Moonlit Games

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Carrie Rogers


a fairy house for midsummer eve
Photo Credit: Iris Shreve Garrott

We zipped through the air, laughing in the midst of our games. We of the Fair Folk are all for games and challenging rules, and I am the best player. It isn’t hard for me to race my dragonfly through moonbeams or sing the names of roses. I can dance the colors of the autumn harvest and charm the ivy up a wall.

The game we played that night was an old one. We jumped from one child’s dream to another, touching each dream without waking a single soul. We would report back to the queen and tell her all the things we saw. The one who remembered the most—me—would be rewarded with the prize of the night. The last to return would be punished by being left in the mortal world.

Who was I to care for losers? I touched one mind, and then another. Their sweet imaginations tickled my skin and warmed me like no sparkling starlight ever could. One girl-child dreamed she was a princess pampered in a shining palace. A boy-child dreamed of hunting in dark forests. One after the other I jumped and skipped and twirled, exhilarated by the thoughts that surrounded me. I was determined to see into the dreams of every child.

It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t see the time. The sun rose without warning. It blinded my eyes and I fell, wheeling in the sky. Once the sun peeked over the treetops our game was at an end. I, of all my brothers and sisters, was left stranded in the human world.

Inconceivable! I, of all of us, had stayed too long. I had not been the winner granted the prize of stealing a child away. Instead, as the last of us to return, I had been forced to take its place. I could already feel my powers draining and my body changing shape. I was of the Fair Folk, but now I was stuck in this ugly mortal world of cold iron. I couldn’t fly. I couldn’t call the stars. There were so few things left to me; all I could do was cry. No, I didn’t cry. I wailed.

From my crib I wailed and screamed and cried, a changeling stranded in the human world. I woke the house with my tantrum, and I would not stop until I woke every living creature on that street.

The sound of footsteps heralded a woman coming into my new bedroom. The mother—for she was not my mother; my mother was beautiful, a queen—made shushing noises as she gathered me in her arms. In return, I bit her on the ear. Her surprised screech wasn’t satisfying. I was still trapped in this human body and nothing was going to change that.

I was doomed to live out my days as a mortal whelp unless the rest of the game was played out. Oh yes, there were still rules. If I could drive the parents mad, if they remembered the old ways, they could yet free me from my imprisonment. The ways were painful, but my pride was already wounded. I could stand a pinch more if it meant returning home.

So I cried, and I cried. I cried for days, stopping only to sleep or eat. And did I eat. The doctor they called said I looked a little pale for a human baby, right after I snapped at his prodding fingers. He said they should feed me more, and I wasn’t opposed to that. Eggs, ham, and that wonderful honey porridge, I ate everything until I was sated, which was a long time in coming. It was the only thing that made my exile tolerable.

I cried, I threw tantrums, I spat back food and snapped my teeth at anything that came near my mouth. I was the best player, and I would make them spite me. But every time I lashed out, the mother drew me close and held me as she sang soothing lullabies. Her songs lacked in imagery and resonance, but the love that poured from them told me that she could never bring herself to be rid of me. It became clear to me that the mother would endure my torment for years on end before she would throw me on the fire. I quickly lost all hope—until the day she tried feeding me with an iron spoon.

It had been bottles and wooden tools up until that morning.

“Open up for Mummy,” she said.

I would have none of it. Despite my condition, I was still of the Fair Folk. I would not let the iron touch my skin for all the honey in the world. I pushed away, I held back, but sitting in that high chair, it was only a matter of time before the spoon made contact with my skin.

I didn’t cry this time, I howled in pain so unbearable that I scratched and kicked to be away from the spoon. The mother finally relented. When my cheek did not burn so much, I looked up at the mother to give her a piece of my mind, but as I looked up I saw her looking down at me. Her eyes grew wide as she looked at my burned skin, and I saw recognition spark. She knew what I was.

The mother dropped to her knees and took my tiny hands in hers. “Please,” she begged. “Please give my son back to me.”

I smiled, knowing there were still rules to follow. Unless she threw me onto the fire and had done with it, I could speak no word that gave away my true nature. I could not freely transform and leave her care. For all purposes, I was a human child, but this was just another game, and I was the best at playing. I had found a way home.

I gave her no answer to her pleas, but the mother watched me carefully now, as I did her. There was a way for me to use her. I had only to orchestrate the actions that would lead to my release and we would both get what we wanted.

That night, I crawled from my bed and crept through the house. It was easy for me to scurry and unlatch the door for my moment of sweet freedom. But so long as the mother did not act, I would have to return to being her darling child. This did not give me much time. I could not reveal myself prematurely, but there were things I could do to help the mother along with her guessing. It was difficult to pluck my desired branch from the tree with my stubby fingers, but that morning it was worth the effort.

I waited until she was alone in the house and crawled to her while she darned socks in the parlor. It was the first time I had actively sought her out, and she watched me from her comfy sofa seat, her eyes wary. I stopped just close enough and held up the holly branch I had gone looking for in the night.

The mother looked surprised at my offering, though she did accept it. From the way she examined it, I saw that she did not understand the purpose of such a gift or recognize the knowledge I was trying to impart to her.

“When is food?” I asked. There was need to help the stupid human.

I had demanded food before, so my words were of no surprise. She told me in a flat and weary voice, “You’ve already had breakfast. You’ll have to wait awhile.”

I would show her waiting, but for now I shouted, “No lies.”

She sighed, not comprehending my meaning.

I had to make myself clear without giving it away. I shouted next, “You have to speak the truth!”

She frowned at me now, clearly not understanding the favor I was doing her. I dared not point to the holly in her hand, but could I look at it? I stared at the holly and repeated myself, and this time the mother got it. She looked from the holly and back to me.

“Is there a way to get my son back?” she whispered. “Is this the way?” She waved the branch back at me, but none of it touched me, so I could not answer her. Instead I crawled away, leaving her to figure things for herself.

And so it began.

At night I went through the kitchen and searched the garden outside. I brought the mother tools she could use against my kind. They were hints and nothing more, but she watched me and accepted my gifts when given. And she learned.

She did not move against me because she needed what I knew, and I did not bite so often in that time or cry so loud. I needed her to trust me and to watch me.

On the day I sensed the full moon coming, I threw a fit like she had never seen. Nothing stopped me, no bribes of honey or threats or being left alone. The father nearly lost himself to violence over it, but the mother worked to understand my message. She rushed into the kitchen and retrieved the branch of holly from the cupboard where she kept all the things I had given her over time. She waved the holly in my face and I grew still.

The father looked on in wonder and asked her what she’d done. The mother said nothing as she nodded at me, and in that moment I found myself nodding back. She had understood. The day had finally come.

 

It is night now, and I can feel the moon rising, calling for me to dance even when I cannot. The mother must have sensed the change as well. I hear her rise from her bed, careful not to wake the father. My eyes are open as I listen to her move through the house. She goes to the kitchen to collect the items she will need, the things I have carefully been giving her for weeks now.

For once I do not think to cry out, to scream and wake the household for the pleasure of disturbing their rest. The mother cannot be stopped tonight. Tonight she will travel to the place where my brothers and sisters dance.

If she isn’t stupid she should know how to call one of my kind to her. She will lure him with rosemary and thyme and snare him with sweet honeysuckle. The holly pressed to his skin will compel him to speak the truth, and with that she will find the way to retrieve her lost child.

She will go to the dance and show the flowers and say the words, and when the child is returned to her the game will be over. And with my powers restored I will be welcomed home. How I have longed for the golden halls and silver trees of my home, for a world filled with music and song. I wish to be rid of this cold and hateful place.

Let the woman have her now aged son, so blessed by his time spent dining at the queen’s table. I laugh a little at how she will lament, because I have played the game fair. I have followed every rule, even if she did not know them all. I have bested my brothers, even when I lost. And when next I play I will be faster and dance better than the rest and leave one of them behind to spend his time stranded in the human world. We’ll see how well he handles iron spoons.

I smile to myself in the shadows as the mother closes the front door behind her and leaves for her quest. Soon I will be the winner, and soon I will be home.

pencil

Carrie Rogers is a quality editor living in Minnesota where she is involved in the diverse literary community found there. She has previously been published in Studio One and The Drabbler. Email: carrie-rogers[at]hotmail.com