One of the strangest stories in the history of Whistlestop was the story of Mrs. Mary Edelson Brooks, a woman whose main claim to fame in the village was her ability to throw stylish dinner parties; she was also known for her ability to always wear exactly the right shoes with exactly the right purse without being too “matchy,” the fact that her hair always looked “done,” and the fact that her hybrid teas almost always took a prize at the flower show. In addition, she was on three church committees and the town beautification team. Although the difficulty of these achievements was impossible to disregard, Mary was otherwise not the most fascinating person in the village. In fact, if you had asked her husband Bob, he would have called her stable and meant it as a compliment. Her seventeen year old daughter Virginia would have called her boring and not meant it as a compliment at all. But, as the villagers noted afterwards, you don’t have to be a fascinating person to have something interesting happen to you.
The story recounted here is a strange one and it’s hard to say exactly what did happen to Mary that hot and humid summer. Accounts vary. The story that was told by the few people closest to Mary is the one that most thoroughly explains the situation. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult to believe. But strange things were wont to happen in Whistlestop in those days. Besides, the truth of a story isn’t dependent on its believability. So here is the story of Mary Edelson Brooks, a fairy story more than an exact history, I guess you could say.
Of all the things that Mary loved, her hybrid tea roses were secretly at the top of the list. In her back yard, by the picket fence, she had a long bed full of them. Each rose was labeled and stood proud and alone in its spot. A bright green lawn stretched in front of the rose bed, neat and expansive. Each rose plant was pinched back so that just a few pointed buds were left to mature into fat, fragrant blossoms. She carefully sprayed them to keep them free of insects and diseases. When Mary was in her yard with her perfect roses, it seemed that life itself was perfect. A certain busyness ruled Mary’s life but on rare occasions she would find herself lost in the fragrance or form of a rose. Her pursuit of perfection seemed possible in her rose garden.
However, there were two things that seriously thwarted Mary’s pursuit of perfection, and everyone knew it. And since it was a small town, the fact that Mary’s life was not as perfect as it seemed made her much more bearable. First, there was her neighbor Isabelle’s garden. It backed up to Mary’s rose garden like a stripper doing a lap dance for a man wearing an expensive watch. Isabelle’s garden was almost the exact opposite of Mary’s, lush, dense and sensual, dominated by the whims of nature, not the firm hand of the gardener; Mary was constantly fighting stray tendrils of sweet peas that pushed through the fence slats, or peppermint or blackberries that simply bypassed the fence and thrust themselves up through the yard right between the knees of one of the grand hybrid teas. The tawdry scent of gardenia or lilac or tuberose often overwhelmed Mary while she was trying to tend to her roses. Mary often found herself hurriedly bending down to pluck a bit of naughty lemon balm or catmint from beneath the hybrid teas. The absolute bane of Mary’s gardening existence was a giant butterfly bush that sprawled its scraggly arms across the fence and shaded out the raspberry colored Auguste Renoir in the corner. The old butterfly bush sometimes nudged off Mary’s wide brimmed garden hat with a long twiggy finger. Mary wasn’t much given to nonsense, but the shrub seemed almost sentient in its attempts to annoy her.
Mary’s other nemesis was her daughter Virginia. Virginia’s roots were constantly slipping beyond fences and into the wilds; her untamed tendrils seemed determined both to invade and escape Mary’s soft, small and comfortable world. Some sort of spraying or pruning was definitely in order, but as anyone could see, Mary had never quite determined how such a thing might be accomplished. As with the butterfly bush, every effort to restrain Virginia seemed to result in even more vigorous and spiraling disorder. Virginia’s dyed black hair, books of dark poetry, strange dissonant music and habit of crawling out her window at night to paint pictures of the moon were frightening to Mary and amusing to the villagers. As an added insult, Virginia had since childhood preferred Isabelle’s garden and now that she was a teenager often went there to paint, even in the middle of the night. Once, when asked why by her perplexed mother, she had responded that the moon was happier there.
Mary found that the easiest thing was just to concentrate on the things she could control, and she happily went on pruning and deadheading and spraying her roses, a seemingly safe and fairly boring activity. During the summer in question, she was forced to spray even more than usual due to the humidity.
One fine summer afternoon, she had just started spraying her Blue Girl when she noticed something - something quick and silvery flitting at the back of the rose. A glint of sunshine touched an opalescent sliver of brightness which flung light back at her face like rain drops on a breeze. She gently pulled a branch toward herself and stared at the back of the bush. As she bent over, she felt a whirring above her head and something brushed the back of her neck. With a little shriek, she leapt up and swatted at her collar. She felt a tendril of hair escape her careful bun. She followed the drone of wings to the back corner of the garden right next to the dense, ancient butterfly bush. It loomed huge and dark, reaching its intricate, leafy arms over the fence, a giant hairy old man; it certainly could be a breeding ground for giant insects. She stared warily at it.
Mary pulled back one of Auguste Renoir’s branches to see if she could find the intruder. Perhaps it was just a large dragonfly. The iridescent light rippled onto the leaves in front of her. At first there was nothing, and then a sort of buzzing sound and then…whack! Something hit her in the face and then buzzed away hovering about 6 to 8 inches in front of her crossing eyes. When she uncrossed them, she had to look twice.
It was a fairy. It was just a bit bigger than her hand and brown as an acorn with leafy green hair and sharp green eyes. His nearly translucent wings were catching and flinging the sunlight in all directions. He was fluttering right in front of her. Her mouth dropped open briefly, and the soap bubble that surrounded her well established world quivered. It couldn’t actually be a fairy, nevertheless it appeared to be a fairy. Mary tried to make sense of the illusion.
The apparition seemed to be glaring at her. He was wearing a loin cloth made out of what appeared to be a fresh petal from her Mr. Lincoln rose, which immediately annoyed her, illusion or not. He stared at her, continuing to hover about a foot in front of her nose, causing her to back up to see him properly. His silvery wings made a whispery sound in the warm sunshine. The smell of cut grass and roses and Isabelle’s mint and gardenia hovered thickly in the air. He gazed intently at her, looking her up and down with a sour look on his little pointed face.
Finally, he spoke, “Look. Would you quit spraying poison on these roses?” He frowned and pointed his little finger toward her nose, poking it lightly with a sharp little finger nail. “It’s drifting into the butterfly bush where we live. It’s gross.”
Mary realized that her mouth was hanging open. With an effort, she closed it. She continued to stare at the tiny creature. “I don’t believe in fairies,” she finally managed in a whisper.
The fairy sighed. He flew right up the bridge of Mary’s nose and nearly made her go cross eyed again. He pulled out an eyebrow hair.
“Ouch!” yelled Mary.
Mary covered her eye with one hand and waved the other around the fairy, who nimbly buzzed away from her, sniggering.
“Okay lady,” he said. “Do you believe in me now? Are you going to stop spraying that crap on the roses?” He narrowed his eyes, “Or not?”
She put her hands down and looked carefully at the hallucination. The dream before her had all the sharpness of reality and the strange taste of truth, although one could not rationally assent to it. She grasped for a way forward. If there were fairies…if there were fairies….well things couldn’t go on as they were…she would have to spend her days blowing soap bubbles and playing in mud puddles and …and walking barefoot. She shook her head…what nonsense was filling it…why would she be forced to do any of those things? Fairies weren’t real and why would they require her to remove her shoes? Her mind was filling with gibberish. Was she in a dream? Maybe she was dehydrated. Or a in a fever. Perhaps she was in a hospital room in her former reality, unconscious. There were no fairies in that reality…but if there were…or if she were stuck in the wrong reality…then she would have to crawl out the window in the night to see the moon…just as Virginia did…she would be forced to go down to the river and let her hair down and put her feet in…and then she wouldn’t have time for the things that she had to do…things like…like….oh…she couldn’t remember them now.
The comfortable blanket of her life was slipping from around her thin, soft shoulders. She felt naked. Her life…she had one…. Or had it always been about lying in a field looking at stars and smelling the dirt after the rain and feeling cat whiskers on her cheek? All that was left in her brain of her former life were a few odds and ends, strange memories that she didn’t even know she had, memories that felt like they must have belonged to someone else once. The sweet, sharp taste of grass blades, a wobbly rainbow of oil in a puddle, the feeling of water under a boat, the full moon across frost, the smell of a leaf fire, a puppy licking her foot. That was all she could remember. Fragments and sensations. She looked up to see the fairy grinning like a devil at her. And suddenly she was angry. It wasn’t fair. She was in the wrong world. She thought hard…what was it…where had she come from? She wanted her own world back; she didn’t like being naked in her thoughts in this other place. She took a deep breath, puffed out her cheeks and blew the thoughts of moon and river, cat whiskers and mud puddles right out of her mind and…Ah…there it was: a meeting at church; the flower show; a dinner party on Friday; her carefully mismatched china and the antique silver service. The ground that had been rocking and swelling under her like the water under a boat suddenly came to a trembling halt.
“I am not going to lose first place at the flower show due to an illusion,” she said with her voice shaking. “Nor am I going to miss my meeting. I am fine and this is not real.” She leaned down to pick up the bottle of fungicide, really meaning to put it back in her willow garden basket and then go inside and take an aspirin, although that might not have been clear to the fairy.
“Have it your way,” said the fairy with a shrug. He shot up suddenly into the bright blue of the sky. Mary followed him with her eye until he disappeared into the hot, white light at the edge of the sun. She felt a moment of relief. It had been a hallucination and she had banished it by simply acting in a sensible manner. Things started to fall back in place. Remaining thoughts of soap bubbles, free flowing hair, puppies and bare feet fell away from her, absorbed by the thick green lawn. Meetings and menus and hair appointments found room again.
And then she saw it, a tiny shape moving back out of the circle of the sun. It was small and dark and dart-like, diving toward her like a kamikaze, shooting out of the sky like a spear.
Mary automatically put up a hand to ward him off, but he slammed into her thumb, wrapped himself around it and bit her…hard. She felt the needlelike teeth pierce deep into her skin, all the way to the bone. His saliva flowed into her blood. It started at the tiny holes he had ripped in her flesh. It felt flamingly hot at first; it penetrated her blood stream like an arrow with a scorching head of fire trailing the icy tail of a comet so that first her blood boiled where it met the toxin then turned bitter cold behind it. The fire raced around her hand and up her arm. Then her arms and hands became too cold to move and the flame raced into her head. The fairy’s venom slowly searched out every part of her from the inside. When the venom hit her chest it was incapacitating. Her heart burst into a white hot flame and then congealed. She fell backwards into the Double Delight, scratching her arms and bloodying her crisp white shirt, and then she simply lay there as the poison finished winding its way through; it first burned and then froze her stomach and then her hips and legs. She had never felt herself inside but now every organ, every muscle was outlined in pain one fraction of an inch at a time. It was a revelation in anguish. The fairy venom searched out every last bit of her body, every molecule, every cell, until she felt its heat tracing the inside of her toes and then leaving her frozen and unmoving on the soft green grass with the sun above and the flowers shaking gently in the June breeze.
She was so cold that she could not even shiver. She could not move at all. She thought briefly about death but found it uninteresting and then for the first time in her life that she could remember she thought nothing. A flower petal fell gently on her face as though she did not exist. June and warmth and flowers and birds and bees dwelt in the earth around her but she was nothing…a cold hole in the universe.
Mary was found on her lawn by Reverend Digby who had come looking for her when she missed a church committee meeting for the first time in her life. She then spent four days completely insensible in the village hospital with a bizarre ailment that mystified her doctors. Anyone who has lived in a small town will understand the strange mix of sympathy, curiosity, and secret gratification involved in such a serious and alarming occurrence. While the excitement lasted, Mary’s family was knee deep in casseroles and gossip. However, just as the hearsay was reaching its pinnacle and the organist was wondering whether to cancel her trip out of town for the funeral of the year, Mary sat up and asked the nurse for tea and toast. With a sigh of relief (and truth be told, a bit of disappointment) the village collected itself and went back to business.
Mary recovered her health rapidly and for a few weeks all was quiet. She told Bob and Virginia about her experience in the garden, although she couldn’t be certain if it had really happened. She briefly seemed to be growing more lucid and healthy. Then the “incidents” began. About two weeks after her release, Mary was found in the park in a thin silk nightgown halfway up the giant oak at 6:00 AM, apparently talking to a squirrel. Bob was there along with the fire department. Everyone was trying to talk her down but to no avail. Mary refused to leave the tree until noon and was quite bellicose with both Bob and the firemen.
The next week a pair of kayakers found her with unkempt hair in only her underwear singing an aria from Ophelia’s mad scene while sitting on a log overhanging the river. By the time the Bob and the constable had arrived, she had drifted away. Ultimately, she was found in a deep sleep on her back porch swing still clad in her underwear.
Within two days of the river incident, Mary Jo Baker called Bob from the diner on the square to tell him that Mary was riding a bike around town in the hot sun in one of Virginia’s costume cloaks with all her jewelry wrapped around her neck and head and telling people that she was a Berber and she had just returned from the desert. Bob managed to talk her into going home with a promise to look into purchasing a camel; although this went against his plain and practical way of dealing with things, it seemed preferable to the continued humiliation of his wife’s very public decline.
The constable called Bob only a few days later to ask him if he knew that Mary and Homeless Tom were having “wine tastings” in the park with some bottles from Bob’s wine collection and some of Mary’s antique wine glasses. Bob did not. He was also rather surprised on pulling up to retrieve his wife and his wine to discover Mary in one of her best evening gowns, complete with opera gloves. Homeless Tom was wearing one of Bob's best silk ties.
Bob was beginning to think that he would soon be as unhinged as Mary with all the worry she was causing him. The villagers were beginning to think that Mary was more entertaining than she had ever been, dinner parties be damned. Virginia was beginning to think she had underestimated Mary on some level, somehow. And Elwin McGee, the fairy who had bitten her in the first place, was beginning to think he had gone too far. The rapid progression of symptoms disturbed him.
As the incidents increased in volume and sheer weirdness, it became apparent that Mary needed supervision. That task fell to Virginia. Surprisingly much of her time with her mother that summer was unexpectedly pleasant. Virginia had never particularly enjoyed unstructured time with her mother before.
Virginia took her mother to Isabelle’s garden and they fed the fish in the shallow koi pond and told them mermaid stories. They went to the lake together and Virginia listened to her mother sing snatches of opera, for which she had trained as a young girl, while she rowed the flat bottomed boat toward a grassy little island for picnics. They had tea parties and pretended to hunt unicorns. Virginia taught her to paint. They threw rocks at trains. They stayed out all night and watched the stars or made poems for the moon. Mary was sometimes convinced that a colony of feral cats behind an abandoned house worshipped her as their goddess; when this feeling overtook her she brought them cat food and while they ate she made grand pronouncements with one of Virginia’s old princess crowns on her head. They picked flowers, danced in the rain, and made old fashioned lemonade.
But things did not remain this pleasant. As Mary’s mind tilted wildly out of orbit, she seemed to be more and more likely to slide out of control and through some dark door in the universe. Virginia tried to explain the situation to Bob but to no avail. If Mary wasn’t in trouble, he wasn’t interested. It was the only way he could stay sane.
Virginia didn’t have this luxury. Mary seemed to be moving further and further away from her memories and toward some dark mystery that only she could see. Once, on one of their wild moonlit nights, Virginia had to pull Mary from the river.
“I’m going with the river,” Mary said. “I want to feel it licking at my skin.” She lay on the water as though she were going to bed and began to sink. Virginia saw her, white in the moonlight, smiling as the water tugged at her clothes and hair, soothingly sucking her into its liquid darkness.
“You’ll drown,” said Virginia. But Mary didn’t hear or didn’t care. Virginia waded into the water and dragged her mother back to shore.
Another time, Mary found the sharp edge of a broken bottle glinting in the grass and before Virginia could take if from her, she had cut her finger. She was staring at it, watching the blood fall in droplets to the ground.
“It bit me,” said Mary simply. She seemed enchanted by the blood droplets that fell from her hand and she swirled them onto her other hand and made patterns on her shirt.
Virginia had no reply. She buried the shard in the dirt and took her mother home to clean her up.
Even in the grip of her newfound affection for her mother, Virginia found it to be a difficult summer. Eventually, roVirginia could no longer take her out in the boat as she was drawn like a magnet to depths of the lake and she had tried to climb out of the boat to be swallowed by the deep, dark belly of water. Once, Virginia narrowly managed to pull her mother from the edge of a cliff on a hike. Mary became more enamored with the motion and rush of the trains, and Virginia had to pull her back from the mighty rush of the wheels more than once.
Virginia was at a loss, Bob couldn’t afford to think about it, the villagers began to shake their heads and say quietly, with a shake of the head that things couldn’t go on like this anymore. Elwin McGee was sitting in the butterfly bush thinking and thinking. It didn't usually go this far. A romantic fling, running naked through the park, eating a little dirt or otherwise committing embarrassing acts when the wildness flowed into your blood were all symptoms certainly, but they eventually wore off. Those things happened. This was different; he had never seen someone so affected by the bite. He could only imagine how stifled a human would have to be to have no immunity at all.
Virginia had taken to tucking her mother into bed in the guest room across the hall so that she could keep an eye on her. One night as the late summer drifted toward autumn, she checked on her mother at around ten and was surprised to see that she already seemed to be in a deep slumber. But Virginia could not sleep; too accustomed to late hours and wild nights, she felt bone tired but somehow too restless to sleep. After about half an hour of hopeless tossing and turning, she looked out to see the moon rising. She threw on an old, soft jacket and headed out. She crossed the picket fence and sat in the shadows of Isabelle’s garden, letting the moonlight pour down on her face.
She was attempting to let the moon soothe her into sleepiness when she heard something on the other side of the bush. She crept close to a knothole and peered through. It was Mary; she was standing in the corner of the yard next to the August Renoire in her thin silk nightgown. It was a chilly night but she was not shivering she merely stood there calmly as though she were waiting on someone. Virginia strained closer. She was crouched under the butterfly bush on Isabelle’s side of the fence. She felt the bush shudder and she heard the fluttering of leaves. She looked up, startled. There were hundreds of tiny lights above her, glimmering and moving through the leaves.
Mary simply stood there. The lights gathered themselves into a glittering sphere and moved from the bush and hovered over Mary’s head. One light separated itself and hovered in front of Mary’s face. Virginia squinted. The light was emanating from a tiny person. A person with wings.
“Mary?” the tiny person asked.
“I am glad you bit me,” said Mary. “But I don't think I can stay here anymore."
"I expect not," said Elwin. "You had no immunity. I didn’t know.”
“Would you like to lie down?,” asked the tiny man. “I expect it would be more comfortable…as such things go.”
“Okay,” said Mary. She lay gently on the ground on her side. She arranged her gown.
“Elwin?” said Mary softly.
“Yes?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. About the roses, I mean.” A single tear slid from her eye.
“It’s okay Mary. I’m sorry too. About the bite,” he said.
She said. “I’m ready.” Mary smiled and wiped away the one tear that had been turned into a diamond by the moon.
Elwin darted up and rejoined the ball of light. It hovered and hummed a moment and then swelled. The giant light moved up in the air, like a zeppelin taking flight and then sharpened itself into a point and dove. The light swallowed Mary. Virginia heard a cry of joy and pain and then saw nothing but the humming of the light. At first, Virginia could see the outline of her mother’s body in the swarm of light. Then the light became even lighter, whiter, transparent. Mary was gone. Virginia gasped and then sat perfectly still with her back against the fence just breathing. The moon poured its cold sympathy down on her, shining, shining on the living and the dead - as it always does.
Virginia looked up. Elwin hovered in front of her.
“Hey kid,” he said.
Virginia stared at his chin. She pointed to her own chin and made a tiny wiping motion. Elwin flicked out his tongue and licked off the tiny speck of blood.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Yeah,” Virginia said. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Elwin scratched his head. “I’m not sure what I can do for you to make up for things but I can give you this,” he said. He darted forward and kissed her forehead. She felt a terrible, beautiful warmth filling her. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, and tasted the moonlight as it fell on her tongue. She heard the murmur of the trees as they talked together and she was certain she could hear the fish singing water songs from the pond. She felt the movement of the ground beneath her as the earth spun its orbit around the sun and she felt the universe expanding until it slid aimlessly into other universes and she split into more than one Virginia and then reformed herself. Elwin was smiling at her.
“You’ll be fine I think,” said Elwin. “Moonlight gets in your blood. It will protect you from the worst of it.”
She sat quietly in the garden staring at Elwin for a second and then tried her feet. The earth was still moving but she took to it like a natural born sailor takes to walking on a boat in the swelling, flowing ocean.
“Thanks then,” she said.
"No problem,” said Elwin.
Virginia went upstairs and packed her knapsack. She was gone by morning. Bob did not see her again for many years, when she resettled in the village, a famous and well traveled artist. Most of the villagers assumed that she had taken Mary away to keep Bob from putting her in an institution. A few of them suspected Bob of foul play, but he doggedly went about his business, refusing to respond to any of the rumors. Eventually, he married one of the bank tellers. She was young and pretty and she threw magnificent dinner parties.
I have a plan for February. I can sum it up in one word. Hibernation. Why not just stay in bed wrapped under blankets with an occasional foray out to the fireplace for hot cocoa and then back to bed to dream of spring?
Okay…I know. It’s that pesky work thing. Hibernating through February is an impossible dream.
So what to do with that longest of shortest months? Since I am not being allowed to live my dream, I grow an imaginary garden. It takes up a lot of my time in February. (It also causes me to spend a lot of money on seeds and roses, but we don’t have to get into that.) Fantasy gardening is the only thing that gets me through this nasty last bit of winter. It sounds a little pathetic, but actually, my imaginary garden is pretty impressive.
In my imaginary garden, the vegetable beds are clean and weed free. Oh, and you know what? In my imaginary garden I grow an entire crop of those little French Charentais melons, not the usual two. And I somehow fit in a crop of watermelons. They manage to spread themselves across the other beds and oh look, a watermelon in the asparagus…no it’s not crushing anything, this is a fantasy. Also, I grow herbs from seed. I grow everything from seed, even the strawberries and tomatoes…all heirloom varieties, all perfect.
Someone has mulched the blueberries and added another row! There’s my cherry tree. There’s plenty for me and the birds. And there is a fence around the whole thing so that the deer can no longer trample the tomatoes on their way to the beans. Ha! No more eating my plum trees to the ground you pesky deer! In my imaginary garden, the dog can now keep the deer out but still somehow never decides to sleep on the squash.
In my imaginary garden, the pavers that I wish I had in the lower garden by the deck are already there. Oh look, there’s an urn with some weeping rosemary right in the center…wait no…what about a little fountain? Between the pavers, I finally got forget-me-nots to seed themselves. There’s no grass or English ivy trying to muscle in. The Shasta daisies have not eaten the calla lilies and the pilgrim rose is blooming its lemon-scented head off. Someone has repaired the fence too – in my fantasy it wasn’t me – and
this year my moonflowers and my hyacinth beans both came up and they’re wrapping themselves around the yellow roses. Those purple flowers of the hyacinth bean are perfect against the lemon yellow during the day and at night the roses and moonflowers look almost phosphorescent in the moonlight.
The gardenia by the crepe myrtle in front garden by the bird bath has magically resurrected itself; it smells wonderfully tacky and sweet in the warm breezy air and those rocking chairs I’ve always wanted are on the porch, painted and stuffed with pillows. The hydrangeas are blooming in spite of their winter beating and my Shropshire Lad English rose has finally decided to put on leaves and climb the porch.
The chickens have politely quit digging up the roses and the catmint by the pergola and it is covered in roses. Also there are no weeds in the pebbles underneath. The peach trees are covered in fruit, the butterfly bushes hold out twiggy arms full of blooms and butterflies. The sweetheart rose on the arbor has decided to bloom this year and the four-o-clocks that I planted from seed have finally hit their stride. They push against the massive lantana, the biggest I’ve ever grown.
I have managed to plow a large bed in the back meadow just for sunflowers and they spend their days gracefully turning toward the sun…and look! Just next to the sunflower garden. There it is. My greenhouse. It’s iron and glass, simple but elegant. It’s full of annuals that I started from seed and exotic plants that I wanted to winter over; it’s large enough to have a little space in front for a table and chairs. I think there should be a pebble path leading to it from the pergola and it should be lined with herbs. Why not? This is a fantasy.
You should come visit my imaginary garden. It’s February. And I would love to visit yours or your imaginary house by the beach or share with you whatever gets you through this pointless, pointless month.