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Trash Fairies

Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels to Ace, Atheneum, Avon, Gold Key, Pocket, Tachyon, and Viking, and the 350+ short stories she has sold have appeared in Asimov's, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Cicada, Weird Tales, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and many other magazines and anthologies. Wildside Press, Pulphouse Publishing, and Fairwood Press have published collections of her stories.

Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.

Nina does production work for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She has taught at the Clarion and Odyssey workshops, and she currently teaches short story classes through Lane Community College, Wordcrafters in Eugene, and Fairfield County Writers' Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina's publications, check out: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

I don't follow politics, but I will follow music anywhere. Music leads me all over the country, but I never stay in one place long before it calls me somewhere else.
My name is Cyrus Locke. I carry a fiddle. I've been on the road following tunes for more than fifty years.
When I met some young folks at a jam at an Oregon grange on Friday night and they invited me to join them playing music at a fundraiser for a mayoral candidate the next night, I didn't ask what the candidate believed in. I asked if there was free food.
They said there was. So I said sure.
Saturday night, in a nice cafe on Main Street with clay-red walls, an oak bar, hippie waitstaff, and locally sourced food, we played a set of bluegrass and country tunes. The place filled up with women in office clothes, men in suits, a few kids who seemed restrained by enforced manners, and one or two quirky characters. The candidate looked young, dark-haired, serious, and hand-shaky. A table near the door had campaign literature, a guest book, and campaign buttons on it
The crowd was more interested in talking to each other than in listening to us, so we didn't sing anything, just played background music. We broke after a half-hour set to join the line at the finger foods buffet and listen to speeches.
I loaded my plate with tiny mushroom quiches, grapes, a couple small cheeseburger sliders, bell pepper slices, and tortilla chips. A woman stood at a table pouring purple punch into flower-covered paper cups. She smiled wide as she handed them to everyone. Talking was thirsty work, and so was listening.
There was something about her. Some watery extra shiver in the air around her that meant she had a magical skill. I narrowed my eyes into Oversight and checked her aura, but it wasn't a power I recognized. She was not one of my family, as far as I could tell.
She held out a cup to me, but it was too bright a purple, so I shook my head.
Most everyone else took some. It did smell tempting, which surprised me. I squinted at it. Maybe there was a special ingredient.
The candidate coughed into the mike and then spoke about the local community: how he would improve schools, boost Main Street businesses, and reach out to the homeless. He sounded like he cared about people, but then again, didn't most of them? I tried to chew quietly as he spoke. The food was great.
Almost everybody watched him with unblinking concentration. Smiles grew on their faces. They nodded and clapped when he said clap-worthy things.
A shiver twitched my back.
As local businesspeople spoke out in support of him, I heard something tunely and strange drifting in from the back of the cafe. I set my empty plate down on a bus tray, grabbed my fiddle case, and worked my way through the crowd, using my power of air just a little to ease people aside and encourage them not to notice me.
A mixed crew of people in chef hats, white clothes, and hairnets were in the kitchen, some crafting more appetizers, and others cleaning up. None of them was singing or playing, so I went out the back screen door to the alley, and there, in the soft spring evening, I found the mystery music.
Six small, glowing, winged people were raiding a trash can. Their wings moved as fast as the wings of hummingbirds, only the humming noise formed a tune that harmonized. I stood still and took it in. I wished I had a new-fangled phone to take a video.
One of the hummers noticed me and flew at my face, waving small, clawed hands at me. I backed up, pulled a pennywhistle out of my fiddle case's front pocket, and played some notes that fit into their tune. The little green creature hovered, then backed away a smidge, turned her back on me, and hummed at me, her wings a blur. I played back the snatch of melody she had played. She hummed another line, and now the others approached, purple, blue, red, yellow, orange, and hummed in harmony. I had never heard the tune before, though it was similar to some Irish jigs I knew. The green one led me through it twice, and then we all played it together.
One of the cooks looked out the back door and let out a shriek, and the fairies blinked out like fireflies.
"What, what, what?" asked the cook. "Was I seeing things? What was that?"
I shrugged and smiled. She had asked a good question. Accustomed as I was to encountering various kinds of magic, I'd never seen anything like those fairies before.
I looked at the trash cans, wondering what had fascinated the fairies. They had been dipping into one big green plastic trash can with an open lid, ignoring the others. I put my pennywhistle away and walked over to look in.
Food waste--seed cores of bell peppers, remains of earlier meals, corn husks, scraps of this and that. Waxed boxes vegetables and fruit traveled in from other states. Disposable plates and utensils.
I blinked into Oversight and saw a purple stain across everything. It glowed with a foxfire green light.
I held a hand above it, reaching for senses I didn't use very often. It pressed a soft tingle across my palm. I lifted my hand to my face and sniffed.
Love him, it whispered/tasted/persuaded. Give him your time and money. Support him. Don't question him. Ignore anything you hear that challenges him or his messages. Love him. Believe everything he says. Follow him. Love him.
I backed away, rubbing my hand on my jeans, then thought that was a mistake. Powers and Presences, aid me and guide me to shake off this spell before it can take root. I pulled wind to me and asked it to lift away every particle of spell. Air breezed down my sides and across my palm. It gave me clean breaths.
"What are you doing?" asked the cook.
"Who made the punch?" I asked.
"One of his campaign workers brought it. Six pitchers full. She set it up herself, but she put the pitchers on my table here. One of the pitchers smelled a little off, so I dumped it out."
"In the trash?"
She made a face. "I didn't want that in my sink."
"Good call," I said. I picked up my fiddle case. "Good night." I headed down the alley, then around the block to look through the cafe windows.
The candidate stood there, smiling, speaking, glowing in the golden light, his words muffled through the glass. The crowd stared at him, enthralled. My bandmates were among them. Those were good people, young people I liked and respected. This candidate talked a good game, but didn't they all?
I didn't care about politics, but I cared about spellbinding, especially if it could be used to mess people up.
I didn't have a song in my repertoire that would unbind a spell like that.
I wondered if the fairy song had any special powers. I'd been too busy learning it to pay attention to what it did. What had fascinated them about the punch?
With my fiddle case in hand, I headed to a nearby park. I needed to build a song that would lift a spell, and I needed it fast. Maybe the candidate was a good man. Maybe he wasn't. We were supposed to play again when the speeches were done, as the evening wound down and people left. I could fight magic with magic.
This probably wouldn't be the last time I'd need a tune like this.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 26th, 2021

Author Comments

"Trash Fairies" was a summer short story prompt at Wordos. I had just played music at a political meet-and-greet when I wrote it. :)

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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