At eight years old, Fay sits on her papa’s knee and is fascinated by the mouse sleeping on his lip. She watches the way its soft brown fur ripples when he breathes and twitches when he smiles. It occurs to her that there should not be a mouse on her papa’s lip, that the mouse should have a nice comfy hole, padded with straw, to sleep in. So she reaches up and pulls, but the mouse won’t come off.
“Ow, ow, ow!” her papa cries and pulls her hand away. He squints one eye at her and wags his finger. “Oh, you are a naughty, naughty little sprite to pull my mustache.”
Her papa has a twinkle in his eye, so Fay knows that he’s not really angry, but she blushes in shame and says, just above a whisper, “I just wanted to take the mouse off your lip.”
Her papa laughs, he laughs so hard he rocks backward and the rocking makes her bounce. He laughs and laughs and the laughing is good, so Fay laughs, too.
Fay carries the magazine proudly to her papa and spreads its crème pages out in front of him. She points to a picture of a photograph of a girl with fairies dancing around her. “Look, papa,” she says. “They’re real.”
Papa puts down his tea -- the cup makes a singing clinking sound as it settles on the saucer -- and glances at the page. He harrumphs and leans back. “You see, Bonnie,” he says, gesturing to the photographs and speaking to Fay’s mama, “you see the mess spiritualists like Doyle get us into. They promote fabricated photographs, like these Cottingley fairies, and make a mockery of real science.”
Mama picks up the magazine and looks at the picture. “Yes, I see. Though, they are quite convincing,” she says, smiling at Fay, as she folds it closed. “I can see how one might think them real.”
“Don’t encourage her,” papa says, picking up the magazine and dropping it on the side table. “We’re at the beginning of a new century and it’s time to shed off such nonsense.”
Fay looks up at the pages of the magazine, hanging just off the edge of the shelf and out of her reach. Papa turns to Fay, pats her on the head, and says, “Mark my words, little sprite, they’ll turn out to be fake. There are no such things as fairies.”
3. Treasure Drawers
Her papa’s study is a cave of mysteries. It smells of furniture polish and old leather and something vinegary she can’t name. Dim light filters through the curtains making everything seem to glow. Various objects line the shelves and table -- brass apparatuses and contraptions and jars with eerie specimens, some desiccated and suspended in air, some floating in hazy liquid, all watching her slip secretly into the room. On one wall hang cases of vibrant, glittering butterflies and moths pinned to boards.
Fay turns about the room in wonder and tiptoes over to a chest of drawers as tall as she is. She pulls at one of the lower tabs. The drawer slides an inch, then sticks. Fay yanks harder and the drawer opens so fast it nearly knocks her over. An inner latch is the only thing keeping the drawer from toppling out completely.
Inside the drawer are many treasures, kept safe behind a glass lid. Stones and specimens of various sizes sit on green felt with little paper tags with tall curving script she cannot read.
Fay jumps. Her papa is a shadow in the open doorway behind her. “Papa,” she says, too filled with wonder to be afraid at being caught in the one place she was not supposed to be. “You have treasures.”
He strides over to her and kneels down. “Yes, and these treasures are not for young girls, not even little sprites, like you.” He starts to close the drawer slowly shut.
“But what are they?” She points to a stone that spirals out and out and out from the center. “What is that?”
Her papa stops and looks to where she’s pointing. “An ammonite. It’s an invertebrate sea creature from the Paleozoic period.”
“No. But it used to be.”
Fay points to another one of the treasures. “And that? Is that an amma--, an amma--“
“Is that one of those, too?”
Her papa chuckles. “No. That’s a nautiloid.”
“Oh.” Fay points to brown squiggly lump in the case. “And that? What’s that?”
“What is that?”
“That . . .” Her papa wrinkles his nose and offered her a mischievous smile. “That is not for a polite little girl’s ears.” He closes the drawer and pushes her in the direction of the door. “Now off with you.”
Because her sister Annie is bigger, Fay must run slightly to keep up. The woods around their house are tall and a large and green. They are deep and mysterious as the woods in stories. Though Annie says they are not woods, they are only a copse of trees.
Fay stomps along, liking the pinching and squeaking of her new boots, which Evangeline, their nanny, told her not to wear except for Sundays. “Evangeline says there are lots of fairies in the woods.”
Annie sighs and grasps Fay’s hand. “Keep up. We’re almost to the creek.”
“Evangeline says there are lots of fairies and never to go in mushroom rings and to always keep iron in our pockets, cause they don’t like it. And . . ., and we should always say our prayers.” Fay tries to stop and look at some blue bells bobbing their heads under the trees, but her sister drags her on.
“Evangeline is superstitious,” says Annie. “Papa says so.”
“But I want to see the fairies. I want them to play with me.”
“Papa says there are no fairies.”
Fay pulls free and leaps between the trees, searching the grass and growth for mushroom rings.
“Fay!” Annie calls, but Fay ignores her. She skips through the trees and clambers over stumps and smells the wild flowers, which are bright and happy in the dappled light.
Suddenly Fay stops and shouts, “Look! Look! I found one. I found one.” She points to a ring of mushrooms on the ground.
Annie comes up behind her, huffing slightly. “So. It’s just mushrooms.”
“It’s a ring, though. If we hop inside we can see the fairies, like Evangeline said.”
“Evangeline said the fairies would kidnap you and take you away and you’d never come back. Besides Evangeline’s wrong, cause there are no fairies.”
“Yes. There. Are.”
“No. There are not.” Annie strides over to the ring and kicks its edge, sending the mottled brown and white heads flying into the grass.
Fay looks at the decapitated mushrooms and starts to cry.
“Hush, hush,” says Annie as she wraps her arms around Fay, trying to placate her. “I’m sorry. It’s just mushrooms. Hush, now, let’s go play by the creek like we said.”
5. A Short Stroll
Papa shrugs his coat on and reaches for his cane.
“Where are you going?” Fay pounces down the stairs toward him in her dressing gown.
Papa yelps softly at the sound and then harrumphs. “All little sprites should be in bed.”
“Can I come?” Fay pouts her lip and flutters her eyes in a pleading manner.
“Certainly not.” He reaches for his bowler hat and tips it onto his head. “I’m just going for a short stroll in the garden. Now up you go up to bed, and goodnight.”
“Okay, but don’t go that way.” Fay points toward the back of the house. “Cause Evangeline says that's where the fairies are.” She turns around and hops up the stairs, one by one. She hears the front door open and then click closed as she reaches the top step.
In the bedroom, Fay kneels at the window seat and peers out into the garden. Her papa strolls along the walkway below, lit by the glow of the house windows. He swings his cane and twirls it in a full circle, which makes Fay smile.
She presses her face to the glass and huffs her breath, spreading a cloud on the pane. She wipes it clean and sees a bright light as big as a tennis ball, dancing among the bushes in the garden. Fay catches her breath.
Her papa walks near the light, not seeming to notice it zip around and past him and finally disappearing into the dark beneath the trees. He changes course, stepping off the path and strolling into the shadows after it. The last thing Fay sees are his black coattails flapping, vanishing between the trees.
Fay runs from the window to the stairs. She sits on the top step, propping her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands, so that she can watch the door. She can’t wait for her papa to come home, so he can tell her all about the fairies.
6. No More Games
After several days, her mama calls on friends and eventually the police to find papa. The police stand straight and tall in the middle of the drawing room, making her mama look small. They have long sticks and big black boots so shiny you can see your face in them.
Fay doesn’t like them. They have deep, rumbling voices and call her mama “ma’am” as they ask questions about her papa. They make her mama cry.
“Richard is a good husband. He loves his family,” mama says, angry. “He wouldn’t just run off, not to New York, not to anywhere.”
“I understand, ma’am. We’re merely asking the questions required--”
“Mama.” She tugs on her mama’s dress. “Mama, it was the fairies.”
“Fay, please. Not now.” She unknots Fay’s fingers and picks her up, passing her over to her sister. “Take your sister upstairs, Annie.”
Annie takes Fay’s hand and drags her upstairs to their bedroom. “Don’t talk about the fairies anymore. No more fairies.”
“But, Annie, it was the fairies. I saw them. We just have to go ask them for papa to come--.”
“Stop it, Fay. No more games.”
Annie slaps her, leaving a bright red mark on her cheek. Fay presses her lips together and refuses to cry. He papa is with the fairies. She knows it. And one day she will find the fairies and bring him back.
[To read more Fay Fairburn Stories click here.]