Daniel Potts had once been a young poet of promise. His lyrics had brought him early fame, before the last embers of Romanticism were doused by the Moderns. The problem with Potts, his friends and fellow poets knew, was that he could not grow out of his dreams, nor lay his wishful desires aside, as the rest of the literary scene had done. He was left behind, and grew old and grey with years, and became scarce remembered, except by those who hankered after nostalgia, or those with an unfashionable taste for supernaturalism.
He certainly looked the part of the poet. He had waves of silver hair, and a frail pair of tortoiseshell glasses always sat upon the edge of his nose. His expression was implacably wistful, and his eyes seemed to be misted with some fair away Celtic twilight. He travelled often, in the world and out of it, and wrote his poems, which no longer brought him any real money. He might have taken his place amongst the Moderns, but he was too honest, and in any case he could never have felt at home there: his allegiances had not changed since childhood, and the romantic in him had never put away his blade and foolish dreams.
What had attracted the most notoriety, just as the new wave of poetry was sweeping the literary landscape, was his lengthy study of the folklore and supernatural beliefs of his native Ireland, and in particular the peasant belief in fairies. He had travelled throughout the
countryside himself to gather the tales; but he had not stopped at being a mere chronicler and folklorist, for it was not his nature. Potts had gone where the anthropologists feared to go: he had sought fairies in the deep green woods and isolated spaces; he had seen them himself, and
followed them out of the world for a time, and returned back; and the verse he had concocted afterwards had attracted its fair share of ridicule, for it spoke of impossible things, and tried to contain in image and rhyme what could not be expressed in human language in the first place.
In his autumn years there was the odd trickle of money from the patronage of the rich, but most of his income came from visiting the stately homes of people whose literary taste would have been, by others at least, considered dubious and sentimental. He would read from his early works, and a small selection from his later ones (which differed only in that they were less well known), and over dinner he would talk of his beliefs and literary philosophy, and if his hosts were so inclined, his experiences of the supernatural realm. That way he managed to keep his hearth from growing cold, in the bare walled country house he had made his occasional home when not travelling, and also to pay for clothes that were fine enough to give the impression of a refined taste with some vague air, though he loathed the word, of celebrity.
The visions of fairyland he had beheld, though, were all in the past. He had not been able to find a crossing place for several years, and wondered whether he ever would again. If tales and verse were all he had left, he would have to make do with those.
One morning in early Spring he had an invitation to visit a house in Wales; it was an unusual one, for as a rule such invites came with a long preliminary letter, in which the rich patron in question went on at great length about his love of Potts’ early verse. This time, however, the
letter offered not a hint of flattery, nor any explanation at all, other than that he come at his earliest convenience to a house in the heart of the Welsh hills, to meet with a lawyer who would pay “the poet and supernaturalist” (these were the words used) on arrival. Long ago, perhaps, Potts might have been more selective in his appointments, but no more.
The house where the meeting was to take place was surrounded by gloomy deciduous woodland. The driver did not take him up to the house itself: he had to disembark and make his way on foot along a winding path through the trees, for there were other paying passengers who had pressing business further along the route. He pulled his collar tightly about him, for it was cold, and there was the threat of rain in the air. It was a cinder drive that he followed, well kept enough, doubtless belonging to a sizeable mansion house.
After about ten minutes’ walk, he glimpsed the house itself: built of Victorian red brick. Not a single window in the house was lighted, even though it was a murky afternoon, the sky low and thick with clouds, and a dolorous mood hung over the scene that, perhaps in an earlier time, might have inspired him towards creation of some lines of verse.
The man who came out to meet him wore a long brown greatcoat, and though not dressed in black, he somehow gave the impression of one in mourning. Potts studied the man’s face, and in particular his eyes, and saw no great sorrow there, unless it were masked in some way.
“They haven’t lit any of the fires in the house,” said the greatcoated man, who introduced himself as Standish, a lawyer. “Not for days now. Not since the happening about which I’ll tell you as soon as we’re inside. The weather’s turned again. It’s cold, even for March. There was sunshine on the lawns a few days ago.”
Leading Potts through the heavy oak door, he added: “Appropriate really. As if they have some power over the elements.”
“They?” Potts asked delicately. He was aware, in the wide, dimly-lit entrance hall, of the echo that followed the tap of their footsteps, and amplified even the sound of their breathing.
“It sounds a bit mysterious, doesn’t it,” the man said, not taking his greatcoat off, nor offering to take Potts’s travelling cloak. “I had better begin at the beginning. Let us find some suitable office and get down to business.”
Standish led him through a maze of rooms, all of which seemed empty of any living soul, despite the expensive furniture, until they arrived in a spacious study in one of the house wings. “This will do well enough.” The lawyer pointed to the grey ashes in the hearth. “If you blow on them, or comb them with your fingers, you might feel some heat.”
“Yes, it is wintry indeed,” said Potts, nevertheless taking off his travelling coat and putting it over the back of the chair he lowered himself in.
“Right then, no more dalliance.” Standish seated himself opposite, in the chair nearest the unlit fire, and drawing his greatcoat tighter about him said, in spite of his suggestion that
business should be conducted promptly, “one dare not ask the servants to light even a cooking fire. Baron and Baroness Hensham have forbidden it. They eat their meat cold, and take no tea at all, and wander about the woods in all weathers looking for the young Miss.”
“Looking for their daughter? The young lady of the house has disappeared?”
The lawyer rubbed his hands and lent forward. “Oh yes. The young Miss Hensham.” “How old is the girl?”
“Ten years old last November.”
“She went missing while out to play in the woods or the gardens, I take it? This is a police case, as I see it. Mr Standish. If you will forgive me getting straight to the point, I was brought here under the auspices that my particular gifts would be required. I do not see how my crafting of verses, nor indeed my insight into certain sensitive matters that are beyond the ken of today’s rational mindsets, can be brought to bear in the search for a missing child. Even if you have some reason for suspicion of psychical intervention, I am not your man, for I am not a psychic in any conventional sense of the word. The police should be your first call. You do know something about me, I take it?”
“I am aware you are not a psychic. You are a poet and mystic. You wrote a long compendium of encounters with fairies, and are famous for your first-hand encounters with the supernatural. It is not the sort of thing a lawyer should look kindly on; though I must confess I am a rationalist by profession, not by belief. But of course what matters is what Lord and Lady Hensham want, and I am their humble servant in that regard.”
As he spoke, his breath came out in thin white clouds. “So you see,” he continued, “I know exactly who I have brought to the case. You shall know the facts, then, since you suspect I am wasting your time. You see the young Miss Hensham was in the habit of conversing, even sporting, with beings about which you doubtless have had some dealings.”
Rising quickly, and thrusting his hands in the drawer of a desk near the window, Standish produced a wad of photographs and handed them to Potts.
Potts looked them over without speaking. After inspecting every one, he brought one particular photograph to the top of the wad and let his finger rest on the figure that was captured there, next to the pretty, smiling girl on the lawn.
“I can’t corroborate this. I don’t deal in cases of authenticity, or in rooting out fakes.” “I don’t expect that of you, Mr Potts. But you have seen with your own eyes…”
“A fairy? No. Not English fairies. The Fey, in some form or other, I have glimpsed, yes. The Sidhe of Ireland: I was fortunate enough, in my younger years, to encounter their kind. But in all
the years I have criss-crossed England and Wales as a speaker on the longevai in poetry and folk tales I have not seen a single example of the English breed.”
He studied the photograph as he spoke. There was a tiny figure, hatted, with long dark boots, skipping on the grass in the foreground of the picture, while the Hensham girl, delighted, looked on.
“At least it’s not a winged dryad, or some flower cup fairy. They are the kind that the forgers usually go in for. Who took this photograph?”
“Lord Hensham. All last summer he berated the little girl for telling tales about the little people, the Lilliputians at the edge of the lawns. But then, out hunting, he saw one with his own eyes. And he followed the young miss, and crawled behind the topiary, and took this set of pictures.”
“And he didn’t startle the creatures?”
“Evidently not. They continued their play, and young Emily there, as you can see, is delighted to be playing with the little folk. That was the end of it, though. After this day, they came for her, and drew her towards the woods.”
“So they led her away? Did anyone witness it?”
“The Lord and Lady heard the music. Even the servants heard it. Far off, they said it was, coming perhaps from the edge of the woods, yet seeming even more remote than that. The most beautiful music they’d ever heard. All of them agreed on that. Lord and Lady Hensham went out, and the servants were out on the lawns already, and they caught a glimpse of the little lass, skipping towards the line of beeches at the far end there, following the music. Then the woods closed over her, the gloom and the shadows seemed to swallow her up, and the music ceased, just like an air one hears in a dream.
“Of course, they searched the woods right away. They even had the police here. She’s gone, Mr Potts. Away with the fairies, it is. That’s the only explanation of the case the Lord and Lady will entertain. They all heard this beautiful, otherworldly music, played on heaven knows what instrument – no one can agree whether it was wind or brass or string – the tune of which none can remember. They called her away, just like in all the old stories. Away from the world, isn’t it? Away from trouble and responsibility, yes, but away from everything living and growing too. Lord Hensham wants you to bring her back.”
“Why doesn’t he talk to me himself?”
“Because the both of them are inconsolable. Because this is to be a matter of business, and right now I am the only clear-headed one in the whole house. The servants, too, loved the little girl. They’ve been combing the woodlands day and night, and not a thing to show for it. Lord and Lady Hensham will give you whatever you ask. Do what you must to bring Miss Hensham back. I am at your service, if you need me.”
“Mr Standish, we have a problem here. You see, the fairies themselves planned to take the girl, and it was their power which opened the gates between our world and theirs. But anyway, let’s say I know a way in. It is perilous, even more perilous than you might imagine, for Faerie is a mapless wilderness, and a pathless one too. Few come back from such a place. And of those who do come back, few are untouched.”
Here Potts paused, and his eyes glinted, as if lit by pale flecks of fire.
“It is a place beyond time and generations. The beauty one sees there, the beauties of our world cannot stand comparison against. I will need to protect my mind if I agree to go in.”
“Whatever is necessary, Mr Potts. You will notice that, even though I am a legal man, a man of business, and of the city, I do not doubt for a minute the veracity of the whole of this, nor do I question the work you must do. Tell me how I can help you, tell me what you desire, and I will do it.”
“Very well, then,” said Potts, rising. He put on his travelling coat, and headed straight for the door. “I’ll go walking in the woods, then. Alone, if you do not mind.”
Potts had cold lunch brought to him, and cold tea, and finally cold supper. He stayed away from the house, and spent all his time in the woods, among the oaks and ashes and beeches, and looked for signs of fairy intervention. There were a few fairy rings in the green swards in the clearings in the wood, and these he noted, and thought that his purpose might be achieved, with a little good luck. He asked Standish to bring him some beeswax, that his ears might be shut to the music, should the fairies wish to ensnare him too; grown men, as well as innocents, were sometimes their prize, for among dreamers there is no end to play. As to the beauties that would assault his eyes, it was easier done, for he could always use his lids, or cover them with his hands, and he would need to measure the space he looked with some other marker than time’s, for though time did not flow in Faerie as it did in the world, the illusion of mortal time was carried by those who slipped beyond its borders, and because of this they could sometimes be deceived, so that a hundred years were recorded by the mind as the space between one heartbeat and the next.
He knew how perilous Faerie was, for all the longing it inspired. He might not have agreed to the charge, but then again the girl was gone – an innocent soul. Was it worth it, though? She would, after all, be carried away towards delight and happiness, towards the undying. He supposed that he was doing it for those left behind, for her family. They would be left with grief. And anyway, he told himself, Faerie is not heaven – it does not come as light at the end of a life of toil and darkness. It is an endless twilight, filled with the ceaseless enchantments of beauty, without trouble, without tears, and yet perhaps without the greater, more sublime joys. As he
tramped onwards through the woods, and the pale light led to evening, he realised that, for all his verse and tale gathering, he did not quite understand, just like every other mortal thinker had failed to quite understand, the nature of Faerie. It was beyond logic. Its promises and delights, so strange and alien to those in the world, were perhaps not the same to all people. It might be said that for some it was to be more desired than anything at all in the world, yet for others it might be a place of entrapment, of madness and slavery to the play of shadows upon the senses. As he had grown older, and despite his adherence to Romanticism, he did not know where he himself stood. All he knew was that he would have to go in, for as brief a time as possible, and get the girl out. And even if he did not delay, there was no assurance that she could be brought back in her right mind, or even brought back at all.
Twilight came to the woods, and then darkness, and the night sky cleared, so that through the gaps in the treetops he could see the half penny of moon shining down on all the earth, on the human world and Faerie both. Most of the servants had gone in doors, and there were only a few rustlings and shakings of branches to tell him he was not alone in the woods. Lord and Lady Hensham he caught no sight of, but he supposed that they too were keeping the night’s vigil. It was enough of a madness, this, looking always for the doorway in, and seeking the one who has been charmed away.
They will not carry us forth with music, not a second time, Potts thought. They have their prize. But when inside, he would need to plug his ears in case it drew him into inescapable woods. In his pocket he had a long yarn of thread, supplied by Standish, a string with which to be able to return via, like Ariadne’s in the labyrinth. He was lucky tonight – all was clear in the moonlight. He had studied all day the course of the land, the undulations, and gone from one edge of the wood to the other, and noticed every line and silhouette of every tree and branch. He was looking for slight variations, anomalies, subtle, hardly perceptible threadings and unthreadings of nature, where the woven tapestry, in its parts and in its whole effect, was out of harmony with the rest. That would be the sign, that would be the marker. A leaf not belonging on the tree that bore it. A greensward too bright for moonlight. Something that did not sit right with the rest.
The night drew on. It got colder. He was sensitive to temperature, for it too could be the sign he was looking for. But here in the low space of the valley, not too far from the murmurings of the river, it was bound to be cold anyway, and nothing about the lingering chill seemed out of keeping with the environment.
After waiting a time, he made his way towards the river, which flowed near the far edge of the woodland, away from the house. Stooping down when he reached the thin course of moonlit water, he studied the course of its flow: here smooth, glistening with moonlight, there quickening just a little, swollen like the slippery back of a fish; tension held in balance.
He listened to the air and the night sounds too. There was a harmony, an overarching balance, he expected to hear in all, even though, like the spaces of quick flowing water amongst the smooth, there was tension; the point was that the tension was brought to bear, was controlled, by the general order of the whole. He was looking for something that did not conform to this wider, vital order.
To know and recognise supernature, one has to study nature meticulously. Nature is the element man exists in, Potts knew. In another element, he will know himself transported at once. But in order to find the way through, to cross over, it was necessary to discern where one system overlapped with another. He found it, soon enough, before half the space of night was gone, a little further down the river. There was a place where the river narrowed, the banks cut deeper into the earth, and passed under a knotty bridge of bushes and briars. Drawn to the dark space under the natural bridge, he knew: there was gloom there that was illuminating as light, and silence as loud as a shout, a sense of danger that enticed as much as a safe harbouring place. He knew that was his door. It would involve getting wet. There was no getting around it. The river looked deep at this spot. He thought about calling back to the house for a pair of galoshes, but thought better of it, for his knowledge told him the doors between worlds were not always open for long, and this one might shut unexpectedly. So he sat down on the bank, dangled his legs into the water, just so that he got a feel for how cold it was (it certainly was bitterly cold), and then lowered himself in.
The water came up to his waist. It was hard to keep balance, for as it neared the bridge of bushes it sped up considerably, and for a moment he wobbled there, uncertainly, wondering if the current would take him and sweep him under, if this would be the last of the poet. Then he realised, with half a smile, that this was the only way: he needed to go under that bridge. He needed to cross into the dark. So he simply sloshed forward, and gave up thinking about losing his footing, for that would only quicken matters. He stooped under the thorny archway and crossed into Faerie as soon as his head entered the gloom.
There was no river on the other side. His senses, at once, were tricked. One second he had been aware of his waterlogged boots, the freezing grip of the water on his skin, the next he was quite dry, and his skin was warmed as if by the light of a woodfire. He looked down. He was in a clearing, standing, as it seemed, in a long sliver of moonlight. It flickered, dissolved and reformed for a minute, so that briefly it seemed to be water rather than light, and so too the sensation from his toetips up to his waist teetered and played between utter cold and delightful warmth. Then he was sure. He was quite dry. The river was gone. The moonlight, instead, formed a winding path that he could follow across the clearing and out of it. The March moon – if this were precisely the same March moon – did not cast a cold light but a warm, illuminating light that was even more pleasant than sunlight on a warm Spring day.
He cast his eye about him, and instinctively blinked a few times so as not to look too long. Trees grew in a close rank on the edges of the clearing. Grass whispered and breathed beneath his feet. It was all like, and yet wholly unlike, the nature he knew. For the grass seemed like the hair of his old grandfather, which he used to twine about his fingers when he was a child in the old man’s lap. The branches of the trees drooped like the tails of cats, and their bark was not coarse but like soft velvet, of a colour he could not place, but somehow knew to exist. The air itself did not invigorate or refresh, rather it intoxicated like wine: it was like the air of dreams, playing all its tricks upon the mind.
Potts fought for mastery of himself. He heard his own heart beating. That was the thing. No sense of time could be a marker here. The heart beats according to the law of its own nature, without obeying the rising of sun or moon; the heart does not know the seasons, even though it
moves as they do in its own cycle from the first beat of life, in its mother’s womb, aligned to her heartbeat, to the last, when the spirit goes out of a man. Potts had prepared himself well.
Internalize your thoughts. Keep them rooted in the music of your own heartbeat. So he counted his own pulse, never faltering in his measure, and, drawing out the ball of string, set off along the stream of moonlight that led out of the clearing.
He found himself deep in the midst of fairy woods. He closed his eyes regularly, and felt with his hands and his fingertips. The branches of the trees that touched him were like soft cotton. Nothing seemed barbed in this place, or came to a hard point or edge. It was all so enticingly soft, it made him want to lie down and go to sleep on the softest grass – for such was the stuff beneath his boots, amongst tree roots that were like a nurse’s fingers as they brushed against him. But he resisted. He concentrated on his heartbeat, and kept count of the pulse. Not beats per minute, for in the restarting he might lose his count to the external clock of supernature. He had counted, so far, 542, and kept at it. Keep your feet moving, he told himself. On through the woods, deeper and deeper, one set of fingers on his pulse, the others leading out the thread so that I can go back.
There was no path of moonlight through the deeper woods. There was only the labyrinth of trees, but glancing back at the trail of string told him he was going ever forward – for moving in circles was to be feared as much as anything else. The Fey, the longevai of Faerie, held more dearly than anything else the cyclical nature of things. Their dances were circular dances, and when they played it was always in the round, in wheeling jigs. So mortals would be ensnared, if they entered the realm, by moving always in a circular space, never leaving the same circle, though thinking, for the trees and the landscape were in on the game, that they were moving every farther afield. And thus, thinking themselves afoot on a single night, their heart would wear down, their body would wither according to nature’s laws (to which it was bound as soon as it emerged from Faerie), and if they were released at all it would be to stumble out into the mortal lands again, long-bearded and weary of limb.
The music started before Potts knew it. He caught himself listening for a brief space, unconscious while he had been doing so, and thus forgot to count the pulse he had so been dutifully recording. A few spaces had gone by – he guessed that the beats he had missed were between the number 943 and 948 – before he resumed his count again. The music had done it. Far off, delicious, feasting music, music that spoke of a great banquet, that delighted the senses and whose notes invited the listener to savour them like delicious cherries or ripe peaches.
He caught himself and fished out his beeswax. Plugging his ears at once, he went on with the count of his heartbeat, and with all his will tried not to be enticed by the music, which nevertheless lingered ghostly in the background, and moved to its own time, interfering with his measure of the beating of his heart.
Yet follow it he must. There, in that place where the music was coming from, he would find the girl. Count, he told himself, 1001, 1002, 1003, 1004, step, step, step, step, move closer to the music, but shut off your mind, and your heart, and all your senses to its beauty, imagine it is not beautiful at all but the ugliest sound, the drumming of tails of beasts against the ground, against
the trees, there, a little further, is the winding string still behind – yes – now I can see light, the glow of a fire perhaps, the fairies will be there.
He came out into the clear wide space. It was a white sward of green, in the very centre of which there was a fire, though a fire unlike any he had seen. It was not made up of flame at all, as far as he could tell. It would be more accurate to say that it looked like a fountain of water, whooshing up from the ground and cascading back down again. But it was no more water than it was the first element – Potts recognised it as moonlight, as flickering and dancing silvery tongues of the moonlight itself. He knew this because it was made up of the same properties as the moonlight he had all his life glimpsed things by, yet somehow with even greater potency.
Near the dancing flames of moonlight there were figures, small figures, even smaller than tiny children in size, though not with child’s proportions. They were, of course, the fairy folk. Some were reclining, basking in the glow of the moon’s heat, with blades of grass for their beds or flowers for their pillows; others were weaving circular dances about the place; yet more were playing music with instruments unlike any Potts had seen: some resembled shells, through whose hollow chambers the fairies blew as if they were horns or tubas. Others looked to be holding spider’s webs. But when their hands passed across the glistening silver strands the most delicate and melodic notes were plucked out. There was even a fairy who was striking out a drumming pattern on the shiny back of a black beetle. Instead of drumsticks, he was using two nimble twigs topped with bright red berries.
The sight of the fairy orchestra was absurd. When he looked, from out of the cover of his palm, Potts almost laughed to see the little folk holding such ridiculous things in place of instruments. But at the same time, and in spite of the beeswax in his ears, Potts could not mistake the beauty of the music, close up this time, perilously close. It was for the most part playful, even flippant in its melodies, inconsequential as rain patter or the breezes that pass through stalks of hay in a summer meadow. But then it would take a sudden, fleeting turn, with a few dark, sombre notes that tore at the heartstrings, or contrariwise, with high, sounding, joyful notes that brought forth tears of happiness. And no sooner had the emotion come into the music than it was gone again, and all was seen to be as light and inconsequential as before.
Potts, even while he noticed these things about the music and the fairy folk, kept counting the beat of his heart. He had gone up to two thousand now. What was two thousand divided by sixty? How many minutes had he been here? But no time for that now, and not just because it might mean he would lose count. There was the object of his search: the girl, Emily.
Emily was seated at one end of the clearing, at the edge furthest from the fire, her back to a tree. She was garlanding flowers, while all around her little folk did the same, weaving circlets of daisies and buttercups to place in her ringlet curls. She was already festooned with flowers, and the fairies were bringing her ever more, woven not just as garlands for her hair, or as bracelets for her wrists and ankles, and necklaces, but also into delightful ornament shapes, one in the form of a puppy that she laid chucklingly at her feet, another as a basket made of flowers, into which flowers could be placed; one, the largest of all, was made of white flowers, peonies it seemed, and was shaped into a magnificent white unicorn. All the time the girl was smiling, and
would break suddenly into laughter, and her eyes would widen in delight at each new gift and trinket.
She, and it seemed the fairies too, had not noticed Potts enter the clearing. For a few beats of his heart longer he stood watching. It seemed unlikely that the fairies did not know he had come. They were extremely sensitive to mortals entering their realm, and would doubtless try to stop him from taking the girl. But how, if they were so diminutive? What magic could they use, other than the magic of enchantment, against which he was holding all the will of his being, and, as it seemed, succeeding?
He took a first step, and then another, towards the girl. The music did not cease, nor did the fire go out, nor was there a single break or pause in the merriment. The fairies went on garlanding the captive girl, and her eyes never lifted up once to the man who was approaching her, leading a long white yarn behind him. He was half covering his eyes, and reaching out a hand now to clutch hers. He felt the contact of skin, felt his heart skip a beat as he held on tightly to her thin, pale wrist. She looked up, and from her pendulous lids he saw her misty grey eyes meet his.
They were filled with sadness, and filled with longing.
She was singing a song. For a few minutes, that was all he was aware of. “Buttercups and daisies,
Oh the pretty flowers, Coming ere the springtime To tell of sunny hours.”
He lifted her to her feet. In the corner of his sight, there was a flash of silver and white and green, the milling movement of a thousand tiny bodies, the fairies, either in a panic or in some wild dance of abandon.
He threaded the string between his fingers. He had not thought what he would do, now that he had to lead the girl. He could no longer keep count of his pulse. But his mind quickened to the answer: he would trust his breath, and count the inhalations and exhalations, for just as the heart keeps its own clock, so the lungs do too. He did not lose count, not for a minute. He led the girl by the hand, and with the other hand threaded the string through his fingers.
Two thousand and fifty-one. Two thousand and fifty-two. He led the girl out of the clearing, unresisting, yet dazed and in a dream, still singing her little song of spring.
“While the trees are leafless, While the fields are bare,
Buttercups and daisies Spring up here and there.”
They were moving back through the trees. Without the ball of string, he would have been hopelessly lost, for the trees now closed in all around, and each was alike to the next, and the air had a thick, heavy quality, as of spices or opium. Potts tugged at the girl’s hand, which now, unexpectedly, had become heavier. He turned towards her, and surmised that at first she had let him lead her from the instinct to dance, but now, away from the music, she was resisting at last. Her hand felt heavy, and was pulling away from him. The weight of her, of everything in fact, even the string, made it hard for Potts to keep from falling to the ground. The only thing that kept him going was the certain knowledge of what that would mean: fall, even for a second, and she would be imprisoned in the realm forever, and he along with her. He would give in to sleep, and wake up after a hundred years had passed. He would be old and grey, his body withered, yet he could live on, and never know, just as long as he kept to the immortal realm. Here, no record of the body’s withering could be seen.
All of this kept him going. He counted on, two thousand, one hundred and forty five, two thousand, one hundred and forty six, two thousand, one hundred and forty-seven. On and on through the trees, looking for the end of the string, winding it back to the reel, with only the slightest pressure, so that he was sure it was not be pulled taut and its starting place lost. The girl, with a strength that did not match her tender years, had almost to be dragged behind him, never giving up her song.
“ Little hardy flowers Like to children poor,
Playing in their sturdy health By their mother’s door Purple with the north wind, Yet alert and bold;
Fearing not and caring not, Though they be a-cold.”
At last they reached the first clearing, with the stream of silver moonlight. There was the string’s end, on the ground. Nearly up to two thousand three hundred now, his breathing more laboured than ever, but kept regular. Pick up the string, a last tug on the maiden’s hand, and to the place where the door had lain, the widening pool of moonlight.
He plunged into the silvery pool, yanking the girl behind him, and in a moment there was that teetering, that uncertainty, when warm could be cold, and cold warm, when light could be water, or water light. And then he was plunged back into the cold of the spring night in that Welsh river, spluttering and spitting and wheezing from the cold, plunging up from the water like a big old landed fish. The girl, the flowers in her hair matted and dripping wet, her dress ringing, came behind him. His grip was as tight on her flesh as he could manage without breaking the small bones of her wrist. He had brought her out, he had rescued her from the immortals, and now together they landed on the bank, numb from the cold, he breathing in gasps, she no better, yet still, in the thinnest, hardly breathing voice, managing to continue her song.
“What to them is weather! What are stormy showers! Buttercups and daisies
Are these human flowers!”
He bent over her, brushed her matted black hair back from her fine, wet forehead. Her grey eyes were misty, as before. Lost, still, in the dreaming of that place.
“Who are you?” said Potts, with a heaviness of tone.
The girl seemed to look through him. She could see, he knew without even having to ask, the fires in the clearing far away. The flowers of fairyland, that even now withered on her wrists and around her neck, which had turned to the withering violets and peonies of the material realm, having been translated. The music of the fairy orchestra, played on the coned shells of snails and on half-invisible spider webs. All of these were the objects of her mind. So he had failed.
He had brought her out, yes. In that he had succeeded, he thought as he lay back down on the bank. But how much time had passed between his entering Faerie and now? He had resolutely counted his heartbeat, and later his breath. The whole time, from first emerging into Faerie until the pool of silver moonlight, and the end of the ball of string had been found again. All except that once. He remembered himself counting, the exact moment when it had happened. The beats he had missed between counting, between 943 and 948. How long could have elapsed? He might have missed only heartbeats. But across the wood, in the direction of the house, there was no sound at all, no sounds of the brush being beaten, or of the servants’ voices calling Emily home.
He led the girl to the house at last. She no longer resisted, and they crossed the woodland quickly, They came into the house, at the butler’s answering the door, and were led by the man, whose face was a mask of shock, into the parlour where Lord and Lady Hensham were sitting. It was the first time Potts had seen the Lord and Lady, but he would remember them to the end of his days rising from their sofa, with open mouths, looking at their daughter as if she had returned from the dead.
“How long has it been?” Potts said, and the Lord, with tears in his eyes, answered, “A year to the day. A year she has been gone, and you also, and no explanation and not a single shred of hope. Until today. Oh, my good man, you have brought her back to us. We have suffered and gone to hell this past year. But it is all right now. She has come back. You are both wet through. You must rest at once. We are forever indebted to you. Our Emily has come back.”
Yes, rest was what he desired most, but he would not take it. He accepted only a change of clothes, and once he had been given some that fit, he made his way straight from the house, passing the woods without hardly a glance, and on towards the town and the train. What had happened in a whole year, he dared not speculate. There would be all sorts of affairs to untangle. Perhaps even scandals to which he could give no satisfactory explanation. But the sooner it was all begun, the better.
He remembered the name Hensham when he saw the card. He knew that it was Emily, and was not greatly surprised that she had sought him out. After all, Lord and Lady Hensham would not have thought anything untoward in the girl going to thank her rescuer. Not even, perhaps, if another seven years had passed since her reappearance, as they had.
He saw a young woman whose beauty was rare and refined. She was still recognisable as the girl who had lain on the bank next to him, garlanded with flowers, or who had sat amongst the fairies in the glade. In some ways, at least. But her face was troubled, and her eyes, when he looked into their depths, were as misty and as far away as ever.
“Why have you come to see me, Miss Hensham?”
She looked at him from the other side of the desk, and looked away. “Can’t you suspect?”
“I suppose it is not just to thank me. Your father and mother did that already. They have sent me Christmas hampers ever since, for which I am genuinely grateful.”
“It is not that,” said Emily, her voice becoming grave. “No, not that at all.”
“I thought as much,” said Potts. “Yours is not the first such case, though it is the first in which I have been so directly involved.”
“What do you think I want, then?”
“I suppose, Miss Hensham, that you are unhappy. That your parents urge you to marry. To look for some suitable match among the landed gentry. I suppose that you do not want this. That your heart is not in any such future. Nor is it in books, or in music, or in any of the various pursuits that might engage and distract a bright and curious mind like your own.”
“You have great understanding of the case, I see.”
Potts sighed wearily, and lit a pipe. “What would you ask me for?”
“What only you can give,” the young woman went on in earnest. “The way back. The way into Faerie. They hired you, eight years ago, to find a way in and bring me back with you. You did it. That can only mean that you know how to find the fairy paths amongst the woods. Don’t you see, Mr Potts? You never should have brought me back. It was never my fate to grow into this woman, to wither, to gather dust in drawing rooms, to wilt from the spring flower I was. The music led me, yes. But it was not just enchantment. It was desire, it came from inside me. I wanted to be enchanted. Didn’t you see that, when you found me? Didn’t you understand?”
Potts was looking out the window, drawing his pipe. “What do you expect me to say, Miss Hensham? That I knew and yet acted nonetheless? What about your parents, who would have grieved for you?”
“Many parents grieve. It is the way of things, Mr Potts. Some are fated to leave the world young, and I truly think it is a bad thing to interfere. But you can make amends. I will pay you, twice as much as my father did in the first place, if you can lead me to the door.”
Potts was looking out onto his garden. At length, he said, “how long do you think you’d have to spend out in the woods before some way, some sign, revealed itself? Where there are the comings and goings of the little folk, there might be more tears in the fabric dividing our world and theirs. But unless they are seen, one could spend a lifetime looking for a way into their realm.”
Emily lent forward in her chair. “That won’t do, Mr Potts. I can’t wait a lifetime. I can’t even wait a single day, in this mood of mine.”
“It’s nearly February,” Potts said, half to himself. “Winter’s almost over. The flowers will be out soon. Very well, I will leave it in your hands. I don’t want money, you know. And you must find some way of leading your parents away from the trail. I don’t want them coming here ready to sue me because their girl has disappeared once again. You do not have a child of your own, Miss Hensham. But do you have another in the family? Ideally a female, though males may do equally as well. Preferably close to the age of puberty. An innocent, for of course not all children are innocent as by rights they should be.”
“There is my cousin’s child. She is ten, I believe.”
“Then invite her to your house. Let her play on the lawns, down by the woodland’s edge. Make a spring of it, and if nothing happens, invite her the next spring, and if she grows up and marries, find another child. Watch them, and wait, and one spring day they’ll come, and garland her with flowers, just as they did you, and you’ll see the strange, delicately woven bracelets and anklets and wonder at how her little fingers did all that fine work. And you’ll know the fairies have come. And if they take her, be waiting, and offer yourself in exchange, for the fairies know how to bargain as well as humans do. Do not let the child go as well, but go in her place, because though now you have made your choice, and think yourself grown up enough to do so, the child cannot do so. And remember, if you hear the music, follow it, always moving in circles, never in a straight line. You’ll reach a spot in the woods where sound becomes scent, where water turns to moonlight, and all seems to turn back again. That will be you door. Take it, and I only hope it will be better for you. If you truly believe it to be your fate, who am I to argue?”
He had hardly finished the last sentence when he heard the door click shut. The young woman was gone. Sighing, feeling old, Daniel Potts looked out the window of his office, at the rain driving against the February lawn, and thought that he should wait there, in that very chair, counting his heartbeat, until the spring came.