This story–included in my collection of stories and essays titled SEASONS PASS | Life Remains–is a free read.
He came upon her in the twilight mist. She lay on the ground at the foot of a pile of large rocks that had sheared off the escarpment above. He looked closer and saw a deep gash that ran from forehead into the thick tangle of her auburn hair. It had happened some time ago, perhaps that morning, because even with the dampness of occasional light rain, it had clotted and dried.
He knelt, feeling in his knees the cold of the ground and the damp chill of the evening coming on now the sun was down. In the waning light, he saw the bruises on her face. Her clothing was torn in places, and it was likely there were others he couldn’t see. He stood and looked around. He had traveled far, and this was strange country. Not so young but not so old, in his 40s, no family left and tired of the sameness of his own land, he had decided to follow a dream. To find a place where magic still lived. Finding a young girl hurt and laying at the foot of a mountain was not something he expected.
The man stooped again to pick her up and felt something odd on her back. He hoped it wasn’t more damage. As he got his arms under her, she opened her eyes and sat up. She coughed and looked at him, her eyes large, a focused glinting citrine showed she wasn’t confused or disoriented. “What will you do with me?”
She was wet and cold from the day’s rain, which had stopped, and from the mist thick and low to the ground. He took off his cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders. Curious about her first question but answering it. “Well, the first thing is to get a fire going so you can dry out and warm up.”
“You’re a man,” she said, part statement and part question. “Why are you helping me?”
“I spotted what looks like a cave or an overhang where we can get out of the weather.” He began to gather sticks and slabs of bark from nearby trees—foraging under the brush and farther back to find what was dry. “It’s not far,” he came over to where she still sat on the ground. “Can you walk?”
“Why are you helping me? My people don’t know any men who are kind.”
She stood and, though young, was as tall as he was. Getting a closer look at her, he realized what had felt strange about her back. He’d heard stories of magical creatures that lived here but never thought he’d see, let alone meet one
“Men take advantage of us, especially lady fairies.” She put a hand on the long slim blade sheathed at her hip. “I won’t let you hurt me.”
The gray sky grew darker, and its low clouds foretold more rain. They now stood facing each other. She cast off his cloak and shaking with the chill, asked again. “Why are you helping me?”
“You need it,” he said picking up and handing her the cloak as the rain began to fall. He turned toward the opening in the rocks, entering; he found it not deep but dry. He kicked a clear spot in the dirt at the back of the cave and dropped the load of kindling.
She was still in the rain.
He gathered more, and larger, pieces of wood from the copse of trees that began where the rocks and boulders ended. Four trips yielded enough for the night. With the fourth armload, he found her in the cave sitting with her back against a wall, her knife out and in her hand, though it rested on her lap. Using flint and steel, he struck long runners of sparks into the kindling. They caught, and he nursed them with breath and handfuls of dried grass and twigs from an old, abandoned, nest he’d found with the last load. As the fire took, gobbling the wood and wanting more, he fed in bigger pieces. It soon warmed the cave and cast light in a circle that grew until it reached the girl.
She had used a cloth from the pouch she carried at her side and rainwater to wash away the caked blood. Her face, though pale and strained, was striking. The clean lines of her face and cheekbones caught the light.
Returning his attention to the fire, he asked, “Are you a princess?” Thinking a girl beautiful as her must be. “Running away from an evil prince?”
“No,” she said with a half laugh half cry. “I’m anything but.”
He looked at her and saw a tear roll down her cheek and unlike those, he’d seen from humans, this one was dull, opaque, without shine. It dried instantly.
“How did you end up here?” he asked cocking a thumb toward the outside, where he had found her.
“I was headed to the Peak.” She looked up and saw that didn’t mean anything to him. “It’s where fairies learn to fly.” She gestured at the ceiling of the cave. He knew she meant the craggy rocks, he’d seen earlier, far above where they were at the base of the mountain.
When he had raised her from the ground, he’d noticed the two hand-sized humps high on her back. His look moved from her face to her shoulders half turned toward him. She knew by his glance what he was thinking.
“They’re late,” she said harshly and turned away. But realizing that gave him a better view of where her wings should be, she spun and faced him. Her face — even angry or maybe because of it — had the fragile beauty of fine porcelain and gleamed in the light. Her eyes flashed at him and then the flicker faded. She seemed so young, lost and lonely.
“Why did you leave your people?” He asked adding more fuel to the fire.
“I was common, nothing special.” She shifted closer to the fire wrapping his cloak tighter around her. “I’m a year past the age when girl fairies should get their wings.” Her bitter tone grew stronger. “I met a boy fairy before then; one who I thought would be my lifemate. And he thought the same of me. When my wings didn’t come, he acted differently toward me—as if I had a problem—as if I had become ugly.”
It all came out in a spurt—a stream dammed for too long then released. The man saw gray tears pooling in her eyes, dimming their bright yellow glow he’d seen earlier.
“He couldn’t accept me… as I am… and for what I was. What I had become. Wingless.”
“And so you left,” he said understanding in his own way exactly how she felt.
“There was nothing there for me. Nothing there with him. No one for me and I was so lonely.”
“And even without wings, you came here.” He handed her a cup of water poured from his canteen.
She nodded. “To fly or fall.” He looked at her bruised face. She bowed her head and whispered, “I fell.”
Not wanting to give her pity that would hurt more than her cuts and abrasions, he said. “In my life,” stretching his legs he stood with a groan and a crackling of joints. “I thought I was trapped between what had happened and what could never be.”
He studied her from across the fire, the flame’s dance of light and shadow on the stone wall behind her, as she sat with her head down. He turned his back to the fire and looked out into the night. “The road seems so much longer when we have no dreams to believe. And we have no destination… life has no purpose.” He heard the steady sound of water running down the mountain and knew it would wear away more rock. “It stayed that way until I decided one day to start walking and not stop until I found what I sought.”
Turning around he stepped back to the fire and could see she was now watching him.
“Have you found it?”
“Not yet.” He could hear the yearning in his own voice.
“Why do you go on then?”
“Because.” He smiled at her with the self-awareness that only comes from experience. “Because I deserve to find what I’m looking for.”
She stared into the fire, her eyes mirrors of the light, and the silence stretched from moments to minutes.
“Tell me about fairies… what do they enjoy? What do they love?” He asked.
At first, it didn’t seem she would answer.
“We love to ride the wind… especially after it rains when the richness of the air, the moisture, gives our wings more flexibility.”
He could see her straighten and square her shoulders. Her eyes widened to see something that was not with them.
“We fly highest and farthest then. That freedom… the feeling of our wings drinking in the wind is what fairies long for.” Her eyes locked on his. “To dance through the sky is why we exist. You can always tell when a fairy is happiest. When we fly, we cry with joy and tears trail behind us in all the colors of life.”
Seeing something in his eyes—that he knew what she meant and had felt a similar longing—she bowed her head and grew quiet again. But it was a more thoughtful, less painful, silence.
It had grown late, and he banked the fire saying, “I think it’s time for sleep; you need rest. Tomorrow is a new day.”
Her head was already nodding as he stepped around the fire, spread a blanket, and eased her onto it. Covering her, he paused to brush the curls of hair away from her brow. So young and so beautiful, he thought, just like his daughter if she had lived.
* * *
He awoke to realize dawn had passed and it was midmorning. The fire had burned down to embers, and as he sat up, he realized he was covered with his cloak. Standing, he looked over to where she had slept. She was gone.
Outside, he stood near where he had found her. The sky had cleared, and as he looked up, searching the rocks above, he saw a bright rainbow arching overhead. The largest he had ever seen, so high and extending so far he couldn’t see its end. He heard wings and laughter carried on the wind. A message for him that said she would live and find happiness.
He smiled at the magic and knew his step would be lighter as he continued his journey.