“through our desolation,
thoughts stir, inspiration stalks us
From Trilogy by H. D.
POETRY / DANIEL MOUNTAIN
ESSAY / KELLIE BROWN
In Search of Fairies
As children, we seem innately wired to love fairy tales. Our imaginative minds had not yet shut out the possibility of wonder. Then, somewhere along the way, we trade sprites, fairies, and other fantastical creatures for the mundane reality of everyday life, with its schedules, errands, and obligations. But C. S. Lewis maintained hope that we could reclaim the imaginary that had been lost. In his dedication to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis penned this promise to his goddaughter Lucy Barfield:
My Dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate godfather.
Maybe the desire to believe still lies dormant within us, and in certain settings and situations, flights of fancy call to us again. Maybe we long to renew our childlike suspension of disbelief and bask in the menagerie of the extraordinary. I like to think that the story of the Cottingley photos captures this compelling search for fairies by the young and old alike.
In 1917, following her father’s conscription, 9-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother left the British colonies in South Africa, bound for Cottingley, West Yorkshire, where their relatives lived. Upon arrival, Frances met her 16-year-old cousin Elsie Wright. Despite their age differences, the girls became playmates who often explored the enchanting nooks and crannies of the countryside. Armed with a camera, they also became co-conspirators.
The spiritualist movement was extremely popular in England during this time, with one of its greatest champions being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So, when Frances and Elsie began to take photos ‘proving’ the existence of fairies, they did find an audience of true believers. In 1919, Annie Griffiths and Polly Wright, the mothers of the two girls, attended a lecture on fairies at the Bradford Theosophical Society and offered up two photographs to the gathering — one of fairies dancing near Frances Griffiths and the other of Elsie Wright reaching to touch a winged gnome. Urged on by the members, the girls would offer further ‘proof’ with three additional photographs.
In time, experts declared the photographs authentic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle further strengthened their credence by writing a piece in support of fairies for The Strand, followed by an entire book in 1933, The Coming of the Fairies, which he based on the Cottingley fairy photographs. In the decades that followed, interest in the story periodically resurfaced, and the girls, now grown women, continued to insist on the authenticity of the photographs. It was only in the 1980s that both Elsie and Frances finally admitted to manufacturing the photographs using paper cut outs they had traced from a book of folklore. Yet, despite confessing to the photographic forgery, they both maintained to their deaths that they had truly seen the fairies. Perhaps Frances and Elsie felt a kinship between their indiscretions and those of Puck, Shakespeare’s mischievous fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; perhaps they trusted in the gentle dispensation provided by Puck’s final speech:
If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumber’d here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream…
Over a century later, the Cottingley fairy story still lingers in our collective consciousness. Part of its enduring allure might lie in the fact that two young girls succeeded in fooling experts and intellectuals — including the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who, ironically, crafted one of literature’s most unassailable detectives.
Popular culture also helps to keep the fires of our imagination stoked. In books and on screen, we experience anew the timeless draw of the mythical and fantastical. Almost a century old, J. R. R. Tolkien’s landscapes and characters from Middle-earth still enchant and inspire. Even the story of the Cottingley fairy photographs finds fresh relevance in the twenty-first century when Elsie Wright’s camera manifests as a magical artifact on the American television show Warehouse 13.
Perhaps the simpler explanation for the continued fascination with otherworldly photographs from a previous century derives from an inner child who still believes in the existence of sprites, fairies, and gnomes, and who dreams of storybook adventures with these creatures. In the letter to his goddaughter Lucy, C. S. Lewis acknowledges a liminal state between being too old for fairy tales and someday becoming “old enough” to read and believe again. Madeleine L’Engle famously said, “I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child.” If what they say is true, then the capacity for wonder still persists in our adult minds. We just need to search and reclaim it.
For many, the search for fairies started with the adventures of Peter Pan, a boy who refused to grow up. Peter Pan urged us to clap for a dying fairy named Tinker Bell — “If you believe, wherever you are, clap your hands, and she’ll hear you. Clap! Clap!” And we have been clapping ever since.
FICTION / REBECCA DEMPSEY
Once, this would’ve started as with the Old Poets, with a dedication to the Muses. Yet the closer I get to her, the more I fear I’m wandering onto sacred territory as I set this down. Well, not territory, as the sacred infuses material but is of itself, not material. Unless it is. Since she has all the time in the world, she hasn’t taught me that bit yet. Unlike certain other creators, I’m not starting with clay, but I’ll get there. I’m not used to writing about struggling to shoehorn this into a narrative, a genre, and a Tradition — only spelled as such to indicate its importance — and stuffing it full of protagonists, antagonists, and conflict.
I can’t. So, I won’t.
Instead, I’ll paraphrase a judicious invocation as an alternative introduction. I have no right to do this, it’s theft from an ancient culture and, thus, I have ruined its beauty to shape this work to my needs. But authors do that; rough hew words, and take reality to bend it to our wills. Perhaps, the world is clay – changing shape the faster I write just as the first scribes used to. Anyway, here goes:
This work, forgive me my human limitations. As a storyteller, I record words here; you are without form, yet I call you into form; you need no acknowledgement, yet I am recognised as your author. Forgive these three human limitations.
That’ll do it.
Since everyone knows the power of naming, there is a title — an appellation to pin down, and delimit. In this instance, her name is Auntie Lunedì. Once I found the name, everything else unfurled itself, like fruit ripening on that mythical old tree in the first garden: how she lives, the plants she surrounds herself with, the name of her cottage.
Her house is called Tremenhere. It skulks behind a picket fence, shaded by stands of silver birch and shrouded by a deep porch, whose frown dissuades the curious. The narrow path is crowded by groups of heavy-headed hollyhocks, rosemary, verbena, and wormwood bushes, whose odours catch at the back of your throat so she can hear you breathe as you enter her world. Yarrow lines the edges of the way, and shoes crush the spreading chamomile between the worn flagstones. From the gutter, a family of magpies watch all who dare take her path. Their frail heads tilt, bright eyes curious at newcomers. At the end of the scented path, two mullioned windows peek out either side of her door. The shifting light behind the windows almost fools me into believing they blink owlishly, bookishly, as if the house were slowly waking up.
Inside the kitchen, bunches of drying herbs hang from ceiling racks. Seeds and spices spill from hand-thrown pots, while half-formed organic matter floats in jars of golden oil next to smoke-darkened book spines, which read of unpronounceable, mysterious names: Chrysopoeia, Avicenna; Zosimos; Artephius; Paracelsus; Culpepper.
How did she begin? Like a trickle turning into a flow and then a torrent. She was an accident, a mother stand-in from a scene in a convoluted and unfinished novel. Yet, once summoned, Lunedì’s existence was insistent. The novel is unfinished but Lunedì is not. Alternate stories can wither before the power of potential energy thrown off by this old crone. A lost novel is an unworthy sacrifice in her honour.
What else? She fools everyone, since her strength is water: forever and seeming weak, except it carves out bays and wears down mountains. Auntie’s strength sustains us all, it is within us all, but it remains a force. She warns the foolhardy: beware my depths.
Have I mentioned she’s old? Of course, Auntie Lunedì is prehistoric. It was as if she was always old – I almost said ‘odd’, and that’s right too. In this world, she’s alien because she’s beautiful in the way the ocean is. Changeable. Moody. Constant and becoming.
Yes. As I write, she becomes, like clay between fingers shaping and reshaping the old, old art: round body, faceless, with wind-wild hair wound around the small skull, short legs without feet – because this is a treasure you keep on your person, not a trinket to set down. Lunedì is off-putting though; weird in the Shakespearean-Macbeth sense without anything literary about her. The literary is all mine. She is all herself.
Watching Auntie is to me like discovering a landscape painting behind dust-frosted glass: a surprise in every light. She’s sea glass, the direction and the compass pointing beyond me and these words – and yet, she sprang from my head like Athene, fully formed. Lunedì is as fully formed as clay, since clay is always clay, whether in the ground, or on the thrower’s wheel, or fired in the kiln. This story is baking her reality into this form, at least for now.
It’s important to locate her in a landscape. As beyond human as she is, Auntie remains a child of this earth. She loves the greenery of damp forests, and rugged ship-wrecked coasts. She dwells on the borders of my half-described, imagined, quiet, superstitious country village and the vast, hidden, somewhere else.
Auntie Lunedì was the one who spoke of the town’s legends: of the first walkers wandering through who loved the land and protected it, of the groups that followed later with their heavy bullocks and thick horses struggling for purchase as they toiled. Auntie spoke of the full wetlands and sodden soil in the winter, of the shrinking lakes and baked ground in the summer. It was when their winter-worn leather boots had dried and cracked in the unceasing heat that, in desperation, the pallid, sweating hunters of pasture could only agree on one thing: a cobbler was needed. Thus, a boot maker was sent for even before the first simple huts were raised for a village. Auntie claims things haven’t changed. There’s still a shoe shop. She tells me the descendants think the land treacherous. They stomp hard into the soil because they need to continually mark it as their own. With the flooding, the undrained marshes, and the stone beneath, there’s no love. It’s the limestone, she’d mutter, bedrock of the dead, shot through by holes, untrustworthy for their guilty feet. For them, the land’s a grave.
And that’s her voice. Auntie lends gravitas even to the tilling of the soil. But she ends on a cackle, dark-bright eyes twinkly diamonds. Then she declares: I never could wear shoes for too long.
Lunedì will outlive me. That’s not special for a character. Poirot outlives Agatha. But Lunedì is forever-wise. A fool’s guide, a font of joy where joy is a scarce — I was going to write ‘commodity’ — but Auntie has no affinity for such words. She feels the ebb and flow of ice ages as she thumbs the ancient pages of Paracelsus, only pausing to nod and chuckle warmly over the elementals. Reading over her shoulder, I glimpse an old new word: Undine.
She closes the book, teaching me to resist quantifying and limiting her as if she were a relic to be evaluated, measured, and stored. Could any author, me included, define her? Therefore, I must halt my efforts in identifying whatever this is. Lunedì is, and so this is.
What else? She’s forgiven me for thinking I created her, forgiven me for my own creative limits; one day, when I believe I have finished this work, she’ll forgive me for thinking I have left her stuck in here. Words cannot hold her. When the world has abandoned their temples and forgotten their immortals, she’ll remember how I thought I knew what I was doing when I called her to pour her elemental shape into this misshapen vessel. However, she didn’t refuse my invocation; such is her nature. As for me – she’s made me as much as I made her out of my imagination.
Together, we dance around a stewing brew of inspiration. She pauses to sprinkle herbs before she stirs the pot. She laughs as I mumble cauldron. Steam rises, full of rich, warm scents. Breathing it in, like breathing in spirit, is what we do when we create together.
She looks at me, dark eyes lit up, and nods. It’s time.
We end as we began. With an entreaty.
Daughter of eternity, vestige of forever entangled with my finite human creativity; be substantial. All-wise Aunt of the Moon Day, draw us to you like tides, speak over the waters, run with the rivers. Ask me to continue giving you voice while I can, so that all who need to can follow your tendrils of possibility beyond these meagre words.
I pocket her figurine as I leave, her magpies watching the path.
POETRY / ALETIA SHAW
Hidden fragments of ancient night sky lay in monastic sleep on Egypt’s Sinai birthplace of byzantine revelations, burning bush, where skilled hands tease apart layers of history with tweezers – carefully does it. Stiff brush dust off religious codex, let bygones be bygones and constellations glitter
(unveiling through un-knowing / erasure to discover)
How did you know, Hipparchus, all that time ago? How did you feel the size and the shape the weight of the northern crown, gifted by Dionysus to Cretan princess? You traced Corona Borealis with naked irises, bridging distances between lovers long before telescope or satellite or endless growth Eyes shining upwards into skies unpolluted by industrial promise planes terawatts of advertisements along highways. You noticed light where there was none, and as the sun died for a day, felt the moon upon your breath Now, fancy cameras confirm your handiwork – yes: numbers, angles, measurements; corners of galaxies
Triangles orbits coordinates illuminate your theories: we teeter on an axis, never stationary. Space in the heavens; cautiously optimistic Chest rises with the expanse of time stored in relics. I dig my teeth into your new celestial beings – palpable light, with discernible centre – to pick apart our economic dark matter, to unearth half-truths, to extract the counter – Chastised for doubting the home of god’s stars, fitting this be their burial yard Triangular peninsular links borders man carved under three religions, one sky. My eyes meet yours and those who came before – lonesome pilgrims, emperors and the wandering curious. I too find solace nestled between mountains, knowing it’s possible to bridge distances in the dark
(the stars remain a free show, in spite of it all)