Emily opened up her eyes to a ceiling that had a celestial scene painted across it. The planets were all represented by their gods and goddesses, who sat comfortably on their material counterparts. Saturn looked down at her and gave her a wink. For a moment Emily wondered if she’d hit her head after losing consciousness.
“I’m seeing things Miss Emma.” Even as Emily said this she was hoping her aunt was actually in the room. Recent events were starting to come back to her and she remembered her aunt had been away from the boarding house.
“You are certainly seeing some things my little lady. Though be selective about what you’ve really seen.”
Slowly Emily sat up. She was laid out on a couch in a parlor painted in shades of pale rose and wine. She looked over and was relieved to see her aunt sitting in a chair nearby. She had a book in her hands; looking at her niece over the top of her reading glasses. She was smiling though. The old woman looked very bemused.
“I saw a fairy Miss Emma… and Saturn just winked at me.”
Miss Emma nodded her head slowly as she set her glasses to the side and closed her book. She looked up at the ceiling and pretended to scold the painted god of the sea above. This was a sweet gesture though, not a serious one.
“I’m happy to tell you the paintings don’t move in this house -at least all the ones I’m aware of. If you see one that does move please tell me. You’re still a little woozy and I think your dream state was interacting with your waking state a touch.”
“And the fairy?”
Miss Emma’s face became very serious. She was struggling with something. In the end Emily realized she was struggling with what to tell her niece. It seemed the old woman was hoping to make her great niece’s transition into her home much slower and certainly without Saturn’s mythical stamp on things.
“Aw the fairy… that was real. And as wondrous a thing as you’ll come to understand it, I know it was a bit much for your first day here. I sometimes make mistakes in judgment: Like good mother Sonja. Dear Sonja is always so good at keeping her somewhat wild munchkin in check that it never occurred to me that her fact-of-the-matter personality might think nothing about introducing you to the more unique parts of our home right away. I’m of course referring to little Sigrid introducing you to Mab so soon.”
Emily closed her eyes. There were chaotic images there. There was a long drive and her aunt giving up and leaving her among fascinating strangers. She saw thoughtful candles left outside in a beautiful garden for her parents. There were… thoughtful actions she couldn’t blame on anything. The moment in the glass house truly was a moment of too-much-information though that her mind had balked at. As she sat there looking at her great aunt she truly hoped that would be understood.
“Fairies aren’t real Miss Emma.” she quietly replied.
Her aunt didn’t reply to this. Her face was very serious and her eyes scanned the painted ceiling as if she was trying to find the right response up there. The celestial court had no answers to offer her.
“Emily…” she began but stopped. She continued to struggle.
The young woman realized she was making things far more difficult than they needed to be. She smiled at her aunt and nodded her head as if deciding to simply accept something that had no proper explanation. She did this though hoping an explanation would come. “Alright… fairies are real Miss Emma.”
The old woman delicately lifted her worn body from her chair and moved to sit next to her niece. She took the young woman’s hand in her own and smiled. “Do you really want to know?”
“Yes.” Emily wasn’t entirely sure this was true but her mind was beginning to become unclouded and she didn’t want anyone to pussyfoot around her. She wanted to know. “Why are there fairies in the greenhouse?”
“It’s a bit of a story,” Miss Emma cautioned.
Emily shrugged her shoulders and leaned back into the couch. “I’ve got the time.”
Miss Emma nodded and leaned back into the couch beside her niece.
“Well… it started about thirteen years ago. Mab had just lost her husband to lung cancer and she really didn’t have anyone but him. She had no family, no real friends… just a few people she worked with at a florist’s shop. Flowers were her thing you see… besides her beloved husband.
“After a particularly hard day at work she came home to an empty apartment and she felt the weight of her loss quite severely. It’s a wonderful thing to love another person so greatly that you are the only two things that matter in your private universe. The curse of it is we seldom leave this world together and when one of you is gone it’s like half of your universe has been torn apart. That was what Mab was feeling.
“She told me that she went to her kitchen window to lay down birdseed as her husband used to do when he got home from work. A familiar collection of sparrows came to eat and she watched them intently. When the birdseed was gone one by one the little birds extended their wings and flew away. As she watched the sparrows leaving Mab realized that she was able to do the very same thing. She didn’t have to stay in that apartment that was no longer filled with her husband’s presence. She didn’t have to get up at dawn and go back to that florist’s shop and spend another aimless day around co-workers she cared little for. Mab didn’t have to stay there.
“So Mab grabbed some suitcases and filled them up with the things she didn’t want to leave behind. She took a box and filled it with her photo albums and the pictures she had of her husband. She took only the things around her that had real sentimental value and she loaded them into her car. An hour later she was on the highway moving with no direction, no destination in mind and there began her adventure.
“She went everywhere that one. The more nomadic she became the more her senses began to change. In life Mab had been a quite ordinary middle-aged woman with an incredible green-thumb who loved her husband and was reasonably satisfied with her life because she was with him. When he was gone she became a singular creature who wanted to see everything, to know everything she could know. She traveled to Florida to see the coral castle and had lively debates about how old Edward had moved all that rock around. She visited the Winchester house and nearly stepped through one of the doors to nowhere. Though technically it did lead somewhere: Down, at a falling pace. That woman can tell you a story or two about her travels. Believe it.” This caused Miss Emma a thoughtful smile.
“One day Mab was presented with an experience that showed her just how greatly her senses had changed… how she was seeing so much more of the world than the average person.
“She was in a large town sitting on a park bench feeding ducks. One of the ducks became startled and started flapping its wings most violently and quaking at something Mab couldn’t see. Finally the duck darted forward and sitting there was an ugly little creature she described as looking like a very old and angry sweet potato. It had arms and legs and a cruel little face where at that moment had a mouthful of duck feathers in it.
“When the creature realized that Mab could see it, it was just as startled as she was. They stared one another down until finally the creature became spooked and ran away. To this day Mab hasn’t successfully been able to identify the creature and at the time she didn’t want to figure out what it was. She was too busy being perplexed by having seen it. It was the start though. From that point after Mab would see things everywhere. And they were things that everyone could see if they wanted to. She realized people simply did their best to filter those things out.
“Mab began a diary and she recorded any little thing that she saw. She sketched these things and slowly began to accumulate her own little dictionary of strange creatures. Often she would visit a library in whatever place she was staying and look through books to see if she could better identify these creatures. When she discovered what a creature was she added that name and notes to her diary.
“Eventually it became apparent to her that she was mostly seeing some of the more mischief laden and nastier creatures talked about in myths or children stories. She wanted desperately to see the beautiful creatures of their kind but they were elusive. She might catch a colorful shadow but she never laid eyes on the shadow caster properly. But when she finally did, she realized why she wasn’t seeing these creatures. At least not seeing these creatures where she was looking for them.
“One day Mab was outside of a bookstore in their outdoor cafe indulging in a sweet coffee and reading through a book she couldn’t afford to buy. Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of those colorful shadows, only this time when she quickly turned her head she caught sight of an arm… a wing.
“She was up and moving towards the edge of the building where the tiny creature had fled. She was quiet in her pursuit and moved as carefully and gently as possible. She didn’t want to frighten the creature or make it think she was a threat. Mab went so far as to think of good things… warm things. She didn’t know why, but she wanted to give off an aura of being kind and a thoughtful mind. She wanted this creature to sense her good intentions and she was shocked when it worked.
“In the small passage between two buildings she came upon a small cluster of tall grass and wild flowers that had grown up through a large crack in the pavement. In this tiny little cluster of nature was a small creature that almost resembled a miniature person. Its ears were pointed and its eyes were quite large and round compared to the size of the rest of its features. Its hair was more like gathered wisps of silk. Mab realized she was looking at an actual fairy.
“The poor creature had clothed itself in old candy wrappers. Its skin looked like it should be luminous but there was too much dirt causing it to be dim. Its moth-like wings laid flat against its back like they were no longer able to flutter and carry the little creature into the air. Mab had a frightening thought that this incredible little thing was slowly dying.
“Can you imagine how that would feel? To have proof of this fantastical hidden world right there before you and to know it was dying?” Miss Emma’s face became quite solemn. She almost looked like the very thought might make her cry.
“Well, Mab was not going to let such a thing happen. She extended her hand to the tiny creature not knowing if her intentions would be perceived as a threat. Let me help you she whispered to the little thing. The fairy looked weary for a moment but eventually stepped from its little cluster of nature and climbed into Mab’s hand. Very carefully she brought the creature up to her shirt pocket and opened it up for the creature to climb into. Then she was away like a mad woman making her way back to her motel. She stopped long enough to buy fruit from a produce stand and here and there nabbed a flower or sprig of leaves that she added to her bag of fruit.
“When she got to her motel room she went into the bathroom and ran some water. When it was warm she pulled the sink’s plug and let the sink fill half way up with water. She set wash clothes by the sink. Then she knelt down next to the sink and opened her pocket so the creature hiding within could see what she’d been doing.
“Mab described the fairy as being very timid but seeming to be so exhausted that it was past caring. It peaked out of her shirt pocket and very gingerly reached for the edge of the sink and pulled itself onto the porcelain. It went as far as to sit on a washcloth and there it sat. Eventually it looked up at Mab, its little face so weary.
“Once again Mab was up and rushing about. She took one of her floral patterned shirts and cut it up into scrap sized pieces of material. She set these on the bathroom counter. She cut up a nectarine into very small pieces and put these in one of the motel room’s plastic cups. She put those next to the shirt pieces. Then she had a random thought that maybe it would be nice for the sink water to smell pretty so she plucked some of the petals from a rose she’d grabbed along the way and added them to the water. And all the while the fairy just sat there on the washcloth watching Mab doing these things.
“Eventually, she softly told the creature that she was going to leave it alone. So she left it alone in the bathroom and turned her attention to trying to make some sort of nest for it in the room outside. She didn’t really have an idea what a fairy nest would look like in a cheap motel room.
“In the end she took a sheet from the bed and put it over the desk in the room. She was thinking along the lines of a make-shift tent that a child might put together. She put a pillow in this desk tent, along with all the flowers and leaves she’d picked along the way. Then she set the rest of her purchased fruit in there. When she was done and looking over her work she heard water noises from the bathroom.
“Mab didn’t want to intrude upon the creature’s bath time but she was desperate to know if she was being helpful to it. She peaked around the corner of the door and her heart nearly broke as she looked into the bathroom.
“The old candy wrappers that had served as clothes were lying on the bathroom counter. And there in the water the fairy was sitting. It had a small piece of fruit in one hand as its other hand gently moved a rose petal around in the water. This was all Mab needed to see.
“The whole experience had been overwhelming and as the hour passed Mab grew tired and dozed off. When she woke dusk had fallen over the room and everything was silent. At that point she was worried everything she’d just experienced had been little more than a dream. She got up and went to the bathroom and there was no fairy there. So she went to the desk and very gently pulled back the sheet to look beneath it.
“There all comfortably nestled in the middle of the pillow was a sleeping fairy. Its body was wrapped in one of the shirt pieces. One of its arms was holding a sprig of lilac like a child hold’s a teddy bear. Every so often it moved in its sleep and its wings fluttered.
“Mab let the sheet fall back and she found herself falling onto the bed. You can imagine just how overwhelming such a scene might be. After all of the ugly little creatures Mab had seen, she was realizing why she hadn’t seen more creatures like this one: The modern world was becoming too rough a place for them. That woman quietly cried herself to sleep that night. I think I would have too.
“In the morning when she woke she found the fairy sitting on the bed next to her head. It had woven some of the tinier flowers into its hair. Mab reached up and felt the flowers the fairy had tucked into Mab’s own hair while she slept. It made her heart melt. They had no common tongue but they quickly learned how to communicate with one another. This was how Mab met her first sprite, who she came to know as Pearl. Pearl is an air elemental.”
Miss Emma became quiet, with a soft little smile playing at the corner of her lips. She looked over at her niece and was pleased to see how attentive the young woman’s face was. She was urging her aunt to continue the story with her eyes. When this didn’t work she resorted to words.
“And?! What happened to Pearl? And how did Mab get here?”
“Oh nothing happened to Pearl. She’s quite well. Her and Mab are inseparable. If you take tea in the gardens around dawn you’ll be joined by Mab and Pearl will always be sitting on her shoulder. As for how they got here…”
Miss Emma paused a moment and readjusted herself on the couch. This was a touchier part of the story and the old woman wanted to offer it in just the right way. She didn’t think her niece was quite ready to know some things about the lands she now lived on.
“Well… that is a bit of a bigger story. Let’s go with the short version for now.” She smiled and squeezed Emily’s hand affectionately.
“When Mab left her home she was certainly not a rich woman, but she had some savings and a modest life insurance policy left to her by her husband. It afforded her the ability to be that nomad for many years. But by the time she met up with Pearl she was running very close to the bottom of her funds. She was realizing she had to find a place to settle in for a little while and most likely get a job. She didn’t want to do this in the city though. After taking on Pearl she spent less and less time in big cities. She tried to keep the two of them as close to nature as possible. This was, after all, the best way to rehab a little sprite who’d nearly been killed by city life.
“Somewhere along the way Mab found herself on a two lane highway in the middle of nowhere. She was getting low on gas and not seeing too many road signs assuring her there was a place to get more. She ended up deciding to turn off the highway when she saw that old directional sign for Orange Moon Downs. Unfortunately she never made it that far.
“Mab’s car ran out of gas about a mile from the boarding house. She followed the dirt road until she hit our wild flower field. The flowers caused Pearl to urge Mab to keep going. By the time she was at my front door she’d walked a mile in the cold rain and was trying to very nonchalantly act like there wasn’t a fairy hiding underneath her hat trying to braid Queen Ann’s lace into her hair. She was a sight.
“Mab wanted to know how to get to the town but I wouldn’t hear of it in that weather. I brought her in and set her down in the kitchen and got some warm tea and food into her. I pretended not to notice as she sneaked little pieces of fruit under the wet hat she wouldn’t take off. I let her tell me the pedestrian version of her story as she warmed up. When she was done I think she finally realized she had come to an end point in her adventures. This hit her particularly hard. Mab broke down in tears. I let her have a good cry. I pretended to not see the little hand that came down from under the hat that started to softly smooth the woman’s eyebrow in an effort to comfort her.
“I put Mab up in one of my rooms and told her I wouldn’t hear any of her protests until she’d had a chance to take a bath and get a good nights rest. She was grateful, but I think it only added to how miserable she looked in the morning when I found her at the front door about to leave.
“’Walk with me’ I said to her. We walked around the house and through the gardens as I brought her to my greenhouse. Mind you, the greenhouse back then had been neglected for a year. It was just a glass house full of over grown plants and a simple tiled floor. So I made Mab an offer. I said ‘Miss Mab you need a roof over your head and I need my greenhouse brought back to order. You said you were a florist once upon a time with a pretty good green thumb so maybe you could help me out with that. You can stay in the room you spent the night in and I’ll keep your belly full and in return maybe you can work in my greenhouse. I think your little friend would enjoy living here.’”
Miss Emma smiled at the memory. “I remember how shocked she was when I said that. I remember how that little imp peaked out from underneath her hat smiling at me. This is how Mab and Pearl came to live here.”
Emily smiled. This was a nice story and she had seen what the greenhouse had become so she knew there was no bad ending anywhere in there. But she was still curious about one thing.
“Sigrid said Mab heals her peepers in the glass house. And the sign outside mentions the U.F.R.L. is in the greenhouse. What is that?”
“I thought that might be more apparent now?” Miss Emma said as she looked thoughtful. “Mab found Pearl and helped her and she realized that cities are a hard place for the bright fae to live. Only the dark fae seem to thrive there for the most part. Now that she was aware that mythology was not really a bunch of myths, she wanted to help others like Pearl. So she started the U.F.R.L. or the Urban Fairy Rescue League. She began it years ago and created a network all over. When a sick or struggling fae is found they’re brought here and she rehabilitates them in the greenhouse. When they’re whole again she offers them a home in the surrounding forest. We weren’t lying when we said the forest is enchanted. It’s quite like the forests of old… the forests that were written about in fairy tale times.”
This was quite a lot of information to digest, but Emily realized she was okay with it. She found herself giggling and unable to get a handle on them as her aunt looked on quizzically.
“And what is so funny little miss?”
Through the giggles Emily managed to say “Wow… aunt Jen was actually right. My mom’s people really are an odd bunch.”
Even as she said it she realized just how true it was and this made her laugh even harder. It wasn’t a nervous laugh, just a very honest one. She could only imagine what things her very straight laced aunt Jen might have seen or overheard when she was around Emily’s mother. More than that, it made her think of so many of the little things her mother had said to her. Things she hadn’t thought about in years.
Slowly she got her giggles in check and brought them down to a soft gurgle. Her chest was actually sore from the heavy laughing but it was a good sore. When all the laughter was finally out she slumped back into the couch again almost exhausted.
“That made me think of something my mother used to say to me every night when she tucked me into bed.”
“And what’s that?”
“She would tell me that all the legends were true and then she’d kiss my forehead goodnight. And I remember…” her memories stretched as she tried to remember back to those very young years. “I remember she used to whisper into my pillow before I laid down. She said it was so I would have good dreams.”
“And did you?”
“Yes… almost always.” A sad thought came to her. “I didn’t have my first nightmare till after she died.”
Miss Emma squeezed her hand and told her sadly the good thoughts were always coupled with some of the bad ones. Then she gave her niece a warm hug and promised to tell her the secret of pillow whispering one day when she was ready.
Emily’s first week at the boarding house passed with far less fuss than was had on that very first day. Slowly the young woman was introduced to some of the other occupants of the house. Emily had a feeling each of them had an interesting story to tell but after the fairy incident everyone was well warned by Miss Emma to let her niece settle in gradually.
Though she wanted to know everything she could, Emily was still quite grateful for her aunt’s protective stance. It was wonderful to know the world was far more interesting than she had originally believed, but at the same time she had a small fear that for all the wonderful things she would discover, there was potentially scary things to be found as well. It was like the story of Mab’s fairy: She’d encountered a lot of scary creatures before she met Pearl.
Emily was finding routines to slip into. These routines weren’t quite rituals yet but they had the makings to be one. By nature the young woman didn’t like change and she didn’t like her day to day to be disorderly. So she was finding comfort in this forming structure.
In the mornings she was typically awoken by Sigrid as though the imp was a human alarm clock. Right around eight the little girl came bounding into her room and onto her bed. If Emily pretended to sleep after this intrusion, Sigrid would lean in and pull her eyelids open and declare she knew Emily was hiding in there.
Sigrid liked to sit on the older girl’s bed and chatter away while Emily was in the bathroom washing her face and brushing her teeth. Emily had to admit she liked the strange little stories the younger girl had to tell. Then the two walked hand in hand down to the kitchen where Sigrid’s mother would have breakfast waiting for them.
After breakfast Sonja would say goodbye to her daughter and be off to work in town. Emily would join Sigrid for a little while talking to the cute squirrel Rata. Emily still hadn’t seen the infamous Bauta, who Rata was still happy to be a jerk to. And the more often she spent time with the little girl and the cantankerous squirrel, the more she felt like the tree itself was a silent character playing mute in the background.
Eventually Emily would leave the little girl to her squirrel chat. Sigrid only had an hour of this free time before she was to head inside and join another young tenet in the house for summer homeschooling. This answered the question of who watched the hyper little creature while her mother was away.
Emily found that she liked to sit in the front parlor during the early part of the day and watch as the household woke up and began their day. She met many of the other tenets this way. The first person she met there was Leelu.
Leelu was the classic bohemian looking woman who’d come help bring Emily’s things to the boarding house. As best she could tell, Emily figured Leelu was in her early twenties. She was a pretty, carefree kind of woman who reminded Emily of Stevie Nicks, only with very bright red locks. This was fitting because she liked to sing. Often Emily heard the woman’s sweet voice humming something vaguely Celtic before she passed into the parlor.
When Leelu passed through her companion Tac was usually not far behind.
Tac was the man (aside from the younger man) who’d come help move Emily’s things. In Emily’s upset frame of mind she hadn’t paid the three people helping her much attention. Now that she was able to sit and give everyone a good look over she wondered how she had missed the fact that Tac was quite handsome in a rugged man sort of way. He was very tall and had dark hair that was neatly cut. He always had the start of a beard going but it never grew much farther than a pleasant looking scruff that covered his chin. When the young woman caught the man’s dark eyes she was always painfully reminded that she’d just pasted the puberty mark. It made her act a little daffy around him.
It was hard to tell if Leelu and Tac were a couple or just very good friends. There was an absolute closeness about them but they were never really affectionate towards one another except for a friendly goodbye hug when they parted ways. They did share a room in the boarding house but Emily was from a generation progressive enough to know this didn’t necessarily mean they were together.
Quietly Emily hoped the two were not a couple. It didn’t matter that Tac was at the very least ten years her senior, she just liked the idea that he was single and maybe, just maybe she’d grow up a little to catch his eye one day. This was just the nature of a young woman realizing how much she was growing to like the opposite sex. When Tac passed through and waved at Emily her stomach immediately felt butterflies. It was a nice sensation.
Tac was a builder and when he left each morning it was off to a temporary job somewhere that demanded his hard labor. Leelu worked in town at a place called The Attic Shoppe of Curiosities, which was apparently some type of novelty and antique store. Leelu helped run the place. Her and Tac were out of the boarding house early and didn’t get back until dinner time.
Emily next met Flossie and she liked the strange woman instantly. Her given name was Flora Von Tree but most people addressed her by her cabaret name: Flossie Leather Feathers. The young woman loved that name and was intrigued about the older woman being a cabaret performer. It seemed somewhat exotic to her. As a result she peppered Flossie with questions whenever she saw her and Flossie was always good to cheerfully answer them all.
“You just come by my Bat Emporium in town sometime and I’ll tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cabaret. And all your ears can fill with town gossip.” she promised the younger woman and always gave her a wink.
As Emily was slowly introduced to some of the names of places in town she was starting to get an equally strange mental picture of the place. Minerva had explained Orange Moon Downs has having somewhat of a tourist attraction vibe to it and it did entertain a lot of out-of-towners. She emphasized though that these tourists weren’t like the type you might encounter at a side show attraction or things of that nature. These were people who came to the town with a purpose and a desire to know the place was real. It made the town seem almost like some hidden away myth.
Mythical or not, Orange Moon Downs was still off limits to Emily. Miss Emma was adamant that a town visit was not on the young woman’s schedule until she’d been at the boarding house for at least two weeks. “There is plenty to contend with here before we throw the town into the mix.” she said. This just made Emily want to visit it more. This was something she bemoaned to Minerva nearly every afternoon when they had lunch together.
“Oh my gawd, I want to see the town so bad!”
Minerva always shrugged a little dismissively. “You see one crazy town you’ve seen them all. I don’t bother much with it except to go in and see my society gals.”
Minerva’s society gals turned out to be two opposing tea groups. Emily was especially entertained whenever the old woman talked about them. The idea that two groups of people who focused on tea warred with one another tickled the young woman’s imagination. In Emily’s mind she pictured a perfectly polite and Victorian tea mafia.
On one side there was the Orange Moon Tea Society run by a woman named Aria Whet-jute Knot, who was also known as the Wormwood Queen for her absinthe recipes. On the other side was the Black Cat & Poisoned Tea Society run by a woman named Etta Diem, who was also known as the Black Dealer because she traded in cursed artifacts. As Minerva described it, if the two groups were to be described by artists and their art, Orange Moon was Alphonso Mucha and Black Cat was Edward Gorey. Being the kind of old woman Minerva was she was of course a member of both societies.
“Are you known as something other than Minerva in your tea societies?”
“Oh yeah…” Minerva nodded, causing her large bun of hair to bop up and down and her metal insect hairpins to click and ting. “I’m known as that old bat in the corner who never takes ‘get out’ as an order.”
Emily had giggled but in truth she could never tell when Minerva was joking or being serious. She had the same sort of gruff delivery of everything she said. It was like a light dose of crazy old woman who might throw a cat at you. Miss Emma had to tell her niece that most things Minerva Mox said were to be taken lightheartedly. That the gruffness was really just an act.
On Friday night of her first week at the boarding house Emily decided to ask Minerva if it was time that she could tell the young woman her story as promised on her first day.
The two of them were sitting on the open, second floor porch where Emily had her first meal with her great aunt and her old friend. This was actually the pair’s favorite place in the house. It was quiet and set apart from the places in the massive house that could get loud with activity at times. It offered a lovely view of the outlying lands around the place. And there was no better view of the stars overhead at night. Emily approved of the spot. In fact it has also become her favorite place, especially after the sun had set and the lightning bugs took to the surrounding fields.
“So what’s your story Minerva?” Emily asked. She’d waited for Miss Emma to excuse herself to take a bath before asking. Her poor aunt’s bones tended to get to her towards the end of the day. As her bones got to her a little of her patience for her niece’s curiosity grew thin.
Minerva was sitting in her rocking chair gently moving herself back and forth. She didn’t answer at first. She continued to look towards the heavens with a thoughtful expression on her old face.
In the candlelight Emily was able to see the old woman in a somewhat different light. The warm glow of the candle flame had a wonderful effect where it almost made all the old woman’s age lines smooth out. In that light Emily could almost see what a younger version of the woman looked like. Her features were very petite and had a very youthful quality to them; like the face of a teenage girl who had yet to grow into what her womanly face would finally look like. Emily could see Minerva having been a very pretty young woman.
Eventually Minerva pulled her dark shawl around her shoulders and sighed heavily. All of her gruffness was released with that sigh. Without it Minerva almost sounded like a teenage girl playing old woman dress up.
“My story… your aunt would probably kill me for sharing that with you so soon. But it’s a beautiful summer night and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. That’s a good time for a memory tale. There are storms forecast for next week… I don’t like storms so much. I can’t talk about myself when there is thunder around. And lightning… ”
She fell silent again. Her mind was drifting back in time and it was no easy thing for her to do. She had to be in the right head space though. When she spoke her voice was that of a teenage girl. It was something surreal to hear.
“I was about to turn eighteen. I lived in a very well to do estate with my parents during Victorian times. I never had to want for a thing. It was an absolute wonder I didn’t become a spoiled, self involved creature like many of my female counterparts of the time. I attribute this to the influence of my grandmother. She and my grandfather worked hard for the lavish lifestyle my mother was born into. And when my mother married rich and doubled her fortunes, my grandmother made a decision to make sure her grandchildren didn’t become soft like their parents. I was her only grandchild so that gave her a lot of free time to focus on me alone.
“When I was a child my grandmother read to me often. She never let the servants do the things I should be doing for myself; like cleaning my room or fetching my own things. She could be very course about it too. My grandmother did not mince words or suffer fools quietly. In that respect she was a little bit of an embarrassment for my parents in their polite Victorian society. I loved that about her though. I wanted to grow old one day and turn into the very same old creature who barked at people with such authority. I know that sounds odd but people really do need a bit of reality barked at them from time to time.
“My grandmother was my primary friend for most of my young life honestly. Then she passed away in her sleep one night. Our last goodnight has always haunted me a little. She tucked me in and kissed my fingertips one by one. She told me I was a good girl who was going to live an extraordinary life once I was able to get beyond my parents’ walls. She promised she’d always keep an eye on me because it might be a long time before she saw me again. And she said all of this so cheerfully I had the silly thought that she was going on a trip or something. So I asked her where she was going. She told me she was missing my grandfather and it was time to see him again. He’d died quite some time ago.
“The next morning she didn’t come down for breakfast so my mother sent a maid upstairs to see what was taking her so long. Soon the maid came rushing back and beckoned us all to grandmother’s room. She was there with her eyes closed looking quite peaceful. My mother made a pathetic but expected fool’s show of shock and disbelief over the scene. Not me though. I was silent. I felt like my whole world had been taken away from me. I was twelve at the time.
“The next many years were quite annoying for me. Without my grandmother there to bully my mother away when she tried to nag me into being a proper woman, she now had free range to shape me as she saw fit. I was sent to etiquette classes and made to learn how to play the piano. I was forced to take afternoon tea with her circle of friends and their daughters. I learned how to fit in but I was never really apart of polite society. I was never going to be what my mother wanted me to be. So I waited for my eighteenth birthday to come around. I had been smart enough at the age of sixteen to talk my mother into the idea that I could be a better lady if I was allowed to travel the world a bit. My father agreed but demanded I wait until I was eighteen. Not because I would be an adult; age was looked upon quite differently back then. He simply wanted me around a little longer to see if I could be successfully wed to another rich family. I did my best to quietly create a reputation to put such a thing off. Willful women were not treasured in those days.
“So I waited and I was on the eve of my eighteenth finally. My mother had a large party planned out for the next day. Everyone in her social circle was invited and she was determined to make it a very grand event that was talked about for weeks to come. I didn’t care about it. It was the last thing of my mother’s I had to weather before I was able to get on a train the following day and leave that place.
“I had a birthday tradition with my grandmother. We would get up very early to see the dawn. She would make me my own little tiny cake. It was always a quite decadent thing. It was not the neatly made thing my mother would have a proper baker prepare for me. This was a good chunk of rich chocolate cake and butter frosting that grandmother grew up on. And I got to eat it for breakfast with a nice glass of milk. All me! And I was allowed unsightly slicks of chocolate across my lips while eating it! Manners meant nothing in those moments. Only joy.
“The morning of my eighteenth birthday I woke early and was delighted to see the house cook had honored my grandmother’s tradition and had left a tiny cake for me. For a moment it felt like my grandmother was there with me. I just had to sneak off to her room and wake her up or wait for her to join me outside. I couldn’t go to her room, it would have ruined the illusion. So I instead went outside to continue to play pretend. The weather decided to ruin that illusion for me.
“When I went out into the tiny garden my grandmother once kept, the skies above were black. I had never seen such an angry sky out there with her. There was no rain yet but the skies looked absolutely overwhelmed with it. And in the middle of all of this, as if it were possible, there was one cloud that was actually darker than the rest. It looked like the color of the most angry bruise ever to be seen on human skin. Grandmother might have described it as God himself punching the sky. It was unsettling.
“I stood there staring at the evil thing and it was evil. I could feel it. It felt like it was staring right back at me. I remember whispering piss off at it and having it grumble right back. I should have gone back into the house right then. God only knows what my life might have been like if I had. But I didn’t. I stood there and glared angrily at it as if it was personally ruining my traditional birthday morning and then… it happened.”
Minerva fell silent. Emily watched her intently. As she told her story Emily could honestly see the teenage face of the woman in the candle flames. It didn’t seem like an optical illusion. She wanted desperately to know what happened to that young Minerva.
“What happened Minerva?” she whispered.
The old woman let out a small laugh as she thought about the absurdity of her tale, but she continued.
“I was struck by lightning.” Minerva said simply.
Emily understood the gravity of this. In her mind she was silently marveling over how this woman could have been struck by lightning and survived. Minerva was shaking her head slowly as if she read these thoughts.
“No… it wasn’t surviving the lightning strike that was the amazing thing that morning. I really wish it were. But no. That angry little black cloud bared down on me and struck me like a scorpion stinging and it changed me. It changed me completely. As I stood there in a state of shock it took my mother coming out of the house to show me just how badly it changed me.
“You see, the sound of the lightning strike was quite deafening. Everyone in the house heard it. My mother was up and rushing out of the house in her robe because she was worried it had hit the house and that her beautiful home might be on fire. She raced through different doorways until she finally came out into her mother’s garden. The look on her face when she saw me was not shock but immediate anger. She called me an old hag and demanded to know what I was doing on her property. Then she became more livid when she thought this old hag was wearing her daughter’s expensive robe.
“She ranted at me and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then I looked down at my hands and didn’t see my own. I saw withered old hands much like the memory of my grandmother’s hands. I grabbed at my hair and looked upon a thick locket of sheer white hair in place of my black locks. I touched my face and felt the age lines… the wrinkles. I went into a state of shock.
“I reached out for my mother and called to her. That look of anger on my mother’s face turned to horror. I was begging my mother to tell me what was going on and she was trying to block out the sound of her daughter’s voice coming from this old woman.
“My father soon found his wife and came out into the garden as well. He started to ask who I was but my mother was ordering him into the house. She demanded he go into town and bring the doctor back. And then, finally, she came to me and took my hands. She led me into the house. To this day I can remember how her hands trembled as they held mine.
“There are many details to what came next but they’re not really important. The doctor came and determined that while my outside body had somehow turned into that of an old woman, my heart and vitals sounded just as strong as any young woman’s should. No one could explain what had happened to me. Nobody wanted to explain it. My mother just sat there staring at me with such a look in her eyes. Her mind had ceased to process what had happened to her daughter and instead was focusing on how I was once again trying to ruin her reputation with her society friends. I have always tried to forgive her this reaction. I consider it how she tried to cope without going mad.
“My father wanted to call in experts; what experts he thought there might be in the world to study such a thing as what happened to me I honestly don’t know. He was simply being a male who wanted to go about things in an orderly manner that made sense. He wanted to fix me. My mother didn’t want me to be seen while he tried to fix me. She wanted him to find his experts and send me away to them.
“I was never terribly close to my parents but I am only human. Their reaction to me broke my heart. Had my grandmother been there she would have held me close and told me I could come bark at people with her… how fun that would be. She would have sought to comfort me in that terrified state. But my parents were not her and they did not know how to deal with such a… surreal and unnatural turn of events. I have my anger with them but in those moments, knowing them as I did, I didn’t blame them for their reactions.
“The party went on as planned. Everyone was told I had come down with an illness. No one missed me. I think my mother was actually relieved honestly. She got her fabulous event without the potential misstep of the young woman it was being thrown for. I locked myself away in my grandmother’s old room.
“I stayed out of sight of everyone in the house. I had made a decision. I took my travel cases, that were already packed for my departure, and emptied them of most things. In their place I packed all of my grandmother’s dark colored clothes. I took her jewelry and her hair adornments. I took a photo of her and grandfather and a few things that had sentimental value for me and I left for the train station. I meant to keep my travels. I knew I could send a letter to my parents explaining my decision to leave and I knew they would keep me funded during my travels if it kept my dirty secret hidden.
“It was an odd sensation stepping onto that train platform. There were no men there trying to give me an unseen once over. No one called me miss or young lady. Men tipped their hats to me in a respectful fashion and the train porters asked me if I needed help. I was an old woman and everyone treated me like one. There was my consolation. When a child accidentally stepped on my toe I barked at him like a proper old grouch and he wasn’t allowed to say anything back to me. His mother, just as polite and proper as my mother, ignored my words and instead scolded her son and told him to apologize to the nice lady. Later on that little boy, still wounded by my words, would peer around a train seat and stick his tongue out at me. I would give him the equivalent of the middle finger for that time. I relished the look of shock on his spoiled, little boy face.
“’Don’t you have moxie!’ this older gentleman across from me had laughed. I liked that. I told him damn if I don’t! We talked for a bit and he asked me my name. My given was Agnes Primworth. I told him my name was Minerva Mox. Minerva was my grandmother’s name. Mox was for the moxie I was about to unleash upon the world.”
She paused, a wide but still somewhat sad smile crossed her lips. “It’s been quite a life.” she said thoughtfully. “Quite a life indeed.”
Emily was mesmerized by everything she just heard. “Minerva? Hold old are you?”
Minerva smiled, having saved the very best part for last. “Well dear I was born in 1872 so… quite old. But there’s the trick of that black cloud that smacked me: It made me an old woman on the outside but forever preserved the young woman on the inside. Time does nothing to my heart and it barely registers on my brain. I may know quite a bit more than I did as that young woman but I’ve never grown out of being that young woman. I don’t keep your aunt’s company because we are both old women. I keep it because she reminds me of that relationship I had with my grandmother. And I need that stability to keep me from going mad.She’s also the very first person I ever told my story to who believed me without a second thought. She took me into her home and helped me…” she paused and tapped her head. The candle light shifted and she was an old woman again. “Miss Emma helped me chase some of the bats starting to roost in this old mental belfry of mine. The woman does like her strange strays.”
The room was silent. Emily was quietly digesting everything she was just told. Given Minerva’s personality she was waiting for the woman to claim it was all a joke just when the young woman was deciding to believe her. But Emily honestly knew this wasn’t the case. It was the voice. Throughout the whole retelling of her experiences the old woman’s voice that Minerva used around everyone was no where. Her voice was exactly that of someone who sounded barely older than Emily herself. It was a voice locked inside of a person who was visually so much older.
“I believe you. If you’re pulling my leg please don’t tell me.” Emily offered. “I’m sorry that happened to you and all that you must have gone through or missed out in life because of what happened to you, but knowing this means you make sense. I like you making that kind of sense.”
This caused Minerva to laugh. When she spoke her voice was old and gruff again but there was nothing but warmth being expressed in it. “Oh child you are so precious. You are your mother’s child.
The night was slowly moving along and the desire to talk further was not there for either person. Minerva was content to look at the stars overhead and Emily was content to be quiet as she sneaked looks at the old woman and tried to imagine what kind of life she’d lived having been young and old at the same time.
Eventually Minerva stood up and stretched. You could almost tell the hour of the night by the state of decline in her bun. When her untidy bun of hair had gone from just floppy to a precariously loose state just a few more hair falls from releasing all of the hair pins she had tucked in there, it was safe to assume it was about eleven o’clock.
“Bedtime kiddo. At least for me.” Minerva moved slowly for the door, the perfect model of an elderly woman. She stopped and looked over her shoulder and offered the younger woman a smirk that could only be summed up as scandalous. “And just for the record I haven’t missed out on a thing in life. If it could be done I did it. I’ll tell you some of my better stories. And maybe, when you’re older…” the scandalous smirk went to straight out devious, “I’ll tell you some of my saucier stories. Goodnight kiddo.”’
Emily grinned as she watched the impostor old woman shuffle through the porch door. The young woman let her eyes move back to the surrounding land where the lightning bugs were making everything look like nature had created its own flicking lantern lights. It could have been described as the fields having their own blinking, movable star map. For a moment the field constellation of an angry urban sweet potato was quite visible. A few minutes later it was gone and the field constellation of Mab and Pearl was glowing bright.
Emily moved over to the porch’s railing and leaned over it as she looked closer at the field in front of her. She was quite sure she saw Miss Emily, Leelu and Tac makes appearances. The tree squirrel and little Sigrid popped up and maybe that faint pattern off in the distance was the still unseen occupant of the tree. The only constellation that didn’t make itself known was that of Minerva Mox. Emily chalked this up to the old woman most likely never wanting to have anything to do with lightning again… even in the form of a simple lightning bug.
Snapdragon Tea, Chapter II copyright (c) 2014-2016 Bethalynne Bajema. All Rights Reserved. Published by Ver Sacrum Books. Reprinted here by permission. Reproduction of this content except for purposes of review are prohibited without written permission of the author and publisher. You can view more of Bethalynne’s writing portfolio here.