This is a tale told by the fragile lines of hoverfly wings, cast swiftly in darting shadows . . .
A long-limbed girl was first to reach the Chapel-in-the-Sands the afternoon this tale was told. She ran ahead of her family, a magazine of pink and twinkling paper clutched to her heart.
Before anyone could overhear, she whispered to the Pilgrim. ‘Have you ever met anyone who could see fairies?Tell us a story about them – please don’t say I suggested it though.’
The Pilgrim gave a smile edged with sorrow. ‘I have but you might not like the truth of it.’
The girl-not-yet-a-woman sat down, eyes wide with hope and poured over her pretty, lying pages. Other listeners arrived and the Pilgrim began:
Mary Palmer was cleansing dishes when her vision came. Her sight drifted through a lead-latticed window, green and feathery with the fronds of overgrown fennel, and over the herb garden. The vision hovered bright as a brimstone butterfly, holding her gaze as a baby enchants a mother. Mary’s hands steeped in the sudsy water, the plate and cloth let to slide below.
A book of great beauty opened before her. Its pages fanned past, full of fairy stories and tales traded from far-off lands. Gold leaf and scarlet cinnabar, yellow orpiment and the splendid blue of ground lapis lazuli gleamed there, bright as stained glass. But there was nothing pious about it. Distorted creatures frolicked along the margins, their long fingers inviting her to peer closer. The illuminations’ flickering loveliness were windows into the realms of the Grey Folk.
She stared in delight and wonder, a girl again. Then small crabbed words appeared between the lines – as secret lemon juice letters are conjured by the heat of a candle flame. Her father’s handwriting told true stories of those we did not name for fear. The plain letters reminded her what bastards those creatures of beauty and glamour could be. How easily they clambered over mortal bones to reach their glittering crowns. How we stood back to admire their painted thrones and listened to their illusion-woven voices.
Once read, his words could not be unseen nor forgot. They crept in her skull, insistent as the tendrils of ivy among knapped flints. Each revelation scuttled beneath an old tale, scratching out a warning. She wept as the book closed and faded: both exquisite and destructive, its loss hurt like birth.
She came to, and her hands carried on cleaning. Ever after, she knew the Grey Folk for what they were. They could not pass incognito among their prey, studying the ways of mortals for their sport, without her seeing them. She was her father’s daughter after all, and could never deny their existence.
With thanks to Sebastian Baczkiewicz for inspiration ( see below).
Header image by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash