Note: Originally published in Illumination Journal.
The art of narration has been lost among modern orators. Everyone is so focused on details, quotes, figures and unbiased accounts. These are of course admirable pursuits, they relay quality information, but only so far as authors and reporters do not strip the tale of its beauty. Too scarcely do I now read of faeries and magic. They have been cut from the news; suffocated and outcast by the congestion and unimaginative thinking of the cities. Their absence, though, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Likewise, if ever a little boy expects to have an adventure of the faerie story kind, he must have a forest nearby; one with tall, looming trees and deep, dark, unexplored corners. Where magic can work away from horn blares and sewer lines. Matthew O’Conner had just such a forest.
He lived in a quaint, little village. The men worked in town, driving around to the sounds of big band jazz, so that as the sun set their wives could bake pies and sing with the little children. The grandmas rocked in their chairs and the grandpas lectured to anyone who would listen. Everything that is ordinary always happened. Of course, as these kind of stories set in these kind of towns go, no one ever ventured into the most unordinary forest.
On one of those silly schoolboy dares, Matthew kicked his ball up to the deck of his house and asked his Grandfather about the forest. He was nervous in anticipation of a rebuke for his unruly query. To his surprise, rather than leaning forward with a grandfatherly scowl, the old man sat back, silent, except for the gentle creek of his rocking chair.
“I do remember,” he finally began, only to pause once more. His hairy knuckles knocked on the armrest. “I do remember as a boy your age, your great grandmother, my mother, told me not to go there. Was unsafe. Just like you, though, I never did like to listen. One day, brave as I thought I was, I went in. I got lost, scared. Started to tear up, but as I cried a faerie approached. Not one like you read about in those schoolbooks. I mean a real faerie. She looked just like a gentle, aged woman, not unlike your dear old grandmother. Nicer to me, though.” He winked. After this, he leaned back in contemplation and said nothing more.
The fire finally stopped. This began a new ordinary.
Now, I wish I could recount this tale as a happy one, ripe with singing sprites and flying dryads, but a teller of tales must remain true to the facts and so I will.
Matthew wiped the dust from his face; mud mixed with tears. After too long of nothing more– nothing but silence, beats, breath, sorrow– Matthew, with shoes unlaced, ran. Like a stalked gazelle, he ran out of town, hooves carrying him, away from reality, away from the smoking rubble that was once his house, past his deflated ball, and into the forest. The trees paid him no heed. None bowed as he passed. Still, on he galloped, telling himself one more hill and the pain would finally end. With a shriek, Matthew fell grasping his ankle, the root already receding into the shadows. The pines listened as he wept and their sap ran with pity. The darkness drew nearer and, when his eyes finally closed, it leapt on him.
After some time, he awoke, his school uniform stained and muddied by his fall. With sore muscles he lifted his head.
The sun had not yet fully risen, but beams of light over the horizon, messengers for their king, announced his arrival. Their voices illuminated the surroundings so Matthew could faintly see the cove in which he sat. It was bordered by overhanging trees and shrubberies. A willow stood at his head with melancholy leaves and a plush bed of moss lay sprawled underneath. To his surprise, the forest wasn’t scary at all. I can tell you from personal experience that forests can actually be quite comfortable.
When he was again fully awake, Matthew anxiously checked his pocket. The letter from his grandfather, worn and smeared from use, was still there, as constant as the old man used to be in his rocker. But the comfort of this paper did not last long for a figure lay in the shadow across the cove. The outline of a tail oscillated behind it.
One paw stepped forward and then the next. The grass seemed to bow before its immense form. Into the light the figure stepped, his coat a nobler gold than the sun, now risen high. A mane surrounded the teeth, nose, and whiskers; every part terrible to observe except its eyes. They were gentle, blue, deep, the bluest eyes Matthew had ever seen and, to his surprise, blurred with tears.
“Hello, son of man,” it said, “you’re not the only one to grieve over your fire stricken town.”
Before I continue, I must here comment. At the academic level, there has been a shameful lack of research into the nature of the faerie species. I myself have seen one before. It looked nothing like the animal now before Matthew nor the old maid his grandfather saw; rather it was a sprightly little thing, almost imp like. It fluttered around in the air with feathery wings wearing giant wool socks and a floppy winter hat. Speaking only from intuition, it seems that faeries have no natural form; they instead take that which the seeker needs. Matthew’s need was great and, thus, so was this faerie.
The Lion chuckled.
“How rude of me,” he said. He then leapt to the other side of the cove, silent as he landed, and smiled through his now-dried eyes. “My name is Elijah.”
“And hello to you too,” Elijah continued.
Matthew blinked again.
“You ran here in quite a rush. Tell me, what were you running from?” the lion asked.
Matthew said nothing. Elijah’s tail flicked. He grumbled merrily. Of course, as a faerie, Elijah knew the answer to the question, but he wished Matthew to know as well.
“The fire,” Matthew managed to whisper, still quite uncertain about his current predicament.
“Well, yes. And?” Elijah pried.
Matthew squinted, cocked his head to the side, and met the lion’s gaze. Quite a funny image those two were. After another pause, the lion dropped to the ground, the leaves happy to make a bed.
“Lets start with a simpler conversation,” the lion said. “How are you?”
“Scared,” Matthew replied.
“Of the destruction?”
“Yes and no. I dunno.”
“Lets try something. Close your eyes. Imagine your town as you just left it.”
Matthew imagined himself again in his father’s lap with a quarter of his town burned down; his friend’s house still ablaze, the pub a charred frame.
“Now think harder and explain how you feel.”
The boy turned from his surroundings, pushing, straining his vision onto his inner and, at this point quite dusty, self. Matthew’s brow scrunched up. Never had he used his sight in such a peculiar way before.
“Take your time, now,” Elijah encouraged.
The memory of the fire quickly faded and Matthew now groped with hands outstretched through a hazy dark. He brushed against a smooth object covered in wiry hair and quickly pulled away. He realized he needn’t be scared, though; it was only his grandfather’s bald, old head. He reached back out, but grasped only air, the figure now farther away. He ran closer, but his grandfather continued to move farther on and so Matthew began to sprint.
Unable to see, he charged through the mist and eventually stumbled into a throne room. Inside, the smoke thinned and he saw nothing but glory: the walls and ceiling littered with ornate carvings and paintings. Distracted, he walked over to a column, which instead of Jove or Eros depicted a football player he liked, falling back to kick a ball into a net that rested around the other side. He kept looking and found another column that wore a collage of musical instruments. To his surprise, not a single column carried an image of the Gods, but only things Matthew loved. Each column had a partner, immense, reaching up to the ceiling and then down along towards the throne to make a corridor. In the other direction, they disappeared into the smoke.
A deep mahogany wooden floor stretched all the way up to a thick onyx pillar upon which the high seat lay. The shadow of his grandfather stood stoically against it, beckoning his grandson to climb. Exhausted, Matthew tried. Hand by hand, foot by foot, he began the ascent, hanging only by his fingertips in the sparse crannies of the stone. With every inch fear grew and, when he almost reached the top, he looked down. Terror knows no mercy when allowed to wield a phobia. It forced sweat out onto Matthew’s brow, matching the liquid welling up in his eyes. His hand slipped and he fell.
A shock wave rippled from his back to chest to head and forced a shout through his lungs. Matthew looked up into the deep, blue eyes peering down at him and asked, “What just happened?”
“You’re finally trying to be honest. You looked inside to find what you’ve hidden from yourself,” he replied. “The truth will come with time.”
That day, Matthew wandered back into the nerve-wracked arms of his waiting mother. Days passed and school began to refocus in his life. He muddied his pants in the field and scraped his knees on the playground. The teachers droned on while Matthew bobbed his head. That weekend the town banded together to begin reconstruction after the calamity and provide for those effected. He still preferred the days, though, for as the sky darkened every evening, his thoughts could not avoid the rubble that was his house.
One night, a week after his first encounter with Elijah, Matthew woke up sweating from the heat in his dream. He rolled off the mattress, distressed, and paced around his room. Well, his aunt’s guest room for Matthew’s family now stayed with her. Scared to pester his parents over a dream concerning their ruined house and anticipating the comfort of Elijah, he left the house. Once again he ran past the looming trees and on to the cove. He entered to Elijah having a roll in the dirt. The lion stopped abruptly and stared.
“What?” the Lion asked. His eyes glared.
Matthew, too young to notice the lion’s impatience, explained his nightmare.
Elijah breathed an exasperated breath and said, “Come on, I can help.”
He motioned for Matthew to sit down and close his eyes. Just as before, the boy focused his mind and ventured through a wispy, fanciful dream, his emotions manifested into images. After a time, he awoke to a sweaty brow, quickened heart, and smiling lion.
“You’re getting closer,” Elijah said.
In the weeks ensuing, Matthew’s life carried on in this peculiar way. He studied, he played, and passed his time like a normal boy, but every third day or so, he made his way out to the forest to see Elijah. The dreams were stressful and left him fatigued, but for some reason he felt like there was progress of some kind in these meetings; at first, he always ran distressed with tears in his eyes, but as time passed he could go with a smile on his face simply to talk to his friend. Elijah was nearly always joyous and helpful, only occasionally slipping an imperceptible flash of imperfection.
It may seem bizarre for a boy to run unaccompanied into a forest, purposefully seeking out stressful dreams, but it really is quite the contrary. I had a toothache once. Couldn’t eat scones with my coffee for nearly a month, so I went to the dentist. I screamed like a mad man under that drill of that dentist for nearly half an hour. But I came out overjoyed for I could once again enjoy a true, delicious breakfast.
Matthew high fived his favorite branch as he ran past, the trees now accustomed to his visits. It was three months since his first visit and he came now carrying not turmoil or strife, only his ball. He hurdled the last bush excited for his visit with Elijah, but hastily dove back. Two rows of teeth had snapped at his ankles.
Safely on the other side of the bush, Matthew took a moment to breath and then risked a peek back over to examine his situation. In Elijah’s usual spot rested a pitiful creature. Matthew’s eyes looked at the tail, dormant in the dirt, and then examined the rest of the beast. Like a neglected lawn the thing was littered with bald patches, scraggly hair, and hardened mud. To his amazement, Matthew saw the creature’s head slumped on its paw staring down into the grass with two deep blue eyes.
Matthew fell back beneath the shrub bewildered.
Slowly he looked again and confirmed his theory. He could only stare into those eyes he knew so well. This time, though, he saw a weighty sadness resting even deeper than the blue. Thinking back, he realized this sadness had been present even since the first meeting and, over the past several months, had slowly surfaced. Every time he met with Elijah, the lion’s eyes had drooped lower, bags had slowly grown, his smile appeared less often and he spoke with an ever-growing scathing tone. Like the coming of night, he only noticed these changes when they were already far along in their progression.
Carefully, Matthew crawled back over the bush and whispered to the creature “Elijah?” The lion lifted its head, paused, snarled, and then rested back down apathetically.
“What do you want?” he snapped.
“I brought my ball,” Matthew blurted out stupidly.
“Come here and leave the ball. I don’t have time for that,” Elijah’s tone had softened, but his face remained hateful. Matthew slowly approached, ever alert for aggression, but Elijah just lay there indifferently.
“Sit,” the Lion commanded. “It’s time we finish.”
Matthew reluctantly took position beside his friend.
“Are you still anxious?” Elijah asked.
“I’m frustrated,” Matthew replied, averse to playing Elijah’s game.
“Then we’re not playing ball. Why are you frustrated?”
“I can’t keep walking past that ash pile everyday,” he said.
“I’m tired of hearing my teacher’s petty sentiments,” he said. His foot tapped rapidly in the grass.
“Why?” Elijah pressed.
“Because they’re lies.” Matthew snapped.
Elijah continued to mercilessly pierce the boy with questions. As they came, Matthew’s brow grew sweaty and the replies fervent, as agitated as the creature asking them. This continued for near half an hour until Matthew finally screamed, “it was my fault.” Then there was a silence, broken only by a broken sob.
Finally, Matthew managed to talk. “That day,” he stammered, “The fire. I was playing with matches even though my Dad told me I shouldn’t. I dropped one, my bed lit up and I ran away to the other side of town. I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t warn my parents because I was ashamed. I could have admitted right away and saved the house. I could have warned people, but I didn’t. When I finally came back I lied, pretended like I didn’t know what had happened. My grandpa died that night,” He stammered. “ And it was my fault.”
Every youthful bit of his mind wished this a falsehood, but he knew it was true. He lifted his head up and smiled through his pain to see that Elijah once again towered above him as a noble, well-groomed figure.
“Does anyone condemn you, son of man?” Elijah asked. He lowered his mane to wipe away Matthew’s tears.
“Then neither do I condemn you. Go home.”
Matthew returned to his town, bewildered both by Elijah and the confession. As for Elijah, it was certainly the same faerie. Matthew could accept the change of appearance, but lived haunted by his tone, that scorn. As for his confession, that shame had rested down so close to his soul that Matthew didn’t even realize he blamed himself.
Once again, the boy returned to a normal routine of school during the day and Elijah in the afternoon, but every couple of weeks that disheveled creature interrupted this pattern. As the end of the semester approached, Matthew needed Elijah’s help less and less. He could ask himself the questions, explore his own thoughts, and reach his own conclusions. Even so, he still visited his friend just for the joy his presence brought. However, Matthew abhorred the times he found Elijah unkempt and angry. As these things go, the frequency of visits decreased and the appearance of Elijah’s despondent face increased accordingly. The two realities cyclically worsened each other until an entire month passed without a visit from Matthew.
Summer began and Matthew lived an ordinary boyish life again. Several buildings were still under repair and sometimes his family had to forgo raisons in their porridge so they could afford reconstruction, but the worst had passed. One rainy day when the ground was too muddy even for a child to play, Matthew decided to stay in and reread the letter from his grandfather. The old man detailed in a few lines his love and appreciation for his grandson. It was short and simple, but the best present he had ever received from his Grandfather. When he finished rereading it, he stared for a while, at the ground, at the wall, at his hands. Missing Elijah, Matthew got up, walked down his porch steps, kicked his ball into a mud puddle, picked it up despite, and strolled thoughtfully into the forest.
Today the trees were restless, like musicians warming up on stage before a symphony. Some stuck their branches out ready to conduct, while others rustled in the wind and dropped water in time. Matthew made it to the cove and with a flash of lightening the final movement began.
Sprawled on his ordinary spot, lay a waning Elijah. The scene is far too adult for me to fully recount, but I can tell you Matthew ran over and fell to his knees before the lion. He examined the body, the blood on its claws. It was Elijah’s own. Matthew ran his hands through the fur, shook his head in denial, shouted, and, finally, wept.
I cannot give an explanation for why Elijah would do such a thing. It’s horrid to consider. Perhaps faeries, though, despite their shining exteriors, are still subject to the same faults and weaknesses of ordinary men. We just choose to always see perfection in them, place that burden upon them so we can grasp at hope in our own lives.
With a similar confusion, Matthew asked, “What happened?”
Elijah rolled over to look at the child who was now kneeling with both hands in his hair.
“What do you want from me?” Elijah said.
“Not this. I want to know you’ll be all right. I want to see you smile again. I want to know why.”
“We don’t have time. What do you want from me?”
Matthew paused and frantically looked about. “Your spirit,” he finally yielded, unsure what exactly he meant by it.
“Run home and leave behind the letter in your pocket and the ball. Consider them your loss. Then return to me.”
The gazelle reappeared in Matthew and he ran. Back in town, he burst through the door, put the letter under his pillow, placed the ball on his mattress and ran again through the forest. Aware of the situation, the trees pulled back into a hallway for the child.
Elijah lay as he did before.
“Come here,” he said. He lifted a shaky paw, touched the child’s breast and then yielded to death, the final movement of a faerie truly worthy of the title.
At first, Matthew felt nothing. Slowly, beginning at his heart, warmth filled his chest and then his arms. He breathed heavier, deeper, fuller. For a moment if felt as if gravity reversed; he felt weightless. Hair began to grow on his arms and claws on his hands. Suddenly there was a shriek of pain behind him, a root already receding in the shadows. Uncertain of what to do, Matthew began with one paw forward and then the other, his tail playing with the leaves behind him. The End.
In memory of Nathan Thompson