By Ann Eleanor Babcock
Once upon a time there was a man who lived alone in a cottage set deep in a dark wood. The man was handsome, young and lively and spent his days tending his homestead. The man enjoyed the tasks he did in order to survive such as gardening, fishing, and repairing his roof, but the man had an instrument which he played in order to live. The man recognized the beauty in the rhythm of ordinary things, but it was through music that he experienced a beauty above the ordinary and that he enjoyed for its own sake.
The instrument was a simple one, made of wood and string. The strings danced when the man ran his fingers across them and when the man touched the strings, he could change the harmonies they produced together. The man was a skillful player and even though his instrument was simple, the music that the man played was exceptionally beautiful. His music kept pace with the quick melody of the songbirds in the trees overhead, yet it was as soothing as the falling rain. The cadence of the sounds that the man made dipped, rushed and swirled around like a river eddy and the birds could not help but glide through the air in the same pattern. It was springtime in the forest and the man walked through the trees playing for the rabbits and squirrels and other forest creatures that happened to pass by.
One day, as spring was easing into summer, the man’s music was heard by a different, much older, creature of the forest. The creature was a fairy lady who was revisiting a part of the wood in which she had walked many years before. The fairy was lost in her memories of days long ago when she heard music echoing through the trees. The melody that the man played seemed to flow from the fairy’s own memories so that it took her a moment to realize the music was coming from elsewhere. The fairy was moved by the melody she heard and desired to hear more. She darted gracefully through the trees following the lovely sound. When she found the man sitting alone on a mossy stump, his toes in a cool stream, she hovered behind a low branch of a pine tree and listened fervently.
The fairy was enraptured by the beauty of the man’s music, and she forgot herself. For his song resonated with understanding. Without realizing what she was doing, the fairy glided out from behind the pine branch and flew up to the man. The fairy, like all her kin, had been warned against being seen by any human. For when a human encounters a fairy, he or she will fall into a spell of enchantment that is mistaken for love. The man was no different and when he saw the fairy, he was struck by her youthful beauty and immediately was captivated by her. As they looked at each other, the man stopped his playing and the fairy realized what she had done. In the silence of that moment, reason came back to the fairy, and she regretted her lack of caution.
When the man saw the fairy he exclaimed, “Everything that I try to play, the beauty that I try to capture in mere notes of string, is alive in you. In your face and your hands, and in the way the light sparkles through your delicate wings.”
The man’s words were true, but the fairy admonished his fervor. “I am what you say, for all of me resonates with what you humans have buried deep in your hearts. You and your people try to grasp beauty, but so often do you reduce it in the capturing. Therefore, I ask, do not grasp at me, nor at that which cannot be, otherwise you will never have peace in your heart.”
Blinded by enchantment, however, the man insisted on seeing the fairy the very next day. The fairy, not wholly come to caution, agreed to meet the man to teach him new and more beautiful melodies for him to play on his instrument. Therefore, the man returned to the stream the next day and many days after to see the fairy and to play his music for her.
One day, the fairy and the man sat by the stream as had become their wont. They talked and laughed, played music and sang. The fairy enjoyed the man’s company but eventually doubt began to gnaw at her.
“Do you know what beauty is?” she asked the man.
“Why, you are my lady!” he exclaimed.
“Not so.” She smiled wryly.
The man laughed “Of course I do, it is adding melody to the depth of silence or adding harmony to the cadence of water. Is it not?”
The fairy chuckled. “I suppose that is one way of putting it.” She replied. “What is it that makes your music so beautiful? Is it that you listen to the silence and the sound of water and learn from them?”
“Well, I suppose. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Until now I simply thought that beauty is something intangible that floats through the air that I try to grasp and turn into a melody. It is quite easy now with you here with me. Beauty radiates from you, and you make everything clear and bright. But still, how can I do justice to what is so free in the very essence of who you are?” He paused for a moment then continued “I will be happy with you forever.”
The fairy smiled but did not return the sentiments. She knew that the captivation in which the man was held was not love and she knew that a fairy and a human could not be together. Humans and fairies had different natures; that is to say, different purposes and different means.
That night the fairy could not sleep. She was troubled; She wanted happiness for herself as well as for the man, but this would be impossible if she were to stay there with him. So, she decided to leave the woods and go out into the human world to search for a woman with whom the man could be.
The fairy left as the sun rose the next morning before she was to meet with the man and when he came to the mossy stump near the stream and did not find the fairy waiting for him, he was filled with sorrow and confusion. The man wept and did not play his music that day. He was concerned because he did not know where the fairy was or why she had not returned to meet him. So, the man remained at the stump by the stream until nightfall when he finally stumbled back to his homestead, weeping all the way.
The day after the man decided that he would go to the stream and continue to play his instrument in case the fairy returned. As he began playing, the man spoke to the forest creatures that gathered around him to hear his music. “I hope you at least will enjoy my music like the fairy had.” The man’s music did indeed flow from a deep place within him and as his heart turned toward melancholy so too did his music.
Far away, the fairy flew high above the trees and watched below as the forest gave way to fields. She saw countryside and farm cottages to the west and flew in that direction. She intended to peer into the windows of each of the cottages she passed to look for the woman who could love the man.
She did not find her in any of the isolated cottages in the countryside, and so she moved along and followed the road that went to the nearest town. The town she came upon was large – it had many houses and a bustling center. The fairy, taking care to place a guise over her appearance so as to seem human, walked through the streets and watched the townspeople as they went about their busy lives. Throughout the town, she saw fine houses that held fine men and women as well as dark alleyways that were laden with filth and filled with people who did not take care of themselves or each other. The fairy searched and searched but could not find a woman who would be a suitable partner for the man.
The fairy left the town and continued on her way. In the next town, the fairy stopped again and looked into the faces of many women. The fairy saw lots of kindness, gentleness, generosity, and creativity, but not in such a coalescence that amounted to the understanding that the fairy was looking for. This, the fairy knew, was not always common among humans as it was among her own people and was not always as obvious for them to see as it was to her.
The man had part of that understanding, and it flowed out of him in lovely colors and patterns through his beautiful music, but he needed someone who could help him grow in it so that he could see the world as it truly is. And so, the fairy pressed on in her search.
The fairy searched for weeks and moved through several towns but could not find the woman she was looking for. During the days, the fairy traveled and searched, then at night she found trees to sleep in. Each morning she woke hoping to discover the woman that could love the man and each night she laid in the branches of a tree thinking of the man and longing for his happiness.
One day the fairy, under her guise, was walking along a main road in a country village, when she saw a beautiful tapestry hanging in the grand front window of a country estate. She stepped up to the window to gaze at the tapestry and her breath was taken away. The tapestry was marvelously intricate and told the story of a lion who seemed to be attacking a dragon.
In the first panel, the lion was tearing at the dragon’s flesh but in the second scene surprisingly, the lion was not killing the dragon, rather peeling off its skin. The concluding scene depicted a naked man, the dragon’s skin at his feet, standing unsullied under the loving gaze of the lion. Not an inch of the tapestry was bare or unembellished. In fact, all the larger shapes and patterns were themselves made up of finely intricate patterns that flowed in and out of each other. The flowers that framed the scene reappeared in the lion’s mane and the dragon’s scales reflected the image of the lion. After studying the tapestry for a long time, the fairy stepped back and refocused her eyes to her surroundings. She decided to find the maker of the tapestry because she had a feeling that the person who could weave something so beautiful could be, or could at least lead her to, the woman she was looking for.
The fairy went around to the side of the country estate and stopped a maidservant on her way to the kitchen door.
“Excuse me, miss.” The fairy said. “May I ask if it was the master or lady of the house who wove the tapestry hanging in the window?”
“It was neither ma’am,” the maid replied. She had a round town accent. “My mistress commissioned the tapestry from the young weaver living on the edge of the town. She is the most skilled in the land and is still but a young maiden herself.”
The fairy’s face brightened at the young maidservant’s words. “Can you take me to where she lives?” asked the fairy in her smooth voice.
“Oh no ma’am. I couldn’t go that far just to turn around and come back and still finish all the things I have to do today.” The maidservant barely took a breath and continued. “I have the linens to wash then starch and the carpets to drag out and beat and vegetables to sort and hang in the cellar and the chickens to feed and the coop to sweep out and the eggs to gather and wash.”
The fairy smiled kindly and when the maidservant stopped just long enough to take another breath the fairy interjected, “You’re right my dear, your duties must not be neglected, if you would just point me in the right direction that would be sufficient.”
“Well, I suppose I can walk you down a way to the corner where there is a fork in the road where you might take the wrong path if you didn’t know better so I’ll show you which is the right one to take to see the weaver. My cousin was just talking about the weaver the other day. She always says, my cousin does that is, ‘Why doesn’t the weaver make more useful things on that loom of hers. She could make dish clothes or dress fabric, in fact she could make a fortune selling her fancy fabric to the wealthiest people in the cities, but instead she just makes pictures that most people don’t even like, and they’re so complicated you have to think to take it all in instead of just looking at it and saying “why that’s pretty isn’t it”’…” in this fashion, barely pausing in her speech to breathe, the maid servant went on and on as she and the fairy walked down the road.
When they came to the fork in the road the maid servant, without brevity, showed the fairy the direction she should go and told her which landmarks to look for on the way to the weaver’s cottage, and they parted.
The fairy walked along the neatly packed dirt roads that were lined with bright white picket fences and neatly trimmed hedges. She continued along until the houses became infrequent and the paths became a little wilder with foliage – that is to say, a little more like what the fairy called home.
After some time, when the fairy reached the very edge of town, she found a small cottage that was simple, tidy and was altogether a lovely place. To the side of the cottage, sitting at a loom, was a beautiful woman weaving an intricate tapestry.
If the fairy had lived in the town or had listened to any of the opinions of the towns people she would have thought it strange that the woman had gone through the trouble to bring her loom outside to weave in the exposure of the elements, but instead the fairy thought it completely natural that the woman would want to work in the light of the refreshing summer sun.
She watched the woman weave into her tapestry intricate designs that flowed in and out of each other and the fairy saw that she had a passionate heart, a clear mind, kind eyes, and creative hands. The fairy knew then that the handsome man would make this woman happy and that this woman would be the best wife for the man.
The fairy, in disguise, approached the woman and said, “My lady, I have seen the beauty of the work of your hands and I have come to admire your skill. I have no money to buy a tapestry from you, but only my sincere admiration. May I sit and watch you work?”
The woman looked up from her work at the sound of the fairy’s voice and saw, who she thought to be, a beautiful young woman with a wise and foreign look about her. The woman was surprised, but said kindly, “I would be delighted to have your company. You may sit by me. Here, I will get you a bench.”
The fairy thanked the woman and stayed with her for the rest of the day. When evening came the woman asked her new friend where she was staying and when the fairy replied that she had no lodging, the woman invited her to stay with her in her cottage. The fairy happily accepted and when the sun finally set that evening the woman showed the fairy into her home and got to work clearing the loft for the fairy to sleep.
As the woman was tidying, the fairy looked around the neat and cozy room. She noted the dried herbs hanging on a beam in the kitchen, the still dirt covered vegetables in a basket on the table and the hearth that held embers still glowing from when the woman cooked last. The fairy turned and was drawn to the other side of the room. She approached a rack next to the wall on which hung several tapestries that the woman had made and were waiting to be sold.
The fairy lifted a few of the heavy pieces of fabric saying, “Your stories sing with the melody of understanding.” The woman looked down from the loft. The fairy continued, “Not only are the images you weave beautiful to the eye, but the stories and ideas that they convey with such clarity and perception are captivating to the mind and heart.”
The woman tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear and stuttered, “Well..oh, thank you. I’ve never received a compliment like that before. The stories just come to me, but…” She started making her way down the ladder “The more complex the ideas and the patterns are, the more I enjoy making them. Most people just think they are pretty, which is nice, but your perspective is refreshing.” She grinned. “Well, the loft is ready but I usually have a cup of tea before bed. Would you like one?”
The fairy smiled and nodded. She was looking forward to spending time with and getting to know the intriguing woman. The conversation they started then, as the woman put her kettle on to boil, lasted well after their tea was finished and late into the night.
Back in the forest the man woke with a start. He had been dreaming about the fairy again which, as always, left him with a deep ache in his chest. It was just before dawn, so the man got up, lit a candle and took his instrument down from where he kept it hanging on the wall. He started playing and the bittersweet notes drifted out the open window into the fresh summer morning. The man did not realize, but his sorrow made his music so achingly beautiful that even the nightingales and mourning doves marveled at the sadness in the melody.
As the months passed and the fairy still did not return, the man’s hurt and sorrow became duller but also deeper and less and less did he find joy in his simple life in the woods.
“What am I to do?” he asked of the forest creatures who still came to listen to him. “How can I continue without the beautiful fairy in my life?” The rabbits and the squirrels simply stared back up at him and he was given no answer to his aching question.
A few days later the weather was sunny and warm, and the fairy was sitting in the grass watching the woman dip skeins of thread into pails of dye. The fairy noted how beauty resonated from the woman subtly and steadily even as she did mundane tasks.
“Why do you weave?” she asked the woman.
The woman looked at the fairy and pondered for a moment, then tilted her head up to the sky.
“I am more myself when I am weaving. I am more alive, I think. Sometimes it seems to me that the images have a life of their own and I am simply giving them substance…capturing, if you will, something that is invisible, floating in the air, and making it visible.”
“Can beauty really be captured?” the fairy asked.
The woman thought for a moment then said, “Beauty submits to our designs sometimes, but, no, I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I could really capture it…it is greater than what we call great and meeker than what we call meek. Intricate beyond our idea of intricate and simple beyond our simplest thought.”
At this the fairy decided it was the right time, at last, to tell the woman the truth. “I have to tell you the reason that I have come,” she said.
The woman paused from hanging her threads and looked at the fairy in surprise.
“I have been hiding from you a part of who I am, but not out of deceit rather because I needed to see if you would be able to understand.”
The fairy then stood and ceased her disguise, revealing herself to the woman. The woman was stunned into silence while she took in the fairy’s new appearance. Then the woman said “Everything that I make, all the beauty I try to express, exists naturally in you. The unfolding of your wings is like the awakening of an idea, the flowing of your hair is like the freedom of singing a high note.”
The fairy laughed and responded, “What you say is true, all of me resonates with what you work so hard to express in your weaving. You, however, do not grasp at beauty, but let it flow through you and out into the wider world. You have an understanding that is exceedingly rare.”
The woman replied, “I am so grateful for you and your friendship. You have taught me so much.”
The fairy nodded graciously and replied, “I am so grateful to have met you as well .”
They spent the rest of that evening engrossed in conversation, for the woman was brimming with questions for the fairy about her homeland, her people, and their way of life. The fairy answered all the questions that she could, and they continued to talk long after the fire had died, and the fairy’s glowing skin was the only light in the dark of the humid summer night.
The next morning the man stumbled out to his garden to gather something to eat. He dug up a few potato plants from the dry earth but was disgusted to find that they had begun to rot in the ground. He moved to the beans and saw that the plants were wilted and had borne only small useless pods. He looked around and saw many of his other plants were also wilting and the fruits were over ripe and rotting. He looked back at his cottage and noticed the moss growing on his roof and the vines growing unchecked up the side of the chimney.
“What have I done?” asked the man of himself. Then he stood and walked to the river to collect water for his garden.
One afternoon the woman showed the fairy what she was working on. It was an image of the fairy herself.
“That is beautifully done” the fairy said.
The woman looked bashful and said “My craft could not do justice to your beauty, but I thought I could improve by trying to articulate what it is about you that is so beautiful. I varied my dyes a little too and was able to make a lighter shade of purple and more deep shade of maroon. But I have only been able to achieve a crude image of your features. I could weave a thousand images that look like you and never be able to articulate the essence of what makes you…well…you.”
The fairy smiled. “The same could be said of you too. I could speak for hours of your good works and fine disposition but never get close to the real you. Maybe the Poet Laureate of my people might be able to come close.” The fairy grinned.
“A poet?” exclaimed the woman. “That sounds lovely. Were you a poet?”
“Oh no,” said the fairy. “Sometimes a lovely sentence or two comes out of my mouth but I am nothing like the gifted poets whose works have survived the centuries.”
“I’ve never heard poetry,” sighed the woman. “Just tavern songs.” She chuckled, turning back to her loom.
The fairy straightened and said, “I have a friend who makes poetry. He is human like you but he crafts songs of such understanding that would rival any fairy minstrel. He may have a few scales that yet need removing but I think one with a lion heart could help him.”
The woman looked up from her work. She remembered the tapestry that had been commissioned by the wealthy couple in town. They had asked for something beautiful for their sitting room but could not have expected the masterpiece they had received. When they had met with the weaver, they had recounted to her the journey they had both gone through to find each other and how they had both helped the other to shed the callouses of the past. While weaving their tapestry the woman had thought deeply about the scales around her own heart that needed removing. When she brought the tapestry, finished, to the couple, they were both moved to tears. That experience had made the woman wonder for the first time what her own journey would be like and who she would find in the end.
The fairy extended her hand to the woman. “The man of whom I speak lives deep in the forest. I would like to for to meet him. Will you allow me to guide you and take you to him?”
Standing on her toes, she twisted towards the path that led away from the cottage, as if she were already anxious to start their journey. Her wings flowed gracefully through the air around her body like the long fins of a fish in water.
The woman stood up. The idea of going with the fairy to some foreign land was exciting and there was an inexplicable peace in her heart that told her that she ought to follow.
“Yes, I will,” the woman said. “But…” She trailed off as she looked at her cottage and her loom. When the woman considered what she would have to leave behind, hesitation tempered her excitement. The fairy lowered her hand as she followed the woman’s gaze.
“You will not leave yourself behind,” the fairy reassured her. “Is anything ever lost in the giving?”
The fairy held out her hand again and the woman took it, a steady conviction in her heart and followed the fairy down the path, away from the cottage and the town and towards the deep wood.
The fairy had to travel by foot with the woman, and so, the journey back to the forest took much longer than the fairy’s first journey from it, but she enjoyed the ease of conversation that walking brought to her and the woman.
One day, a while into their journey, the fairy and the woman woke up early, ate a simple breakfast and started on the path at a brisk pace. Around midday they found a refreshing spring and stopped to eat, then continued on the path. As the woman was walking along behind the fairy, she admired the fairy’s wings and her light gait. But soon, becoming thoughtful, the woman looked down and slowed her pace. The woman had begun to feel a weight in her chest. Even though she trusted the fairy, the fairy was leading her into an unknown region of the world as well as an unknown season of life. The trees around her, though familiar in kind, now seemed strange and the thrill of the adventure became dread of the unforeseen. This weight grew and she was quiet for some time.
The fairy was flying a little way ahead and when she doubled back the woman asked, “If I decided to turn back now would you stop me?” The fairy’s eyes widened then her brow furrowed in concern as the woman glanced at the fairy with a lowly gaze.
Immediately the fairy replied, “Of course not. I do not intend to lead you where you do not want to go. There is someone I know who is similar to you, someone with whom you would be happiest. But you must only come with me if you freely choose to.”
Tears sprang to the woman’s eyes and she smiled. The fairy’s words lifted the weight that she felt. Looking down the woman said “Alright…that eases my heart. Even though I do not know what lies ahead, I feel a peace deep inside.” The woman looked up and into the fairy’s eyes. “I left my home because it seemed to me the thing that I ought to do but now, to add that, I choose to accept the future with an open heart.”
The fairy smiled and laughed, happy for the freedom that the woman found in her decision. The fairy leapt into the air and the woman watched in wonder as her friend glided through the branches of the trees and laughed even as tears slipped down her cheeks.
Many days later the fairy and the woman heard music floating through the trees and the fairy knew that they had finally arrived at the man’s homestead. He was sitting in the sun before his cottage playing his instrument and as the pine trees were thick around the clearing, the fairy and the woman were able to watch him and listen for a little while unseen. The man had slowly begun to find happiness again and his music was restored to its former brightness. The woman was moved by the man’s music, similarly to the way the fairy had been moved months before. The fairy nudged the woman and encouraged her to go forward. She took a deep breath and took a step.
The man stopped playing and looked around as if he sensed that he was being watched. “Does someone go there?” He called. The man saw the woman appear from the woods as if out of thin air and was astonished.
“Fair lady, have you lost your way in the woods?” the man asked her.
“No. I have been travelling,” the woman said keeping her gaze steady with the man’s.
“Then please stop here and refresh yourself,” the man said. “Have you been all alone?”
“No,” the woman shook her head. “I have had a guide who has only just left me. My friend. She found me and led me here…to you.”
The man was terribly surprised, and a hundred thoughts flashed through his mind. He did, however, believe what the woman said.
“How…but…may I ask…what is your name?” The man stammered.
“My name is Aoibhinn. And yours?”
“My name is Kavanaugh.”
Aoibhinn smiled broadly. “That seems appropriate.”
“It means beautiful, or rather, handsome, not that it…well thank you.” Kavanaugh faltered and blushed deeply. Aoibhinn smiled shyly. “Your home is charming,” she said.
Kavanaugh then came to himself and asked politely, “Would you like to come inside and stay for a meal?”
“I would love that,” Aoibhinn replied sincerely, and she entered through the door that Kavanaugh held open for her.
The fairy watched the conversation between Aoibhinn and Kavanaugh and when Aoibhinn entered the cottage the fairy smiled softly and turned away. She walked through the trees once more and reflected. Then the fairy took to the air and returned to her homeland where she lived for many years in joy and peace knowing that not only had she found love, but she had helped it to grow.
As the summer turned into fall, Aoibhinn and Kavanaugh spent their time together. Kavanaugh had set up a room in his cottage for Aoibhinn and she hung a tapestry that she had brought with her. Kavanaugh showed Aoibhinn the rest of his homestead, his garden and how he fished and, in the evenings, would play his instrument while Aoibhinn told him the stories that she had woven into her tapestries.
They talked only a little of the fairy for Aoibhinn knew that the fairy was meant to be in her life for a season only and the initial captivation that had bound Kavanaugh had worn off and he was at peace. Kavanaugh was grateful to the fairy and now that he understood what it meant to be truly happy, he wanted it for her as well. Kavanaugh was also grateful, past the point of expression, that the fairy had found Aoibhinn, that Aoibhinn had found him and that she was someone who he desired, already, to care for and to share in happiness with.
Before the winter snow set in, Aoibhinn and Kavanaugh returned to Aoibhinn’s village to be married and to collect Aoibhinn’s tapestries and other possessions from her old cottage.
“This is a lovely place,” Kavanaugh said as they entered the cottage.
“Yes, it is very quaint” Aoibhinn said. “And I’ll miss it, but sometimes we are called to trade something good for something better.” Kavanaugh smiled as he watched Aoibhinn.
They finished packing up the cottage and made their way back to the forest along the path that Aoibhinn had taken with the fairy months before.
In the homestead in the deep dark wood Aoibhinn and Kavanaugh built a life together and over time Aoibhinn gave birth to their children. They taught their children about beauty and what it means to love and, just as the fairy had known would happen, they lived happily into old age and into the life beyond. The children of Aoibhinn and Kavanaugh were kind and strong as were their children after them. And they all strove ever to carry on the legacy of Aoibhinn and Kavanaugh of understanding beauty and bringing it into the world.