Ian and the Grey Sisters
by Anta Baku
Part 5 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read part 1)
One unexpected benefit of my job making deals to put cell phone equipment in Fairyland is that I’m never without a story to tell at family gatherings anymore. I was in the back yard with my brother-in-law, passing time as he ran the barbecue, telling him about the Evil Queen I’d just been negotiating with and how my friend and I had fooled her with a pig’s heart. I was just extolling the virtues of Angie’s personal butcher when my sister Pol came out to join us.
We get together every couple of weekends here in town, but Pol lives up north and works as a reenactor at a national monument, so I hadn’t seen her all summer, and she hadn’t heard about my new job yet. She must have thought I was talking about pig hearts for some other reason, and looked askance at the grill, but all Dave had on it were really obvious hamburgers and a portabella mushroom for his wife.
Dave married my sister Diana last year, and it’s hard not to hold that against him. They had a big wedding, with all the classic trimmings, including mashing cake in each other’s faces. It was just the sort of thing Diana loves, and just the sort of thing where you have a hard time respecting a dude after seeing him willingly participate in it. Now he’s got her knocked up, and they had a gender reveal party for my incoming nephew. I didn’t go, but I’m pretty sure it was sad, because it was a gender reveal party. I’m still getting used to the idea of having a nephew.
Anyway, Dave immediately wanted me to tell Pol about Harp, because he thought Pol and Harp would really get along. And he’s not wrong about that, but I had to fight him off to start from the beginning. Pol didn’t know about my job, and had just barely heard about Fairyland opening at all, because she makes traditional canoes and doesn’t pay much attention to the rest of the world, at least during the summer. So I had to walk her through the whole idea of a magical country with no cell phone service, and me being responsible for fixing that, before I could move on to why there was a magical sentient harp living on my dining room table. At least for a little while.
“I’m hoping she can get her own place soon,” I said. “She’s looking for jobs.”
“Who would rent an apartment to a harp?” said Dave. I hadn’t thought about that.
“I know some people who would,” said Pol. “How do you think she feels about moving to Grand Marais?”
“Probably not ideal for an operations logistics specialist.”
“A what?” said Pol. “With a title like that she should talk to Diana.”
Pol thinks any job title that didn’t exist in 1820 must be some sort of middle-management makework. Which wasn’t wrong when applied to Diana. I couldn’t even remember Diana’s title, and I’ve spent my entire working life in the corporate universe. But that definitely wasn’t Harp.
“She’s more like you,” I said. “Obsessive about her work and getting every detail right.”
“Sloppy mistakes don’t work out well when you’re making a canoe.”
“Harp was in weather control, before.”
“Before I rescued her.”
So I had to go through the whole story, how I’d pulled Harp out of a cloud castle run by a giant corporation, and left Fairyland without a reliable weather service so that she could hang out on my dining room table and haunt internet chatrooms. By the time I was done the hamburgers weren’t just cooked, they were eaten.
Dave hit me up for a favor over dessert.
“So Ian,” he said, “I loved your stories about Fairyland so much that I decided to go there myself.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“I figured, if there’s work there for building cell towers, there’s probably work there for a security consultant.”
“Could be,” I said. “There’s not a lot of digital business there yet but it’s coming.”
“None at all, that I could find, except for established companies,” said Dave. “But I’ve always wanted to expand into physical security. You can’t get into that business freelance here, it’s all tied up in insurance requirements and companies with big surety bonds.”
“But there’s no insurance in Fairyland yet,” I said.
“Exactly. Gives me an opportunity to show what I can do in a free market.”
“Did you find any clients?”
“Ian, practically everybody’s a client, or at least a potential client. Lots of people with important and/or magical artifacts, and they haven’t even invented safes yet. There’s just one problem, and that’s where you come in.”
“I don’t come in, Dave. I’m sure you can manage whatever it is yourself. You’re the one who’s good at security.”
“You won’t give a hand up to a member of the family? Father of your nephew?”
“I have a job, Dave.”
“It can help your job! Look, just hear me out. There are people all over Fairyland who need security services but don’t have any money. If you lease space for antennas from them, then they can use the money from that to pay me. Everybody wins.”
And when you eventually screw something up they’ll blame me, I thought but didn’t say. You just can’t say something like that at the dinner table with your sisters. Besides, he had a point, it really did make a certain amount of sense, as long as I could find a way to make sure my part stayed mine and Dave’s part was his own responsibility.
“No partnership?” I said.
“You want a partnership? I guess we could work something out.”
“No, I don’t want a partnership. I want my part to keep being my part, and your part to keep being yours, and we can tip each other off on things as we see them but no formal connection. My bosses wouldn’t like it.” The last part was probably true but I was mostly blaming them for what I wanted anyway. What Dave wanted wasn’t exactly funneling company money to my brother-in-law but I didn’t want to get stuck in anything that looked like it might be.
“What about my part?” said Pol.
“You have a part?” I said.
“I want to see what it is you’re doing,” she said. “I keep hearing rumors about Fantasyland, I want to go along.”
“We’d love to have you,” said Dave. I looked at him like he’d lost his mind. I love my sister but you don’t bring tourists along to meet the clients. “The first people I want to talk to are three women who live on an island. It would be good to have someone who knows about boats.”
“Don’t you spend half your summer weekends fishing?” I said.
“They don’t have motorboats in Fairyland,” he said, and he actually blushed a little. “I’d really like to have someone who can paddle.”
“I build canoes, I don’t race them,” said Pol.
“Can you make them go straight?” asked Dave.
I can make canoes go straight, too, but it’s always easier with two people who can, so we ended up on a stretch of misty sea with Pol and me paddling and Dave crouching in the bow like a conquistador. Or a five-year-old. My impression is school was that conquistadors and five-year-olds were pretty similar, and it helped to think of Dave that way. He was almost cute.
Pol was a little bit obsessed with the canoe. Apparently it wasn’t what she had been expecting, and she quizzed me as we were paddling along.
“You say everything you’ve done here has been a traditional European story?”
“Right. Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, that sort of thing. There are other things going around and they’re all the classic fairy tales too.”
“So why is this an Ojibwe canoe?”
“I thought all canoes were pretty much the same.”
“Well, they aren’t. Can’t you smell the balsam pitch?”
“Is that what that is?”
“Birch-bark hull, white cedar ribs, spruce root bindings. I could have made this canoe, except I’m not quite this good. No way this ever saw Europe. It lives on the Great Lakes.”
“We’re closer to the Great Lakes than we are to Europe.”
“So, what, maybe they bought the canoe locally? I think I’d recognize this work.”
Dave looked back at us. “Besides, you’d think they’d buy a pontoon boat or something.”
“I just work here,” I said. “I don’t understand how it works. Why shouldn’t they have European myths and Ojibwe canoes?”
Nobody had an answer for that, and pretty soon we arrived at the island Dave’s clients were supposed to live on. It seemed a pretty desolate place in the mist, not really the sort of productive homestead I would expect for three people living an isolated lifestyle. Whatever they ate, they didn’t seem to be growing it themselves.
But they lived there somehow, not just three women but three sisters, all of them old enough to be my grandmother. Their names were Enyo, Deino, and Pemphredo, and they wanted Dave to protect their eye.
“You only have one eye?” I asked.
“We used to have one tooth,” said Enyo.
“Until last week,” said Pemphredo.
“You don’t have to tell him that,” said Deino.
“We’d share it between us,” said Enyo.
“Just like the eye,” said Pemphredo.
“It’s not that important,” said Deino.
“Then Deino stuck it under a pillow,” said Enyo.
“And a tooth fairy came and took it,” said Pemphredo.
“And you’ll never let me forget it,” said Deino.
“She just left us this,” said Enyo.
“It’s not even real gold,” said Pemphredo.
Deino didn’t say anything, just reluctantly held out a Sacagawea dollar for my inspection.
“But you each have eyes,” I said.
“And teeth,” said Dave.
“It’s a special eye,” said Enyo. “When I use it I can see into the past.”
“I can see into the present,” said Deino.
“And I can see into the future,” said Pemphredo.
“I can see why you’d want to protect that,” I said.
“What did the tooth do?” said Dave. You can tell he’s in security and not in sales. He always wants complete information when he could be closing the deal.
Deino started to answer him but Pemphredo got there first. “It’s not important anymore,” she said.
“That’s right,” said Enyo. “Isn’t it, Deino?” Deino just nodded.
Dave went into a little pitch about how he would provide them with security devices to keep their eye from ever going missing, and I prowled about the island looking for a good place to put an antenna. It was pretty slim pickings. It wasn’t a big craggy island, or a volcano, at least not a recent one. The highest point probably wasn’t more than nine feet above sea level. I didn’t want to disappoint Dave, but this wasn’t going to work.
“It’s no good,” I said when I got back to where they were talking.
“Come on, Ian,” said Dave. “We can make this work.”
“If they have global warming in Fairyland this whole island will be underwater in twenty years,” I said. “No offense, ladies. But I need something tall.”
“I’ve looked into the future,” said Pemphredo, “and someone is going to come to steal our eye.”
“Look, I really need this,” said Dave. If I had a magic eye that could see the future I could have predicted that this would end up with Dave whining. OK, I really shouldn’t have needed magical help for that.
“Can’t help you,” I said.
“Wait,” said Enyo. She was holding the eye, which wasn’t as gross as you might have expected. It looked more like a really big glass marble than a real eye, and it wasn’t dripping with aqueous humor or anything. What can I say, some moments in Fairyland are dramatic, and some of them make you feel like the special effects technicians are letting the side down.
“Ian,” said Enyo, looking at me through the eye. “If you don’t help us I’ll tell them all about what happened with the chicken and the three loaves of bread.”
Oh, great. She could use her magic eye to see the past and was going to dredge up all my most embarrassing moments to blackmail me? That wasn’t going to help. If I sent an installation team out here they’d see the island and cancel the contract on the spot. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t do it.
I was distracted by Pol covering a guffaw behind me. Of course, she’d been there for the thing with the chicken. If the worst thing Enyo could come up with was something Pol had probably told all of her artsy North Shore friends already, that really wasn’t a big threat. I didn’t want to look stupid in front of Dave, but it’s not like I had a lot of choice. I just wondered how many tries she’d take at it, and was reviewing what might turn out to be really embarrassing, when Pol leapt into action to protect me.
One moment I was standing there worrying about being blackmailed, the next moment Enyo was rolling on the ground and Pol was on the other side of her holding the magic eye and reminding me why our high school once had a successful women’s rugby team. The other two sisters went to help Enyo, so Pol just stood there and gloated.
“They’re right, this wasn’t hard to steal at all,” she said.
Deino turned on Dave. “You’re supposed to stop her from doing that,” she said.
“We don’t have a contract yet,” said Dave.
“And we’re not going to,” I added.
“Oh, all right,” said Pemphredo. “Just give us the eye back.”
“I wonder what happens if I look through it,” said Pol.
And she did. Then she quietly gave the eye to Pemphredo and very casually made her way back toward the canoe. I’d seen that casual walk before, she didn’t need to clue me in about it, but I had to drag Dave away as quietly as I could without flat out saying “we need to run now.” I didn’t think the old ladies could probably do very much to us, but if Pol was ready to get out of there I was willing to follow.
By the time we got out onto the lake Dave had not only figured it out, he was thoroughly creeped out by our deliberate casualness, and just about ready to panic. So much so that he picked up a paddle and tried to help. We asked him to give up, but he kept going until he looked up and saw that we were heading right for the island again. Then he gave in and let Pol and me paddle straight.
“What happened with the chicken and the bread?” he asked when we got far enough from the island to slow our paddling down.
“Sounds like a chicken sandwich to me,” said Pol. I love my sister.
“It’s more than that,” he insisted.
“You’re right,” I said. “There was also mayo.”
“And red peppers.”
He badgered us so much about the chicken that we were back at shore before he thought to badger Pol about what she had seen through the eye.
“I saw the great success of your future security consultant career,” she said.
“No you didn’t.”
“Would you rather I said I saw your total failure?”
“I would rather you told me what you really saw.”
“You will find true love on Flag Day?”
“Be serious, please.”
“All right,” said Pol.
“Wait, what about me?” I said. “What minor holiday will I find true love? Stephen Foster Day? Read Across America Day?”
“International Women’s Day,” said Pol.
“Does that mean my true love is an international woman?”
“Could be,” she said. “Maybe you’ll find her lying across the border at Pigeon River.”
“Stop it!” said Dave. “What did you really see?”
“I saw the back of an eye,” she said. “With the optic nerve all smoothed down. It was kind of gross.”
“That can’t have been all you saw,” said Dave. “Or you wouldn’t have left so quickly.”
“Oh, she saw something else,” I said.
“And you know what it was?” said Dave?
“Yeah, tell him, Ian,” said Pol.
“She saw an opportunity to get us out of your stupid deal.”
“Oh, come on,” said Dave. “If you guys don’t help me I’m never going to start a business in Fairyland.”
“They weren’t customers anyway,” I said. “Maybe you should stick to computer security,”
“Besides, stealing that eye was easy,” said Pol. “Anyone could do it.”
After we dropped Dave off I asked her what she had really seen through the eye. As much as we like joking around, we both knew this wasn’t the time.
“War canoes,” she said. “Hundreds of war canoes.”
“Was it the past, the present, or the future?” I asked.
“I have no idea.”
Part 6 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is “Ian and the Goats Gruff“.
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