A Bucket of Paint - short story

A Bucket of Paint

By the time Mr. Mars released Euphrosyne for the evening, her brain was spinning.  After a long day of real-time translating, she couldn’t tell which language she was thinking in, let alone construct a coherent spoken sentence.  Her wings drooped as she pulled herself along the narrow path under the primroses to door at the base of the old willow.  Her bed-sit was on the third floor, its little window giving a view over the brook, but tonight the only thing she cared to see was her mattress.

She had just locked her door behind her and stroked her lamp to bring up its light when she heard a delicate little cough behind her.  She closed her eyes, sent up a quick prayer for patience, and turned to see her cousin Atë perched cross-legged on the bed. 

“Get off my bed.  I’m tired.  You can tell my why you’re here in the morning,” Euphrosyne said as she dropped her bag by the door and slipped out of her shoes.

“Suit yourself,” Atë replied, and flitted across the room to curl up in the armchair by the window.

“All right, then, what is it?” The exhausted fairy slid into bed and rolled over to face her guest.

“Shhh!  Synie is sleeping!” she replied and waved her arm to extinguish the lamp.

When the morning sunlight worked its way through the garden to shine onto Euphrosyne’s bed, she opened her eyes to see a bright-eyed face with a button nose and a few stray freckles just a few inches from her own.

“Did you know you drool while you’re sleeping?  And that you make the sweetest little noises when you breathe?”

Synie closed her eyes again. “Atë, why are you here?” She sighed.

“You’re not going to like it.”

“Tell me.”

“I may be in a little trouble.”


While Synie propped herself up onto one elbow, her cousin explained that she had been going about her business among the flowers when she heard a scrabbling sort of sound accompanied by a low-pitched rhythmic noise she was obliged to call singing. Peering through the blossoms, she could just see a pointed red cap shoving its way through the basal foliage and leaving a trail of bruised leaves behind it.

“It was a dwarf!” she said, “And in my patch! They don’t belong here, they really don’t.  They smell.”  She wrinkled her nose.  “I devised a nefarious plan!  I would break and bend the stems on either side of the track to make the dwarf’s damage look even worse.  Then I would find some bright red paint and paint their ugly runes all around the base of the Big Stump. ‘Fairies suck nectar,’ ‘Sissies wear wings,” that sort of thing.  Everyone would blame it on the dwarves and send them packing.”

Synie shook her head. “Does it get worse?”

“Wait till you hear!  When I was sure no one was around, I set to work.  I was just finishing with the paint when a bunch of bigwigs came out of the Stump with the very same dwarf and three more of them.  I froze, they looked around at what I’d done, I dropped my paintbrush, and flew away as fast as I could.  But I’m sure they recognized me.” 

Euphrosyne sat up and drew breath, ready to let loose her frustration with her reckless cousin, but instead she exhaled and looked thoughtfully at the little troublemaker.  She looked thoroughly defeated and yes, frightened.  Even Atë seemed to realize that this time, she had gone too far.

“I thought I’d just stay here for a while,” she said in a small voice.

When Synie got to work that morning, Mr. Mars pulled her aside before she could take her place at the negotiating table.  Over his shoulder, she could see the delegation of dwarves, heads together, looking decidedly displeased.

“Did you see the graffiti outside the front door, Ms. Peaseblossom? It’s got our troglodyte friends in a state.  You have your work cut out today.  We need their assistance with the drainage project before the winter rains, or half our people will be homeless.”

Synie got her cup of water and settled herself between the two negotiating teams.  The adjutant to the dwarf Chief jump-started the meeting.

“This is unacceptable!  That Chief Stonehammer should be insulted in this way when he came here in good faith!  We can’t begin to think why we should waste our time and our skills on a flock of featherbrained flower farmers.  We are returning to our homes today.”  And he slammed his fist down on the table

Synie watched the water slosh back and forth in her cup while she gathered her thoughts.  Then she nodded to the speaker and turned to the other side of the table.

“The honorable adjutant would like you to know that Chief Stonehammer is puzzled and even a little vexed to see the unfortunate words scribbled outside the negotiation hall.  He is concerned that his winged friends may not know how to value our efforts to help them control the winter waters.  He is considering a trip home to collect his thoughts.”

“As bad as that, then,” muttered Mars to his associates.  Turning back to the interpreter, he said, “Please convey to our honored guests, and especially to their esteemed Chief, our deep sorrow that this childish stunt should have caused them the slightest discomfort.  We will have the offending words removed immediately.  In fact, the clean-up is already underway. And please assure them that we will be honored to have their expert assistance with the proposed channels and bridges.  We would be sorry to inconvenience the Chief with a tedious trip back to his halls before we have shown him the full extent of our hospitality.”

It was always startling to witness the harsh sounds of the Dwarfish tongue falling from Euphrosyne’s fragile lips.  “What are you playing at, Mr. Mars wants to know!  Are you such delicate souls that a child with a paint bucket can scare you into running for cover?  Yes, your workmanship is excellent, but surely it takes a strong heart to build a strong bridge.  Are you so foolish as to leave this table before the cakes and ale are served?”

Synie raised her cup and drank.  As fluent she was in Dwarfish, her throat still felt the guttural consonants and the strident vowels.  The dwarves were whispering and nodding among themselves, and while it wouldn’t do to try to listen in, her instincts told her they wanted this job.  The question was, what more would they require to move things along.

The adjutant began, “The Chief is happy to hear that our colleagues know the quality of our work, and he assures them that our hearts are as strong as the stones with which we build.  But it is not possible to continue while this vandal is at large.  Bring him before us, and we will see him run for cover with his paint can on his foolish head.  Then we can continue as if this outrage had never occurred.”

Euphrosyne translated this for the others, then thought, well, that’s me done for.  Mr. Mars must know by now who this “vandal” is, and now he’ll know she’s my cousin and is staying in my home.  I’ll just resign right now and slink home in disgrace.  It’s good to get these things over with.

It’s a well-known fact that when things begin to go wrong, they will generally continue in that direction for a while.  Euphrosyne wasn’t given the option of quitting but instead was put in charge of arranging the gala banquet which would mark the end of a successful negotiation. A good deal of detail was left to her, but Mr. Mars was clear that after the desserts and before the entertainment. Atë was to be brought to stand before Chief Stonehammer in full view of the assembled company.  If this wasn’t bad enough, the adjutant had requested that a full pail of paint be set beside the Chief’s chair.

On the celebratory evening, the hall was full of both dwarves and fair folk, all dressed to fit the occasion.  Every hand held a cup or a plate, and every head swiveled to take in the surrounding festivities.  The band of musicians on the balcony could barely be heard above the clink and murmur below.  When pleasantries had been exchanged and all readily available drinks had been downed, people began to take their seats, some at the negotiating table which now stood under the window at the end of the room, hung with fine linen and set with the best crystal, or at the round tables, no less elegantly set, that were scattered around the hall.

The food was the best that could be had, and the wine and ale flowed from bottomless jugs.  Euphrosyne, seated at the high table in case her skills should be required, was amazed by the fine manners the dwarves displayed.  It’s true that they ate with their fingers, assisted by the knives held in their right hands, but she could see that this was a refined method of eating and had its own rules.  She saw that their huge hands and coarse fingers could handle the delicate wine cups as easily as she did and that their linen napkins were put to good use keeping hands and beards clean.   Most surprising, though, was the impression she formed that the dwarves understood a good bit more of her language than she had thought. 

When the platters and plates had been cleared away and the linen brushed and removed, Mr. Mars stood at his place and tapped his crystal cup with his ring.  The guests fell silent while appropriate remarks were made by several dignitaries.  The musicians and dancers were assembling just outside the room, when Mr. Mars stood again to say, “Before we continue this wonderful evening, I am afraid we have an unhappy task before us.  One of our own has embarrassed us, and she must make amends to our guests before us all tonight.

“Atë, come forward now.”

And from the back of the hall, Atë trudged through the assembled diners, her wings folded tight along her back and her eyes cast down.  To Synie, it seemed an age before she stopped in front on Chief Stonehammer and raised her eyes enough to look him in the chin. She prepared herself to translate whatever stern rebuke the Chief might offer, but when he began to speak, it was in her own language, fluent and perfectly accented.

“So, this is the one who insults our dignity and risks the wrath of Chief Stonehammer!” he began.

Atë nodded.

He regarded her silently, then continued. “I have looked into your history, little Atë, and I have learned that this is not your first adventure.  It seems you have quite the reputation for causing trouble among the fair folk, is this not so?”

Atë nodded.

“What, I ask myself, should I do with a prankster and a trickster who uses my own language in such an offensive manner?  Is it common among your people to use the Dwarfish runes?”

Atë shook her head.

“Well, then, should I let this skill go to waste?  Perhaps I can put it to a better use, and at the same time, teach this prankster a valuable lesson.”

Atë finally raised her eyes, clearly puzzled.

“It is my decision that, when we begin our work on these channels and bridges, you, Atë, will work alongside us, keeping our records and carrying our messages back and forth.  And when the job is done….” Here he lifted the bucket of paint beside his chair over his head. Synie could hear everyone in the room inhale in anticipation. Atë braced herself.

“And when the job is done, you will take this paint and with your best hand, you will sign the Chief’s initials on each bridge and each channel,” the Chief said, leaning across the table to present the paint to a much-humbled Atë.

It would be rewarding to think that a chastened Atë performed her penance and changed her ways. That, however, is seldom the case with tricksters.  And Synie had to acknowledge that things would always be more interesting when Atë was involved.

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