Fairy Tale, by Sean Johnston

Fairy Tale

By Sean Johnston

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On the drive to work today there were some bears dumped in the ditches beside the road. The light captured everything beautifully with the sunrise like twilight and black clouds way off from a storm that wasn’t going to hit us. And four or five bears heaped in a pile whose black edges were sharp against the long green grass and the dark flickering leaves at the fence line where there were poplars. Nothing is to be trusted, however, because the haircut I got at noon was unusual too—the barber switched from clippers to hammer and chisel to block the hair at the back of my neck, without pain, and only the soft dull tapping of the hammer. That particular observation is in doubt, and calls into question every sensation in the great world around me, which when I get down to it the world is not that great; there are two roads that I take quite often, then the main street in town. I see a small group of people regularly and ask them all the same questions and give them all the same replies.

There was a letter sitting on my desk since yesterday, however, and it proved how large the world was, so I think I can be forgiven for not getting things right, necessarily, as they appear so quickly. My cousin Jane died, who was like a sister to me. I was afraid to open it.

Nevertheless, walking one block from the barber to my office I encountered our wildlife expert, Jim Hughes, trying to wire the garbage can to its post at the corner of the town’s park, named after his mother’s mother—Burwell Park—while in the bandshell a number of ducks hid out of season for some kind of dramatic purpose known only to them. The music was just below the level of comprehension.

“Huey,” I said, “what about these bears in the ditches?”

“That’s out by your house?”

“On the way into town.”

“That’s the County, Ken, if it’s not in town.”

“Right by the tracks, Huey. Not saying go get them. I just wonder what happened.” “That’s still the County. I got a porcupine. Pretty big, but no bear,” he said.

It was in his truck, with its bottom half flat but the head intact. Gave me a wink so I jumped off the bumper and said “Ha ha!” to make light of the magic that was seeping into this world right here.

“Not quite as big as a bear. You’re right,” I said, and clapped him on the back. Then, “Good day!” I promised, a little too loudly.

Weins was popping out the door of the village office for his after-lunch cigarette. I couldn’t meet his eyes. He never says anything anyway, we never do to each other, but I did bob my head as I walked past, because we usually nod, only:

“What’s up?” I hear as I am just past, as if the magic infects also his buttoned-up clerk’s skull, so I turned and managed to meet his eyes and smile.

“Oh, just a hard time keeping the rabbits out of the garden,” I said. I said rabbits but I didn’t know. It felt new, because we never had the problem before. I was going to say just getting ready to dig up the potatoes but it was much too early for that; there’s no magic so far for speeding up potatoes. His eyes were pale and he squinted too, given the direction he looked.

“You got a sore eye?” I asked him. Pale guys are sometimes red without being sore but there was a little red knob on the lip of his right eye, I thought. He admitted the eye was sore and that admission returned some faith to me, some faith in my ability to perceive correctly, and I felt a little goodwill toward Weins, which had been absent in me for some time, for a reason lost in the past. I wanted to offer advice of some kind and comfort him perhaps but all I could think of was, “Allergies?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s new. It’s been a weird year all around.”

“It has,” I said, and though I felt moved to offer more, I did not. Without a hat on it’s like the whole street is melting at noon, so I nodded, turned, and resumed the walk back to work. The melting street today, of course, was normal, given its asphalt composition and its relative freshness, but even so, the wavering of the light on its surface was explained by multiple natural laws that describe our world. It’s no desert, but give it time. It was just half a block to the office, so quite a simple walk. No magic on the way.

In the air-conditioned office, I walked through the front, as I usually do.

“Alright, Mr. Bunn?” the girl asked. Strange idiom for the culture, but okay.

“Fine,” I said. “You?”

And she nodded.

I shared the building with a local business, my biggest client: Agrifeed Co-op. They took orders at this shop, but it was all stored elsewhere, mostly at the farm by the highway. The MacIntosh place, no longer a farm. You could see the old house in among the new buildings but it was no longer lived in. The dugout beside the driveway remained, and it was full this year, a rare year, so far so good. The right rain, the right sun, everything on course. The yellows too yellow, the greens too green, and wait until the gold later on in the summer. Nobody knew if it would continue, but it was a good time to farm, after those lean years before. This was new.

Once I sat down, the Weins dispute was obvious. It was nothing. Seven years ago he approached the village council to suggest he could do their books along with his clerk job. I was disappointed because of the longevity of my own contract to do the same work but with the feed company and so many locals renting out bunkhouses in the summer it makes no sense now, yes, give him the work.

It took me often five minutes or so, in the summer, to adjust to the relative dimness and cool of the office after being outside at noon. I looked at the mail and the perfect right angles of the envelopes face down on my dark desk. One was from a lawyer, I knew that, and I didn’t want to open it. My cousin, Jane, had recently died.


Once the possibility of magical occurrences is confirmed, it’s hard to maintain your place in whichever rational universe previously existed. The possibility had been confirmed by many things of unequal value. I would place Weins’s statement about it being a weird year at the bottom of the list of confirmations, but it contributed to the whole effect. The porcupine winking was at the top and the bears piling up in the ditches I would have to check on my way home. The barber using a chisel and hammer was somewhere right around the porcupine winking but it didn’t hurt me so I was not quite ready to categorize it as anything but a daydream clinging to the shape of reality like the skin of a broken balloon picked up in wet grass by the toe of a rubber boot, which had happened the other day, and was then, as it is now, a simple digression.

The balloon’s existence was not difficult to explain, but its persistence and its remaining hidden since the family reunion the previous summer was a surprise. It might easily be explained if necessary: the balloons were made for the occasion, with the picture of a great grandfather riding a moose stamped in black ink on balloons of pale yellow, green, and pink; balloons meant to be inflated with helium and anchored around my place to commemorate the reunion, which was not an anniversary, obviously, but had some number associated with it, a number I now forget. Was it a 50th anniversary of some couple or was it the 80th or 90th birthday of someone else? Regardless, the preparations were too much for me to remember the balloons.

It’s the kids that surprise you, though. I hadn’t imagined so many, or they seemed more when they weren’t just names on a list or numbers under their parents’ names and however it happened it was a shock, the number of small people running out of the vans and into the yard with freckles yelling and sunglasses bent and little limbs tangled with sisters and brothers and cousins in such loud celebration. Soon Jane, my cousin from the coast, was in with her kids then all the others filling an old wash tub with balloons full of water from the hose behind the house.

My house was my mother’s house and Jane and her brother lived there in the summer with me and I had no siblings. It was their house too, until they all grew up and moved to the coast. In the back it had no lawn and the wild grass and hard-packed dirt sloped slightly down to the beginning of the woods and further down to the septic field then on to the woods proper which then turned into a pasture. I rent that pasture out now but I still have chickens. The sun doesn’t get in there much. The woods aren’t really woods, though they were to us as children. They’re poplars and scrub brush, saskatoons and choke cherries. We camped in there sometimes as children. The whole summer was ours. We played Dungeons & Dragons around a fire all night once, and finished in the morning. We thought it was noon, but when we got back to the house after pouring water on the fire all the grownups, meaning my mother and Jack, were still sleeping.

Jack’s arm hung over the side of the bed and his mouth was open. His white shoulder was like the plucked skin of a chicken and I’d never seen it before. His arms and his neck were so dark and he was always to work before I woke up. The nakedness of them both, limp and helpless, as the light grew from the corners of the house despite the curtains and blinds, made me run out embarrassed and tell the others quietly Let’s get to sleep, so we went out to the camper parked by the shed and first feigned sleeping then slept. When we woke everything was back to normal. Jack was gone. My mother was baking bread, and we hadn’t stayed up all night almost dying just to find treasure.

There was no real treasure that night—some small number of gold coins, perhaps, but no magic items, or potions or anything—but there was the magic of that first fantastic collaboration. It seemed to have something to do with the woods, or the light of the fire, and though we tried to recreate it many times that summer, there is nothing as magical as the first time you play Dungeons & Dragons. Later on I decided it was as if someone had discovered all these laws that governed our imaginations with the same authority as the laws of thermodynamics governed energy, which I only understood in the broadest terms. I argued once with my grade nine teacher and was suspended for three days. He said music could not exist without math, and I knew he was wrong; math and natural laws can describe something, but not cause it.

Other discoveries followed as I grew. I once saw my Aunt Sadie who was always so loud and happy when she thought nobody was around. I was spying, hiding behind a couch that was not against a wall. She was not unhappy when I spied that time, just slack in the face. She was tired and a crumb was bothering her on her top lip. Her eyes were shut, her arms lay on the arms of the chair like great loaves of dough wrapped in flowered gauze. After an excruciating effort to slowly locate the crumb and move it to the desired location, she succeeded, and spit it with a surprisingly nimble focus, a dart-thin sound that grew round at the end, and it was lost in the dim room. I was astonished at something so crude, and so practiced, because her whole life was doilies and powder. But she was not finished. She sucked into her mouth a small line of spittle, the byproduct of the crumb’s ejection, heaved a sigh, and began snoring like Leo Lesko, the old guy who smelt like a campfire and slept on the bench in front of the Co-op.

I stared at her in wonder and in admiration, and as I did the foul odor of a human fart settled around me in my hiding place. It enveloped me and was alive. I thought of it as some monster and, holding my breath, ran outside to breathe, in the heat of the afternoon when no one was in the sun. Jane was there, with her brother—I saw them soon after they laughed, after my eyes could see again. They were sitting in the shade on the old blue bench seat from a car long gone.

“We need to buy the Monster Manual,” I said. “I just encountered a ferocious beast.”

That was the first summer Jane and Henry stayed with us. Summers they usually stayed with their parents but those parents had been killed in the winter on icy roads. We took Aunt Sadie to the airport the next day and everybody cried but I didn’t know why. When we got home our ducklings were laying all over the yard.

“Oh kids,” Mom said. “We forgot the ducks when we left.”

Jane jumped out and picked one up. She carried it to my mother and cried.

“A weasel,” my Mom said, and knelt down to gather Jane into her arms.

“It’s Kenny’s job. We don’t even live here,” Jane said. Henry gathered the rest of the ducks in his arms but kept dropping them. He wanted to hold all six and couldn’t.

My mother’s face was hidden but I heard her saying “I know, I know,” as she held Jane with Henry’s wide eyes in the background.

“I didn’t know you loved Aunt Sadie,” I said later that night. We were in our pajamas and having a cookie in the kitchen. I was looking at Jane but Henry started to sob.

“Kenny, you dumb shit!” Jane said as she stood and went to Henry.

But I knew it wasn’t my fault. We were all responsible for everything, and that included the ducklings. They didn’t act like rich kids but I knew they were. They went to boarding school all year and I rode the bus half an hour into town. It was cold in the winter and I lived alone with Mom and Jack. They came home for Christmas most times after Sadie died, and every summer.

It was so obvious, now, suddenly: the bears were truckfuls of ruined sod—yellow grass and black dirt made blacker by the impossible green of the ditches. It was obvious too, that Henry missed his dead parents, not Aunt Sadie, and that this first summer together wasn’t their choice. I know I was a child too, but I know now I was pretty thick. I stood that night outside the camper, wanting to say sorry but not sure why. I heard the wet sounds of sobbing and someone’s nose running. The sound Jane and her brother were making was just practice, trying to siphon water through a stolen rubber hose too small for anything. When I opened the door to the camper, Henry looked up, red faced, with water on his chin.

“We’ll have to steal a car, and gas, if we ever want to get back home,” he said, and Jane dropped the gas can she’d been steadying with her legs and she let out a strangled cry at their hopelessness.

“It’s not gas, we’re practicing with water,” Jane said quietly, and I stared at them both, unable to say what I thought I should say.

“Jane . . .” I began.

“We’ll take you with us, you little shit. Don’t worry.”

“You little shit,” Henry said too, and the rest of the memory is lost, but I expect hard laughter, and talking about hotwiring cars and camping and all the rest of the summer.

And now she’s dead too, and if she’d had any secrets they’re hidden to me. There’s a trick to it. Some days everything in this world seems to point to one cause, and that’s false.



Sean JohnstonSean Johnston lives in Kelowna, British Columbia, and teaches at Okanagan College. His latest books are the novel Listen All You Bullets and the short fiction collection We Don’t Listen to Them. “Fairy Tale” is from his short story manuscript Multiplicanda Ah Um.

Header photo by Erik Mandre, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Sean Johnston by Jessica Zais.

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