Bijou LaVoix and the Coal Dust Faery
by Malon Edwards
If anyone could descry the gold fae, it was Oliver Cobbler. His eyes were keen, his ears were sharp, and his heart was greedy. His friends Robert Shepherd, Tobias Baker and Bijou LaVoix all knew that.
Intimate associates of Ollie’s for the better half of a decade, Bobby, Toby and Bijou were very much aware of their nominal leader’s selfishness and greed. Were Ollie to somehow (emphasis on the word somehow, since pennies usually eluded the thirteen-year-old boy) obtain a sweaty, grubby handful of Ms. Violet’s penny candy, he would, with great haste, cram the ill-gotten pieces into his mouth before his companions could beg him for some, let alone do anything about it.
And were Bobby, Toby or Bijou to whine at Ollie’s stinginess or complain about his rudeness, they would be right away shushed by his vibrant but hard North African green eyes and bunched, knotted fists. While Ollie was stingy, he also punched like a piston, which was no hyperbole since the lad’s left arm was made of metal and powered by a steam piston.
So come one early Tuesday morning, before first bell in the New City Elementary School play lot, when Ollie uttered the word “share” in the midst of divulging his plot for the foursome to kidnap a gold faery and steal her most prized element, Bobby, Toby and Bijou were struck dumb by his word choice. However, they soon regained their voices as they realized Ollie’s scheme was not playful jest, and, with fervor, they interrupted his scheme.
“Your scheme will not work,” said Bijou, bluntly.
Ollie raised his clenched left fist and pressed iron knuckles against the pleats and ruffles of Bijou’s black high-collared short-sleeved blouse, just above the dark brown leather chest harness bodice that cupped nothing, right over where her heart used to be.
“Keep sayin’ stuff like that and you won’t work. Ever again.”
Grasping Ollie’s metal forearm with courteous, careful honey-hued hands, Bobby shook his head, sending the loose dark brown curls framing his face flying.
Ollie smirked. “Don’t what? Touch your flat-chested girlfriend? Or what? You gonna beat me up?”
Bobby pulled the bigger boy’s iron fist away from Bijou, utilizing the majority of his strength to do so, even though the piston in Ollie’s arm wasn’t offering much resistance. As a result, steam vented from Ollie’s armpit. The foursome guffawed, allowing the tension to slink away for the moment.
“What I think Bee meant,” Bobby said, turning his almond-shaped eyes upon Bijou in a brief but adoring gaze before casting a nervous but neutral one on Ollie, “is how we gonna catch a gold faery?”
“Yuh.” Toby pulled his Harris tweed sporting cap lower on tightly-woven, back-length dreadlocks bound with a thin leather strip, obscuring his dark brown eyes. “Those fings are majickal, fer flip’s sake.”
“But not when inside this.”
Ollie removed a small, wrinkled grayish pouch from the front right pocket of his high-waisted, rust-colored, navy-striped trousers. Bobby reached for it.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.
Ollie smacked Bobby’s hand. “Don’t touch.”
Toby pushed his sporting cap further back on his head to allow for closer scrutiny of the pouch. He glanced sideways at Bobby.
“An’ jus’ what the flip do you fink it is?”
“A goat scrotum.”
Bijou arched an eyebrow at Bobby then looked to Ollie for confirmation, her hazel eyes sparkling with amusement. Ollie nodded, an errant thatch of his straight, raven-black hair bobbing with the motion.
Just then, first bell sounded and the hundreds of children frolicking on the play lot plodded towards their respective primary, intermediate, and senior grade entrances, reluctance apparent in their heavy tread. With his good arm, Ollie yanked Bobby, Toby and Bijou away from the school and against the tide of children, towards the black wrought iron fence bordering the play lot. There, a shabby, threadbare rucksack sat on the ground.
“For the gold,” Ollie said by way of explanation. He continued to lay out his machinations. “We kidnap the faery, put her in the goat scrotum, and tell her she ain’t never getting out until she makes us enough gold nuggets to fill the rucksack.” He picked up the empty rucksack, stuffed it into his school bag, and then shrugged the equally threadbare knapsack onto his shoulders. “Got it? Good. Let’s go.”
Toby and Bobby grabbed the bars of the wrought iron fence and made to climb it, eyes fixated upon the spear point finials topping the barrier.
Bijou glanced back at New City Elementary. Schoolmarms with folded arms and stern gazes watched the hordes of children climb the cobblestone steps and make their way through the entrances, vigilant for mischief.
“You did not tell us where we are traveling, nor did you disclose by what means.”
Ollie looked at Bijou, his eyes flat with annoyance at her perpetual reluctance to follow his lead without hesitation. He took a deep breath through his nose and expelled it through flared nostrils.
“Norfolk Southern locomotive at Forty-seventh Street Station in Canaryville to Lake View and the Red Line; Red Line locomotive to the Gold Coast mines and the gold fae.” Ollie bowed again, however, this time with his naughty iron finger raised to Bijou. “Art thou now pleased, milady? Excellent. Then make haste.”
Fifty minutes later, the foursome was standing before the decline portal of the Palmer Gold Mine, located at the far eastern edge of New City, within a bedrock valley flat remnant of millennia-ago glacial activity, not far from the ribbon-shaped Lake Michigan.
Ollie crouched on the ground, slipped the rucksack from his back, and unbuckled its leather straps. His mates huddled close, peering with curious intensity over his shoulder. Relishing the attention, Ollie made a show of searching the rucksack: his movements were slow and deliberate; his iron hand was soft and gentle. Finally, he removed what seemed to be an over-sized Chinese finger trap woven of bamboo and Lady Fern.
Toby scowled. “Oi! Ollie, we ain’t got time fer games, fer flip’s sake.”
“No games here.”
Ollie put the green cylinder under Toby’s nose.
“It’s a faery trap. Yeah, I know; it looks like a Chinese finger trap. But it ain’t. It’s a faery trap. The old lady assured me of that.”
Bijou creased her brow in skepticism. “What old lady do you speak of?”
“Well, milady, I speak of an old Chinese lady with a small, quaint shop just a stone’s throw from the Cermak Road Station. She has nothing but two teeth in her head and looks like she could be Bobby’s grandmother on his mother’s side.”
Two years ago, the affected manner of speaking Ollie frequently adopted to mock Bijou’s elocution, diction, and enunciation would have troubled the Creole girl so much so that she would not have uttered a word amongst her companions for a week or more. These days, however, Bijou more often than not neutralized the teasing by blowing a kiss at Ollie with her naughtiest of fingers, refusing to be aggrieved.
And why should she have hurt feelings? Since Bijou no longer spoke Louisiana Creole outside of the home (at the behest of her New Orleans-born mother), her school marks had showed drastic improvement and her mother was a much happier woman. For Bijou, that was all that mattered.
Ollie resumed his normal manner of speaking.
“The old Chinese lady said it works the same as a Chinese finger trap, but instead of catching fingers, it’ll catch a gold faery within a twenty mile radius.”
Bobby tried to keep the dubiety off his face. “How?”
“Inside are dew drops, nectar, sunlight slices, moonbeam bliss, and all that other good stuff gold fae like.”
Ollie placed the faery trap on the ground near the box cut entrance of the mine.
“There. Now scram for an hour. Go stoke your boilers; explore the area or something. Just stay away from the trap. Fae won’t come to eat if big galoots like us are nosing ’round.”
The foursome moved off in different directions towards the vivid green wooded slopes, slowly picking their way through the small boulders of the Gold Coast Valley flats, searching for a secluded copse or discreet brushwood. Stoking one’s boiler was just as private a ritual as urinating or defecation, but even more so given the naked vulnerability of the act. Ten minutes later, Bijou had discovered a thicket of trees and was feeding the tiny fire in the boiler in her stomach a scoop of coal dust from her rucksack so that the steam clock serving as her heart would continue to tick.
Bobby, Ollie and Toby were at that very moment engaged in similar behavior, though the measure of their coal varied: Bobby stoked the boiler in his midsection with one lump of coal to energize the tiny pistons in his metal knee; Ollie stoked his somewhat larger boiler with two lumps of coal to power the steam piston in his metal arm; and Toby stoked his boiler–the largest of the foursome–with half a dozen lumps of coal to fuel the numerous steam pistons that ambulated his entire metal lower body.
However, dear reader, the foursome was not the only children afflicted with what might seem a grotesque and unfortunate condition. Seven years ago, more than sixty percent of the adult population and eighty percent of children under the age of seventeen were infected during a polio epidemic that ravaged New City.
Thousands died, but thousands more were left with various body parts and organs withered by the disease. Instead of living a life of pain and hardship, the polio survivors turned to metallurgists and steam surgeons to improve their health and quality of life through iron, copper, coal, and steam.
As a result, life expectancy for polio sufferers was extended by decades. But for most of them, whether they were healers, cobblers, bakers or shepherds, the sacrifice was great and entire life savings were wiped out.
Which brings us back to Bijou, Ollie, Bobby and Toby.
Gathered back at the box cut mouth of the mine after the elapse of an hour, the foursome regarded the faery trap with apprehension and distance: it buzzed and jittered angrily.
Ollie nodded at the faery trap. “Bijou, go get it.”
“Me? Why me? It’s your stupid trap.”
“You have the smallest hands.”
Bijou scowled, but said nothing, unable to think of an appropriate retort. She didn’t move towards the faery trap, either, though. Instead, she fussed with the simple cloth hair band holding the exquisitely coiffed henna-tinted cornrows that exploded into a dark, wonderfully massive supernova fro at the back of her head.
“Aren’t you tired of being poor?” Ollie hissed.
“Aren’t you?” Bijou hissed back.
Ollie shoved her towards the faery trap and Bijou stumbled on the dusty, uneven ground, nearly losing her footing. She gave him a dirty look over her shoulder, but did not hold it for long; the faery trap had quieted with abrupt silence.
“Well, go on,” Bobby whispered.
Bijou crept towards the faery trap, stepping with soft care upon the sandy-colored dirt and gravel so that the stones didn’t crunch. When the faery trap was at her feet, she bent over it, cocking an ear towards it to listen for more anger from within.
“Oi! Watch out!”
Toby startled Bijou so badly that her steam clock stopped a tick or two and she nearly jumped out of her thick-soled, knee-high brown leather boots.
“It’s gonna bite yer thrupenny bits!”
Toby grinned and slapped his chest with the flat of his palm.
“Oh wait. You ain’t got any!” He and Ollie brayed with laughter.
Bijou picked up the faery trap, surprised at the dense weight of it. She closed her right eye and peeped inside the narrow opening of one end. The bright day could not penetrate its innards.
“Just reach in there and yank it out.”
Ollie circled his index fingers and rolled his wrists in a vigorous, impatient hurry-up motion.
Bijou squared her shoulders and pressed her plump, burnished bronze lips together.
Ollie was taken aback. None of them had ever said no to him before.
Bijou lifted her chin in defiance.
Ollie snatched the faery trap from Bijou, his voice more snarl than pubescent teen.
He thrust two fingers and a thumb into the cylinder, splitting it down the middle with a violent rent. His fingers probed and dug for a few moments before he withdrew them from the wrecked mass of bamboo and woven grass.
“What the hell is this?”
Held tight and fast in Ollie’s hand was an ebon-skinned faery with a pewter mohawk. She was clad in a high-collared intricately laced sleeveless and backless pewter blouse and a deep purple ankle-length wrap skirt. Two sets of lavender-tinted translucent wings–a larger pair sprouting from her shoulder blades and a smaller pair from her lower back–were trapped by Ollie’s index and middle fingers.
“Release me! “Her voice was high-pitched and ethereal, but loud and clear as it bounced around the slopes of the valley.
Ollie peered closely at her. “What are you?”
The ebon-skinned faery looked down her pert but African-wide nose at him.
“I am Asha, the Coal Dust Faery.”
“Faery?” Toby snorted. “More like bug.”
“And an ugly one at that,” Ollie added, frowning. He tossed Asha aside. “Flippin’ hell. That Chinese lady tricked me. I’m gettin’ my money back.” He snapped his iron fingers at Toby, Bobby and Bijou. “Let’s go. We’re goin’ to Chinatown.”
Ollie turned and went but three steps before he yelped and slapped at his right earlobe. He looked at his hand and saw a dazed Asha crumpled in his palm.
“Stupid bug. I’ll teach you to bite me.”
And with the glee of a wicked child who takes pleasure in inflicting pain upon the defenseless and weak, Ollie plucked both sets of Asha’s wings like the petals of a forget-me-not, ripping them out of her back. The scream that issued from her distended mouth was unearthly.
For Bijou, time at that moment seemed to accelerate. Ollie flicked Asha and her rent wings away. Bijou rushed to Asha’s discarded body. Toby and Bobby gaped. Bijou pleaded for strips of cloth to stem Asha’s bleeding. Ollie ordered Bijou to drop the faery. Bijou refused. Ollie excommunicated Bijou from the group. Bijou begged Bobby to help her. Ollie commanded Bobby to stay where he stood. Bobby vacillated between Bijou and Ollie. Bijou searched her rucksack. Bobby fell in behind Ollie. Ollie shoved Toby and Bobby towards the trail to Gold Coast Station. Bijou withdrew a deerskin pouch from her rucksack. She selected vial of powdered goatweed from within. She sprinkled the goatweed onto Asha’s ragged wounds. Asha moaned. Bijou spit upon the powder, forming a paste. She tore a ruffle from her blouse and wrapped Asha’s lacerations. Asha shrieked again and fainted despite Bijou’s gentle fingers. Bijou removed a small crocheted drawstring purse from her rucksack. She placed Asha inside. She slipped the purse around her neck. She searched on hands and knees for Asha’s torn wings. She found them half-buried beneath the gravel. She tucked them into the front pocket of her leather trousers. She sighed. She pressed her full lips together. And then, with swift urgency, she set off for the best healer in all of New City–her mother.
“I am so very sorry.” Bijou’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“For what, child?” Asha’s voice was husky and tired, but pain was absent from it.
Bijou pointed at Asha, indicating her current state: naked to the waist and face down on a shabby throw pillow, weak, her mohawk flattened on one side, and, what threatened to wrench a sob from Bijou’s throat and embarrass a girl who thought she was too tough to cry, the ugly-red scabrous wounds on the faery’s back.
“Child, it was you who saved my life, correct?”
“My mother mostly.”
“Then I am forever indebted to you and your mother. For as long as you both shall live, I will be your servant and attend your needs.”
Asha looked away. “My mates and I just wanted to catch a gold faery so we would be poor no longer.” A tear trickled down the left side of her nose.
“And no longer will you be.” Asha pushed herself up on her knees, gritting her teeth at the pain. Sweat stood out on her brow.
“What do you mean?” Bijou’s face was scrunched in confusion.
“Child, I am a coal dust faery.”
Asha made a fist, blew into it, and opened her palm. Upon her tiny hand sat a small mound of the black powder.
“Never again will your mother have to take bread coin or rent coin and haggle with the collier so you can stoke your boiler. At your heart’s desire, you shall have pure, high quality coal dust, the kind coveted by every child with a small boiler.”
“But I don’t deserve it.”
“Child, the sins of that hateful boy are not your sins. Be grateful for your reward.”
Asha snapped her fingers–a sharp, cracking report from appendages so diminutive–startling Bijou.
“He was the one who did this to me?” The coal dust faery reached behind her and ran light fingertips along the rough wounds where her wings once were.
“Leave him to me.”
Asha rubbed her hands together with such vigor that they warmed from the friction. When she opened them, a perfectly round and smooth black pebble sat within.
“Do you see this pebble, child?”
Bijou nodded again.
“Take it to the entrance of the Palmer Gold Mine at dusk this day, just before the sun dips below the horizon. Wait there with your hand outstretched towards the entrance of the mine until my friend the Tikoloshe comes.”
“The Tikoloshe?” Bijou shivered as the word rolled off her tongue.
“Do as you’re told, child.”
Bijou arrived at the Palmer Gold Mine exactly at dusk, her nervous breath visible as white puffs in the chill valley air. She did not have to wait long for the Tikoloshe. Just as the red-orange sun slipped behind the valley slopes, Bijou heard heavy shuffling and stertorous, bestial bellows from deep within the bowels of the mine growing louder, coming closer. Her knees weakened and twitched to flee down the trail back to Gold Coast Station, but Bijou stood her ground, her wavering hand outstretched. It was the least she could do for the coal dust faery.
And then she saw it.
The Tikoloshe was a hulking monstrosity, resembling a shaggy man-sized teddy bear, but with a sharp, bony ridge atop its head. Drool slavered from its terrible, fanged jaws; a tangible, animal musk hit her like a slap across the face, bringing tears to her eyes and causing her to gag. The Tikoloshe bent forward to regard her, its large black eyes unblinking. Bijou shrank from it.
“Please,” she whimpered. “I beg of you. Do not hurt me.”
The Tikoloshe snorted and she could feel its exhalation upon her face.
Chuckling, the Tikoloshe reached out a furry claw and snatched the pebble from Bijou, scoring her hand with angry red weals.
“You may go now, child,” it growled, and swallowed the pebble. And just like that, the Tikoloshe was no longer there.
Bijou searched the growing darkness about her with frantic terror, whirling and turning, attempting to look everywhere at once for the horrid faery. It was not until she heard its chuckle again–close and intimate–that she screamed and fled to the station.
That night, as Ollie turned down the covers of his bed and blew out the flame of his thermolampe in preparation for slumber, the most wretched stench permeated his bedroom. Thinking it to be a dead rat, he checked the traps behind his wardrobe and chest of drawers, but found them empty. Determined to root out the smell that was beginning to turn his stomach, Ollie searched every corner of his modest and sparse room, taking quick, shallow breaths through his nose to keep as much of the stench as he could out of his mouth and lungs.
His search did not take long. Perplexed, he was stumped as to where the foul odor could be emanating from–that is until he passed his slightly ajar first-floor window.
Levering the crank within the windowsill, Ollie swung the window wide and the stink assaulted his nostrils. Curious as to the source of the out-of-doors foulness, Ollie pinched his nose and leaned his upper body through the window, turning his head left, then right, as he sought the source of the malodor.
Ollie could make out little in the darkness. Shrugging, he made to withdraw back into his bedroom, but froze when he heard a low, slow chuckle that caused the dense hair on his desert brown flesh arm to stand on end. The last thing Ollie ever saw was wickedly curved fangs and a solid mass of shaggy fur before he was swiftly snatched out into the night.
All Ollie’s parents found of him the next morning was his metal arm on the ground beneath his still open window, glinting dully in the wan sunshine.More stories like this by topic: African-American authors, Authors of color, Black authors, Characters of color, Faeries of color