by Rem Wignore
Nederene gently turned the bell of one flower with clawed and nimble hands, inspecting how it hung heavy from the stalk. “Interesting work, Jeb. What are they for?”
Jeb sniffed a flower, tenderly. A faint spicy, floral scent drifted to eir nose, against the musty background smell of soil. The flowers smelt a little like jasmine, though they were not jasmine. Ey almost fancied ey could hear the small creatures shifting below the surface soil, worms and beetles curled up sleeping.
“Well, they’re here to be lovely,” Jeb said. Ey turned over another bloom carefully, looking for insect damage. “Same as any flower.”
Nederene huffed, and dropped down on preer haunches. The faery had an elegant way about prin, those stark and dramatic eyes and legs with rather more joints than any human Jeb knew. But pry could still feel like a petulant child. “You know that is not what I meant! Do not ‘mess’. What magic have you put in them!”
Jeb thought ey felt a tingle coming from the flower where ey touched it, coursing up eir arm. Ey withdrew eir hand. “I’m still not convinced I do that,” ey said, stalling. Then: “I don’t know. We’ll know once they’ve grown, I suppose.”
“Waiting for things to grow…” Nederene tilted preer head. “Silly use of time really, when you small ones get so little of it.”
Jeb stood up, brushing soil off eir knees. Smudges of brown stayed on the green corduroy. Every item of clothing Jeb owned was green, except the ones that were brown. “It’s not like I plan to set up camp here until they’re done,” ey said amused. “Watched pot never boils.”
“Untrue,” Nederene said, pointing one long finger at em. “One of your language-lies.” Pry looked delighted.
“Yes,” Jeb said, sighing out. The air here was pleasant, crisp and stirring in eir lungs. “You found it.”
Whatever charm they bore, the flowers were nearly grown. Jeb realised with a start that slow as the seasons seemed to turn, spring would soon be over, and summer here. Nederene wouldn’t be a pry any more. Ey didn’t know if pry wanted em to use the same words as last year or a different set, though pry had been consistent so far: O, ors, orself was probably Jeb’s favourite of preers, but autumn was a while off. Ey would have to ask prin.
It was odd, being friends with one of the fae. Pronoun sets were the least of it, of course; Jeb even had human friends who rotated theirs, though not with the seasons, not as spring bloomed into summer mellowed into autumn crept slowly into winter’s sleep. This thing, the plants Jeb grew having odd properties and growing too fast, that had never happened before ey met Nederene. No one else seemed able to find the garden, either.
“I hope you will stay alive long enough for them to grow,” Nederene said, swinging graceful into step. Pry gave em a look that ey interpreted roughly as anxious. “Oh so little time.”
“I should have at least another twenty years, touch wood.”
Nederene’s shoulders bunched up around preer ears. “There isn’t any,” pry said, sort of hollow and anxious.
“Language-lies, sorry. Sorry. I’m sure I should be fine.” Ey should be, yes. Jeb sighed. Looked up to find eir friend surveying em with bright birdlike eyes, fretful, as though expecting Jeb to die of plague on the spot. Jeb shook eir head. “The flowers aren’t ready, but here, I still have a gift for you.” Ey plucked a leaf from a bush that wouldn’t miss it, and reached up. Nederene hunkered down, and Jeb tucked the leaf behind the faery’s ear. “There you are. Now you’ll be very dashing for all the other fae ladies and gentlemen and others.”
“I already have partners for the next five dances,” pry said, glancing at Jeb out of one eye as though expecting em to be impressed. Jeb nodded solemnly. Nederene stood up straight and trilled. “And what of you! You told me last time that you met someone, have you …” Pry winked. “Met them again?”
Jeb let out a soft huff of laughter. Then shook eir head.
“Oh,” Nederene said, and patted eir shoulder. “Apologies if this saddens you.”
“No, no. We did meet again. She … didn’t feel the same way, but that was fine,” Jeb said, lifting eir hands in defence of an allegation Nederene hadn’t made. “That was fine, of course, and we ended up … quite good friends. I think we’re good friends.”
Nederene rasped preer fingers together, a noise that put Jeb in mind of crickets chirping. Jeb shrugged.
“She isn’t doing well,” ey said to the unasked question.
Nederene let out a soft keen, further back in the throat than any human sound. Pry loped over the gardenbed and bowed preer head, pushed it forward so their heads were pressed together. After a moment pry lifted preer arms, awkwardness in more than just the offering of the gesture but the shape of it, ungainly as a stork.
Jeb had been prideful at one point in eir life, but all ey could think about was Eun’s face, the pallor in it, how odd she looked with her head shaved bare. Ey leaned silently into the embrace.
Nederene was colder than a human, and felt vaguely sharp. All the comparisons that came to Jeb’s mind were faintly insulting: a jangle of trowels, origami made of spun wire. Ey let out a short unfamiliar laugh, and then closed eir mouth on the sobs that wanted to follow it.
“There there there,” Nederene said softly, halfway to sing-song. Preer voice was soothing, the wind through leaves. “There there there there.”
Jeb squeezed eir friend tightly, all the unfamiliar shapes, and the familiar intent. After a while, feeling calmer, ey opened eir eyes. “You’re very thin, you know.”
Nederene pulled back with a screech of a laugh. “With all my kind it is such! At least in this century.”
Well, alright then. “You know, I used to want to be like you,” Jeb said with a wave at Nederene’s bone-razor thinness. “Once.” Ey felt drifting, strange, a good time to take sanctuary in what ey knew was true. “Lately, sometimes, I want to be bigger. Like a mountain, like a tree. Like an old stone covered in moss. A bulwark for my friends to be safe in.”
Ey closed eir eyes again. Things felt safer this way. This garden, with its walls of trees, could be anywhere, then. Could be some other world. If fairies were real why couldn’t there be some other world? Where Jeb was happy and Eun was safe.
Nederene’s voice seemed thin with distance when pry spoke. “I think you’re that already,” pry said. Then, “Are you alright?”
Here. Here, with a moth buzzing somewhere unseen in the undergrowth, the air just starting to get cold enough to bite. Ey was here. Jeb opened eir eyes, hesitated. “No. Not really.”
Nederene stretched out. “I am here,” pry said.
There was nothing else to be done today. The weeds had been plucked, the wrong insects discouraged and the right ones safeguarded. More scraps placed on the compost, and the flowers coming along well, but not grown yet. There seemed no reason to linger, though ey wanted to; wanted to with the slow torpor that came of not wanting to do anything else.
Jeb started walking, taking the path that would lead em home. The trick was not to think too hard on it, to think of other things, but Jeb didn’t want to think at all right now. Ey focused on the immediate path, the crunch of shells.
Nederene stalked beside em, a silent presence. When they’d first met, even for the first several months afterwards, Jeb had found prin quite frightening.
Nothing for a while but the crunch, crunch of shells, and the soft barely audible whisper Nederene made when moving. “Maybe they will heal, this batch,” pry said tentatively. “Maybe your friend will be all-manner-of-well, after a tilt of flower juices.”
A few steps more, Jeb’s conscience smote em, and ey added, “Thank you, my friend.”
“Always. I will be here for you for at least the next fifty years.”
Something in that was almost soothing. Sometimes Nederene was childish and felt young as a flower barely into blooming, like fresh new shoots. Or in the winter like a mad and merry thing, cracking ice and flexing fingers. Sometimes pry felt like how it felt to stand beside an old boulder, or at the bottom of a cliff, by the trees that eight people linking hands couldn’t form a circle around: the comforting, alarming feeling of being near something larger and older than yourself, a tangible ancient thing. Jeb smiled.
“Until then I’ll see you in a week,” ey said, lightly teasing.
“Stay alive, you and all those you love.”
“Stay alive, you and all those you love,” Jeb replied, formally. Nederene dipped preer head in a bow, a fond gesture for prin, and then Jeb was walking alone out of a narrow alleyway, graffiti on the corrugated iron fences showing cities, faces, cartoon characters, cars passing here and there in the street ahead.
“Island, Ocean” (© Rem Wignore) was published in Issue 9 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.