Here are some draft sections from my forthcoming novel. The story deals with the progression of a folklorist sent out to the rural hinterlands to study faerie beliefs among the countryfolk. The main locus is a psychiatric hospital, and the protagonist is wondering whether they are a guest or a potential patient, after the trauma of losing their sister and the part they played in that loss. The scenes are not contiguous, but hopefully give a cogent sense of the story’s ambience. It is set in the summer of 1970.
My little sister; I lost her when she was just a child. One day we were together, the next she was gone, suddenly and definitively. Her physical memory has become blurred into an arbitrary, flickering collection of blue-eyed glances, soft tones, touches and laughter. But underneath the dulled remembrance rests the overwhelming loss, at least a loss that has overwhelmed me. She usually comes to me in dreams, but not always.
There was a place at the end of an overgrown garden, down a bank and through some alders to a small, dirty brook. I presume it’s still there. We used to spend endless summer days in that gloomy refuge; reading, talking, ruminating, napping. Our secret chatter should have made its mark there. But everything else rests only with me, in my memory. Her memory is gone; it has become something other than memory.
She was always seeing faeries there. When she was a little girl she’d play games with them, but when she was a bigger girl she just talked with them. I was only allowed peripheral glimpses of them amidst the leaves, and their voices were never more than the drone of the brook made fleetingly real during drifts into and out of sleep. But I believed in her belief. She’d always start with the invocation: We must not look at faerie men; we must not eat their fruits, who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry, thirsty roots. And then she would laugh and skip down to her special places within the overhanging trees where she would begin her communions.
She was twelve the last time we went there. It was damp and the brook smelled. She came back from one of her spots amidst the trees, pale and tearful. The faeries had sung her a Requiem and promised her she would be able to come back to me as a blackbird for a short while. But only for a short while, then she would have to disappear completely from the world. She cried as we made our way through the garden. There were no words, just tears. I cannot think further on what happened after this. It is not something I have learned to contemplate without despair.
It was a month or so after her death that I finally allowed myself to visit her grave in the churchyard. The thought of her lifeless, decomposing corpse only a few feet away from me became too much and I retreated to a bench by the church porch. I sobbed, and clutched the bench beneath me. Through the tear-mist I saw a female blackbird skip from the branch of a yew tree above me to within a pace of my foot, chirping vigorously. She cocked her head and looked at me with one dark eye.
“I love you,” I whispered.
She briefly preened her wing, cocked her head again and then darted away to a high branch.
“I love you,” I said again. I rested my head and closed my wet eyes, knowing that she was dead but dreaming, and would always be so.
At the Psychiatric Hospital
The lack of light in this place is starting to cause me problems. They are the same problems that have attached themselves to me since she died, exacerbated now by the gloaming austerity of the buildings here; they lock out the daylight and cast everything in a pall of grey and brown. It’s been five days since my arrival and I haven’t seen the sun once. It has rained every day. At least that’s what my memory tells me. I might be wrong, I often am. But the view from my window confirms the grimness; the high Victorian facades soaked with rain from the outside and seeping the dampness of insanity from within. I’ve made a mistake coming here, I know it. The place has deprived me of the ability to hide my own desperation and grief. I’m surrounded by lunatics and those looking after them, all engaged in stripping away the illusion of normality and replacing it with the unfettered reality of human madness. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to retreat to. I’m immersed in it and my carefully constructed coping mechanisms are being dismantled. When there is a knock at the door my head swims for an instant and my hands start trembling as usual. But as Moore enters, the sudden horror of human contact subsides back inside, and, quickly, I’m able to put on my mask of acceptable social behaviour. I can also slip into a past tense…
‘Ahoy there,’ said Moore, inviting himself in, smiling as usual, ciggy in hand. ‘Ready for action?’
‘I guess. Is she still ok for this?’
‘Yep, she’s out in the vegetable garden talking with her faeries. But she knows you’re coming.’
I picked up my notepad and book, controlling my breathing and forcing the tension out of my body.
‘What’s that?’ asked Moore, nodding at the book in my hand.
‘It’s a motif index… Aarne and Thompson. Bit of a bible for folklorists – it codes and numbers all the different motif types from traditional stories. I had to… err, nick this volume from the reference library before I came.’
‘Ha, excellent. Well come on then, let’s see how many motif numbers you can jot down for Fernanda. I think you might be busy.’
We walked past the laundry building and oil tanks, then under the grey neo-gothic elevations of the chapel, dripping rainwater from their eaves high above.
‘Yeah, you’ll find Fernanda interesting,’ said Moore, chuckling as usual. ‘She’s the only South American in the hospital… actually, she’s probably the only person who isn’t English in the hospital.’
‘So why is she here?’
‘Chile. Something kicking off there – about to elect a Marxist called Allende apparently, and her family have cleared out and come over here.’ Moore affected a conspiratorial gesture. ‘But she’s already been here for a few years at school for some reason. The father found out she’d been having some problems, extracted her from said school and used his influence to get her admitted here. He’s some sort of diplomat or suchlike.’
‘So what are her problems?’
‘Delusional psychosis according to Dr Dawkins at mission control in there,’ he gestured back at the hospital, ‘but I think you might find that label a bit wide of the mark. I get the impression that she just genuinely sees things the rest of us don’t. But you’ll have to make up your own mind on that.’
We walked past the west end of the chapel, with the vegetable gardens in front of us. Moore stopped to light up a spindly-looking joint, took a drag and handed it to me.
‘This is your first field interview isn’t it?’ he said. ‘For your research I mean.’
‘It is, yeah.’ I could feel myself blushing. ‘My folklore has all been from books and lectures till now… bit embarrassing really.’
‘Well, this is where theory can become practice. Good place to start… in at the deep end with a psychiatric patient. If you can deal with her unusual behaviour patterns, you’ll find out a lot about the faeries, I’m pretty sure of that. Anyway, there she is over there in the red top, doing some weeding, or whatever it is you do in a vegetable patch.’
A couple of tokes on the joint calmed me a bit. I gave it back to Moore and went to find out just how mad my first ever interviewee might be.
The sun came out. A cloud-breaking ray fell over the gardens, picking out colours that hadn’t seemed to have been there a moment before. Fernanda’s hooded red top pulled her out of the background, made her seem physically separated from it. I walked over to her, hiding anxiety with a smile. She was crouching to place some nuts onto a tree-stump next to the vegetable patch, but saw me, stood up and stretched out her hands as though she expected me to take them in my own.
‘You’re just in time for the ravens. They are being called now.’
Her accent was slight but distinct. She looked through me somehow. But her eyes were smiling. She’d already taken some control.
‘They only trust me, but I think they’ll trust you too.’
She walked to the end of one of the garden paths and I followed. Closing her eyes she swayed whilst another ray of sun found her face, and I was able to take in her features. When she opened her eyes, they seemed black, iris and pupil, and I couldn’t tell what she was looking at.
‘Dos cuervos,’ she announced, ‘coming to us now.’
Sure enough, from the tree-line to the north, two ravens appeared and silently flew down onto a fence at the far end of the gardens. They tarried there, conspiring and ensuring their coast was clear before gliding down together to the tree-stump, where they put their beaks to work on the nuts. They hopped about taking some more nuts before retreating back to the fence.
‘Now observe,’ she whispered. ‘They will silently call their comrades.’
We stood in silence for about a minute, Fernanda staring into the middle distance, while I shuffled around hoping this wasn’t going to go on too long. Then I saw six more ravens appear above the tree-line, making their way towards us. They flew down in ragged tandem, alighted on the fence with the other two, then, two by two, drifted down to the ground and hopped over to the nuts on the tree-stump. We were only twenty feet from them, but they carried on as if we weren’t there. When they’d finished and were moving back to the fence, Fernanda crouched down. One of the ravens broke ranks and landed closer to us. It bobbed its head a few times in our direction, then flew off, taking the others with it back into the sky.
Fernanda stood up and said ‘I know you want to know about the faeries. Las hadas… they are the nature spirits, the elementals. They are everywhere.’
‘Do you see them now?’
She laughed, then smiled. I blushed.
‘The ravens see them. All animals do. The faeries fix themselves onto the minds of the ravens and then give them instant communication with others of their kind. The faeries summoned the ravens by riding on their minds… their thoughts. Hey my friends! come get the nuts at the tree-stump.‘
I chuckled. ‘But do you see them?’
She stared at me for the first time but said nothing. Instead she took my hand and led me round the vegetable patch to some spinach leaves. She got me to crouch down next to her, and pointed at the biggest leaf in the patch.
‘Stare at this green leaf’, she said. ‘Just stare at it for some moments.’
I complied. The leaf was crumpled a little at its top making a ball-like shape, and the longer I looked at it the more I started to see patterns in the natural chaos of its shape: first a green rose flower, then a scrunched up piece of green paper, which seemed to momentarily expand and contract before forming into a small childlike face. I started, looked again, and it was gone. There was just a snail-nibbled spinach leaf.
‘You see,’ she said. ‘They are here, but you just don’t want to see them. The faeries are part of the minds of the plants… the earth, the rocks, everything.’
I turned to her, she was close. I could see she meant it. But the usual rational stream of thought pulsed through my mind, first explaining the optical illusion of the crumpled spinach leaf, then aligning itself with the reasonable view that she must be delusional and making this up from within a damaged and beguiled mind. But even as the stream of rationality assured me this must be so, I knew it wasn’t.
‘You are a modern Western person my friend,’ she said, quietly. ‘You have grown up in a world of science and material things. It’s quite simple really. You’ve disconnected from Spirit. Once you disconnect you stop seeing what’s really there. If you were a child I would be able to show you. But you have grown up and disconnected. There is Spirit everywhere, but you can no longer recognise it.’
I fiddled with the motif-index volume in my hands, coming to terms with my abrupt perception of inferiority to someone everyone else here thought insane. And, as she looked through me, I was pretty sure she knew this.
‘I need to be alone now,’ she announced, standing up and running her hands through her black hair. ‘But if you can come again tomorrow, without your books, I will teach you about the faeries. I think you might be one who can be taught.’
Without another word, she packed her trowel into her little gardening bag, smiled and started off back to the hospital. She turned at the edge of the vegetable gardens and waved.
‘Mañana,’ she called.
I watched her disappear behind the chapel. It started to rain again.
‘Mañana indeed,’ I whispered, looking first at my unopened book and notepad, and then back at that plain old spinach leaf, now quivering under the raindrops. A raven passed overhead, cawing as if laughing at me. Mañana indeed.
I was alone again. Albe, Moore and Scrope had disappeared up-country somewhere leaving me in my quarters with nothing but the sound of the ticking clock, marking out the minutes and hours; creating time to reflect on the deficiencies of my life to date. What was I doing here? I’d swapped the intolerable isolation of university for the unendurable confinement of this lunatic asylum. As the days had dripped by, I recognised the old symptoms re-emerging: dulled vision, stomach cramps, endemic procrastination, and a growing fear of going outside and interacting with people. I was even beginning to suspect the hospital orderlies had all been infected with the insanity they dealt with on a daily basis. It was usually the timbre of their voices; the merest hint of derangement that spoke of exposure to madness over a prolonged period. It was worse in the male staff. They all seemed to exhibit a disquieting emptiness in their tone, as if they were reading from a script, like bad actors. Maybe it was because they were suspicious of me. Maybe they wondered what I was doing here as well, and were acting accordingly. I went over each conversation with them since I’d been here, further instilling the the shaky paranoia that had made itself at home with me. This was not good. I had to break out from this cycle of thought before I went to meet Fernanda, otherwise I might have one of my flip-outs. Christ, they might even put me on a ward if that happened. I pulled myself up to the desk and poised my fingers over the Olympia Moore had loaned me, to put my notes in order. I knew I wasn’t going to manage to do anything, but the act of intention distracted me from incessantly thinking the worst of everything. I rolled the sheet of paper up and locked it in position. I stared at it for a few moments, then typed: My sister… I’m so sorry. Please come back… . My breathing shallowed and the usual tears welled up. I yanked out the paper, screwed it up and flung it over the room. One thing was for sure, she wasn’t coming back.
I made my way out to the vegetable gardens in the late afternoon. The sun was shining for once, but the wind took the heat out of it. In my head I went over some of the faerie motifs from the Aarne-Thompson index, agitated, and wondering if Fernanda would come up with anything beyond her neurotic imaginings about nature spirits. I stopped for a moment behind the laundry building, closed my eyes and pictured her. My hands shook a little. I steadied my breathing and walked on. She was sitting on the tree stump where she fed the ravens, eyes closed, head bowed, her hands clasped together as if in prayer. I coughed before I reached her, so as to not startle her. She waited until I was a few feet away and slowly raised her head. She kept her eyes closed for a moment, then opened them; black and watery.
‘Hola,’ she said, continuing to stare ahead.
‘Hey Fernanda. Nice day… bit windy.’
God, what did I sound like? Why did I always make personal contact so uncomfortable. She didn’t seem to notice, but when she turned to look at me the curve of her lips suggested she was reading my awkwardness perfectly.
‘It’s not a good day my friend. There is some bad news.’
I tensed up, shoulders and stomach. She observed me for a few seconds, and her words began to echo inside my head somehow. At that moment I was quite sure she was putting them there herself, negating the need to say anything else by reinforcing what she had already said by direct, wordless communication.
‘Telepatía,’ she whispered, standing up, close to me, her black eyes still pooled with tears. ‘I know you don’t believe, but it’s true anyway.’
‘I’m not quite sure what to believe Fernanda. Why is there bad news?’
‘There has been a suicide.’
‘Really? In the hospital?’
‘No, here. In the cobertizo.’
She motioned to the tool shed on the edge of the gardens. My pulse quickened.
‘A faerie has ended her life there… she did it for you.’
I stared at her, looking for something that would abbreviate her words in her face. There was nothing there.
‘Fernanda, please don’t play games with me. I can’t deal with this sort of thing right now.’
She moved closer to me and stroked back some hair that had fallen over my eyes.
‘We know you’ve been thinking about ending your life my friend. We know how sad you’ve been. She did it so you do not have to. It was a selfless act. Las Hadas have no ego. This one soaked up your sorrow and and ended her existence so you can continue. She knew your life must carry on, but there had to be a sacrifice. The sacrifice was her life.’
A head-rush dulled my vision for a moment. My hands were shaking so much I put them behind my back instinctively.
‘Fernanda, I… I… .’
‘You must come and see. It is tragic but it is beautiful. It’s wonderful. You must come and see… come.’
She reached round, took my hand from behind me and led me, unresisting to the shed.
We walked back slowly to the main building of the hospital hand in hand. We didn’t speak, but I could hear her soft voice in my head, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish: it’s ok… you’ll be ok. It was meant to be… mantener la calma. In between her words I tried desperately to rationalise what I’d just seen. But every attempt failed. What I’d seen was not rational, it was absurdly irrational, but as real as the neo-gothic walls of the hospital in front of us. I was going to have to overhaul my understanding of the nuts and bolts of this world. It had just been forced upon me. There was no choice. The only choice was acceptance.
She left me at the door with a kiss on the cheek but no words. I wondered why it was she who was going back to the ward instead of me. If I told Dr Dawkins what I’d just experienced, he’d probably commit me on the spot.
In my head I heard Fernanda’s voice again: she is dead but dreaming. Soñando.
‘My sister or the faerie?’ I said out loud. There was no response. I walked, unseeing, back to my quarters.
The cover image is S.T.A.R.D.U.S.T by Ylenia Viola. Her mesmeric artwork can be found at fairytalesneverdie