The Cafe Under the Hill

Ziggy Schutz

2,500 words
No content warnings

There is a cafe where the sun is warm but never too bright, the pastries are always fresh, and everything knows not to use their real name.

The barista is always beautiful, the cashier always stunning, although their proportions shouldn’t quite work, something always a little too long or a little too sly. Their smiles seem genuine, though, as they serve coffee to ‘Stardust’, ‘Sister’, and ‘Customer 87’. Their eyes are dark and reflect the light, and they never seem to age, even though they have both worked there for years.

They do accept money there– any currency will do. They also love making deals–

a month of coffee for a bit of hair, a custom birthday cake for one hundred smiles. They even give some things away, although everyone who goes there knows better than to accept anything for free.

All sorts of people frequent this cafe, folk Fair and Foul, storybook creatures sharing sugar with nightmares and always, always humans, who can only find this place if shown by a friend or truly lost. They are the barista’s favourites.

Christopher walks into The Cafe Under The Hill at 9:35am on a Thursday morning, our time. He holds the door for a shadow, grins at a couple on their first date, and walks up to the counter. He moves with a grace and a confidence that is almost Fae-like, even as his kind smile betrays his humanity. His tight, short curls are a shock of blonde against his warm brown skin, sitting like a crown against his temples.

It is his first time here.

“What can I get for you?” asks the cashier. She is here every day, greets most guests with their usuals already rung up. Her goat-pupil eyes seem to spin as they take in their newest customer.

“I’d like…A slice of carrot cake, please. And an iced latte.”

“Want any flavouring in that?”

Christopher takes his time answering that one, bushy brows scrunched up like caterpillars as he considers the question. “Is luck an option?” He asks finally, and the cashier nods.

“Of course!”

A laugh explodes from the boy, who is probably a human twenty, twenty one. His excitement is that of a child’s, regardless of his age. So many humans are delighted by anything even slightly out of the ordinary.

“I’ll get that, then! Anything that helps with a happy ending. With soy? Or any non-dairy option. For here?”

She types in what might be his order and what might be gibberish, or something else entirely in a language the Fair folk have neglected to share. “That will be seven. And three pennies, if you have them. Older than ten years.”

He takes a moment to count out exact coin. This cafe does not take card and does not give change.

She takes it, pops a penny into her mouth and the rest of it into a drawer.

“Oh! What’s the name for the order?”

“Christopher,” says Christopher.

The barista, midway through his latte, freezes. Their curls frizz with the tension, all standing on end. They turn, meet eyes with the cashier.

Most people choose names that are obviously not theirs. That are nobody’s at all.

“An interesting name,” the cashier gets out, shaking off her surprise.

“Thanks!” says Christopher. “It’s mine.”

The other patrons have started to shift, uncomfortable. It’s been so long since this happened. None of them have ever been around to see it.

“Christopher,” calls out the one making the drinks. A bell tolls, although no one has moved to ring it.

Do not give the baristas at The Cafe Under The Hill your True Name. Everyone knows that.

Everyone, that is, but Christopher.

“Thanks!” he says again, and takes his order to a table. He eats, seemingly oblivious to how everyone around him is pretending not to stare.

Once he’s finished, he busses his own plate and glass, and heads for the door with a wave.

“Christopher,” says the cashier, and even though it is no one else’s name, every human and every creature flinches.

All but Christopher.

“Have a good one,” he says, and with a twinkle of his fingers he is out the door.

He has left. He shouldn’t be able do, but he did so anyway.

“We’re closed,” says the barista. No one moves.

The cashier raises her voice. The lights flicker. “We are closed for the day!”

Everyone scurries out, the spell-that-was-no-spell broken. With a wave of the barista’s hand, the door locks.

The two Fae, who helped place the floorboards for this shop so long ago, who are indistinguishable from the roots of this place, stare at each other for a moment immeasurable.

“But it was his name,” says one to the other. They know each other’s True Names, a marriage of trust and power as well as love. But even they do not speak them here, the traps they have set not clever enough to spare its creators if they slip up. They said them once, out loud to each other, far away from here, and then had to make do with compliments and endearments. That is how it is, for most Fae. Calling a lover by their name is as foolish as it is dangerous. Instead, they try to pack as much affection as they can into words that don’t really belong to them at all.

“Darling,” says the cashier to the barista.

It is not even the names that they crave. It is the intimacy, the trust.

“Sweetheart,” replies Darling. “What happened?”

It is the promise of forever.

“I don’t understand,” says Sweetheart. “It was his True Name.”

Darling reaches out, sending their power down past the floorboards, into the ground where their traps still glow, even after all this time. They are fine, as hungry and as patient as ever. It is not a problem with the traps.

Sweetheart reaches up, makes sure every roof tile is still overlapping just so, checking for leaks and for secrets. Nothing is hiding, everything is hidden.

There is nothing else they can do, with the information they have. The next day, the store is reopened. Only those who were there the day before would know something has happened, and they don’t dare speak of it. For all that this cafe is a comfort and a port in a storm to some of them they know that it is a place to visit and move on from, and none of them want to draw the wrong kind of attention, lest the doors and windows cloud over, become a cage.

Christopher doesn’t come back the next day, or the day after. But a week or a month later, he walks in with a friend. She has big eyes and clever hands and a haircut that says pixie but a height that says dryad, and she is none of these things at all, only human.

“This is Abigail,” he says, and that is true.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Abigail says. “I’ve heard a lot about this place, I’m excited to finally be able to check it out.” This is also true.

No trap springs. Abigail tips well, gets whipped cream on her nose when she sips at her hot chocolate, and laughs when Christopher points it out. They leave together, uncontested.

Sweetheart pulls at her hair until the colour strips right out of it, leaving bits of blonde all over the floor. Darling sweeps it up with the cafe’s worn broom, humming something comforting for only Sweetheart to hear.

Fae are not cruel, because cruel is a human word. It’s not that they long to see Christopher and Abigail suffer. It’s that there are rules, rules that even they have to follow, and these two have come into their space and broken them, and they do not know how or why.

To understand, you have to look at the rules themselves, and ask yourself one very important question.

What makes a name True?

For most, it is in the gifting, the parent or maker looking at a being and giving them something without asking for anything in return. There is power in that, when it is done honestly. And most do not question this, even as they earn nicknames and accolades and move further and further away from that moment of naming.

But for some, they look at that name and tear at it, pulling it apart like they are looking for the seams. For some, the name itself betrays something about a nature they do not wish to have. Something given freely, but not without cost, the name a summary and a symbol of everything in their life that was misunderstood at their beginning.

Christopher was given a name that meant princess, and found himself longing to be a prince instead. So he reached deep into himself and delved for a name that felt right, a name that fit, like a shirt finally sitting on shoulders that had always felt too thin, or a chest that had always taken up a little too much space.

Names have power, and so do words. To call something a deadname is to kill a past that was never really yours. It wasn’t something anyone did on purpose, but Christopher has always been of the curious sort, and when he first stumbled into the outer circles of the Fair Folk’s business, he had wondered what that would mean for him, freshly named as if freshly born, bearing a name that is less a gift and more a reward for surviving, for the bruises on his knuckles and on his ribs. He is curious and he is brave, brave to the point of foolishness, like any proper prince from once upon a time.

So, he takes a chance, and introduces himself as Christopher.

Things freely given leave paths connecting us all. Whether out of kindness or out of tricks, they leave openings, openings that can be exploited. To know someone’s True Name is to know someone’s true beginnings, after all. As if you were there at the moment of their naming, and so there to dictate their future too. But if that name has died, if that story has changed genres at the request of its hero…Well. How does knowing someone’s new and truest name give you power over them, when it took such strength and power to claim it? When the whole point of it is to be Known?

Christopher had gone into the woods and dug a hole and cast an old name into it, returned it back to the earth even as he forged himself a new path. Abigail had climbed the tallest of mountains and tossed her old name to the winds, let it be torn apart by the winds around her even as she donned her new mantle.

The renaming is not new. No, humans have been doing that as long as they’ve existed, no matter what the history books say. The Fae had always delighted in it, come to consider those humans who decided their own gender or decided to do away with the concept of it entirely to be closer to Fair than the rest. No, the renaming is not new. What is new is the deliberate way Christopher wears his journey, Abigail her triumph. What’s new is the openness.

Humans have been finding new ways to break the old rules since the first one stumbled into a ring, slipped their way through the dirt and found themselves under the hill. That, more than anything else, is what makes them human. The curiosity, the drive to change.

Darling and Sweetheart have never seen it laid so bare before them, this phenomena of humanness. The anger comes from an itch, an itch to understand but not knowing how to ask.

Perhaps they would have learned on their own, in time. But that is not what happens. What happens is that Christopher and Abigail walk in a few days later, a new friend with a new name beside them.

“Hello,” says Christopher, who orders for all three. “Instead of paying today, I thought we could trade.”

Darling leans over the counter, close enough that Christopher can see the years in their pupils, like the rings of a tree. “What would you like to offer as trade?”

“I can tell you how we did it,” says Christopher, because his kindness is a human’s kindness, and his curiosity is the kind that breaks things but also takes the time to learn how to put things back together again.

They sit down around cups of coffee with luck mixed in, and Christopher and Abigail and Javier take turns talking about burials and Sweetheart and Darling hold hands as they listen, and when the humans leave and the shop is empty Darling turns to Sweetheart with a light in their eyes that brings to mind the revel they met at, how those bright eyes shone across a crowd and Sweetheart knew she would spend her whole existence following those particular stars, if Darling let her.

The shop closes for a day. That is all they need.

There is a cafe, where the sun is always warm but never too bright, where the ice cubes don't melt and the tea is never bitter. There is a hole underneath its floorboards, where certain things were buried. The owners wear nametags and love to call each other endearments, names like darling and sweetheart, but more than anything they love to call each other by their names, Arbutus and Orion, always said like it’s the first time they’ve ever gotten to address each other out loud, and it's said if you go there you will fall in love just by being near them, because some emotions are just too big to keep inside your own skin.

Christopher and Abigail still visit often, and they are never asked to pay although they often do anyway, with stories more often than any coin. Arbutus always greets him by name, when he walks through the door, and Orion thanks him by it, too, when they hand him his order.

He says their names like they’re old friends, and Orion thinks they understand, why the Fair Folk have always been so fascinated by humans, as if stealing them away like that will help to figure them out.

“To think,” Arbutus says with a smile. “All they had to do was ask.”

Humans and Fae share their cleverness alike. The only difference is that Fae hint at it while humans delight in showing it. Arbutus cannot begrudge them this. After all, so many of them do so with a smile.

Orion nods, and kisses their lover, and says her name like a promise of forever (which it is).

If you find The Cafe Under the Hill, let yourself walk in and approach the counter. The new cashier will greet you with a wave, will recommend anything as long as it’s got carrot or luck in it, and he won’t eat the pennies, but if you want you can tip him with a story. As long as it has a happy ending. He’s rather fond of those.

Ziggy Schutz is a queer writer living on the West Coast of Canada. Five years ago, she hit her head very hard, and she has been relearning how to tell stories ever since. Most of her stories feature superheroes, horror, or magic. Basically all the things her life needs more of. When not writing, she spends most of her free time lurking around haunted houses, trying to befriend their ghosts.

He can be found on Twitter @ziggytschutz or tumblr as ziggyschutz, and would like to remind you to be kind to the monsters under the bed.