Authors: Isobelle Carmody
Tags: #Young Adult Fiction
First published in 2011
in this collection, Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab, 2011
âLearning the Tango', Catherine Bateson, 2011
âBirthing', Victor Kelleher, 2011
âSeventy-two Derwents', Cate Kennedy, 2011
âThe Ugly Sisters', Maureen McCarthy, 2011
âGlutted', Nan McNab, 2011
âGlamour', Kate Thompson, 2011
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who read me the Brothers Grimm and gave me the world.
If life were a fairytale, you would be the swan mistaken for an ugly duckling.
trictly speaking, this is not a story about my early years, which were for the most part uneventful. Nonetheless, without some knowledge of a particular childhood episode, the real story can't be fully appreciated.
So, in brief: I grew up as a kind of orphan, my mother having died in childbirth, and my father having disappeared soon afterwards. It fell to my grandmother to care for me, though âcare' is perhaps too strong a word. When I think of her now, words like
spring to mind. As I recall, she had just one redeeming feature: she told me bedtime storiesÂ âÂ or, to be precise, stories about the faerie folkÂ âÂ drawing her cast of characters from
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Her nightly tales always began in the same way. âThere are faeries at the bottom of our garden,' she would say, and give a snicker of cool laughter.
I laughed too, though not because I shared her wry amusement at those hackneyed words. At the age of six or so, I saw them as the literal truth. There
faeries at the bottom of our garden, down in the wild untended part beneath the ancient pear tree. I hadn't seen them exactly, but I'd heard themÂ âÂ the furtive rustle of their footsteps in the leaf mould, the whirr of their wings amongst the foliage. So why did I laugh at my grandmother's opening words? Out of nothing more complicated than joy. It delighted me to think of those tiny beings flitting effortlessly from bloom to bloom.
My favourite amongst them was Puck, the trickster. He was my hero, a creature lighter and less definite than air. Oh, I loved the other characters too: Oberon, with his brooding jealousy; Titania, with her wandering eyes; Mustard Seed and the rest. I even adored Bottom and his friends, whom I wrongly believed to be half faerie, half animal. But out of them all, it was Puck who won my heart.
Alone in my room at bedtime I often opened the window and called to my favourite, using his other, more worldly name: âRobin, Robin Goodfellow, are you there?'
As a further enticement, I would close my eyes and picture the faerie light which, in my imagination, sur- rounded him like a halo. Sometimes, at the edge of sleep, I felt its shimmering phosphorescence fill the room, and in a last instant of wakefulness I glimpsed Puck's likeness out beyond the flame.
As you can see, I had become obsessed with Puck and his kind, and by rights my grandmother should have done something about it. At the very least she should have told me the brutal truth: that in ancient stories about the Faerie, they are not pretty and beguiling. More often, they are terrible creatures, fearsome and amoral in their dealings with humankind. But she alerted me to none of this. In truth, as long as I didn't get underfoot she hardly noticed my presence, and left to myself, I developed the odd fancy that if only I had wingsÂ âÂ if only I were able to flyÂ âÂ I could somehow enter their magical world and become a faerie of sorts myself.
When you are six, making a pair of wings is no easy task. It took me a while to create something moderately satisfactory out of coloured tissue paper stretched across flimsy loops of bent wire.
I put them to the test on a blustery day in early autumn. Having tied them on with two lengths of string, I made my way to the bottom of the garden. Overhead, the giant pear tree shook and swayed noisily, but I had climbed it before, so I didn't hesitate. Careful not to damage my wings, I began clambering from limb to limb, up through the roaring foliage to the crazily swaying top.
From there I had an unobstructed view of our suburb, with its tree-lined streets and well-tended gardens. Seen through childish eyes, it had the beguiling appearance of an ancient forest, a more than fitting place for Puck and the other faerie folk. And for me, too, once I had passed through that invisible membrane which separated us. All I had to do was trust my winged self to the void, which I knew in my heart would bear me up.
Of course it didn't. As I released my hold and stepped free, I barely had time to think: I'm doing it! Flying! I
see the faerie light, I
! Then I came crashing down through dense foliage, jolting from one branch to anotherÂ .Â .Â .Â until, mercifully as they say, I lost consciousness.
The generously spreading branches of the old tree saved my life, for I was still more or less intact when I reached the ground and lay spreadeagled amongst the tendrils of bindweed that had once been the setting of my fantasies. I wish I could say I dreamed of Robin Goodfellow during the hour or more that I lay there unattendedÂ âÂ his glowing face stooping over mine, his wings brushing my lips with faerie-like concernÂ âÂ but I had no such vision. He didn't come, nor would he have shown concern had he existed.
In any case, none of that mattered anymore, because when I awoke in hospital, I had suffered more than just broken bones and internal injuries. Something else had happened. Young as I was, I sensed it immediately. The world had changed somehow. It had become flatter, duller, less than it had been before.
Typically, it wasn't my grandmother who confirmed my fears, but the surgeon. I remember him as a kind, patient man. In straightforward language, he explained how a branch of the tree had gouged out my left eye. I would be partly blind for the rest of my life.
âNow here's the good news,' he added with a smile. âNo one need ever know, because we can give you a false eye that looks exactly like a real one.'
He produced such an object from the pocket of his white coat. It was a wonderful thing made of glass and ceramic, with the depth and sparkle of a living eye.
âThere's better news yet,' he went on. âWe can teach you to move your head rather than your eyes. In a month or two no one will realise you have a false eye. It will be our secret, one that need never leave this room.'
What he forgot to mention was that âour secret' would also be recorded in my medical records. As things turned out, that was an important omission.
The âreal story' I referred to begins nearly fifteen years later, soon after I had finished my formal training as a midwife (a natural enough career for someone whose mother has died in childbirth). Like all young trainees, I was required to serve an internship of sorts in a rural community, and I had already given some thought to where I would like to go.
Before I could make any applications, however, I received an offer from the midwife at a place called Little Earth. Her name was Gretel Andersen. She explained in her letter of offer that she was nearing the end of her own career and, having read my file, she was confident I was the person she needed.
Had I been older, I might have wondered why she had sought me outÂ âÂ me in particular. But amongst the young there is a tendency to regard all good fortune as heaven-sent. So instead of enquiring about Gretel Andersen, I merely researched the oddly named Little Earth.
I learned that it was a remote area populated by members of an obscure religious sect. They believed above all in the sanctity of the simple life, and had long since outlawed modern gadgetry, including motor cars and other mechanical aids. For some generations now they had earned a living by farming the land in a completely traditional way. Perhaps typical of such communities, they were also highly superstitious.
To someone as mildly adventurous as I was then, it all sounded charming and intriguing, and a week later, suitcase in hand, I stepped down from a long-distance bus that stopped only long enough to drop me off at the head of a sloping valley.
I don't know what I was expecting. A village, perhaps, or at least a car to take me further. But all that greeted me was a gentle rural scene and, in the foreground, an ancient horse and buggy. The driver, a woman, gestured me over.
âI'm Gretel,' she said with a pleasant smile, âand you must be Lucy. Welcome to Little Earth.'
My first impression was of someone white-haired and quite bent over, with that gauntness which often accompanies extreme old age. Yet she still appeared fully alert and shrewd, and her face possessed an unmistakable kindness. Even at that first meeting, she radiated the sort of warmth I had longed to find in my own grandmother, and I sensed that we would be happy together. Only one thing struck me as odd: how, in the act of speaking, she half averted her face, as if embarrassed by my gaze. It was a mannerism I would soon grow used to, though at the time I found it vaguely unsettling.
During our slow buggy-ride along the valley, she told me more about Little Earth and its people.
âThese are good, simple folk who have no understanding of the outside world,' she explained. âThey live close to the earth and follow the old ways. To them, the midwife represents the traditional wise woman, and they are grateful for our care. We in turn should be grateful for their respect.'
While she spoke, I looked eagerly about me. Already I had spotted several of these âsimple folk' working in the fields: the men dressed in severe black and white; the women in long mother hubbards, their hair pulled back from their faces. Seen against the vivid greens of the unspoiled valley, they looked wonderfully quaint, like figures from a lost past.
âIt's glorious here,' I burst out at one point. âA kind of paradise. Another Eden, almost.'
Her manner changed for a moment. âDon't be fooled by appearances,' she said, with that characteristic turn of the face. âEverything has a dangerous side, even this place. Enjoy its beauty, by all means, but keep your distance.'
Then she resumed her friendly chatter, telling me how glad she was to have me there, and how I was to share her house in the heart of the valleyÂ âÂ an old-world cottage nestled beside a stream and backed by a stand of whispering poplars.
I was so taken with it all that it wasn't until late in the evening, when she walked me to my bedroom, that I noticed what I should have spotted from the beginning. She was more than just old, she was also unwell, with an unnatural droop to her eyes and a ghostly pallor. Lying in bed, the moonlight pooling on the floor beneath the window, I confronted the true nature of my situation. I was there as more than an intern. I was her chosen replacement.
That fact was made even plainer during my first week in the valley. Our daily rounds, I soon discovered, taxed Gretel to the limit; and when we were called out on a birthing, the all-night vigil proved too much for her. In the end I was the one who delivered the babyÂ âÂ the woman's firstÂ âÂ and saw to both their needs. I also reassured the bewildered young husband, whom I found trembling and distressed on the outer porch.
âHer screams,' he muttered, refusing to meet my eyes. âShe sounded likeÂ .Â .Â .Â like an
âHush,' I said. âThat's no way to speak of her. Now go up to them, they need you. I'll be back in a few hours to see that all is well.'
While we were talking, Gretel appeared in the doorway.
âCome, Lucy, you've done enough,' she said, and drew me away. Once clear of the house, with the dawn gathering around us, she added: âI was impressed by the way you handled things tonight. Especially the father. That was kind.'
âHow else should I have handled him?' I said. âPeople are people. We are all the same inside.'
She shook her head at that. âNo, some here are different. More different than you can imagine.'
âHow do you mean, different?'
But she merely sighed, as though too tired to answer.