A couple of days ago, I mentioned I had three flash fiction pieces thanks to taking part in the NYCMidnight Flash Fiction contest, and shared the first of the three. Today, the second story gets its turn. Now, for this round, I felt way, way more confident. I was given the genre of “fairy tale,” and the objects of an abandoned railway car and a ticket stub. I love doing queer retellings of stories, so I took a look through a list of fairy tales and found Pinocchio waiting for me. I placed first in my group with this story.
As is so often the case, fairy tales get told the way the teller wants them told, not necessarily how they were. Candlewick, who knew a certain real boy, tells his tale of the village carver, a puppet who danced, a lady in blue, a train and a ticket to a magical land, and how a cricket’s voice changed everything for everyone.
Pine Puppet and Candlewick
They say our story means be good and don’t lie, but it’s really be like us or be quiet.
I’ve no idea why I’m made a donkey. I promise we had no coins to plant.
But maybe I should start at the start, like they do.
Once upon a time there was a carver who already had a real boy, but that boy struggled at most things. The carver loved him, so he carved a solution: braces and crutches, bound with strings and straps.
Folk called him Pine Puppet because of those straps and ropes and the scent which followed him. They weren’t cruel exactly, but rarely kind. Pine got left behind, like me. Me they mocked for being the mean chandler’s boy—burned little Candlewick—but him?
Pine was their puppet, dancing for them so they’d be nice a while.
Nights I’m bravest I visit the railway. Sometimes it’s there: our railroad car. The paint peeled, lanterns unlit, and rabbits build nests for their kits in the torn seats.
I listen to the crickets.
Pine wasn’t disobedient or mischievous. Him kicking his father in the story was an accident of tightened straps, not malice. Sure, his nose was pointed, but Pine didn’t lie. He kept secrets though, like how he felt about boys who could run, jump, and play more than he ever would.
He wasn’t jealous. Not of Fox or Cat or even Magpie, with his unfortunate name.
No, Pine adored them boys.
Which of course was the problem.
I met Pine when I was done working and my father had sent me home with a kick to my back and a snarl for my dinner. I had wax on my sleeves, burns on my skin, and a rare afternoon to myself. I was young enough to know what I wanted, but not old enough to believe I deserved it to happen.
That’s when I saw Pine, smiling and planning his party.
And he invited me.
The fairy—it makes me laugh, even now—was no blue-haired pixie. She was a weaver riding the rails, bringing stories, shawls and dresses in equal measure. She wore blue, which I suppose is how it got confused. She didn’t have magic.
When other boys played outside the market, Pine watched. She understood his gaze, telling him about the train and a party in a village where different might not only be good, it could be forever. She’d heard it so from the crickets, who repeated all things people said from everywhere, if you knew how to listen.
People like her, Pine, and me? Talked about more than to?
We know how to listen.
I had wax on my sleeves, burns on my skin, and aches for something I couldn’t have. And then, suddenly, wonderfully, Pine Puppet. Coming from the rails. He moved quickly despite his straps, strings, and wood.
“Would you come to a party?”
I fell in love with him on the spot.
We walked hours while Pine invited the other boys.
They refused. Some laughed and asked him to dance first. He danced. They turned him down.
“I’ll miss dancing for them,” he said.
It broke my heart, so newly given to him.
“You’ll come with me?” At least a dozen times he asked as I walked him back to his father, who was so poor he and Pine were rail thin.
“I’ll get tickets tonight,” he said.
He traded a school book for two tickets marked “Toylund Return Fare.”
I worried. Weasels preyed on simpletons near railways, offering rides to places that didn’t exist for good coins before scarpering.
“It will just be us,” he said.
I kept my ticket in my pocket, by my heart.
“Tonight,” he said.
My father was furious I was once again late. It took long hours to finish my final chores. I smelled pine everywhere, despite the wax on my sleeves. When I heard my father snore, I left a note and fled.
The train waited. It was an impossibility: no engine, only a string of railroad cars one after another, each painted brightly. It had overstuffed seats, and lanterns danced like fireflies. More people were on board than I expected, none familiar.
But so many like us.
Pine was waiting.
We climbed on board, sitting together, afraid and excited like everyone else. When he reached for my hand, I tried to hide my burns. He unrolled my fingers.
“Candles bring light and warmth,” he said. “There’s few things as good.”
The train left.
The stories saying Pine was a puppet who wanted to be real and didn’t know how to be good? Not true. We were always real. And Pine was the best person I ever knew from the start. Maybe the storytellers are jealous. Together we were happy. We had a place with each other, every night held laughter, each morning a smile, and days—even ones we worked hardest—worthwhile.
Yes, we worked. Toylund was a village, and even elsewheres and elsewhens have crops to plant, raise, and reap, and candles to dip.
But in Toylund someone kissed my fingers each night.
After many months of singing, laughter, kisses, and love, a cricket chirped near my pillow. It talked of a chandler. He was ill, couldn’t make enough candles to sell, and wished he hadn’t been brutal to his son, who’d fled.
Crickets aren’t cruel. They mindlessly repeat what they’ve heard. We couldn’t unhear it.
Beside me, Pine reached into his pocket and pulled out his ticket, cut neatly in half.
“Use mine,” he said.
Sometimes I board our railroad car and close my eyes.
I hear laughter and feel kisses where wax burned the scars into my hands.
Someday, when father is gone and no one needs me? I’ll come here. I’ll bring my ticket stub. That’s why Pine gave me his.
I hope it’s enough to bring me back to Toylund, to what matters most.
My Pine and his Candlewick.