By: Melissa Cook
The days before my mother died are a blur of colors. I am not sure if this is because I was too young or because so little of it seems grounded in reality. It was not until after she died that I saw them. The Fae flying around the trees just beyond the gate that leads past my mother’s garden to our home. My mother was a believer. Of the Fae and of magic, of old prayers and folk songs. She used to point out spots in the woods, asking if I saw. I never did, as long as she was holding my hand. I was too much like my father. Too pragmatic to believe in things like magic. I was wise enough to know it was not what she wanted to hear. So I always lied. Saying I saw them and saying that I believed.
I never believed in the Fae. I relied instead on things that I could feel, see, touch. Things like my red wool hat, which was just a little too big. It was scratchy on my head, but I always wore it. Mother said the red would keep the Fae from taking me to their kingdom under the cliffs. Father said that was nonsense, and it would just keep my head warm, but he said it with love. The hat was hers, but it was my head where it stayed even when she went out after dark. I think she knew that I liked to sneak out to the sea cliffs while father was sleeping and listen in the darkness.
Mother was almost never home at night. There were too many people relying on her. They would show up at the door with all of their superstition forgotten in their desperation. Begging for her magic and healing. This was the only time they spoke to her. When they had no other choice. Somehow she always forgave them for past mistakes. I heard them in the village calling her witch, more than once. I did not know what it meant at first. They would whisper it when they saw me, and I never knew it was bad until my father appeared. He would give me a reassuring smile and lead me away and ask the townspeople about their cow that was ill the year before or occasionally their children. They would not meet his eyes, but it usually made them stop whispering. They knew they needed my mother but they just had to be reminded. Father and I always walked back from the village together, but on these occasions he was silent. I was left alone to think about the word I heard them whisper. Witch.
I knew the word “witch” meant something entirely different from the person my mother was. Magic was like a knife, and my mother only used it in her own kitchen. Witches would use magic as a weapon. My mother used it for home and safety and health. If magic existed at all it was through the small acts of my mother, not through monsters causing storms and curses and plagues. It was understood that mother would never do something like that, so the townspeople tolerated our presence—as long as we were out of sight. My mother preferred to live close to the woods and the sea, and this arrangement worked just fine.
Almost every night my mother would take her basket of things that usually sat near the fireplace. It was full of herbs she grew herself, old shells, and remnants of some faith in folklore. So I know she was not a witch; she was a healer. Whether she was magical or not, she was still separate from the rest of the world, and by extension I was too. It was my job to be alone with her. During those weeks when my father was on the sea, it was my job to protect her, to keep her from being alone. I did my best. I helped in the garden and read books with her. But even at 10, I knew she was the last of her kind. The world she saw was an ocean away from the one I believed in.
I went to the sea cliffs as soon as the doctor had appeared, his face lined with worry. Mother had despised him, his needles and clear vials, his quiet assurances and harsh truths. My mother had hated him since the day he moved into our small town. I hated him too, the way he looked at magic and called it a trick. The way he could only believe in what he proved himself. It was only when she was too weak to get out of bed or protest that my father called him. He would have done anything to save mother. The doctor had appeared like a signal of death. Saying it was far too late in too quiet a tone. I knew it was all wrong. When a healer finds death they ought to cry with the family. Not stare blankly while administering something strange to make the pain end more quickly. To make her stop fighting.
I saw the needle enter her arm, and then I left. I had to. My red hat matched the red poppies that grew by the sea cliffs. Time and time again Mother had planted them in her garden, only to watch them wilt. She only smiled sadly and said they did not belong there with the calmer crops. I reached my spot. With the wind and gulls and salt air. I used to try to bottle that smell. Trapping the smell of freedom so I could keep it with me, but it never lasted. I was old enough to know better now. The poppies were defiantly red. Drawing attention from the cold gray waves that crashed. From the wind that allowed the gulls to fly away.
Mother would have preferred poppies. In her final moments, she would have wished for these red and stubborn flowers to lead her to death—not the medicine. I was thinking that, as I looked out at the ocean. But I didn’t go back home. Couldn’t. Not while I knew she was dying. Not when I knew it was already too late.
I knew they would not work. But even still, I picked them carefully. Twenty or more, almost too much for me to carry. I left the cliffs empty and devoid of color. Then I walked home just after dark. My face stung from the cold, and my feet stumbled in the dark. Still, I held onto the flowers. I had my hat stuck firmly on my head and a strong sense of direction. I made it in good time. But she was already gone.
I set down the flowers, looking at her for a long moment. Then I looked to my father. He was stoic, staring at the fire. At the time, I thought he felt nothing. Looking back I realize he felt too much. But I did not know that then. I just knew that she was gone. And the two of us were still here. I don’t like to dwell on that night. But I know I threw my hat down next to the flowers. Next to her body. And then I ran somewhere I could cry. I wasn’t sure if he even noticed me leave the room. We were alone in grief then. It was that night, as I ran from the house, that I first saw the Fae.
Sprinting through the woods, branches grabbing onto my coat, I raced back to the ocean as if I could return to the last moment that I thought she was alive. I couldn’t. The shadows moved around me, and I was so certain there was something in the woods. Something at the end of the trail, something chasing me from behind. I was being forced forward, and my feet could not stop. Even in the darkness, they pushed me forward, and I relied on all my years of memory not to fall. Then I reached the ocean. And there was no one there. The flowers were gone, already wilting next to what had been my mother. I turned around and saw there was nothing chasing me. It was there that I cried for my mother, and only then.
I sat far back from the cliff's edge. Just close enough to see the dark line that was the ocean. The moon was not up yet, and the sky was dark except for the small stars. The landscape was so painfully empty, just a distant horizon, dark sky, and crashing ocean. The air was cold. I missed my hat that was crumpled on the floor next to her. My ears were turning pink from the sea air, but my face was flushed from running and crying. And I saw or heard—or felt—them somehow.
Fear overtook me as quickly as slipping on ice in the winter. I did not have my red hat. Mother said it would protect me from the Fae, and I had left it behind. I wiped my nose on my sleeve. Later, my father would frown at the mess I had made of my coat. He would struggle to learn how to clean it because she was not there anymore.
I closed my eyes, trying to remember what my mother had said. She had always loved the Fae. The way they danced through the air. Dragonfly-like wings, green-tinted skin. She found their mischief amusing and their magic beautiful. But she also taught me how to protect myself. Wear red. Turn a sock inside out. Iron. Salt. Rowan. These things I recited in my head even if it was useless to me now. I had none of these things, but somehow remembering her words calmed me. I would make it home. For a few moments all I could feel was my heart beating. Far too quickly, from fear and running and crying. I wondered if I would die there from the pain in every beat. I strained my ears for their song. And there was the ocean. Whispering to me. Just waves crashing on the rocks, turning them into sand. But whispering to me, even still. There was no other sound there. I opened my eyes. And I began to whisper back.
There was nothing more than saltwater. It is not good for the garden. But I whispered out into the sea anyway. Reciting the old Fae tales my mother had told me. Telling each one slowly, as if I was examining jewels before locking them up forever. As my words flowed out to the sea with the tide the Fae came to life. Dancing in the shadows above the waves. In and out of the water. Calling me.
The size of dragonflies, just like she said. They danced and sang. Lights followed them around like the smallest of stars. I could see the tricks in their eyes. I remembered other things my mother had said. Do not eat their food. Do not drink their drink. Do not give them your name. Don’t make deals. I recited the rules again. Once my job was done I needed to return home to my father. He would be worried about me, and he would not believe any excuses regarding the Fae.
I knew the Fae were wicked and would trick me in an instant. But as I watched the pixies on the water dance and the trolls hide in the cliff rocks, I couldn’t quite believe it. They were all Fae but surely not all were harmful. So I continued my mother’s stories. And when I ran out of fairy tales I moved on to my life. I told them everything I remembered about my mother. Whispering it out into the darkness.
When I finally went home my throat was sore from talking and from the cold. My father met me along the path, lantern in hand. He asked where I had been. His voice was so worried, so broken. I was afraid that my voice would sound the same, but as I tried to answer I found that I could not. My voice was not my own anymore. It belonged to the sea and to the cold night air. It belonged with the Fae. Just like my mother had always warned. The Fae had taken all of my words, leaving me nothing to say to the living. I followed my father home, but there was no fire in the grate. My mother’s body was gone. The hat was gone too, hidden from my sight. I noticed its absence through the haze of a sickness that would take me for weeks. Call it grief, or the effects of standing in the cold without a hat for hours. Only my father could understand that the red that had once shown my mother’s love now meant anger. That she had left me behind. That she would not be back. That it was all out of my control. Out of the doctor’s control. Out of my father’s control. I sat in my usual place, but the room had a chill and darkness that did not leave even once the fire was lit.
The room was wrong now. Like everything had been turned inside out. My mother’s basket of herbs and remedies sat in its usual place. In less than three days, my father would move it to the top shelf of the closet. I would not protest. We silently agreed that it was too painful to look at. And yet there was more than one night that I would quietly pull a chair over to the small closet where I could just barely reach the basket which sat on the top shelf. The contents were as much of a mystery to me as always. I did not search it to understand it, though. I just picked up each thing. Each vial of herbs and scrap of fabric and piece of shell. I would turn it slowly in my hands. Then put it back in its proper place. Exactly where she would want it. And silently I would put it back on the shelf before father noticed.
As far as I know, my father never looked at the basket again. He was home more than ever. Making stews for me to eat. Keeping the fire going. Coaxing me gently to talk. But my world was one of silence now. The house shifted underneath us, and we both struggled to find our balance.
In the first days of my illness, I noticed my father’s old coat. It had grown into disrepair at the same rate of my mother’s decline to death. I fumblingly stitched it back together, but it was a failed attempt and came undone the next day. And then I would promptly fix it again. He never asked me to. And he never complained when he saw the discolored thread boldly and unevenly lacing across the various tears. He knew I could not explain until I had my words back. I was not sure if I could explain even if they were my own again. Sometimes the threads would hold. I would pick them apart anyways. I wanted more than a temporary fix; I wanted to coat to be perfect again.
Once I was better and the sun warmed the sea cliffs, I noticed other things fell apart. That first day I left the house I noticed her garden, withering away. In the days and weeks following, I fought to keep the garden alive. I really did. Waking up early, just like my mother used to. Water it carefully. Pick out the weeds. So carefully. The plants died one by one. And it was my fault.
They missed her singing; her songs were like prayers. She used to guide the seeds out of the soil like magic. Singing about the sun and the rain and all of the things the plants could live for. I knew all of the songs by heart. But I could not sing them. And the plants withered away and died. As if they knew the one person who loved them the most had left them behind. Sometimes I would spend all day in the garden. Silently pleading with them to hold on for one more day. To become the vegetables and herbs they were intended to become. On days like those, my father would sit with me. Tell me stories about my mother. About her teaching me to plant things before I could speak. About the mud and dirt, I had tracked into the house when I was smaller and how she would only laugh. These were things I did not remember, but the words had no effect on the plants.
The seasons changed. My father’s face grew older all at once. He spoke almost constantly in an attempt to fill the silence surrounding me. Only a few weeks after she died he learned to stop asking me questions. All I could do was listen. He tried to tell me things. Stories about his life at sea before my time. About whales larger than the ship. About my mother worrying about the Sirens even though he did not believe. Stories about pirates that I am most certain he made up. Stories about treasure and storms and shipwrecks. Reliving his youth drained him, and his face grew tired and old. Still, his words filled the silence that I left alone. I could not tell him about the small robins in the nest I had found. I could not explain the way the sunrise heated up the soil in the garden and it felt like she was still there. I could not tell my father about the Fae stealing my voice, and it is not likely he would have believed me if I could. Those were things I would tell Mother, and he was not Mother. We both knew that.
On the day he moved the coat, I wanted to leave. I wanted to run. He had placed it so carefully on her chair. Where she used to sit and stitch it up. All I could see were my recently replaced uneven stitches sitting there. The coat was so hollow. It was a sorry attempt at filling a space that had been empty for months. I would have preferred to burn the chair. Pretend it had never been there at all. But I could not tell him that. I could not tell him anything. I could only watch and run to the cliffside later. Trying to scream at the Fae that lived there. Begging for my words back and choking on my own grief.
The garden died, after a battle I only prolonged. When the last tomato plant wilted, I sat next to it, in the soil. I did not cry. Simply wished that there was something in my life that did not miss her. My father found me there, well after dark. Just looking at the empty garden that used to be full of life. It was the next day that the doctor stopped by. Not for Mother. For me.
His words meant next to nothing to me. He explained patiently to my father that there was nothing wrong. I could speak perfectly fine—I just wasn’t. I shook my head no. There was something irreparably wrong. They had stolen it, and I had no way to get it back. The doctor, with all of his cold logic, could give my father no cure.
My father would not give up on me. Not until I was dancing with the Fae. We began to walk down to the village together again. Like we did before I started my school days, years before. Every third Wednesday there was a man who brought books into the town. My father always bought all that we could afford. Years before he would read them aloud by the fireplace to my mother. Always together. I had not read since then. But Father insisted on buying more books. And they filled up the empty spaces of our home. I never walked home from the village alone. In my old life, my father would walk me back and we would talk endlessly. It was the only time we really spent together before mother died. The path felt so much longer knowing she was not waiting at the end of the road. But it was a companionable silence now as we walked home. Month after month. If Mother was here she would sing on the walk home. Instead, we listened to a bird cry and to waves.
Slowly I found I wanted my words back, as autumn crept in. I wanted my words back more than anything. I wanted to be able to laugh and cry. To encourage a garden I knew I would never stop trying to revive. I wanted to talk to the ocean again. I wanted to read stories aloud to my father after dinner was cleaned up. I wanted to talk to my mother again. I wanted my hat back.
It was easy to find, hidden behind her basket of herbs. Its scratchy texture felt right in my hands, even though months had passed. I took the hat and a book we had brought home, and I ran. Holding tightly to the book and the hat like I used to hold my mother’s hand. I was going to get my voice back. Somewhere there was something more for me. I was determined to find it.
I reached the cliffs, the evening sun igniting them. I walked up the rocks in the boots my father bought to make me feel better. I made extra noise. Determined to be heard, to be alive again. My steps echoed against the cliffs and frightened a mouse hiding underneath.
The poppies were blooming again. Their petals were the same color as my hat. Defiant against the oncoming winter and the sea air. I sat down carefully back from the edge. The Fae crept up from the places they hid. I smiled as if they were old friends and placed the red hat on my head. They disappeared from view. I finally cleared my throat and began to read aloud to the Fae. They were out of sight, but they were still there.
I finished the first chapter and closed the book with a sense of finality. I carefully uprooted one poppy plant, leaving the rest where they belonged. On the long walk back I sang like Mother used to. Walking in silence was never the way it was supposed to be. I reached home just after dark. I carefully planted the poppy in her garden.
I entered home. I set the book carefully in her chair. Moved his coat to the hook next to the door. Where it was supposed to go. My stitches from the day before had held. And for once I let them stay in. I placed my hat and boots near the door. While I was gone, my father cleaned. Made dinner. The evening passed calmly. When we finally sat at the fireside, I smiled, opened my mouth, and began, “The days before mother died were a blur of colors.”
Melissa Cook is a student at Utah State University. She writes both fiction and nonfiction. She graduates this year, and plans to attend a PhD program in creative writing.