It was the smell that brought me back first. The musty tapestries and dried flowers that lined the walls, the June sun through the stained glass windows illuminating the dust that filled the air in greens and purples, but doing nothing to warm the cold stone of the church. I was brought back to Sunday morning services, attending with my Nana, and now a decade later we were here to bury her.
I carried her, with my father and the other pallbearers, out of the church and into the sunlight, laying her to rest beside her husband, albeit near on 30 years later. I had cried many times since her death a week earlier, but I still had tears to shed for that moment, lowering her into the ground with a stark finality.
The crowd started to clear and as the other attendees piled into their cars, I decided the short walk to my Nana’s house would do me good to clear my head.
I hoped a fence, and headed across the field to the footpath that would lead me to the back of Nana’s land, ripping my suit trousers in the process. Dad would be pissed if he found out I damaged the suit he’d let me borrow. Hopefully I’ll get to my sewing kit before he finds out.
Scrambling over the iron railings, I was again in a place that had been so familiar to me all those years ago. Nana had lived in this house, in this village her entire married life. It sat on 2 acres of land and to one side was the woodland that became my childhood playground. Back then I would visit Nana every weekend, as my parents went about their busy lives. She spoilt me, as the only child of an only child she said it was my birthright.
It had torn apart my ten-year-old world when we had to move away, my Dad’s work relocating us to the other side of the country, after that only seeing her at Christmas and Easter. She had been my confidant, my ally against the strict rules my parents imposed. I thought I missed her then, but the feeling now was so much worse.
My secrets were my own from that day. My first kiss, my first boyfriend, my first broken heart. The hatred I felt from my Dad when I told him I wanted to study fashion design, not physics or medicine or law, like him. My first job out of university, as an apprentice for a fashion house, and the devastation of then losing it, in the economic downturn.
She would have known what to say, which fairytale or anecdote to bring me back to reality. Walking through the woodlands I remembered how my love of fashion really started with her. The afternoons we spent sewing tiny outfits to leave for the fairies. Dresses and trousers and even miniature boots that we would place by the old tree stump, only for them to be gone the next day, replaced by an offering of glass beads, at the time me believing that it wasn’t just Nana switching them when my back was turned.
We would spent hours in the woods, amongst the 100 year old oaks as she recanted tales of Cadmium, a young fairy child of my age, and the adventures he would have with his many siblings. I didn’t feel the loneliness of being an only child when I was here with Nana and her fairies.
Sitting down on the tree stump lost in my memories, I saw a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. A small yellow and white striped birthday candle, planted in the ground, lay alight. My first thought was, of course; it’s the Summer solstice. On the longest day of the year Nana and I would help prepare for a festival the fairies held. We would make special clothes; collect berries I was told were their favorites and light candles for the celebration that would take place, after we went to bed.
But then I snapped back to the present, suddenly on edge that some unidentified person was here with me in the woods. I called out ‘hello’ and searched around the nearest trees. A neighborhood kid perhaps? Someone who Nana let share in her secret world? No-one was there.
I knelt and lowered my head to blow out the candle. As the flame extinguished it seemed to suck the air from my lungs with it. I stood as a crushing pain spread over every pore of my body as I saw the world around me stretch and expand. The trees shot up into the sky and the nearby stump receded. I gasped for breath as the woodland took on giant proportions, even the small yellow candle now reaching knee height.
Stunned I finally felt able to breathe, taking in large gasps of oxygen to still my spinning head, only to inhale smoke from the dying candle in front of me. A tap on my shoulder, I spun, now face-to-face with eyes of deep blue, I fell back taking the candle with me.
“What, by all that is good and true, do you think you’re doing!” he spoke. The lithe form of a man stood before me, tattered clothes but clean and strong, blonde hair cascading past his shoulders. And eyes, so deep the sky itself would look away and blush.
I lay there unable for form words.
“And …” he continued, “Why do you have Nana’s eyes?”
My mind fought to understand the question amidst the turmoil. Nana’s eyes? I knew I had her eyes, the green that skipped my father and went straight from her to me. A special bond we shared. But how did this man know of Nana?
“I … I …” nothing came out.
“Bastian?!” he said my name. How did he know my name? “You must be Bastian. I can’t believe after all these years. All the stories Nana would tell of her grandson Bastian and the exotic places he would visit, of schools and shopping centers filled with humans. Oh … ” he paused before continuing, “I’m so sorry Nana went away. We all miss her terribly and you must too. She really was the only human dear to me.”
Why did he keep saying ‘human’ like that? It was then that I saw, as he brushed the trailing hair behind his ears, ears that tapered to points in the corner.
“Fairy!” I exclaimed, accusingly.
“Well we prefer Fey, but Nana did always insist on Fairy.” He extended his hand to me, “I’m Cadmium, but most call me Cad.”
He hand came into mine, palm pressed to palm, a grip and then he pulled me to my feet, looking down at my now mud covered as well as torn trousers.
“What? What’s going on? What happened to the world? How did it everything get so big?” My words spilled out.
He laughed. Laughed at me! “Well, I’m sorry about that, I’m really not supposed to. And, just so you know, they world isn’t really big, you’re just really small.” He continued to laugh before looking to our hands, still joined. I pulled mine back and blushed. “And be glad I remembered your clothes, a few times when Nana came to visit I forgot, and that’s a sight you can never un-see.”
My hand felt lonely without his, calloused as it was, although unlike mine it was unlikely because of years at a sewing machine. He glanced down and I could tell by his expression that he felt the same. “Come,” he said, “My family will be so excited to meet you.”
He grabbed my hand again and pulled me through the thick reeds and uneven rubble. I stumbled and looking down saw a football. But it wasn’t, it was unmistakably an acorn.
Cad jumped elegantly between scattered rocks as I lumbered behind, struggling to keep up. We neared a ledge, perhaps twice my height; the tree stump. At the base was a hollow in the wood and it was through this that Cad crawled, looking back to ensure I followed.
Once we scrambled down between the thick, vines that draped throughout the hollow we entered a cavern. Light broke through the cracked ceiling above. There were tunnels heading off in many directions. Cad held on to me again taking me to the farthest from the entrance. It was growing dark but there was a warm glow ahead, beginning to take over my senses.
A small fire in the center of a mud lined room. I next noticed eyes peaking out at me from the hovels dark recesses. I stopped in my tracks and felt that I had been led into the lions’ den.
Cad spoke, “It’s ok. This is Bastian. Nana’s Bastian.” Silence. “Look, look at his eyes.”
A man stepped forward first. At least half a foot higher than my 5′ 10″, or at least he would be if I were still that height. He was strong, had thick muscles and hair dominating the considerable space he took up. He held my chin up, I trembled but Cad squeezed my hand, reassuringly. The mistrust on the man’s face dissolved into a smile.
“It is him, children, wife, it’s ok. Nana’s grandchild would never hurt us.”
After their father spoke, four others, three girls and one boy, emerged from the shadows. The oldest looked to be a few years older than me, and the youngest a teenager. I noticed the oldest girl’s dress. The pattern reminded me of a pair of Nana’s old curtains. We cut them up and made dresses for all the fairies of her stories, to celebrate the solstice.
An older woman was the last to approach. Her face was creased and warm. Cad presented me to her and only let go of my hand when she pulled me into the tightest hug. “Welcome to my home Bastian. Nana visited us many times and we were devastated when she went away. Please make yourself at home here. My name is Rhodium; this is my husband Cobalt and my children, Nickel, Ruthenium, Yttrium and Rhenium. And, Cadmium, of course, you’ve met. Although I’m not sure he may ever be allowed to leave his room again, after what he’s done.”
Stepping back from her embrace, I shot a worried look to Cad, before he smiled and laughed again, his mother joining in.
“Come,” Cad said, “There’s so much I want to show you.”
He led me back to the main cavern and off down a second tunnel, which became narrower and steeper as we ascended, finally emerging through a tight gap into the sunlight. The textures beneath me were so familiar, even at this unfamiliar scale. We were standing on top of the tree stump.
From here I could see through the trees to Nana’s house on the edge of the wood. In other directions were dense ferns, a small stream that ran only after heavy rain. But the sight most enchanting was the man that stood before me. In the sun his hair was aglow, his blue eyes at the same height of my green. The shorts and top he wore were roughly sewn, and revealed the thick, blonde hair that covered his legs and arms. He was beautiful and I felt inadequate, standing in my father’s ill-fitting suit, swallowing my too-skinny frame.
As I stared at him, physically unable to look away, the sounds of the birds above melting into silence, his hand came to my face. What ever was written over it I knew he could now read. As his fingers traveled up, tangling with my grown-out brown locks, he removed all space between us, tension replacing the excitement of a few moments ago.
“Bastian,” his breath carried the sound to my ear, “I waited so long to meet you. I feel I’ve known you all my life. I … ”
The universe paused for a heartbeat and then his lips were on mine, his fingers massaging my scalp. My eyes closed as I felt the heat and earthiness of his body wrapped around me. In a single instant the warmth was gone and I was thrown into blackness. I opened my eyes and felt the grain of the top of the tree stump against my face. I stood and looked down at it, barely up to my shin. Cad was gone and I was alone in the woodland, battling against the knowledge that it had all been a dream.