The Faery Cry
The first time that she saw him, it was by the brook-side, with the sunset going down above the trees, and the smoothed granite rocks slipping in melted-candle layers down into the shimmering darkness of the stream. Nearly within reach, on the far side of the water, stood a man with hair like spun tar strung behind him in the wind, and a figure, clothed in shadows, at his feet. A woman, obscured by rags, with one slender hand reaching up like a beggar on the point of death.
The image was gone in a flicker of a moment; an extinguished candle. Not a footprint dampened the white-antlered lichens that clung to the rocks where she had seen him standing. She waded through the stream's cool waters, and collected a little of the lichen in her hand. Her fingers twisted through it, the slender branches crumbling with a scent like calcified mushrooms or musty bones. Then she turned back on the swiftly setting sun, and returned home, half-convinced that it had been a trick of imagination, or of light.
She was in her fifteenth year, unaware that she was not yet an adult, still strongly immersed in the faery world of children. Of course by the time that she had returned home, to the comfortable monotony of mahogany-colored living rooms and badly tuned pianos, she did not believe that she had seen a thing. The supernatural was either closer than skin, or distant as the quadratic equation. A plaything of the imagination; utterly rejected by reason. It was refuted by the little popsicle-stick craft-show sculptures that hung turning in the breeze, by the sound of a car chugging emphysemically down the highway. Modernity had erased it.
She laid back in the moth-scented hammock on the front porch and watched the dark ghosts of amplified insects fluttering in the streetlight across the road, and fell just far enough asleep that she couldn't be sure whether she heard a voice whispering to her, or just a dream.
There is a voice that calls the young on the threshold of maturity. It may be goblins winding through the glen, heaping platters of quince and dates, and crying, "Come buy, come buy." It may be the faery whisper that the world's more full of weeping than we can understand. Or the nightingale pouring forth his soul abroad. They all sing the same song, in the end: a song of loving death more sweet than life. A call to wander in the wild, away from home. A call to cold water and eternal sleep.
She had thought that it would leave her when she returned home. The voice that had whispered by the wandering brookside, over rock as ancient as the continent, seemed a product of its place. It did not belong amongst piles of homework, or the wide-eyed panting of the television screen.
There comes a time, however, when the country house falls quiet. The parents safely sleep. The clicking of a broken clock on the mantel grinds out the midnight hour. And the young woman supposedly sleeping in the basement sits up, reading Wuthering Heights by the light of a shuddering candle, and hears the fingers tapping at the window. She sees it for a trick. The mind has read too much of ghosts and fiendish longing, and wishes to go and free itself amongst the moors.
She reminded herself that there were no moors to be found outside of her window. The red-orange pallor of a street light. The long, black highways stretching towards town. Not even an old crooked beech tree whose spirit might be testing the nerves of those within. She closed her book, and blew out the candle.
In the darkness, in the silence, she heard the voice more clearly. It was not her own, sounding merely in her head, nor was it some half-remembered dream. Whispering of love, it called her to the woods. She pulled her blankets up over her ears and tried to pretend that she didn't hear.
The moonlight had become so tangled in the branches of the trees that she could not make out the path ahead of her. The way was in blackness, except when she looked up. She could not see where her feet were falling, and only by the crunch of leaves left from last autumn, the swept-bare shuffling of packed dirt, could she tell if she was on the path or off. The woods was one that she knew well. Her childhood fort had been in the tree to the side, the one that had been so bent that you could walk its bark-stripped trunk as though it were a rainbow, and find gold-pots buried in the damp earth at the end. Ahead was the tree like Jacob's ladder that reached up to the heavens, and from whose swaying arms you could see the whole world stretching out below. She should have been able to navigate with confidence, but found that she could not. Fear stretched itself tight in her heart, and finally she could not force herself to go forward even another step.
She lay down, then, not certain why she was doing so. The last of the summer shoots were still poking through the earth, and she could feel the soft, damp foliage, and the dry, aging earth as it sagged beneath her weight. She longed to lie there 'til the worms had found her flesh, until the tree-roots tangled in her ribs, and flowers nodded on her breast. Whomever it was that had called her, she knew that he was here, breathing with the wind through the trees, and murmuring in the distant water running in the brook.
Come away oh human child, to the water and the wild, with the faery hand in hand, for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. She could not remember, not a second after he had spoken, precisely what he said. It was not in words such as men speak with, but in the voice of a wild and distant world, or else through poetry. She could recall the content. He loved her with a desperate love; the love of John Keats clinging to Fanny's hand when he lay dying of tuberculosis; the love of Heathcliff begging Catherine to haunt him after death. He loved her with all the depth of his being—and yet they were forever separated, kept apart by chains of mortal life. He knew, he said, what dreams would come when she had shuffled off this mortal coil, and he promised a life together, unending, full of the gloom and beauty of the night. A life beyond the severing of the veins.
Night after night, he came to her, and the shadows wound around her waking world. She ate little, eschewed sunlight, dressed in mourning not for another's death, but for her own life. In the cold of winter, she refused to wear a coat, preferring the feel of the biting wind through clothing. Pale, distant, heartsick, she grew, as though she had feasted on goblin fruit and could savor nothing in the living world.
And so it was, one night, in the coldest of January, that she took a pocket-knife and sliced open the screen of her bedroom window, and climbed into the night. The lone streetlight hung ponderously over the worn asphalt and muddied drifts. She walked down the thinly shoveled path, towards the woods.
This time the moonlight was thicker than before, and the tangle of the branches overhead stripped to a host of skeletal arms. The path had been trodden down, and thick snow piled on either side, slippery and dangerous, but easily discerned. She picked her way along it without thought, looking glassily into the distance. He had become so real, so close beside her that she could feel his long coat brushing the backs of her ankles, and could almost see him from the corner of her eye. Not as clear as he had been in that vision, standing beside the brook in the summer. But nearly. And much closer.
She could feel him standing there, his eyes on her as she arrived at the side of the creek and took off her clothes and lay down in the water. The shock of the cold spread like a whip-crack over her skin, but then there was numbness. She laid her head back in the water and let it carry her hair downstream, like a pre-Raphealite Ophelia. It was almost tempting to remain there, still and shivering, until the ice consumed her body and dragged her life away. She could feel his impatience, though: a hunger, almost frightening. The little pocket knife still nestled in her hand. He said nothing, but she could hear him murmuring in the swelling water, could see his writing in the cloud that drifted over the moon. He wanted her to slide the blade out of its sheath, the cold metal to penetrate her ice-numbed skin, and her life to drain out quickly, in a stream of blood.
She lifted her hands up out of the current. Unprotected by the water, she could feel the cold of wind as she opened the knife. The blade did not glint dully in the moonlight. It was completely black. A wedge of shadow against the light. She saw him clearly, now, standing above her on the banks. His eyes were not the loving-black pools that she had pictured in her dreams. They were cold and silver, and his face utterly impenetrable except for a vaguely predatory sneer. A moment of pure despair seized her freezing heart. She gripped the knife and held it over the vein.
A flickering of candlelight. The scent of hot mint tea. A blanket wrapped around shuddering shoulders. The feel of tears streaming down her face. She didn't know how she got back home. The knife was closed, laid on a table near her bed. The blue peacock tea-pot was warm and full. She realized that she must have been back for some time. Trepidly, she turned up her arm, expecting to find bandages and blood. There was no wound. Cold white skin stretched over a too-thin arm. Blood still pumping softly through the veins. She was safe, incomprehensibly. She laid back, wracked with sobs, then finally sat up, and drank a cup of tea, to warm her muscles and still her nerves. When she was quiet, she laid down again and blew out the candle. There, in the darkness, as she slowly drifted towards sleep, she could see the outline of a figure standing in the corner. No longer a lover. Silver-eyed, dispassionate, still. Waiting.
A hundred years he had lain in the water, a hundred years since he himself had come to the stream. It had in those days roared like a torrent, before its tributaries had been stifled, and a wooden bridge had stretched across the frothing wave, looking down on the verdurous windings of endless forest glades. He had come in the autumn, in the season of lost-love's stinging, surrounded by moonlight and the nightingale's song, and with the words of the poets raging in his blood, had thrown himself over the edge.
Five times already he had broken his loneliness, and the wind now sang with the songs of those who had come before. Maidens, foolish as the woodcock when he juts his bobbing head over the shooter's range. Faithless as the pale moon on whose tides ships shiver and are smashed against the rocks. Beloved and betrothed, and yet to him they came, down into the rolling waters, and gave him their lives.
He had clung to them with fingers of algae, purple-black, had held them fast against his bony breast, had felt, but for a moment, the warmth of living air as their last breaths rested like a kiss upon his dead lips. But their warmth had quickly fled, leaving behind nothing save the loathsome damp of ghosts and stone.
Younger he had called them, and younger still, seeking the purest maiden blood of youth, called them soft names in many a mused rhyme, and stolen their hearts before the first spring of earthly love had bloomed. But with this one he had been too quick. The brook had been too shrunken, with no currents to hold her fast, and the seeping of her life across his bones had been like long-dead lover's cold breath curling through the night. He had longed for something richer: the broken vein, the leaking blood, the taste of metal swirling in the stream, and the heady wine of quick, cold, draining death.
Now the spell was fractured, like the last, gray ice of winter, and the song would echo dimmer in her heart when he tried to call her back.
On a rock beside the stream she sat, with an old book in her hands, and though the light poured through his transient form, and cast him like a shadow on the sky, he ventured out to speak to her again. "That I might leave the world unseen," he quoted, "and with thee fade away into the forest dim..."
She said nothing, her head lowered, as though she hadn't heard him, and he could see the story that she read: Christ in the garden, surrounded by the moonlight, with the olive branches singing in the sultry eastern breeze, and Jerusalem beneath him preparing for the feast, with drops of sweat falling like blood from his brow.
"Even he knew," he said, "that 'life is but a walking shadow.' Take up the cross, and lose your life, and eat the flesh, and drink the blood. The extinguished Buddha's candle. The flickering of Brahma's eye. Ragnarök, where the gods themselves are vanquished. 'Death closes all.' It is the last star shimmering on the western horizon. The port for which the tethered trireme groans. In all striving and seeking, all men yield to death."
"'Do not go gentle into that good night'," she said.
"You find Christ beautiful, clothed in suffering, sweating his sorrow out amongst the trees. But what of heaven? Brightness? Glory? Endless day? You know the day ill-suits your soul, my love."
When she said nothing he continued, "Tell, have you not known enough of pain? Not trolled the deeps of human suffering? Not tasted rain and found it to be tears? By the darkest depths of sulfur-breathing hell, I tell you, I cannot bear to be apart. 'I cannot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul!' I would forgive you even that—forgive you abandoning me. But to watch you 'grow pale and specter thin and die'—not the body; the cage of clay, but the spirit housed within it, crumbling to decay. The world was not meant for such beauty. It cannot hold, cannot sustain. It will weather you away, like the sea eroding Venice."
"Don't talk to me," she said, "of love and souls and beauty. You don't love me. You don't deceive me. You have been unmasked." Then she unlaced her boot and dipped her foot into the stream. The water was cold, the ice only just breaking, and swirling snow-flake crystals melted against her ankle until it had grown numb. The stream was wider now, the current stronger, and with all his will he wished to seize and drag her in, but all the tendrils of the stream-bottom were dead, and there was nothing to twine around her taunting foot.
After the point when the mirror cracks, the goblin cry echoes no longer in the glen, the music passes and is heard no more, and for a time it seems the maiden has escaped. He found her looking less and less towards him, growing no longer pale but bright, and the fullness of youth lit her lips and kindled her eyes. No longer could he woo her with hymns of darkness, nor meditations on the torments of the day.
But curses are not lightly lifted, nor fairies turned aside by rational disdain. If she would not come willing, there were other ways to draw her, to darken life with shadow and drown beauty with despair. And so he wove a wreath of darkest algaes, of curling leeches and deep-down gurgling things, and into them he breathed the voice of lamentation, and poured the tears of maidens lured beneath his depths, until the wreathes were given life, and noisome spirits nourished at their breast, and these he whispered off into the night, to torment her with nightmares and sate themselves on fear.
Nightly they came back, dripping with terror like thick, rich oil, or bloated and heavy with rank despair. Now when she came beside him in the last of fading winter, she was no longer bright and lovely, but bare and sear as tundra valleys fading into night. She sat by his side like a black Narcissus, not in love with her own beauty, but in hate. Robbed of sleep, and gloom-entranced in waking, like a lily with a broken stem, she leaned over the stream of life and could not drink.
She came for the last time to the brookside when the first spring lilies pushed their green heads through the muddy soil. New growth sprouted from the up-turned roots of the old dead tree that lay across the brook. It was sunrise, but not rosy: a gray, gasping dawn glimmering dully on the swollen stream. The waters swept hungrily along the banks, churlish eddies tearing up grasses and flinging them careless on the turbid foam.
But though the dark stream clawed at the ground beneath her feet, though it beckoned her to join the branches swept downstream, though it called to her with frothing lips and silver eyes, she would not take a step over the brink, nor dip a finger in the churning wave.
She stood as the sun rose high above the clouds, surrounded by the gloom of a thickening morning mist. At noon she heard her name called from a distant road, her mother's voice as thin and desperate as a crow's. But it faded, and still she stood, glassy-countenanced beneath the heavy sky. In the water, all the world's misfortune swept before her eyes, love extinguished and all living hope dissolved.
Slowly the day dwindled, its light faded away, and night crept in with shadows numberless. Still she stood, motionless, unmoving, until the dark had settled on her shoulders and a wreath of shadows twined about her head. She stood until he rose again before her, gaunt and violent as a late winter storm. And still she stood when his voice solidified around her, black tendrils like seaweed drifting through the air, twisting to ensnare her throat and arms. She stood as the current of his curses dragged her towards the stream, staring down at the turbulent waters darkening in the night. Silent, she stood, but his threatening could not move her, his tugging hate remove her, his curses not reprove her—on the bank, within his grasp, she stood but would not enter, until her toes had put down roots, her ankles sunk and grown into the ground. Deep into his breast she sank her roots, and drained from him the life that he had stolen, stretched her branches out above him, and for a hundred years stared down into the water, silver-barked, returning spite for spite.
It was thus that I met her, as I sat on the stones beside the sparkling water, with the spring leaves slowly blooming into summer. I saw, for an instant, a face reflected—a dark eyed woman standing over a demon's grave; the face of a drowned man shimmering beneath her. The wind in the branches whispered sighingly of love, and a single fruit dangled, silver-downed above me, ripened out of season, sweet to tongue and eye. And I, a human child, by the water, in the wild, heard the faery cry "Come buy," and plucked the fruit, and sucked it dry, with stained mouth and lustrous eye—and now the tree and stream reply, "Seems it not rich, my love, to die?"
Melinda Selmys is the mother of four children: a valkyrie, a princess, a sage and a dragonslayer. She enjoys aesthetic critical theory, home-made liqueurs, and crypto-zoology. Her work can also be found in Byzarium, and in the upcoming Pirate Issue of Shimmer.
Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.
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Fiction Copyright © 2008 Melinda Selmys. All rights reserved.