On the 4th hour of their search for an unoccupied campsite, Ariadne could have sworn the horse flies were laughing at her around mouthfuls of her flesh.
At least the hot August sun was starting to go down, and with it the temperature would start to fall. Even if it did mean Ariadne and her girlfriend would be plunged into the kind of darkness foreign to a city dweller like her.
This wouldn’t have happened if she’d been allowed to plan; she’d have booked them a camping spot months in advance, somewhere nice like Algonquin Park. But Marsha, with her usual boundless optimism, had planned a camping trip to a first-come-first-served park — “you’ve been so busy with work, I wanted to do something nice for you.”
Instead of dwelling on the fact that there was no way they’d get a spot on a long weekend, Ariadne tried to focus on the trees around her, the way nots and moss made trees looked like bearded men. She breathed in that clean air, the green smell of nature.
No cars, no garbage.
“Ariadne!” Marsha called.
Ariadne noticed that she could no longer see Marsha on the path. It took her a frantic moment to spot her waving girlfriend 100 meters into the forest.
“Come back on the trail,” Ariadne yelled. “You’ll get lost.”
“Come on! You gotta see this!”
Ariadne had read enough about hikers getting lost after “a quick off-path exploration” to know this was a bad idea. But she’d already been enough of a stick in the mud today. Maybe one day Marsha would grow tired of her.
She had to “be a good sport”, as advice columns suggested.
She looked for markers in the trees that might guide them back. A fallen tree looked like it had two arms reaching out to heaven. Another’s branch looked like a beckoning finger.
She was so busy looking for markers that she did not see the 12 foot wide clearing with a floor of soft pine needles until she was standing in it. It was a perfect campsite, even if the wardens had made it clear that pitching up tents in non-approved sites was illegal.
Marsha took off her backpack. Clearly, she meant to spend the night here. Before Ariadne could oppose, Marsha made her pitch. “We can’t make it back to the car in time for full dark. If the wardens find us, we’ll explain ourselves, I’m sure they’ll understand.” Her smile was apologetic as their eyes met. “I just want us to be able to enjoy this little vacation, you don’t get them very often and it was my fault for not booking us something.”
There was a pause during which a bird sang. Ariadne never heard birds in the city. She felt her tension flit away like the bird’s song.
Marsha clapped gleefully and gave Ariadne a hug.
“Can you pitch the tent? I’ve got an idea for the campfire.”
“This isn’t so bad!” Marsha said with infectious enthusiasm.
The “fire” was their gallon of water lit by a headlamp surrounded by a useless fireguard of rocks. They sat on logs as they ate their cold hot dogs.
“The only thing that’s missing-” Marsha started.
“Other than a real fire?-”
“No! Campfire songs!”
“You can’t have campfire songs without a campfire.”
Ariadne was tired, her throat was dry and scratchy. There were a million reasons not to. But all Marsha needed to do was bat her eyelashes and say “please”. Ariadne had always had a hard time telling cute girls “no”, especially when they looked up at her with such adoration. So she finished her hotdog, and cleared her throat to excited applause.
They’d met at an open mic. Ariadne had noticed Marsha in the crowd. Her black hair tied up into two cute buns. Marsha’d been reading an old book by the window, alone, which was unusual because most folks at the coffee shop were there in groups to support a friend.
When it was Ariadne’s turn, she listened to her gut and ditched her usual top 40 covers to sing a song her mother had taught her, one that had been in her family for generations. It told of the dangers in the woods, about staying near the fire at night, about never eating food offered by strange folk. When Ariadne sang, Marsha finally put down her book and started paying attention. The joy lit up her startling blue eye that looked nearly white.
Marsha came up to her as soon as she stepped off the stage.
“You sing so beautifully. Your voice was meant for a bigger stage than a coffee shop.”
Marsha said it with such earnest excitement that Ariadne forgot her discomfort; she’d never been good with praise.
“Are you scouting or something?” Ariadne asked
“I’m a fan of music. And a fan of yours now. Maybe we could go for a coffee or a drink,” the way she suggested a drink, with a bit of a smirk, made Ariadne wonder if they both played for the same team. Marsha grabbed her hand, writing out her phone number on Ariadne’s wrist, fingers resting on the trilling pulse.
Ariadne didn’t need that number.
They went for drinks and then spent all of Sunday together. They both called in sick and only left Ariadne’s apartment on Wednesday to restock on food and other supplies.
Even after half a year, Marsha still looked at Ariadne with pride and joy. “I can’t believe I found you,” she said first thing, no matter how bad Ads’ morning breath was. Marsha said it even as panic attacks shook the foundation of Ariadne’s life. She said it even as Ariadne came home from work exhausted and simply lied on the couch, unable to talk or socialize until her batteries were refilled.
Ariadne echoed that love through her song, the feeling of safety she felt whenever Marsha was there.
Marsha kissed her when the final notes fled through the trees. They stumbled back into the tent and Marsha teased melodious moans from Ariadne.
When Ariadne opened her eyes and saw the bright light, she thought it was already morning, even if she felt like she had only been asleep a couple hours at most. But then she saw that the light was flickering.
She turned over to wake Marsha but her sleeping bag was empty.
She was alone in the tent.
She realized she could hear voices (the wardens?) and instruments. Had some gang (with lutes?) stumbled on their campsite? Where was Marsha? Was she okay? Ariadne searched for a weapon and found her Swiss army knife and a big metal flashlight that could double as a club.
She unzipped the tent a little and looked out.
In the middle of a clearing was a huge bonfire, with flames as tall as the individuals that danced around it. There were too many to count, and they moved too quickly. It had to be a dream. She had heard somewhere that in dreams you couldn’t read so she turned her head to read the tag inside the tent.
The words were clear.
She was awake.
She turned back to the door and saw Marsha watching her from right outside the tent. She wore an elegant black dress that seemed to be made of pond water reflecting moonlight. Her features seemed sharper in the light of the bonfire.
“Ads! Come out, I want to introduce you to my family.”
Her family; the ones Marsha spoke of with a vague fondness and refused to answer questions about. She’d once said Ariadne would meet them “when it was time”.
Why now? Why here? She wasn’t prepared for this! Ariadne wanted to call Marsha out for not having given her the time to prepare (she was in her pyjamas! And hadn’t showered). But that wouldn’t help her case. She wanted this to work, she had to play along.
There was very little resemblance between Marsha and her family. This looked more like a cross between UN meeting and a royal court than any family reunion she had ever been to. She felt even more underdressed standing next to folks with all the strange, angular beauty of models wearing clothes that looked pulled out of fashion magazines, or fantasy movies.
She found herself on a little makeshift stage, dressed in a form fitting moss dress she could not remember changing into. Everyone was staring at her, smiling in anticipation. A dress, a stage, a crowd. She was expected to perform. The thought filled her with dread. The coffee shop sessions rarely had more than 20 in attendance but she guessed the crowd was closer to a hundred. She started to panic, and Marsha appeared in front of her, frowning. Ariadne had never seen Marsha frown before. She felt the weight of her failure, she wanted to plead for forgiveness.
“My aunts and uncles have come all this way to see you. I won’t have that be for nothing.” Marsha grabbed her face firmly, a little bit threateningly. It was the kind of thing Marsha only did within the confines of roleplay. They hadn’t agreed to this scene, there was no clear way forward, or way out. Ariadne shouldn’t want Marsha to kiss her and bite in equal measure, not in front of everyone. But she did. Marsha leaned in, her breath tickling the hairs on Ariadne’s neck as she whispered. “Sing for me.”
Ariadne’s words peeled back the illusion on the clearing. The people in front of her no longer looked even vaguely human. She saw skin made of bark, a face so long it seemed to have been made of taffy stretched from both ends, one with teeth stained red by the carcass of some mangled beast it held in foot-long fingers. There was a banquet made up of a rotten carcass covered in fungus, cotton candy made from spiderwebs and brightly coloured, poisonous berries.
As her song revealed reality, Ariadne saw that her own understanding of the world had always been incomplete. Maybe this is what her mother had warned her about, the sources of darkness outside of humanity. But it was a beautiful kind of darkness, something extraordinary. She felt that contradictory tug, like she always did on a high rise, the need to flyflyfly knowing it would only last a short while. She was horrified by the creatures she saw, the implication of them, but she was curious: what other myths were true, what else did she not yet know?
Ariadne found Marsha in the crowd and saw a creature made of hunger, gaunt, her sharpness not architectural but a product of the cavernous emptiness within her. Her beauty was still there, but it was terrible.
And Ariadne found herself wanting to be consumed by her.
The song faded and the illusion returned, the sudden change making her dizzy. Marsha caught her.
“You sang so beautifully,” Marsha said.
Ariadne leaned into her… girlfriend? Had the relationship been a ruse, some elaborate ploy to bring her here? What about this trip?
“What do you want from me?”
“I want to give you what you always wanted, what you deserve. An audience, a way to make singing your entire life. I want to give you this gift.”
Was it a gift? She’d heard tales of fae folk from her family, their cruelty, the way they burned through humans. Her mother’s song had been a warning.
But what did she have at home without Marsha? Was she not also dying in the human world, a slow death as her soul was sucked out of her by work? Out there, she’d never be able to make singing a priority. Here she had Marsha, here she had an audience, here she could sing.
Someone walked by with a baked apple on a tray. Ariadne grabbed it, biting into the warm cinnamon-spiced flesh.
The cranberries within burst and stained her chin red.
Shelley Lavigne writes queer dark fiction. They live in Ontario where they roam their neighbourhood in search of haunted houses and cool bugs. You can also find them on Twitter at @shelleysghoul.