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The Fairy Wife

Dreamed 1985/1/17 by Chris Wayan

I'm in England for a year, thanks to an apartment swap. Though I'm living in a relatively modern two-story apartment complex, the village is an ancient farm hamlet. They keep to the Old Ways here: a pre-Christian ceremony's starting as I arrive. A Yeoman brings in huge carved and painted wooden gifts for everyone. Each has a pointed message about the person's character-flaws.

This Yeoman who brings in the gifts has been meeting a girl in the woods. By her delicate chin and great eyes and mobile ears, he knows her for a fairy. He courts her anyway. To his own astonishment, for he's heard how crude mortals seem to the Fair Folk, she's as intrigued as he is. His directness is as exciting to her as her delicate mystery is to him. They embrace, they kiss, and feel the current pulling them together. This is no casual dalliance. Soulmates!

He fears they'll be torn apart, and in the face of their difference, he casts the only spell he knows may snare even a fairy girl. He asks: "Will you marry me?"

"I will. Oh, I am mad. But I will!"

And so they wed, and have two children in the first year, who grow swiftly (for fairies are not mortals). Their children are midway in temperament: not quite so wild as Fairies, capable of inhibition and self-questioning, though rarely willing to... but unlike human children, they're never brutal or driven: intuitive though impulsive, airy yet rooted.

One year to the day after they wed, his fairy wife disappears. He's bereft. His friends, clumsily seeking to comfort him, say "She was a fairy, what can you expect? She was but toying with you for a season." He won't believe it. He seeks...

...and finds answers unexpected. She was forced to go home to Faerie. That is their law. She knew all along, but she loved him, and gladly paid the price of endless sorrow later, for one sweet year with him.

But HE married for life. He won't accept this as the end. He sets out to enter Faerie and free her...

And here the classic fairytale cuts off! For good reason.

It omits certain facts.

She did not leave due to a law of Faerie. That was a cover story. I helped her concoct it.

Next door in the apartment complex was a secret group of psychics. A group gone sick. They tried to enlist her, use her powers, and when she rejected them, they swore to kill her. She knew too much to be left alive.

She calls me up at lunch when her husband and kids are out; "Can you help me plan an escape?" I come over and watch her pace, unearthly and fretful in one incongruous dance... We try to plan, but it won't be easy, for they're clairvoyants and she's a psychic star, shining too strongly to easily hide. We'll need a distraction... we talk indirectly, for they're listening even now through the walls. I pace nervously myself now, on the balcony. Then to my shock I realize the wall's been removed between her balcony and the neighbors'. At the end of my pacing, as I turn, I may be visible to the group. But I get a glimpse of them too, and they're arguing fiercely. They don't even notice me--so tuned in with their inner eyes, they neglect the outer.

A spot for her to flee to pops into my mind. Years back, I found a little-used door into Faerie, in a small oasis in the Modoc lava fields of California. The area's riddled with long lava-tubes that helped shelter the Modoc warriors, when Captain Jack defied the American Army so long, in the Modoc War. One lava tube, a mile-long cave, collapsed at one spot, forming a sheltered stone hollow full of ferns, with two deep tunnels leading into the Earth. Or, if you climb amid the mossy boulders and the ferns, and find the talisman hidden long ago, and wish... a third way opens. To Faerie. My fairy wife hides in a ferny cave on the Modoc Plateau. Dream collage by Wayan; click to enlarge.

I hide the image under blankness, and keep pacing, but describe it quietly to her, mind to mind, in her native tongue. My Fairy grammar's poor, no more than pidgin, but they're unlikely to know any at all. "I'll distract them here, while you go."

She vanishes discreetly and begins a hide-and-seek game around the world, till they're mortal-tired and spread thin enough, chasing false trails, for her to vanish.

But her husband comes home. He's no simple yeoman, as the fairytale version had it. He's a Professor, rather absent-minded and innocent, living half in another world already.

He suspects nothing when one of the psychics greets him in the hall and asks him an innocent question about one of the new carvings he carries. But they're using him as an oracle, for he's paired to her like twin particles. Sposomancy--the art of divination by soulmate! They can't learn the exact spot, but they sense the part of the world. I feel them start to blink out for the high desert of California... Damn. We couldn't warn him, for he has no real shields--they'd know all. And, left innocent, why shouldn't he talk to the neighbors?

With a shove of my will (for I'm a mortal shaman, not an effortless fay) I flash across land and sea to the cave of Captain Jack, and there she is, deer-graceful up the ferny bank, seeking the talisman. I leap for it, sensing the psychics nearby, hunting. Only a moment left before they find us. I lift the rock and there's a flash of ruddy gold: the wishing-coil! I touch it, but as I do, the blow falls. All their combined power, in a death-blow. And they strike her square.

She falls, dying.

Yet I can't give up. Clutching the coppery spiral, I yell "Heal! Heal! Heal! And GROUP--leave us alone!"

And half my wish is granted. They're gone. Held away. I'm alone in the lava hollow with a dying fairy woman. Saving her is beyond even the talisman's power.

A voice speaks up--quiet, but it echoes on the bare rocks. I know that voice. The Voice of Fate. "This had to be," says Fate. "For this book is written, and it's called the Death of Libby Maynard."

But that's not the whole story.

For I loved her. You guessed that.

But not, perhaps, who I am. I WAS the mortal she married, I WAS her husband who went to save her...

And failed. With the talisman, I can have any wish--but the one I need.

Twelve dead months pass.

And then... I meet someone.


Well, sort of. The wish couldn't save her, but it brewed and bubbled in that place of power, frustrated, a wish seeking its level like a river seeks the sea... till time hiccuped, and a duplicate of her emerged full-grown: her body and character, sharing even her childhood memories... but not our time together.

I must win her all over. Yet how can I help but fall in love with her again? For we're still a perfect match.

But I've changed. I've had a year of bitter reflection on the moment of her death, relived in dreams a hundred times. Now I know what she did in that last moment: as I touched the talisman, the group found ME, not her, and they aimed their first deadly bolt at me, to kill me for fooling them, for betraying humanity, as they saw it, for a fairy, a cold trickster... They lashed out at me first, not her.

And she, not physically but in her mind, stepped between. She took the blow.

And died for me.

And this her, now, that I want to be happy with--my consolation prize--knows nothing of the sacrifice her twin gave for me. The one who loved me truly died, has gone on, leaving me here; her replacement only reminds me of her with every glance and word and touch. It's not so much that I miss her, for this girl IS her, to be with. My sorrow is simply that I couldn't save her. That she goes on being dead.

Except... there's one more version of the tale.

This one's by Tove Jansson, though she also writes under the name Tanith Lee. It caused quite a critical splash. Her version, "showing," as one critic puts it "her compulsion to twist every fairy's tale", has her making it safely home to Fairie. Now the original folktale treats fey characters as clever but living in an eternal present--in a word, flighty. While her mortal lover longs with human depth for her, ever-questing, never finding... Not in this version! She does all she can to chip away at the iron law that binds her to Fairie, but she cannot return and he cannot find her. A year later, she's still in an agony of loss. The longing for the Other World, for the Other Folk, is a blade with two keen edges.

I feel for her suffering, but I see it has a point: to counter the assumptions of the old tale-tellers. Weren't fairytales always really about gender? The Fair Folk, in appearance and behavior, are like women: delicate, intuitive, beautiful, longer-lived, more civilized than mortal men... And mortals, in the tales, are like men: large, crude, dirty, short-lived, lusty, longing, yet feeling unworthy... How mortals and fairies relate in the tales reflects how the sexes related in the Age of Chivalry.

My literary theory eases my pain and gives me distance. As long as I stick with the versions of the tale where I was just a witness, I'm fine; but the version I lived through, where Libby Maynard was MY wife, where she died... it still tortures me. Finding there are versions of our tale where she lived is not enough. I can't tolerate her death in OUR version.

In the end, I have to re-enter our tale. And try again--one last time.

I wish myself back to the fern-cave portal, at the moment I touch the Talisman. But this time, I've rehearsed.

As she takes the blow for me, I wish for an entire emergency medical team to appear. They have everything up to an artificial heart. By the time they reach her, she's been clinically dead a minute or so. Good! She undeniably died, so Fate can't complain if I bring her back. The techs work their magic and her heart resumes. They won't LET her body die--and that buys me time. Dream: snapshot of my fairy wife.

I slip into the spirit world and face an uncertain fairy and an angry Fate. "Fight it out, Libby!" I urge. She looks, well ashamed. "My... my people aren't used to Death, nor pain, nor fighting death..."

"I know that!" I snap. "It's in poor taste, it spoils the tale, but fight ANYWAY! For you DID die, and you CAN stay now, if you're strong enough."

She feels uneasy, even guilty about cheating fate. I laugh "We humans do it all the time." I push her hard and she's wavering. Though I hadn't realized how little she thinks she deserves! Hardly the stereotype of the careless, selfish fay, this girl who died for me and now worries it's wrong to grasp her heart's desire.

I feel a touch of her guilt myself: think "You're pushing too hard for a happy end. You'll ruin the tale." Yet intuition answers, "Greedy? For seeking life and love? Pushing at Fate is your birthright!"

My fairy wife hovers on the knife-edge, unsure what's right--the fated, classic heart-rending end to the tale, or my crude revision: renewing her struggle for life. And happiness.

And that's the true end.

For I woke knowing exactly who she was... and who really must decide if my life IS life... or art.


The old ballads of sorrow--how easy they are! Moving, satisfying, fitting. Fitting comfortably as an old, soft shoe. Know your place, you fairy, you... girl!

Or fight for a new one.

LISTS AND LINKS: dream beings - elves and fairies - babes and hunks - violence - fanatics - oracles - death and revenants - love - empathy, giving and sacrifice - initiative - time-travel - life-scripts - happiness - transcendent dreams - Tove Jansson

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