayers’ breakfast meeting, she was thinking of the Cabbagetown fair. She was thinking of watching the town around her yawn and stretch like an amiable animal. Now the streets were humming and the city was awake, but not aware. That was up to her. Like a sleeping princess, Queen city, she promised, I will wake you with a kiss.

But she’d left her her tiny top window open, and Narcissa, it seemed, had also been blowing kisses. There was a letter on her dresser, where it had come to rest and unfolded itself.

The pressed lines of what had recently been a bird were like a second message cyphered onto the paper, or a map. The fold lines reminded Betty of the pale colour that flower stems went where they were broken.


Betty, fairest, said the words between the lines,
I miss your hair, my darling, in my hands. I miss your lips, but no one will enjoy them as I did, without your smile to warm them. Think of
the keeper of your heart, Narcissa.

Betty traced one of the fold lines with a bright red nail. The soft paper twitched in response, and was still. Betty could have told herself that it was the breeze, but Betty didn't think like that.

 

Betty freshened up her lipstick and headed to the office.

“Patrice,” she said. “Meraud. Annabel. Morning. Are you ready, Annabel? You’re with me today, for the Markham estate.”

“Half an hour?” Annabel said. Annabel, Betty saw, peering over the partition, was hauling Grey’s harmonised sale tax paperwork to the copy machine.

“Twenty minutes,” Betty said, and checked her voicemail after all.

The standing fan blew a stream towards her that was moist, like air near a waterfall. Betty shivered. Something soft brushed her ear. A green paper bird tumbled down past her cheek, clumsy, catching itself on her hair but failing to catch itself from falling. Betty held out a company pen and the bird settled on the Norton Northern logo. Its wings stopped beating. Betty watched closely as the panting paper crumbled. Moisture spread through it. The sphere of tulip dew that would have sat at the centre of the bird was a drop of water again, not a core.

Like everything that Narcissa touched: with her hand on you, you were starlight, and without her, you ceased to shine.

Betty pushed the paper bird off the pen and into the tree fern that stood in a pot at the side of her desk. Soon the bird would look like just another fallen leaf.

“I’m ready,” Annabel said, her camera bag and tripod arranged so she still had a hand free.

“Good,” said Betty, rising, and let Annabel open the door for her.

 

They started east, parallel to the 401. Annabel opened her mouth on a question, and Betty looked at her. Annabel bit it back.

It looked like the new girl was still picking through the rumours about Betty-the-ice-queen, Betty-the-callous.

There’s a difference, Betty thought, between heartlessness and malice, but Annabel didn’t know Betty’s secrets, so Betty began to talk about the neighbourhoods they were passing through: this block was owned by the church, this was farmland a lot more recently than one would think, this grocery store replaced a private library burned down in 1924.

It was an office truism that what Betty didn’t know about Toronto wasn’t worth knowing. Maybe; but the opposite was also true, because the secrets she knew were worthless to her. They were not the ones she needed.

 

A man was standing ready at the open door, ducking his head, his smile enormously wide. The house was not ready for them. It looked in need of twenty junk sales, new carpeting, modern wiring, and a hundred tiny things to lift the age from its face. The man at the door wasn’t the owner. That was his mother, the little dark-haired woman with wrinkles at her eyes who sat in the brightest room. Betty noted the way the objects in that room were polished, but also the way the tall shelves hid what they held. She noticed the unreplaced calendar in a back bedroom. On one table, a lucky cat with a waving paw had fallen over, and was surrounded by an accusing outline of dust.

With that scan of the rooms, she was decided: Mrs Wan was ready to sell, though Phillip Wan was not. Insisting on pricing the house above a million and a half, he was wasting their time - and his mother’s. She told him this.

Annabel, who had been taking pictures in the living room, saying quiet, drawling things to Mrs Wan, rushed back to Betty’s side. She plucked at Betty’s elbow, rocked backwards, and said, “Would you look at the stairs...” Betty, amused, directed Phillip to show Annabel the patio at the back, and went up to the first floor.

But Annabel’s suggestion was inspired. Something up those stairs had caught the light. She saw it, now, bigger than a dust mote - but - it could easily have been dust a second ago, winking into the air. It was a bubble, sliding towards her on a sunbeam, and in the bubble flashed a tulip, and a jonquil, and a fern.

If it spun further, it might reveal a face with dark eyes under dark lashes, a cruelty more natural than Betty’s, yet still smiling.

Narcissa.

Betty stuck out her finger and the bubble slid down it, changing, the silver edge becoming a silver band with a silver jonquil at its top. ‘I hope for return of affection.’ No.

Mrs Wan was watching her. Betty merely smiled at her. Mrs Wan took a slow sip of water, and looked away.

 

“I didn’t think you’d argue him down,” Annabel said.

“A commission on one-point-two is better than a commission on zero,” said Betty. “We want it to move.”

“You want little old ladies to move,” Annabel said, her smile stretched taut between disapproval and a desire to please.

“Sweetheart,” Betty said, quite charmingly, “I want the house to move, and you like Mrs Wan, so you’ll want her to be able to see the things she loves around her, and have them within reach, instead of wondering if what’s on top of her wardrobe is a family heirloom or a mothball, by the time she’s wondering if it’s Tuesday or Friday, or Ontario at all. And you want Mr Wan to stop living through his mother’s memories. He’s old enough to leave home.”

“Huh,” said Annabel.

But her tone, and the angle of her body, and her words, had all worked; the new girl shrugged and turned the radio on.

We are starlight, we are golden, we are caught in the devil’s bargain-

Betty blinked.

and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.”

It was going to be one of those days. One could be shrugged off; two were wearying; three were remarkable; four were the winds from all quarters. A storm.

Narcissa’s messages came in patches, like static on a line, because where the world’s time ran straight from then to here, Faery’s days and nights rippled like a ribbon, winding, flaring out, and twisting, only occasionally touching on Toronto and Betty’s today.

One letter had complimented Betty on her YSL kicks, so the next week, Betty had bought some.

She might have been gone from Faery forever. Or a day.

Today the butterflies would come in flocks: letters would fly to her on bird wings; stars would fall; worlds, in their bubbles, would slip between worlds.

Once, on a past such day, Betty had gone to the lake shore, and nine little bottles had bobbed up to her, each with its own miniature garden, each with its message: orchid, larkspur, alstroemeria. Penstemons. ‘Risk of the heart.’

Each message was a mere thought for Narcissa. Betty shrugged them off, and kept going.

The only temptation for her, in these visions of the Garden, was to try to look over Narcissa’s shoulder. If she did, the curve of stem into stem might flash, for a moment, into the way Betty’s own fingers had once curved, when she was cradling something. Lush petals might turn into a smile that she’d once owned, and Betty would see herself.

Her severed half. Only reflection made a whole.

Narcissa’s messages were ceaseless, and thoughtless, and without urgency, because she had the better part of what she wanted. You will always love me, Narcissa had declared, and she had made it so.

Forever and a day, Betty had said, and enacted her own will.

 

The song ended. Betty frowned, bracing herself for the next message. “Let’s not, then,” Annabel said, switching it off again.

“Thanks.” They were pulling up to an intersection, so Betty could turn and smile directly at her, still on a program of charm. Which was, technically, not needful, but she’d scared off one of the last interns; having them tiptoeing around her was irritating.

It seemed to work.

“Patrice said I wouldn’t last all that long,” Annabel said.

Betty said, “Oh?”

“Oh, that was all,” Annabel said. “She was talking to Heather.”

Betty said, “Our photographers never do.”

Annabel still looked uncomfortable.

“It’s not a long-term job,” Betty said. “It’s a stepping-stone. We take students or travellers with visas who can do what we need, they work for us for a while, and then they move on. It’s a function of the rates we pay, nothing else. You won’t get fired. You’ll get bored. And then," she grinned, "we let you go."

“Ah.” Annabel relaxed. “I’d rather leave friends behind me.”

“Better than enemies,” agreed Betty, still with mischief in her smile, just as Annabel continued: “To have people to come back to.”

Betty shrugged, repressing the urge to roll her eyes, scanning out ahead as the lights changed. Betty never looked back.

 

She’d walked out of Faery like Orpheus leaving Eurydice, face ahead: but different in every other way. She hadn’t chosen love.

Narcissa was everything: lover, mistress, sister. Narcissa was glorious, beautiful, stately, merry. She was Betty’s world - until the Fae told her about the other world she’d once belonged to.

“Why did she choose me?” Betty asked ardently, wondering artlessly how she had come to bask in Narcissa’s radiance.

Narcissa’s servant laid her hand on Betty’s hip. “There’s something so interesting about those who wear marks, like you,” she said.

“What does my mark mean?”

“It’s the sign of a land beyond the Garden,” said Narcissa’s handmaiden.

“Oh,” said Betty. “So it has no meaning here.”

 

But, two autumns and a spring later (because the Garden danced a gavotte with clime and time) Betty developed a mole on the tip of her birthmark. Exactly like a point on a map.

She understood freckles. She’d never paid attention to them before; sometimes Narcissa did, counting them and kissing them. This was different. This was a mark overlaying a mark. A message that she had ignored was repeating itself.

“I think,” Betty said to Narcissa, “that I must find it.”

The Fae understood curiosity: Betty had learned it from them, watching them at their whims.

But - “And lose me?” said Narcissa.

Betty was combing Narcissa’s hair with a brush made of rose thorns, so Narcissa could not turn and fix Betty with her dark, cold eyes. Betty could not look at her and say this.

What am I to you, o Narcissa, that you would mark my absence? she wondered. “You are my heart,” Betty stated, as a fact.

“Then leave me your heart,” said Narcissa, “for you will not miss it.”

Betty had never sought to break that bargain.

 

At first, in the new old world, other people’s laughter had been merely as strange as their language.

Betty learned English and French and Cantonese, but she did not bother to speak ‘affection’ fluently. For those who were chilled by her, there were as many who were fascinated: people who interpreted her lack of need as a standard to aspire to.

Some had gone rather far in their fascination, and that was wearying. She learned to use her chill on purpose, and bark to warn of her bite. “I’m not cut out for romance,” Betty said, when the subject came up.

Sex was an occasional indulgence. Sex reminded her of the Garden, when it had pleasure and no meaning; and yet the careless lovers she picked up could never remind her of Narcissa, precise and magnificent.

She thought to joke, “If I marry anyone, it’d be a drunk,” because, a veteran of Fae revels, she could drink anyone under the table; a sot, in drunken fumbles, would ask no questions about her birthmark, the most precious thing she had. But marriage had, honestly, no meaning to a woman with no heart, who had been brought up in love and servitude in Faery, where half the beings were owners and half were owned. So she didn’t jest.

 

Betty fell into a dream when travelling; even when stuck in traffic, there was something to see. The lights changed, and so did every street corner, and every angle on an unchanging monument was something new. She drank up sunlight striking off dust; the outlines of skyscraper shadows at the end of the day; street lights swimming in puddles; the orange-purple glow of the city on clouds. She liked the way the city screened out the stars.

She’d been quiet for a while, she realised.

But she wasn’t alone, so. Well. “We’re going out tomorrow night,” Betty reminded Annabel. “The whole office. Are you coming?”

“Um,” said Annabel. “How expensive?”

“I’ll make you a deal,” said Betty, because that was what the Fae did. “Tell me a secret about Toronto, something I don’t know, and I’ll see your glass is full.”

 

Betty was not precisely incapable of love.

Her heart was locked away - but the lock was only as strong as her will.

Oh, she could choose to reach along the golden thread her heart was strung upon and tug - but either it might come or she herself might be pulled back to the Garden, lost in love again, her quest a disaster.

Perhaps she could have her old heart back again, but that was no longer what she wanted.

For there was a quest. There was a reason she kept her birthmark a secret. There was a reason a woman with Fae tricks up her sleeve went to ratepayers’ meetings and worked in real estate.

At first, she knew of only the love of one person for another, and it bored her, but then she began to see something else: there also existed a love of objects. She saw tenderness in footfalls, pride in neighbourhoods, and yearning in people’s expressions when they imagined themselves into their new homes.

Cities have hearts too, and they are loved.

Betty thought that If anyone had a right to Toronto’s heart, it was the girl who had been stolen by the Fae because its mark was laid upon her.

If she could claim the heart of the city for herself, the magic she could command would flow through sidewalks and street signs, sewers and skyscrapers. One day, Narcissa’s messages would fly on Toronto’s radio waves by negotiation only. One day, Betty would answer colly-birds and butterfly storms from a position of strength.

Home is where the heart is, said the people who lived in this place. She would turn their words, and her smile, true.