Dragonfly Wings

Journal of Esme Wellington

 June 19th, 1922

 My governess, Rosamund, was quite vexed with me today.  It was all her fault, naturally.  It was she who left me unsupervised while I was plunged in my French studies, the lax woman taking the liberty of a walk about the garden with her favourite servant of the house, Clifford.  While she was thus engaged I neglected my French in favour of the article concerning the Cottingley Fairies.  It is ever a dear subject beloved in my heart—Fairies, I mean to say, not French—and I maintain that it must hold in its strange murk some glittering kernel of truth, as a nugget of gold amidst a vast coal mine of shadows.  That is why I keep secret my copy of The Strand, though two years have passed since its publication.  I am more inclined to read it than anything else published by Arthur Conan Doyle, particularly his stifling adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  Indeed, I am astounded that Doyle could have entertained the Cottingley Fairies with any seriousness.  When I consider his famously logical detective and his vacuous rationalism, one would never think Doyle of an inclination toward the phantastical.  And yet, I hold within my hands evidence to the contrary.

 Father attempted to dispossess me of the magazine because he believed that it fueled my fancies.  What he had failed to understand, however, was that I am a keen observer of things, and so when he ordered Clifford to throw it out, I knew precisely where the magazine would find itself.  That is to say, in Clifford’s bedroom. Rosamund is not the only person to search Clifford’s bare furnishings for an incriminating item.

 Father has many times reprimanded Rosamund for being lax with her attentions to my studies.  Therefore, when she returned from her walk she administered the French crucible in earnest, testing my poorly cultivated powers of the French tongue.  I failed decidedly to follow her conversation and therefore confirmed her fears concerning my capacity for that quarrelsome language.  It was an utterly hopeless cause.  I would sooner master the magic of flight than master that tongue.

 C’est la vie.

 Of course, that is not to say I am deficient in mental acuity to master the language.  Only, I rather prefer my native tongue, having honed its edge and multiplied its vocabulary with thirteen years of practice and study.  I am ever collecting words for it, as fervently as any lepidopterist his beautiful specimens, whereas my French tongue withers and wanes without sufficient nourishment.  And quite by design.  I confine French to the basement, like a lowly urchin, and let it die slowly of starvation.  My aim is to be a celebrated novelist of the phantastical variety.  Not Gothic, understand, nor of the Romances, but such as Lord Dunsany and George MacDonald, the poetess Christina Rossetti and poet Alfred Tennyson.  This aim is at dire odds with Father’s intentions for me.  He claims a man of good breeding and better fortune would never condescend to marry a young woman of frivolous ambition, and that I should abandon my fanciful daydreams lest they interfere with more pragmatic aspirations.  But I cannot help my mold and manner, anymore than his humorless austerity.  Austen was apt to remind us that no man worthy of his estate wishes to link his life to a silly wife, but that is of no consequence to me.  To the contrary, to marry would be the greatest consequence of all.

 I persist in my ambitions, adamant that a capable mind may accommodate both pragmatism and phantasia.  I intend, in short, to win financial independence as Jane Austen had, whereby I will thereupon claim freedom to be as stoic or as silly as my inclination should dictate.

 June 21st, 1922

 I saw a Fairy today!  A real, honest-to-God Fairy!  I am all aquiver at the recollection, scarcely able to write with a steady hand.  Oh, but what a day!  How shall I recall this otherworldly encounter?  I suppose I should begin with banal descriptions of the Fairy himself.

 Outwardly, he seemed but an unremarkable boy such as would be drawn from any common stock in England.  He was a young boy and was of a young boy’s height.  His hair was dark brown and his skin so pale that he seemed a deathly ill person.  I was sitting beneath the gazebo when he alighted on the railing.  I quickly put aside Voltaire’s Candide and stared in astonishment at his boldness.  He crouched upon the railing like a crow and said nothing.  He was utterly naked, which should have embarrassed me; only, he was a Fairy and, so, why would I fault him his heathen manner and means?  He moved so strangely, his head lolling loosely and his limbs somewhat slack as if he might, at any moment, swoon and tumble to the ground.  His eyes stared unblinkingly and his mouth hung open, nor did his blue lips move smoothly.  His otherworldliness was confirmed in every bizarre respect.

 Yet, I cannot refrain from noting with great disappointment that he did not possess butterfly wings.  Rather, there extended from his back the translucent wings of a dragonfly: long and elliptical and diaphanous.  It was a pity.  Perhaps the females of the species are possessed of butterfly wings.  I should hope so or it seems a dreadful waste of feminine conceit.

 “Hello,” I said to him.  “How do you do?”

 The poor creature must have been malnourished, like a hummingbird that has been famished for too long a time, for he swayed as if he might fall.  But he did not collapse.  His mouth gaped open, and his throat undulated, the vocal cords producing something akin to human speech, and that speech was, surprisingly, a disordered form of English.

 “Girl, pretty,” he said.  “Fairy, I.  Fairy, I.  Pretty girl.  Wings like Fairy?  Wings like I?”

 “I haven’t any wings, no,” I said.

 The Fairy’s head tossed left and right ungracefully.  “No.  Wings, want?  Like I?”

 I understood him, then, to mean that if I should want wings I should have them. But I did not care for his wings or the prospect of having such.  Being ever direct and thoughtless in my address, I said, “I would rather have butterfly wings.”

 He grew agitated at this, vibrating like a locust in Summer, so I apologized.

 “Please forgive me,” I said, “for I have always been very forthright.  A novelist must be so when concerning the facts.  Your wings are quite becoming for your being a boy.  It is only that a young lady should prefer wings more ornate to hold her aloft.  Though I am confused how I might procure wings of my own, having not been born a Fairy.  Or have I misunderstood you?”

 “Wings, pretty girl,” he said, though his lax mouth did not conform to the words, nor did the strangely buzzing voice seem quite his own as it issued from his bulging throat.  “Pretty wings.  Pretty girl.  Pretty, pretty, pretty.”

 Nothing of his speech struck me as particularly pretty, but I suppose that is the manner of all boys, whether born of Adam or of Avalon.

 “Pretty, pretty, pretty,” he continued to say in his buzzing voice.

 “Very so,” I agreed, “or I should like to think.  I have been told my mother was a beauty in her time, God rest her soul.  My name is Esme.  I am French by name, as well as by mother, but British by way of breeding and upbringing.  And by way of Father.  And who might you be?”

 “Who?” he said.

 “You, my silly fellow,” I said.  “What is your name?  What do I call you?”

 “Name?” the Fairy said, his countenance lax.  “No names.  One in many.  Not one at all.”

 Such a voice!  Like the buzzing of insects.  Yet I understood him well enough.

 “So you have no name,” I said.  “Then I should like—with your permission—to name you.”

 “Name?” he said again, and I took it to mean his consent.

 I considered him for a moment as he crouched upon the railing.  Sunlight sparkled upon his diaphanous wings, and he swayed like a drunkard straight from the wine cellar.  Perhaps it was my imagination getting the better of me in this wondrous moment, but I fancied I saw something strange upon his back, glimpsed only edgewise and briefly.  But I could not discern what it could have been.  Likely it was a shadow and his disheveled hair behind his ears and down his neck.

 “I believe your name should be…”  I paused, letting the thought come of its own accord.  Suddenly, it struck me like lightning.  “Ariel!  Yes, of course.  That is who you are, my confused Fairy friend.  It is perfect for you.  Ariel.  How do you do, Ariel?”

 He did not seem impressed, or perhaps he was simply indifferent.  Fairies do not conform to human pretenses in many ways, it seems, and names are just one of many customs they forego.  He watched me with his unblinking eyes and, though I was still enchanted by his presence, I began to feel peculiar.  The gaze of his eyes seemed so faraway, and yet keen, and it quite unnerved me in their contrary nature.  I could not deduce why.  Perhaps it was the faint luminosity in his eyes, such as that of a somnambulist astir in the middle of the night.  The shadow at his back again disturbed me, nor could I distinguish it, even as the sunlight draped him over his shoulders with its radiance.

 At length, there came two voices from down the garden walkway—two figures engaged in private conversation peppered with giggles and chuckles and cooing sighs.  At the sound, Ariel fluttered his wings and took flight, flitting swiftly away into the air.  I left the gazebo, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in a higher altitude, but he had vanished before I had emerged from under the rounded roof.

 Rosamund and Clifford approached, their voices quieting conspiratorially as they neared me, though their spiteful grins remained.

 “Hello, Esme,” Clifford said, quite too familiar for a mere servant in Father’s household.  “How go the daydreams?”

 “Better than my French,” I confessed, which was much to great folly, for it invited Rosamund’s scrutiny at once.

 “Are you studying French?” she asked, as if all that mattered in the world between us was my fluency.

 “No,” I said.  “I was reading and then the most unbelievable thing happened.”

 “Indeed?” Clifford said, exchanging a dubious glance with Rosamund.  “And what was that?”

 I opened my mouth to disclose the encounter with the Fairy, but faltered before the utterance of a single word, realizing the ridicule that should follow.

 “Yes?” Clifford said, patiently.

 When I faltered, yet again, Rosamund scoffed.  “I should say it was that she applied the proper conjugations to her French verbs.  But that is too unbelievable, even for a believer in miracles, such as myself.”

 I scowled at the vexing crumpet, but turned away so she did not observe it.

 “I saw…I saw a wondrous dragonfly,” I said.  “Inordinately large.  Strange.  Unlike any other I have ever seen.”

 Rosamund and Clifford exchanged another look—this look being one of disappointment and disinterest.

 “Dear,” Clifford said to Rosamund, “perhaps you ought to allow her to indulge her fancies a little more, or else she will be grow ever duller until she is fascinated by account ledgers, and so ruin her leisure.”

 “If only she would!” Rosamund remarked, shaking her ugly brown curls.  “She would be so much more manageable, in any case.  And to think she might read account ledgers in French!  Her father would be impressed greatly.  He might even raise my wages!”

 Rosamund laughed heartily and went along her way.  Clifford dutifully followed, accompanying her.  I remained near the gazebo.  I would have been greatly injured by their insolence, but I was too delighted with my newfound Fairy friend to begrudge my petty governess and a lowly servant for paltry slights.  Their comeuppance would come in due time.  The universe is a just place, after all, and the Scales of Justice mete out their punishments eventually, even if only incrementally.

 June 22nd, 1922

 I am all melancholy!  Ariel did not visit me today. I am afraid that I offended him by refusing the wings he had offered me.  But, honestly, how might a human girl be granted wings?  I am not a Fairy.  Perhaps Fairies may, by magic, confer wings upon one such as myself.  If so, I should like that very much.  Only, I should want butterfly wings, not his meager dragonfly wings.  That being said, with any such wings I should aspire to the very sun itself.  None could keep me grounded, either by order or obligation.  And to think of the look upon Rosamund’s quarrelsome face!  Just to think of her potential expression as I fly away from her, and from Father’s estate itself, would be a daydream made manifest.  I would be irreproachable, for I would be faraway from anyone disposed to be captious.  Such liberty!  Perhaps tomorrow Ariel will return and offer me again his gift, but on better terms.

 I should so very much prefer butterfly wings!

 June 23rd, 1922

 The Devil take that bovine busybody!  Betty overheard me speaking with Ariel through my window last night.  Why she should be in the family wing, and so late at night, I do not know, but I believe it testifies poorly to a scullery maid’s character that she should be skulking about so late and where she is not wanted.  She forthwith informed Father that I—his one and only daughter—was talking to myself like a lunatic.  What infuriated me more, however, was Father’s credence to the portly spinster in contradiction to my own account of the facts.  Of course, my account was false, and I readily admit it here, but the substance of the catastrophe is that Father does not trust me more than a ridiculous woman who has no business passing by my bedchamber so late in the night.  Or ever!  Were it the morning, I might abide it.  I have sometimes caught her passing my door early in the morning, before the rest of the household had roused itself.  Presumably to wake Father—though Father always wakes later than even myself, despite Betty’s early presumption to rouse him—but that is amiss of the point!  I am too upset to concentrate my powers of reasoning.  Enough for today!  I will write more at a later time.

 June 24th, 1922

 Having reread the article concerning the Cottingley Fairies—with a greatly expanded personal knowledge concerning Fairy kin—I can only conclude that the Fairies therein photographed are but flat, fabricated artifice meant to swindle credence from the idiotic public.  Indeed, the whole affair is either an absurd fabrication or, less likely, the Fairies photographed are a different breed than that of Ariel, for they are of utterly disparate sizes and dimensions from the friend whom I know so well.  Ariel is as veritable as the very hand which writes this, and though I have never seen his back, there is no doubt of the authenticity of his wings.  They carry him aloft, clearly before my uninhibited eyes.  But what of the Cottingley Fairies?  Never do I see a photograph wherein the dainty creatures suspend themselves freely in the air.  Rather, they are as stiffly aground as any doll within a dollhouse.

 I cannot help but be vexed at the idiocy of the Cottingley phenomenon.  It is a ruse, unless, of course, it is not and there do happen to exist Fairies of diminutive size with wings more pleasing to my sensibilities.  But I simply cannot abide the idea that there would be Fairies with pretty little butterfly wings, and that they should neglect my acquaintance!  Perhaps there are other such Fairies, and perhaps I shall meet them in due time and be invited to dance with them.

 Ariel seems disinclined to dance, and disinclined to mirth generally.  Were he invited to dance in a roundel to the piping of flutes, he would only crouch—as he ever does—and stare imbecilically at the other dancers enjoying themselves.  Is this a common trait of all of his people or is it his own unique predilection?  Perhaps other Fairies bear themselves not so clumsily as Ariel and, so, can keep time enough with music to enjoy moonlit revelries.  At times I think Ariel is soft in the head, like an imbecile, and doleful.  Perhaps he seeks me to enliven his own dolorous life, having been born of a temperament unbecoming of livelier pursuits.

 In my experience the stranger personages known have been of the human variety.  Father’s household, for example, consists of too many bizarre characters.  Jasper, the new gardener, eyed me too familiarly today.  This seems a great feat in and of itself when one realizes that Jasper is a gangly lowbred fool with a wayward eye.  Even so, he eyed me and continues to eye me when he thinks I am not looking.  I abide the impertinence for now— if only for the sake of his widowed mother, for whom he labours to afford a livelihood—but should he persist in this unwelcome presumption, I will have a word with Father and have Jasper spirited away.

 This is not to say that I did not have an otherwise splendid evening.  I read The Goblin Market once again today while Ariel crouched at my window, listening.  There did not appear any transition of emotions across his countenance during the whole reading, but I think he listened quite attentively.  He always does.  Occasionally he interrupted me to ask if I wanted wings, but I steadfastly stuck to the reading.  Even Fairies must be cultivated in the finer Arts that humans have made in their honour.  Someday I will read to him the play The Tempest so he may understand his namesake.  I do not wish to read to him A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lest the bard’s flippancy be misunderstood and a war be declared between humanity and Fairy folk.  There is too much war in the world in the present age as it is.

 June 25th, 1922

 Once again I caught Betty passing my door early this morning, before the dawn mists had even gathered in their fullness.  She appeared in a disarrayed sort of state, and yet her corpulent smile was one of vast satisfaction, as if she had spent the predawn eating a grand feast when she should have been preparing breakfast for the rest of the household.

 Father did not rise until much later in the day.  Beneath his whiskers was an ever-fixed smile—a slight smile, for Father was never one to indulge overmuch on any conveyance of emotion—and he walked with an energy that bordered on mirth, insomuch as he was concerned.  Perhaps the Fairies had enchanted him and Betty.  I must ask Ariel upon his next visitation.

 June 26th, 1922

 Having reread some of my earlier entries, I must sadly confess that I do not write as abundantly as I should.  Therefore, I am of the conviction that the only means by which to improve my capacities as an authoress is to write with renewed diligence.  Only discipline and perseverance conjoined together may manifest true genius, however strong one’s natural daemon might be.  Thus, I am inclined to exercise my daemon in pursuit of that subject which most infatuates me presently: Fairies.  Thus, this needful exercise necessitates that I write of my dearest bosom friend, Ariel.

 Ariel—as I have stated in a previous entry—is not one to make merry in a roundel, dancing like Puck beset with mirth.  Rather, he is more the toadstool around which the other Fairies prance and cavort.  Sometimes he is so silent and vacant of expression that I believe mushrooms shall sprout from his ears.  Thus, he is more a dead log than a flower in a playful breeze.  One would think Oberon banished him, so dour is Ariel’s countenance.  Or perhaps Titania hexed him for some unnamed naughtiness in regard to one among her maidens.  Men are wont to do as they do, regardless of race.  Maybe Ariel is Puck himself, discombobulated through magic until all that remains of his former mischief is the impertinence of his steadfast stare.  His eyes are dim lodestars leading to a chilly emptiness.  Sometimes I fear where they will lead me.

 June 27th, 1922

 Father, for all of his earnest endorsements of Reason as a guiding principle, has proven himself guided as much by fancy as ever I was.  He has bought a dog.  Nor is it any small specimen, but a large hellhound.  It is the largest among the breeds I have ever seen —a Great Dane, no less —and I cannot help but think it a terrible indulgence on behalf of someone else ’s whim.  Betty ’s, most likely.  No doubt she sees in its largess a certain kinship to her own breeding.  Large, cumbrous creatures adore other large creatures insomuch as they allay their own self-consciousness.  And so I have yet another proof of Betty ’s plot to ruin me.  The lumbering behemoth is named Caliban —that is what I have come to call him, anyway —and I loathe him so.  Why should I not?  He is ever barking roughly and abounding clumsily, smelling most disagreeably.  Were I inclined to dogs, I should like a sleek, graceful, and small dog of fine breeding and feature, not some cumbersome, dull-footed oaf scrambling in his overeager excitement to keep atop his ungainly legs.  What ’s more, he chases Ariel away, barking and growling whenever I attempt to sit alone with my Fairy friend.  Why, just this evening Ariel was at my window and the fatuous canine did not cease his barking until my friend had flown away.  The belligerent beast had wakened the whole household, yet Father forgave so readily the misbegotten creature that Father seemed not himself at all, but a changeling.  Betty apologized profusely, yet Father treated her tenderly — more tenderly than he should ever have his own daughter were her pet to rouse even half the household with its raucous barking.

 I was so upset about that monstrous hellhound that I have been hitherto compelled to write an account of my grievances in my journal ere I fell asleep.  If I may fall asleep.  My nerves are frayed even now by the continued presence of that brutish beast.  May the inferno reclaim him!  Preferably without delay!

 June 28th

 Father scolded me today.  And what was the offense?  I had barbed words with that corpulent imbecile, Betty.  She had prepared a cake, as per my request, yet had failed to make it as I instructed.  I am very fond of chocolate cakes —as are most people of elegant refinement —and, in this respect, the cake was successful, for it was, by and large, chocolate.  However, the fatal flaw resided in the feature of the cake ’s only having two layers.  This is unacceptable.  All cakes must be possessed of three layers to be concluded wholly successful.  Perhaps the lowborn can enjoy two layers of cake, but those of us who are cultivated know that the cream and the cake must be afforded proper portions in each bite.  It is, I dare say, a scientific law within culinary circles.  But Betty —being of such a hysterical disposition —collapsed in tears at my reprimand.  When Father overheard the chastisement, (in which I was completely justified), he immediately soothed her and sided with the maudlin woman against me!  When I then accused Betty of poorly allotting the amount of sugar, Father took me roughly aside and berated me with such ferocity that I wept a deluge of tears, as opposed to Betty ’s shallow tears.  Yet, Father ignored my heartbreak in favour of Betty ’s.  A cruelty, to be sure, and an absurdity against the laws of Nature.  It is well-established that more finely bred people feel emotions more keenly and deeply than rough-worn labourers.  But did Father soothe his daughter in her time of distress?  Did he recant his harsh words when I wept alike to Andromeda chained to the rocks?  No.  He mentioned something irrelevant to the situation —concerning Betty ’s youngest brother and the War that had come and gone and such —and then left me alone to gather my tears.  What cruelties Father hoists upon his one and only daughter!

 My consolation came only later when Ariel appeared in the garden.  I was sitting among the trellis, on a bench with the woodbine all around me.  Ariel alighted beneath a statue of the Madonna.  He was disposed to listen and so I confided in him, feeling much better while I spoke about, and ate, the cake in question.  I offered him a piece, but he seemed unmoved by it, despite my magnanimous approval of Betty ’s failed attempt.  Perhaps Fairy food ruins the lowly fare that we mortals consume.  Or perhaps Fairies may not partake of our food without trapping themselves forever in our world, much as it is said we will be trapped in theirs should we partake in their feasts.  Nonetheless, Ariel could have benefitted from some food.  He was much more gaunt now than when we first met.  His face was shrunken, his eyes dimmer than ever before, and the blueness of his lips spread along his pallid features.  He looked as anemic as any blue-blooded member of the royal family.

 And then Caliban chased him away.  At times I feel as if the whole of this household conspires to vex me with their every breath!

 July 2nd, 1922

 My nerves have been too racked of late to write.  I have attempted to find solace in the works of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Browning.  The former I adore, but the latter is a prattling knave whose works are deliberately enigmatic in the worst conceivable manner.  Did he think himself so clever for having written such abstruse dribble?  I dare say, his “last duchess ” should have left him at the altar.  I do not understand it, nor do I believe it a failing on part of my intelligence.  Rather, obscurity reveals paradoxically the inabilities of the poet, and Browning ’s works are resplendent in their unrefined dimensions.  Had he written his work less obtusely, he would have benefitted his audience and himself and his poetry with readier comprehension.  I regret having ascertained Father ’s copy from his library.  When I returned it I happened upon him reading to someone in the recessed window, near the globe.  Sneaking surreptitiously within, I found that he was reading to none other than that bovine busybody, Betty!  From what I heard, he was reading John Donne, which infuriated me.  What infuriated me more, however, was the patience with which he explained to the dull intellect of that lowbred woman the deeper meaning of Donne ’s poetry.  As if she could plunge those depths!

 I was so upset that I bumped into a small table and knocked a book loudly onto the floor.  Father perceived me at once and called to me.  I had no recourse but to step forth into the humiliating scene.

  “Is that my book of Robert Browning? ” Father asked.

  “Yes, ” I answered.

  “And did you enjoy it? ” he asked.

 I answered that I did not enjoy it; that Mr. Browning was too overripe with himself.

  “A peculiar way to put it, ” Father said.   “But it is not to everyone ’s tastes.  Perhaps when you grow older, and more familiar with the subtler meanings, you will grow your appreciation for it. ”

 I could not bear this remark!  It allotted me such short thrift, and no less from Father himself!  And while in the audience of that cow-eyed imbecile, Betty!  I stormed out of the library in a hail of tears and have not spoken a word to Father in three days ’ time!  Indeed, the only person to whom I speak at all is Ariel, and only whenever it pleases him to make himself known.  I have no means of summoning him and, so, my confessions and consolations are entirely dependent upon his own capricious nature.  It is insufferable!  I am as a prisoner in my own home!  When will I enjoy the freedom that so many others take for granted?

 July 2rd, 1922

 Today was the anniversary of mother ’s death.  Father went walking about the estate, accompanied by Betty. I mislike that.  When he returned his eyes were red and Betty advantaged herself during his vulnerable state to take liberty of his arm.  The impertinence!  The audacity!  She should have been stripped and beaten like the presumptuous harlot that she is!  She plots grave machinations.  She seeks to endear herself to Father, to make herself indispensable, and thus to establish herself in his intimacy, thereby exacting awful control over him, as belike a sorceress unto King Solomon.  It is most intolerable!  I know not what to do about it, however.  Perhaps I shall put a few of Father ’s hair in a jar, alongside nails and wax, and bury it.  That is a sure trap for witches, from what I understand.

 I have been thinking of Mother today.  She was French, so it seems only congruent that she should have died as she did, from what Father has deemed the “French disease ”.  I do not know the particulars of this vague disease, but it favours all the more my inclination to despise all things French.  Indeed, I am dedicated to being wholly British in bearing and pretense and perspective.  Or perhaps a Fairy, if only I could have butterfly wings rather than those of a dragonfly.

 There are children missing, or so the gardeners were saying today.  Lowborn children from the country, I should say.  The commoners bear so many children that I think one or two missing from each family should not be cause for alarm.  They breed like sows, after all, and their litters are overfull. They seem to think, in their own superstitious way, that a witch has taken them.  Maybe a witch has.  Maybe Betty is one such witch.  Betty has always been beholden to an excess of appetite.  Yet today I noticed that she was ever cramming food into her maw, like some sow soon to farrow.  I ’ve also noticed that she has grown more corpulent of late.  Today I saw her belly strike the table repeatedly as she rolled out dough for our evening supper.  Had I witnessed her nurse a litter of piglets I would not have been astonished in the least.  Maybe she is a witch and she has eaten the lowborn children.  If so, the Fairies will not let her take me.  I will not feed her expanding largess.  I would rather shove her down the stairs.  How can Father indulge her so?  Can he not see how bloated she has become beneath her frock?  The mere sight of her is repulsive enough to disturb the hungriest appetite.

 I resolve myself to speak to Ariel about betty and see what he would advise to do to remove her from the household.

 July 3rd, 1922

 Caliban is dead.  It seems he contracted some virulent variety of worm while entertaining himself in his usual bestial manner.  Clifford and Jasper were given the strenuous duty of carrying the heavy beast out to the field and burying him beneath a rather idyllic oak tree. Why they should wish to ruin the scenic oak with the overbearing beast ’s presence, I do not know.  Betty was not to be consoled, though Father attempted with all the heavenly powers at his disposal.  I could scarcely understand the need.  It was a dog and dogs are earthly beasts resigned to their earthly brevity.  It is not as though an actual soul had perished, only a small ball of nerves and instincts bound up in a skull.  It is no different than a butterfly tumbling dead in a strong wind.  Less tragic, I should say, for I do love the beauty of a butterfly ’s wings whereas there was nothing beautiful about Caliban.  And his death was not so proud as that of a butterfly ’s.  Jasper and his father were afeared to touch him due to the roiling, writhing creatures in his bowels.

 Later today, while everyone was preoccupied with consoling each other over the departed hellbeast, I was visited by Ariel.  I recounted for him the passing of Caliban.  He was as unmoved as I was, though there seemed to be a certain comprehension in his eyes that I rarely saw there.   He is my confidant, of course, and so naturally I am inclined to relay to him the particulars of my daily life, but this was the first time he seemed to understand more than he would say.  There was a “knowing light ” in his eyes.  I cannot express it in any other fashion.  Perhaps he suspected, as I did, that Caliban was the sort of beast that would seek out its own destruction in its own careless, heedless manner.  If so, I am glad Ariel and I are so alike in our thinking.  It accords a certain harmony of thought that bespeaks much in the means of sympathetic comprehension.

 July 7th, 1922

 The nerve of Rosamund!  She had the audacity to label me a “spoiled princess ” in front of Clifford, Betty, Madeline, and countless others in Father ’s service.  I should have slapped her, truly, and brought with the blow a new appreciation for her true standing within the household.  Her impertinence and insolence are unbearable!  I am all tears now and cannot compose myself!  I should like to fly away from here at once!  Away from her torturous lessons on French and Clifford ’s insolent smirks and the disapproval in Father ’s eyes!  The latter I cannot tolerate, for they did not flinch or baulk at Rosamund ’s impudence!  Rather, Father walked away, abandoning me to infernal judgments.  It was his most heartless betrayal yet.  I cannot bear it.  I shall leave here asa condemned soul escaping Dante ’s Inferno.

 Yes, I shall fly away.  It is simple enough.  Or so I should think.  Ariel has offered me my grand exeunt, and I shall receive the offer readily.  Granted, I am not overly fond of the wings I am promised.  Butterfly wings would better serve me, but I suppose his wings are beautiful after all.  They have a spectral sheen to them that is very fetching, in its own way, and I think, upon further consideration, that it is not so much the wings that detract from the overall aspect of Ariel, but that imbecilic stare that inhabits his face.  Undoubtedly, were I to wear such wings as are possessed by him I would better flatter them, and so transpose with the beauty inherent in my features the composite impression of such wings.  Indeed, though Ashputtle wore tatters and was blackened by her menial labours, her natural beauty rendered anew all with her innate loveliness, outshining her sisters when in their more lavish dresses.  An old shoe, thus, may be made beautiful if it houses a lovely rose.

 Perhaps I shall join the Fairies and write of my times among them, recording their habits and customs and creeds.  It would be a grand sensation among Europe.  It may even inspire the world to relinquish all future wars, bringing harmony and everlasting peace to humanity.  Do I flatter myself overmuch in such ambitions?  No.  I dare say I do not.

 July 8th, 1922

 I sat before the pianoforte today, practicing my Moonlight Sonata.  The piano belonged to mother.  Father expects me to grow proficient in the intricacies of the keys, but I would rather have my fingertips feverishly dancing along a typewriter, hammering out bizarre manifestations like a blacksmith at the beck and call of his daemon.  Yet, Father persists in his refusal to purchase the Remington I desire.  My mother was said to be a songbird, with an excellent voice and an excellent adroitness for ivory.  I will not be a songbird in a cage.  I will fly free.  This I vow.

 At times I feel as if I am an esteemed breed of dog, to be groomed and bred and to have no life of its own.  Do I pity myself overmuch?  No.  If pity is considered in degree of recompense to its merit, then I am woefully lacking compensation.  For who has endured such trials and tribulations as have been my breakfast, lunch, and supper?  But I choose to fancy myself an oddity insomuch as all pioneers and iconoclasts tend to be.  If I am alienated among my own home, then it is because I am such a rare specimen of peculiarity that none may share in my propensities and insights, including those sharing my blood.  An anomaly, I will live a life that will not be appreciated except by those generations yet to come, when the collective of humanity progresses beyond the limited vision of their yesteryears.  Perhaps I will be an Aristotle, or a Da Vinci.  The fault lines of the earth shift beneath my feet, bringing seismic change.  I do not doubt that my understanding of Fairy kind will bring mankind out of the shadows of a Dark Age and into a new Age of Reason.  My halo of learning burns bright, and those in my home cannot bear the brightness of it.

 July 10th, 1922

 What a frightful day!  Whereas yesterday had been woefully uneventful, today was extraordinarily tumultuous in its seismic cataclysms.  Oh, but where to begin?  I will start with the greatest calamity of all: Rosamund saw Ariel today!  And just when he was renewing his offer of wings!  She came upon us in the woods.  I had gone walking to clear my mind after a row with Rosamund over my French.  She had accused me of forsaking all learning of it, which I will not deny to be true.  I had quite given it up, for it no longer concerned me, nor would it concern me however much the inducement or admonishment.  I had wholly made up my mind on the matter.  I would leave to join the Fairies.  Let them conjugate that verb!

 While walking I was weeping at my misfortunes.  It was a hot summery day, but the shade of the forest afforded me some small comfort while in my time of woe.  Ariel alighted above me, crouching low upon a branch with the sunlight and shadows battling about his dappled shoulders.

  “Wings? ” he offered.

 I wiped my tears and attempted to smile encouragingly.   “I would like them very much, ” I said.

  “Come, ” he said.  He crawled upon all fours down the side of the tree and beckoned that I should follow him.

 Before I could follow, Rosamund appeared in the dappled shade, pale and shrieking like some banshee in heathen Ireland.  I turned away from Ariel, confronting her absurd expression of horror, but before I could explain the situation, she snatched me by my wrist and yanked me along and out of the forest, senseless in her affrighted state.  Indeed, she did not relent until we were in Father ’s house and before Father, in his private library.

 The melodrama that followed cannot be recorded, so chaotic was it in all its preposterous dimensions, but the conclusion of the misunderstanding was that I was forbidden from leaving the house.  Meanwhile Rosamund —being deemed a lunatic by Father —was exiled from the household itself.  Clifford accompanied her in her departure, looking rather more chivalrous than I could have thought him, especially with those overlarge ears of his.  Perhaps he had an ancestor whom was a knight in another age.  He held his head high and seemed as stalwart in his determination as Don Quixote chasing Maiden Folly.

 Rosamund, on the other hand, was overwrought.  Even unto the last moment of her presence in Father ’s house, she swore that I was in danger.  Through lachrymose pleas she swore to a horror and spoke of the missing children among the commoners.  What drivel!  To think she had been my governess, sworn to elucidate the world for me!  It is too much like the lunatic leading the asylum!  And to think she might actually care for me and my well-being!  A first, to be sure!  But I know better than to believe such poppycock (poppycock —a good word to use as a name for a Fairy who spouts drivel.  Perhaps I shall write such a character based upon Rosamund ’s hysterics).  She was merely attempting to retain her employment in service to Father.  Yet, the one thing Father cannot abide is a woman succumbing to hysterics.  And Rosamund was as hysterical as a rabid mare.  I always knew her frigid governess veneer was a mask for what was, undoubtedly, a very frayed disposition of agitated nerves.  The most outwardly austere of personages are those most likely to unravel when encountering something beyond their habitual, everyday experiences.   Let her gather up her ragdoll nerves in a countryside cottage far from here.  She could benefit from more sun.

 To think that she should have maligned Ariel so!  Deeming him a monster!  The Good People are invariably good if treated so.  The only misnomer to be considered egregious is that of Rosamund ’s title as “governess ”, for she could not govern her own head, let alone mine.

 Despite the chaos of the day, I had the wherewithal to disavow all of Rosamund ’s ravings.  Thus, whereas Father believes Rosamund unsettled in her wits, I have escaped unscathed in Father ’s estimation.  Indeed, I am by virtue of contrast with Rosamund ever elevated in Father ’s estimation.  He is likely to attribute my previous fancies to the influence of my former governess, and so I am absolved of all previous infractions of sensibility by having what Father presumes to be a moon-eyed teacher.

 The advantages in this current predicament are manifold: Rosamund ’s absence from the household and the fact that Father does not believe in Ariel or his Fairy kin.  Thus, my dreams of becoming a Fairy go undiscovered, and, so, unimpeded.  Just so, I fear that Ariel may have been too unnerved by today ’s tumult to return and offer me again my wings.  Perhaps all is ruined.  Perhaps not.  We shall see.

 July 11th, 1922

 There is no concealing it!  Indeed, I wonder how I could not have seen what was so plain before me —Betty is with child!  What a scandal!  I wonder who the father is.  How delicious if it was Clifford!  Oh succulent spite!  To think he might have begat upon her and then fled with Rosamund.  I hope Rosamund is with child as well, and that he should flee her.  Crumpets deserve as much.  But I do mislike Father ’s keen interest in Betty ’s condition.  He would be better to turn her out before she should bear her piglet, lest the scandal sully our household.  What would high society think, knowing we have a maid soon to birth a fatherless child?  They would think it the abode of Bacchus.  I cannot debut in society with the swollen, shadowy figure of Betty overhanging me.  No matter how dignified and regal, I will be tainted by the association.

 But Father —for all his austerities and forbearance —is too soft-hearted toward Betty to lord over his household properly.  It does him no good.  It does the Wellington estate no good, nor its legacy.  If Father wished to do her a good turn he would locate the father of the bastard and rectify him promptly with the mother of his child.

 July 12th, 1922

 It was a strange stretch of hours that passed today, and a stranger evening.  Everyone glances at me sidelong within Father ’s house, almost surreptitiously, as if they hold a secret behind their lips and they fear they may let it slip simply by breathing.  No doubt, it is scorn.  They presume to take great cares with me, but that is a farce of pretense for what is otherwise derisive attitude and malfeasance.  Even Father seemed to be unforthcoming today, condescending only to ask me how I might appreciate an expanded family.  Were Father to remarry, I should not care.  It is beyond my capacity to care.  He should pursue whichever folly chances his fancy and I will pursue mine.  The deathly circumspectness of everyone taxes on me so.  I would rather they reverted to their outright insolence.  I tire of their taciturn tension.  It is like being in a house of snakes, all coiled tautly and ready to strike.

 But poor Ariel!  He suffered a dreadful episode today, the nature of which still eludes me.  We were at the edge of the woods, at that time which the French call l ’heure bleue.  Advantaged by the distraction of Betty ’s condition, I stole out undetected by Father and by the servants.  Ariel was, as usual, crouching upon the branch of an oak tree.  I was reading to him one among my favourite poems, “The Stolen Child ”, by Yeats.  All seemed well enough —even if Ariel seemed not the least interested in what I was reading —when suddenly he succumbed to a violent paroxysm.  At first glance I mistook his fit of trembles to be a Fairy prank.  But when he spoke his voice was so altered from his customarily buzzing voice that I then thought him attempting a more perfected emulation of human speech.  Would that I had more influence over such an affectation, for I would have steered him toward a better-bred tongue!

 In this lowborn dialect he exclaimed loudly.

  “God help me, Miss!  Please!  Fetch…fetch…the priest…Save me! ”

 He nearly fell from the tree, finishing his imitation with a cry of despair.  Shortly, however, he choked back his affected country accent and spoke, once again, in his vibrating Fairy voice.

  “No mind, no mind, ” he said.   “None for you. ”

 I took this to mean that he meant I should not fret over his failed outburst of human speech and should mind my poetry again.  I did so, finishing my reading.  Truth be told, I do not believe that the poem held him in any interest.  Perhaps he did not care much for Yeats.  Perhaps Ariel is prejudiced against the Irish.  I cannot fault him that.

 I believe that Ariel must have been aspiring to repeat what he must have heard some inane, lowbred child exclaim upon seeing the Fairy.  The commoners are a superstitious lot and would fear the Good People when they should instead rejoice in their appearances.  Oh, but you cannot elucidate the idiotic masses.  They misunderstand the simplest of things.  Like Jasper with his wayward eye, they cannot keep their vision of what is true and what is not aligned.  Their perspective drifts wildly awry.

 Yet, I must write down that I saw something strange upon my friend as he contorted and writhed in his sudden paroxysm.  There was something along his back, though I could not discern it while facing him.  It was more than his wings —almost a protrusion of some sort —but it was ambiguous in its form so utterly that I could not conclude its nature definitively.  It seemed almost an incandescently metallic blue or green, shimmering as a spectral shell or carapace.  But it was glimpsed only at slight angles, necessitating a better view from behind.  Perhaps it was simply a fancy of mine.  Perhaps not.  He flew away before I could further discern its peculiarities.

July 14th, 1922

 Betty incessantly complains about the pains she feels in her condition.  She crudely complains, also, as if the scandal was not ribald enough.  Speaking of things gnawing at her from within, too concerned with the repercussions of her Babylonian sins to appreciate how gnawed our household is with the shame of her continued presence.  Father is going to great expenses —both financial and social — to accommodate Betty and her despicable condition, whereas were I mistress of this household I would turn Betty out of my home forthwith, alongside most, if not all, of the other insolent parasites to which Father ’s house has been claimed as host.  Were I Father I would put her down like any crippled mare.  Her condition has made it exceedingly difficult to attend to my journal, or any writing I might venture to do.  She is too loud —a donkey in a storm of biting insects would have more self-possession —and it is a trial to merely jot down these words, so disjointed are my thoughts as the house echoes with her cries.  An opera house suffers less melodrama.

 July 17th, 1922

 O joyous day!  And ever more joyous night!  Ariel led me through the woods, toward the peat bog, and thereupon introduced me to the other Fairies of his acquaintance.  There were four in all: two young boys, roughly the same age and appearance as Ariel, and a tall girl of lovely aspect.  Like my dear friend, these specimens were bereft of clothes, unmindful of their own nakedness, and while I admired the liberty with which they lived, I vowed that even while exulting in my own Fairy freedom I should dress myself up in all manner of pretty gowns so all those who looked upon me would do so with great reverence and envy, being that I would become the most idealized spirit of beauty and liberation.

 And because I would be no hedonistic Fairy.

 The tall Fairy girl spoke, addressing me with a voice similar to any girl ’s my age, except for the buzzing edges of her words.  Her throat vibrated as if to burst.

  “Welcome, ” she said.   “Wings? ”

 She had dragonfly wings like the others, but she had a crown of reeds along her forehead, above her empty eyes.  She must have been the Fairy Queen, Titania.  Who else could she be, being so tall and regal?

  “Wings? ” she repeated.

  “If you would, please, ” I said.

 The two young boys were crouching among the bog.  There was, I realized, a cluster of small pinkish bubbles floating buoyantly atop the sprawl of green duckweed and algae.  One of the boys plucked a single pinkish bubble and brought it forward, holding it up with one hand while wading through the thick, putrid sludge of the bog.

  “Turn, ” the Fairy Queen said.

 I did as I was instructed, eager and excited, but also slightly afraid.  The Fairy boy put the pinkish bubble on the nape of my neck, beneath my curls.  It stung.  There was a sharp, brief pain, like the little sting of a wasp, and then it subsided.  Somewhat.  Truthfully, it has not stopped stinging since he put the bubble upon me.  I cried out and wiped my eyes.  The Fairies assured me it was necessary.

  “Wings grow, ” Ariel said.   “Soon, fly. ”

 They said no more.  I wished to speak with them more, but I was not feeling well.  I left for home, a little staggered and dizzy.  Ariel did not accompany me.  The Fairies watched me leave, staring at me with unblinking, vacant eyes.  I felt cold, and my neck hurt, but I was delighted.  Soon I would grow wings and leave this terrible house behind.  My liberation was at hand.

 July 20th, 1922

 I have had a fever for the last few days, and have been confined to bed while everyone tends to Betty.  Madeline visits me briefly every other hour, bringing me water and asking if I should like anything.  She offers me soup, but I am in no mood for food.  I ask only for water, my diary and a pen.  Very soon, when I am of clearer concentration, I will write my farewell letter to Father.  I hope he will not be too heartbroken at my departure.

 July 22nd, 1922

 My health has improved, but not enough to leave my bed.  Father visited me, briefly, to see how I was faring.  He would not speak of Betty, nor did I wish him to, though I could discern that his concern for her well-being seemed markedly more than my own.  I cannot lay on my back, but must lay on my side, for my nape hurts.  The pain has begun to spread down my spine.  I have not had the strength to rise and peer in a mirror to see how my nascent wings grow, nor do I tell anyone about my wings for fear they will attempt to confine me when my wings have grown a span enough to lift me.  I keep the blanket and sheets up to my chin at all times and tell everyone that I merely feel ill because of my monthly menstruation.  I insist that I do not need to see a doctor.  At times it feels as if I am in a chrysalis of heat and sweat and that my flesh, itself, will split open so my new self may emerge.  At other times I feel as if something speaks to me with a buzzing voice, though no one except myself dwells in my room.  I do not understand it.

 Ariel has not visited me at all.  I have not seen him since I followed him to the swamp to meet the Fairy Queen.  I hope he is well.  I wish to thank him once my wings fully blossom.

 July 24th, 1922

 I overheard the servants whispering in the hall, speaking of monstrous things.  They said that Betty ’s child was stillborn.  The reason for its hopeless birth?  It had been infested with parasites!  From milk, no doubt, for Betty has always been an unmannered cow who enjoys milk straight from the teat.  Doctor Froud attended the delivery ,but he was unfamiliar with the parasite, having never encountered them before.  What I have gleaned from overhearing the servants is that they are not unlike larvae.  Never having been inclined to milk, I feel that my natural predilection is thus validated.  That bovine busybody has reaped her just rewards for an intemperate appetite and intemperate passions.

 With Betty ’s bastard child expired, I had hoped the household would be quieter.  Alas, this wish has not come true, for Betty weeps greatly while Father consoles her.  I loathe this absurd development.  He is too attentive with her, and Betty is too familiar with Father.  But it is no matter.  I will be absconding soon, never to return.  My wings grow!  This I know, for I feel how sensitive they are while abed.  I can walk now, though weakly, and I must be careful not to draw too much attention to my metamorphosis.  Most of the household think I am having a protracted temper tantrum, cloistering myself in my room because of some petty jealousy for Father ’s attentions.  Let them think such!  It facilitates my efforts to keep my secret from them, for they shun me presently.  Beneath my silken shift my diaphanous wings grow, undetected.  Occasionally I swoon, and have even fainted, but it is no matter.  I can anticipate when such episodes are to come, the vibrations growing stronger in my neck and at the base of my head, and so I hasten to my bed, covering up before the weak spell topples me.

 My only difficulty, truly, is ascertaining sufficient food.  I have arranged that Madeline bring me biscuits every other hour, alongside tea and several cubes of sugar.  I eat the sugar more often than I drink the tea, but it is a good pretense for so many cubes a day.  Madeline is a recent addition at the household, so she does not know what is and what is not a routine serving.  Meanwhile, her ignorance serves me as well as any other servant I might need.  Were that all of the servants were so unquestioning toward my commands!  This household would be a tolerable place to abide, at least for a time.

 July 25th, 1922

 Betty has perished.  It is, admittedly, a shame whenever anyone passes away, but why should Father be so lugubrious?  I have never in my life heard him cry so miserably —or express any emotion in his strictly stoic features —and yet he is a ruin of tears as he walks through the garden.  It is not the first instance of a servant dying while in service to the house.  Why should Betty ’s death invoke so many lachrymation?  It is no different than when any dog should die in the kennel, but Father seems to have taken it too keenly to heart.  He oftentimes stands in the scullery, gazing about as if looking for something, then alternately sighing and sobbing in turns.  It is most unmanly for the master of a household to be seen thus by his servants.  They will sense the weakness and exploit it by performing their duties most lackadaisically.  Indeed, I looked out of my bedroom window and caught sight of the gardeners lounging in the shade of an oak tree.  Such ungrateful parasites!  Perhaps when I grow my wings out I shall lift Jasper and drop him from a goodly height.  It may knock his wayward eye straight again.

 July 26th, 1922

 Ariel visited me last night!  Happy news, indeed!  I had thought that he had forsaken me.  Happier news, yet, is that I have grown to understand him now.  I had never noticed it before, but the vibrations in his words form a language in and of itself.  Like the undercurrents on a lake, they flow with meaning beyond the superficial level.  He is more articulate than I ever credited him to be.

 But my pain has increased alongside this comprehension.  This pain should be expected, I suppose.  Growing wings must be painful for all Fairies.  Yet, I console myself in the thought that this pain is but a chrysalis from which I shall emerge more beautiful and independent than ever.  I await that day eagerly.

 July 27th, 1922

 I have been fainting of late.  When the pain becomes too much.  When the vibrations overwhelm me.  I wake in strange places, baffled as to how I came to be there.  This morning I found myself in the woods, up a tree.  It took me a long time to climb down, for I was in great pain and fatigued.  My fingers hurt, the nails broken and jammed with bark.  I scraped my body climbing down.  Only Jasper saw me coming from the woods.  I scowled at him and he looked away.  Yet, his wayward eye remained upon me.  I should like to take a stick and poke his eye out.

 There was great bustle in the house as I rested in my bedroom.  Voices and hurried scurrying.  They talked of country children being found.  They said other things, but in hushed voices.  Father was among those in the large company that left the house.  A rider was dispatched to fetch Dr Froud.  I do not understand what the fussy haste was all about.  I am too tired to.

 July 28th, 1922

 I awoke in the peat bog today.  Shoeless and clueless as to how I arrived there.  Queen Titania was not there, nor were the other Fairies, including Ariel.  I walked home.  My shift was ruined.  Stealing into my bedroom, I changed clothes and had Madeline bring hot water for my tub so I might wash myself and my shift.  I was feverish yet, but also felt clammy, too.  Fatigue drained my strength and I committed the shift to the garden, flinging it out my window.  It plummeted to the earth, caked heavily with mud and peat.  I fell asleep in the tub and did not wake till my fingers were pruned.  Sluggishly I crawled out of the tub and into my bed.  The bed was soaked through, but I did not care.  I slept until evening whereupon I woke and began to write this entry.  I feel groggy once again.  The pain surges.  Must sleep.

 July 29th, 1922

 The pain is unbearable.  The nape of my neck throbs.  I cannot think very clearly.  Writing these words is difficult.  Pain.  The voices outside my window throughout the day.  So many buzzing voices.  I hear them constantly.  It is another language.  Like French.  But I understand so much now.

 It hurts so much.  Cannot tell Father.  I will get my wings soon and be free.  It hurts!  Pain.  Voices.

 Cannot write much.  Cannot think well.  In English.  Hurt.  Pain. Voices.  Head pulses.  Throbbing.  Words.  No.  Madeline, close window.  Voices in garden.  Too many.  Buzzing.  

 Pain.  Back.  Hurt.  Buzz.  Voices.  Stop.  Please.  Stop.

 Examination of Patient #6, Conducted by Dr. Brian Froud on August 3rd, 1922

 After an extended surgery, the specimen has been removed and placed in formaldehyde to preserve its anatomy until further dissection can be conducted.  Like the others, it is an insect belonging to some new species, or perhaps a very old species that has hitherto remained dormant until recently disturbed.  Whichever case it may be, it is a marvel of evolution.  Measuring half a meter long, it resembles mostly insects within the Odonata order.  It is parasitic by nature, however, and attaches itself to a host ’s spine using its legs, thorax, segmented abdomen, and its terminal abdominal appendages.  Its jaws penetrate the base of the victim ’s skull to manipulate the host ’s cerebellum to appropriate motor function.  By vibrating its thorax the insect manipulates the host ’s vocal cords to imitate speech.  The life cycle of these insects —as accurately as I might approximate it —consists of a hive of larvae infesting a host, feeding from the host ’s body until the host ’s death, then the larvae emerge, enveloped in globules that are, in fact, chrysalises formed from the host ’s dead cells.  An embryo is gathered by infected hosts and then implanted into a new host ’s spine for fusion as the embryo matures to adulthood.  Using the host, the adult repeats the cycle by infesting new hosts with its larvae, primarily through ingestion.  The complexity of this life cycle offers hope that we may curtail the colonization by such a pernicious species before it can grow pervasive.

 Due to the nature of the parasitic insect, the patient died during the procedure, as have all of the patients I have attempted to treat with surgery.  The inextricable nature of the creature makes it impossible to remove without a terminal outcome, so intricately bonded is its body with the host ’s spine.  For the sake of the safety of the remaining servants and the master of the estate, I have advised that they leave the household while a thorough investigation is carried out by the local authorities.  I have been told that there will be no total extermination due to the importance of the specimen.  My experience with the specimen will also be required in future examinations, for the British Armed Forces are interested in the specimen and its potential implementation as a weapon to protect Great Britain from future foreign hostilities.  I hope to prove myself invaluable in such an ambition.

Disenchanted (Expanded)

The fairies prance within my kilt

for she’s a lass bonnie built,

but when she kicked to dance a lay

she broke the wind—my fairies fled away.

But why fault such a lovely lass

her eagerness and a bit of gas?

Taking hold, then, I kiss her mute

and my fairies flee away at her toot.

To the chapel we go anon

with her bridal gown flowing on,

and at the altar love is vowed,

but my fairies flee when she farts aloud.

Across the threshold of my home

which is a cottage made of loam,

I carry the love of my life,

but the fairies sniff, groan, and flee my wife.

Upon my bed I lay her down

and from her breasts I doff her gown;

we make love sweet, gentle, and kind,

yet the pressure escapes out her behind.

A long life we live together,

in fair, fairer, fairest weather,

but the fairies remain outdoors

by day or night, for she farts as she snores.

Growing old, my lass never stops,

resounding through the mountaintops

of the highlands, lowlands, and all,

scaring the fairies with her war horn’s call.

But I never will mind her smell,

though oft like the sulphurs of Hell,

so why fret if my bonnie lass

wards fairies with her will o’ the wisp gas?

For in winter when cold winds blow

and the hearth is warm with fire’s glow

she lights it brighter with her fart

and warms me up body and soul, and heart.

Three Poems

Suggestive

The fairies played among Queen Anne ’s lace,

flirty, flippant, flitting, and flying

beneath the white garters, each red face

buoyant with winds, happily sighing.

My, the laughter was so very loud

within the petticoats of flowers —

an orgy amidst that floral crowd

while they quivered, shameless, at all hours.

Such perfume and musk glutted the nose,

all fairies being fragrant creatures

amongst hills and vales, the highs and lows,

and the untamed wildflower features.

Then fox rain fell from bright Summer skies

and gushed over the hot countryside;

Queen Anne opened her delighted eyes,

for she found herself quite satisfied.

 

Rope-A-Dope Politics

Circling and circling, rope in our teeth,

knife in hand gleaming, seeking a sheath;

tethered, as we once were in the womb —

soon buried together in a tomb.

Come!  Speak a petty jibe, begetting

a messy fight, a ripe bloodletting

as easy as a sharp blade that cuts

and spills a man ’s whiskey-rotted guts;

rope in mouth, see the resentful lip

and we unsheathe blindly from the hip

to 86 the opposing side

as two worlds careen, contend, collide.

Scalp them, skin them, flay, debone, and burn

rather than let them have their fair turn!

The battleground is stained, yet does hope

demand we grit our teeth on the rope

while we circle, bleeding at a glance,

lunging and plunging to stake our stance.

 

Soul-Storm

Lives that came and went in a flash

like the radiance of a lightning crash,

a downpour plummets, weeping heavy

as if the rain-man danced upon the levee

to break the floodgates and to flow

the world ’s memory of wrongs and woe

trees tossing in mournful despair

as gusts bellow with raging air,

thunderbirds flapped resounding wings

and screeched of many unjust things,

aloft, high, sundering the skies,

blinding unwary, shameless eyes,

smashing low the tallest towers,

fulgurous with heaven ’s powers,

a twister spun across the plains,

a reckoning of deathly pains.

After all these forgetful years,

rains still fall from the Trail of Tears.

Decoys

The high-bourne clouds reigned gloomily over the estate grounds, the rains shimmering as they struck the lake and the trees, shrouding the rotunda with a gray veil.

“I think it ’s what ’s called a decoy, Miss, ” Sara said, squinting into the wobbling waves of the lake.  The servant girl stood just beneath the dome of the rotunda, her frock splattered with wayward raindrops.   “What ’s used for gettin ’ more ducks down so they can be gotten with ‘em rifles. ”

“Indeed, ” Miss Woodward said, absently strumming her harp with a flurry of fingertips.  The musical notes joined the downpour like a small silver bell tinkling amongst a waterfall.  Not even the harpist could hear them well.   “No doubt Thomas requested it from a carpenter in town.  Gamekeepers are always such ingenious fellows.  In their own way.  It bears a wondrous resemblance to a true mallard.  At least insomuch as distance abets the deception. ”

“Yes, Miss, ” Lara said, her voice rougher than her daughter ’s.  She was much frayed with age, like linen too familiar with the washboard.   “I ’ve seen ‘em bag ten ducks in short order with a couple of those decoys. ”

“I ’ve always fancied having me one, ” Sara said wistfully.   “Not so I might shoot any of the poor creatures, but as they might all come nestin ’ near me.  Like I was a fairytale princess. ”

Sara ’s mother scolded her.   “Lot o ’ good you have usin ’ that head of yours for dreamin ’ such prattle!  It ’d be better employed in your knittin ’ and weavin ’.  You haven ’t learned half the knots I ’d known at half your age.  Always swimmin ’ in the clouds when work ’s to be done. ”

Lara shook her wizened head ruefully, but Sara was too lost in fancies to mind.  Meanwhile, Miss Woodward sighed.  She had heard Lara scold Sara many a time, and so she had their intercourse put to mind as fixed as any chiseled stone.  So she turned her attention elsewhere in the rain —away from Lara and Sara and the decoy duck being hammered on the lake by the deluge.  She had requested Sara and Lara carry her harp out here to the rotunda so she might fancy herself a few daydreams in seclusion.  Unfortunately, the rain hastened on, swifter than portended and now she had to share her cloister with the most quarrelsome among her father ’s servants.

Lara raised her voice, her hands on her aproned hips.   “Were I wiser I would ’ve hardened your head against fancies with a few right wallops, ” she said.  She shook a rheumatic fist.   “Or maybe softened it, ‘cause you aren ’t but hard-headed as a goat in tulips! ”

“I do my work right and proper like, ” Sara rejoined, raising her nose and turning it away from her mother…lest the latter snatch the complacent ornament between finger and thumb as long ago when she was yet a child, and not so tall or pretty.   “What difference is ought that I should like to think up things better than they are?  There ’s no harm in thinkin ’ than there is in singin ’ while I work.  It ’s just to pretty things up a bit. And that ’s what we do in the house, isn ’t it?  Pretty it up? ”

“Thinkin ’ leads to wantin ’, ” her mother said.   “And wantin ’ leads to wishin ’.  And wishin ’ leads to wastin ’ for naught but what never was nor will be.  It ’s the most serious of self-harm one might do other than a willful march through the valley of the shadow of Death, and what ’s more it can be just such a march if wishin ’ gets to be strong enough! ”

Miss Woodward sighed and strummed a few trickling notes on her harp; like raindrops cascading down the dome of the rotunda itself.  The mother and daughter stood on the other side of the rotunda, and yet even at the distance and with the rain condescending the earth it was as if they waged their little war on either side of their mistress.  Hearing Lara ’s trite commonfolk wisdom bored Miss Woodward immensely.  She despised such pretentious peasant pedantry.  She would rather be lectured by a boor, or a boar for that matter.  She utterly detested the lowborn for their artlessness and lack of cultivation.  They were a rough-spun frock when she indulged only silken petticoats.  And they were superstitious and stupid about many matters, whether sublunar or supernal.  Some still believed in pagan nonsense.  Sprites and spirits and whatnot.  Fairies dancing in the forests on brightly moonlit Summer nights.  Indeed, Miss Woodward loathed them, and in particular Sara and Lara.  The crudely-aged Lara would not leave off the presumptuous lessons of the young, pretty Sara.  Admittedly, Sara was a pretty sort of lowborn girl, with auburn hair and skin browned by days spent labouring in the sun, but being a lowborn girl was no good recommendation, however pretty in most people ’s estimation.

Miss Woodward wondered how her late mother would have handled such bellicose behavior between servants bound by blood.  She knew how her father handled such things: he retreated to his study to drink wine and make as to read, letting the servants run amok among his ancestral home.  Lord Woodward was too negligent a Master to enforce discipline among his servants, and Miss Woodward resented him for it.  From what she had gathered from those who knew her mother, Lady Woodward was a strict disciplinarian among the operations of the household, and tolerated no such liberties of the tongue as was presumed by Lara and Sara presently.  But mother had been dead fifteen years past, having passed in the vain attempt to deliver to the world Miss Woodward ’s younger sister.  Miss Woodward had been but three and, so, remembered her mother in snatches of imagery and instances.  But nothing more.  Consequently, Miss Woodward vowed to never bear children, for it seemed a futile endeavour imperiled by catastrophes all too common. And, of course, were she to successfully bear a child who was to know if her darling might not be a contrary predilection, fraught in disposition with a disobedience and recalcitrance, contriving at every corner of life to conduct mischief wherever the darling pursued her divergence?  Succinctly put, Miss Woodward feared an arrangement akin to Sara and Lara, for it seemed dreadfully tedious, diverting, and disagreeable.

“You would do better in a textile mill, ” Lara declared to her daughter.   “Working sunup to sundown with bleedin ’ fingers for your reward. ”

“I would just have a fairy weave straw into gold, ” Sara said with petulant sarcasm, “since I am so besot with fancies! ”

“Aye, and here we have your soft-headed fancies in full force again, as to a puddin ’ of pixies!  One would think you had spun around the fairy ring thrice too many times, dizzyin ’ yourself and topplin ’ your head down on a hard stump! ”

The rain refused to subside, as did mother and daughter.  Miss Woodward plucked at her harp plaintively, no muse but frustration and impatience inspiring the melody.  She was so wroth that she nearly tore the strings for a garroter ’s tools to reconcile the two servants to silence.

Yet, her eye alighted upon movement in a nearby orchard.  There seemed, in her periphery, as if a young man was watching from among the falling rain and green foliage.  When she turned to look upon him more directly, the curious figure had moved yet to her periphery once more.

“If you donna ’ come off your cloud, ” Lara said, “I ’ll knock you off quick! ”

Thunder grumbled above the rotunda, silencing the mother and daughter.  As if remembering themselves for the first time that day they looked to their young Mistress.  Her stool was empty, the harp standing alone and bereft like a large swan wing of mahogany and catgut.

“Miss Woodward? ” Lara asked, extinguished of her former fire.

“She ’s lost her senses! ” Sara exclaimed, pointing at the figure fleeing through the veil of rain, her petticoats soaked and clinging to her frenzied figure.  Beside the lake she ran, the waves tossing with the wind and the rain.  Toward the woods she went, and Lara ’s eyes followed.   “There ’s someone in the woods.  Someone…so…beautiful… ”

Sara made as to go directly, but her mother clasped her by the wrist.

“Avert your eyes! ” her mother said, averting her own eyes, for she felt, too, her too-long fallow sex stir anew at the sight of the young man.   “Their ’s is not make or manner Man was meant to look upon! ”

Her daughter again attempted to rush thitherto, but her mother ’s grip was as a washerwoman wringing the linen.

“Stay you, girl, ” Lara demanded.   “Man is not the only creature what ’s employs decoys for its purposes! ”

“I know, momma, ” Sara said.   “I ’m not so flighty as to go chasing such spirits in a daze. ”

Yet, even as Sara spoke such sensible words, her body attempted to follow, her arm extended at full length while her body leaned in the young man ’s direction.

“I will be a goodly daughter, ” Sara said quietly.   “You are hurting my arm, mother.  Please let me go.  I promise to remain here, with you. ”

The man ’s pale white face was as snow, and the smile just as beautifully cold.  The rain did not touch him as it cascaded down the canopies of the trees.  Lara gripped her daughter with both hands, for despite her innocently voiced promise, there was trickery in her smile that matched the face of porcelain within the woods.

“Poor Miss Woodward, ” Lara said.   “There will be a reckoning of it, to be sure.  Certain as willows by the waterside there will be. ”

 

***

 

The birthing pangs were terrible indeed.  Miss Woodward ’s screams resounded throughout the manorhouse.  The doctor and the midwife were the only ones in attendance tot he birthing.  Lord Woodward had retreated to his study as he always did when confronted by things over which not even kings commanded influence, for all their power.  He had tiredly chastised Lara and Sara for hiding from him his daughter ’s condition.  Sara had attempted to explain that she had only been in such a condition for a week — no more —but her mother silenced her.  Lord Woodward uncorked his bottles and erstwhile sealed himself up in the wine ’s stead.

Lara and Sara heard the pangs as they dusted the parlour.

“It will go ill, Lara told her daughter.   “All signs point to a sad crossroads of lives.  One will go on where two have met, and the other will turn aside forever.  Neither will walk this world again. ”

“It is very sad, ” Sara said, reaching with her feather duster to send a shower of cobwebs off a corbel in the wainscoting.  The corbel was of a leaf-crowned man with a leering face.   “A tragedy as like a bard could sing of. ”

“It would be a foolish song, ” her mother retorted.   “But all such songs beginning in foolishness end the same. ”  She sat down all at once in a chair that belonged to Lady Woodward.  Presumptuous as it was, no one was there to reprimand her.   “It ’s what comes of dealings with the highborn fairies.  Mind you, Brownies are useful in their own way —for the cost o ’ a saucer o ’ milk, no less —but dalliance with ‘em high lords of Faerie lead to naught but mischief and sorrow. ”

 

“We common folk have to be practical of such things.  When such visitations transpire we are wiser for not presuming too much interest, but treatin ’  ‘em as one would the lordly folk of this world.  We canna ’ afford the luxuries o ’  ‘em highborn.  They ’re too costly.  It ’s much like lessons in Art and Music and the froggy tongue of the French.  And we ’ve too many chores to be done. ”

Another scream resounded through the house, as if to crack it.

“Truth be told, the cost o ’  ‘em Fae folk is a kingly sum that no king can afford.  Maybe Solomon might, but it is a cost of wisdom more than anything.  And you ought to pay it afore the cost comes callin ’. ”

A terrible silence suddenly reigned in the vast manorhouse.  A moment later the nurse screamed —or perhaps the doctor.  There was a rush of frenzied feet, a door flinging open, and then the nurse came with a tripping sort of haste down the stairs, staggering to the vestibule.  Sickly green, she halted but a moment to gawp at Sara and Lara.

“Unnatural, ” she croaked, then charged down the hall, out the door and away from the house.  Her smock had been smeared with blood and mud and leaves.

After a moment, Lara gave a knowing look to her daughter.   “The child must take after its true father, ” she said.   “Likely stillborn as a plank of wood, then.  The real child cries elsewhere. ”

The manorhouse had grown silent again.  No infant cried.  At length, the doctor shuffled downstairs, dazed.  He was an old man, and had seen much with the faded blue eyes behind his spectacles.  Now he seemed to see naught at all, but what he had recently seen.  He walked past the two women, as if blind to them, then paused.

“Please endeavour to tell Lord Woodward that neither mother nor child survived, ” he said hollowly.   “As for why, say whatever comes to mind. ”

In his arms he carried a bundled mass, the cloth stained red and brown and green.  He went into the vestibule and left, not minding to close the door after him.

Lara shut the door presently, then returned to the parlour, shaking her head.

“Doctors, for all their learnin ’, know so little.  I would claim, in front of St. Peter ‘imself, that doctors and such are as beholden in their highborn learnin ’ to fancies and daydreams as much as any nannerin ’ old crone lost to the horde of her cats.  A donkey kick to the head could ’na ’ wrong their thinkin ’ no more than what their learnin ’ has. ”

“Poor Miss Woodward! ” Sara said, at last overcome with everything.  She wept.   “Poor child, and her child, too! ”

Lara made as if to give her daughter a knuckled knock.

“Have you not been mindin ’ me, you deaf ninny?  That child is but a part of what will ’ve been born on the other side o ’ the rain!  That thing of crude Nature is the afterbirth.  Count yourself fortunate you cannot see the trueborn of the conception!  And count yourself luckier I was present enough of sense to catch you ‘fore the people of the rainy woods could catch you! ”

Her daughter went on weeping, and Lara got her fist ready to bring it down upon her pretty daughter ’s head.  But another thought overtook that one, and so Lara sat down again in the Lady Woodward ’s chair.  She rather liked that chair.  It was comfortable.  It helped her stiff old back relax into its soft cushions.  Sitting there, in the highborn comforts of the parlour, she thought she would rather sit there until Death came to sweep her away from her hard life.  Affixed in such thought, she looked at her daughter, and knew she was of a pretty make, especially when overcome with woe.

“Ah, my pretty daughter, ” she said.   “This could be a ripe ol ’ chance to recompense on the favour.  Lord Woodward fancies you —I ’ve no doubt on it —and there ’s much that a young pretty woman can make of herself to a sad man yearning for his dead wife and dead daughter. ”

Sara sobered almost at once, looking up through fresh tears with a look not nearly so innocent.   “He must have himself a princess, ” she said, understanding at once.

Lara smiled — a smile of pride, for she had never thought her daughter so swift on such understanding — and she gestured for her to come to her.  Sara went to her mother, and her mother took her hand in her own.

“Nay, my duckling, ” she said.   “A queen of a vast kingdom, if you should like.  All this yours!  And mine.  But we must act, and act as only practical common folk can!”  She rose quickly from the chair, knowing now that she might return to it at her leisure.   “I will inform his Lordship of the tragic news.  It will, naturally, break him, and then you, my dear little duckling, will swoop in and take him underwing and comfort him as only a wife and a daughter could!  Get ready your tears, dear!  I am the gamekeeper and you the trap! ”

 

***

 

The lowborn earth took the tears of the high-bourne clouds in the coming seasons, and made goodly Springs of them, and better Summers

Silly Sally

Little lassie Silly Sally
did but only dilly-dally
in the sylvan silver valley
till she came upon the play
of the Wild Hunt in twilit day
near the rounded mounds of the Fae.

Seeing little Silly Sally,
Oberon said, “My dear, shall we
take a turn about my valley?”
And Sally, being so Silly
kicked up her frills, like a filly,
and said gladly, “Oh, sir, will we?”

Thereafter came the wild laughter
as Silly Sally followed after,
thinking herself none the dafter
than any pretty princess told
in fairytale whose telling’s old
as pouch of leaves for fairy gold.

Silly Sally took to saddle
aft Oberon, and her prattle
was such that he had to paddle
her backside hard after an hour,
for his mood began soon to sour
upon the way to his tower.

“My sweet lord!” Silly Sally cried,
“why smart my innocent backside
as a cow’s harsh leathery hide?”
Oberon cursed lil Sally then
so should she ever speak again
it was in but clucks of a hen.

“A truer voice was never heard,”
he said, “for a girl like a bird
who clucks with each unwelcome word.”
Into his tower gone at last
as twilight flicker-faded fast
into the night, so black and vast.

Once within the tall tower fort
Silly Sally was brought to court
where the Fae made much merry sport
of her Silly mad-addled head
and sleepy eyes, as if abed
while she served them their wine and bread.

Sally had been really silly
to take the ride to the hill she
knew was shunned by both brave billy
and every kid and nanny
that grazed near that grassy span the
village men called quite uncanny.

For though Sally was yet Silly
and had the sense of a gilly
with all its petals plucked, still she
should have known better than so dare
the King of spirits bright and fair;
she should have ran away from there.

Now she was in the Fairy Hall
where fairies that were big and small
gathered at King Oberon’s call
to feast until the rooster’s cry
when darksome night should fade and die
so the Dawn may retake the sky.

“T’will be done at the rising sun,”
Sally vowed, “then I’ll run and run
to the priest, or at least a nun.”
But Sally did not reckon Time
when in the magic Fairy clime
where the sun did but slowly climb.

For hours she served the fickle Fae,
cleaning after them in their play
while wearied wan along the way,
hoping the night to end anon
as the party went on and on
and the years passed afore the Dawn.

Oberon called to her at last
before the night had fully passed
and, smirking vastly, he thus asked,
“Dear, was my favour worth my fee?
Think long next time when you are free
and you come upon the Seelie.”

Suddenly, the King frowned at her
and she asked what was the matter
as his head turned, like a ratter.
“Why do people call you ‘Silly’?”
he asked. “For it sounds like ‘Seelie’,
yet it cannot be so, really.”

Sally glared at him, voice chilly
as she explained the word “Silly”
to him, her tone sharp and steely.
“It means that one is blessed true,
or lucky by chance, and chosen too,
which is much luckier than you!”

“It is no blessing anymore,”
Oberon said with a frown, “nor
has it been since the times of yore.”
Silly Sally shook her small fist
and gave him a kick, then she hissed.
“Back to Faerie! Back to the mist!

“I am most blessed among all those
among the sylvan icemelt floes
and the field’s golden barley rows
for here I am, revealed to all,
as does a doe at the buck’s call—
Titania, without equal!”

Sally threw off her girly guise
to reveal herself to all eyes
that dared to see contrariwise.
Resplendent in her wings and dress
and russet in each twisted tress,
she was their Queen, all would confess.

“I swore return,” she declared,
“and would forsake you if you erred
once more in life, and you so dared
to take another woman here
to our home within the last year
of our long estrangement, my dear.”

“And so no longer I will be
known to you among the Seelie,
but will be Unseelie till thee
flee this lovely sylvan valley
and make home some other alley
of eldritch place— do not dally!

“If thou cross me I will kill thee,
if thou mock me I will spill thee
as a crimson river will thee
thus bleed upon thy valley
while I stalk thee as an owl free
with talons to disembowel thee.”

With booming voice, she sent them all
away from that great Faerie hall
and bound them in a mighty thrall
so Oberon, King of the Fae,
could not rule by bright light of day
his kingdom till he changed his way.

Titania did not dally
but went out into the valley
to take in the air and tally
the times she had chastised her spouse
throughout the years, from house to house,
scolding the old abusive louse.

Remembering made her rally
her temper unto a sally
of magic in that green valley,
aiming at the tower till she
blew it all down, willy-nilly:
no one hence hath called her “Silly”.

 

Silly— originates in the word “seely”, which meant fortunate, lucky, or blessed. Reminds of the word “Seelie”, as in the good fairy court, and “Unseelie”, the bad fairy court. Could mean good luck and bad luck brought about by fairies

Grab Bag Of Rhymes

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The thunderstorm rose over benighted knobs,
a tumult of angry, seraphim mobs.

Cassandra gibbered in the halls of Troy,
knowing the doom of a children’s toy.

Honeycomb planet abuzz with bees,
an invasion force from the Pleiades.

The pixies played in the flowers of her hair,
flitting about from tress to tress, hither and thither,
too happy, the Fae, to notice her empty-eyed stare
after the vile baron had his way with her.

Any body is a grab-bag of sorts
for the young ghouls hoping to play some sports—
for a baseball the cerebellum is just the right size,
and for bats they can use femurs from the thighs,
for mitts the lungs, and phalanges for the cleats,
and for the catcher’s pads there are plenty of meats.
For helmets a skull works quite well enough
if it can be cleaned of all that cerebral stuff,
and for the bases just use some  stitched skins
while the diamond line is made of stretched intestines.
There are no limits to what fun a body can provide,
so open it up,  young ghouls, and see what’s inside.

War Paint

Margaret was glad that, at her age, she could still paint beauty into the world, even if the world had, year by year, taken her personal beauty away. Her husband departed, and her children preoccupied with their children, and their children’s children, she woke every morning with nothing on her mind but blank paper soon to be filled with whatever whimsy was demanded by her muse. This was half the fun: not knowing what would manifest from the end of her paintbrushes. She was as amazed as anyone by what she painted.
When Margaret was younger, and still desired making a name for herself in the Art World, it was frustrating. None of her work was unified by a single theme, and so most art galleries had little interest in displaying it, however masterful it may have been in its realization. What common thread could be found in the paintings of a fox, a still life bouquet of flowers, a meadow with a single apple tree, and a portrait of her niece’s youngest daughter? Nothing— nothing except that her muse demanded them and embargoed all other things until such demands were met.
Of course, Margaret sometimes attempted to plan out her paintings beforehand, and she would always fail at them. The paintings lived as they willed, unmindful of their creator and as vengeful to the taming whip as a wild lion newly caged. She simply accepted this, letting herself be the avatar desired, and was content in both the satisfaction of a deft execution and the serene calm that enveloped her while surrendering to her muse every morning.
Since her last remaining vanity was painting, Margaret equipped that vanity with the makeup that accentuated her talents. Watercolor, gouache, sometimes inks. She preferred water-based paints because they seemed more natural— more elemental to her fastidious muse. The watery colors were chaotic and would run at times like invading armies where they were not invited. They also presented minimal risks to her health and sanity, unlike oil paints which could have poisoned her and had her cutting her own ears off within a year. Her children already believed her too old and senile to be living alone; she did not want to provide them with further evidence for their case.
Nowadays her children rarely visited her. You would think their repeated concerns for her solitary life would culminate in a visitation every other week or so. But they hardly ever came, except for her eldest son, Damon, and that was because he was prime executor of the Will. He visited her twice a month in the attempt to convince his mother to forsake her happy, isolated independence for the crowded miseries of a nursing home. Though he masked himself with concern, the conceit was so counterfeit as to announce itself in shrill overtures. He desired only the house, which to most people would have been considered a mansion.
It was exactly that, too; a mansion in the middle of Vermont’s most pristine woods. Her late husband hated people and so aspired to avoid them wherever he could. The irony, of course, was that he tried very hard to people the house with as much as his seed would yield; with his wife’s assistance, naturally.
And now, born literally and metaphorically from those efforts, his many children were conspiring to take Margaret’s house from her, just as they were conspiring to take that selfsame house from each other.
Succinctly put, they wanted Margaret out of the way, just as she had wanted her husband out of the way when he was yet living. The difference was that she had worked in accordance to wisdom and married a wealthy, older businessman— some twenty years her senior—so that Time would serve her expediently as a trustworthy hitman. Time’s accomplices, Stress and Heart Disease, also served quite loyally.
Now, Time was demanding its payment from Margaret, too, while her children demanded— in subtle words of concern— their inheritance. How could she blame them their covetousness? They had inherited such selfish traits doubly on each side of their blood. Perhaps she would have been as transparent in her greed as they were if she had not been born, too, with the witch-like cunning that possessed her.
That is not to say she had not grown to regret her own behavior. She had been born a cold, distanced girl, and so she grew to be a curt, mostly indifferent mother. Her destiny was never one aligned to the nurturer’s calling; this she knew and embraced wholeheartedly. Any milk that flowed from her bosom had been scarce, if not soured.
Margaret had married her husband John because he was wealthy, and because with his wealth came the prospect of leisure to pursue her painting. Unfortunately, the cost of the wealth was his desire for heirs, and so she surrendered to his old-fashioned notions for the sake of her one passion. A nanny was employed to compensate for Margaret’s natural disinclination toward motherliness, and John had many mistresses, which pleased Margaret as much as her husband, for it spared her any intimate relationship with him after their five children were born. Margaret had always been asexual in her preferences. Their relationship was not even platonic, truly; it was merely an abiding business transaction. Their prenuptials explicitly embraced such a condition, and both had signed their names— and so their lives— to this arrangement without hesitation.
Sometimes Margaret wondered if the only things that perpetuated her life were her paintings and the frustration her continuity caused her impatient children. She lived to spite them and to beautify. She lived as she had always lived: selfishly. She had no illusions about her virtues. Were her virtues equaled in weight to their constancy then a small thumbtack could have held their combined weight up on a wall. Nor would it have mortified her if her virtues were overlooked among the wallpaper, or even a blankly white wall.
Her heart, succinctly put, was a withered leather sack emptied of any and all keepsakes, spacious in allowing solely her paints and brushes entrance. Her husband’s death had not bothered her anymore than her children’s obvious frustration at her longevity. She lived alone, and she lived happily. No memories harried her. No regrets weighed heavily on the leather sack, as if to make it burst. She was content.
And then, one morning, things changed.

It had been raining all week, and, according to the weatherman, would continue to rain. Margaret welcomed the rain. Its pervading presence announced the silence reigning in the house with a softly thrumming echolocation. Her muse welcomed the rain also, and its hypnosis. Who cared for sunlight with its peanut gallery of forest voices always chittering and chattering? She could paint light, if need be, and there were no distractions in the shade of a thunderhead. There was only the brushing hush of the rain as it veiled the house. There was only the silent water as it colored the paper with vivacious splashes of overlapping hues.
Then the phone rang.
Margaret was so startled she dropped her paintbrush, smearing an azurn cloud as the brush twirled out and away from her knotted fingers. Stooping, she fetched up the rebellious brush and set it on the easel, then thought on whether to answer the phone.
Part of her said that she should ignore it and simply focus on restoring the smeared cloud. Another part was mourning over the body of her murdered muse as it was hauled off to the tomb for a resurrection— scheduled at whatever time was its impish fancy. The phone’s petulant noise had killed it dead.
Without her muse to distract her, Margaret decided to answer the phone, if only to unleash hell upon the caller. She wiped her hands on her apron (splattered as it was with every color imaginable) and begrudgingly walked over to the antique dial phone resting on the antique rollerdesk. Twisting her face up toward her haughtiest eyebrow— the left one—she lifted the sleek black-and-brass receiver and pressed it to her dried-up peach slice of an ear.
“What do you want, Damon?”
“Hello, mom,” he said. the word “mom” was as uncomfortable coming out of his mouth as a wisdom tooth. “I was just calling to check on you…”
“I’m not dead yet,” Margaret retorted. “Until that hour arrives, leave me to my remaining hours of peace.”
“Hold on, now,” he said. “Since you brought that up, I have to ask you, mother, about the grand piano downstairs. You haven’t said where you want it to go.”
“The grand piano?”
“The one downstairs,” he said.
“I know which one,” she snapped. “It’s the only one in the house, after all.”
“Of course, mother,” he said.
Margaret loved that grand piano. She enjoyed sitting on its bench in the morning and setting her morning coffee on its hood and just ignoring it altogether while her conniving children dreamed in vain of selling its large mahogany bulk for a small fortune. Probably to pay for a new car, perhaps, or kitchen renovations. Denying them these petty dreams pleased her.
“I do not know what I will do with it,” she said. “For now I would not worry about it.”
“But mother…”
Margaret returned the phone to the stand, then stepped away. Her mind was still mourning her Lazarus muse when the phone startled her once more with its grinding gearbox-throated birdsong. She nearly jumped with surprise. Had her muse been a vampire this would have been the stake to the heart.
“Damn it all!” she cried.
Angry, Margaret wrenched the phone up from the stand as if she would fling it across the room. Instead, she slammed it into her ear.
“What, Damon?!”
“Mother, you need to get caller ID.”
It was her eldest daughter’s voice. Laura. Her tongue clucked with jaded sarcasm. Indeed, Laura was nothing but jaded sarcasm.
“If I had caller ID I would never pick up the phone for anyone,” Margaret said.
“That’s no way to talk, mother.” Laura’s pronunciation of “mother” was as frigid and disagreeable as a governess attempting Peter Pan’s domestication.
“What do you want, Laura? I am busy trying to live before I die.”
“How appropriate,” Laura said. “That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I was speaking to Damon earlier today and he seems to think that he is going to inherit the grand piano, which I knew could not possibly be true. I was the pianist in the family. I was the one that had musical inclinations.”
“Yes, but no musical talent,” her mother retorted.
There was a long silence from Laura’s end of the phone. It ticked like a bomb, though it may have just been Laura biting her nails. At length, she spoke.
“It would be a great travesty if you were to give such a beautiful instrument to that dolt. I would flaunt it in my living room, and play it at Christmas parties. Wouldn’t you like that, mother? To know your great-grandchildren are being cultivated on the holidays with a family heirloom?”
Since Laura’s sarcasm was infectious, Margaret asked how her great-grandchildren were doing, and she did so sarcastically.
“Henry has the Measles and is having a bad go of it,” she said. “Betty’s trying her best, but you know how Henry can be.”
No, Margaret did not know how Henry “could be”. She could not for the life of her remember what he looked like. Presumably he was boyish by look and bratty by nature. That is, if he were an honest heir to the family’s blood and not another cuckoo.
“And Susan’s off to boarding school,” she continued. “We couldn’t afford to send her to the school she wanted, but it is nonetheless an excellent school. Highly recommended in the Club for people wanting the best while balancing a budget.”
Margaret shook her head ruefully. “Knowing your side of the family you might be better off sending her to a nunnery.”
Again Laura clucked her tongue.
“If you knew her you would know that she is not like that,” Laura said.
“Oh yes, just as you were never like that.”
“It is always a delight to speak with you, mother. I do believe that it becomes even more pleasant with ever passing year.”
“Yes, I don’t doubt that you welcome each year as my last, just as you think every conversation with me will be the last. Well, don’t fret too much. I intend that this should actually be our last conversation.”
This time Margaret did slam the phone down.
And once again it rang.
“Laura, I gave you what you wanted…!” she said.
“So you gave her the grand piano?” It was Eric, her youngest son. “Mom, I can’t believe you…”
“I’ve given it to no one, Eric,” she snapped. “In fact, I am thinking of having myself buried in it. Why waste money on a coffin when the grand piano would serve just as well?”
“Mom, that’s silly. You need a proper coffin…”
“It would save more money for your inheritance, wouldn’t it?”
“Mom, I know a guy who wants a piano like that and he is willing to pay forty thousand dollars for it. That’s a lot of money.”
“No, Eric, it isn’t,” Margaret returned. “Your father would make that much money in a week sometimes.”
There was a long, defeated sigh from Eric’s end. “Dad was a stock-broker, mom. Of course it wasn’t much money. But I’m a teacher, and I’ll be lucky to make that much money in a year.”
“It is not my fault you chose public service over selfish practice,” Margaret said. “We paid for your education. You were the one to aim for the ditch when you had a golden brick road to follow.”
“Mom, this isn’t about me. It’s about Ashley’s care. We’re trying to hire a specialist to work with her.”
“Ashley?”
Margaret could not be bothered to remember the names, nor even the faces, of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They were as indistinguishable to her as a nest full of chirping, gaping throats. And each one a cuckoo, too.
“Ashley, my youngest grandchild,” Eric said. “She came with us last time we visited you.”
Margaret was surprised to find that she did remember the girl. She was a quiet, self-contained child with a meek face and shy, flighty eyes. The awkward girl was perfectly innocent in her reticence and self-consciousness. Upon first seeing the girl— Ashley, was it?— Margaret wondered briefly if perhaps the girl was a cuckoo planted into her dumb grandson’s house by a roaming salesman. Or perhaps a Jehovah’s Witness. She seemed meek enough to be one.
But the poor girl did have her father’s natural pout, worsened by a surprising overbite that neither Margaret nor her husband had to such a drastic degree. Ashley was also prone to freckles, her rounded cheeks bespeckled with them like stars on a night sky. Perhaps she was a changeling. Margaret knew her grandson and his wife had nothing to do with the child. That was why Eric was looking after the girl. Margaret could not fathom it. Having to birth children and raise them was a bother enough— having to raise the children your children birthed was the never-ending spiral staircase to madness.
Be that as it may, what remembered Ashley most to Margaret, though, was her quiet disappearance during the last family visit. It had been six months ago or so and Eric had not noticed— so busy was he inspecting and cataloguing the silverware in the house— but Margaret had, and she went looking for the curious girl. Margaret found Ashley in her painting studio upstairs, standing as if rooted in the center of the room.
Margaret was at first enraged, thinking the careless and homely girl might knock something over, or damage her finished paintings that were lined up along the walls. But then she noticed the gleaming light in the girl’s otherwise murky brown eyes. It was an exciting light; a light of magic and joy and appreciation.
“Do you like it, child?” she asked her great-granddaughter.
The child did not answer, and it was then that Margaret realized that the girl was not altogether there. Back in the old days they would have called her a dumb mute, or an idiot. Margaret did not know what they called them today. Even that asinine word “special” had become passe. Perhaps, she thought, they called them something as equally ridiculous.
So Margaret walked over to Ashley and gently took her by the arm and pointed out all of the things in the painting which had taken so many countless hours to paint. The field with an old castle in the background, collapsed to ruin by the onslaught of Time’s catapults of entropy. The Black Angus cows grazing between the mossy remnants. The crenelations on the remaining walls, like broken rows of teeth, and the castle’s bowels clogged with vines. A sky morose on the horizon, darkening with black clouds.
Looking at the painting anew, with the simple girl beside her, Margaret felt like that castle was her; her old constipated, rotting, derelict body. It was sad and beautiful simultaneously, and she allowed herself one tear of self-pity, but no more.
“Mom? Mom? Are you still there?”
Margaret shook herself from her woolgathering. “Of course I am still here,” she spat into the phone. “Not dead yet, no matter however much you might wish it.”
“Mom, don’t be like that,” Eric said with all of the feeling of a door mat.
“I’ll be however I like,” Margaret retorted. “And as of right now I will be hanging up the phone.”
As said, so done.
Margaret also unplugged the phone from the wall. Then she proceeded to her easel where she painted in supreme peace for a full two hours without interruption by blood or blotch or bladder.
Rain fell heavy on the house, cascading down the windowpanes in hydra-necked rivulets. The thrum of it put Margaret at ease while she painted. A certain serenity enveloped her so utterly that she sometimes forgot to breathe as she painted, her breath growing shallower and shallower until she nearly drowned in open air. Nor did the prospect of dying at her easel scare her; it was a peaceful prospect. The only death that might be superior would be in a blaze that took the mansion and all of its contents while her children stared on in horror, calculators in hand to reckon the total wealth lost.
Margaret had started painting when she was old enough to pick up a brush and splash some cheap watercolors across a page. Her young mind marveled at the colors. It was like there was the life-forming magic of nebulas in those haphazard collisions of color. Eventually, she had to develop an artist’s discipline of form and subject, rather than continuing the Jackson Pollock method of painting inherent in all children below the age of four. Yet, discipline was as pleasurable to her adolescent mind as the splashes of colors were to her toddler mind. Thus, a passion had been born in her: the passion of creating life, or at least, visions of life. Only in this way was she motherly.
Presently, her paintbrush was creating a wild moor, its verdant expanse bordered by whimsical trees and a seaside cliff. It looked like a very persuasive travel card from the Emerald Isle. Her muse always had an affinity toward the Celtic.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang, which irritated Margaret immensely. No one should have been visiting her today. The grocery boy was supposed to come on Sundays. Not today. Moreover, it was raining heavily, which meant the groceries would be wet and would need to be dried if they were to be properly salvaged at all.
Perhaps that was why the doorbell rang so urgently.
Margaret hurried downstairs, past the living room and dining hall and into the foyer. She opened the door, expecting the grocery boy— what was his name?— and instead found her eldest son, Damon, hurrying inside with his umbrella dripping water all over her floor.
“Its raining cats and dogs outside!” Damon remarked, laughing like an idiot. “Be careful, for they will chase each other about your head and leave wet pawprints on your temples.”
He took his fedora off and shook off his wet trenchcoat, hanging both of them on the coatrack. Of all of Margaret’s children, Damon most resembled her dead husband. Perhaps that was why she could stomach the sight of him the least.
“Mother, I wanted to apologize for being so rude with you on the phone,” he said. “I know I sometimes become pushy and it is very insensitive of me. I just want you to know that I am trying to do what’s best for everyone.”
Much like his father, Damon could also lie with a straight, serious face, or with a smile, or with a laugh. It served his father well in his business practices, but such a skill was wasted on Damon. He was “in-between jobs”.
“What would be best for everyone would be to leave me alone,” Margaret said. “When I am dead and gone you can fight amongst yourselves over the house. I do not want to be in the middle of your bickering while I am still standing. At least do me the courtesy of waiting until my corpse hits the floor.”
“A fight is exactly what I intend to avoid,” Damon said. “In fact, I will finish it before it starts.”
He began walking through the house without asking leave. It infuriated Margaret. This was still her house, whatever his intentions as executor of the Will. And she had half a mind to call the police on him for trespassing.
Damon arrived at the grand piano, which resided in the living room near the large recessed window. He then proceeded to inspect the piano in the most outlandish fashion. He plucked at the strings. He rubbed a finger along each square inch of mahogany. He tapped every single key, both white and black, and paused between keys to listen to its distinct note ring and then fade to silence. Margaret was fairly sure he had no idea what a finely tuned piano should sound like. He also kneeled down to inspect the legs of the piano, and its underbelly, and finally, after shaming himself beyond what Margaret could tolerate, he took a permanent marker from his pocket and wrote on the inside of the key cover his own name, the date, and the current time as per his wristwatch.
“How dare you!” Margaret yelled. “Out! Get out!”
She pushed at him, but he was a large man, much like her husband, and did not yield an inch of ground.
“Mother, please, if you do not stop this I will have to put you in a nursing home.” He then added, as an afterthought, “For your own good.”
“That is still my piano!” she said.
“And I am the eldest,” he said, “so it will of course go to me in…due time.”
He then left for the door, grabbing his umbrella and his hat.
“If Laura or Eric call, please inform them that the matter of the piano has been settled.” He opened the umbrella, then opened the door. He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Take care, mother.”
He stepped out and closed the door behind him.

Margaret returned upstairs to paint, feeling rather furious. She entered a vicious sort of trance that held sway over her for countless hours. Possessed of her newfound passion, her every spiteful thought went from neuron to brush tip like a lightning strike. It was a murderous mood most foul and perpetrated itself with gashes of gouache all over the watercolor underpainting.
When she came to herself later—brush in hand and swaying with exhaustion— she was disturbed to find her moorland painting savagely deviated from its original image. The trees were aflame, the sky was black with smoke, and the moor itself was littered with corpses mangled within shattered armor. Mass pyres burned on the horizon and women wept over fallen husbands, sons, and brothers. Swarms of black flies crowded upon the banquet of death served so generously to them. Soldiers stood in the distance, looking distraught and dismayed at the destruction they had achieved, like dogs of war waking suddenly from a bout of rabies.
And standing in the center of it all, like a grandstanding ringleader grinning at applause only he could hear, was a tall figure in a blood-red cloak.
Margaret’s eyes lingered on that strange figure, and his eyes seemed to linger on hers. Something about him seemed to pop off the page. Perhaps it was merely his red cloak, which was a complementary color to the green field.
Enough, she thought. It was past time that she had something to eat. All of the painting and family drama had exhausted her. She was also feeling dizzy and faint.
Without further ado, she walked downstairs and made a simple salad for herself, sitting on the couch in the living room and watching a little television to distract herself from the grand piano and the painting upstairs. The television chatter blended with the sound of rain pattering on the house. Neither made distinct sense in her waywardly drifting attention, but both were welcome and comforting.
Accompanying her salad was a tall glass of merlot. She kept the bottle on the coffee table, within easy reach should she have need of a refill; which she had, and numerously. She was drinking her fourth glass when she fell asleep on the couch.

Sometimes Margaret peed the bed. Sometimes her bowels betrayed her. But there was little shame in these accidents because there was no one around to shame her. She simply bleached the sheets, washed her underwear, and found a large sheet of blank paper upon which to work her frustrations into fulsome fusillades of paint.
Unfortunately, the couch was not something so easily cleaned as bed sheets. Rather, it was leather, and she had no idea how to properly clean the smell of urine off of leather. So, when she woke later, in the middle of the night, she did the only things she could do: she took a shower, threw her dirty clothes in the laundry machine, put on a nightie, and scrubbed the leather with wet, soapy rags. Whether it would clean it sufficiently or not, she did not know.
When she was finished, Margaret went into her bedroom and cried, thinking about how much she hated the thought of a nursing home and how much she hated the thought of her children rejoicing in finally exiling her from her home.

***

So long as Margaret could see, and so long as Arthritis did not clutch her hand into a gargoyle’s stony claw, she could paint serenity and beauty into her decaying life. Thus, the next morning Margaret woke up and, without food or drink or even a bathroom break, she stood at her easel and painted for four hours straight; unblinking as if in a trance. What possessed her, she did not know, but when she was finished the paper was wet with a strange scene.
It was a royal court, presided over by a king robed in crepuscular velvets and crowned with stars. The people populating his court were humanoid, but not human. Their faces were more delicately featured, some being cartoonish in their long noses and slender chins. Their ears were tapered and long, like pointy aloe leaves. The men’s faces were narrow, and the women’s faces were shaped like acorns. All wore finery of a more anachronistic make, such as lavish gowns and trim-fitted pantaloons, frocks and tunics and petticoats, vests blooming with cravats and waistlines tightly wound with whalebone-and-lace corsets. Translucent wings, such as those belonging to dragonflies, sprouted from the backs of the men, and the women were paired with butterfly wings whose diaphanous colors shimmered.
Margaret was astounded by the breadth of the details and the sheer amount of dexterous work involved in the painting. Frankly, she amazed herself. She wondered if she was suffering dementia, and if so, she concluded it her best muse yet.
And then her eye alighted upon the most dominant figure in the scene, with the exception of the twilight-robed king. There was a tall, willowy man in a bright red suit standing near to the king’s throne. He was, perhaps, the most gaudily dressed gentleman in the room, and while he was certainly handsome, there was something about his eyes— as he peered over his shoulder at Margaret— that chilled her through to her old bones. Something whispered in her ear, Oleander, and she knew, at once, that Oleander was this creature’s name.
Startled, she glanced about herself. Blood throbbed in her head and she decided that it was time she had something to eat, lest she faint.

Margaret ate eggs benedict with a cup of plain milk, the latter of which was a rarity for her. It was raining outside again, though the sun sometimes shone its light through that hushing veil. As she finished her eggs, the doorbell rang. Thinking it might be the mailman, she went to answer it.
It was not the mailman.
It was her eldest daughter, Laura.
“Hello, mother,” Laura said, stepping in with her stilettos hammer-tapping the floor. She tossed her parasol to the floor, quite unmindfully. “I came to check on you today. Damon said you were in extreme duress yesterday.”
“You should be in extreme duress,” Margaret said, “wearing high-heels in this weather.”
“You still have your spirit, at least,” Laura said, puncturing the silence of the house with each piercing step. “God willing, mind and body will remain, too.”
She pretended to give the foyer an equal glance over— here and there— but soon arrived at her obvious purpose for the visitation: the grand piano in the living room. She walked around it, inspecting it casually, feigning disinterest before lifting the key cover and running a ringed finger along Damon’s name. She clucked her tongue and stomped her heel like a billiard ball striking another billiard ball, and another, and another.
“That selfish bastard,” she said. “He knew I wanted it. He knew I deserved it. He had never shown any interest in it until he found out what it was worth. I remember when we were children and he would mock me for playing it. He had no ear for good music.”
“None of you ever did,” her mother said.
Laura ignored her. She had a purse at her side— a black leather, diamond-studded gaudy thing— from which she fetched a tube of fingernail polish remover. She then proceeded to dab at Damon’s name and the date with the odorous little brush. While the acetone ate at the permanent marker, she stood by and waited. Then, using a handkerchief, she wiped away the ink, as well as some of the piano’s finish.
“Right as rain,” she remarked, folding the handkerchief and returning it to her purse.
“Nothing is as ‘right as rain’,” Margaret grumbled.
Laura then proceeded to take a turn about the lower level of the house, from the living room to the kitchen, to the utility room and the pantry and the dining room. It was mostly an open-floor plan on the first floor, and so each of her stiletto-steps echoed pointedly throughout the house. Margaret followed her, outraged and yet helpless.
Whereas Damon resembled his father, Laura resembled her mother. She differed, however, in that she was taller and younger, and thus vainer. This was why Margaret could suffer her presence even less than her other children’s. The very reason Margaret painted so much was so she could escape herself, and yet here was a walking, talking reminder of all of her former earthly vanities.
Returning to the living-room, Laura suddenly paused in her perambulation. The click of her stilettos stopped, ending with a cluck of her tongue that seemed louder than her punctuated walk.
“Why does it smell like pee in here?” she asked.
Livid with anger and shame, Margaret lied. “The cat peed on the couch.”
“I didn’t know you had a fondness for cats,” Laura replied, craning her neck to look for the errant beast.
“I don’t,” Margaret said, “which is why I had to rid myself of it.”
“I see,” was Laura’s stiff reply.
Laura gave the house one last sardonic look. “Well, mother, I suppose I should be going. Julio and I are set to take the grandchildren to the beach.”
“To the beach?” Margaret said. “But it is too cold for the beach.”
“Copacabana beach, mother,” Laura said, curtly. “We’re taking Julio’s company jet there this evening. Long trip, of course, but worth the eleven hour flight. Little Laura has been so looking forward to it. She can hardly wait.”
Margaret could only nod. She could not remember what “Little Laura” looked like. She supposed she looked like a little Laura, which was to say, a girl not unlike what Margaret herself resembled when still young; a happy, pretty, spoilt, naive little girl. Not so bent and embittered and soured to life as Margaret was now.
“Well, take care, mother,” Laura said, heading to the door. “Try not to fall down the stairs or anything. If Damon comes by again, tell him he can put his name wherever he likes. I have plenty of remover to wipe away any claim he might make.”
Laura left and Margaret fumed. The pettiness of her children, and the invasiveness of their visits, infuriated her. There was no end to it, except, perhaps, the end. And it was all so uncalled for. Laura was very wealthy; perhaps wealthier than Margaret had ever been. Her husband, Julio, was a derivatives market conquistador from South America. A bronzed man with an aquiline profile, he had a black ponytail and was built like a professional soccer player, even as he entered his mid-fifties. Margaret’s dead husband hated him, more for their similarities than their ethnic differences. And that was why Laura had married him. That, and his financial liquidity. The plain fact of the matter was that Laura could have bought any piano she wanted, but she wanted Margaret’s piano precisely because Damon wanted it, and Damon wanted it because Laura wanted it. At least Eric was honest about wishing to sell it, not that such honesty earned any appreciation from Margaret. An honest thief was still a thief.

Margaret returned upstairs to her studio. The next painting came spontaneously and without forethought or reflection. Margaret welcomed her muse and became its willing conduit. Like a bloodhound on the trail, she followed it with single-minded devotion. When she had finished, and woken from the magical mesmerism, she looked at her painting with a stranger’s eyes.
It was an outdoor scene where a king in a crepuscular robe and star-studded crown was walking through an apple orchard. Arrayed around him were many smaller fairies— perhaps sprites— all sitting in the boughs of the trees, or flitting through the air, or hiding under flowers and roots. Beside the king stood the same devilish dandy in his crimson cloak that smirked in Margaret’s other two paintings.
Oleander.
Lord Oleander, something told her.
In this painting he was much closer to the viewer, his features elaborated upon with greater scrutiny. Lord Oleander was a tall, willowy sort of dandy, with conceitedly long blonde curls. In that slender foppishness, however, was the cold, sharp promise of anger, like an unsheathed rapier with a flowery handguard to distract from its blade. He was the sort of blade which never sheathed itself but reluctantly, and then only to lower his target’s guard and trick them for a killing strike.
The devilish dandy was gesturing the king toward a ring of mushrooms in the center of the orchard. The king, who was a bent and sallow looking old fellow, nonetheless beamed with a genuine grandfatherly sort of smile. He could not see the kris dagger in the dandy’s other hand.
Margaret took a few steps back, then leaned forward, peering. She stepped forward again and leaned back, peering. No matter how she looked at the painting, she felt like she was painting someone else’s painting—not her own. Where did this painting come from? Where had it been hiding inside her all this time?
Letting the paper dry, Margaret walked to the studio window and looked outside. The massive Vermont pine trees were standing like soggy, shaggy green beasts wishing they could come in out of the incessant rain. Some perverse part of her wanted to see her spiteful children standing out in this rain, wanting to come in, just so she could deny them entry and watch the rain taunt them with its cold wetness.
“I am a bad mother,” she said to her ghostly reflection in the window. “I have always been a bad mother. That is why I have bad children.”
She walked downstairs, found the half-empty bottle of merlot, and carried it to bed.

***

The ringing of the bedroom phone woke Margaret from her drunken slumber in the middle of the night. It was Chris, her youngest son.
“Heya’, mom, I just wanted to give you a call,” he slurred into the phone.
“Chris, it is three in the morning.”
“It is? Aw well, it ain’t no biggie. How ya’ doin’, mom?”
“You’ve been drinking again,” Margaret said. It was not a question. She leaned over to put the phone back down on the stand, but the empty bottle of merlot fell to the floor, ringing and rolling. “Chris, you know the court will not like it if they find you’ve been drinking again.”
“Ain’t no big deal,” Chris slurred, blithely. There was a sound similar to a bullfrog’s throat engorging and croaking, ending with a wet smack of lips and a throaty sigh of satisfaction. “My parole officer doesn’t know where I am.”
“You get involved in another hit and run, Chris, and you’re on your own! I’m not paying to bail you out!”
“You didn’t pay last time,” he snorted. “You let me rot in jail.”
“I gave Mr. Setter the money and he took care of everything.”
“Mr. Setter? Oh yeah. The mute suit. Fucking stuck-up sonnabitch wouldn’t say a damn word to me.”
“That is because he is a lawyer who knows when to speak and when not to,” Margaret quipped. “Something you never learned, obviously.”
“You were always a cold ass, mom,” Chris said.
Behind him came a volley of voices and the distorted blast of music from static-eaten speakers. The occasional chinking of long-necked glass told Margaret all she needed to know. He was at a bar. Knowing Chris, she guessed it was in all likelihood a dive-bar.
“The boys and I are goin’ for a run later,” Chris said. “We’re going to pick up some girls. But don’t worry, mom. Sheridan’s driving. Or Joseph, maybe. Wait a second…” He shouted away from the phone. “Hey! Who’s driving?! Thomas? Fuck all, I might as well be driving…”
Margaret hung up the phone. She had no patience for drunkards, especially those who cost her money.

Margaret tossed and turned for the remainder of the night. When she got up in the morning she had a migraine that not even Columbian coffee could allay. Wanting to paint, but unable to concentrate, she took a long hot shower and then laid on the couch in the living room, listening to the rain continue its hushing thrum upon the rooftop.
Gradually, the trenchant pain in her head dissolved into a lax pool of numbness, and with it her consciousness. She slipped, gratefully, into a restful nap.
She was startled awake by what sounded like an intruder upstairs. Fearful for her life— whatever little of it remained to her— she stood up and walked to the kitchen, quietly taking a butcher knife from a drawer. Cautiously, she walked upstairs, her house slippers whispering to each other as she baby-stepped across the floor.
There was the sound of tearing paper, and of tearing tape, of what must have been her easel as its three legs were rattled into a new position while the intruder moved it. What was the intruder doing up there?
Upstairs now, Margaret sidled toward her studio door. Her nerves were electrified with anxiety and fear, and static electricity. The friction of the hall rug was building static in her furry pom-pom slippers. The hairs on her neck stood at attention. Scared to breathe, she craned her neck around the doorframe and peered into her study.
No one was there. She checked behind the door, and near her stacks of paintings against the wall. She even checked the window and found that it was fastened tightly against the elements, permitting no entry or exit. As she was turning from the window the phone rang in the bedroom, giving her a violent start. She jumped.
“Damn it all!” she gasped.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she walked to the master bedroom and answered the phone.
“Heya’, mom,” said a chippery girl’s voice without a care or wear in the world. “What’cha’ doing?”
“Angela?” Margaret said, unsure.
“Duh, mom,” Angela said, giggling. “Did you forget me?”
“No, I did not,” Margaret said. “It is hard to forget you when I am still getting bills for your credit cards. You know, I am seriously contemplating canceling your cards.”
Angela laughed nervously. “Oh, mom, you wouldn’t do that. You’d leave me stranded in the middle of France without any way to live or get by.”
“You could always find a job,” Margaret said. “Washing dishes. Cleaning rooms. Oh, but you never learned how to do anything for yourself, did you?”
Angela’s chippery voice flattened with gravitas. “Mom, I am taking care of myself just fine. I stay in cheap hostels and…”
Margaret cut her off. “Nothing is cheap in Paris. I have the bills to prove it.”
There was a long pause on Angela’s end. When she spoke again it was with a measured amount of optimism. “My novel is coming along. Jean believes it will do well in France. Maybe even the rest of Europe.”
If Margaret was a young woman again she would have rolled her eyes. Instead, one of her eyes simply twitched with frustration. “And what is this novel about again?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times, mom. It’s about a young American woman living in France who falls in love with a mysterious man with a dark past.”
“How very…romantic,” Margaret remarked, the word as corrosive in her mouth as acid. It invoked Cherubim, and immediately shot them down from heaven.
“Jean has many literary contacts in Paris,” Angela said, heedless of her mother’s sarcasm. “Publishers, agents, critics. He says they are all interested in me.”
“Just make sure you don’t meet them in dark alleys after midnight,” Margaret said.
“Don’t make fun, mom,” Angela said.
“I’m not making fun,” Margaret replied, seriously. “I am speaking in earnest.”
Angela was the youngest of all of her children, born unexpectedly when Margaret should have been going through menopause. Margaret was not even certain Angela belonged to her husband. Had Margaret not been there herself for the delivery, she would have questioned whether Angela belonged to her, too. In her late twenties, the adventurous girl still acted like a teenager on Summer Break; all year long.
“Once my novel is published I will be able to pay my own bills,” Angela said. “Actually, I will be able to pay you back for all of the bills you have paid for me.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Margaret said.
“Stop making fun of me, mom,” Angela said. “I will be able to take care of myself. You’ll see.”
“Of course,” Margaret said.
“I mean, I know you won’t be around forever. I’ve got to get my shit together.” She dropped her voice again. “By the way, mom, what are you doing with the house? I mean, I don’t want to own it, but can’t there be a clause in the Will somewhere that says I can stay there whenever I want? I bet I could really write a lot if I set up a desk and computer in your old study.”
Margaret bit her tongue.
“By the way, mom, have you figured out what you’re going to do with that grand piano? Jean plays in a band and…”
Margaret slammed the phone down with a very satisfying bang.
Her fear, now, was completely replaced by fury. She went through the entire house, finding phones and unplugging them. This done, she went upstairs to paint.

Hours later, a painting sprawled across the heavy-weighted paper, centered on the crimson-cloaked dandy. He stood victorious in the court now, all of the crepuscular tapestries hanging from the walls replaced with blood red tapestries in likeness to himself. Lord Oleander. The throne was refurnished with carmine velvet and a new crown sat upon his head, its petals forged from a reddish-gold.
“What a horrid creature,” Margaret said, distastefully.
Everyone in the Elfin court— from lord to lady, peasant to soldier— bowed low to Lord Oleander, their faces twisted with disgust and fear and impotent rage. The crimson dandy basked in the bitter emotions of his subjects, a joyful smirk wrinkling his long, narrow face. In an upraised hand the kris blade glittered in the morning light, the head of the old king impaled through the eye for all to see.
Margaret heard the the front door open and close downstairs. Then came the heavy clomping of boots as the intruder walked through the lower floor. The tread sharpened as the intruder went from the rug-lined foyer to the tiled kitchen and then the wood-paneled living-room.
“Mother?”
The intruder’s voice was more curiosity than concern. His tread sharpened again as he came near the bathroom. There was a knocking at the door, which Margaret knew was open.
“Mother?”
The intruder headed upstairs.
“Mother, where are you?”
He came up to the landing, then spotted her through the open door.
“Mother, you really should answer me when I call to you,” Damon said. “I was afraid something might have happened to you.”
“Oh, really?” she retorted. “Is that why you took your time walking through the house? Make sure I’m good and dead before you find my body and have to call an ambulance?”
“Mother, this attitude of yours does not help anyone.”
“Were you in my house earlier today?” she demanded.
He looked at her all agog. “Of course not, mother. I have been at Mr. Setter’s office, adjusting the Will. Was someone in the house?”
“I…I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it was just a squirrel in the attic.”
“Are you sure you are not hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”
“Oh, I hear more voices than I care to,” she said. “Especially right now.”
Damon ignored the quip and instead looked over his mother’s shoulder at the painting she was working on.
“What a horrific scene,” he observed, though his flat and impassive tone did not indicate that he was seeing anything that struck him as horrific. “Mother, I worry about your mental… stability. You shouldn’t be painting things like this.”
“I worry about your mental feasibility,” Margaret returned. “All your life I’ve worried about it. For you see, Damon, you are an idiot, and I do believe that had I been a more attentive mother I would have remedied your natural deficiencies to the best of my abilities. Which is to say, I would have sent you to a school for the handicapped.”
“Don’t be so rude, mother.”
“I’ll be however I’ll be,” she said. “I grow tired of my children telling me not to be as I am inclined.”
“It’s just that you have had, for some time now, a very twisted view of everything, mother…”
“My head’s on straighter than yours,” she rallied. “I see things as they are; not as I’d like them to be. I can see, for instance, that you’re looking forward to my death so much that you can’t see anything else, including how foolish you are in your transparency.”
“Mother…”
She pointed her paintbrush at him as if she were mugging him with a knife. “You are hurrying me to the grave, but I won’t go quickly. Eventually, yes, but in my own time.”
Damon stared at the paintbrush with an unimpressed frown.
“That’s not true, mother. I want you to live as long as you can. Many years more, in fact. And I want you to live them happily. That is why you need to go where a professional medical staff can look after you. Riverside Retirement Villa has an excellent rating with…”
“I am going to die in my own home,” she snapped. “If that means breaking my hip on the stairs and starving to death all alone, then so be it. But if you force me out and I die somewhere else I promise you that I will move back in here and haunt you forever. I promise you that, Damon.”
“Mother, no one wants to force you out…”
Margaret laughed; a bursting sort of abbreviated laugh that someone might make if they had been run through with a rapier upon hearing the particularly powerful punchline to a joke.
“I’ve never seen so many buzzards fighting over an animal still alive and out of reach. Is there not some roadkill down the street that can sate your appetite in the meantime?”
“Mother, you do your children a great disservice…”
“You are right,” she said. “I should have never had children. I should have had my lady bits cut out so you wouldn’t have to grow up to become…me. I’m tired of you. Leave now.”
“Mother.”
“Out, I said!”
Damon left, though not soon enough, and Margaret returned her attention to the painting she had been working on.
“Lord Oleander,” she said, staring at the crimson-cloaked dandy.
King Oleander, someone said.

That evening Margaret went to bed early. She could not sleep, and she cried. She did not cry maudlin tears, or even tears of self-pity; they were tears of frustration and anger. She had never in her whole life cried out of anger. It was a new experience.
“Might as well get that out of the way,” she said aloud, wiping wrathfully at the tears. “Before the end. There’s a first time for everything, even in a long life like mine.”
Margaret knew she had been selfish in her choice of husband. She had chosen him because she thought he would die early and allow her the financial freedom she desired. But instead of finding freedom she had found her children readily assuming his role as oppressor. They, in turn, thought that she was selfish in her sternness. Yet, they did not know what it was like to be married to their father. Love was not an essential factor of life, for her or for him, but he was needlessly cruel to her. Indeed, that she had so many children was confirmation of the way that he dictated how her life should be.
“I will cause a scene at my own funeral,” she vowed. “I will decompose quicker than usual and make the pallbearers flee from the stench. I will make a scene for the newspapers, and their articles shall hound my children forever more.”
Lightning flashed beyond the windows. A downpour began, hammering the mansion with its own angry tears.
Unable to sleep, Margaret climbed out of bed and went down to the kitchen. She poured a glass of water for herself and sipped from it absently while she returned upstairs. In the second storey hallway she saw her studio shrouded in shadow. A flash of lightning illuminated the easel. The tripod stood in the center of the room, like a ghoul, its shelf a jaw splattered with paint that looked like blood in the brief flashes of light.
She turned and looked at the master bedroom, and hated it. She hated the bed that sprawled there, insolent with its parted sheets. This, she thought, was the bed that begot her life. This was the marital bed, the conception bed, the deathbed. This was the hateful apparatus whereby her husband exercised his continual control over her.
Upset, she slammed the bedroom door shut and went into the study. Using the glass of water she had brought upstairs to drink, she worked in the epileptic luminescence of the thunderstorm, welcoming both the light and the shadows that fought over the embattled painting there.
The hours passed quickly. Midnight came and fled on fleet raven wings. Then came the witching hours and they were more riddled with thunder and lightning than anytime before. Once the creative seizure was over, she looked at the painting for the first time.
There were children impaled on pikes while parents mourned on bent knees. Babies were bashed across walls and thrown from windows like refuse onto the cobblestone walkways. Men and women were being skinned and bled dry, their blood flowing in runnels that converged on the royal robe of the new king. He sat in the center of it all, rejoicing on a throne of bone. He wore a vest of flayed skin and drank from a goblet brimming with the blood of innocents.
“King Oleander,” she said.
“Emperor Oleander,” said someone behind her.
She turned and staggered, clutching at her chest. Standing there, in the dim light of her study, was the crimson-cloaked dandy himself: Oleander. He was half-shrouded in shadow, and flickered into stark relief with every lightning flash through the window.
“I had not the luxury of time during my last visit to address you directly,” the tall fairy said. “I was so preoccupied with the Purification in my kingdom that I could scarcely afford my attentions being anywhere else. But I am encouraged to see that you, for your own sake, took to my dictation and have been allotting the appropriate amount of your time to the most important priorities of your life. Namely, recording my legendary ascension to the crown— and with it a new age unlike any other.”
Margaret could only stare in astonishment at this crimson gentleman. She feared she was suffering a stroke-induced hallucination. Any moment she feared a vesicle should burst in her brain.
“Granted, I should be offended that my glorious reign should be recorded by someone of your breeding and background,” the fairy continued to say, “but I am of a charitable character when Fate decides it so, and so I will gladly allow you the honor of being my chronicler.”
He paused, seemingly awaiting her reply. There came none and so he continued.
“You are overwhelmed by my presence. It is only natural. But I am afraid that this arrangement will soon come to an end. Rejoice in the service you have rendered me, for while I will live on, as recorded here, you will soon depart from your mortal coil. The whole of your life was for the making of this tribute to me.”
Margaret looked at the painting again, in the flashing luminescence stabbing through the window, and then at the crimson dandy with his habitual sneer.
“Allow me to paint you one final time,” she said suddenly, “so as to better capture your majesty.”
The malicious fairy’s face curdled into a vicious smile. “One final painting? You are dedicated, mortal. Very well. Yes. Yes, I suppose that it is enough of a reward for a lowly mortal to be the chronicler of my unequaled magnificence.” He turned to leave, but hesitated, speaking over his shoulder. “But do well by me in this, your last tribute, or else you will suffer.”
“I promise you that the execution will be perfect,” she said.
The next morning Margaret sketched for hours trying to force her willful muse to depict the Execution of Emperor Oleander. But to no avail. No matter how much she tried to enslave her muse to her dictation, the wild-willed wanton refused submission. The sketches were a disordered mess of smeared graphite and blurred erasures. When she attempted to paint the most successful among her failures she found no respite from her contentious muse. The paint bled and fled wherever it would, like a wounded beast, and she could not corral it into an orderly stillness. Had she been a more attentive mother with her children, all those many years ago, perhaps she would have learned the patience and authority to overmaster her own errant inner child. But she had not and now that spoilt brat would not bend or bow, defiant with every little artistic impulse.
Frustrated, Margaret walked downstairs to get away from her studio, and her muse. She turned on the television and flipped through a few channels, arriving at some absurd soap opera. Normally she abhorred drama, but this she watched with dawning enlightenment. The tone-deaf drama represented on-screen what was likely the kind of absurdist scene that would soon follow her own demise. Torrential arguments. Fish-eyed gawping outrage. Frigid shoulders and the soul-crushing gravity of disappointment. Theatrical tantrums. Histrionic fits. Pity parties to surfeit.
The prospect of such melodrama would have been wonderful if not for the fact that she would be too dead to relish it. A pyrrhic victory was all she had remaining for herself.
Margaret turned off the tv and plugged in a phone. She called Mr. Setter, the family lawyer. She informed him that she desired to review the Will.
“Of course, Margaret,” he said.
Mr. Setter had learned early on in their business relationship that Margaret preferred to be called by her given name rather than by her married name.
“I do not know what is in the Will,” Margaret confessed. “I’ve forgotten. Could you bring it here so I could read over it? I do not go out much these days.”
“Yes, I can arrange to have that done,” Mr. Setter said. “Do you wish for the Executor to be present also?”
“No. No, I will handle this myself.”
“Then I will send it over with my secretary this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Mr. Setter.”
The business call ended, Margaret unplugged the phone.

A few hours later, Mr. Setter’s secretary, Skyler, arrived with the folder containing the Will. She was a mousy-looking, bespectacled thing in a brown overcoat that was as plain as she was. Margaret envied Skyler insomuch as Skyler, when she aged, would have little to mourn as she became older. She had less for Time to steal, in other words— less beauty, less wealth, less vanities and pretensions. That was a comfort to be cherished in and of itself, she thought, for the homely among us.
Margaret read through the Will while sitting at the grand piano. There were few specifics in the Will regarding the actual estate. In fact, the overall Will seemed to be more of an afterthought than a genuine summation of Margaret’s overall material existence. And it seemed to have a defiant sort of vagueness to it, as if it was procrastinating in denial that the event that the document addressed, DEATH, would ever come to pass. It seemed to acknowledge the possibility in mere abstraction and without any serious concern of its inevitability or its repercussions.
Margaret frowned down at the document for some time, forcing her mind to accept what it represented: a glimpse into the future; the cold, dead-eyed stare of her own corpse as she was hauled off to be embalmed and buried. Skyler, meanwhile, stood aside with all of the calm, quiet patience ingrained in a a bookish woman who had been ignored all of her life.
Margaret laid the Will on the grand piano and then, after a moment’s hesitancy, fetched a pen and a pad of paper. For the next two hours she catalogued the possessions in the house and designated to whom each would be granted upon the time of Margaret’s death. It was no easy feat, especially since it confronted her not only with the starkness of her mortality, but the thought of her children rejoicing in these things they had coveted of her for so long.
When Margaret came to the thought of her paintings and what would become of them, she wrote that she wanted them to be buried with her. Then she remembered little Ashley— Ashley was her name, wasn’t it?— and how that mute girl would stare at the paintings as if they were magically entrancing her. Margaret scratched out her selfish post-mortem request and wrote down “To my great-granddaughter, Ashley Tess: ALL of my paintings”.
Margaret was resolved. She would not be an atheist pharaoh hoarding her most prized treasures for an afterlife she did not believe in. There was no better afterlife, in her sardonic modern view, than in the eyes of a mute who could say nothing and simply stare at her great-grandmother’s paintings. The girl could not speak ill of Margaret, even if she had wanted to. In truth, Margaret regretted not having spent more time with the child.
It was as Margaret was signing and dating the catalogue that Damon arrived. He looked momentarily stricken to see Mr. Setter’s secretary there, but soon overcame that fleeting sign of weakness and introduced himself with a big, deceitful smile.
“Hello,” he said, shaking her hand. “You must be Skyler. I believe I’ve seen you in Mr. Setter’s office. You are his personal assistant, yes?”
“Secretary,” Margaret said, enemy of all euphemisms.
Skyler would have scowled at Margaret, but a tall, handsome man was showing her attention; never mind that he was old enough to be her father.
“Yes, Mr. Tess, I am Mr. Setter’s personal assistant.”
Margaret chuckled. They ignored her.
“What brings you to my house?” Damon asked.
“It is my house…” Margaret began, but Skyler was too mesmerized by Damon to hear. He was handsome for an older gentleman.
“Mrs. Tess was just reviewing the Will,” Skyler said, making herself an eternal foe to Margaret.
“Oh really?” returned Damon. He looked at his mother in mock-surprise. “So you are finally treating it with the seriousness it deserves, mother?”
Margaret wanted to slap that ridiculous fedora off his head, along with his head. “I am just making sure that everyone gets their due.”
“Now, see, that’s the most sensible thing you have said since father passed away.”
Margaret looked to the heaven’s for patience, and found none. She pushed the notepad into Skyler’s hands. “Here, secretary. See that Mr. Setter gets that today. I am done with visitors. You can see each other out.”
She turned and walked toward the stairs.
“This is a happy coincidence,” Damon was saying to Skyler. “I have business with Mr. Setter later today. Maybe you and I can go out for dinner afterwards? My treat…”

The outrage Margaret felt focused her mind into the shackles necessary to chain and bend her muse to her will. She was angry— with herself and with Damon, and even with Skyler— for she realized, too late, what Damon would do. He would not let her have her last wishes as she wanted them. He would deny his mother her last dignity.
Her last dignity stolen, Margaret painted and painted; all evening she painted. Her muse finally surrendered to her rigors and she worked with the forethought and deliberation that she had lacked her entire artistic life. Even so, she knew it was killing her muse in the process. The sacrifice of freedom was too great and her muse started to wither, even as Margaret’s skill bloomed one final time.
When Margaret finished she stepped back and looked at the painting with tears of pride and of loss, for she knew it was the best and the last painting that she would ever make. Reconciling herself with fate, Margaret then walked through the house— her house— and looked over its contents. She tapped a few keys on the grand piano; not for spite or defiance, but because it was just nice to hear the keys ring in the dead silence of the home.
This done, Margaret felt extremely sleepy. She returned upstairs and laid down on the studio’s floor. Rain came again, calming in its pattering pall. Margaret listened to it with her eyes closed. She thought she heard someone in the room.
But I am the one and only Oleander! You cannot do this to me! I am your emperor! I am your god!
Margaret sighed contentedly.
Then she passed away.
***
A year later— after the burial and the distribution of the estate and its effects— there was an art gallery exhibition in New York for the Margaret Tess collection. Damon Tess secured the showing after spreading word about his mother’s mental breakdown and the subsequent paintings of strange, deranged worlds that visited her deteriorating mind while she dwelled in “misanthropic isolation”. Since Alzheimer’s was a very popular crusade among the New York intelligentsia, it proved to be an excellent marketing strategy. Damon had the potential of making millions from the auction on the following month.
The premiere was crowded. Many high-profile New Yorkers came. There were reporters, art critics, celebrities, and even a few local politicians. But while all of the self-important adults were chattering and clattering wine glasses, a little girl was walking from one painting to the next, unnoticed by the insular crowd gathered there.
She was strange, this girl, and very quiet. Had anyone engaged her they would have found her doe-eyed and mute. She stopped in front of the painting entitled “Dementia On Trial: Losing One’s Head”. The girl’s granduncle, Damon, boasted that it was the last painting his mother had completed before she was found dead in her studio. The tale of his grisly discovery had already been revisited multiple times by her granduncle, and was likely to be revisited many times more before the auction next month. But the girl did not care about such things. She had a mind only for the painting itself.
The painting depicted a crowd of strange-looking people who were gathered around a chopping block where a tall, slender fop had just been executed with an ax. There was no joy in the faces of the crowd as they looked on the decapitated corpse; only unabated anger that would live on for generations.
The little girl’s ear tingled suddenly. It caught the notes of piano keys tiptoing daintily in the air. Enamored, she followed the sound past the self-absorbed adults and out of the gallery room. Down a hallway she went, toward the storage area of the gallery. The hallway was dark and dusty. She passed a broom closet and a single-toilet bathroom. At the end of the hall opened to a large, spacious room that was murky except for a bright candle sitting on a grand piano in the center of the floor. Coming closer, the little girl recognized the piano. She did not recognize, however, the strange man sitting on the piano stool.
His ears were pointy and his head was narrow and he was very tall, gangly, and yet graceful with his long fingers. He wore a strange suit unlike the tuxedos flocking about in the gallery. It was the color of twilight, this suit, and had a flowery bloom at the neck. On his head was a simple crown of silver saplings uncoiling toward. He was the handsomest man the little girl had ever seen. And he had wings like a dragonfly’s.
The young man stopped playing the piano and turned to the little girl. There was something in his lap. He picked it up and gave it to her.
“The settling of debts, my little princess,” he said.
The little girl looked at the thing in her hands. The room fell to darkness, then, and when she looked up again the young man and the piano were gone. She left the room and went down the hallway. Turning back, she found that the room, too, was gone. She returned to the gallery.
“Ashley! Ashley, don’t stray!”
Ashley looked at her grandmother, then down at the thing in her hands. She returned to her grandparents with a slow, confused stride. They were standing next to her grandaunt Laura, though Laura did not seem pleased by their presence.
“Eric, I told you not to bring her,” Laura whispered harshly. “She will make a scene.”
“Oh, she is just looking at mom’s paintings,” Eric said, smiling nervously. “She always liked mom’s paintings. More than anybody else.”
“That tells you a lot, doesn’t it?” Laura mumbled to herself before taking a sip of wine.
Ashley’s grandmother scowled. “Says more about Margaret’s children than it does about her great-grandchildren.”
Laura rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue.
Ashley held out the thing the prince had given her.
“What’s this, honey?” Eric asked.
The little girl handed the notepad to her grandfather. Eric smiled and read the first page. At first his eyes skimmed the long list with a polite, albeit disinterested, gaze. Then his eyes widened, scouring each line in shocked disbelief. He saw the signature and the date at the bottom of the page and gawped. A moment later he shut his mouth and ground his jaw, as if chewing stiff leather.
“Laura,” he said, as evenly as possible, “you, Damon, and I have some things to talk about.” He slapped his palm with the notepad. “Many important things.”
“Surely, it can wait,” returned Laura, sighing. “Damon’s about to give another boring toast to mother.”
“Well, I don’t think things will be boring for long. In fact, I think war is on the way.”
Laura blew smoke lazily from her cigarette. “What are you talking about?”
“Theft,” he said, slapping the notepad again. “Shameless theft.”
His jaded sister rolled her eyes in disinterest. “Don’t make a scene, Eric. Mother wouldn’t have wanted it at her first official gallery showing.”
“To the contrary,” he said, “That is exactly what mother always wanted. A memorable scene for the newspapers to write about.”
Eric walked over to his brother— standing amidst his rapt audience as he spoke of how much he had agonized over his mother’s well-being— and slapped the glass out of his hand. He then slapped the fedora off of his head. When Damon opened his mouth to voice his outrage, Eric held up the notepad for all to see. The flush of fury in Damon’s cheeks abruptly drained to a sickly pallor. He looked like a dog about to be beaten by the newspaper. And he was.
“This is Margaret Tess’s last Will and Testament,” Eric said. “And it says that my brother here is a scheming thief trying to rob her great-granddaughter out of her rightful inheritance…”
As the journalists hurriedly jotted down notes, Eric began to read his mother’s last Will and Testament aloud for all to hear. It proved quite the scene and later only added to the mystique of the paintings. Art historians argue to this day that the family infighting only increased the value of the paintings, the scandal multiplying their worth manifold among collectors. After a lengthy court battle the paintings came to belong to Margaret’s mute great-granddaughter since she was, according to the Will, the only person who appreciated Margaret’s art while Margaret was alive. Ashley retained ownership of the paintings until her death many years later. No one currently knows where the paintings reside. Only Ashley knew, and she, of course, never told a soul.

High Ambitions

20190422_232046-1-1-1

Maggie Greene walked through the school’s lobby, bold as hot molasses on cold grits. Many of the students were waiting in that old, dusty lobby, lingering outside their classroom doors until the clock struck 8:19. There were no warning bells in the Clayton Elementary school. It was an old tottering edifice that once housed nuns before they moved on to a bigger, and more lucrative, county. The clocks barely ran on time, if they ran at all.
Maggie stood, whereas the other students outside of Mrs. Clarke’s classroom sat, looking defeated by the clock and by the dread of another school day. It was Spring and many of them had grass and scuff and mud and manure on their boots. They all longed for Summer, even if it meant hard work for long hours on the farm.
“You got a shine today,” Laura remarked to Maggie.
“Summer’s comin’ up soon,” Maggie said. “And I’m gonna’ have the loveliest flowers in the whole county.”
“How’s that?” Laura asked.
“The fairies promised me I would,” Maggie said. Absently, she tucked a stray blonde hair behind her ear.
“Fairies?” Laura said. “You’re not talkin’ right.”
“I’m tellin’ you they said so,” Maggie said. “And the fairies keep their promises.”
By now several other students waiting by Mrs. Clarke’s classroom were listening intently to Maggie, and raising their own objections.
“You must of got kicked in the head by a cow,” Tommy Peterson said. “There ain’t no such thing as fairies.”
“There are, too,” Maggie said, looking with disgust at Tommy as he picked his nose. “They have wings and they fly around your head like horseflies. Only they don’t bite. They talk to you and tell you things.”
“You’re talkin’ about angels,” Brittany Blanford said, authoritatively. “Angels have wings and tell you things. They even save your life, if you’ve got a good soul. My momma says so.”
Maggie stood solidly in her belief, and no one could rock her with his or her opinion, even as more and more students gathered round to listen to her and to doubt her and question her.
“You wait and see,” she said. “I’m gonna’ have the loveliest flowers in all the county. It ain’t that hard, anyhow.  You just gotta’ get down in the dirt to grow good flowers. You got to use the right fertilizer. The flowers will do the rest of the work.”
The students were so caught up in Maggie’s talk that they failed to enter their classes at 8:20. Mrs. Clarke came out to fetch them, and to berate them.
“You children are supposed to have more sense than this,” she said, gesturing them inside as if she was corralling calves into a pen with her brawny arms. “Get on, now. We got your arithmetic to work on.”
“I won’t need to know no more,” Maggie boldly declared, the last to enter the class. “The fairies promised I am goin’ to grow the loveliest flowers in the whole county.”
Mrs. Clarke rolled her eyes. “Stop your nonsense, Miss Greene, and get on in there.”

***

At recess Maggie’s class went outside to play. There wasn’t much of a playground— only a field behind the old schoolhouse, or nunnery hall, and a few things to play with. Jump ropes. Kickballs. The grass was not maintained and grew riot to the knee. Wildflowers grew there, too, and many girls simply spent recess trying to outdo one another’s bouquets. Maggie normally tried, also, but saw no sense in it now.
“My flowers will be the loveliest in Clayton county,” she said while the other girls picked dandelions and phlox and whatever else they could find. “The fairies said so.”
The other girls scowled at her as they stooped and plucked at the stems. The sky was overcast above. Boys shouted and laughed and cried nearby, playing dodgeball or climbing trees at the border of the field.
“It ain’t so hard, really,” Maggie said, walking around with her nose held high. She looked like a prancing doe in a field of clover, too happy to notice the coyote sneers of her peers. “The earth’s got to settle just right,” she continued to say. “But you can’t be too upset about the outcome, otherwise you won’t appreciate what good all of your hard work’s done. Not every seed’s gotta’ grow up big. Sometimes it takes the smaller ones to let the bigger ones shine.”
“You talk all nonsense,” Laura said, plopping down in the grass. She was a tomboy, and so wore jeans instead of a dress like the rest of the girls. “You don’t know the first thing about growing flowers. You’re a do-nothin’ princess. You don’t like to work.”
Maggie’s smile did not falter even a moment. “But I won’t have to do nothin’ to grow my flowers,” she said. “The fairies said so. The flowers will do the growin’ for me.”
“And what kind of flowers are those?” Brittany Blanford demanded.
“Every kind of flower,” Maggie said. “Daisies and petunias and lilies and tulips and lilac. I am even going to grow orchids. The fairies promised.”
“Orchids don’t grow around here,” Brittany said. “My momma’s tried for a long time, but they never do right.”
“Your momma never had fairies promise her nothin’,” Maggie said. She was about to say more, but then she saw Billy Throne approaching. Maggie hated Billy Thorne. He was always teasing her and pulling her hair and slugging her arm and giving her kisses on her cheek. He had a fancy for her, and she had a disgust for him.
“What’s this I hear about you growin’ flowers?” he said, crossing his arms.
“Fairies said I will,” Maggie said, full of sass with her hands on her hips. “Loveliest flowers in the county.”
“You don’t know nothin’ about growin’ flowers,” he said. “You couldn’t even grow weeds.”
“Don’t matter what you say,” she said. “Fairies said I could. It’s the most natural thing to do.”
“Well,” he said with a grin, “I guess if that’s true then they’d be good for the wedding.”
“What wedding?” Maggie said, confused.
Our wedding,” he said. “You and I are gettin’ married.”
Maggie snorted. “That ain’t ever gonna’ happen. I got my flowers to grow. Nothing else matters.”
“We’ll see about that,” Billy said, grinning as he walked away.
“He ain’t ever gonna’ be my prince,” Maggie announced resolutely.

***

The schoolday passed slowly, as it always had done for the children in Clayton County Elementary. Eventually the time for studies was done, though, and the school let out. Maggie was happy and satisfied as she rode the bus home, staring out the window at the blooming fields of corn and wheat and wildflowers passing by.
“It’s a good time to start growing flowers,” she said. “The fairies said so.”
Maggie arrived home. Like the other Clayton county children, she lived on a farm. Her daddy was on his tractor, tilling a field so he could plant carrots and broccoli. He waved at her from among the drifting dust. She waved back.
Maggie met her mother in the kitchen. She was preparing that evening’s supper: cooking beans and biscuits and bacon and peas. She was stirring the beans in a pot.
“See to your chores, Maggie,” her mother said.
“They don’t matter anymore,” Maggie said. “The fairies said so.”
Her mother took instant umbrage. “Now you know better than to sass me, Margaret Greene. You are gonna’ do your chores or your daddy’s gonna’ tan your hide.”
“But the fairies said it doesn’t matter anymore!” Maggie said, wrenching her hands as if to grasp the reason that was so obvious to her and make it visible for her mother. “Nothin’ else matters except me havin’ the loveliest flowers in all of Clayton county.”
Her mother shook her head slowly, ruefully, wrath written all over her sun-stained face. It was a face that had not smiled often in its whole life, and the mind behind it had had all childish thoughts and habits burned out of it with hard work and hard luck and hard labor out in the fields.
Maggie’s father came into the kitchen just then. His hair was soaked with sweat under his hat and his blue eyes gazed from faraway, as they always did when he had been working in the heat too long and he needed some cool shade, a nice chair, and a glass of lemonade. His wife brought him the latter as he sat down at the table and fanned himself with his hat. His hair was going white prematurely with work. After he had drank enough, and sighed enough, he grinned at the two most important women in his life.
“Now what’s all this arguin’ about?” he said lightly.
“Your daughter’s refusin’ to do her chores,” his wife said, pointing the bean spoon at Maggie. “And she’s gettin’ mighty high about it!”
“Is that so?” he said. He squinted at his daughter, taking the full measure of her. “But I’d say she hasn’t gotten too high. She’s still pretty short yet.”
Maggie laughed and her mother scowled.
“Joe,” his wife warned, “you need to take this seriously. Half of her problem is that you indulge her too much. My daddy would have belted me good just for speaking out of turn.”
“I know, Patty,” he said, “but your daddy was also one mean son of a bitch.” His smile slipped sideways. “Maggie, don’t repeat that.”
“I know not to, daddy,” Maggie said obediently.
“It’s not bein’ mean to discipline your daughter,” Patty said. “Life is mean, Joe, and if we don’t let her know it she won’t be ready for it. She’s gettin’ all sorts of silly notions in her head. Fairies and flowers? Life ain’t fairies and flowers!”
“The fairies are real!” Maggie said. “And my flowers will be the loveliest in all of Clayton county!”
Her mother was apoplectic with fury; she looked ready to smash the bean pot on the floor. Maggie’s father just chuckled lightly, then sighed.
“Those sound like some mighty high ambitions,” he remarked. He motioned for her to come sit on his knee. Maggie did so happily, for she was a daddy’s girl through and through. “How’d you get such mighty high ambitions into your head?”
“Because nothin’ pretty grows around here,” she said, looking sideways at her mother. “Momma even says so. But the fairies say it’s the easiest, naturalist thing in the world to do.”
“Nothin’ was ever done easily that was worth doin’,” her mother said. “And nothin’ worth doin’ was ever done to be pretty. That’s why flower gardenin’ is a waste of time, Maggie. All that soil and toil ought to be used growin’ useful things, like squash and radishes. Things that keep you from starvin’.”
“I won’t have to worry about starvin’ no more while I’m growin’ my flowers,” Maggie said.
Mother and daughter glowered at one another for a long silent moment. The dust motes swirling around the light through the kitchen window even seemed to feel the tension in the air, for they were sluggish with caution. At length, Maggie’s father spoke, breaking the silence.
“Go on outside, darlin’,” he said. “Your momma and I need to talk.”
Maggie hopped off of his lap and headed down the hall, toward the front door.
“And do your chores!” her mother called after her. She returned to stirring the pot of beans, and stirring her anger at her husband for the proper flavor. She began berating him before Maggie opened the door. “Damn it, Joe, you’re gonna’ ruin her! They already call her princess in church. What’s next? Queen? Her imaginary friends were embarrassing enough, but now she’s goin’ on and on about fairies! It’s that damn fairytale book you got for her.”
“Hey now,” her husband said calmly. “It’s good for her to be readin’. Maybe she’ll be able to get a better job with her readin’ than either of us could have.”
“Oh yeah,” his wife said. “‘Princess of the fairies’ sounds like a great job…”

Maggie left the house. She did not do her chores. Instead, she went directly into the woods. She knew the way by heart. She had been shirking her chores on the farm for weeks and coming to the glade to see the fairies in their ring of toadstools. If she had been sleepwalking or blind she would have known the way.
The fairies greeted her with enthusiastic laughter, flitting around her gaily. Their diaphanous wings sparkled in the scant rays of the sun that punctured intermittently the dense foliage and penumbral shadows. Their bodies were the colors of all kinds of flowers: tulips, daisies, lilies, roses, bluebells. Nearby a tree stood that was different from the oaks and ashes and elms. Red berries hung from it like jewels from the gown of a princess. Only birds could eat them, but many had been plucked.
“Is it time?” Maggie asked the fairies.
The little creatures nodded eagerly, every one of them grinning with mischief. Their grins glistened and their bodies glittered. Many of them were quite small, so it took several of them to carry the wooden cup to Maggie. They were not coordinated well, and the sour red liquid sloshed and spilled here and there. Maggie took the cup carefully from them. They all hovered around her, smiling in expectation.
“So I drink this and I can have the loveliest flowers in all of Clayton county?”
They nodded wildly, glancing sidelong with amusement at one another.
Maggie lifted the cup and drank it dry.

***

Maggie’s father found her just before suppertime. He scooped her up and ran to the house, sobbing and praying to Jesus to return color to her pale cheeks. She was announced dead at the hospital. They buried her in the Clayton Catholic Church graveyard the following Sunday.
It was said that the loveliest flowers grew up from her burial plot, but they all looked like weeds to those who loved her.

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