“They think I’m losing my marbles.” Audrey sniffed, rolling her eyes in the direction of the door.
“Really?” Pic sounded interested. Not that Pic was his real name. He’d laughed when she first asked, before rolling off a string of guttural consonants that she found impossible to recreate.
So she’d called him Pic, which he’d accepted. Short for Pixie, although even there she wasn’t sure. All she knew was he was there when she needed someone.
The first stroke had been minor. She’d been well on the way to recovery when the second stroke took out most of her left side. Months of intense physiotherapy had restored her speech somewhat, and she had regained some movement in her arm.
The bedroom was her world now. With her eightieth birthday looming large, Audrey was beginning to suspect she might never leave it again. At least, not in this life.
The window was the one thing that prevented her from complete boredom. It looked out onto the garden, and the view was framed by a couple of old oak trees that stood close to the house. Over the long weeks of recovery, she’d watched the season change from summer through autumn and now into the start of winter. The first frost had yet to rime the glass, but the oaks were naked, stripped of their finery now.
Pic had first appeared in the autumn. It had been one of those interminable days that seemed to drag on forever. She’d been taking a nap when a small brown head the size of a sprout popped up above the window and said, “Hello there.”
Convinced that she was still asleep, Audrey replied, “Hello yourself, wee man,” thinking it perfectly natural that she could talk to this creature. It was a dream, after all.
“No it isn’t,” he said, sounding amused.
“Really?” Audrey pinched herself with her good hand. “Ouch! I guess it isn’t.”
“You can call me Pic,” he said, grinning. “I’m your local tree sprite.”
“You mean, like a pixie?”
He rolled his eyes. “Why does everyone think I’m a pixie?” He sighed and shook his head. “If you wish. Save me the bother of explaining the differences between a pixie and a tree sprite, I suppose. And at least you didn’t think I was a fairy.” He shuddered.
“What’s wrong with fairies?” This was the most interesting thing to happen to Audrey for months. She wasn’t going to let the mythical status of her new companion stop her enjoying this. “I like fairies.” She paused, considering. “Well, I did when I was a girl, anyway.”
Pic snorted. “Hah! Shows how much you know! Dirty smelly things, they are. Damned unhygienic!”
Pic nodded. “Yes, really.” He jumped up, landing on the windowsill. “And before you ask, no, I don’t know Stickman.”
“Eh? Oh, the story.”
“Yes, bloody thing has kids thinking I’m some sort of family loving twig.” He hawked and spat to one side.
“Erm, why are you here? I mean, if I’m not dreaming, then is this some sort of hallucination? My mind’s had a bit of a beating, you know.”
Pic shrugged. “You mean, are you gaga?” He twirled a finger next to his ear. “No, you’re not,” he said. “And I am real.”
“So I thought you looked a bit fed up and would like a bit of company.” He shrugged. “It can get quite lonely being a tree sprite, you know.”
“Really? I thought you would have lots of friends.”
He sniffed. “Not really. Not that many trees around here. And too many bloody fairies as well.”
“Are they really that bad?”
“Yes, they are. They spend all day nicking pollen from the flowers, bugger the poor bees that need it. And what for? Just so they can brew mead and get drunk.”
Audrey’s mouth was wide open. “I had no idea,” she said.
“Most people don’t,” said Pic. “Bloody Tinkerbell has a lot to answer for.” He huffed. Prancing about for cameras, really! I mean, most of them never bother to shave their legs!” He shook his head.
Audrey shook her head at this. “That’s terrible!”
“Aye, well, if you knew fairies like I do…” Pic left the rest of the sentence unsaid.
“So, you just fancied a bit of conversation, then?” Audrey knew she was probing; she also thought she was still dreaming, and figured, who cares?
“Well…” Pic shifted, uncomfortable. “I don’t want to say more, not just yet.”
“Really?” Audrey homed in on his evasiveness. “Why not?”
“Ah, well, you know, fate and all that.” He was reluctant to say more.
Audrey let it go. She knew she would return to it later, but for now…well, she was more interested in the tiny figure.
“So, apart from the fairies, what brings you here to talk to me? I mean, I’m not exactly full of life, you know.”
Pic shrugged. “It’s not about that,” he said at last, taking his time. “It’s more about having someone to talk to.”
Interesting turn of phrase, she thought. It was odd, she mused, that she could accept his presence easily but would question his words.
He sighed. “Look, I can’t say too much, but, I can ask you a question: do you like owls?”
Audrey frowned. “I dunno. Never really thought about it.” She considered. “They’re quite cute, I suppose. What?” she asked, noticing his pained expression.
“Cute,” he spat. “They prey on defenceless little creatures, tearing them apart to consume them.” He shook his head. “Cute. Vicious little buggers, more like.”
“But they look so…so…” she couldn't find the words. “Memorable, I suppose,” she finished at last, knowing it sounded rather lame.
“Memorable?” Pic’s words dripped sarcasm. “Aye, I suppose they are, although not when the buggers are trying to eat you. I usually remember them about half three in the mornings when I wake up in a cold sweat.”
“Ah.” Audrey kept quiet.
Pic frowned, lost in memories. “Well,” he said at last, stirring, “no good worrying about such things now. What will be will be.”
“Ah, nothing.” He shuffled his feet, looking down, caught in the lie. “At least, nothing to worry about yet. All I can say is, watch out for the owl; be ready for it.”
“Watch out for the owl.” She repeats the words slowly. “Right. And for your next clue?”
He shrugged. “No clues,” he said. “I’m just here to relieve the boredom, for both of us. I don’t get to travel far, so you can pay me back by telling me about the world.”
“Pay you back for what?” Audrey raised an eyebrow.
Pic spread his hands wide and shrugged. “Why, my scintillating conversation and outstanding wit,” he said. Noticing Audrey’s expression, he added hurriedly, “or at least, my ability to keep you entertained.”
“Hmm.” Audrey was unsure. “I’m still half-convinced you’re a figment of my imagination,” she said.
“Pah!” Pic lifted his leg and broke wind. “Would your dreams do that?”
“No!” Audrey managed to keep a straight face. “Most definitely not!”
“QED then,” said Pic. “I fart, therefore I am.” He paused. “To slightly misquote old René Descartes.”
Their conversations had continued in a similar fashion over the next few weeks. Pic entertained Audrey with stories about the latest events in the Fae realm, whilst she responded with tales of her youth in the human world. It helped her to forget her current frailties, to return to a time when she was young and strong again.
As late autumn gave way to winter and the first frosts began to settle, Pic grew more sombre. The tone of their discussions changed, becoming sharper and more focussed on life and the nature of the passing seasons.
“What is it with you and birds?” Audrey asked one day after seeing how he cocked his head every time one flew overhead.
“Ah, well,” he said, fidgeting, “you know how it is when you’re this size.”
“No.” Audrey shook her head.
“Well, the buggers keep trying to eat you.” He spoke with the certainty of one who had experienced this. “They don’t like the taste, though, so they spit you back out.”
“Well, isn’t that a good thing?”
His expression was pained. “Not when they’re fifty feet in the air.” He rubbed his chin. “And it’s a nightmare trying to get bird spit out of your clothes.” He shifted position, using the movement to shift the topic of conversation back to more neutral subjects.
“Now, badgers,” he said, “they’re a different matter. They don’t dribble on you when they mistake you for food.” And so it continued, almost like a double act with Pic as the comedian and Audrey the straight guy.
Until the day the district nurse overheard part of her conversation. She’d been telling Pic about a trip she’d taken almost fifty years ago; he was smiling with her as they reminisced about a world that seemed so much simpler and more straightforward.
“Now then, Audrey, who’re you talking to?” The words made her jump. She looked round, feeling like a naughty schoolgirl caught with her hand in the sweetie jar.
“Oh, Helena, hi, I didn’t hear you come in. I was, ah, thinking about my younger days, trying to exercise my jaw.” Audrey knew she was rambling, trying to cover her embarrassment.
The nurse said nothing, just nodded. Audrey managed to shut her mouth and stop talking.
Over the next few days, she overheard snippets of conversation from outside the room, hurried sentences and hushed phrases. She shivered the first time she heard her daughter use the word dementia.
“And what do they plan to do? I mean, if they think you’re loopy, then they must have something planned.”
Audrey shook her head. “I don’t know. I guess they must have.”
Pic snorted. “Well, bugger that for a game of soldiers. Don’t let them.” His eyes slid skywards for a moment. “They’ll have to prove you’re losing it.”
Audrey didn’t answer. She followed Pic’s gaze. “What’s up there?” she asked after searching the sky.
“Come on, you can be straight with me, Pic. You’ve been looking up there more and more recently. What for?”
Pic opened his mouth to speak and then stopped. “You’re right,” he said, his usual witty style absent. “See, it can be a lonely life being a tree sprite. We live a long time, you know, usually as long as the tree we come from. I’m almost three hundred.”
“So yes, I owe you. It’s been great these last few weeks, chatting to you, made me feel young again. And I hope it’s been fun for you.”
Audrey managed a nod.
“Good.” He smiled. “But the owl will be here soon. And when it arrives, all of this will come to an end.” He shook his head. “That’s one thing you understand as a tree sprite. All things come to an end. It doesn’t make it any easier, though.”
“I’m not sure I understand you.”
Pic sat down on the windowsill and rubbed his chin. “You will,” he said. “Soon enough, you will.” He looked at the sky again. “Soon be dusk.”
“Yes.” She sighed. “What’s going to happen, Pic?”
“I think the owl will come tonight,” he said at last. “I can smell it.”
Audrey said nothing, letting the thoughts run though her mind, assembling themselves like a jigsaw. The sun kissed the horizon, then started to slip behind the trees as she said, “I think I get it. Not all of it, but enough.” She brushed her eyes, surprised to find a solitary tear there. “Their plans won’t matter, will they?”
He shook his head. “No,” he said gently. “I don’t suppose they will.”
She swallowed. “What will it be like?”
He gave her a smile. “Gentle,” he said at last. “I think it will be gentle.” He stood and stretched. “It’s almost time.” He jumped to the floor inside the room and took a few steps, leaping up next to her on the bed. Audrey’s eyes opened wider – this was a first.
He held out a hand to her; she took it in silence, marvelling at the warmth of the woody skin as she enveloped his tiny hand in hers. They shook solemnly. “Thank you, Pic,” she said.
“Audrey.” He swallowed. “It’s been a pleasure.”
There was a soft noise at the window. “Ah, it’s time,” said Pic without looking round. He squeezed her hand. “Go on, Audrey, nothing to be afraid of. I’ll be with you.”
Audrey glanced at the window. The owl sat there patiently, its saucer eyes watching her. She swallowed. “Is it…”
Pic shook his head. “No,” he said, “just think of it as going to sleep, followed by a ride with our friend there.”
“One-way trip, though, I think.” She tried a laugh and it failed her halfway through, petering off into a choked sob. “God, I’m scared, Pic.”
“Hush now.” He stroked the back of her hand. “Just close your eyes and let go, enjoy the rest.”
She swallowed and nodded. “Thanks, Pic.” She gripped his hand tighter. “And is this goodbye?”
He shrugged. “I prefer to think of it as goodnight.” He smiled. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
“Goodnight,” she whispered. Her eyes met his one last time before they slipped closed. He continued to hold her hand, stroking it as her breathing slowed.
He shivered as she exhaled a final time; there was no following inhalation. Pic sighed, and placed her hand on her chest. He turned and looked at the owl as it stretched its wings. “Right, off you go,” he muttered as it flapped them once, twice, lifting into the sky and gliding away silently.
He returned to his customary place on the windowsill and watched the owl until it dwindled into a speck before vanishing. “Goodnight,” he whispered again. He took a last look at Audrey then shook himself. One leap took him into the branches of the tree and he was soon lost from sight.