August 2, 2018

THE ARTIFACTIUM by Rebecca Buchanan

Eventually, it will come out-
the thing his heart is calling for
that only the Artifactium can provide...
The Artifactium is always open for business. I knew that when I signed on as caretaker. That’s why there’s a bottomless bag of food, an endless wardrobe, and even iron shoes (really, they’re cotton-lined so they’re pretty comfortable). No TV, though, or computer, or even phone.

I’m okay with that.

My predecessor retired to Las Vegas a few years ago and joined a freak show. (There wasn’t any place else she could really blend in.) She writes once a week complaining about how bored she is.

I take pity on her and write back, telling her about some of the patrons who have come in.

Like the kid on Tuesday. Gawky teenage boy, glasses, braces. Walks with his head back, looks me straight in the eye. The kind the bullies leave alone, even though they could have beaten him to a pulp. The kind who loves fairy tales and isn’t ashamed to admit it.

And the Artifactium knows that and manifests in the back alley that he uses as a shortcut to get home.

He comes in, squinting, head swinging around in confusion.
“Hey there.” I wave from Sleeping Beauty’s bed where I’m sprawled out with some candied oranges and a copy of Andersen’s Nye eventyr.
“Uh. Afternoon.” He waves back.
“So what are you looking for? Seven league boots to win a track meet? A spinning wheel to make some clothes for prom? Endless coin bag for, well, money?”
“ … No.”
He’s still looking around, eyes wide behind his glasses.
I wait. Eventually, it will come out. The thing. The thing he needs, the thing his heart is calling for and that only the Artifactium can provide.
“My mom,” he says. “She’s … sick. Bad sick.”
I nod and climb off the bed.
The water of life sits in a cauldron on a shelf near the three snake leaves and the apples of youth. I fill a small glass vial with the water and hand it over to the kid. He looks at it uncertainly for a moment, and then smiles. His braces glint and a dimple forms in his right cheek.
Yep. This kid will be a heartbreaker when he outgrows his duckling phase.
He whispers an awed “thank you” and dashes out the door. I go back to my candied oranges and Andersen.

On Thursday, the Artifactium materializes on the Jersey boardwalk. A blonde walks in, fancy eyeshadow, jangly bracelets. Her lips are tight, her eyes narrowed. She stops in front of Old King Cole’s throne, where I’m curled up with a ragged copy of Lhéritier’s Oeuvres meslées.
She stares at me.
I stare back.
“I hate my sister,” she finally says, words clipped. “She’s ruining my life. I want her dead.”
I carefully set aside the book and walk over to a shelf. The shiny red apples sit in a bowl next to a pile of hair pins and a plate of golden rings. I pull one out and hand it to her.
She tosses it into the air, catches it, and saunters back out the door.
That’s the way it is with the Artifactium. Good, evil, in between. Doesn’t matter. All that is required is a heart’s true desire and absolute belief in the truth of fairy tales. The Artifactium doesn’t judge.
I don’t judge, either.
Well, not much. I’m still human enough to judge a little.
On Sunday, the Artifactium appears on the banks of the Seine and the Virtuous Knight walks in, her sword strapped to her back.
That’s capital V, capital K.
I don’t know her name. I’ve never asked.
I look up from my copy of Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti.
“Dragon?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “Basilisk.”
I grimace in sympathy. I’m still human enough to feel sympathy. “Magic mirror, it is.”
I walk over to the wall and pull down a medium-sized hand mirror. The surface is speckled and the frame is a beautiful silver carved in the shape of a princess and her knight.
“This should work for you. Should keep the basilisk distracted long enough to get the drop on it.”
I hand it to her and she touches my fingers.
“Thank you,” she says, green eyes holding my gaze, and then she’s gone out the door, off to slay the evil monster and make the world just a bit safer for all the innocents out there who don’t believe in monsters anymore.
The Virtuous Knight returns that evening, the mirror clasped in her shaking fingers. Her clothes are burned by acid, and bloody slashes criss-cross her arms and face. I strip her down, stick her in a cauldron, and wash her with the water of life. The water is red by the time I’m done, but her skin is smooth and soft again; except her hands, still calloused from sword use.
She sits in Cole’s throne, wrapped up in bear skins, and sharpens her sword with the whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd. I read selections aloud from Basile’s Il cunto de li cunti while she works.
In the morning, she steps through the door just before the Artifactium disappears. The Cairo Opera House fills the window.
A month passes, then two.
Paris, again. The Virtuous Knight arrives, sword strapped to her back.
I look up from my copy of d’Aulnoy’s Les Contes de fées. “Basilisk again?”
Her green eyes are fir-dark with worry. “No. A witch.”
“Hhmm. Iron stove? Red hot shoes? Jorinde’s flower?”
Some of the worry leaves her eyes and the corners of her mouth curl up in a small smile. “The flower. Perhaps I can just drive the evil magic from her. If not .…” She shrugs and the hilt of her sword gleams in the light.
I lift a purple pot down from a shelf where a dozen other pots sit, filled with flowers and vines and spindly, pricking plants. I pick one, the yellow petals soft, and tuck it behind her ear.
“Thank you,” she says, holding my gaze. And then she slips out the door.
An hour later, I look up from d’Aulnoy’s text as a woman in white furs and high-heeled black boots enters the Artifactium. She’s wearing gloves of sleek black leather laced at the wrist, and a heavy diamond sits in the hollow of her throat.
She smiles widely at me, baring her teeth. “Good afternoon. I come in search of an item.”
“Of course.” I set the book aside and stand. “Anything in particular?”
“Something to kill a knight.”
I stare at her.
She keeps talking.
“Something … sharp. Pointy.” She claps her hands in delight. “Yes! Thorns! … Well?”
“Thorns,” I repeat stupidly.
“Why not? They did a decent enough job of killing all those noble dolts who tried to kiss Beauty awake.” She snaps her fingers at me. “Get on with it, then.”  
My feet move. I don’t want them to, but they move anyway. That’s why I’m here. I’m the caretaker. I don’t judge. I walk over to the shelf covered in pots and lift down a white splotchy one filled with red-tipped thorns. I break off the small end, cutting my fingers. The thorns twist, seeking blood. They pull on my flesh as I hand the branch to the witch.
It arches and shivers between her fingers. She holds it up to her face, whispers something, and the branch stills.
She smiles sharply at me again. “This will do nicely.”
The door swings shut behind her with a loud clack.
My feet move again. I stumble to the window, pressing a hand to the glass, smearing blood. I catch a glimpse of her fur coat through the crowds and then the Artifactium dematerializes. The port of Shanghai appears. An old man comes in looking for a multiplying pot of rice.
A week passes.
I huddle in Cole’s throne and try to read Warner and Zipes and Perrault and Valente. I set them all aside, my mind anxious and twisty. I finally pull out Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and take solace in its grim pages.
The Seine appears through the window.
The door opens and a virtuous knight steps inside.
Male, buzzcut dark hair, sword strapped to his back. His eyes are hard.
“I need something that can kill a witch.”
Something icy and hollow settles in my chest. I feel that cold in my smile.
“I have exactly what you need.”
Apparently, I’m still human enough for revenge.
Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. She has been previously published, or has work forthcoming, in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Enchanted Conversation, Faerie Magazine, Gingerbread House, Polu Texni, and other venues.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff


AMOffenwanger said...

Wow. Just wow. Spellbound from beginning to end. I hope the virtuous knight becomes worth of capitals soon.

Guy S. Ricketts said...

Fantastic story! The best way to describe it might be Doctor Who meets Needful Things, framed and blended with unique supernatural spices and herbs. I love this Artifactium - that it provides whatever a visitor needs, be it good or evil, no judgments - and it's equally mysterious keeper, getting to know this person through inner thoughts and intriguing reading material only. Oh, and the apparently anamolous concern for a certain virtuous patron, causing a dramatic struggle and dilemma usually unfamiliar to our narrator. Loved this story, and I am torn between learning more about this Artifactium and its keeper, or just remaining in wonder and just enjoying the mystery behind it all!

Lynden Wade said...

Beautifully told. Thank you.

Unknown said...

My first reaction is also "wow!" Very creative. I love the inclusion of well known magical objects from fairy tales and how the Artifactium appears with desire.

Lissa Sloan said...

I love this imaginative story and want very much to go to the Artifactium!

Unknown said...

What an amazing read! I found myself wishing that the Virtuous Knight would win and that made the ending all the more satisfying. Thanks for the story!

Laura Gregory said...

Beautiful story! Was so caught up trying to catch the fairytale references, I was quite caught out by the emotional impact. Love the repetition of being human enough... great read.