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Jack-of-Ivy

It was spring, of course.

Lisette, six and golden, Lisette with eyes the color of forget-me-nots, twirled under the white-flowering tree. She threw fistfuls of dogwood blossoms into the air crying, “Fairy snow! Fairy snow!”

She bent little, she bent low, she crept about the yard, looking here, looking there, examining and exploring. She found the edges of the unfenced yard where it bordered on the wood, where the ivy grew thick and the fallen logs that barely remembered their treehood were bearded with moss.

“Ooh,” she said. She crawled closer.

Her mother opened the screen door to check on her. Her mother tucked brown hair behind her ears, watching.

“Don’t go too far. And stand up. You’re getting your clothes all dirty.”

“Mama, there’s fairies here!”

“Silly girl,” Mama said.

“No, Mama. There’s fairy eyes. I seen them.”

“You saw them,” her mother corrected. “And no you didn’t, you big silly.”

“Green and sparkly,” Lisette said.

“It’s probably a nasty raccoon. It might bite you. Come on back now, Doodle-bug,” her Mama crooned.

Lisette stood up. Her golden hair, all curls and wisps and uncombed sweetness, fell to her shoulders, twigs and grass tangled up in it. She didn’t brush them out.

That’s when I fell in love with her. She looked like one of us but golden. Small and perfect. She belonged with us and not with the woman who knotted the towel while she waited for the child—knot spells are strong; maybe the woman knew I was there and was trying to capture me. She would make Lisette go back inside, into the house, all walled within, when she belonged with us out in the green and wide.

Her mother ruffled Lisette’s head. How I longed to touch that silky softness for myself! Finer than moss it looked, that golden hair!

“It’s dinner time, my fairy fay. Let’s go.”

The mother sang then, some rite I suppose that indoors people use, with magic words in it I didn’t understand. “Singing Polly Wolly Doodle alladay.”

It made Lisette giggle, so I guessed it was a laughter-spell. I wished I could remember it all; a laughter spell’s always a useful thing to know.

“Bye, my fairy,” sweet Lisette called to me.

I could not call back and attract the mother’s notice, but my tail curled in pleasure, and my ears wriggled in delight, and my eyes shone brighter than bright, and my heart leapt in its love like a summer-drunk cricket.

#

When I returned to the glade, it was dark and moonshine. I stayed to the shadows and said not a word, my love burned in me so. I just listened to the others’ songs and chatter.

“Jack-of-Ivy, why do you sit there mum as mugwort?” Crocus-Cap asked.

At first I wanted to clutch it in my claws and hold it close, close, this love of mine, morning-glory new and precious. But then it tickled my throat and begged to burst out, till I shouted, “I love! I love!”

With curious coo and nicker, they crept near.

“Tell us!” they asked, and I did, I told about my love for Lisette, the fair child in the house beyond.

When they learned she was a human child, they grunted and cackled.

“Fool!” cawed Johnny Crow-Feathers and flapped away, disgusted.

“They’re dangerous,” Morning-Moonbeam said. “They’ll sap the green right out of you.”

“They break our hearts,” Faith-o-Fern said.

“They break them,” Billy Birch agreed, “then they grind the bits to powder. They mix it into milk, and drink it down, and then where are you, Jack my lad? No good can come of it.”

“No good!” they all rumbled, stomping their feet.

I harrumphed and curled my tail up tight, tight, tight.

“Have you never heard the tales, Jack-of-Ivy?” Morning-Moonbeam said. “Have you never heard how a man once stole a selchie’s skin—stole it! Hid it! Kept her as his slave! And when she pined for waterwilds, he burned it, burned it! Left her webless, full of woe, done and shamed, and all the green burnt out of her! Leave this girl be. Think not of her again!”

“Beware!” Snow-Blink warned.

“Just tales,” I snarled, although I know the power of tales, and how they’re woven from the silks of truths, but still, I knew the goodness of Lisette and how my love was pure and would keep me safe.

#

The next day I returned to her yard. It was autumn and Lisette was eight, bigger, and her hair less golden, but still my beautiful child and heart’s delight.

She waded through the ivy thick and green, and came out the other side into the wood where I hid. She balanced on the tops of logs, my graceful girl, and rarely fell, and when she did she never cried like some puny human thing but just got up again. She danced, she danced—oh, as I knew she would!

And then she sang. “Pollywolly doodle alla day.” The laughing spell, and it worked!
“Hee, hee,” I gave myself away.

“Who’s there?” she asked. “Is anyone there?”

“Me, me,” I whispered, but we were still too close to houses and yards. I felt shy and scared. What if she wouldn’t love me back? I hadn’t thought of that. My ears drooped with the fear. “Come closer, close, down here by this mossy trunk, here where the ivy’s deep.”

Good girl that she is, she came. She crept and peeped into my hiding place.

“I see your eyes!” she whispered. “I remember them. Sparkly green and yellow. You’re too big to be a cat. Are you a raccoon?”

“I’m Jack-of-Ivy,” I said, giving up my name, I loved her that much. Mad fool, I could imagine Morning-Moonbeam saying.

“I’m Lisette,” my pearl said, giving me hers right back, although I already knew it. “What are you, Jack?”

“I’m your fairy fay,” I answered.

I heard her breathe, a little golden sigh, that meant she knew me in her very heart and was glad of me. I heard all that in her whoosh of breath.

“Will you let me see you?” she whispered.

I inched a green hand out towards the light. I was proud of how the sun caught in my leaves, the ivy fresh and bright and young, and knew them to be handsome. Then I reached out my arm, my shoulders and the rest of me slipped forth, ready for her admiration.

“Oh, my pretty fairy!” she exclaimed and clapped her hands.

What bliss!

And so we spent a lovely afternoon, watching the ants march to and from their towers and the spiders swing in their cradles in the grass. We had a contest to see who could collect the prettiest leaves, which I won. Then we released them back to the earth, except the ones I wove about Lisette’s hair, a crown golden and scarlet. We practiced all our hoots and squeals and growls and whines, and I taught her to make that sound that’s in-between and has no human word.

But when the dark had just begun to glimmer, Lisette told me she had to go home.

“It’s getting dark,” she said, as if it were a bad thing.

“I know,” I purred.

“My mother will be worried. I’ll get in trouble. Will I see you again?”

“Oh, yes!” I said. “I promise.”

She waved farewell, and I watched her as she departed from the wild. The moonlight on her hair shone silver as a snail’s trail, so beautiful I almost cried.

“Lisette!” I called.

She turned. The night shadows made her blue eyes black. Human eyes don’t shine in darkness like ours. I loved her even for that, pitying her for her deficiency.

“I love you,” I confessed. There, I had done it. There was no going back now.

“I love you, too!” she said. And oh, my heart, she put her white hand to her lips and kissed it, and with a graceful flutter sent the kiss off straight to me before she disappeared into the world of men.

#

I couldn’t visit her the next day for the hunt was on, and a grand hunt it was, with Moon-Hare blowing away on his horn like mad, and Dust Mote, Sally Thistle-Down, Bramble, Lanky Jim, and all the rest in wild pursuit of all kinds of game, which we devoured in a fine feast afterward, oh yes.

But the very next day, soon as I could, I tiptoed to the yard of my Lisette. It was summer and she was twelve. She was up a tree, lying her length across a sturdy bough, just as comfortable as Wasp-Wing or Betty Braveclaw would have been. She was a limber beastie, my Lisette, and would have made an excellent prowler. Most house-folk can’t or don’t or won’t go up a tree. It seems they barely notice tree-folk.

Lisette was reading a book. Ah, I knew my girl was clever. Reading is an indoor magic, though there’s wilds who walk the two worlds that have used it. I watched her practice this art, her eyes roving the pages, then turning them. Sometimes she twitched her dainty ankles, sometimes she twirled a blade of grass, or chewed it. Those must be extra charms to make the reading magic stronger. From time to time, she glanced up, as if she knew I was there.

At last, closing the book, she sat up, gazing out into the wood where I hid.

“Ssss,” she hissed into the ivy, just as I’d taught her.

“Ssss,” I hissed back, encouragingly.

“You there, Jack?” she whispered.

“Come out to the wood,” I whispered. “Come and play.”

She jumped down, bringing the book with her, and walked to the edge of her yard into the wood and near the thick of the ivy. I came out and bowed.

I could see how tall she’d grown, much taller than me now. She was a little less golden; I tried hard not to notice. But her eyes were still like fresh clumps of forget-me-nots. They sparkled so, as she looked me over, and I was not a little proud to see the sense of wonderment I gave her.

“Jack-of-Ivy,” she gave the spell of my name.

“Lisette.”

“Have you been here all this time?”

“Deep in the wild wood. My heart drew me back to you.”

She smiled, such a summery smile that I believe fresh leaves budded out along my cheeks.

I pointed to the man-thing in her hand. “What are you reading?” I asked, for though I am a wild I know that books have names, as all things of power do.

Jane Eyre,” she said.

“Jane-of-Air, I do not know her,” I said. But I was impressed she had heard of such folk. She was a canny one, my Lisette, no mistaking.

“I know a pretty place,” I told her. “Won’t you come?”

“If it’s not far,” she answered.

“No, not far.”

We wandered in the summer’s heat, in the speckled forest light. I took her to the falling water that the dragonflies love best. The red ones danced upon her arms when she held still like I showed her.

“Drink,” I said, and crouched.

“Is it safe?” she asked, which hurt me, for she sounded so indoorsish, careful and worriful.

“I would only let you drink what’s clean and good,” I said.

She kneeled beside me and we lapped the water. Wiggle, wiggle, went our tongues in the pool like pink worms; if there had been fish, we could have caught them with our teeth!

“Dance with me?” I asked.

Her eyes went soft and wanting. She held out her arms in a strange fashion, but I kicked and jumped and showed her fairy dancing and she joined along until she got a stitch, and we lay down in the grass and watched the trees dance for us instead.

“What are you, Jack?” she asked after a time. She was older now and I knew she needed a better answer than the one I’d given her before, so I told her.

“I am the grassy goodness of the green, the trees’ leafy laughter, the moss that hugs the moisty shade, the ivy nuzzling its oak. I am what the forest dreamed when it was young.”

She made that whoosh sound again, filling my heart with such joy. I reached a green hand towards her white one and held it, and I got so dizzy, dizzy, I thought the sky was trampling my vines.

Darkish time made her rise, with a face gone grumbletowards. “Can you show me the way home?” she said in an indoorsy voice.

Sad though it made me, I said yes, and I loped over log and leaf and stone to lead her there.

“I’ll never forget you,” she said when we reached wood’s end. “Fare thee well, my fairy fay.” She bent towards my snout and kissed it, and then, quick as Will-o-the-Wisp himself, she kissed my mouth and left me.

#

The next day I was late, so late, for Mousekin had announced that he would marry Splinter, and we reveled. By the time I got to the edge of the wild, it was already dark. I hid in the ivy and watched Lisette’s house, hoping at least I could spy on my love as she roved in and out of the daybright rooms.

Ah, lucky Jack, for there she was outside in the starry yard, her very self! But not alone, alas, and so I crouched and waited for her friend to leave. Lisette was sixteen and I’m afraid there was so little of her gold left that I barely knew her. But I loved her all the same, with all my green heart. Her hair had been shorn short, but I liked it anyway because that made the ends curl up like the wiry roots of woodsorrels. The dark dimmed her lovely eyes but I knew, just knew, they still were blue as forget-me-nots.

The creature she walked with was a boy-man, a little older than she, and I did not like, no, I did not like, the way he walked so close, so close he almost touched her. They spoke so quietly I barely heard them, till they came out to the edge of the wild, far from the house. As they walked he did touch her, steadying her so she wouldn’t fall, because she was only a human folk and they were not made for dark, and I suppose I should have been grateful for his tenderness, but I was not. They sat down on a log someone had drawn out from the wild, as if it were a bench, and talked of silly indoor things so dull I nearly fell asleep.

But I sniffed something in the wind and pulled awake.

And what I saw! I saw him pull her closer to him, close, and she drew closer of her own, and her arms went around him, and they kissed. It was not a fairy kiss, but long and long and long, so dreadful long.

I began to brown at once. The tips of my leaves shriveled, brown and dry, brown and dry, and the browning spread all through me terrible swift. I could not help but sigh, a soft sound, a mere rustle, and they never heard me, no, they went on kissing, and I went on browning.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too,” she said.

I couldn’t help the whimper that came out.

“Did you hear that?” she said.

“Hear what?” he said. “I didn’t hear anything.”

Lisette laughed soft, and oh I could smell the indoors in it all the way from where I crouched all browning and broken at the edge of the wild.

“You know,” she said, “when I was a kid I used to think I met a fairy in there.”

Not my name, no, don’t say my name!

He laughed.

“I called him Jack-of-Ivy,” she said.

Oh!

“Silly girl,” he said and kissed her.

Lightning-cracked, like a storm-struck tree, I fell, and felt old, old and knew my end was near. I crawled deeper into the wild wood, for only that would save me, maybe that could save me, maybe Morning-Moonbeam would find me and take me in her silver arms and breathe the green back into me. Browning, ever browning, on I crawled, losing leaves, all ungreened, until I was little more than canes and brittle stems, with a few loose leaves, and I could no longer lope or jump or run or dance or even crawl, and I lay in the dead leaves on the forest floor dreaming of golden Lisette, my love, my child. I lay on the forest floor still browning, and the night-wind blowing cold and summerless right through me, and my brown leaves rattled and I became nothing but dry crackles and spirit-dust, green nevermore.

A bit about the author:

Sandi Leibowitz is a native New Yorker who writes speculative fiction and poetry, mostly based on fairy-tales, myth and folklore. Her works appear in such places as Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, Niteblade, The Golden Key, Apex and Strange Horizons. One of her poems is forthcoming in Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 5, edited by Ellen Datlow. Visit author page