I have a story to tell. It is not a happy one, though it is full of fairies. It is not a heroic one, though it has a king. It is hardly even a magical one, though it has a witch. I should call it a real one and it is about a child named Ellen who was tricked into believing she was not loved.
Her mother wore a white, cotton jacket despite the southern humidity.
“Would you quit tapping that book as you read, Ellen?” Her mother asked. “You’ll make me crash this rental.”
She, her mother, and her father were driving to their spring vacation to visit her family in South Carolina where they would find every excuse that they could to forgo any obligations to their relatives.
“Perhaps it’d be for the best,” her Father jeered from behind the silent pages of some Victorian novel. “Hardly a car worth driving.”
Ellen enjoyed the passive commotion of closing her journal one page at a time.
“Would you look at this hack,” Ellen’s mother motioned toward a bearded, presumably rather smelly man standing next to a red light. He held a sign that said something of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
“I’m glad such visible blights don’t loiter around Lake Mills. Such an aggressive looking man,” she continued.
Ellen had learned to zone out her mother’s endless blabbering—as you should too as a reader— and examined the man. His eyes were a blue unlike any Ellen had ever seen. Like where the sky and ocean met condensed into a pupil. She felt like they were beginning to say something to her when the light turned green and on the family drove to Ellen’s Grandfather’s house.
It was a traditional southern estate, proud of its elegance and happily ambivalent to its history. Ellen never remembered much of what happened there, like sitting through a school lesson with the flu. There was a swirl of niceties, handshakes, and buttered biscuits of which Ellen comprehended very little. It all lasted in a blur until like a bird smacks a window she found her vision refocused alone in her hotel room.
On the bed a towel sat folded into a swan; the owners obviously hoped to distract from the overall rehearsed feeling of the room. Yet the towel and the robe next to it were fluffy, both of which Ellen made much use. She finished her preparations for bed and curled up under her covers to surf the web.
Now might I interject, if it wouldn’t be too rude. This whole ordeal could have easily been avoided if that child had only gotten herself off that silly device and just gone to bed, but such is the problem with children of this age. She didn’t and so our real story begins.
As Ellen’s eyes with weariness began to flicker, so too did the lamp. It woke Ellen and she glanced at the wall. The cord was perfectly plugged in its socket and the wire showed no signs of fray, but still the lamp flickered and sputtered and then showed bright again. It created a rather bizarre effect of shadows on the wall as they too flickered and fluttered in the light. Her mind instinctively filled the shadows with life. One shadow she deemed a small animal, another a little man, and all other sorts of creatures that a child’s mind could conceive to name a wall of shadows.
Finally, Ellen turned the lamp off and rolled over to sleep, but it turned itself on again. Ellen sat up. She looked around to see that the host of shadows on the wall were no longer just flickering and fluttering, but moving too. The small man she saw before was motioning her towards the door. As peculiar and terrifying as this should have been, the shadows were warm, like those created by fire light and Ellen felt she ought to trust them. And she did.
She rose out of bed and left the room, wandered behind the ever-beckoning shadows. She stumbled down the hall, shuffled past the pool, and crawled underneath the brush running the edge of the resort. Standing up, she found standing alone in a large southern forest for the shadows had vanished in the darkness; she was alone.
Then again, maybe she wasn’t. A woman far too old for such actions hung upside from a nearby pine tree.
“I’m glad you came by,” the old woman continued. “I seem to be stuck. My old bones won’t let me get out of this most peculiar position.” She wore loose black pants and her long silver hair hung four feet down, dancing around with the blades of the sparse forest grass beneath her.
Ellen curled her brow.
“Well don’t be so hesitant. There’s an old woman in need of help just now.”
“Sorry.” Ellen rose out of her confused daze to hop forward and support the old woman as she exited the tree.
“Well now that that is taken care of, perhaps I should introduce myself,” the old woman’s voice sounded like an endearing cackle. “My name is Marline. I’m the local, neighborhood enchantress in these parts. If I’m not mistaken, you’re Ellen, yes?”
Now, some of you may recognize this Marline from stories I’ve told before. If you do, I hope you yourself are on edge. If you don’t, well, you’ll find out soon enough who this bizarre old woman is.
“A trick of the trade, darling,” the Enchantress said in response to Ellen’s surprise that she knew her name. “Don’t take it personally. Now tell me, how did you wonder into here?”
“I followed shadows out of my room and into this forest,” she said, beginning to piece together what was happening.
“I did that once. Found my way to a stash of uneaten peanuts. But anyways—“
“Am I in a faerie tale?” Ellen cut in.
“Well how rude of me. I’m sorry. You, dearie, are in the king’s forest. Where I’m from, we call all stories faerie tales. You see, this forest is normal to most. Magical to those who know how to look. He’s my brother you know, the king.”
“So you’re a faerie?” Ellen chirped.
“Of sorts, yes. A human who has learned the craft,” Marline answered. “We prefer to be called an enchanter or enchantress.”
Marline motioned for the two to walk.
“Where are we going?” Ellen stood still.
“Well seeing as you have nowhere else to go, you might as well follow, but if you insist on asking, I’m inviting you over to my house for hot chocolate and scones.”
Too confused to reason perfectly, Ellen followed in step with the old woman through the forest. All leaves were in full bloom and, although not audible, the forest seemed to have a soft din permeating all throughout it. Like the far off church bells of a city, the forest was buzzing with energy even when no animal was in sight.
“So what is going on, exactly?” Ellen finally asked after a silence. Well, a silence as quiet as that forest can get.
“I admit, dearie, that I know why you’re hear, but now is not the time nor place for such a discussion. Over hot chocolate and some baked goods.”
They continued onwards and nothing much happened. Marline told a story of the last time she went picking for skropples—I’m telling the story and I don’t even know what those are—and another about the last time she lost a game of rugby. The conversation carried on as such, with Marline rambling about various things, until they reached what was presumably this old woman’s house and by house I do mean a cave with a foyer of tree branches and vines added to the front.
Now, before this story progresses into the house of the enchantress, perhaps I should take a quick pause. I’ve been so focused on this enchantress that Ellen has fallen beneath the surface of this narrative. Many readers may be wondering why a girl of such a young age has yet to break down crying, refuse to move another step, or in some way emotionally crumble under the confusion that must come along with accidentally stumbling into the faerie world. Well, these are of course reasonable questions that an adult would have and concerns that would arise if an adult were to find themselves in this situation, but Ellen was not an adult. She was a child, a child who was often left alone.
You see, some Father’s are looked down upon because they may disappear for days without explanation only to stumble home one night leaving behind a trail of bottles. Ellen’s Father was am even more devious kind. He was always home, but he could disappear for a week behind a newspaper while in the very same room as Ellen. If the first Father could be compared to a violent bear, Ellen’s should be compared to a virus. Both are dangerous, but only one can be quickly identified.
With such a life, Ellen had learned to exist in books and imagination. She placed herself in the center of every tale she read and created many for herself on paper. At this point, faerie-land was only the physical manifestation of a world Ellen already inhabited. To her, this was not confusing. It only made sense.
“What would you like to eat with your tea, dearie?” Marline asked as they walked inside.
“I’ve read about faerie bread in books before,” Ellen responded.
“Not exactly my specialty but let me see.”
At this Marline spun around in a circle, squatted like a monkey, and glared at an empty plate on her simple wooden table.
Bread and tea
That we don’t hate
We shall see
Here on this plate
And a snake appeared. It rattled its tail. Ellen jumped back, but Marline just casually grabbed it by the head and threw it in a metal vase that acted as her trash.
“That’s not bread,” Ellen quipped. “But it is kind of cool.”
“Maybe just some leftover scones I have from this morning,” Marline replied. She pulled out of her pockets two crumbling chocolate chip scones and put them together on the plate that had only moments ago housed a rattlesnake. She sat down on a well-carved tree stump and began to talk. Their voices did not echo in the cave, but quickly died in the animal skins hung over the stone walls.
“So you’re probably wondering why you’re here. I must admit, darling, that those shadows you saw were friends of mine. I’ve followed them many times before in my life and through that rapport sent them to retrieve you.”
“From a hotel while I was on a family vacation?”
“Precisely. You see, I’ve been watching you. I keep an eye out for children in a position like yours, a father ever stuck behind some stiflingly boring literature arguing his opinions to a mother who is only more unwilling to pay attention. I’ve sent the shadows too many before you. Some have followed. Others haven’t. You did and that means you have the proper heart to do what I need.”
Ellen’s eyes widened ever so slightly as she controlled her excitement. Her books told her of tales of knights and heroines battling dragons and saving kingdoms. She felt ready from having read her books not from following shadows.
“You see,” Marline said leaning forward. “The enemy of this kingdom, the Serpent King, likes to recruit children for his dastardly plans. No one ever expects a child to do evil, so they naturally get away with it. As for your task, it is something rather simple. There is a girl whom the Serpent King has sent to thieve from the real king’s palace a very precious item. I see her play on the edge of this forest every few days. She would never listen to an old woman like me, but she will to you. Stop her. That’s all I ask. Convince her out of the persuasions of the Serpent King.”
“So just play with the girl and talk to her?” Ellen asked disappointed.
“Well if you must put it so boorishly, yes.”
“And what if she doesn’t listen to me?”
“Well, you might be a bit young to understand this yet, but there are times where the risk is so great that a quick end must be made of an enemy. This girl may be young, but she is not innocent.”
The way Marline spoke those words, it was as if each had a substance that she could chew on and the old woman relished every one as it left her mouth.
“Like,” and Ellen made the finger across the throat motion.
“Yes, like” and Marline did the same.
Ellen thought hard about this; She did not trust the enchantress. As friendly as she was, it felt like a poisoned dinner, an unseen hazard. Something was not right.
“Ok. I will,” Ellen lied. She had no intention of finger-across-the-throating the girl, but thought she ought to find her and warn her.
“Great, now just head along out that door and walk straight until you reach the edge of the forest. Ok? Great. Bye” And she pushed Ellen out the door and shut it behind her.
The forest no longer felt warm and alive. Like an audience during the finale of a play, every tree branch and dirt speck seemed to be silent in anticipation of Ellen’s next moves. She began to walk. The trees began to sway in the wind, waving back and forth, almost directing her actions. She continued to walk and walk past this audience of silently watching flora.
She reached the end of the forest and no one was there, just a dirt road, a farm field across it, and some hills in the distance. On one of them, to Ellen’s pleasure, sat a large, expansive, and intimidating castle, the king’s residence and royal city. With that in the distance, Ellen was actually quite happy to wait and stare and imagine all the hustle and bustle that went about inside the distant city. So she did. And she did some more. And the castle grew rather boring. And she kept on waiting. And the crickets began to chirp. And, finally, scared to wait into the dark, Ellen stood up and made her way back to Marline’s house.
It was empty when she got there, but locked up. So Ellen waited some more. Until it grew darker and then even darker. And then Ellen heard a cackle-laugh in the distance, but somehow knew that laugh fit her black-clad hostess. Marline walked up spinning in hunched-over circles, muttering to herself. When she saw Ellen she paused in place for a moment, righted herself, and then said simply “so I suppose the little girl wasn’t there?”
“No.” Ellen replied. “But the view of the castle was wonderful. Did you really grow up there?”
“Yes, yes. That’s where I grew up. Quite a bore after a short while I assure you.” Ellen didn’t believe this either. The two went inside, ate a quick dinner full of bread, tea, and Marline’s queer stories. Then they went to bed. In the morning Marline told Ellen that she’ll have to go to the edge of the forest every day until she crosses paths with the little girl. And so Ellen did.
Come the next day, though, Ellen was unable to find the edge of the forest. She wandered straight through her lunchtime until every step became a conscious effort to continue, but never found the road, the cornfield, or the view of the forest. At this point she should have been very, very lost for little girls do not always know to keep track of their footsteps. And yet, when night was near Ellen turned around and found her way back to Marline’s cave within minutes, as if she had never walked half a mile from it.
“How did it go today?” Asked Marline. She was knitting a sock.
“I could not find my way to the road.”
“Well where did you turn wrong?”
“I walked straight out like you told me to yesterday,” Ellen replied.
“Well obviously you didn’t,” Marline said. “Do it again tomorrow.”
“I’ll just get lost again.”
“Go again tomorrow, you’ll find your way. Don’t you trust me?”
“Well yeah,” Ellen lied.
The next day was a repeat of the former, lots of wandering. As she was walking along, Ellen thought back to her family. Her Father probably had assumed she was grumpy and did not even bother checking the room to see if she was gone, but still, Ellen was worried. She missed the safety and certainty of her parents.
As lunchtime wore on to afternoon teatime, Ellen grew tired of this bizarre fairy tale. She turned about, found her way back to Marline’s and kept walking back to the other edge of the forest, where she first walked in. This time, Ellen found what she was looking for, the wall of hedges that led to the resort where she stayed. Ellen took a quick glance around, got on all fours and crawled back to the other side. Once there, she was astounded to find it was nighttime. It could not have been four o’clock in the afternoon in the king’s forest, but just outside Ellen’s hotel it must have been two in the morning. Ellen walked back to find her room the way it was exactly as she had left it.
From her books she knew time had a tendency to vary from world to world, so largely unphased she got into the bed she had left and fell fast to sleep.
The following day, she woke up and did not leave her hotel room. She wanted to see if her parents would come get her. They did not. She waited some more and still no knock from either mother or father. It was near one in the afternoon when Ellen finally decided she missed her parents and left. The hallway was a wood lined, mahogany work of architecture. Ellen went to the room next-door and lightly rapped on the large oak door. No response.
Now accustomed to wandering about aimlessly, Ellen began to explore the hotel; the maid closet, the unadorned stairwells hidden from public view, a room that smelled pungently of the cigars her father liked to smoke, and a number of other rather unpleasant things. On the first floor, Ellen shuffled into the hotel’s café and saw a large periodical with a cup of steaming coffee next to it.
“Dad,” Ellen said.
All about Ellen and her father, people bustled. All about it, people bustled. A couple talked over lunch in the back, bartenders laughed amongst themselves as they prepared drinks, the waiters sweet talked their customers, even the flies buzzed about each other. The man behind the paper did not answer.
Ellen poked one of the pages. “Dad,” she said louder.
“Yes honey?” came the voice through his goatee.
“Can we go for a walk? I’m bored.”
“Can’t you see that I just started reading the paper? At least let me finish my morning coffee before we go adventuring about this town,” he replied with a sarcastic emphasis on the word adventuring.
Now really, we should not be too harsh on this father for he was hoping that Ellen would take a seat and read next to him, but he was not quite sure how to ask for that any more than Ellen was able to ask for an ear from her Father. However, the miscommunication persisted and Ellen ran away frustrated. Back to the hedges she stomped and crawled through. Marline was strange, her Father was distant, but at least the castle was beautiful to look at.
Once on the other side, it was again late afternoon there, just as Ellen had left it before. She started walking straight to where she knew Marline’s cave was, but could not seem to find her way back. She walked left and then right and then left again, but found only the same circles and circles of trees.
She came upon a large patch of thorn bushes. As it was the first new site she’d seen in almost an hour, she got down on all fours hopefully and tried to crawl through. At first it seemed like she might be able to make it without much difficulty, but the branches seemed to knowingly close in all around her until every corner of Ellen’s already dirty dress was caught on a thorn, stuck in place like an animal’s hide nailed to a wall. With no other choice, she pushed back and ripped many holes into her dress, but now found more bushes behind her. She panicked; she was alone.
“Oh dearie.” Then again, maybe she wasn’t.
“Marline? Go away,” Ellen did not quite want to see that woman right at this moment. She could not look around to see her, but knew with certainty who the voice belonged to.
“I can help you out, dearie, but you must trust me.” came the Marline’s voice. “I put up an enchantment around my house to keep a certain gang of a certain kind of people away. Now just stop struggling.”
Ellen continue to painfully crawl about, thorns sticking into every which part of her.
Ellen didn’t. She crawled on. She crawled on. And then she stopped. A large thorn stuck deep into her arm. She flinched and it cut far up to her shoulder.
She yelped and curled up.
“Help,” she called out and immediately all the bushes retreated and Ellen was lying at the feet of Marline. The two walked back to the cave, Marline patched up Ellen’s arm, and both slept.
The following day, Ellen walked to the edge of the forest and just as Marline had promised her she found her way there. What’s more, a small girl was playing amidst the leaves, entirely oblivious to Ellen’s approach.
Ellen cleared her throat. The girl paused to look at her and moved a few paces away and continued her play.
“Excuse me,” Ellen stuttered.
“Me Daddy says I’m not a’pposed t‘talk t’people who wander outta that wood thout explanation,” the girl said. Her southern drawl reminded Ellen of her southern family. The girl’s eyes were blood shot.
Ellen was stumped. The two just stared at each other for a few moments.
“Well does that apply to little girls?” Ellen retorted.
“He said anybody.”
“What if that somebody just wants to play?”
“Wha’ makes you think I’d wanna play with the likes a’you?” the girl asked.
“Well I don’t really know in all honesty,” Ellen tried to think of an answer, but she couldn’t. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine and if you can’t tell me why I should play with you, then I would prefer to play by myself,” and the girl walked away and began to climb a nearby oak tree. Ellen stuffed her frustration.
“Well even if you don’t want to play I need to talk to you about the serpent king,” she hollered. The girl ignored her again.
“Seriously, wait up,” She was now on the same branch as the girl. “I need to talk to you about the Serpent King.”
“I don’t wanna play no imagination games,” The girl said.
“Well fine,” Ellen replied. “But at least tell me why you don’t want to play with me.”
“Look,” the girl snapped. “Look at how much fun I can have all by myself.”
“It looks more like you’re trying to cry in private then actually have fun,” Ellen responded.
“Well I’m not.”
“Can’t we just talk?” Ellen stepped forward and touched her shoulder. The girl smacked her hand away.
“Just cause your parents or friends don’t wanna play with you don’ mean I have too.”
Ellen didn’t know quite how it happened, all she knew is that it did. Ellen pushed the girl and she fell and Ellen heard her body hit the ground and watched it lay there. She almost wished the trees were louder than their usual buzz; they were so green and calm. She scrambled down the trunk of the tree and ran over to the girl she had just pushed. The body was still. Ellen looked around helplessly. There was a dirt road that ran along the edge of the forest, a vast field on the other side, and a castle on a hill in the distance. Far down the road Ellen saw a man, he was too far away to make out, but his voice carried.
“Victoria,” he yelled, obviously still unaware of Ellen. “Victoria, I’m sorry I yelled. Come home and we can spend some time together.”
Ellen ran. She ran into the field, almost welcomed the scratches of the tall grass as she sprinted through. She didn’t consciously decide to, but found her legs carrying her to the castle in the distance. It was a long way, miles, but even children can accomplish much in times like this. As she ran the sun kept pace and grew closer and closer to the treetops, setting on the scene she left behind her. As night finally realized its darkness, Ellen reached the castle. The portcullis had not yet lowered so she ran through, up the hill upon which the city was built and into the king’s courtyard. He was on his nightly walked.
She yelled to him, “your honor highness majesty,” entirely unaware of courtly manners. Tall grass was stuck in her hair.
“We’ll remove her, lord,” said a nearby knight and began to advance.
“No no,” the king said, “Let her come to me. She’s a child, Fernando. Have a heart.”
The king swept towards the girl. His courtly garments almost sailed above the ground. He knelt down.
“What’s wrong, my child?”
“I, the girl, pushed her, because some old woman,” she sputtered out.
“Calm down. What is your name?”
“And mine is Rafael.”
At this point the king pulled her into a hug. He felt like a much-needed blanket in winter. He held her until her shoulders ceased to shake.
“Now tell me what happened.” And Ellen did, finally calm enough to speak.
After she finished, the king remained silent for a time and then hugged her once more.
“You’ve been deceived, Ellen,” he said. “Those shadows, they are neither good nor bad, they simply are, but that woman you met in the forest, though my sister she may be is no simple enchantress; she is a witch. When we were children, I too saw the shadows and loved them and watched them and laughed at them, but eventually saw that they were only there by the light of the sun. So I turned to brighter things, the source of the shadows themselves. Marline, however, stayed in the shadows and studied all the dark arts that came with them. Manipulation rather than politics, deception instead of philosophy, alchemy rather than chemistry. As endearingly humorous as she may be, my sister is an evil woman.”
“But she helped me,” Ellen said. “I’m the one who pushed Victoria.”
It took effort to speak that name.
“She planned every lost wander, the bushes, and I’m quite convinced even knew exactly what would happen when you encountered this girl Victoria. She most likely caused strife too between Victoria and her father for this very purpose. She fought for you to trust her and no matter the sincerity and reason behind one’s trust, if you place it in the wrong thing it will cause great harm. Marline gained your trust. Tricking a child into evil is no simple task and so the deed that was done was a work of my sister’s, not yours. But something tells me that this does not bring comfort in this moment.”
Ellen shook her head.
“Look, you have been pulled into an adventure against your will. The true adventures, the one’s that actually change the course of history, a levee built rather than a rock dropped in water, are always small acts, gentle, unassuming. Often they feel entirely un-miraculous. Your choice to confess here to me, to make me aware of the evil in my kingdom despite its difficulty for you, will do more to save this world than any great beast you could have killed. There’s purpose to this and I believe that there’s purpose to this grief too, even though you may never see it.”
Ellen tried to understand all that the king said. The deep, raspy timbre of his voice brought some comfort, but like a misfit puzzle piece, something was still wrong.
“But now it is time for you to return home. I know of the land where you come. Your world is known to most of us, even though few of you know of ours. Sleep, Ellen, and tomorrow you will wake up. This happened and although we can remedy further damage in the future, nothing can be done about Victoria’s death.”
He led her to a large bedroom. At another time, Ellen would have cried from joy being hosted by a king, but her adventure did not turn out the way she expected. The king read her a tale and hugged her once more and left the room with the door cracked ever so slightly.
Ellen did not sleep for a long time. Like the stuffy and excessive sheets on the bed, guilt suffocated her mind. She turned to her right side to try and escape the thoughts, but they turned with her. She buried her face in her pillow so she couldn’t see them, but they followed. Ellen became more and more entangled in the comforters until, fortunately, her body finally forced her into dreams. She awoke the next morning in her hotel bed.
The rest of the week passed in even more of a confused daze for Ellen. She tried several times to find her way back into Faerie land, but only wandered about a quiet, normal, southern forest.
Then Sunday mercifully arrived. It was time to leave this dreadful vacation and head back tp their Midwestern home. She put on her shoes and brushed her hair and flossed her teeth and said nothing to her parents. They didn’t seem to notice. As they were driving, Ellen left her forehead pressed against the car window watching everything pass, hoping to distract herself from the memory of Victoria’s falling body.
In the distance, she saw the same homeless man from the other day. As they drove closer, she saw him smiling at her, but he couldn’t be. The windows of the car were tinted and yet he winked unmistakably at Ellen as the car drove by; a green light kept them from stopping. He pointed to his sign, today it read:
The King does not condemn you
and so neither do I condemn you.
You are loved.
And Ellen felt that it was true.
Now, I know this is a very unpleasant story. It is sad and does not exactly end happily, but such are real stories. They are not like the books we read that end in grandiose pomp and circumstance. Rather the happiest ending one really ever gets is Ellen’s, a miracle, even though you and I might not see it that way.