A world to be born under your footsteps… ~ St. - John PerseIt was mid July. One of those days where the air feels suffocating and the skin sticky. On this day the heat was worse than usual, because of the wildfire. It roared through the parched oak forest - turning what would have been bright sky black and sweet wind smothering. A hundred yards off from where the fiery woods turned to meadow, a small child glared desperately into the flames. Hot tears began to roll down his soft cheeks as he heard his sister come wading through the tall sharp grass towards him.
“Peter!,” she shouted over the cracking and popping of scorched trees. “Get away from there. Come back to the house.”
As the scrawny girl neared her brother her voice quieted, becoming more aware of his distress.
“I won’t leave them Elaine. How could we just leave them?”
“Come on Peter,” Elaine huffed - concern quickly flipping to exasperation. “They aren’t real. None of it is real. I’m sorry. It’s time to move on.”
He couldn’t look at her. In his blurry eyes, Elaine stood beside him, hands-on-non-existent-hips, as the ultimate traitor.
* * *Two years prior to the fire, Elaine had stood in the same meadow, looking down at Peter with a far different message flitting across her brown eyes. Peter had to crane his neck up at an awkward angle just to look with admiration on her smiling face, but he did it anyway with anticipation written large on his small limbs.
“Peter,” she said smiling. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
They grabbed each other's hands, and stumbled into the forest - Peter lurching along behind Elaine on shorter legs.
Skipping over sunlight dappled ground, the two reached a great white oak standing proudly over the young saplings near its roots. Elaine stopped abruptly ten feet away from the mighty trunk, and proceeded with tender steps towards its base.
“The key is, Peter, you have to think big, but grow small.” She giggled with delight at her own cleverness.
“Now close your eyes.”
He dutifully obeyed.
“Feel yourself get small.”
He felt it.
When Peter opened his eyes, the magic was palpable - it could be felt in the regal arch of the oak roots, the darting bugs glowing in warm light, and the streak of scarlet feathers overhead. He grinned up at Elaine, whose height now seemed less drastically superior. She pointed ahead.
“Look there. At that entrance. They think it’s just a flying squirrel's burrow.” She laughed. “They don’t know!”
“What is it Elaine?” Peter elbowed her, frustrated by gnawing anticipation.
“You’ll see,” she quickly countered, well aware of the power she now wielded over his head.
They crawled into the damp tunnel, and through winding passages following the natural flow of underground branches.
“Who dug these Elaine?”
“The Oak Fairies, Peter. Of course it was them. Do you see these patterns carved in the bark? No squirrel could do that!”
“Oak fairies. If you shut up we might see one. But it will be hard, you know. They have great hearing.”
Peter’s hesitation vanished.
“They won’t be scared Elaine. Don’t you think? We ain’t gonna hurt them, so they won’t be scared.”
“Maybe,” she whispered back in deliberate mystery. “But you still might want to shut up.”
He begrudgingly complied, aware that she was probably much more knowledgeable on this obscure subject than he.
As they went deeper beneath the oak, the natural light filtering in from the tunnel entrance began to grow dim. But the two children did not have cause to fear, for when the dark had overtaken them, tiny flaming sconces began to line the packed sandy loam of the tunnel walls, illuminated their way in flickering red light. Peter gazed in wonder at the dancing shadows of their crouched, moving forms as they walked.
After some time, the tunnel started to level out from its downhill pitch, and a brighter glow began to tint the air ahead. An unearthly silence persisted.
With an abrupt twist in the root strengthened walls, Peter and Elaine found themselves in what at first seemed like a cavern of fire. As their eyes adjusted, the true nature of the space was revealed. They stood at the top of an elegant staircase, made from delicately twined saplings and mushroom banisters. Thousands of torches lined the towering walls of the chamber, illuminating hundreds of tunnel entrances, complete with balconies and ladders leading to the bottom floor. On the floor, in silent stillness, stood the greatest spectacle.
“It’s them,” Peter said, confident that he would receive affirmation from Elaine.
“Shhh,” was her quick reply. “They’ve been expecting us.”
And they had been. The children hadn’t the shadow of a doubt that the fairies were waiting on their arrival, for thousands of glowing sage green eyes shown unblinkingly up at them - frozen, serene, and patient.
Peter reached for Elaine’s hand. She took it. They stepped down a stair.
Transparent skin. Tightly curled mossy hair. Nutmeg lips and freckles. Silence.
The children continued - eyes wide and fingers tightly clasped.
Armored men and women. Moss garments and acorn caps. Whittled spears. Stillness.
Elaine and Peter reached the ground.
“Do you believe it?,” Peter asked.
“If I did not believe, than I would not see.”
Without making a sound, the fairies nearest to the kids stepped back, fluidly parting the way as they walked. The children stopped when they arrived at the middle of the large, hard packed floor. They had reached the queen.
She stood a full head over the other oak fairies, with admirable posture and a long, muscled neck. Her hair was complexly twisted and knotted on top of her head in a stunningly practical manner. A thick waxy oak leaf was neatly sewn to fit her bodice - its veins complimented the ones that ran delicately under her thin, transparent skin. Crafted from the finest moss stems, her long heavy cloak draped off broad shoulders to the ground behind her feet.
She said nothing.
Peter and Elaine slowly bowed their heads.
With long, slender fingers she tenderly reached out and raised each of their lowered chins.
* * *
The time that followed blurred together in a mess of delightful discoveries and daring escapades. Peter remembered climbing a spiral staired tunnel that day and emerging from a tiny hole at the top of the giant white oak. The sun blinded their unadjusted eyes as it pierced the quivering leaves.
A magnificent male scarlet tanager had landed on the branch where Elaine, Peter, two guards, and the Queen stood within minutes of their arrival. Peter had gazed up in awe as the strikingly red and black bird ruffled its smooth feathers over him.
On this bird’s downy back, the children learned to read the treetops as a map. Each day they soared above the canopy of green, discovering more of the forest as they flitted in and out of the highest branches.
Flying squirrels were the swift mounts of trunk and crown exploration. On the backs of these soft, big eyed, and cheerful creatures, Elaine and Peter glided from one tree to the next, accompanied by the silent fairies’ warm smiles and lively eyes.
Sometimes Elaine and Peter would sneak to the forest under the bright stars and moon, quietly treading through the sleeping woods to the oak. Those were the times when the fairies were least soundless, their reed flutes gaily whistling throughout the night to the beat of dancing flames and stomping feet. Vivid images of bobbing smiles, twisting circles of small grasped hands, and dark whirling shadows on the mushroom encircled grass would live in the minds of Peter and Elaine long past their youth.
Oakland became a mystical home that some days felt more real than their house on the edge of the meadow. Elaine and Peter went to the Oak together every day that summer, and when school came in the fall, they would slip away as soon as possible once they returned home. Their adventures became more elaborate, their relationships more intimate, and their dedication more concrete.
* * *Two long summers passed before Peter noticed she had changed. Elaine had grown tired of the world. She wouldn’t admit it. But she had. He hopelessly took note of her hesitation, her drifting eyes, and her dull voice each time they entered the oaks. Her disenchantment strained his imagination, making it more difficult for him to appreciate what they had discovered together. Each passing day, the need to address her distance became more and more pressing on his mind.
The July wildfire acted as a cruelly effective impetus to that end.
“Come on Peter. They aren’t real. None of it is real. I’m sorry. It’s time to move on.”
Empty of all sentimentality and inspiration, Elaine’s words struck a calculated blow to the belief that had fueled her brother. Regret stung quietly inside her, but she bared it with fortitude. There was no going back.
She saw his small body tighten and turn from her. And he watched out of the corner of his wet eyes as she walked away.
* * *It took days before he could enter the forest. The ashes of undergrowth and charred trees still rose from the ground as he stepped, and the air was clogged with lingering smoke. His mother didn’t know he had gone, or she would have stopped him.
No birds sang from the naked branches, and no squirrels glided from tree to tree. The oaks were - silent, cold, dead - mourning. Mourning the loss of the the creatures who kept them company. Mourning the obliteration of green. Mourning Oakland.
He listened for the a wistful call of a reed flute or a flash of scarlet from the queen’s noble bird. The silence that answered him was emptier than the one that had engulfed him in the presence of the fairies. And he saw nothing but a gray sky framed by the dark, brittle outlines of lonely branches.
He wished that Elaine were there to spin some glorious tail of survival.
But he was alone.
* * *Peter sat at a large circular table next to a bustling kitchen where Elaine and his mother were prepping dinner. His little sister was coloring next to him, and he was pretending to read his favorite book. But his mind was on a different story.
If I did not believe, than I would not see.
They could have evacuated Oakland. Yes, they must of. If they had sent out a call, enough squirrels would have come. The creatures could have outrun the fire if they sensed it soon enough.
If I do not believe, than I will not see.
He began to hope. Yes. They will have returned by now. The Oak will be damaged, but their city is far enough below ground to remain safe once the smoke clears out.
Believe it to see it.
He looked down at his little sister, Ruth, who was pressing the stump of her crayon fiercely into a decimated piece of paper.
What if she knew? She could help see. Fresh eyes would change the whole forest again.
Peter smiled to himself.
“Ruthie,” he hesitated. “I want to show you something.”
She grinned at him with a gappy set of teeth.
“Are you finally going to take me to the woods?” she mischievously inquired.
“The woods? How do you know about the woods?”
“I listened,” Ruth proudly stated.
“Come on then.”
It took them four minutes to stumble off the porch, through the meadow, and into the woods.
Six more, to reach the tree.
Peter held his arm out to stop Ruth.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes,” she delightedly whispered, eyes gleaming.
“Ok.” He paused for dramatic effect.
“The key is, Ruth, you have to think big, but grow small.”