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A Wedding Gown of Autumn Leaves

Hugo and three-time Nebula Award finalist Caroline M. Yoachim is a prolific author of short stories, appearing in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her work has been reprinted in multiple year's best anthologies and translated into several languages. Yoachim's debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out in 2016. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

The day before my wedding, my dress is a pile of birch leaves. I sort through them and pluck out all the worms and bugs. The leaves are vibrant yellow and orange, fresh from the tree and still pliable enough to sew. Birch is a symbol of beginnings, a good choice for weddings.
I stitch the leaves together with unicorn-mane thread, a gift from my future sister-in-law. Fae clothes are made with magic, which--being human--is something I do not possess. The dress is a surprise for my beloved, but my stubbornness in upholding his traditions does not include spinning my own magical thread.
I grab a handful of leaves and find the yellowest ones. The rest I toss back for when my pattern calls for orange. The leaves are cold and damp, and my fingers are numb before I'm halfway through the corset.
There are stories about humans who return from fairyland and find that too much time has passed. This is never an accident; the fae are good at controlling time. History flows like a stream through their realm, and they trap it in swirling silver pools that dot the forest floor. The pools hold people whose homes have crumbled to dust, leaving them little choice but to stay amongst the fae. Huddled masses of humans retreat to the corners of fairyland, isolated from all but each other.
Growing up I'd thought the fae were villains, and the humans were victims and heroes, but it is not so simple as that. Alongside the pools that tell of kidnapped humans there are stories of fae captured and tortured for their magic, dissected in the name of science, slaughtered in the border wars. There is darkness on both sides.
My beloved sometimes takes me to the pools of time to share his past. He showed me his grandparents' wedding, once. His grandmother's gown was made of oak leaves, a symbol of power and courage. The dress was a glorious sunrise, a gradient from yellow to red, decorated with sparkling drops of dew. His family has always made their own dresses, all the way back to the beginning of time. His grandfather wore a gown of smooth gray river rocks, solid and stately. It must have been unbearably heavy, but it was glorious nonetheless, and the two of them made a striking couple.
They had looked at each other the way my beloved looks at me. We want to heal the wounds our people have caused each other, but everyone sees us as traitors. Perhaps we are, but we refuse to ignore our hearts, history be damned. Love is funny that way, unpredictable, and ours will be the spark that lights a revolution. I wonder if someday our grandchildren will peer into the silver pool of our wedding and see our love as beautiful.
I step into my birch-leaf dress, needle and thread in hand, ignoring the damp chill of the leaves. My dress is simultaneously slimy and itchy, but I won't have to wear it long--only a few hours once I've sewn it shut.
I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and my heart falls. The dress is a lumpy leafy mess. It looks nothing like the gorgeous gown of oak leaves I'd seen in the pools of time. My birch leaves have no sparkle; my dress isn't magical despite the unicorn-mane thread that holds it together.
There are spots of mold on some of the leaves.
Is it an omen for our wedding and our future? We couldn't even convince our parents to come to the ceremony, how can we hope to bridge a hatred that runs so deep?
I'm on the verge of tears and part of me wants to tear off my terrible dress and throw it away. I'll never have the enchanting beauty of my beloved's grandmother. Future fae that see us in the pools will look at me and mock the choice my beloved has made. I'm human, with all the accompanying flaws. I'm stubborn and impatient and hopelessly romantic. In another dress, a human dress, I might look prettier--but no, this leafy mess is who I am.
I wait for my beloved near the silvery pool that holds his grandparents' wedding. This part is my idea, my tradition--not seeing each other in our finery until the wedding starts. It had seemed like a good idea before I'd made the dress.
My beloved arrives in a tuxedo of his own making. Human clothes are poorly suited to magic--straight seams and solid-colored fabrics are not natural enough. The tux is wrinkled and misshapen, with bits of leaves and twigs embedded in the jacket as though he'd been rolling around on the ground.
"I didn't have the magic to make a dress like your grandmother's."
"And magic cannot make a proper tuxedo." He took my hands in his. "But we will find the ways our worlds can fit together."
Our parents are not there, but his sister watches from across the pond. A handful of human children peer at us from behind a stand of birch trees, curious. We have so much work ahead of us, but this moment fills me with hope.
I marry my beloved in a birch-leaf dress, dotted with spots of black mold.
It is the most beautiful beginning.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, April 18th, 2019

Author Comments

Many thanks to Vylar Kaftan for prompting this story by providing the title "Autumn Leaves For Her Wedding Gown," which I later changed slightly to "A Wedding Gown of Autumn Leaves." Trees make regular appearances in my stories, and autumn is my favorite season, so the title definitely called to me. It reminded me a bit of the "unconventional materials" challenges they do on Project Runway: make a dress entirely of fallen leaves. While I'm sure there are designers capable of pulling it off, I suspect my own results would be a lumpy leafy mess, and probably spotted with mold.

- Caroline M Yoachim
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