Suddenly, the whole area clouds over. The campfire flickers, and almost goes out. A cold mist rises from the ground. A roll of gaff tape tumbles by in the breeze, and vanishes in the mist, never to be seen again.
Ptah says, 'OK, so for those who do not recall the rules.... Audience reactions are OK--and even encouraged. Audience interruptions are rewarded by conversion into a marshmallow for the s'mores.'
Ptah tosses some powders on the fire. Crystalline colors rise to the sky, tossed and twirling in the heated air. Everyone hushes. Right?
Mama always said, do not go out into the gardens of an evening. The chill can cause fevers, and fevers, as we all know, have taken the lives of many a child in our soggy English clime.
I hardly saw myself as a child, being already ten and six, but that never stopped Mama. She still fussed over me, and fussed over my sister Margaret--Peggy, we called her. She picked out our clothes, which hardly de me a fashion-plate on the week-end when I spent time with the other lads from my form. Poor Peggy was oft drowned in a forth of ribbons and lace, festooned with gossamer until she looked akin to those pictures that Mr. Doyle publicized in the papers. Had our dear Papa still been among the living, I doubt that he would have permitted such indulgence, but as we were instead living off of the estate since his succumbing to the gout, we had little choice.
Fortunately, there was enough of a living to be had, and we did not want. The estate was large, large enough for the gardens in back to hide byways covered in ivy, all pebbled and secluded. I used to think, when I sat nestled in tree nooks with my pad and paper, that it was perhaps paths like these that the poets would walk, when they sought inspiration, but now Mama would not let me go out of an evening, even though now was the time when the mist, burned off during the day, exuded its soft tendrils past the dock leaves and the strands of flowerbeds, and the world seemed most magical.
Of course, I snuck out anyway. How could I not? It may be dishonorable to disobey one's parents, but I believe that modern science has shown that young men must of necessity learn to break the ties that bind them to their mothers, and learn to walk without apron strings. Little did I expect young Margaret to follow me; to this day, that is something I do regret.
I took the second story casement window for my exit; the shingles slippery beneath my feet. Fortunately, the light was bright, for the moon shone astonishingly vivid, for all that it was but a crescent. In my memory, it has the shape described by Mr. Coleridge in his Rime-the horned moon, with one star within the tips of the horns. An augur? Some indication of the doorways opened that night betwixt our world and... elsewhere? I do not know.
I slithered my way to the gutter, and thence to the ground by means of a convenient birch. I had under one arm, in a bundle to preserve it from the damp, my sketch pad. Mama thought this a charming pursuit, though perhaps better suited for the ladies. She did not understand the power that the simple act of setting charcoal to vellum had for me. Each stroke was a way of taking revenge against the world for my father's death. Each stroke was a caress of the very night that I feared sometimes would take my soul.
Looking back, I say faugh--a romantic lad of ten and six, no more, infatuated with the belief that he has powers to control his life. Such a delusion. But then, the paper and the art was my shield against the vicissitudes of fate. Who am I to question fate?
I crept along the arbor path, past the small pond now overgrown with weed and moss. Since Father's passing, none felt inclined to keep it up, and it grew rank and stagnant, a haven for the croaking frog and lachrymose newt. On the other side of the tumbled greenhouse with its refractings of moonlight, was the Tree.
No doubt you have known such trees. An oak, tall, and thick boned like the strongest of stevedores, a trunk so large that it would take three grown men to encircle it in an embrace. Bark, rough and runneled, sharp edges like the crests of ravines running its vertical length. This oak had stood for centuries, without a doubt living through the forest primeval when England was nothing but wood and bole and branch. One side was covered with moss, the other side was also. Some say the oak is a dark tree, an evil tree, a tree with a knotted heart, but this oak was my friend, and its branches hung low, grown twisted through the years until climbing it was an easy affair.
Here was where my sketches flourished. Here was where I called my muse.
From above, I could see the greenhouse, the stagnant pond (distance making it reflective and silver, echoing its former vibrant self), the house; I could even see the flicker of candle in the room where my mother sewed or read, the dinner repast complete.
I had just settled down to sketch the shadows of the branches upon the grass, when I saw the first of the lights approach. They darted between the trees, having that curious form that light can take in obstructed areas. Illumination blossomed from between some branches, they withdrew as if timid; then it grew again, achingly blue, horridly orange, blessedly white. The leaves and the tunks of the trees surrounding the garden path took on tremendous shapes in their shivery shadows. They grew bold, then faded to insignificance, they grew stark, then became furry soft with ochre. From above, in my oak, I witnessed a procession.
In the forefront, caparisoned in silver and gemstones, came a white mare, and astride her, a lovely maid. Her hair was raven, and her eyebrows aslant across her brow hinted at exotic locales, such as far away Cathay, or perhaps the mysteries of Madagascar. Her slender hands rested lightly on one rein, and she controlled the beast she rode with the subtlest of tugs.
I was but ten and six. I loved her, of course.
Behind her rode the servants of her court--for surely she was a queen. Of course I knew her. No lad well-educated in the classics or the more frivolous texts could fail to see it was Mab herself, Titania, queen of faerie. "Could it be?" I thought to myself. "Could Conan Doyle's ridiculous photographs have the truth of the matter?"
"Ho," shouted one of the riders below. I crouched against the branch, determined to make myself smaller, hidden, invisible. Well did I know the stories of the price exacted for spying on the Faerie rade.
"We have come far enough," said the rider who had shouted.
"Have we indeed?" said Queen Mab. Her voice sounded tired.
"I fear this is as close as we can take you, milady," said the soldier-for soldier he was. I read fear and uncertainty in his face. Whatever this troop was engaged upon, it did not sit well with him.
"Then it shall have to be close enough," Queen Mab replied. She looked around. "A likely spot, is it not?" she said, half to herself. "With the fallen-down buildings and the o'ergrown grounds, it hath a bit of the flavor of those delightful comedies that you commissioned."
"Milady..." the soldier began, then hesitated.
"Speak," she commanded.
"Must you do this?" He said in a burst. "To take this step, it seems so... rash!"
"Ah," she said with a smile, nudging her steed closer to his. "Ever reluctant to face the truth, are you, Thomas? Look about you. How many of us still remain?"
The man, now named for me as Thomas, gazed steadfastly at her, lip trembling.
"Finian across the ocean has gone," Mab said gently. "The doorways to the lands under the sea have closed. Even Jenny Greenteeth has withdrawn from the fens, and the pookah ride the shores no more. Our dominion has ended," Mab said. "Our time has drawn to a close. These mortals think no more of us as we are--or once were--great, and terrible. They do not make their offerings of fresh drawn milk and flat bread. They do not carefully guard the doors with salt and red ribbon. Instead, they think we are nothing but little girls with gaudy wings, flittering about the flowers."
"Never that, milady," said the knight, bowing his head.
"Ah, Thos," Mab said, reaching out a delicate hand to stroke the hair at his brow.. "You never have understood our true nature."
"Leave me, then," she said commandingly, addressing the troop. "Leave me, for my time has come."
Thomas helped her to dismount, and where the walked, the bluebells rose from the grasses, and I could swear they tinkled with tiny chimes. I drew out my sketchpad from under my arm, and began to trace the most hesitant of strokes: The curve of back, the sweep of gown, the rise and fall of breast under silk, and the jeweled tracery that caught her sable hair. You may know the drawing. It became the painting that to this day feeds my family, hanging as it does on display: Queen Mab, one hand caught still at the stirrup, a wistful look in her eyes as she bids farewell to her kingdom. Behind her, in the background, face a-shadow, her faithful knight, despairing.
The moment broke. Then her troop did withdraw and Mab sank to the moss at the foot of my tree. Her silk gown began to shed its light. The glimmers winkled their way off the sheer cloth, like liquid puddling viscously on the ground. The everpresent breeze that had seemed to waft her hair aloft began to falter, then fail. I could hear the rustling and follow the lights, as her troop withdrew deeper into the forest.
The last of the light floated off her silver tiara, and she caught it in her hand... Her palm open, she balanced the will o' wisp upon her palm, as if considering it.
"You may descend now," she called out.
I nearly fell from the tree.
"Yes, you," she said, much amused, still gazing at the light in her palm.
I scrambled down, sketchpad tucked under one arm. I knew not what to say. Even with the glamour gone, she was still impressive--slender and beautiful, though in her eyes a peculiar sadness lurked.
"Your name?" she inquired.
I hesitated. To give one's name to the fair folk was to open the door to ill luck.
She laughed. "You need have no fear, lad. My powers are gone-or almost so. In this little light rest the last of them. Once I blow upon it, they will be extinguished, and a little more of the magic shall be lost to the world."
"What are you doing?" I asked, then hastily added, "Milady."
"Departing," she said, idly tracing circles on the moss. "I have abdicated my throne and my powers."
"Abdicated? But why?"
She looked at me, and her gaze was piercing. "There is no place for me anymore, in this world you have wrought. Oh, not you specifically, but your forefathers. You place water under microscopes and see our hidden kingdoms. You measure water boiling and tap our hidden sources of energy. Some day you shall realize how much of our palaces are but air, and how much of thrones are but shadows. I can sense already how you grasp towards the nature of the infinite."
I shook my head. "I know nothing of such matters," I said. "I am but a lad, and an artist."
She laughed. "Art conspires against us as well," she said. "You capture light on photographic plates covered with emulsions. You prison us upon your plates, and print us, flattened onto paper. We cannot survive thus. The day you mastered perspective," she mused. "That was a sad day indeed."
"And so," she said, "I have decided to die." She stood, and spread her arms wide and grandiose. "What you see here, lad, is the end of faerie. Tonight, I die, and with me dies that other land, all of its mysteries and marvels. Already Puck has withered into dry sticks and bones. Already the merfolk have ceased to call the ships. Tonight Titania passes from the world, and with my going, you shall all lose an aspect of your souls."
I hope you shall not think me rude, if I gazed nonplussed at this melodramatic exit, and snorted.
She was not amused. "You think this a trivial matter?" she said, suddenly dangerous. I noticed the light held clenched in one fist pulse with the shades of blood.
"Not at all," I stammered. "I just disbelieve that... one such as you... so lovely, so powerful... could ever be gone fully from this world."
She relaxed, and slumped again to the ground. "Kind of you to say so, lad."
I sat next to her feeling suddenly companionable. "Will it hurt?" I asked.
"I do not know," Mab said--queen no more. "I have never felt pain before."
"No," she said. "Nor sorrow."
"Sorrow is... overrated," I replied, considering.
She laughed. "Perhaps. I have caused enough of it in my long span to know that you mortals rarely appreciate it." She seized my chin, tilted up my face, gazed into my eyes. "What sorrow lurks in your heart?"
"My... my father," I said, caught in her eyes. "He passed away. This... is our house...?"
She considered me a moment longer. "Then you must be young Tom, the junior, the lad whose inheritance these lands are."
"Why yes!" I said, a thrill of fear running through me. She must have felt the shiver, for she clasped my hand, and said "Fear not, young master. Your father and I were... friends."
"We knew each other... well," she said. Now she examined me critically. "And you could do with a haircut. Your father would not have stood for such a disreputable presentment."
I blushed. "Mama says that the long hair is quite the rage among the younger nobles."
She sniffed. "And what does she know of nobility?" I should have taken offense, but I could not. After all--she was right. Mama was not of noble blood, and here before me was manifestly a queen.
"Well," she said. "Shall you help me?" She stood again, already weaker than she had been. I stood, and offered her my arm. "I fear it may... hurt," she said. "If it does, can you hold me up? I do not wish to meet my doom whilst on my knees."
I could not refuse.
"And Tom--forget your sorrows, both these and the ones to come." She looked intently at me, as the light in her eyes already began to flicker and dim. "There are things in this world that you do not understand, and there are pivotal moments, times when everything changes. There is an abyss of knowledge beneath you, and you do not need to venture in. Rather, learn to accept."
"Yes, milady," I said, not knowing of what she spoke. Ah, foolish boy! Had I known then--but I did not, and that is always the fate of humans, is it not? Had I known that my fair Alice would succumb to that terrible consumption the learned men now call tuberculosis, would have I have courted her? Had I known the bursting pride when my son Jason accepted his commission in the Royal horse, would I have cradled him differently as a child? I know I would have traded the pride for anything on the day that I got the telegram, upon his death, slumped into that upholstered leather chair where now I write these fateful words... Queen Mab spoke of sorrows, and of fates, and I was a lad of sixteen. At such ages, we do not grasp the enormity of those words.
She held out her hand, and the will o'wisp trembled upon it. I gazed into it, and saw such things as I could never have imagined. Great armies clashing, and voices carried through the ether, hurling rocks to the moon and back with men upon them.
"You see?" she said. "There is no room for such as me in this world." And then she blew upon the tiny flame, and extinguished it.
It took a long time for faerie to die. She was wracked and reaved by age. Her bones grew brittle, and fever held her heart.
Sometime in the middle of her pain, as I brushed at her sweated brow with a makeshift pad of moss, I realized that Margaret--little Peggy, my sister--had been at the edge of the clearing path watching. I do not know how long she had stared. I do not know how much she had understood. But as Titania, queen of the fay, also known as Mab, the loveliest woman I ever have known, breathed last breaths, little Peggy came up to us.
Mab stretched out her hands. "My little Meg," she said, voice cracking. Peggy toddled over, all of five, and kissed Queen Mab's brow.
Somewhere in the woods, as Mab faded into shadows in my arms, I heard a heartrending scream. A door had closed--a world had been sealed away. Somewhere out in those dank forests, a knight named Thomas-a namesake--lost his lady love.
So. I am now an aged man. Those of you reading this volume no doubt have awareness of my history, for much has been written in learned discourse upon myself and my work. My painting thrived. "A tinge of wistful magic," pronounced the critics. "Essentially English, essentially rural, a paean to the days gone by, of hedgerow and heath," proclaimed the Times upon my first exhibition.
I still have the clippings.
These days much is made of my upbringing. None of them know of the crucial moment, of course, for this is the first time I commit it to paper, and I doubt I shall do other than burn it once I finish the telling. Instead, everyone ascribes it to my sister--lovely Margaret, who grew, wild and lovely, rich sable hair cascading down her shoulders, into a beauty beloved by many, then vanished herself.
This is how we are, is it not? Always grasping after explanations? On some days, when I am building castles of fancy in the air, I connect Thomas the knight with my father, who knew Queen Mab all too well. I draw a line from Mab to Meg. On those days, I think that perhaps a princess has returned to faerie, and my sister lives well enough, her wild laugh stretching across her hidden dominion.
On other days, as I crumple forlorn newspaper to feed my fire, and read of the latest machineries of war, the posturing of indolent politicians, the appeasement of tyrants and the sapping of human will... then I wonder if it was all but a dream. I am left with nothing but these scribblings, a few strokes of callous charcoal on paper, the dream of a will o' wisp dancing in the boles of an old oak tree.
And as I sleep, here in my heavy leather chair, I wonder... Are all the doorways closed? Do we stand before an abyss? Are there any questions we can ask, or have answered? And lastly, and most importantly--these days when bombs fall on London and trenches--the trenches that consumed my beautiful son Jason--grow again across the fields of France, are there any places in the world where one can still hear, if one listens closely, he chiming music of the bluebells, glistening on the grass?
Ptah closes the heavy leather book that he held on his lap. All the faeries in Legend suddenly keel over dead.