Thursday 1st May 1975
The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around. We’d measured it on the mileometer. It looked like something from the depths of hell, black and looming with chimneys of flame, reflected in a dark pool that killed any bird or animal that drank from it. The smell was beyond description. We always wound up the car windows as tight as tight when we had to pass it, and tried to hold our breath, but Grampar said nobody could hold their breath that long, and he was right. There was sulphur in that smell, which was a hell chemical as everyone knew, and other, worse things, hot unnameable metals and rotten eggs.
My sister and I called it Mordor, and we’d never been there on our own before. We were ten years old. Even so, big as we were, as soon as we got off the bus and started looking at it we started holding hands.
It was dusk, and as we approached the factory loomed blacker and more terrible than ever. Six of the chimneys were alight; four belched out noxious smokes.
“Surely it is a device of the Enemy,” I murmured.
Mor didn’t want to play. “Do you really think this will work?”
“The fairies were sure of it,” I said, as reassuringly as possible.
“I know, but sometimes I don’t know how much they understand about the real world.”
“Their world is real,” I protested. “Just in a different way. At a different angle.”
“Yes.” She was still staring at the Phurnacite, which was getting bigger and scarier as we approached. “But I don’t know how much they understand about the angle of the everyday world. And this is definitely in that world. The trees are dead. There isn’t a fairy for miles.”
“That’s why we’re here,” I said.
We came to the wire, three straggly strands, only the top one barbed. A sign on it read “No Unauthorised Admittance. Beware Guard Dogs.” The gate was far around the other side, out of sight.
“Are there dogs?” she asked. Mor was afraid of dogs, and dogs knew it. Perfectly nice dogs who would play with me would rouse their hackles at her. My mother said it was a method people could use to tell us apart. It would have worked, too, but typically of her, it was both terrifyingly evil and just a little crazily impractical.
“No,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“It would ruin everything if we go back now, after having gone to all this trouble and come this far. Besides, it’s a quest, and you can’t give up on a quest because you’re afraid of dogs. I don’t know what the fairies would say. Think of all the things people on quests have to put up with.” I knew this wasn’t working. I squinted forward into the deepening dusk as I spoke. Her grip on my hand had tightened. “Besides, dogs are animals. Even trained guard dogs would try to drink the water, and then they’d die. If there really were dogs, there would be at least a few dog bodies at the side of the pool, and I don’t see any. They’re bluffing.”
We crept below the wire, taking turns holding it up. The still pool was like old unpolished pewter, reflecting the chimney flames as unfaithful wavering streaks. There were lights below them, lights the evening shift worked by.
There was no vegetation here, not even dead trees. Cinders crunched underfoot, and clinker and slag threatened to turn our ankles. There seemed to be nothing alive but us. The star-points of windows on the hill opposite seemed ridiculously out of reach. We had a school friend who lived there, we had been to a party once, and noticed the smell, even inside the house. Her father worked at the plant. I wondered if he was inside now.
At the edge of the pool we stopped. It was completely still, without even the faintest movement of natural water. I dug in my pocket for the magic flower. “Have you got yours?”
“It’s a bit crushed,” she said, fishing it out. I looked at them. Mine was a bit crushed too. Never had what we were doing seemed more childish and stupid than standing in the centre of that desolation by that dead pool holding a pair of crushed pimpernels the fairies had told us would kill the factory.
I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say. “Well, un, dai, tri!” I said, and on “Three” as always we cast the flowers forward into the leaden pool, where they vanished without even a ripple. Nothing whatsoever happened. Then a dog barked far away, and Mor turned and ran and I turned and pelted after her.
“Nothing happened,” she said, when we were back on the road, having covered the distance back in less than a quarter of the time it had taken us as distance out.
“What did you expect?” I asked.
“The Phurnacite to fall and become a hallowed place,” she said, in the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable. “Well, either that or huorns.”
I hadn’t thought of huorns, and I regretted them extremely. “I thought the flowers would dissolve and ripples would spread out and then it would crumble to ruin and the trees and ivy come swarming over it while we watched and the pool would become real water and a bird would come and drink from it and then the fairies would be there and thank us and take it for a palace.”
“But nothing at all happened,” she said, and sighed. “We’ll have to tell them it didn’t work tomorrow. Come on, are we going to walk home or wait for a bus?”
It had worked, though. The next day, the headline in the Aberdare Leader was “Phurnacite Plant Closing: Thousands of Jobs Lost.”
* * *
I’m telling that part first because it’s compact and concise and it makes sense, and a lot of the rest of this isn’t that simple.
Think of this as a memoir. Think of it as one of those memoirs that’s later discredited to everyone’s horror because the writer lied and is revealed to be a different colour, gender, class and creed from the way they’d made everybody think. I have the opposite problem. I have to keep fighting to stop making myself sound more normal. Fiction’s nice. Fiction lets you select and simplify. This isn’t a nice story, and this isn’t an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.
Copyright © 2010 by Jo Walton
“Jo Walton: Among Others” copyright © 2013 by Ursula K. Le Guin