It’s the holiday season, and this is my present to you: an original queer fairy tale set during World War I that I wrote for a very specific fiction call. It didn’t get accepted, and after visiting a few different publishers, never really found a home. I hope that Lucky Otto will have a place at your hearth this holiday season – although I wouldn’t be surprised to find him off in the woods somewhere before moonrise.
by M. Lopes da Silva
When Lucky Otto came back from the hospital, he would tell anyone that would listen that he’d seen a woman out in the middle of No Man’s Land the day he was shelled, and just before the explosion she’d sneezed, and the smoke and fire got stuck in the sky, and she’d approached Otto and asked to borrow his eyes – for she’d just got word that her great-great-great-grandchild was newly born, and she wanted to go see the babe’s face for herself in Fairyland – but she didn’t have eyes of her own. And Otto saw that the woman was being quite sincere, for she was certainly missing her eyes, and he said that he’d be glad to help, only he was in the middle of fighting a war and thought he’d need them for a while longer. But the woman said that in a moment he’d be dead unless she intervened, and Otto looked at the frozen smoke and fire, and considered, and asked her why she’d picked him, just a kid really, out of all the other soldiers dying around him, and she said: “You did me a favor, once.”
“What favor was that?” Otto asked her.
And she said: “You spared the life of a royal mount of the Fae.”
And Otto thought long and hard, and realized that she meant the rat that he’d stopped another soldier from smashing with a boot the other day. Otto just hadn’t had the stomach for any more violence after another unsuccessful charge across the trenches.
“Well?” She asked, and Otto knew that he didn’t have much longer to decide, and he agreed to give her his eyes, but she corrected him.
“You’re only lending them. I’ll return.”
“What’s your name?” asked Otto, who thought he should have that sort of information.
“I have many names, but today I am Madame Evergreen.”
And then she muttered some words Otto didn’t know and removed a kind of knife that looked like it was made of pure green light, and she skillfully cut his eyes free, thanked him, and then sneezed once more, and the fire and smoke spasmed into an explosion Otto felt all over his body, and he woke up in the dressing station with a bandage wrapped around his head, and a doctor solemnly declaring that he had lost his vision.
“Oh no, I have a pretty good idea where it went,” Otto replied, which earned him a long note in his medical file.
Lucky Otto said that Madame Evergreen had returned from her trip after a few months and found him in the hospital, then unwrapped his bandages and screwed his eyes back in like light bulbs. None of the other men in the company liked Otto’s story much. Ever since he’d come back from the hospital, his eyes had an unnerving quality, a slightly greenish tint to them that hadn’t been there before. They’d glimmer oddly when Otto became excited, which was not infrequent, and Otto’s explanation was cold comfort:
“I think some of her magic rubbed off on them. Sometimes I can see things I didn’t used to see.”
But every soldier was valuable on the western front – even the delusional ones – so everyone tried to make do. A storm had flooded a trench well past the height of everybody’s boots, so Lucky Otto was assigned bailing duty, and given a bucket with a small leak in the bottom for the work – which was far from the worst bucket handed out that day. His commanding officer later found Otto crouched in the sopping mud, staring fixedly at a tangle of tree roots blocking the trench and nodding at nothing. When asked what the hell he thought he was doing, Lucky Otto replied:
“She came back – she’s Lady Anise now – she said that relatives were going to visit soon, and we should be careful because they’re the sort that steal silverware and eat their hosts. Did you know this land used to be part of the Old Forest?”
Lucky Otto was sent to the dressing station, inspected for head wounds, and sent right back to the frontline again.
That night a mustard gas shell went whistling straight into the Eleventh Company’s trench. A yellow-brown cloud of agonizing poison filled the bunker that Lucky Otto crouched inside along with six other company men. The coughs and screams in the dark seemed miserably endless, until, quite abruptly, they ended.
In the dark there was a laugh, languid and feminine; a peacetime kind of laugh.
Lucky Otto stood alongside six men from his company, just outside of a bustling country tavern. The buttery yellow light that flashed whenever someone entered the tavern looked warm and inviting. Lucky Otto frowned and asked:
“Wasn’t there something else – ?”
But abruptly another soldier from the Eleventh Company, Karl, grinned and crowed: “We’re on pass for the night – finally!”
The door to the tavern opened abruptly, and seven ladies emerged, wearing a dazzling array of silks and tweeds – some of their skirts even went up past their ankles! The other men in the Eleventh Company started singing one of their more exuberant schoolyard songs, and Otto, who knew the lyrics, was obliged to joined in. There was the wonderful, impossible smell of cooked meat in the air.
One of the ladies approached the Eleventh Company, and mischievously tweaked the tip of Karl’s bayonet. “Have you knights come to save us from an evening without company?”
She spoke German with an unusual accent. “They must be French!” One of the younger men exclaimed. His first moustache had barely sprouted on his grimy upper lip. Another soldier, Hans, gave the young speaker a shoulder jostle, which immediately dissolved into passionate insults, shoves, and laughter.
“We’d love to show you a good time!” Karl cried, executing a short bow in the general direction of the women, and all the soldiers cheered, except for Lucky Otto.
“Wait!” Lucky Otto shouted. “They’re animals! They’re all animals!”
The ladies recoiled, and the Eleventh Company turned upon Lucky Otto with voluble derision.
“Lucky Otto’s off his nut again!”
“Stay out here if you don’t want to have a good time, then!”
Lucky Otto was shoved so hard that he ended up sitting in the mud. The soldiers in the Eleventh Company approached the ladies, pairing off one-by-one until Lucky Otto was left alone with a smirking figure lifting his fallen helmet from the muck with a tip of her shiny heeled shoe.
Lucky Otto removed the helmet from her foot with a blush and thanked her, but could not meet her eyes until she crouched down beside him.
“So you really see me?” she asked, her voice rich with delight.
“Yes,” he replied.
“What do you see?”
Lucky Otto blinked and looked up. “A deer.”
She grinned. “My name is Roxie. Want to get a drink, soldier? There’s stew.”
And Lucky Otto got to his feet right away. There wasn’t a single human being in the entire army who wasn’t hungry enough to eat a tin can, let alone a decent stew.
* * *
Lucky Otto stared down at his stew, which had lumps of something that prickled with a peculiar violet light, and hesitated, swallowing thickly. Roxie grinned at him.
“Just eat around the flickery bits – you’ll be all right.”
Lucky Otto glanced at the rest of the men from his company, scattered around the bar and shoveling stew into their mouths with zeal. “Shouldn’t I tell them?”
“You can’t, though, can you?” Roxie lit a cigarette at the end of a long wooden holder.
“No,” Lucky Otto said faintly, “I don’t think I can.” He realized that her cigarette holder wasn’t made of wood – it was actually a carved antler.
She shrugged. “The stew isn’t poisoned. But it is full of magic, which can be worse than poison, for some.”
Lucky Otto couldn’t take it anymore; the smell of his dinner was tantalizing regardless of the glowing lumps. He steered his spoon around them, and began eating heartily. It was delicious – warming and satisfying in its own right – and seasoned with his months of starvation on the front.
“What’s going on?” Lucky Otto asked, when his belly felt properly tight and he thought to start making conversation again.
“You’re having dinner, and I’m draining this glass of gin,” Roxie raised the short glass in question and took an illustrative sip.
“No, I mean,” Lucky Otto frowned. “I think…something else was going on. I just can’t remember what.”
“You’ll get a headache if you think about it too closely,” Roxie warned. Lucky Otto realized that he’d felt a headache encroaching. He looked around at the other ladies in the tavern. A wolf wore the body of a blonde woman in a pale blue dress. An owl was laughing at Karl’s side, her talons around his waist. Lucky Otto looked away and slugged down a few inches of his beer.
“What are they going to do to them?” He asked, his voice hardly above a whisper.
Roxie shrugged. “What does it matter?”
Lucky Otto looked up, perfectly forlorn. “It’s just not right, all the dying. I haven’t even known anyone in the company for very long – just a few weeks – but in the beginning, I joined up with my pals. We joined up to be together, it was what everyone was doing; but my friends from school are all dead now, and the war just keeps going on.”
Roxie smiled. “You’re a very kind soul, Otto.”
“How did you know my name?”
“A distant relative of my mine – Queen Quercus is one of her names – told me about you. I was hoping I’d get to meet you.”
Lucky Otto smiled awkwardly, then took another sip of beer. Roxie tilted her chin, examining him so closely that he flushed with heat.
“What’s wrong? I know a lot of gentlemen that would love to spend the evening pouring gin into me. Not keen on country girls?”
Lucky Otto coughed out a laugh, glanced around, then shrugged and said: “I’m not keen on girls at all. I like men.”
Roxie grinned and leaned forward. “Oh, is that all?” And right in front of Lucky Otto’s very own eyes, Roxie’s features shifted beneath their skin with a soft rustle, and soon there sat a gentleman in the beautiful dress.
At this development, Lucky Otto blushed profusely. Roxie was extremely handsome, and Lucky Otto was out of beer to quench his suddenly dry throat.
“I am both stag and doe – and many other things, besides,” Roxie smiled. “You look like you want another beer.”
“Yes,” Lucky Otto said, “I’d like one very much.”
* * *
The hours flew by. Lucky Otto spent the evening talking and listening, enchanted in a way that was both magical and perfectly commonplace all at once. He hardly noticed when the other soldiers from the Eleventh Company started drifting away from the bar. Roxie kept refilling his beer.
Roxie told Lucky Otto a lot of stories about Fairyland, each one more fantastic than the last. Lucky Otto told Roxie about the war, and about his boyhood in the city. He had another helping of stew. When he got to the bottom of the bowl, and saw the glowing purple lumps he’d eaten around waiting there, he went quiet.
“What’s wrong, Otto?” Roxie asked.
“The other men from the company, where are they?” Lucky Otto looked around. The tavern was entirely empty except for them.
Roxie shook their head. “It’s best not to ask, Otto.”
Lucky Otto’s brow rumpled. “I’ve got to be there for them.”
Roxie blinked. “The Old Forest was torn apart. So many creatures there died. Do you understand?”
“No!” Lucky Otto squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sick of understanding!”
Roxie placed a hand on his shoulder. “I promise you, they aren’t hurt – ”
“Then I should be able to stomach this,” Lucky Otto opened his eyes and lifted his spoon, scooping up one of the sparkling lumps of light.
“No! Wait!” Roxie cried, but before they could say anything else, Lucky Otto had swallowed the lump whole.
Lucky Otto woke up in the hospital. The nurse, an older woman who recognized him from his previous stay, told Lucky Otto that he’d earned his nickname yet again: the rest of the men that had been with him in the bunker when the mustard gas shell dropped had been found dead. But there were a few odd details concerning the corpses of the soldiers.
When the digging crew first broke into the bunker, at least a dozen critters came scampering out – wolves and foxes and badgers and owls – a pair of each kind “like a regular Noah’s ark”, the nurse said. The crew figured that the animals must have run into the bunker to take shelter from the mustard gas, and then found a ventilated part – the way Lucky Otto’s unconscious body had – then waited in a kind of tense truce until the shovels broke through the collapsed earth and made their escape.
“Two animals of every kind?” Lucky Otto asked.
“And a deer,” she added. “Just the one deer.”
The bodies of the six dead men were arranged in a circle – “perhaps they’d died in a huddle, the poor things” – and just beneath each of the corpses was a young sprouted acorn poking through the dirt.
Lucky Otto told the story of the mustard gas and the tavern and Roxie to anyone who would listen. Sometimes he would begin telling the story from the middle, apropos of nothing; he cared little about his audience’s desire for structure or understanding.
The war ended, and Lucky Otto was lucky enough to survive it, but he wasn’t the same person he’d been at the beginning of it. After the war, Lucky Otto had a habit of going quiet and staring at any patch of greenery in his vicinity – especially the woods. He was spellbound by the woods, and would get to his feet and start walking towards them if he glimpsed even the hint of a deer’s silhouette.
The last anyone ever saw of Lucky Otto, he was running into a forest, his green eyes flashing as he chased after the biggest stag anyone in that town had ever seen before.