The fairy ring was broken. One edge simply bled away, as if the fairies had grown bored of sprouting mushrooms and moved on to more exotic revelries.
Mari circled around it, fascinated. She held a stick in one small hand, preparing to knock over one of the little whitecaps to see if anything in particular would happen.
"Come away from there," her mother called sharply. "Come help me."
Mari waved the stick halfway, looking to see if her mother was watching. She was. Mari abandoned her mushroom-destroying plan and used the stick to dig at the lucky patch of wild turnips they'd found instead.
Her mind strayed back to the fairy ring and the pretty mushrooms, though. "Are they good to eat?" she wondered out loud.
"The fairies will get angry if you try, and they might eat you," Mama said. "They love nothing more than eating the bones of little children, you know." She leered at Mari, teeth bared and nose wrinkled up.
Mari stuck her tongue out to show how not-scared she was. The motion reminded her of something much more important than fairy mushrooms. "My tooth is almost out," she said proudly.
"Show me." Mama looked closely as Mari demonstrated, her shoulders back and belly stuck out with satisfaction.
"Losing your first milk teeth, rabbit," Mama said. She rubbed at a smudge of dirt on Mari's cheek. "How very big you've grown."
Mama's voice was wistful. Mari threw her arms around her mother. "Don't worry, mama, new teeth will grow in. Bigger ones!"
Mama smiled then, a rare and precious thing. "I know it will," she said. "Now go get a little of that chicory, and let's get home again before it grows dark."
At home, Mari's sister Yulia was waiting for her, feet skipping impatiently all around the cracks between their paving stones. "Come see, come see!" she shouted across the field. "The peddler is here, he's here, he's here! Come on, Mari!"
"Can we go, mama?" Mari clutched at her mother's apron.
"Go on, but come home in time to help with dinner." Her mother shooed her away, and the children shot pell-mell down the road and into the town's square.
The peddler was there, indeed, basking in the attentions of a crowd of would-be customers. The paint on his cart was faded and cracked, the donkey patchy and turning white around the muzzle, but this did nothing to take away from his magnificence.
Padraig, the peddler himself, was a dusky man with a broad nose and a broader smile. He seemed to hold a hundred conversations at once, and he was the master of every one: "Yessir, that's real silk all the way from Aegypt. No ma'am, I only have the one hatchet today, but she's a beaut, well worth the price. Why yes, little lady, that ribbon would look fetching in your hair!"
Mari squeezed her way closer to the cart to get a good look at the peddler's wares for herself. There was a doll, pretty but no match for her own Honeypie. A wooden horse on little wheels, painted red and yellow; little Yulia might like that one. There was a flute, too, shining silver like a fresh-caught fish. She wiggled her loose tooth thoughtfully.
The peddler caught her looking. "Good choice, miss," he told her. "It makes music so sweet it could even soften a fairy's heart!"
Her interest quickened at the mention of fairies. "Why would I want a fairy's heart to be soft?"
He winked at her. "To grant wishes, of course."
Wishes! That sounded like something she should investigate. "How much does it cost?" The donkey looked at her balefully over a mouthful of straw.
Padraig named the price: one silver coin. Mari's shoulders drooped. "I don't have any money."
And with that admission, Padraig's attention moved on: "Ah, sir, you'll take the red dye? A cunning choice, but I need a little more than…"
The flute gleamed bright and pure, just like she imagined its sound to be. Ideas took root in Mari's head and began to grow together into a shape: wishes and music and fairies.
Maybe, she thought, there was a way for her to get the flute after all. Her hand moved slowly up. It crouched on the sill of the cart, near where the flute rested. She waited for Padraig's back to be turned. She grabbed the flute, elbowed her way past Yulia, and fled for the forest as fast as her little legs could carry her.
The sun wasn't down yet, not quite, but the shadows were long and the trees looked more frightening when she was alone. Still, she found her way to her destination without much trouble.
She raised a foot and carefully, slowly, she stepped into the fairy ring. Nothing much seemed to happen. A leaf drifted down from the canopy.
She pressed the flute to her lips and began to play. At first she couldn't make any sound at all, and then only a sort of breathy whistle. Finally she coaxed a single shrill squeal out of the thing. A rabbit darted away, startled by the unearthly sound.
Darkness fell. "Be careful, little egg, or someone will wake you mightn't wish to speak to." The voice was cool, like a mountain brook tumbling over rock.
Mari jumped. When she whirled around, there was nothing behind her but a shifting place that seemed a little darker still than the golden twilight outside of the fairy ring.
"Are you a fairy?" she asked, wary.
"If you've come looking, then you've found one, little egg. But tell me, why have you come to visit, when just a few hours gone by your mother told you fairies would eat your bones?"
"She was just joking," Mari said. Then, less certainly, "Wasn't she?"
"Hmmm. I wonder."
Mari clutched the flute in both hands. Suddenly this didn't seem like such a wonderful idea after all. But it was a bit too late to turn back. "I want a piece of silver," she announced into the darkness. "To pay for my flute."
"Silver." The silence was long. The first cricket of the evening began to pine for his love. "Done."
The pocket of Mari's apron grew heavy. She reached in and found a cold disc of metal where nothing had been before.
"And now… what will you give to me? I wonder."
Mari stumbled backward a few steps, but found herself still somehow in the fairy ring. The circle was closed, now. A shiver of unease raised the hair on her arms. "What do you want?"
A touch of icy air caressed her cheek. "Blood and bone, blood and bone. You should have listened to your mother, little egg."
Mari cried out and threw herself to the ground, trying to throw herself out of the circle. The edge didn't seem to move, but when she opened her eyes, she found herself in the center of the circle all the same. The impact had knocked her loose tooth free. She fished it out of her mouth. "Here you are," she said, defiant. "Blood and bone. Now let me go!"
"This is not enough," the fairy said. Finally Mari found its face hidden in the folds of darkness surrounding her. Its eyes were black as the sky and deep as despair.
"You didn't say how much," Mari said staunchly. "A deal is a deal."
There was a rustling, like a flock of birds all taking flight at once. The world grew lighter around her again. The sun was on the wrong side, and brighter than it should've been. Blinking against the dawn, Mari stumbled toward home again to make her sins right again.
Time passed, and Mari's adventure was forgiven, if not forgotten. Her mother gave her a long, steady look when the next tooth fell out, and the next one, but didn't say anything. Mari kept those teeth in her pocket, little pearls of her own making.
One night, Mari's little sister Yulia came down with a terrible fever. Mari huddled in the corner as her mother lay wet rags on her sister's forehead and murmured soothing platitudes into her ear.
She'd seen such a fever before. They all had. It had taken Mari's father away from them, three summers before. At last Mari's mother pressed a few precious coins into her hands; Mari knew it was all the money they had in the world. "Go find the herb-woman, little bunny," she said. She gave Mari a lantern to light the way. "She'll have a tisane, or a poultice, or — well, she'll know how to help. Be quick!"
Mari ran all the way to the herb-woman's home. It was a stone cottage surrounded by gardens filled with yarrow, sage, and monkshood. She pounded on the door, then darted to the shuttered window next to it. "My sister is sick, we need you!" she called.
The woman threw the shutters open. She was a fearsome thing with thorny gray hair and one eye squeezed nearly shut. She sized up Mari. "Sick? She's caught the fever, then, I reckon. You brought money?"
Mari fished the coins from her pocket and displayed them.
The herb-woman sniffed. "Not enough for this time of night! Come back when you have more." The shutters boomed shut.
"But you have to! She might die!" Mari shouted. She banged on the closed shutters, then on the door. No answer came.
Mari trembled, thinking about her sister in a patch of new-turned earth next to where their father rested. But what could she do? She began to trudge back home. She dropped the coins back into her pocket for safekeeping. They clattered as they fell, metal against metal; metal against bone. Her teeth were still there.
She stopped dead in her tracks, and then veered off into the deep of the forest.
This time Mari knew better than to step inside the ring. She circled it, trying to think of a way to summon the fairy. Last time, she'd had the flute, but now —
She shook the contents of her pocket like a child's rattle. "Are you here?" she said. Her challenge seemed too small, measured against the night. She took the teeth from her pocket: two of them. She took one and tossed it into the center of the fairy ring.
The feel of the darkness around her changed. It grew colder and deeper. She felt something like butterfly wings brush across her calves.
"A gift. How generous you are, little egg." The voice was as she remembered, wind rushing through autumn leaves.
"Did you want more?" Mari crossed her arms to keep her hands from shaking.
"I'll give you another tooth," she said, "and every other one besides, once they come out on their own. For silver. The same as before."
The fairy made a low, hungry sound, wind howling through a hollow tree. "I wonder. A thief like you, and a mischief-maker. How do I know you'll honor your bargain?"
Mari twisted her skirt in her hands. "When my teeth fall out, you can come and take them," she said. "Even if I don't come back here."
"Into your house?" The darkness pressed closer.
"Y-yes, if you have to."
"Leave them under your pillow for me."
Mari swallowed. Her throat was too dry. "I will."
"More. Give me more!" The cold plucked at Mari's pocket where her other tooth still rested.
"And the silver?"
"You'll have the silver." Air hissed in her ear, a hundred snakes slithering over a hundred rocks. Mari's pocket became heavier.
Mari felt for the new coin. It seemed about right, fat and heavy like the last. She held the tooth up in the palm of her hand. A whirlwind whipped up around her, and for a moment she saw that face again, with fangs like knives and burning eyes.
She dropped the tooth into the fairy ring and ran.
The herb-woman wasn't difficult to persuade, once she saw the silver piece. She packed up her bag of remedies and rushed to see to Yulia with as much tutting and concern as if she had come out of kindness. By morning, their cottage reeked of bitter leaves, wood smoke, and worry.
Yulia's fever broke by nooning. Mari spooned broth into her mouth while their mother napped; the herb-woman gave a final half-toothed grin and went on her way. All was well again, or as well as it had been to begin with.
But that night, and for many nights after, Mari couldn't sleep. She saw eyes and fangs in every shadow, waiting to devour her bones.
Another tooth came loose. Mari did her best not to touch it, not to move it, not even to eat with it. Her mother noticed her one-sided chewing, and asked if she was suffering from toothache.
Nothing stopped the tooth's treacherous progress. Finally one afternoon it simply fell out of its place. Mari spent the rest of the day rolling the thing between her fingers, testing its sharp edge. When night fell, she placed the tooth under her pillow and curled up next to Yulia, eyes wide and heart racing. Beside her, Yulia's breath was slow and soft.
At midnight, the darkness grew deeper and colder. Mari heard a fluttering laugh like an owl swooping on a mouse. After a time, the cottage fell silent again, and the night seemed less heavy.
Mari felt under her pillow. The tooth was gone, replaced by another piece of silver. She breathed, for perhaps the first time in hours, and at last fell into a sound and dreamless sleep.
Years passed. Mari grew tall and strong. She came at last to her final milk tooth, and this one she tugged at and twisted until the pain stabbed white and the tang of blood covered her tongue.
Finally, finally, she was at an end to the bargain. She placed the last tooth beneath her pillow. She closed her eyes and waited, tense as a drawn bow, for midnight to come.
The fairy came and took her tooth. But this time the darkness did not pass. She heard a rustle beside her, rain falling on ice. A feathery touch glanced over her, then moved onward, toward where her sister lay.
It stilled when she sat up. "We're done," Mari said sharply. "Now go from here." Yulia stirred beside her, but did not wake.
"I wonder," said the fairy. It stirred the bedclothes again. "You invited me into your home. You offered me bone. But I am still hungry, and this one is younger and sweeter than you."
Mari's chest was tight like iron. "You can't hurt her," she said.
"You promised blood and bone for silver," the fairy said. "I will give you all the silver you could wish for, and in return I will take my fill of bone."
Still asleep, Yulia turned away from the sound and covered her face with her hands.
Mari placed a protective hand on her sister's shoulder. "I don't want your silver anymore!"
"You should have thought of that before, little egg." She saw the fairy's face smiling, a terrible thing like death itself. It crept a little closer to Yulia. Its breath smelled like winter.
"We'll —we'll give you bone," Mari said. "Every sliver of a tooth that comes out of her head until she's grown."
"More," the fairy said.
"Not just Yulia — my children, too, when I have them."
"More," it breathed.
"More — we'll give you the teeth of both our children, and our children's children, from now until the end of time. You give us the silver, and we'll keep feeding you. Forever. But not — not if you ever hurt anyone. Not a single hair on any child's head."
The fairy paused in its slow advance toward Yulia, a single claw poised delicately midair like a tear glistening before it falls. "Forever."
"Forever," she nodded firmly. "But for now, you have to leave."
Yulia stirred again at the sound of her voice. It echoed loud in the room; the fairy was already gone.
Mari stayed awake staring into nothing until morning came, though nothing else disturbed her sleep. When Yulia awoke, Mari gave her the very sunniest smile she could muster. "Have you ever heard of the tooth fairy?"