The face of the fairy statue that sits in the middle of my overgrown garden is covered with moss. Her exquisite features appear altered.
The fairy used to be joyful, her stone eyes etched full of delight, tilted up at the corners. They reflected the smile of her pretty, carved mouth. Now her eyes are downcast, that mouth pulled into a frown.
She’s been laid to waste by the ravages of time, incessant dampness, and years of neglect.
I grip the hand brush and scrub a circular patch on her cheek. The moss underneath the bristles doesn’t budge, so I scrape it with my finger. The result is a ridge of moist debris wedged under my nail.
I’ve ignored the garden for so long even the centerpiece I’d always loved is mourning, her thick layer of moss akin to a shroud.
The last time I touched this earth was before Leon died. Before my life turned an about-face in the middle of the road and I gunned down the median, helpless to escape the problems accumulating like one too many drops in an over-full rain barrel.
My brush hits the water in the bucket with a plop. I settle my hands on my hips and glance around the garden. Brambles have overtaken the rose bushes, and weeds litter the flower beds, choking out any late summer growth.
I heave a sigh. The job is monstrous, and I question my ability to make any real headway with it. What used to soothe me and bring me joy feels impossible, an undertaking I’d be better off saving for another day, or avoiding altogether.
Grief is a wet blanket that smothers out the light.
When my cell phone jingles in my back pocket, I’m relieved for the interruption. I peel off the gardening gloves. It’s Nathan, my intelligent but underachieving son. God help me, he probably needs money.
I take a deep breath and answer. “Hey, Nate.”
“Hey, Mom. You got a sec?”
Oh, yeah. That’s his money voice. No, hi, how’re things going? How are you, really? And certainly, no Do you need anything?
No, not since his father, Leon, died of cancer six months ago, and certainly never before that.
Nathan dropped out of college after his freshman year and spent the summer flipping burgers at the local pub. He accumulated a troublesome set of friends who drained him of his meager savings and got him addicted to amphetamines.
The easygoing demeanor I’d always loved about him was replaced by a veneer of snappishness and chronic agitation. I couldn’t convince him to go to rehab or ditch his lowlife friends. The longer I tried, the harder he resisted. I quit before my efforts backfired worse than they already had.
Leon always coached me through these interactions, assuring me an enabling kind of love was no love at all, that proper boundaries were essential to maintaining our relationship with Nate going forward. He’d lay his hand on my arm and squeeze it, his grip warm.
I steady myself for what’s coming. “Sure, what’s up?” The stone bench by the fairy statue is perfectly positioned for his kind of talks. I lean against her and rest my head above her heart.
“I could really use your help…”
“How much?” I hate when he couches it like this, as if all he needs is a bit of motherly advice or a lift to the station.
“A hundred fifty dollars.”
I conceal my disgust and force a smile, so he doesn’t hear the edge in my voice. “I don’t have that kind of change lying around.”
Nate huffs. Not the answer he wanted. I hold my ground, knowing how effective silence can be.
“A hundred, then.”
A minute later, “What are you doing right now?”
“Working on the garden.”
“Are you crazy? You’re a terrible gardener.”
Shut up, Nate. “You’re one to talk. It’s important to me.”
He has no idea how important it is to me. If I’m being honest, this garden feels like a last chance at proving I can resurrect the sense of magic I’ve lost since life became so difficult. It’s been years since I’ve witnessed new buds pushing up from the soil, unfurling their delicate leaves in the light of the sun.
Without bothering to disguise his disappointment, he ends the call shortly after, and I haul myself up, intending to get clean and boil water for tea. The brambles creeping over the remains of the rose bushes mock me, but I don’t have the verve left in me to tackle them today.
Nate’s reminded me how depleted my energy reserves are. I’m as stunted as the dry, cracked earth beneath my feet.
Before I step outside the garden, a twisted piece of rusted metal catches my eye. Catty-corner to the fairy statue, tangled up amongst the overgrowth, is some sort of birdcage. I approach it, bend closer to peer through the brambles, and tug my gardening gloves back on. I extract it from its thorny prison.
The cage is not empty.
I’m startled to see it has an occupant: a tiny-winged human no taller than my hand is wide, clad in a gauzy green dress, with long, golden hair curling over her shoulders. Her eyes shine emerald, cut gemstones in a delicate face with an upturned nose and the angriest frown I’ve ever seen. Her miniature hands clasp the handles of a wooden swing suspended from the dome at the top.
I drop the cage. It clatters to the ground and tips over, knocking the creature off her swing. She flutters before landing on her tiny feet, clearly rattled by my clumsiness. A rusty lock bolts the cage door shut.
“Heavens, I’m sorry,” I say, bending down to right the cage and peering in at her. The bright afternoon light is blinding. I shade my eyes against it to keep them from watering. “Are you all right?”
“Such a relative question,” she says with a scowl. “Whatever possessed you to drop me like that?”
A warm tremor seizes my heart. I have the uncanny feeling she’s referring to me as much as to herself. The moment passes, and I shake off the sensation.
“Who…exactly are you?” I ask.
“I’m a fairy, obviously,” she replies, smoothing her skirts. Despite her diminutive stature, her speech is quite intelligible. “My name is Mivian Goldenvale. Who are you?” She narrows her eyes at me.
“Who are you really?”
A fine sweat breaks out on my palms. “Gertrude Timmons,” I say, hoping she doesn’t ask a third time. My gaze travels to the brambles where I extracted her from, the oversized lock on the cage. I shudder despite the warmth of the day. “This can’t be real.”
“Why ever not?”
A horrendous feeling of guilt overcomes me. My neglect of the garden has had repercussions beyond what I could have foreseen. Who knows how long Mivian has been trapped in the thorny overgrowth, a prisoner of a situation she’s had no control over, the lock on her cage rusted shut? I begin to back away from her, toward the house.
“Where are you going?” she asks, her voice laced with panic.
“I’ve been out in the sun too long,” I say, pressing my palms to my cheeks. “I need some water.” I stumble toward the door, plow my way through to the kitchen, and grip the edge of the sink.
In the darkness of the house, I feel safe. Unseen. My fingers tremble as I take a glass from the cupboard. I hold it under the tap until my hands steady, then drink my fill. My eyes adjust to the comparative lack of light inside the kitchen, and I gaze outside the window, opposite the direction of Mivian’s cage. I’ll need to go out again soon. I’ve left my tools in the garden and tonight’s forecast calls for rain.
I don’t know how I’m going to face Mivian. Her questions unnerve me, as much by what she’s asking, as how. That fairy has the power either to undo me, or to put me back together. I have no answer for her cage being stuck in the garden as long as it has been.
An hour passes like an eternity, yet I’ve come up with no excuse I can offer Mivian. I’ve flipped through the latest issue of House and Country and downed a glass of cranberry juice in hopes that the distraction will clear my mind, but I hardly feel ready to face what’s waiting outside the door.
The cage is exactly where I left it, and inside, Mivian is even angrier, her fairy legs pumping back and forth, keeping her swing in motion.
I’ve prepared a small snack for her, which I pass through the bars on the end of a popsicle stick. She gobbles the fruit down fast, berry juice dripping off her chin. After she takes a sip of water, I observe the dark shadows lining her eyes, how thin she is, and the ghastly pallor of her skin. In the shock of my initial discovery, I hadn’t noticed.
“How long have you been in that cage?” I ask, anxious as to what response she’ll make.
She begins counting on her fairy fingers. After numerous attempts, she loses track, drops her hands, and sighs. “Years,” she replies. “Too many.”
The wind whispers through the trees, and I summon the courage to pose my next question. “How did you get stuck in there?” I glance toward the garden, then back at her.
“The better question is why.”
“Okay, then.” I slide my hands in my back pockets, to hide the way they’re shaking. I don’t want her to see how frightened I am. If she loses faith in me, she might stop talking to me, and then I won’t know how to help her. “Why are you imprisoned like this?”
“Because of you,” she says, frowning.
Though the accusation is preposterous, it cuts through me, adding to the heavy burden of guilt I’m accustomed to bearing. My response comes out hollow. “But I’ve never met you before.”
She cocks her head at me, impish. “What a funny thing to say, especially considering you’re the one who stopped believing in magic.”
“Magic?” I can’t disguise the rasp my voice makes, the way my lungs won’t completely fill with air. “What magic?”
Mivian’s shoulders droop. “Flowers blooming in spring, a painting that stirs your heart, a warm hug that makes you feel loved. When did you stop believing in magics like these?”
Tears prick my eyes. I cross my arms, turn my face aside, and give a small huff. She’s right, but I hardly want to admit as much. The rigors of adulthood aren’t for the faint of heart, and I’ve borne my fair share of agony and heartache, between the years of Leon’s cancer diagnosis and chemo treatments and Nate’s floundering attempts to get a grasp on life.
In the past, I’d stop struggling long enough to poke my head above water and catch the brief scent of mountain laurel on the wind, or the sight of a bird winging toward the horizon. That brief gasp of air was all I allowed myself before I’d dive back beneath the surface and keep swimming, keep fighting. I stayed strong, for both.
The fighting didn’t work. Leon’s last weeks while he dealt with chemo were a nightmare, and Nate’s a mess.
Here I am, fifty-four and widowed, with a diseased garden and a dirty house. I’m trying to fix that by weeding the garden, one fistful of brambles at a time.
Isn’t that a kind of magic? That I survived? Yet I can’t tell Mivian this. What are my problems compared to her having been locked in a cage and forgotten for the past however many years? Her concerns are intertwined with mine, and until I start believing in magic again, she will forever be trapped inside that cage.
I pluck at a blade of grass by my feet. “Mivian…”
She glances up at me, her hands clasped together. “Are you going to free me—”
“—how do I start believing in magic again?” I’m guessing it’s the key to her release, though I hardly know what she expects me to do about it.
Her smile is faint, but there’s hope in it. “Tend to the garden,” she says. “Pour your heart into it, as if your life depends on it.”
I glance over at the brambles, the work I’ve left undone for weeks, though at least I’ve become aware it needs to be done. Tended to. Cared for. Acknowledged.
What a clever fairy.
By directing my attention to the garden, she’s angling for me to work on myself, to engage in an activity that’s meaningful to me and will rejuvenate my spirit, but she doesn’t know how I operate. I’ll never be able to do that without freeing her first.
I rise and make my way toward the shed, yank open the rusty door, and squint into the dusty half-light. Of the various gardening tools I’ve left out in the garden, one or two might work for what I have in mind, but I don’t feel like wasting any time.
I reach for my great-grandfather’s tool chest and flip open the latches. In the bottom, wrapped in an old, stained oilcloth, lies his long-handled mallet, the one he used when he worked on the railroads. The handle’s been worn smooth over time, a century of grime embedded in the grain of the wood.
No fairy lock can stand up to the heft I can get with this imposing piece of craftsmanship. I chuckle at my inspired brilliance and head outside to the yard.
Mivian slides off the swing and lands in a heap on the bottom of the cage. “G-Gertrude? What is that?” She points a tremulous finger at the mallet.
“It’s called a mallet,” I say. “It’s how I’m going to free you from that rusty old cage. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Her fairy legs start to tremble so hard she wraps her tiny hands around the bars on the cage for support. “It won’t work. You can’t use force to free me, and not with that thing.”
I heave the mallet up and glance at it, then at her. “Why not? Seems to me it ought to do the job.”
“What about the garden?” she asks. The knuckles of her miniscule hands blanch as she clenches the bars tighter.
“What about the garden?” I step closer to the cage and line up the hammer to take aim at the lock. “Magic or no magic, you deserve to be free, and I’m the only one who can do anything about that.”
I pass the mallet to my left hand as my right shoulder rotates and carve a few test arcs in the air with my arm.
“Oh, God,” she murmurs. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” Her breath is barely above a whisper. Mivian darts to the far side of the cage and presses herself against the wall. Fairy hands against her face, she squeezes her eyes shut, not daring to peek through.
The mallet hits the lock with a clang, but the lock doesn’t budge.
I strike it again and a third time after that.
“Stop!” Mivian cries. “Please, stop.”
I’m out of breath, my cheeks burning more from frustration than effort. The wretched lock is impervious to the blows of the most impressive tool I have.
The mallet drops to the ground with a thud, and I fall to my knees beside the cage. Great, iridescent tears are sliding down the fairy’s cheeks and her muffled sobs are more than I can bear.
“Please don’t cry,” I say, pressing my hand to the cage, wishing I could reach through and comfort her. “I’m sorry if I frightened you. It’s just that I’m so tired. Of everything.” My eyes burn, but I bite my lip, forcing the tears back.
The last thing Mivian needs is to witness my tears. I have to be strong for her. She’s the one trapped in the cage, not me.
“I’ll get you out of there, I promise.”
When she pulls her hands away from her face, the change is disheartening. Her cheeks are sunken in, the shadows around her eyes dark as deep pools, her flaxen hair stringy and tangled.
This is the effect I’ve created by avoiding the garden.
“What’s happened to you?” I scramble closer for a better look. I rattle the lock, to no avail. If I’ve done this to her by being stubborn and insisting on solving her predicament my own way, I’ll never forgive myself. “Mivian?”
Her eyes glisten, her lip trembles. “Why would you try to force the lock like that?”
“Because I want to free you.”
“You knew that wasn’t the way to do it. Weren’t you listening?”
I’d asked her how to believe in magic and she’d given me an answer. “But that would have been selfish,” I say. “How could I possibly enjoy working in the garden with you trapped like this?”
“You believe that I’m real, don’t you?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Then why don’t you believe what I’m telling you?”
I brush the dirt off my pants. “Will it make you better if I do?” Secretly, I’m horrified at the change in her appearance, how my action changed her for the worse.
“It’s better than trying to control the situation. The more you do that, the worse things get for me.” A phlegmy sound rises in her chest, and she erupts in a fit of coughing.
“Come on,” I say, plucking the cage up by the loop on top and carrying it over to the garden. I’ll try it her way. I can’t stand seeing what my stubbornness does to her otherwise.
I pull on my gardening gloves and flex my fingers.
Tend to the garden. Pour your heart into it…
I kneel in the dirt and start ripping up weeds by their roots.
…as if your life depends on it.
If the key to Mivian’s freedom lies anywhere in this garden, I will find it.
For the next several days, I tend to the garden and little else other than assuring myself that Mivian’s needs are being met. I keep her cage close to me as I work. I check on her regularly, delivering small, nutritious meals through the bars, and encourage her to exercise despite the limitations of her environment.
New wounds from the prickly shrubs replace the scars I already have. I treat them as best I can, while trying to ignore the stinging blisters I’m developing from the constant chafe of my gardening gloves.
The brambles don’t yield without a fight.
I work one corner of the garden before moving on to the next. By the middle of the week, half the flower beds are uncovered. In another three or four days, I can have the rest clear. I’m sleeping better at night, waking rested and ready to tackle the garden’s challenges after a cup of coffee and a thick slice of buttered toast, loaded with strawberry jam.
I carry the fairy’s cage outside with me every day and place it atop a sunny picnic table. The dark shadows under her eyes have lightened and the faintest blush colors her cheeks.
The healthier she appears, the more my guilt over her imprisonment lifts. My disillusionment with life may have contributed to placing her inside the cage, but my growing infatuation with working in the yard will reveal the means of freeing her, if I keep at it long enough.
Mivian cheers me on as I tote armful after armful of overgrowth out to the woods and dump them. She delights in sitting on her swing and whistling a cheery tune as I work the earth with my rake.
I turn over the old ground, revealing the rich, dark soil underneath. Ten days later, my rake bumps up against something hard. Something metallic, and slightly rusted.
“My God,” I say, eyeballing the size of the bit on the tip and comparing it to the length of the lock on the fairy’s cage. “It’s got to be a match.”
I drop my rake, hurry over to the picnic table, and slide the key into the lock.
As I suspected, it’s a perfect fit.
Mivian bounces over to where I’m standing, my hand on the key lodged inside the lock, ready to twist it open. Her hands are balled into excited fists and the expression on her face is akin to rapture; the little fairy is positively glowing.
In that one moment, it hits me. I’m not ready to let her go. Not yet.
How can I explain it? I very well can’t, not considering how exuberant she is, and that it’s my hand resting on the key that will unlock the door to her freedom.
I spin away, leaving the key where it is, unable to face Mivian while I confront the deep impulse surging inside me.
I believe in magic. I believe in her, and I don’t want to risk losing her, not now that I’ve finally found her again.
I’ll make excuses as to her health. She hasn’t flown in years; her flight muscles will be atrophied and will tire easily. She’ll need to build up her strength, and what better way to do that than if I cook for her, care for her, keep her close to me so I can make sure she doesn’t overdo it?
“Gertrude?” she questions me, a shrill note of worry in her voice.
“It won’t be forever,” I say, spinning around to face her. “I want you to stay with me, in my home. What do you think?”
Mivian’s tiny shoulders slump. Her face falls in the downcast expression still frozen on the fairy statue in the center of my garden. If I’ve broken her heart, it’s for her own protection. The world is a vicious cruelty, especially for a creature so seemingly frail and delicate, so innocently naive.
“I’m not meant to be kept indoors,” she says, “any more than you’re meant to be away from the garden.”
“You could get hurt. The world is a terrible place. The garden is tame by comparison.” I pick up the cage, place the key in my pocket, and head toward the house.
Mivian huffs, sinks into a seat, cross-legged, and folds her arms in front of her chest. “This is ridiculous,” she mutters. “You have the key, Gertrude! Use it and let me go!”
I wait until we’re safely inside before I replace the key in the lock, open the door, and set Mivian free. She flies down the darkened hallway so fast that I lose sight of her before I’ve hardly had a moment to catch my breath.
By the time I make my way to bed, Mivian’s settled in my room on the window seat. She’s spent the last several hours whizzing through both floors of the house, searching for an open window or a loose vent covering, any crack she could muster through to escape.
I’d feel worse about it except I know what dangers she’ll face out there. Her memory is blissfully devoid of death, heartache, and loss. She is the virginal version of me, before life dragged me down with its unfairness, the depths of its misery and unexpected, sharp pains.
I lie in bed and listen to the wind sighing through the trees. Soon, another sound blends in with the wind’s murmurings: the soft whimper of a fairy crying, mournful weeping that pierces me to the soul.
Mivian sits on the window ledge. Sparkling tears cascade down her cheeks, illuminated by the moon’s glow. Her chest heaves with sobs of sorrow, mixed with another attribute I can’t quite define, though despair comes closest.
I close my eyes and keep my breath steady, so she doesn’t guess that I’m awake. My mind races. It is not my intent to be the cause of her desperation, but how can I prepare her for what she’ll face in the world without crushing her tender spirit?
She will be destroyed by it, a beautiful, impressionable creature such as herself.
Her cries turn into tiny thumps, the sound of fairy fists pounding against the glass. I cringe inwardly, my thoughts coalescing into one poignant, merciless refrain.
She is a wild creature. She’s meant to be free.
My blankets weigh me down and I break out in a sweat. It hasn’t occurred to me up until this point that by holding Mivian back, I’m doing her more harm than good. Her health improved significantly as soon as I started working in the garden. I’m afraid to think what sort of decline she’ll face by insisting she stay here with me.
I hadn’t even considered it, honestly.
Do I trust her?
I doubted her once, and the result was disastrous to her.
With Leon, I could never do enough, not toward the end. His suffering took on a physicality in the weeks before he died, filling the room more than his actual presence. No amount of loving him could span that divide, my compassion hardly deep enough to assuage the deeper suffering he endured.
It’s the same with Nathan. I’m powerless to access the child I know lives inside him. He’s walled off that part of himself, the bloody drugs a smokescreen to the person I know he is. The person he wants to hide.
I had no control over Leon’s cancer and still less with Nathan’s addiction, but I have control over what becomes of the fairy. To rob Mivian of herself is a sin, one I cannot turn away from.
I sit bolt upright in bed.
“My dear fairy,” I say. She turns to me, tearful. “Every new seed takes root in darkness. With time and a little bit of magic, the sprout learns to grow toward the light.”
She stares at me, first as if I’ve lost my mind, then with a dawning realization.
I throw off the blankets, unlock the window, and watch as she flies off into the night.
“I’m sorry,” I call after her. “I should never have imprisoned you for as long as I did. Thank you for bringing me back to the garden.”
It’s been a week since I released Mivian. Every day my gaze drifts over to the empty cage in the living room, and I worry about the decision I made.
Is she happy? Is she safe? Does she miss me, or find it in her heart to wonder how I’m doing, how I’m getting along without her?
These are impossible questions. I set myself the task of finishing the planting before the end of the week, and I do. Seeds of lilies and asters, peonies, and hyacinths in neat rows alongside the rose bushes.
After a light rain the following morning, I step outside to the aroma of newly turned earth, wet dew on the grass, and a sweetness that takes me by surprise.
The garden is a riot of color, the light and dark pink of peonies, the deep purple of hyacinths. Mivian perches on the head of the fairy statue in the middle of the garden. She hovers on the point of one toe, her other leg poised for flight, a perfect model of the statue’s newly reanimated stance.
“Thank you,” she says, clasping her hands together in gratitude before lifting off.
She sweeps over every inch of the garden, her wings brushing every surface, her tiny feet dancing on each leaf and petal. More light-green sprouts peek up through the soil, tender buds exposed to the air, drawing breath for the first time.
Then she is gone.
I watch her disappear, then glance at the fairy statue in the middle of the garden.
She smiles, that same jubilant, beatific smile I remember her always having. Her eyes are full of happiness, her entire demeanor, transformed. Arms outstretched, she balances on one toe, prepared to fly. The moss is gone; in its place, her stone features are refined, unmistakably rendered.
She has returned to herself.
I turn to go back inside, my heart strangely warm, my footsteps light.