Faerie Valentine

Faerie Valentine (2,000 words)

So came a time when magic was no more than the dream of a memory. So it is today. Yet then as now, when the world begins to thaw from winter to spring and Nature works her own enchantments in green buds and dew, a fairy influence still shows itself in subtle ways. Spring is the perfect season for coaxing or aggravating tempers, and Valentine’s Day is the best tease of all.

The youngest fairy of a family, Aoife, was gifted with enchantment. She often sang flowers into early bloom so she might pluck them after a frost, for the petals tasted sweet as ice-cream. Unlike her kin, she couldn’t care less for the human world, which was to her eyes dull and full of sorrow. Perhaps for this reason she caused the most perilous mischief of all.

One day it happened that Aoife discovered a neglected quarter in a common area. There was some beauty past the asphalt lot and scattered waste, where the moss grew in a hollow of soft dirt and a clump of bittercress bloomed in the silt. Where the ground leveled she saw a man fast asleep under a huddling hawthorn tree. Something in the sight of him made her pause.

He slept like a child, curled on himself with his hands beneath his chin. He was pale and thin with care; and as she watched, he shuddered in his sleep with something more or less than cold.

“Foolish creature,” said the fairy. She stretched her hand and touched his cheek. “Leave your trouble where it lies.”

He trembled through her fingertips. On impulse she leaned and whispered against his brow.

Not at once, the man’s breathing steadied and his tremors eased.

“Hush, foolish one,” Aoife murmured. “Hush.”

The young man relaxed. He turned in a kinder dream and sighed. As he did so, a letter dropped from his hand.

There was no mistaking it. The colored envelope and cardstock was damning. It was a love note—it was a valentine.

Its author had taken pains to inscribe his affection in crossed words and precise manuscript. He had a whimsical hand. There were the usual platitudes and an effort to be genuine: Aoife could tell because the impression of the pen, following a fractured verse, was firm. It read,

“To my darling and life, my dearest Kathy. I love you.”

The fairy was repulsed. She looked again at the man and saw the weakness in his face. She did not know how he would ever have the courage to deliver his note with a face like that. But it was the eve of Valentine’s. She took the note and worked a charm to smooth the nervous lines, and make the whole more pleasing to its intended.

The man stirred. Aoife hid behind a hedge. He saw the fallen letter and took it quickly, urgently, tucking it in the breast of his jacket. It was funny to see how he guarded that little valentine as if would get cold without him. Brushing off his stiff knees, the young man threw a last glance around his haven and started for a unit of the apartment complex.

Aoife spent the rest of the day pulling old, disheveled leaves off waking trees. She watched them swoop to earth in graceful arcs and circles. The words “my darling,” “life,” and “dearest” circled in her head. Taking them to their limit, they were bold words for a weak face.

She returned to that quiet place the next afternoon. She had not really expected to see the young man again, but was astonished to find him. This time he was kneeling with his eyes tight shut. It was the strangest thing, but he seemed to gather strength from the exercise. He had spirit enough afterwards to ask the weeds to wish him luck. Seeing him like that, Aoife began to wonder if love were not as confounding to humans as it was to fairies.

The young man walked, fast, for several blocks. A pretty woman, his own green but flowering age, was waiting for him at a bench.

“I’m late—”

“No. I’m early.”

“Let’s sit,” said the young man, in an earnest soft voice.

“I’m picking up a friend,” the girl replied. “What’s the matter?”

The young man faltered. He reached in his jacket. “I have something.”

“Eddy—”

“Please,” he begged, “please read it.”

She looked at his pale, thin, suffering face. She looked at the card.

Aoife saw the girl was touched. The charm had worked—but though she was moved, something was missing.

The young man’s lips trembled. “Kathy…”

The woman took his hand. “It’s kind,” she said. “So kind. You’ve been the best friend.”

He understood, and she released him.

Eddy—it was Eddy—did not react at once. Then his face twisted and he sat on the bench and cried.

Aoife could not believe her eyes.

She had heard a great deal about love. Love was certain. It was sure. Venerated, criticized, no matter how you chose to sort it love was profound. And while she disliked humankind for their confused passions, now Aoife couldn’t think beyond the pathetic figure leaning on his arm. If this was Valentine’s—if this was love—she could not think of a crueler yet more idolized gamble.

The young man made some effort to compose himself. He breathed deep and put his fingers to his eyes.

Aoife followed him home. When night fell and the lamp was out, she climbed through the window into his apartment.

From the clutter that welcomed her she saw that he was a professor in literature. His efforts at research were unremarkable; his notes for leading class were often foolish but sincere. In the margins of his texts was his own poetry, artless, useless, for being too near his heart. All around her were the half-finished sketches and whimsical paintings of a nature fanciful and immature. They reminded her (she did not know why) of sitting in a tree, dropping leaves like secret messages to the indifferent world below.

One drawing in particular made her pause. It was not well done. But there was something in the eyes and face of the figure the artist had struggled to capture that interested her. So much attention had been given to this one face that the lines were uncertain, the features vague in revision. Except the eyes—there was something almost alive in the eyes.

Aoife had stretched her hand to the page when a sound frightened her. She turned and saw the young man. He had only choked a little in sleep—so pale, so death-like, his quietness affected the fairy more than his grief. She went to his bed and placed her hand on his heart. Her tears warmed the dampness of his cheek. When she blessed him, she prayed he would be loved. But to charm a valentine, cardboard and paste, is one thing. To enchant a living heart, blood and life, is another.

Aoife was confident it would soon be done. Even without magic, there was no reason why the man shouldn’t be loved. Perhaps there was something transient in him, beautiful to see but fragile in a grasp. Some people are petals in the wind. Their grace brightens life in an instant and leaves a bewildered sweetness in the mind.

The fairy no longer plucked flowers or mimicked birds. She was too eager to see her blessing fulfilled. She followed the young man everywhere, and when he met his valentine in passing she hoped, but their conversation was polite and brief. The man cried again, but when he led his class, his voice was clear.

His weakness for poetic verse showed itself in color and warmth. Anyone could see his abject feeling for words, and if they did not share his interest his students knew there must be some “thing” in poetry, to humiliate a man so and still make him eager. Seeing the change in the eyes of the children, Aoife knew it was magic. Their instructor’s embarrassment made them brave; they couldn’t look that stupid; and if they did not catch his fire, they warmed in its heat. She heard him read, each verse lulling on his tongue, and was so lifted that she did not notice when he stopped.

His stare was fixed and his face was white. He was not frightened. It was a peculiar, dumb shock that made the students tease. Aoife roused at the window and realized he was looking straight at her.

“No—don’t—!” the young man cried.

But like a vision, she was gone.

Aoife was furious with herself. More than that, she was afraid. She was determined never again go to that neglected quarter or apartment. He would think he had imagined her, this man with the sad weak face. He would draw a picture, write a poem, and forget her.

But she couldn’t forget. The green of new leaves recalled an infinite silliness, a young man in moss and sand, taking a rude sprig playfully between thumb and finger to plead for luck. The wind remembered his voice. And the first violet flower, nothing but a glimmer in the shade, showed his particular weakness.

Aoife had blessed him. She knew he must be loved. But once, just once, she would like to see him content.

It was early evening and all was silent. She stole inside to wait for him in his apartment. As she waited she began to notice the room—torn papers and abused canvas, a mess of kicked and carelessly open books. His poetry was waste. She raised her eyes and saw the sketch she had noticed before, rougher than the rest. The face was no longer uncertain. It was her own.

She turned and saw him in the door. How long he had stood there she didn’t know, but he was watching her.

“I’ve cursed you,” said the fairy, trembling.

“You must be real,” replied the young man, “to curse me.”

She went to him and took his face in her hands. “I wanted you to be loved.”

Her little hand on his cheek was warm and alive. He raised his own to touch it.

“Do you love me?”

His question surprised her. She opened her mouth to answer, and found his eyes. There was no feeling that did not find its moment in his eye. She looked as one watches the sea, startled by the depth and vastness, the liveliness and promise, encompassed in a horizon.

“No,” she whispered. “I—I can’t.”

His hand would have dropped if she let it, but she held it there at his cheek.

“I read something once,” said the fairy. “I read a letter. It wasn’t mine. There was ‘love,’ and ‘life,’ and ‘dearest.’ And I don’t know what love is, or dearest, but I thought when I read them that I would like to know. I would like to be someone’s life, and dear. It is very lonely as a dream.”

He tried to be brave. He was too weak.

“Don’t be a dream,” he said. “Don’t leave me.”

And before she knew what he was at, he kissed her.

The kiss was tender and warm. As they kissed they felt the unnatural wind and power of Aoife’s enchantment and still refused to open their eyes. She could feel his heart like her own, and he was aware of her fluttering pulse at his breast. He wanted to say he loved her, and she had not said she loved him, but it was in their embrace, their closeness. They remained silent, clinging and terrified, minutes after the magic settled and passed.

“I love you,” said Aoife at last, in his ear.

“My life,” he answered. “My heart.”

They opened their eyes.

Blessing or curse, it was done. Her hair was a tangle and her flush was mottled. She felt her cold nose and stared at her lengthened, tingling fingers. From her pink cold toes to her eyebrows (a little tufty), she was hopelessly human.

“What’s your name?”

The man’s voice was soft. Aoife was unruly as nature, and in his tenderness he looked as if his heart would break. She saw him thrilled, damp, disheveled, and there was a joy and light in him she had never seen before.

She felt the warmth and shiver of it: and still, even now, she did not think she would ever understand that one trouble, love.

***

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