Author's Note: This is a weird idea that came when I was thinking about personifications of concepts like death, which somehow led to wondering, "What if towns have personifications too?" Result: this.

It's a one-shot at the minute, but dozens of plot bunnies have invaded my mind for stories of other personified towns. All Northern Irish towns at the minute, because write what you know and all that, but something tells me a few English towns will pop up sooner or later.

All the towns mentioned in the story are (obviously) real. Their appearances and the relationships between them are entirely my invention and not a reflection of how the people who live in those towns see themselves or each other.

Warning: contains some shape-shifter-related body horror.

Old Friends

Life with most people is little more than a succession of high and low tides. There are times when the stream runs low, and when there is nothing to be seen but the dull sandbanks, or even mud-banks, for months, or even years together; and then all at once the waters swell, and come rushing twice a day like the sea, carrying life and movement with them. – Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks

Humans always need somewhere to live. And they always prefer to build their houses close together. And after enough people have lived in the same place long enough, they decide their cluster of houses needs a name. So they give it a name. What was once a piece of ground with a few houses built on it becomes instead a village. More people come along and add their homes to the village, and it becomes a town. If even more people arrive, it becomes a city.

And sooner or later, it becomes a person.

Personifications of villages, towns and cities are not like mortals. They aren't bound to one appearance, and they can even make themselves invisible. Some have a preferred form. Others don't.

Ballinamallard likes to think that she has a fairly normal appearance, as far as personifications go. True, she's usually a young girl with pigtails. The size of a settlement usually determines the age of its personification. Ballinamallard has too few people to appear older unless she wants to. But at least she's not like Trillick, who is always a bad-tempered six-year-old, or Dromore, who for reasons known only to himself prefers the form of a fox, or Kilskeery, who's been a toddler for two hundred years.

And Ballinamallard's preferred appearance has its benefits. She can sit on the swings in the play-park for hours without anyone asking questions. She watches her people – the village's inhabitants are and always will be her people in her mind, no matter what they think of themselves – as they go about their days. None of them ever suspect that their village herself is keeping an eye on them.

When a child walks in front of a car, when a young woman is approached by a strange man, when a robber sneaks into a house, Ballinamallard is watching them. She can't always help, but she does what she can.

The drawback of Ballinamallard's appearance is that sometimes she likes to see the world outside her village. And people would be surprised to see a small girl travelling by herself. For those occasions she changes her form into a bird's, and flies to wherever she wants to go.

A personification never dies until no one lives in their village any more. Immortality can become tiresome. And so the towns decided long ago to meet once a year.

This year they meet in a café in Irvinestown. Irvinestown herself is there, a woman in a white dress with hair so long it trails on the floor. (Ballinamallard thinks sometimes that Irvinestown reads too many silly novels.) Kesh is there, for once in the form of a young man instead of a bird. Enniskillen is there, also in a male form for once. Lisnaskea is there, sulking because they didn't meet in her town. Lisbellaw is there, in the form of a middle-aged woman with an ostrich-feather hat perched on her head.

Ballinamallard sits between Enniskillen and Lisnaskea. It's not unheard of for brawls to break out when Lisnaskea feels slighted. Lisnaskea feels slighted at the most absurd things, and Enniskillen always manages to make things worse. Best to have someone keep those two from each other's throats.

None of the café's human patrons pay any attention to them. Not even when Lisbellaw stands on Irvinestown's hair, or when Kesh forgets that he currently has a mouth instead of a beak, or when Lisnaskea grows an eye in the side of her head so she can watch Enniskillen's every move.

Personifications can be extremely… odd.

Most of their conversation is of trivial things. Lisbellaw has recently attended a high school graduation, and is full of high hopes for the students' futures.

"I'm sure at least half of them are going to university," she says as proudly as if she spoke of her own children. (In a way, she does.) "And all the others will distinguish themselves somehow, you wait and see."

"We can't expect Enniskillen to take any interest in graduations," Lisnaskea says spitefully, looking at Lisbellaw but glaring at Enniskillen with her extra eye. Ballinamallard shrinks in her seat – literally. "He has too many residents to know or care anything about half of them."

"That's not true!" Enniskillen snaps at once, his human appearance briefly flickering to reveal the ageless inhuman manifestation underneath. A hundred eyes glare at Lisnaskea. "I know the names of every resident ever to be born in my town."

Kesh rolls his eyes at them. "Stop it, you two. You're behaving like Trillick. What's happened in your town, Ballinamallard?"

The most exciting thing to happen in Ballinamallard all year was the Twelfth parade. Ballinamallard tells them all about the bands, the spectators, the decorations and the events of the day.

"Ah yes," Lisnaskea puts in. "Can't expect much to happen in a little country village like hers'. Now, in my town–"

Irvinestown interrupts before a fight breaks out. "Did you hear about my hare-brained shopkeeper? He got drunk one night around Christmas and decided to plant frozen turkeys in his neighbour's garden."

Lisbellaw shakes her head in disbelief. "How can you put up with that imbecile? I'd have run him out of town years ago."

Irvinestown shrugs. "He's amusing, if nothing else."

The towns gossip until the café closes. They carefully avoid certain subjects. Subjects like the real reason for Lisnaskea's behaviour, or the phantom pain they all know Enniskillen constantly lives with. Some ghosts are best left undisturbed.

The humans around see only a group of six utterly unremarkable people leave the café. No one gives them a second glance.

"Same time next year?" Irvinestown says.

They all nod.

"But a different place!" Lisnaskea can't resist adding. "I know a lovely little café–"

"I know several," Enniskillen interrupts.

Once more Ballinamallard finds herself caught between them. An awkward silence falls. The two towns glare at each other.

"Well," Lisbellaw says at last, "I'd best be off."

She disappears without another word, and all they see of her is a flicker of light and shadow flying down the street. Lisnaskea mutters a good-bye, gives Enniskillen another glare, and slips away like dust in the wind. Enniskillen and Irvinestown say their good-byes and wander down the street together, towards the road leading to his town. Kesh and Ballinamallard are the only ones left.

At some point in the afternoon Kesh gave up trying to appear fully human. He's half-human, half-bird now, with feathers instead of hair and wings instead of arms. If the people around them could see him they would flee in terror. Ballinamallard hardly notices how odd he looks. She's hardly normal-looking herself, under her carefully-crafted façade.

The two villages walk alongside each other in silence. In the houses, shops and cars around them, humans go about their lives without a thought for what walks among them. At last they reach a road leading off the right of the main street. Here they stop. One way to reach Ballinamallard's village lies down that road. Kesh's village is straight ahead.

"See you next year," is all Kesh says.

Then he fully reverts to the form of a bird. Ballinamallard watches him fly away. She doesn't feel sad, exactly. Just wistful. Being a personification means always being on the outside looking in. She can befriend other personifications, but she can't phone them or invite them to her house the way mortals do.

She shakes her head. Enough feeling sorry for herself. Time to see how her villagers have managed without her.

When travelling from place to place some towns like to become shadows. Ballinamallard tried that once. Never again. It's far too disorientating to see the world in black and white. Other towns become specks of dust, or a gust of wind. She tried those, too. Completely dissolving and reforming her body like that is not an experience she enjoys. Her preferred method of travel is the same as Kesh's. She becomes a bird.

No humans in her village pay any attention to the little sparrow who flies down to perch on a tree and warble a tune. But the very trees and grass, the bricks and stones of the village respond to her presence. Welcome back, they seem to whisper.

Ballinamallard reverts to her usual appearance. She sits on the tree branch, swinging her legs back and forth, and watches as a group of children play tag around the play-park.