It was the height of a blazing hot summer day and Adrian felt the heat baking him as he slowly walked across the expanse of empty parking lot in the furthest corner of the mall complex. Behind him, the Big Top rose like a confection against a sapphire sky, all scalloped edges and cotton candy colors, magnificent and magical. Ahead, a low guardrail sat under a curtain of still-spring-green maples and willows, and in between, a dark green that promised thick, cool forest over water. Ever since he was a small child, he had always been drawn to the edges of things—the places just out of sight of most. He could always tell these sorts of places from a distance—nature that was pushed off to the margins of developed land, places where streams had to be, because water had to be somewhere, if you had civilized all of the places it would have liked to be. He couldn’t understand why so many people never seemed to be as interested in such places, the places on the edge of life, where all the interesting and best things happened.
When he was small, he would find places like this, playing in the woods for hours, balancing on tree branches high above streams. Usually alone, once his friends had adopted their parents’ terror of ticks and pedophiles who they imagined inhabited the woods. There was a little girl friend of his for a time who seemed to share this understanding, but when they got to be around 12 or so, her parents became more protective. There was a point where it occurred to him suddenly that it was childish to ask if she wanted to play, so he changed his wording to ‘hang out in the woods.’ Whether it was a newly frosty reception from her mother, or an evasive deferral from the girl, their rebuffs caused him, forlornly, to stop looking for her company after a while. He simply returned to the shelter of the woods, this time in solitude, to enjoy its shelter, its beauty, and mystery.
But when it wasn’t the school year, when he lived with his mother, he spent the summer with his father and his circus family. His uncles and aunts and his cousins, his grandparents and all of the people in the show and crew—these were the people who understood life on the margins. Once, in social studies, there was a chapter in their textbook called “Life on the Margins.” He was low-key excited about reading it for homework, thinking it would be about interesting people doing things out of the ordinary. Instead, it was all about people who were poor, displaced, or disenfranchised. He always thought of his circus family and his summer life as being on the margins—where all of the excitement, beauty, and magic were. Things he thought didn’t exist if you only stayed where it was safe and neat and predictable, like the baking hot mall parking lot. As he drew nearer to the mysterious promise of the cool woods, he was alive with the vitality of his summer life: where he worked out in the morning, explored in the afternoon, and performed at night—and where, even though they lived in trailers and never stayed anywhere too long, he felt the most at home.
He was an extremely athletic youth, necessary for being a performing acrobat with his family, the Majestic Majerniks. He could endure hours of disciplined, backbreaking workouts in the heat without complaint, but that did not mean he was immune to the sweet relief of walking into the shade at the edge of the parking lot, so dramatic it was like drinking the cool juice that might come from a flower as beautiful as the tiger lilies lining the edge of the woods. There was something about tiger lilies that stirred his soul; perhaps it was because they bloomed in June and, every year, that was when he rejoined the circus and his happiest times returned.
This summer was an important one and every joy was both amplified and bittersweet. He would be turning 18 this year, and had to make a choice—one of which might mean the last of times like these. On the one hand, he would have to decide whether to go to college and choose a career. Any career, he supposed, so there were a variety of possibly good futures to consider, but for what college would cost, he realized that whatever he chose, he would have to stick with it.
The other option was to join his family’s act, which would mean not just summers, but a lifetime of traveling to where the work was. He loved it and thought that’s what he might like to do, but sometimes he could hear his mother’s thoughts in the back of his head—thoughts that told him there was no stability in that life. He was still a teenager and did his share of pretending not to listen to parental advice, especially becoming defensive of his paternal family when Mom started sounding just a little bitter, but an astute observer might note that the strength of his defensiveness gave him away—that her concerns had lodged themselves in his mind enough to become, just a little bit, his own.
The nature of their work was risk-taking, of pushing oneself to the next level, so he did not like to think of himself as taking the safer path. There was nothing like the feeling of being completely, fully present because your safety, or life, or someone else’s, depended on it. Everything felt so focused and clear up on the high wire, and he was prouder of his work there than anything else he did in life.
If he really thought of it, part of him wondered if, by committing to it permanently, would he grow tired of it? This frightened him the most.
Summer was magical, his happiest time. Part of him worried that growing up meant that the magic of his boyhood summers would fade, like having Christmas every day. He was disciplined enough to withstand the hard work and boredom of some other career, if he could return to the circus to dream. But if the circus lost its magic to him, he would regret it all of his life. Although he didn’t want to admit she might be right, his mother’s practical concerns became an option he gnawed on when distracted by his future.
Fortunately, he did not have much time to gnaw. His father was excited to have him back for the summer, and worked him into the act. As the weeks went by, Adrian would build back up his strength and skills, and by the end of summer, would increase his role in the show, but he’d have to earn it. Adrian knew that his father would love to have him join them next year for good, but tried not to show it. Adrian thought his father did not want to cause trouble with Mom, who already held plenty of resentment over their relationship and his upbringing. To Mom, it was always “that itinerant life”, or “that circus”. She liked to use the word “scrounging” when the subject came up. As Adrian got older and resented the attack on that part of his life, there had been a time a few years ago when he had become adversarial with his mother, and his father surprisingly reproached him.
They were walking through the dust of the center ring as Adrian complained about her, when his father stopped and said, “I would not have you disrespect your mother, son”, in his Old-World sort of way of speaking.
“But Otecko, all she ever does is disrespect our life!”
Serj sighed, and sat down on the ring wall, motioning Adrian to sit with him.
“Son, you are more like me than you are like your mother. It seems self-serving to say so, but it is the truth. And that is why she fears to lose you.”
“But, she won in the divorce, and she got me. And all she seems to be trying to do is to take more, make me turn on our life.”
“No one won the divorce. It is not a game of football. And if one knows who one is, then there is no reason to get mad when someone doesn’t like the way you live.” And pausing, he gently added, “ I don’t think it’s so much our life…as it is my life. Your life is your own, and you are still deciding.”
Adrian opened his mouth to protest, but he knew his Otecko’s body language all too well—when you work so closely together, you can read each other without words. So he knew he didn’t have to defend anything, but closed his mouth and let his father continue.
“When I first saw your mother, she came to the show.” Serj let a mischievous, wistful smile escape as he spoke. “She was with her boyfriend…but I liked her, what can I say? She had a nice smile and she did not seem too happy with him, so I ran to the audience and held out a flower—and when she reached for it, I pulled it back and shook my finger ‘no, no, no!’” He smiled at the memory.
“Oh, that boyfriend, Tom,” punctuating the air with his finger as he said it, “…was not too happy. So I grabbed his hand and shook it and everybody laughed. And I took the rose between my teeth, climbed the pole, and did my whole act for her. And when I grabbed the ceiling rope to come down, I swung it till it reached up the aisle and I hopped off right next to her and gave her the rose.”
Adrian smiled, imagining his parents happy together. “So that’s how you got together?”
“Oh, no. That Tom was in the way. But I looked for her in the lobby after, for the pictures with the fans, and she dragged Tom over for a picture. I pretended to not have good English and said, ‘Oh, come for autograph! What your name is?’ He says, you go ahead, and so we talked for a minute alone. I wrote my email on the back of the autograph and asked her to write to me, ‘to be pen pal, no?’ And she did!”
“At first she pretended just to be friendly, but as we wrote back and forth, I thought she liked me too. Then one day, she said she never bought my broken English act one bit, and she knew what I was up to.”
“I said ‘what about Tom?’ And she told me that he was a stable guy with a solid future, and that I was great but he was the better bet.”
“Ouch! So what did you do?”
“We had a Philly show coming up so I told her to come. She did. Then the next was New York and it was only a little further, so I asked her to come for a nice time in the city, before we moved on and I wouldn’t see her for a while. And when she went home on Christmas break, we had a few weeks off so I got on the train and rode all the way up to see her.”
“From FLORIDA?! What did Tom say?”
“Oh, he was nastvany,” (Adrian liked the comfort of Slovak swear words), “but your mother kept him in line by acting like we were just good friends.”
He seemed a little sad, as he continued, “She was not trying to be mean, she really wasn’t. I think it was more like she was trying to make up her mind.” His face opened up kindly. “Like you. So I don’t want you to rush.”
“So what happened?” Adrian asked, more interested in the story than the question.
“I declared my love for her and asked her to run away and join the circus.”
“Ooooh, for real, Otecko?” Adrian grimaced. “Recipe for disaster.”
“Not for the right person. I thought I could sweep her off her feet, but looking back, I guess she was just feeling a bit trapped, and wanted to break free. From Tom, from expectations, from…I don’t know. But I was young enough to think it was for me, and that the romance of the circus would help.”
“But it didn’t.”
“No. It did not.”
They sat for a while.
“So we got married, and we found places for her, to run the food booth or sell souvenirs, and give her a chance to see if she had a knack for any of the arts. She didn’t have to, as long as she could contribute something useful. She worked on costumes for a while but got tired of that. Then she did ticket sales, and then she got pregnant with you.”
Adrian could barely remember his mother being around the circus, but he had a few memories, being held on her hip and feeling the scratchiness of the sequins on her outfit. It seemed impossible, but he remembered her feeling of restlessness, of impatience. Not in a way of literally remembering her expressing that feeling, but actually feeling it, drinking it in as if drinking milk from the breast. A way of feeling that perhaps all children can feel, and forget as they start to root themselves in their own identities.
“Otecko, why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I love you. And you’re the only thing I love more than the circus, so this is important. I want you to have a good life. I think this is a good life, but if you do not love it it will become hard. It must never be just another job. You have to tell a story of who you are, a personal story that means something, whenever you perform. You must be present in the moment, like a monk, but also grow and challenge yourself. Then you will always find the joy and beauty. But if all you need is just enough fantasy to keep you going, you depend on it to solve problems it cannot solve. Instead of growing, you get disappointed in the fantasy. You grow tired of it, like your mother did.”
“It sounds pretty obvious what I should do, then.”
“Yeah…how could I choose a coward’s way after that sort of speech? A sad kind of life where you sell out and don’t shoot for something wonderful?”
Inside his heart, Serj was glad to hear his son’s disposition leaned toward a life with him, but he remembered his wife and how something beautiful had gone so wrong. He really had loved her, but wondered if she ever really loved him, the way it had turned out. He was determined that Adrian would not just follow him instead of his own heart. It hadn’t worked out before.
“You misunderstand me, son. Think of the people we perform for. They come for a bit of magic. Most of them are not performers, they are regular people. Do we hold them in contempt for having a regular job, for having other sorts of dreams?
There are all kinds of people in the world. Sometimes, they need just a little fantasy, and sometimes we are fortunate enough to give it to someone who never had it at all. And mostly, we give them truth in disguise, which is most beautiful of all. We make the world better. But you have to be the kind of person who sees magic all the time to be able to share it with others.
You love the circus now because it has always meant good times for you growing up…”
Adrian tried to interject; it meant so much more to him. Family, pride, his sense of home! But Serj continued, determined to make sure his words reached his son to the bone.
“But you will have to find what it means to you now.” He turned and looked his son directly in the eye. “Think about what you need to say with your art. Something you can believe in.”
Now, confident that he had said his piece, he relaxed, letting it all go for Adrian to ponder. Then he chuckled and said, “And if you don’t have anything to say, you can go get rich as a businessman and take care of me in my old age. I will love you still.”
Adrian hopped the guardrail, and his skin stopped baking instantly under the shade, though the sweat continued to come. The smell of humidity mingled with the earthy scents of the undergrowth, scents that were both sweet and pungent at the same time. He pushed leaves aside as he moved down the embankment, watching for poison ivy. There was a polluted little stream at the bottom, as he would expect from a stream encircling a mall parking lot. Runoff brought litter and oil from the pavement with each rainstorm, so it did not bring the type of wilderness experience one thinks of as natural, when one has little connection to nature in the first place and hungers for untouched places; but to Adrian, a stream was a stream. It still brought life to the creatures that drank from it, and grew alongside it, and despite the litter, it was clear and little fish still swam in small pools outside of the current. They didn’t have the luxury to define nature, and so to them, it was their world. Adrian was much the same, and needed water and trees and air to survive, and sought it out wherever he could find it. He deftly clambered across a fallen log—a little too high over the stream for an average person, but a piece of cake for a professional acrobat—and walked deeper into the woods.
The birds were quiet under the canopy. The work of finding a mate was over, and for some, so was the work of raising a brood, so the frenetic singing of spring was no longer so urgent in the languid heat of summer. There was a peacefulness in hearing the animals rest and the plants breathe and grow, and he was certain little eyes must be watching him, properly mindful of his presence if necessary, but unconcerned and unwilling to move. He knew if he were to sit still for a few minutes, perhaps he would spot such eyes, belonging to a toad or a chipmunk, should they decide to shift their hiding space, or retrieve a tasty seed. Maybe even a fawn, lying completely still and scentless in a thicket, sleeping away a few hours while its mother fed on nourishing grass somewhere in the open.
Under the cover of the forest, and now far from the mall, he delighted in the animal feeling of being attentive to scent, to the sights of natural patterns, the small sounds that indicated life. Out here, a snapped twig meant an animal moving; even the sounds of a seed pod bursting could be heard as if it were a tiny localized rain shower. But most exciting of all was the sight that greeted him as he walked into a clearing: a beautiful ring of mushrooms on the forest floor. It was more than a little magical to find a fairy ring, just for itself, but coming from a European family, finding mushrooms was something that had always been part of his life. He’d never actually known anyone outside his family to have even been aware of this thing he didn’t have a name for—perhaps it could be termed mushrooming culture, or a food foraging thing—but any of his Majernik relatives had a working knowledge of, and excitement for how to find morels, chanterelles, porcinis, and tons of other delicious fungi. Like him, they were prone to wander into woods wherever they set up, and would make fantastic meals with their finds, even medicines from old family recipes. Though America has its share of passionate mycological hobbyists, they are members of a rare and odd breed, and Adrian had never heard of any; while in many places in Europe, gathering wild edibles is as common as apple picking.
He admired the beauty of the ring—it was about 10 feet across, and while he was curious to identify whether they would be good to eat (or alternatively, highly toxic), he wanted to just look at it, and imagine the kind of feeling he might feel if there really were fairies. In yet another way that he lived on the margins, he was aware that this wasn’t something that most other American boys his age did, but he had a great capacity for imagination and fantasy that was precious to him, and which he kept to himself, a product of a life where dreams sustained him and made him somewhat other. In the deep quiet of the woods, he could pretend, just like when he was a little boy, that he had found a magical place between the worlds. Just like the moment when you start to fall asleep and think you are awake but are slipping away, it was a little mysterious, a little dangerous. It was like standing too close to the edge of a great height and half enjoying the terrified feeling of looking down. His natural flair for the dramatic and his robust imagination had eliminated the need to try drugs, but he rolled his eyes back, imagining that’s what it might feel like. He took a few steps forward into the ring, and then he fell.
Face planted ungraciously on the ground, reverie broken, he looked up and wondered how he had fallen. There was no log to trip over, and he hadn’t kicked anything anyway. He was a professional acrobat—he was not prone to falling. But he was feeling cooler, more so than if the sun had just ducked behind a cloud, and wondered if he had hit his head. And then a great gush of water splashed onto his head, as if some one had poured a drink on him, or thrown a water balloon. All around him, great masses of water splatted one at a time, pockmarking the earth—a volleyball rain of huge drops, and most unpleasant. Rather than be pelted by buckets, he ran for some shelter, through what appeared to be reeds reaching above his head that he hadn’t remembered seeing, until he reached a huge white mushroom that towered over him.
He marveled at it for a moment, mind on high alert, then was pummeled once more in the face with a rain splat.
Sheltering under the canopy of the mushroom, the vibration of each rain drop—or rain bucket—shook loose a rain of spores from the gills, showering him with a cinnamon coating that stuck to his wet body, smelling of dust and earth. None too clean, he was nevertheless out of the rain, and finally took a look around.
Giant mushroom. Giant rain. Giant grasses. Suddenly cool, not just because of the rain, but like it was another season entirely. And a twilight sky, even behind the rainstorm.
“And no, I did not fall. I am sure of it,” he told himself. He never experienced a moment of unconsciousness, nor the ill feeling of coming back from it. He felt perfectly fine. Instead, he thought back to what he had been thinking of just before he stepped into the faerie ring, and realized that maybe he really did find one heck of a margin. Most people don’t see what they’re not looking for, but a seeker? Sometimes that’s a different story, and Adrian was always looking at the edge of things. As his mind spun, he wondered if…had he really…?
And then, high above him, a sweet voice gently called, “Hello.”
Adrian looked up and saw the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She perched elegantly on a low branch of a nearby bush, shaded by the leaves above her chestnut brown hair, as if she had been reading a book, or daydreaming, when the storm broke. Her eyes were ethereal; curious, kind, and somewhat far-away, or at least that’s what he felt. And she wore what could only be called raiment—a material so fine that it caught the light and reflected subtle changes in color, like the iridescence of a beetle, or the wing of a grackle. He couldn’t even describe what color it was, except that it was no color, or the color of water, except when the sun would bring out rainbow shades for a tiny second as the slightest movement shifted the surface. As beautiful as this would be all on its own, the dress was covered in butterfly wings, as a wedding dress would be covered in lace—cascades of wings overlapping each other and dripping beautiful patterns down the full skirt, so long that wisps of the dress hung down past her dainty feet. He’d never seen a garment so incredibly beautiful, and he worked in the circus.
“Hello.” He replied back, almost speechless. What could he say? He supposed he could ask how she had gotten up there, but he suddenly found himself fighting to shout a warning that strangled in his throat, as a huge spider started skittering toward the beautiful girl. It was horrifying, like nothing he’d ever seen. Its massive body was bulbous and glassine, and he was shocked to see right through its body as if looking through a bubble, the iridescent rainbow colors swirling on its surface. Terror chilled his blood as the spider reacher her far faster than he could shout, and fear for her made his knees weak and his stomach drop. It was large enough to ride, a fact that would become pertinent in just a moment, for as the beast approached her, she reached up her hand to pat its head and whisper to it. The creature seemed to lean into her hand, and twitched a few legs lazily in pleasure. Then she reached under to the narrow spot between its head and body and pulled. A thick ribbon came undone, and something slid off the top of its body as it turned to skitter away. Even though it fell from up in a branch, the item did not thud harshly, but fell softly as if a block of foam. As Adrian wondered what had just happened, his first question was answered. She unfolded a set of delicate wings which lifted her off the branch, and gracefully set her down on the forest floor. Picking up the item, she held it over her head to protect herself from the rain, then flitted over on her little bare feet to where he stood, under the mushroom. She then placed what had been protecting her head on the ground—a cunning little saddle, soft and light and velvety, made from a single dried mushroom.
She appraised him, a knowing smile at the corners of her mouth. “Hello, boy. What is your name?” The way she said it did not feel rude. It was more like she was addressing a creature who she did not know, like a cat lady holding out a dish of food and saying, “Here, kitty.” It was disarming and amusing to Adrian, who wondered if it might shock her if he actually spoke back.
He replied, and then she said, “You must come from the human world, do you not?”
Then he asked, “Who are you? What place is this?” It caught her off guard.
She replied with gentle dignity, “In this world, we are not accustomed to humans speaking without first being spoken to.” She said it in a way that seemed like she was not angry, but doing him a favor, like she was giving him a bit of coaching.
He was mildly taken aback, but he did not want to offend such a lovely person, someone who was perhaps royalty or high status at least. Though he was almost entirely American in most ways, his father’s family had instilled in him a European sense of formality and a performer’s courtesy to the audience. Instead of protesting, or even apologizing, he place his hand over his heart, and slightly bowed his head by way of apology. This appeased her instantly.
“Though I do not expect you would have any way of knowing this. It would be more sensible if we could talk freely. Just remember, if you meet anyone else.” She paused, still formal, and said, “I am Caoimhe.”
“Kee-vah”, the sound washed over him like a soft breeze. It sounded strong and soft and beautiful at the same time. Did everything she did or said have some magical way of subtly intoxicating him? It was as if he had never really known beauty before, and not just in the guise of a beautiful-looking person, but also something deeper. Emotion, perhaps, or a sort of knowing. It felt as if pure spirit flowed from her and manifested in ways he could detect, like her scent or the sound of her voice, or the very spirit contained in the sound of her name.
“We don’t see many people from your world. In fact, you are the first I’ve met. This is Tir na nOg”.
He replied that he was honored to be her guest, but said nothing more. There followed an extended pause, as Caoimhe looked him over expectantly, before finally realizing that he was holding back. If he were to open up, she’d have to let him know she really meant him to relax. Noting how filthy he now was, it occurred to her that he could not possibly feel on even footing in such a state. She said, “Come. Let us tend to your dignity,” she laughed as she grasped his hand. The touch was electric.
The rain burst had stopped, and the air was pleasantly fresh. His clothes, his hair, every surface was caked with wet mushroom spores, but the few that had fallen on Caoimhe fluttered away from her body like glitter, not daring to spoil her beauty. She led him to a pool that had formed between the huge, gnarly roots of a giant tree. Taking in the scope of this new world, he started to make the calculations and realized that in his own they would be quite tiny—a puddle was now a pool, a grass as tall as a tree, and a spider could be ridden.
As he stood at the edge of the pool, he became aware that she was waiting for something. Seeing that he didn’t understand, she prompted him with a helpful tone, “You may bathe now.”
This he did not expect, but there was no mischief in her approach. She sat herself down on a large rock, tucking her wings down and hugging her knees casually. She appeared completely at ease, like a little bird about to commence preening its feathers. With horror, he realized she really meant it. No, not even just meant it, but sincerely was making a formal offering that she meant magnanimously.
This was not the time to act like a child, he told himself. But undressing in front of her was too much. His clothes were filthy—perhaps he could pass off that he meant to wash the dirt off of everything? He jumped in fully clothed, and resurfaced shaking off the water from his hair with a grin, pleased with the elegant solution.
She laughed, and the sound delighted him. “Do people in your world always bathe with their clothes on?”
“Well, my clothes are just as dirty as I am. They needed a washing,” he said, treading water.
“Yes,” she said patiently, considering that maybe humans did not know these things, “But it would be cleaner if you took them off and swirled them around in the water. Like this.” She made a swirling, rubbing gesture with her hands.
Under the cover of the water, he did so to please her. But with a pile of wet clothes in his arms, he did not know what to do next.
She waited for him patiently, raising her closed eyes to the dappled sunlight streaming through the leaves. She wondered why he did not hang his clothes up on a branch to dry. He had jumped in with them on, and at first she thought he did not know how to wash. Did a servant usually do this for him? She was no servant, and would not do it. Or was it the opposite, and he was a barbarian who did not wash? He did not seem a fool; in fact he was quite deferential. Contemplating him, she realized she did not actually know anything about him at all. It was time to ask.
“Why do you not hang up your clothes?”
Dreading this moment, he found the right words on his tongue just before speaking. “In my world, it is improper to show myself unclothed before a lady.”
“Really?” She replied, with genuine puzzlement. Pondering this, she spoke “How then, do you share in the pleasures of the flesh, or make children?”
If he had had a sip of a drink in his mouth, this would be the moment when he spat it out. But once again, there was absolutely no guile in her question, no sense of indiscretion. She really wanted to know.
“Well, of course we do that,” he stammered, “but we only take our clothes off when we mean to do that.” Jesus, did she mean to do that with him? He blushed fiercely.
But she continued, “Well, if you only take them off for sensual pleasures, then how do you keep your clothes clean?”
Relieved somewhat, he allowed himself to be amused by the conversation. He explained that of course, they removed their clothes for washing, but not in front of other people. They discussed little absurdities in the differences between how their people did things, and as the barriers fell between them, he emerged from the water, finally less self-conscious, and hung his clothes on a branch. He then sat, naked, on a rock across from her, with only the modesty of hugging his knees casually, the way she was.
“You are doing quite well. If I had to live by the rules of your people, I would understand that you would be shy. I don’t know why. You are so very beautiful.”
Adrian blushed, feeling warm all over. This was a statement of truth, not flattery. In a magical world where beauty surrounded and flowed around him, to be called beautiful made him feel strong and alive, sacred.
Time seemed to stop for them that afternoon. Adrian never had a moment of wondering how they could talk and talk, and never run out of things to say, but found that one thread of conversation opened up to another, and yet another. She told of the faerie court where she lived, and though she had thought the rules of Adrian’s human world seemed restrictive, he was fascinated by the arcane ways of the court, which seemed like a complicated game.
She listened, enraptured, as he talked of his life. He was so open, so guileless, like a flower. She knew without asking that he was a being who loved whatever he loved with his whole heart.
And he witnessed, throughout the afternoon, how Caoimhe seemed like the force behind the living web of life around her. Creatures came by frequently, often engaging in some sort of mystical exchange; perhaps an affectionate gesture, a gift of a berry clutched in little mandibles, or to receive some bit of life energy from her aura.
Being around her, he felt alive as if made of sunshine and wind. He didn’t feel as if he liked her just because of all of the fantastic things around her, like tame creatures or enchanted sunlight, but because she was made of the stuff that made these things. Her soul was the animating force running through, and connected to, all of them. He felt a part of all of this, that he mattered just by being, and by being near her, too.
It was strange for him to discover that she was old, very old, but the more they talked it felt as if she was forever young at the same time. Like most young people, she had her own ways of doing things. She felt the same chafing against doing things the way she was being told to do them, mixed with the insecurity that she was still too young to challenge those older and wiser.
Though they were alive with the afternoon’s idyll, Caoimhe was aware of the flexibility of time in her world, slowly realizing that the precious time they were spending together was running out. The brightness and vitality that shone from Adrian, so fresh and gentle, so open, was starting to fade from her perception; if he spent much more time here, he would start to starve to death before he realized it. She was sad to see him cover his lovely nakedness, but she did not begrudge him trying to fight off the chill he felt as his life energy slowly weakened. She knew that soon, he would have to stay—or he would have to go.
Adrian was distracted by a turtle that had wandered into the clearing, foraging slowly for insects like a cow grazing. “That’s Manna,” she said, as he contemplated a creature that, to him, was much larger than even a Galapagos tortoise. He had never really studied a turtle up close, and was fascinated by the beautiful patterns in its thick, leathery skin, and the wise look in its deep red eyes. “Would you like to ride him?” she asked.
He laughed, mildly confused but amused all the same. “Sure. But…why? He can’t go very fast, to be honest.”
“That’s not why you would ride him,” she said with mild reproach. He would have happily given it a try for any reason, but he sensed a deeper purpose. “You do it to get close to him—to understand him better.” She approached the huge beast, and he raised his head to her. She patted his hard, bony head and he closed his eyes in contentment. “He says he would like to show us his world.”
They both climbed up onto Manna’s shell, and she told him to lie down. Opening her wings carefully across her back, she laid down next to him, and the edges of her wing tickled the side of his arm. Manna had been basking in the sun, and his smooth, bony shell radiated warmth that soaked into them. They looked up into the canopy of the forest as the patterns of light through the leaves slowly changed with Manna’s crawling pace. Sometimes he stopped to eat something he found, but standing or moving, everything was gentle and slow and deliberate. Lying there with her, Adrian felt like he could understand something new about the world, about time moving differently.
She asked him about the kinds of things he did in his world. He didn’t think she meant school or a job, but the things that made him who he was. “It may sound strange, but I walk…” trying to find the words to explain the circus to her, “…I perform dangerous feats in a show for people.”
“Oh yes, we have performers. Singers and dancers, actors and such. What makes it dangerous?”
“Well, I walk on a rope high above the ground. If you fall, you’ll get hurt or die, so it takes a lot of concentration.”
“Why do you do things that are dangerous?”
“Well, it takes a lot of skill, and the danger makes you really good—you have to be perfect every time.”
“Why not do something with skill that’s not dangerous? Don’t you have things like that?”
Turning towards her, he thought about it. It was something he knew in his heart, something he felt, but now that he was explaining it, he couldn’t quite find the words.
“Yes, of course we do—we’ve got musicians and people who make you laugh, or do things that are hard but not dangerous. But…sometimes, when you’re up there doing something amazing, it makes people feel like they can believe in amazing things.”
“But mostly, when I’m up there, and I have to do something perfectly or die, it makes me do things better than I ever did them before. I can’t think of anything else but the thing in front of me, and then everything makes sense in the purest way.” A few moments passed with the gentle plodding motion of Manna. “Like now,” he added quietly. She looked him in the eye, and just as he had learned to understand what Manna felt like, she suddenly understood him, too.
Neither would have broken the spell between them just yet, but it was broken for them.
“What have you found, Little Sister?” A voice cooed from above, its sweetness disguising a predatory intent. Startled, Manna pulled inside his shell, and the sudden movement slid them off his back. Caoimhe, stricken, met Adrian’s eyes, transmitting danger. A rabbit has no defense against the weapons of tooth and claw, but its magic lies in stilling its motion, in becoming invisible. Adrian wasn’t quite invisible, but he knew to be still and silent, to let Caoimhe divert the attention of the newcomer.
The faery Aoife was more resplendent and glorious than even her sister, dripping with the trappings of courtly status, to the point where she seemed weighed down by an abundance of pearls, shells, feathers, and silvery threads of gossamer. He disliked her instantly.
“Oh, just a sweet creature I found to play with. I was about to send him back to his world,” she said lightly. But the bond between Adrian and Caoimhe was so strong now that he felt her heart: she was protecting him.
“But why? Is it amusing? You must take care with your creatures—look, it’s starving! Let’s offer it something to eat,” she said maliciously.
“No!” Caoimhe replied, a little too forcefully. But Aoife read her intent easily. ‘Little sister had formed an attachment? This could be fun,’ she thought.
Caoimhe did not hate her sister and her petty ways, and in fact, was a little in awe of her. But she knew to fear her capricious whims. So many times, Aoife had gotten the best of Caoimhe, and knew how to manipulate her. Yet after making a fool of her, Aoife would claim that it was for her own good. That in place of their lost mother, it was her responsibility to teach her sister how to survive the intrigues of the court, and if her methods were sometimes cruel, they were all the more effective. It was a web that Caoimhe had not yet learned to navigate successfully.
“You there, creature. Human?” she demanded, as if trying to discern an unfamiliar flavor from a trifle. He paused, looking surreptitiously towards Caoimhe for guidance, but she was silent. She knew she would have to be aloof, and he would have to use his wits, to slip this confrontation. “Speak!”
Caoimhe gave the slightest nod while her sister’s gaze focused on him. “I am, my Lady,” as he bowed. This seemed to please her somewhat, and she said, “How curious. It seems to know its manners. Do you like it?”
“He’s harmless. I was about to let him go…” Caoimhe replied, as if she didn’t care.
“Well, perhaps I’ll keep him, then.” Caoimhe’s eyes widened, to Aoife’s quiet delight. She turned to Adrian and said, “Here, pet. Come sit and have something to eat.” She whistled, and a moment later, a robin appeared with a worm in its mouth. She dropped it in front of Adrian, where it wiggled, larger than a snake at his feet. He froze, disgusted by the idea, and not quite sure what to do. It was bad enough to risk insulting her by refusing to eat the worm, but he knew this situation contained another menace. Recalling mythic rules from the stories he knew as a child, there was a faint remembrance that mortals must not eat or drink when they cross the veil to the Otherworld, or they would have to remain forever. Savoring the trap she had set, she commanded him to eat it, and when he did not, her demeanor darkened to offense.
Caoimhe stepped in then. “Sister, I don’t think humans can eat worms.” Aoife raised an eyebrow, requiring more. “I…I think they’re more like us…than the creatures. They eat food that’s…prepared. Cakes and sweets, and meats, and…” she trailed off, having bought them another moment to be toyed with while they looked for escape.
“Fine.” She snapped her fingers, and a plate of delights and a goblet of wine appeared on the large stone next to him. “You can have no quarrel with the finest of food from my own table. Now, eat.” It was clear that it was not a request.
Adrian summoned his courage, and with grave deference replied, “My Lady. I am greatly honored by your favor and have no wish to offend you. But I know that I must refuse, for if I eat of your food, I cannot return to my own land.”
The air was pregnant with stillness, anticipating a lightning flash of anger. But what happened felt more like the low growl of thunder, deep and ominous. The pretense of Aoife’s game dissolved, and she condescended to her little sister.
“How naive you are, Little One, to fall for the clever words of this insignificant knave.” She turned a quiet fury towards Adrian. “How dare you come into our world, intending to make a prize of whichever beauty you stumbled upon first? As if you were worthy of even dreaming of such a thing.”
Hot anger flared inside of Adrian—anger that she would try to taint something so beautiful, in a way that was not at all what it was like. He never intended any of this, but if she was right about anything, it was that he would not dream of being worthy of someone like Caoimhe. Except that, because of the way he felt when he was around her, somehow he did feel worthy. She made him feel that way. She made him feel in love. Fiercely, unapologetically, wholeheartedly.
Seeing the emotions written across his face, Aoife sensed an opportunity and turned on her sister. “Don’t you see how he lusts for you? Don’t think I don’t see how tender you are with him.” Caoimhe could not get a word in edgewise to defend him, and it would not have served her anyway. Aoife had written the story to her own conclusion and anyone who would try to turn the tide would be made to suffer. “This thing is not worthy of you. Your affections would be better, and more pleasurably, spent on Lord Tiernan.”
Caoimhe winced at the crudeness of her sister’s words, yet remained mindful of the peril Adrian was in. Summoning up a tone of resignation she hoped would appease her sister, the lie of the apathy she forced into it broke her own heart. “Fine, then, let’s just let him go.”
“I think not. In punishment for his trespass, he will remain here as a servant.” Aoife paused, then added, as if she were being thoughtful, “If you are so fond of him, you may keep him.”
But Aoife knew the cruelty of this bargain, and the lesson she meant to impart. She wasn’t about to let Caoimhe’s softness ruin either of their chances at court. Let her see how shallow this mortal’s affections were when the indignity of servitude eroded his love for her. Or on the other hand, he could be ensorcelled to remain forever besotted and forget the world he came from, to always follow Caoimhe like a devoted dog. She could teach Caoimhe how to toy with him and take her pleasure discreetly, all the while remaining free to increase her standing in Lord Tiernan’s affections.
Adrian himself could imagine worse fates than serving the one you love, but because of the truth of what they had shared between them, he knew that the arrangement was a mockery of their love. And he never expected that he would have to choose between the things he loved—being with her, or the life he called his own. Not that he was being given a choice; he was merely a fly in a spider’s web.
While Adrian pondered his own heart, Caoimhe made the choice, and chose truth. The truth that Adrian would see his family again, would make his own life, and that their love would abide with dignity, even if they had to give each other up.
“What about a contest, instead?” Caoimhe said.
Aoife could not resist considering such a delicious opportunity. The young fool thought that maybe her pet had a chance of escape, or else she wouldn’t risk it, but in games of intrigue she was overmatched, to be sure. Aoife could play along, and perhaps be rid of the mortal and break her sister to her will once and for all. And if she were honest, some part of her feared that keeping him around as a servant held some risk. Faery lore and legend always taught that magic allowed for escape from the most impossible situations for the smallest overlooked details.
The challenge had to be possible; the rules were clear as far as that was concerned. But the stakes had to be high enough to be worthwhile. Aoife ventured, “Shall he fight a snake?” That would be fun and solved the problem most deliciously.
Caoimhe committed to her role, determined to appear convincing and disinterested enough for Aoife to agree. “What about…making him cross a spider’s web over a great height? I can command Lietanimh to build a web between the trees over the stream. If he crosses it successfully, he may return to his world.” Setting the trap for Aoife, she added, “Else let him fall and die for his insolence.”
Aoife didn’t believe for a minute in this sudden flippant demeanor—Caoimhe obviously had faith in her subject, or a trick up her sleeve—but it was too good to pass up. “Very well. But you must agree to a binding spell—you will not be able to interfere.”
The trap sprung, Caoimhe did her best to look stricken, as if beaten at her own game. She lowered her head and acquiesced sadly, then felt a cloud of energy form around her. It was warm and comfortable, but she knew that it would prevent her from touching Adrian or using any magic to help him.
It took some time for Lietanimh to build a web between the two trees. It would only have been out of reach of a tall person in the waking world, but here, the height was as if it were between two buildings, or a great chasm over a raging river. If Adrian was worried, it was not about the crossing, but Caoimhe and her sadness. Solemnly, and quietly, they watched as the web took shape. It seemed like an eternity now since the last time they had spoken to each other—since the last time it was only the two of them delighting in the world around them. He was growing weary and running out of time. But Caoimhe waited for her moment. When Aoife’s attention was fully occupied with the construction of the web, Caoimhe raised her bent head and gave Adrian a smile brighter than the sun—a look that told him she had chosen a challenge she believed he would master. Then she carefully returned her face to a solemn, distant look. He knew then that he could do anything she believed he could.
The moment arrived. Edging out onto the web, testing its springiness, he got a feel for the tension and the give of the thread. Good. He worked his way along the long single thread, focusing on the longest tightrope of his life. He became aware that the ground was so far away that if he fell, he would fall for so long before he died that the height ceased to matter. What was the difference, the height from the ground, or the length of the rope? He could do this for hours on a slackline one foot off of the ground, so he must do this the same way. There was no difference.
Both faeries hovered out of reach, following his progress from a distance. He put Aoife out of his mind. But Caoimhe he knew was there without looking. Her belief in him filled him with confidence, and he wanted her to see every step, as though he danced for her. He no longer had any doubt that he could do it, and simply was entirely present in actually doing it. It was no sorcery, just pure flow, as he made his way gradually along the line.
As he moved his way across the chasm, he reached the end of the thread anchoring the complex creation to the tree, and encountered the first radial threads which wound around the spokes, creating the web. He could see that they looked different. Raising a foot to test them, he happened to look up and see a hungry look in Aoife’s face. Pulling his foot back gracefully just in time, he realized that these were the sticky threads that entangle prey. He mustn’t touch them. Instead, he carefully stepped over them each time they crossed the non-sticky line. As the distance between the threads grew too close, he had to step to other spoke lines to make his way in a semi-circle around the center. It was now the most challenge walk of his life, and he pushed what must have been Aoife’s fury out of his mind, and instead, felt Caoimhe’s sigh of relief flood through his body. He didn’t even look, and he didn’t know how, but he felt it and it gave him the strength to keep going.
But Aoife did not like to be disappointed. Keenly aware that she could not interfere with the challenge through any magic or action of her own, she wracked her mind trying to come up with some way to tip the balance in her favor. Then, she spied a fly buzzing in the air. Caoimhe was focused on the human, so she casually drifted towards the fly, making no sudden moves. When she was in range, she swatted it out of her way—no one could blame her for waving off the pesky creature after all?—and it flew immediately into the web, where it stuck fast and struggled. Lietanimh, while a devoted and good creature, could not resist instinct. As soon as the first vibration hit her, crouched on the furthest part of the web, she moved with lightning speed towards the fly, sending spasms of vibration up every thread. “Lietanimh!” Caoimhe shouted, but the spider could not contain her excitement. As Adrian bobbed on the line like a ship on a wave, the great spider reached the fly and began to wrap it, her tempo making the web sing like an instrument.
Adrian felt the sound reverberate through his body, buzzing his insides, electric. Adrenaline rushed through him, and instead of fighting it, he gently bounced the line, finding a rhythm through which he could move. He built energy when the line bowed down, and released it when he came up, sliding himself forward a little faster than he could just walking. It was time to finish this. Each bounce brought him closer to the tree, and with the last of his strength, he made the last step to solid footing. In that moment, he discovered that everything had finally come together. All of the hard work, discipline, drive, joy, centering, had needed one final ingredient to give it meaning: love. He looked up and saw Caoimhe flying towards him with joy in her face, and he reached out to embrace her.
“Well, I suppose neither of us wins, then, Sister.” And with a swirl of Aoife’s arm, a circle opened under him and he fell hard onto the forest floor, into the bright sunlight, surrounded by a fairy ring of mushrooms.
A Year Later
The act begins. Adrian sits contemplatively on a platform high above the crowd as the spotlight shines on him, then diffuses into a multiplicity of gentle pinks, purples, and yellows that illuminate the top of the tent—only for a moment, as they fade and another spotlight across the way draws attention to an aerialist floating down from the ceiling on wires, resplendent in gauzy wisps, shining ribbons, and larger-than-life wings that trail longer than her body. She gracefully flips and dances in the air like a ballet dancer, whose movements in turn are intended to evoke woodland sylphs. Adrian and the aerialist, Ilona, lock into a zone of pure flow; they slightly overplay their gesturing and longing faces, fueled by the excitement of performing this for the first time in front of an audience, but it only makes the scene more potent.
As the excitement builds, he can no longer contain his longing, and edges out onto the tightrope, attempting to close the gap between them. The audience applauds as he reaches the other side, but The Fairy playfully flies just out of his reach. Once again, he edges his feet over the abyss. In the middle of the scene, she flies around him laughing, and he wows the crowd by reaching for her and turning around on the wire. The audience laughs sympathetically as he jumps up and down to try to catch her, futilely. Then he sits on the wire, one leg hanging down petulantly while the other rests bent, a place to put his elbow so his head can rest sulkily on his fist. The fairy relents and comes to kiss him on the head, and, hope restored, he springs to his feet and pursues her towards the platform. The audience adores it.
This time, all seems the same, but as he chases his fairy across the rope once more, another aerialist flies in, a Bad Fairy dressed in dark purples and blacks. To him, this outfit is more inspired more by Caoimhe and her dress of butterfly wings and spider silk, while Ilona’s Good Fairy resembles the splendid, overdone finery of Aoife’s, but he never expected to be able to show what it was really like in the Fae. The subtle joys of that afternoon could never really be told, or even shown, but only felt. It frustrated him at first as he wrote the act, and then he realized he would have to tell the truth in a way people could feel it too. It freed him to use the visual language of color and movement to express ideas in a way that all people would understand. Somehow, he knew Caoimhe would understand the truth he was sharing.
Svetlana, as the Bad Fairy, flies in mid wire, blocking the way between them and blasts him with glittery confetti as a klieg light flares him. He doesn’t even have to act as he crunches his eyes closed against the blinding light that burns through his eyelids, and falls away from its heat as the audience gasps, into a net below that, until now, the audience would not have seen was shaped like a spiderweb, as the lights had kept all attention above. But now the effect was magical, as he bounces and the web mechanically tips him out to give the audience a better view. It’s a beautiful construction, cunningly woven and coated with a flexible shiny polymer paint that glitters in the light, with a few wisps of light floaty thread that catch in the current of breath and heat.
Determined, he scrambles back up the ladder, and to protect himself from her magic, dons a blindfold to make the crossing, while unseen to him, the Good Fairy floats nearby. At one moment he pauses, gently reaching, and she flutters back just a foot away.
He completes the transit to thunderous applause, acknowledging the audience for a moment.
The Bad Fairy and her sister float neutrally in the background, watching with interest. We wonder, is the Good Fairy rooting for him or merely waiting to see if he is worthy? He moves out over the line once more. We have not seen until now that a thin line between two unseen points of rigging has been suspended from the ceiling, perpendicular to the tightrope and on an angle, one end higher than the other. It is not significant looking, but we wonder why it’s there.
She twirls and glitters on the other side, floating weightlessly, beautiful and ethereal.
Suddenly, a huge fantastical spider slides down the line towards him, gaining speed as it descends. It is as big as a bumper car, with a clever mechanism inside that rolls down the wire turning wheels that make the legs move. It has red glowing LED eyes, and it is beautifully horrible. The moment arrives, and with perfect timing, Adrian bounces the wire, flips in the air as it passes, and lands on the undulating tightrope. Taking the last few steps lightly, he gains the platform to thunderous applause.
The Nasty Fairy flies away, defeated, but the Good Fairy seems torn. She goes to leave, then flies in close, within reach, but he does not grab. Instead he closes his eyes for a kiss, but she flies away. But then, just like the spider, a huge sparrow slides along the rigging. Underneath its foot is a heavy-duty aerialist hand strap. He flies off the platform grabbing the “foot”, and sails off into the darkness of the ceiling as the lights dim, in pursuit of his love.
The audience explodes, utterly delighted by what they’ve seen, and the show moves on to the next act. Backstage, Adrian accepts a few good will pats and expressions of encouragement, and then everyone dissipates for their own entrances or costume changes. Having finally found something personal and meaningful to say, he knows that now, this is really where he belongs. Alone now, he quietly closes his eyes and thinks of her. “Thank you,” he whispers. Every time he performs the act, he’ll think of her and remember their time together, and that she cared enough to save him.
After the show, a small, brown-haired young woman eases her way through the crowd. She’s quite petite, and except perhaps for her size, unremarkable—almost invisible. Still, she has a pretty smile, and Adrian always makes time for the fans. They exchange a few pleasantries and take a picture together.
“I really liked the spider,” she says. “It was funny.”
“Really? It was supposed to be pretty scary,” he laughs, not offended.
“No, I like little animals and things like that. Maybe it’s because I grew up playing in the woods all the time.”
“Me too!” He replies with excitement.
The crowd flows past them as they chat about little things they have in common, the beginnings of a web connecting little threads to each other.
Soon, it is time to go. She tells him it was nice to meet him, and they both linger for just a moment when he invites her to text him, if she wants to.
To his relief, she smiles, takes out her phone to save his number. He does not see how she gracefully wipes away a bit of cobweb that was stuck to the screen, and does not hear the quickening of her heartbeat.