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The Nixie Revels

Biography: Andrew Kaye is a writer and cartoonist from the suburban wilderness of Northern Virginia. His work has appeared several times in Daily Science Fiction. Feel free to bother him at twitter.com/andrewkaye.
When Mom died, I inherited my childhood home.
I have good memories attached to the place: fairy tales and Saturday morning cartoons, tea parties and lightsaber duels. In those days the house felt like a castle, and I imagined dragons in the cellar and elves in the ceiling and magic hidden in every room. But one room was more magical than the others, a guestroom filled with multicolored cloth and the constant hum of a sewing machine. Inside, Mom would sit like a princess in a storybook, handcrafting tiny eveningwear. I remembered every dress and tuxedo. I remembered Mom's satisfied smile.
She seemed happier with the work than with the finished product. She even gave me dolls wearing dresses of her own design: Octavia in a blue ballroom gown fit for a queen, and Diana in a dress that shimmered with blue-green scales, and Vivian in a white dress too beautiful for any bride. But her hobby was opportunistic. Greedy. When I left for college, her hobby invaded my abandoned bedroom. When I bought a place of my own, her hobby took over the entire house. Dresses and tuxedos occupied shelves, end tables, and display cases in nearly every room.
My childhood home now felt like a museum.
I returned to the house after Mom's funeral.
The sky had been overcast all day, and the first droplets of an autumn shower began pattering against the roof. I lit some kindling in the fireplace, trying to ignore the headless stares of Mom's wireframe mannequins. No sooner had I gotten a fire going than a knock echoed from the back door.
I didn't see anyone when I opened it. Then something--someone--politely cleared their throat.
I looked down. Fought the urge to shriek and slam the door. Standing in the rain was a tiny woman, naked and strangely proportioned. She had skin the color of river mud and hair like ghost-pale flotsam. She held up a webbed hand. "Please do not be frightened, Kimberly. My name is Rosamund. I am an emissary, not an enemy."
I managed to coax my voice from its hiding place. "An emissary from whom?"
"The Queen of the River. She sends her condolences. Your mother was a good friend to the riverfolk."
"You knew my mom?"
"Indeed. She was the Queen's Master of Revels since before you were born." I must have made a face, because Rosamund smiled. "It is only natural to feel shocked. Your mother was not allowed to speak to outsiders about her position in the Queen's court. Not even to you. But now that she is gone, there can be no secrets. In fact, the Queen would like to extend an invitation to you to become her next Master of Revels."
"But I don't even know what that is!"
"Then I will show you," she said, motioning toward the bundle of orange extension cords that snaked into the woods. "We will follow the electric rope."
Rosamund led me to a clearing in the forest. It was free of rocks and debris, and at the edge sat a trio of squat, wooden tables too small for any human. The "electric rope" split into its constituent parts, each cord snaking into the trees and linking up with heavy-looking lights installed among the branches. We were well out of sight of the house and the road, and off in the distance I could see the dull, silver glimmer of the river. The only sounds were of raindrops and the laughter of frogs.
"Your mother organized the revels here," Rosamund said.
"It doesn't look like much."
"Not now, no. Every twelve days your mother would arrange suits and gowns in this clearing, and the riverfolk would materialize into them, and then...." She waved her hand in the air. The rain seemed to slow. Blue-tinged light welled from around Rosamund's body, shuddered, and expanded. The clearing was no longer empty. Dozens of tiny people were dancing together in clothes Mom had made. The tables were full of unusual foods, the lamps blazed brightly, and music drifted down from the treetops.
"What you now stand in is a memory given shape. That is me there in the russet and orange."
"You look happy."
"I was happy," she said with a smile. "I knew I would win. The revels are more than just a party, Kimberly. They are a game. A test of strength. Of willpower. Of control. Riverfolk cannot stay on land indefinitely. Our life force and our magic are fueled by fresh water, which dries out of our skin with every passing minute. At the revels, the riverfolk try to see who can linger longest without drying out completely. Winners gain the Queen's favor, but those too stubborn to lose with dignity very often lose their lives."
"That... that doesn't sound like much of a game."
"I would not expect you to fully understand. The river cannot support too large a population. The revels maintain balance. Your mother gave it a mask of respectability, but they are nevertheless a game of hubris and death." She smiled again. "They are immensely entertaining."
I watched as the riverfolk danced together. It was a dance several centuries old, very stiff and formal, with riverfolk pairing off, splitting apart, and joining up with new partners, round and round. Soon, the first of the dancers evaporated in a cloud of blue-green smoke, leaving behind the clothing. The others avoided the empty tuxedo as if it were a mess needing cleaning. "They depart like that once they feel they can stay no longer," Rosamund explained. "The last to make it back to the river wins."
Dozens became a handful. Then three. Then two. Rosamund's younger self, and another in a green dress. I watched as their skin dried and wrinkled. I watched as their dancing slowed.
"This is horrible," I said. I thought of brightly colored cloth and the sewing machine's hum. I thought of Mom's satisfied smile. "Mom loved making those clothes. She would never let you borrow them if she knew what they were being used for!"
Rosamund gave me a sharp look. "She was Master of Revels for the Queen of the River. Not her majesty's tailor. She knew full well what she was doing."
She pointed to the edge of the clearing. To the edge of the memory. There, partially concealed among the bushes, was Mom. She was younger, as young as I could remember her ever being. She was smiling. But it wasn't the smile she wore when she was making the tiny clothes. It wasn't satisfaction I saw on her face, but anticipation. My stomach turned. "Opportunistic," I whispered. "Greedy."
I didn't think the emissary could hear me. "She made the revels... interesting."
I followed her gesture to the trees. Noticed the lamps. Not all of them were the same. Most gave off a gauzy white light, but some had a ruddy orange glow like that of the setting sun. "Heat lamps...?"
The dancers slowed. Rosamund's younger self staggered, twitched, and vanished, leaving the one in green to totter on alone on stiffened legs.
But she didn't leave. She had waited too long. Her skin shriveled over her bones, and the light left her eyes, and she fell over, lifeless. The emissary waved her hand again, and the scene collapsed around her, leaving us once again in the empty forest. I stared down at the damp ground as if the corpse were still there. "What happened to the bodies...?"
"Your mother took them. I never asked what she did with them. Why? Is it important?"
I ran, leaving Rosamund to gawp after me like a stranded fish.
I ran. Through the forest. Through the door. Up the stairs.
I found what I was looking for in the attic--a box among others labeled with my name. And inside, atop a musty pile of clothes and costumes, were Octavia, Diana, and Vivian in their beautiful handmade dresses. Their skin was wrinkled and brown and clung to their bones. Their eye sockets were hollow. Their lips were shriveled into skeletal grins.
I took the mummies downstairs. Threw them into the fireplace. And cremated my childhood.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 14th, 2014

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