In Which the Good Doctor Learns to be Careful What He Wishes For
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:
into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
A good place to start our story would be the town of Wall. One might think this town should be named after the Cöln River that slithered through the center, or the Reiss family who first settled the area, or after the abundant greenery and livestock, but the name given is important, mind you. We will get to that soon enough.
Wall had everything a half-decent village should: a grocery, a tailor, an inn, and a pub or two. The Carriage was a popular hub owned by the Kirstein family for generations. Mister Norbert Kirstein, the current owner of the tavern, married the shop keeper's daughter, Miss Lydie Zackly, in the summer of the pervious year. The following spring the two discovered they were going to have a child.
Alberich and Magdalena Bodt, tailors by trade, were newer people to Wall and extremely naïve to its customs. The purpose and doings around the namesake of the town especially.
Directly to the east of the town is a wall. It is built of smooth granite, stacked tall enough so that no matter of man or beast or other sort of creature can hope to scale it. A single dirt path leads to the single opening. The breadth is wide enough for a wagon but not for a carriage. Beyond the wall is a meadow with a carpet of bluebells and a dark fortitude of trees. Sometimes one can see strange shadows and glittering flashes moving below the branches. Few enter. Few, for they never come back once they pass the wall.
The few allowed to enter know they belong beyond the wall. Other curious or ignorant folk are promptly stopped by the townspeople assigned by eight-hour shifts to guard the opening. Children are shooed off by the sight of the wooden sticks of the guards and adult authority. Older and more sensible people (travelers, usually) are dissuaded by tales of man-eating wild animals or a grumpy bull. Physical force is always a last resort.
The only time commoners can venture upon the wall is every ninth May Day, when the fair comes to the meadow beyond the wall.
Our tale begins the spring Lydie Kirstein learned of her pregnancy and two years after the Bodt's found settlement. The world was not yet half-way into the 19th century: many a great historical figures were still young and many were still being read about postmortem. Grisha Jaeger was a well-practiced physician at this time. He had already saved the town from a plague a decade before. Still fairly youthful, middle-age seemed slow to creep upon him although it was around the corner.
The good doctor lived in a humble home near the center of Wall. Carla Jaeger, his wife for many long years, and infant daughter shared this abode. The couple tried for many moons to conceive a child, only to be met with countless miscarriages and broken hearts. The half-hearted attempts were almost given up upon. It was not until the end of the war that a battle was won. The man who prayed for a son every night until he fell asleep kneeling was given a daughter. They named her Mikasa.
Many visitors came to stay in Wall in the weeks before May Day. The Wagners had a full inn and the Kirsteins constant business. All the rooms in the inn soon filled up and the guests turned to the locals for rentable lodgings. Anything from spare rooms to barns to patches of land to pitch tents were rented out. The regulars at The Carriage discussed more and more of the fair as the appointed day fast approached.
"Why is it only every nine years?"
"I am sure the Reiss's know."
"I heard it used to be every year at midsummer."
Grisha was especially busy at these times treating ailments native to the region but strange to foreigners and aiding traveling women who ended their final trimester too soon. It was not until the day before the fair that he was assigned the duty to guard the wall's gateway. He, along with Darius Zackly, leaned on their wooden staffs until the sun began to set and others took their place. In between that time stranglers would come up to the opening, only to be ushered back.
"Wait until tomorrow. We cannot let anyone in today."
The hopeful persons would sigh and look over into the meadow in yearning. Neither of the parties could make decent conversation, so the wanderers left as soon as they came.
With the guard properly changed, Grisha made his way to The Carriage for some well deserved refreshments and cookery.
"Here you are, sir!" Lydie chirped politely as she handed the doctor his pint of spiced ale.
She wove though the buzzing crowd with practiced expertise, dishing out orders with speed and precision. Dr. Jaeger thoroughly enjoyed the drink, examining the crowd from behind the glass. He never stared long enough for people to notice he watched him, that is, until his tablemate took notice of him. Grisha was admiring his stovepipe hat when the man quirked a smile his way.
"Do you like sponge cake?" The stranger asked suddenly, scooting over a bowl. "I do not think I can finish this portion myself."
The golden syrup steamed invitingly.
Grisha found it hard to refuse. "Yes, I do. Thank you."
The bronze eyes of the man flashed happily, his grey mustache folding into a smile. "Help yourself."
The men finished the delicious morsel in no time.
"Now then…" the man in the top hat said after a moment. "It appears all the rooms around these parts have been taken."
"I am not surprised." Grisha admitted.
The man laughed a great booming laugh, the tone friendly like a grandfather. "Well then!" he said merrily. "Since you seem better acquainted with these parts and people, I was wondering if you know of a room I could rent?"
Grisha cleaned his glasses in thought. "I suppose they are all gone by now. I remember when I was younger I had to sleep on a blanket by the fire mantle while my parents rented out my room to an exotic woman. She gave me a dayereh as a present before she departed. I played with it until the frame snapped from the dry heat."
"Where do you live now?" The man questioned.
"Near the center of town, in the flat above my practice. I have a spare room and a bed, for when my daughter grows older." He did not know why he felt the need to mention it.
"Hum… Will you take me to it?"
For some reason he could not refuse.
Grisha walked with the stranger down the streets of Wall and to his home. The night was cold enough at that time for dew and the moon was waning to near extinction in the shadow of the earth. Grisha allowed the stranger entrance to his home with the turn of a key and motion to the stairs.
Carla Jaeger was in the rocking chair, lulling her daughter to sleep. She smiled as she heard the door creak open, the candlelight illuminating her eyes and teeth.
"Welcome back, dear."
She blinked, surprised to see her husband with another.
The gentleman tipped his hat to revel a bald head, the wrinkles in his face jolly as he smiled.
"Good evening, my lady." he introduced himself formally. "I do not mean to intrude, but I was hoping to acquire lodging here. That is, if it is to your liking."
Carla laughed softly to not wake her daughter. "I suppose we would have the last free space… I will move Mikasa's cradle to our room."
Mikasa shifted as her mother stood, burrowing into her neck. The man hung up his top hat and long coat as the women left the room.
"Yes…" he began after getting a view of the room as a whole, "I do think, Grisha Jaeger, that I would like to rent out your room for the next three days."
Grisha finished placing his coat on a peg. "What will you give me for it?"
The man produced a coin bag. "A golden sovereign, a silver sixpence, a copper penny, and a new farthing."
Even at such a generous price (in those days), Grisha hesitated.
"If you are here for the fair…" Grisha spoke slowly, "Then you need to trade more than material coins."
The gentleman understood, nodding. "I suppose you want miracles and wonders, hum?" The doctor confirmed with a nod.
The stranger grinned. He looked around the room once more, seeing the sitting room with two chairs and a fireplace, the kitchen a room away. Raindrops began to hit the roof above.
"Oh, alright, you win," the man said sharply in defeat, "A miracle, a wonder, just for you. Tomorrow you will get your Heart's Desire. Now here is your money."
Grisha caught the bag as the stranger strutted off to his paid-for room. The doctor first checked for faerie gold by putting the coins against an iron nail. Satisfied, he returned the money to the bag. Strangely, a stitching was threaded into the cotton. Squinting under the candlelight, Grisha could make out the one word: Pixis.
Grisha woke with a start. Not unusual for him, after becoming a father half a year ago. His sensitivity to noises had risen. Although, this time Mikasa slept soundly despite the storm outside. The rain jingled on the rooftop and the room brightened with every lightning flash and the thunder crashed distantly. Mikasa was unaffected. Loud noises never seemed to frighten her.
The weather did not wake the good doctor either. No… A sort of rustling and scrapping did. Listening carefully, Grisha could hear the movements of someone downstairs. This was confirmed as the visitor clashed with metal and made a sound. Groggily, he decided he should better see who- or what- was fumbling around. The doctor took precautions to not wake the other inhabitants of the home as he lit a candle and made his way to the ground floor.
An overturned copper bowl greeted him. He fixed it to its proper position, placing it on top of the cart where it belonged.
"Excuse me…" A timid voice spoke out.
Grisha aimed the candle towards the sound. "What's that? Who's there?"
A misplaced shadow on one of the patient cots moved, a pair of golden beads staring in the dim light.
"Only me," the voice provided. "Sorry to be sneaking in here and the like, but the storm destroyed the hollow log I was sleeping in, you see. I am here for the market and my baggage needs to be kept dry or otherwise the journey I made will be for naught. So… I was wondering if I might stay here for just a night. I am not very big and won't disturb you or nothing."
Grisha blinked sleepily. "… Try to be quiet."
"Will do, Governor."
A bolt of light enlightened the room. Grisha saw the floppy hat and full blond beard of the strange creature before darkness fell again.
"I don't want to disturb you." The voice said through the beard.
Grisha never thought he would be this tired in his entire life. "… I just want to sleep. Please just let me sleep."
The golden beads bobbed in a nod, the figure turning to find a comfortable placement on the cot.
Grisha blew out the candle and returned to his bed.
The hairy man (or other sort of humanoid creature) was gone by morning. Carla had promised Lydie that she would help with the sausage cart, as so, Mikasa was to be left with another for the day. Magdalena volunteered to watch the village children, having a new baby she needed to tend herself. Mikasa, as clingy as ever, screamed when the unknown woman touched her. Carla finally shushed and calmed her daughter, her favorite red blanket the comfort.
"We will be back. I promise."
That was enough to assure her.
The Jaegers dressed up in their best clothing: Grisha in a sharp jacket and trousers, Carla in a lovely pearl dress with roses. They could see the tents and stalls being erected beyond the wall. Chattering folk clustered around the gateway, eager and waiting until midday when they could pass through the wall and find their treasures.
Even the Reiss's were there. Roderick Reiss, the current mayor and overseer of Wall, waved at the populace, wearing a political smile. His wife huddled by his side, long corn-silk hair skirting the wind. It is said that Roderick found his wife in a far land on one of his travels. The man and his carriage returned one day, woman in tow. Her name was Sonja.
Grisha, nearly forgetting about the promise of the gentleman the night before, wondered what he would be buying at the faerie market.
"Anything is fine, dear," was the reply Carla gave when asked what she desired.
Soon, the clock struck noon. The Reiss's entered first, as is custom, before a stream of people flushed through the gap as the guard parted to make room. Grisha and Carla walked together into the market. A chill graced them both, the act of going into the meadow seeming to break a natural law or unspoken rule.
The couple dismissed each other with a kiss, Carla going to her assigned work station. The Kirsteins made food readily available to the masses. Eating faerie food or drinking faerie drink was complete taboo, the act making you never crave human nourishment again and, it is said, driving you to madness.
Grisha thought he was walking towards the fair alone, that is, until he noticed his houseguest beside him.
"Ahoy, good sir! How are you today?" He asked with a twitch of his moustache.
"Very well," said Grisha. "And you?"
"Never been better!" the man enthused. "Come, let us walk together."
The meadow was covered quickly.
"I am sure you have been here before…" The man with the top hat stated.
"My last time was nine years ago." Grisha confirmed.
The stranger laughed heartily. "I see! Remember you are a guest in this realm, young one. Take no gifts and be respectful. But now… I shall give you the last part of my gift, for I gave you my word. And my gifts last a long time. You and your children and your children's children shall all be blessed… My gifts last as long as I live."
"What gift, sir?"
"Your Heart's Desire!" He remarked. "Remember? Your Heart's Desire…"
Grisha tipped his hat and they walked on.
"Eyes! New eyes for old!" a woman shouted, holding up a jar containing eyes of every color.
"Living puppets from the east!"
"Enchanted instruments! Play themselves!"
"Flowers that never wilt!"
"Cloth woven from the sky! Night, day, sunset, sunrise! Dresses, cloaks, vests!
"Answer a riddle and win a crystal button!"
"Medicine and herbs for every ailment! Gout, headache, sore throat, deafness!"
Grisha stopped at a stall selling rattles. He figured Mikasa might appreciate a toy at the end of the day. He picked one up and tested it by shaking the body firmly. A banshee howl of ripping winds assaulted his ears immediately. He put the object down and walked on.
The market bustled with people from near and far and from places some could never go. For every nine years, for a day and a night, the people of Faerie allow outsiders to come and enjoy the Fairy Market. The worlds of magic and not can mingle.
Grisha wondered who would want the rage of a storm captured in a child's toy. He touched the coin bag in his pocket to refresh his spirit. The doctor wanted to find a gift, something nice and simple, for his wife to admire.
A chiming began, the shrillness above the hum of the fair.
Interest seized, Grisha followed the chinkling. He was not very distracted by the dancing performers or shouting vendors.
The sound grew louder.
Grisha was astrayed to an abandoned stall. Every sort of flower you could imagine decorated the stand: star-shooter lilies, pink roses, soft lavender, blood-red poppies, blooming orchids, and a plethora of others the doctor could not name. Each flower from the stalks to the edges of the petals was crafted of a delicate glass crystal. The perfection of the pieces almost seemed to mock him. The artifacts chimed gently, like sleigh bells in a chilled breeze.
"Hello?" Grisha called, not unkindly.
"Hello." A smooth voice answered from the caravan behind the stall. "A good day to you on this Market Day."
A woman descended from within. Grisha could tell she was from Beyond the Wall, her nature wholly magical and whimsical. Her eyes were perfectly up-pointed, the color an incredible topaz. The hair squared at her collarbone reminded him of the purest Earl Grey or of the heated honey glaze on treacle pudding. Her lips were shaped like a bow, naturally a plump pink. Her skin was cream free of impurities. Her ears were pointed: fine auburn fur along the edge. Rings flourished in her ears. As she approached, Grisha noticed the weight of childbearing rounding her abdomen. The girth expanded the flow of her silken gown.
Grisha grazed a violet with his finger. "These are all very lovely," he told her as the flower sang like vibrated glass at his touch. "How much are they?"
The woman hummed, shrugging.
"I never tell that to a customer right away," her musical voice admitted. "If the cost is too much for you, you will leave, and what will we gain from that? Lets be more general." Her lips quirked. "Tell me… What do you want the most?"
"A son." Grisha said.
The woman closed her eyes, processing the thought. "Hum…"
The man with the top hat passed by. "There, now my debt is settled. My rent is paid in full."
Neither seemed to hear him.
The woman popped her luscious honey eyes open, her asking forgotten.
"Where do the flowers come from?" Grisha asked while feeling the petal of a lily.
"On the lee side of Mount Calamon, the grove of glass flowers grows. It is a perilous journey, and the journey back more so."
"And what are they used for?"
"For decoration, for pleasure, that is all. They can be given to loved ones you admire, they chime in the most delightful way. And look how they catch the light!" The sunlight cast through the marigold appeared dim near the gemstone eyes of the woman.
"They can also be used in spells and cantrips. Are you of the magic sort, sir?"
Grisha shook his head negatively. It is then he noticed the thin silver chain connecting the woman's wrist to her ankle and then trailing back to the cart.
"They are lovely, nevertheless."
Grisha inquired about the eyelets.
The woman raised her ensnared wrist. "Oh, this? It is what binds me to the witch who captured me. She caught me many months ago, along the edge of my father's kingdom while I paid my respects to the tomb of my fallen ancestors. Now I am no more than a slave to do her biding. It is made of cat's breath and fish-scales and moonlight mixed with silver. Nearly unbreakable."
"Are you bound to her forever?"
"Not forever, young master," she assured him. "I will be free when the one who truly owns my heart says my name."
"What is your name?"
A sad smile flashed her teeth. Grisha could see her lengthened canines. "I would tell you if I could, good sir. Alas, you see, names are a source of power and that power was taken from me. All those who knew me as I once was know they are missing a daughter, a sister, a friend, but they lack the name to my face. The longer I am gone the less they will remember until I am only a faceless void in their heart, lost forever." The woman sighed, the sensitivity of the topic getting to her. She gently stroked her fingers against her stomach. "But tell me… What is your name?"
The doctor cleared his throat. "Grisha."
"Grisha…" she tested out the taste on her tongue. "Quite a lovely title."
Grisha felt he had spent enough time at the stall. He fetched the coin pouch from his jacket and spilled the coins out, choosing a glass snowdrop. "Here, take enough for this."
The woman shook her head and pushed the coins back. "We do not take money at this stall."
"Well, what do you take?" Grisha was quickly losing his patience.
The woman tapped her chin. "The color of your hair, or all your knowledge of bottle making, or the memories of your great-grandmother. All fair trades."
Grisha shook his head.
"Or a kiss will do. One on the cheek."
That seemed like the least troublesome.
Grisha, hesitant, leaned over the chiming flowers and pecked her available cheek. Her scent was of a new-washed tabby sunning itself.
"Thank you, Grisha Jaeger," she whispered, overshadowing his hand with her own. "Thank you."
Grisha could not ask how she knew his surname, for she was gone before he could blink. He stared, stupidly, at the flower in his palm, then to the empty stall. The snowdrop chimed.
Carla thought the snowdrop was the most darling thing, wearing it perched in her bonnet for all to see. Grisha felt he had his fair share of the wonders of the fair. He remained in proximity to the food tents, striking up conversations with the other village residents while they dined. Those who also admired the ordinate glass flowers were not greeted by the pregnant woman with golden eyes, but rather an exuberant witch in spectacles and with a pile of fluffy brunette hair atop her head.
"It is all very simple, you see?" the witch would exclaim, waving about a rose. "These are crystallized by a freezing enchantment…" Her explanations never lost their luster and made all in earshot weary. An orange ferret with a metal chain seemed unbothered.
The criers came out as the sun set. Their headlines ranged from missing nobility to the Lord of Phoenixwing falling ill to all sorts of magical events in magical places happening. Carla Jaeger was quite exhausted as twilight fell, her shift ending then.
"Lets get Mikasa and go home." she suggested, cleaning her hands of grease.
Grisha soon nearly forgot about the woman at the stall. The day-to-day activities of being a doctor distracted him, along with the milestones of his daughter. In the following weeks after the fair, she began to attempt to speak and walk. Her eyes darkened to bistre, hair the color of night. Mikasa named her father "Papa" and mother "Mama", those being her first words.
Norbert Kirstein and Vester Wagner were the guards assigned the night of midsummer. The day was humid and the night wet. Both men were drowsy from the day's heat and looking with longing towards home. Neither noticed the basket pushed from the other side of the wall. That is, until the infantile wailing began.
Norbert and Vester found a newborn inside the basket, swaddled in a shawl, and crying in spite of its abandonment. A note was pinned to the breast of the blanket.
Two cursive words were written: Eren Jaeger.