The Last Fairy Tale
The old woman sat in the worn rocking chair and looked out over the view from her back porch. A short patch of grass, now long overgrown with weeds and the husks of last year’s wildflowers, led to 50 acres of woodland that she’d acquired with her husband a lifetime ago. It, in turn, bordered thousands of acres of national forest. Her face was sad and resigned, and her skin, once smooth and soft, was now a gentle massing of tiny lines and criss-crossing rivulets of texture. Her crystal blue eyes were the only feature that retained the sharpness and clarity of youth. Diaphanous silver hair hung to her shoulders. She turned to the young man sitting beside her.
“Dusk is falling,” she said, in a papery voice that was so thin he wasn’t quite sure of her words. He was trying to be polite and gentle, letting her have her say before he got down to the business of her signature on the legal document in his pocket.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, respectfully.
“I can still see them,” she said quietly. “Every evening I sit here, and they always come, rain or shine. It’s astonishing, but they look exactly the same as they did on that first day.” Her voice cracked slightly, and she turned back to look at the trees. “You have to kind of half-close your eyes to get a glimpse. Look away from the sunlight. They don’t like the sun, it’s too harsh and bright. They prefer the moonlight by far.”
The man was confused. “What?” he asked. “Fireflies?”
She laughed softly. “No, boy,” she said. “Not fireflies. Look, out there. This is just about the right time. Look.” She pointed, though he couldn’t see at what. His eyes followed her hand.
“I don’t see anything, Gramma,” he said gently. “I’m sorry.”
She smiled. “It’s alright. Not many do. Certainly no one in this family. They’re there, though, I can promise you that. They are there.”
A soft wind blew through the evening dusk, tickling the leaves and making a strange twittering music. The man breathed deeply, wondering how to broach the subject of his visit. Gramma had been out here alone for years now, always surviving somehow despite the remoteness of the location, but the time had come for her to be moved somewhere where she could be looked after properly. All of her assets would have to be transferred to members of her family so that she’d be accepted into the home they’d found for her in the next town. Since she had always seemed to like him best of all the grandchildren, he’d been elected to come out and explain the situation to her and get her signature on the act of donation. He’d dreaded the trip because he loved the old woman, strange as she’d always been. Now she was talking about seeing something in the trees, and he wondered if she was even competent enough to understand what he had come here to say. He sighed.
“Don’t be sad, boy,” she said, a strange half-smile on her face. “I know why you’ve come. I have every intention of signing those papers you brought. I just thought…” Her voice trailed off into the fading light.
“Thought what, Gramma?”
She straightened a little and seemed to come to some resolution. Immediately she looked more alive than he’d seen her in a long time. Her cheeks flushed slightly, and her eyes sparkled with life. “I just thought I would tell you a story before we got down to business is all. A little fairy tale, you know, like the ones I told you as a boy when you’d come to stay with me. You remember that?”
“Of course I do,” he replied with relief. She wasn’t crazy, just lonely. Even so, the atmosphere changed as the thought crossed his mind. The air around them seemed to shift into a dreaming place of quiet possibility. He looked at her, and suddenly she was as he remembered her years ago when he was a child. He felt about eight years old. He settled down in the rocking chair next to her. “Go ahead,” he said, smiling. “Tell me a fairy tale, Gramma.”
“Once upon a time,” she began with the hint of a small smile playing on her old and worn lips, “a young man and woman, newly married, moved away from the city onto a patch of land the man bought when he returned from the war.” Her eyes looked out into the trees, distant and unseeing. She didn’t speak for several minutes, until he thought she had forgotten what she was doing or was falling asleep. He was about to touch her hand when she spoke again.
“They built a small house, mostly with their own hands. They worked and cleaned and planted a garden, and in the evenings before the house was finished they sat and watched the sunset together.”
“One night, when they’d been there only a week or so, the woman noticed something unusual. At first, she thought it was a bird, or maybe some kind of an insect. It flitted around, just outside the edges of her sight, dipping and darting in the fading light. She tried pointing it out to her husband, but the thing was too quick for him, and he didn’t see it. She watched for it, catching a glimpse now and again, until the night came and they blew out the lantern and crawled into his old worn army tent to sleep. From that day on, she spent her evenings there, on what became the back porch, waiting and watching for whatever it was to show it self again. And in due time, the thing did.”
“What was it?” the young man asked, interested.
“A fairy,” she said, matter-of-factly. “She figured it out after weeks of waiting and watching. One of them landed, for a fraction of a second, on a branch of the tree nearest the porch. She only got the slightest of glances, but it was enough. He was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. He looked mostly human, on a tiny scale of course, with long, silvery hair that gave off a milky glow that reminded her of moonlight. He was dressed like a fairy tale prince, in cloth that shimmered with tiny sparkles that looked like diamonds.” She paused. “Or maybe fireflies.”
“But what about her husband?” her grandson asked. “Didn’t he ever see them too?”
“Oh, goodness no,” she replied, chuckling heavily. “He indulged her for a while, claimed he could maybe make out something, but after she declared that she’d seen the fairy and knew that’s what it had been all along, he washed his hands of the whole thing. You have to understand now; he was just a simple man. He didn’t have any experience with things of this nature. His hands were calloused. His world was small. He worked every day in the local sawmill, and then came home every afternoon and worked hours more building a house for them. He was too tired to have an imagination. All he knew of were the things he could touch.”
The rays of the evening sun had turned from bright yellow to deep golden, and the young man wondered how he could have gone his whole life without really noticing the quality of this light. It softened the edges of things and made him feel hazy and vaguely sleepy. Her words were soft, like the light, and were weaving the story around him like a warm blanket. He was quiet and waited for her to continue.
Her voice was softer when she spoke again, so faint it seemed to float on the air. “It got worse,” she said, sadness touching the edges of her words. “He began to get angry and accused her of losing her mind. He said he didn’t want to hear fairy tales every night when he came home from working all day. He wanted a hot meal and companionship, and that was that. He wanted her to ask about his day, not fill his head with cockamamie stories about things that didn’t exist.” She paused. “And that’s when she got the idea.”
Her grandson looked at her with confusion, and she smiled at him. “The idea to try and catch one. If she had proof, something to show him, he’d have to believe her. He’d stop looking at her with suspicion. The arguments would stop. The more she thought about it, the more excited she became, sure that this was the answer to all of her problems.” Her smile faded. “It was a foolish idea, of course, but that’s the folly of youth for you.”
“Every night she sat there at the back of the house and watched them zooming in and out of the trees like tiny rockets, trying to think of some way in which she could capture one. They flew close to the house occasionally, close enough for her to get a glimpse of their tiny perfect bodies clothed in moss and the petals of flowers. They grinned and laughed as they passed her, a sound that was something like a cross between the keening of the crickets and the sound of a humming bird’s wings. She didn’t see the prince every night, but occasionally she caught glimpses of him dancing and flitting among the leaves of the trees. Of them all, he was by far the most beautiful and elusive.
It was maddening and fascinating, but over time she developed quite the system for watching them without her husband noticing. She even kept a notebook, hidden of course, in which she recorded the way they looked, individuals she could discern, and the habits she’d witnessed. She studied her notes like some crazed scientist, trying desperately to come up with a plan. They would certainly be too clever for ordinary traps. She had to come up with more, something they couldn’t resist.
One day she asked her husband to drive her to the library on the pretense of finding some new recipes in their cookbook collection. He walked away to get a soda next door at the café, and while he was gone she looked in every book she could find for information about the habits and weaknesses of fairies. The only things to be found, however, were children’s stories, and they were no help at all.”
“By now she rarely slept much, and one night she found herself wandering out onto the back porch somewhere in the wee hours. As she walked through the house she looked at the antique clock in the hallway. Its hands had stopped at 1:15 a.m. The house was lit up by the glow of moonlight streaming in through the windows, and she walked around the house as if in daylight.”
“When she stepped out the back door, she gasped. The moon was full, heavy and bright, and the world looked like a black and white photograph come to life. Most unusual, however, was the complete lack of sound. No crickets chirped. No night birds hooted and squawked. No coyotes howled. The air was perfectly still and silent, as if the world had been sealed inside of a glass jar. She sat down on the steps and waited, though she had no idea why or for what. She looked out at the total darkness within the forest, and slowly her eyes adjusted until she could make out individual trees in the dense growth. After a few moments more, she noticed movement among the grasses and leaves of the forest floor, and in time, she recognized the tiny figure making its way out of the trees and across the lawn toward her. It was the prince.”
“He walked slowly and deliberately, and even the grasses seemed to bow before him. His clothing was the deepest shade of midnight blue, and it rippled softly as he moved like a soft evening breeze. Delicate sparkling diamonds covered the fabric, and his luminescent hair and wings glowed in the moonlight. When he got closer she could see his that his eyes were as silver as his hair and as bright as the diamonds he wore. A tiny silver circlet lay atop his head. He walked up the steps slowly and bowed in courtly fashion.”
“Greetings to you, woman. I am happy you decided to accept my invitation for a chat.”
“Invitation?” she asked, confused. “I couldn’t sleep, that was all.”
“Precisely,” he said, enigmatically. He sat down beside her on the step. “By way of introductions, I am His Royal Highness Prince Rue. I am sure you are pleased to make my acquaintance.” He didn’t ask for her name, which she found rude, but she supposed that meeting a fairy was extraordinary enough. Expecting him to be polite was probably presumptuous, and apparently, he felt the same way.
He fussed with his clothing for a moment, smoothing out the wrinkles of the fabric and adjusting his collar. “Without further ado, I’ll get right down to business,” he said. “I know you want to capture one of us.”
“I…” she started, not sure what to say. “I’m sorry.” She felt like a schoolgirl, caught cheating on an exam. Her cheeks were red with embarrassment.
He smiled, seemingly pleased at her reaction. “No offense taken,” he assured her. “My people have lived around humans practically since the beginning. We know your ways better than you do, I would surmise. You see us, you admire us, and ultimately, it always leads to the same thing. You want one of us. The reasons vary of course, depending on the constitution of the individual, but history is a powerful precedent in this case.” He frowned in a show of concentration, clearly mocking her. “So, let’s see…as a pet perhaps?” He laughed, a tinkling sound of breaking glass. “Maybe you think we can spin gold for you from ordinary cotton thread.” He studied her, looking with obvious disdain at her patched nightdress and worn slip-ons. “Of course,” he said, his eyebrow twitching slightly, “there’s the old stand by – the three wishes.” He looked at her with a smug grin. “So, which is it?”
She hesitated before replying, not sure what exactly he wanted to hear. She wasn’t keen on a conversation in which she was subjected to so much derision. Nonetheless, she realized that he could perhaps help her, and his attitude seemed a small price to pay. “I want my husband to believe me,” she said. “I want him to believe that you exist. To be honest I hadn’t really thought about all the rest.”
“What refreshing simplicity,” he replied, laughing once again. “Though it does show a lack of imagination, in my opinion. I suppose it’s to be expected, though, simple country folk and all. Still, I am prepared to give you what you desire.”
She looked at him, astonished. “You?” she asked.
He laughed loud and long, a tinkling hum that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. It sounded alien, almost fiendish. “No indeed, my dear,” he said, still repressing a giggle. “But I will deliver to you my brother.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “Your brother?”
“Of course. You no doubt have some notion of court politics and royal successions,” he said, his silver eyes dancing with mockery. “My father is king of this forest clan, and my brother is first in line to succeed him. I, as the younger son, must, as tradition dictates, be contented with various ceremonial duties and the title of ‘Duke Something-Or-Other. Clearly, that won’t do. Besides, I hate my brother. He’s a pompous ass.” He said these last words with a snort while continuing to idly groom himself. The woman stared at him, realizing that her desire to catch a fairy had now morphed into some kind of business she was pretty sure she wanted no part of. She tried to quickly think of some way to graciously end the conversation, but suddenly found that she was slightly afraid of the creature beside her.”
“Where you come in,” he continued. “Is to kindly take my brother off my hands. I shall deliver him to you, unconscious from a slight overdose of honey and chamomile, and you will lock him away somewhere. I’m not concerned about the conditions of his imprisonment. I don’t care if you put him on display in a sideshow carnival. In fact,” he said, grinning, “that might actually be a very worthwhile conclusion, to my way of thinking. Teach the brute some humility. In any case, my one condition is strictly non-negotiable. You must never let him go. Ever. He must be caged, under lock and key, for the rest of his nasty little life.”
“And how long would that be?” she asked.
“In captivity? We don’t live very long under those conditions, unfortunately. Our spirit simply can’t take the loss of freedom. You’d have him for a year, maybe two at most. Long enough to make your husband a believer, for certain, and perhaps a good deal of money as well.” He winked conspiratorially. “What do you say?”
“What did she do?” her grandson asked, finding himself completely engaged in her story. The papers in his pocket forgotten, he leaned forward to better hear her words.
“She bought time,” she answered. “She told him she’d need a couple of days to think about his proposal. He was not happy, as you can imagine, but for reasons of good form I suppose he agreed and went away. He told her he’d be back in 48 hours to make the final arrangements with her, as if her decision-making were but a formality. Needless to say when she went back inside there was no sleep to be had that night. Clearly she had landed herself in league with a nasty individual, and whether he was typical of their kind or not, she needed to figure out a way out of the bargain he was proposing.”
“The two days allotted her went by quickly, and even her husband commented that she was unusually quiet and withdrawn. In the evening she didn’t go outside as usual to watch the fairies fly. Instead she stayed in, sitting in an old rocking chair and thinking. When the night came for Rue to return, she was ready to tell him no and face his wrath. Or so she thought.”
“As soon as her husband commenced to snore, she was up and outside on the porch. The moon was still mostly full, missing only a sliver from one side as if sliced by a saber. Precisely 48 hours since she had seen him last, Prince Rue once again walked out of the trees, this time with a cadre of servants pulling a small cart. When he arrived at the steps he stopped, and she saw that on the cart was the prostrate body of another fairy. He was bruised and bloody, his clothing torn and ragged. Golden hair flowed around his beautiful face like water. Delicate wings were bent haphazardly under him, poking out at odd and unnatural angles. The woman gasped. “He hasn’t been drugged.”
“Well, no,” Rue replied, looking very satisfied with himself. “In fact, he wasn’t terribly inclined to drink with me tonight, so I had to resort to, shall we say, more primitive measures to subdue him. Be that as it may, however, here he is. He is your property now, bound by the terms of our agreement.”
“I haven’t made any agreement with you,” she replied. “I asked you for two days to think it over.”
“A mere formality, I think we’d both agree,” he answered. “You and I both know that if you don’t have something to show your husband, he’ll soon come to the conclusion that you are in fact, a lunatic. You’ll be put away in a hospital, never to come home again. Don’t be ridiculous, now. You don’t even know my brother. Better his life than yours, wouldn’t you say?”
"What he said was true, and she knew it. Her husband had been suspicious for months, since she’d first mentioned any idea of fairies in their back yard, and without some sort of proof he was likely to be forever watching her for signs of a mental breakdown. She went inside and brought out an old birdcage that had been packed away. “Alright,” she said, feeling guilty and slightly sick. Rue smiled triumphantly and ordered his servants to pick up the injured fairy and place it inside the cage. They looked at one another with worried, anxious faces, and ran from the cage after he’d been deposited. Rue bowed gracefully, his silver eyes flashing. “Remember our bargain,” he said. “Do not let my brother escape. Kill him first.”
“The woman turned away, feeling as if she had just made a deal with the devil. Even though she hadn’t had much say in the matter and it appeared too late now to change her mind anyway, nothing could assuage her shame and remorse. She took a deep breath and looked back at the prince. “I don’t like you,” she said, quietly. “I’ll take him, because I believe that otherwise you’d kill him yourself, but I think what you’ve done is despicable. Please leave.”
“His eyes darkened, and his face turned sour and angry. “As you wish, lady” he said, backing away. “Just remember, your wish can be taken away as easily as it can be granted. That’s my promise to you.” He turned, and without so much as a glance at his brother, vanished into the woods as silently as he had come.”
“She brought the cage inside and set it on the kitchen table, turning on a nearby lamp in order to get a better look at her captive. He was still unconscious, but alive, as she could see his chest moving up and down rhythmically. The blood from his wounds had dried to a red crust on his clothes, which were far more understated than the ones worn by Rue. She didn’t touch him for fear of waking him, thinking instead to tend to whatever needs he had when he woke up on his own. Her heart beat loudly inside her chest as she put a small padlock on the door, covered the cage with a sheet, and went to bed. Of course, she didn’t sleep a wink. She was excited, and afraid, wondering if she should wake her husband now or wait until morning. She decided to wait, lying awake and playing out the scene in her head of his waking up to see what she had in the birdcage. She would finally be vindicated.”
“Hours later she heard a loud noise from the kitchen, followed by banging and crashing to raise the dead. She knew what she’d find before her feet hit the floor. Throwing on her bathrobe she ran into the room and switched on the overhead light.”
“Ahhhhhhh!” The scream hit her ears like fingernails across a blackboard. The tinny buzzing she’d heard in Rue’s laugh was amplified, and it made her ears throb and her spine ache. It was the most horrible sound she’d ever heard.”
“Another crash followed. She looked around the room but only saw him as a streak, tearing around cupboards and throwing glasses and knickknacks onto the floor. “Turn off that light!” he screamed.”
“She ignored him, looking around instead for some object to use as a weapon. Her eyes fell to the cage on the floor, a tangled mess of wires and broken metal. She had clearly made a terrible, terrible mistake.”
“Turn it off! Turn it off!” the fairy screeched, whizzing around her head. Something hit her, and she heard a glass break at her feet. Warm blood oozed down her neck. She picked up the broom near the door and started swatting, missing him by a long shot each time. He darted about, picking up small objects and throwing them at her. The sharp buzzing sound filled her ears and vibrated the decorative plates on the walls. She was terrified.”
“You can’t keep a fairy captive!” he yelled at her. “Are you dim?”
“Your brother took you captive!” she screamed back. “He nearly killed you!”
“He stopped, and the room was suddenly quiet. Shaking, the woman listened for sounds of her husband roaring down the hall full of wrath. Miraculously she heard nothing but a muted snoring sound from the other end of the house. She let out a breath.”
“The fairy stopped in front of her, hovering and glowering at eye level. “My brother?”
“Yes,” she answered. “Your brother. He brought you here tonight, bleeding and bruised, and had you placed in that cage. He made me swear to never let you free and told me to kill you if you tried to escape.” She held the broom in both hands, ready to strike if necessary. Her hands shook violently. “He gave me no choice,” she said, feebly. “I thought if I didn’t take you he would kill you anyway.”
The fairy touched the bloody lump on the back of his skull and winced. He landed on the kitchen table silently and stood with is hands on his hips. His golden hair was a tangled mess, falling to his hips in thick knots. He looked at her severely. “I have no way of determining your true motives,” he said after a moment. “But I certainly know that it is within the realm of possibility that my brother would want me dead. Therefore, my only option is to offer you something better than he in exchange for my freedom. What was promised to you?”
“Simply that I would have you as proof to show my husband,” she answered hesitantly. “He said I was free to do with you what I wished, but he warned me never to let you go. If you live I’m afraid…” She paused. “I’m afraid he’ll take his revenge on me.”
“Worry not about that,” he said. He looked away in thought, turning back to her after a moment with a stare so powerful she shivered. “To begin I can offer you my promise of protection. Rue will never be a threat to you. In the matter of your husband, unfortunately, I’m afraid I cannot help. It is forbidden, as you can imagine, to display ourselves in such a vulgar and unseemly manner. I can however, offer you something else in exchange for your trouble. A single wish.”
The woman felt hope spring into her chest. “What do I have to do?”
“Nothing more than allow me to leave,” he answered. “When you are ready, simply speak your wish to the winds and it will be granted. I consider it a small price to pay for your silence and assistance.”
Her grandson started, realizing that he had leaned so far forward he’d nearly fallen out of his seat. “What did she do?” he asked.
"What else?” the old woman replied. “She agreed. It was the only option, really. She hadn’t the heart to kill something so beautiful, and she had known that from the start. Whether his promise of the wish was true or not meant nothing, so long as her family would be safe. He thanked her, and rose into the air preparing to leave, but she stopped before opening the door. “May I ask your name?” she asked.
“Bliss,” he answered, “Pleased to make your acquaintance...” He paused.
“Miriam,” she replied. “Thank you, Prince Bliss.” She opened the door.
He looked at her and smiled wistfully. “My thanks to you as well, Lady Miriam,” he answered. He bowed gracefully before turning once more to the door. “Until another time.”
“Did she ever see the fairies again?” the young man asked, coming slowly out of her spell. It was nearly dark now; only the softest orange glow in the west remained of the day. Crickets chirped in rhythm with the breezes, and through the trees he saw fireflies darting in and out of visibility. He reached into his pocket for the papers and the pen. He hated himself for doing it, but the decision was out of his hands.
She looked at him, staring with an intensity that burned through the twilight. “Every night,” she breathed, her words floating in the darkening air. “Every night she came and sat on the porch after the children were in bed and the husband had been attended to, and she watched them fly. How beautiful they were, so free and so graceful. They never age, you know. Even now they are as lovely and young as they were sixty years ago.” She paused again, looking down at her hands. “Time passed, of course, and her children grew up and moved away. Eventually her husband died, and by that time she was too old and set in her ways to care about his opinion of anything anyway. So, she continued to watch them every evening as some people watch the skies for rain, and tried not to think of what might have been. Her life had been mapped, and she accepted it with as much dignity as possible.” She looked up at her grandson and smiled with resignation in her eyes. “Hand me the papers boy.” She signed, her hand shaky but legible.
“What about Prince Rue?” her grandson asked, unable to control his curiosity. He wanted to remember the details, so he could retell the story later to his wife.
“A few days later she found his coat, bloodied and torn, lying on the grass near the back steps,” she replied. “She burned it in the trash pile, hoping it meant that Bliss had kept his promise.”
“And the wish?” he asked, softly.
“Ah, the wish,” she laughed, a thin, papery sound that floated above his head. “Yes, I do believe it’s time for that part.” She looked out in the trees, the breeze lifting her silver hair in wisps around her head. The man followed her gaze, only partially hearing her next words. “I wish...”
When he turned again to look at her, the rocking chair was empty. Fireflies danced around the porch, suddenly numbering in the thousands, and the young man sat back, in awe, and watched them.