Amur honeysuckle. Black cherry. Honey locust. Tree-of-heaven. Sugar Hackberry. Eastern redcedar. Southern magnolia. Sawtooth blackberry. Crape-myrtle. Queen Anne’s-lace. The deep greens and golds, purples and whites of the flora is mesmerizing enough, but their fragrances make their own sacred pleasure-dome (to plagiarize Coleridge) in the warm air. The beauty makes me feel like I’m in some faraway, exotic place on vacation, but I’m not. This is my new home.
Dove’s-feather white. Enormous as whales. Billowing like sails. Tinged with baby’s-breath blue. Scattered and wispy. Gray and thundering. A hilly country with more pastures and fields than forests and mountains has opened up the vast and quiet world of clouds to me. The humidity is heavy on my lungs and clammy on my skin, but makes each rainstorm a sweet relief. Cloudbursts douse the dry, dusty ground and brown grass, filling ditches and rivers. They keep the greenery lush – apart from a few leaves that have shriveled in the heat, turned banana-yellow, and fallen.
Tiny, white-eared rabbits at silflay during golden hour. Cheery goldfinches, elusive cardinals, pert mockingbirds, and aggressive blue jays hopping around bird feeders. A mother cat and three silky black kittens with golden eyes watching me at dusk. A snake longer than my arm curled lazily in the middle of a path. Many of these creatures are familiar to me, but I love watching the drama of their alert watchfulness and quick movements on my walks. My own creature, a jolly golden retriever, enjoys chasing most of them, tongue hanging out, tail wagging.
A high school performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A four-person cast in a production of C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce.” Lectures on time, the Christian values embedded in our culture, grief, and joy at the Rabbit Room’s North Wind Manor. Over the past few years, I have trained myself to listen to rumors of talks and conferences, performances and concerts that I could possibly attend on Eventbrite, Universe, Facebook, Instagram, the websites of faith & art or Christian-based intellectual organizations, and blog posts. Now, it is so good to have this wealth of opportunities within easy driving distance. Each event is a small wellspring of ponderings on time, love, justice, and joy that keep me from drying up in the grinding necessities of life (like grocery shopping and taxes).
The turbulence of the past few years in the world and my life – COVID, moving a few times, war, government changes, travel, making and canceling plans – have made me expect ephemerality. As I shopped and hauled and hammered and shifted new furniture, I kept wondering how long it will be before I have to break down what I built, repack my possessions, and move somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable imagining myself becoming safe and settled anywhere for more than a year. When will the next pandemic, tornado, hurricane, or recession break? When will I need to make a career movie or transition for family or friends? Every anchor I screw into drywall and rug I unroll is an attempt to create a fragile but cozy haven for a time, however long that time is.
In these golden, sweltering, precious summer days, I’m reading stories and trying to craft my own. I savored Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White in the sultry afternoon sun by the pool. I paged through Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There on my phone as I waited in line at the county clerk’s office for new license plates. Every free evening, I hunt for magical creatures and literary archetypes in The Lore of Scotland and The Folk Tales of Scotland by the flickering light of a honey-scented candle. I can feel potential future readers with me in every scene I craft, as if I’m the driver of a safari bus tour, hoping I don’t run us all off the road into the jungle of clichés, melodrama, confusion, preachiness, or boredom.
But finally, after empty for so long, I’m able to dream again.
I finally got to travel. After yearning for it in the golden fall, dreaming of it in the windy winter, and planning for it in the cool green spring, I finally got out to the Highlands & Islands and a bit of the Lowlands: the Isles of Mull, Staffa, and Iona one weekend, the Isle of Skye, and then Edinburgh.
It’s been glorious, exhausting, enlightening, stressful, blissful. Hikes across emerald slopes sprinkled with tiny daisies, buttercups, purple heather, and fluffy cotton-grass; cozy evenings in wood-paneled pubs with tartan carpeting and paintings of antlered deer; ferry rides past rugged peaks and lonely islands; views of faraway blue hills and glimmering lochs; laughter and long talks on train and bus rides.
Each place gave me memories, dreams, and fragments of stories.
Iona is a tiny island, 3 square miles, with only 150 permanent residents and herds of grazing sheep and Highland cows (“coos”). It is also the place where St. Columba landed from Ireland in the 500s (1500 years ago!) and started an abbey. A replica/rebuild of the abbey is there today, full of the remnants of Celtic crosses, new sandstone pillars covered in intricate carvings, and ancient gravestones.
One of my favorite insights was seeing the snake-and-boss design. Despite the Edenic tradition of snakes as creatures of evil, apparently the medieval Christians saw the casting and regrowing of skin as a symbol of death and resurrection. I have heard whispers of the richness of Celtic Christinaity, of thin places and rhythms of life and mysteries incarnate in the natural world (such as clovers representing the Trinity) but I want to study more. The whole island felt quiet and sacred – a place to come and heal, walk the pasturelands and talk to God, and feel connected with the great cloud of witnesses that is the universal Church.
A sacred place of healing
An island at the end of the world
An abbey with a buried treasure
Staffa is even tinier than Iona, shaped by some geological process I still don’t fully understand to have natural hexagonal pillars. It looks giant-carved. We rode out by ferry for an hour, chilled by the sea-wind and enchanted with a fluffy white dog who loved us dearly, and then had an hour to explore it. We sprinted down to the wonder of Fingal’s Cave, aquamarine water in a deep black vault, and then back across the steep cliffs to see the PUFFINS. They were just as clownish and cute as we hoped, though tinier. They didn’t care anything about us, but launched off into the sky as a dark seabird flew overhead.
People resettling uninhabited isles and encountering magical creatures
An echoing cave that is really a shadow kingdom
A tour boat crew that has a special understanding with the mermaids in the area
Skye is more rugged than Iona, Mull, or Staffa. It’s also many shades of green and blue, with steep cliffs, purple heather, gray rock, and the same sprinkling of wildflowers. Slender waterfalls wend their way down the hills, among the evergreens. A Scottish shepherd recommended a gorgeous hike across the cliffs that gave us exquisite views: distant azure mountains, white sailboats on the sea, and window panes glittering in the town. We couldn’t capture it in photos, though we tried very, very hard. The shepherd also told us about the Nicholson clan of Portree (Port Righ in the Gaelic) who went broke in the 1800s and emigrated to Tasmania and the Carolinas.
We spent Sunday afternoon with Skye’s Magical Tours: an ex-fisherman named Brian took us to the glimmering Fairy Pools and around the island. Skye was magnificent, so old and huge that I felt small and lonely. We filled it with laughter, with dinner of shepherd’s pie and philosophical discussion, mornings of berry-and-Nutella crepes and foamy cappuccinos.
Cloud-creatures in a mountain country
Fairy folk who are defined by the color blue (as opposed to green, the traditional elvish color in Scottish lore)
Visitors arriving at a shepherd’s cottage
Selkies at twilight
City of Stone
After several trips in the wild, it felt strange to be in a busy city: buses and trams on Princes Street, women in flowery dresses, shops with tartan scarves and Celtic jewelry, gardens of pink roses and fragrant honeysuckle, Gothic architecture, and modern tinted windows. We feasted on the best of Edinburgh: touring the gilded halls of Holyrood Palace, cullen skink and clotted cream raspberry cheesecake at a cozy pub, dizzying views from Arthur’s Seat, dappled sunlight on the river by St. Bernard’s Well, and golden hour in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
A tiled fireplace with a secret message (I fell in love with Holyrood Palace’s tiled fireplaces)
Swans and a ruined abbey
Queen Ann’s lace on a dormant volcano
A locked well with healing powers
A brownie who lives at an Air BnB
Meditation: Commercialization vs. Reenchantment
In Edinburgh, thoughts planted on Mull, Iona, Staffa, and Skye finally took root and began to sprout: I realized how dramatic the tourism industry is in Scotland, and probably in other places. I mean “dramatic” in the sense of performative or theatrical: the little shops in Iona, Portree, Old Town, and other places shout all the most distinctive and unique aspects of Scottish culture and history to attract attention. The symbols of Scotland’s Scottishness – tartan, bagpipes, highland cows, the Loch Ness monster, Celtic runes and symbolism, ancient ruins, haggis, thistles, unicorns, and teapots – are the most prominently displayed where strangers and foreigners like me can purchase them and carry them home, like chipping stones from a crumbling castle. Scottish people cannot love tartan that much; it’s outsiders who want the flavor and breath and music of Scotland, because we want to come and experience something fresh and different and fully its own, individual self, somewhere unlike our home place. Most Scottish people shop at the T.K. Maxx or luxury mall we visited, which are almost identical to retail in America.
That made me sad. I know the Western world has many similarities – celebrities are popular in multiple countries, and so on – but I would hate to have all the beautiful distinctiveness of Scottish lore and heritage as a thing of the past. I have only been a Master’s student in an international university town for a year here, so I don’t feel that I really know the Scottish people and culture. But the sheer clamour of a few shops in New Town in Edinburgh made me uneasy, as if only the tourist industry wants to preserve full and distinctive Scottishness – and then, only to sell it.
But I have tasted Scottish culture in literature. I’ve been a dragonfly skimming the depths of it: Scottish fairy tales like “The Well at the World’s End” and “The Black Bull of Norroway,” ballads like “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” the mesmerizing fantasies of George MacDonald, the Jane Austen-ish societal explorations of Margaret Oliphaunt, the exquisite prose of George Mackay Brown, the haunting tales of James Hogg, and the simple profundity of Alexander McCall Smith. My side-project next year will be to delve more deeply into these and more.
These writers imbibed Scottish tradition and added to it, weaving the desires, dreams, fears, and tensions of their own time into the loom of myth and legend. As I writer, I want to follow in their footsteps and tell stories that help reenchant places like this. I want to reawaken the wonder of selkies on the beach in the moonlight and fairy folk dancing under the green hills, as well as capturing the mystery and dangers of our own time: the whispered rumors and masked faces of COVID, the political tensions that are re-tribalizing countries and regions, the seductive illusions of social media, and the now-too-familiar marvels of the Internet and smartphones.
After so many buses, trains, and ferries, it is good to be in St. Andrews again. I’m astonished to find that after magnificent peaks and staggering views on Skye and Arthur’s Seat, the soft, golden-green beauty of fields and woods heals me instead of overwhelming me.
This place is not home. It’s only mine for the rest of the summer. But I will love every day I have left.
Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change. E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, chapter XV, “The Crickets”
I hope I never lose my awe at the change of seasons, the year’s wheel turning from red to white to green to gold. This year, the whispers of autumn in the cool breezes and silver-dipped backs of leaves hurts me as much as it excites me. This summer was a dream, from the beauty of blue horizons and pink beach-roses to the amazing contributions to the Summer of Faerie project.
I’m ready to go to Scotland; ready for the long flight, the two-week quarantine, the world of books and music and art I will enter with the other students in my MLitt program. It will be good and hard and beautiful and strange. I have never lived in a foreign country; I have been dreaming of going to grad school for five years; I’m longing to dig deep into the richness of study; I’m nervous about the many things I don’t know, like what grocery store brands to buy or whether I can keep track of the dollar/pound conversion in my head.
I wrote this poem to capture some of the beauty of this summer and a little of the scattered research I’ve done of Faerie.
Dipping paddles into darkness, stirring Pollen gold dust over pondering deep, We tune our ears by cicadas’ whirring, Hearing loons cry ah-oo, spell of noon’s sleep.
Dragons dream below us. We glide like ghosts Over their ancient rest, tree-covered spines Watching like guards of a distant outpost Hungry, listening, waiting for mythic signs.
Staghorn sumac raises scarlet pledges, Toasting endless sky, hailing dark green peaks. Silver birches gleam at twilight’s edges. We pause, haunted, as night’s veil speaks.
Golden moment: scent of pine in a glade Swirling rich and sweet. Steep hills overgrown, Tangled with roots. Heat shimmers; phantoms fade. Did I dream it, or remember? Unknown.
Eelgrass rustles; breezes finger willows. Fireflies blink and twirl in shadowed trees. Green-Guards conduct the peepers’ twilight show, Their song of sleeping kings and emerald seas.
Orange seaweed drifts up from the sea caves Remnants of the Sea Folk’s midnight fun. Splashes: kids jump off the bridge into waves. Tide-Keepers giggle, scales glinting with sun.
Mourning doves cry oo-ah while the Dawn-Beasts Breathe on windows of a morning, fogging glass. Packing quickly, I watch the kindling east Turning green to gold. The zenith has passed.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that artists should never explain the meaning of their work: they can either remain mysteriously silent or drop cryptic hints. I’m going to break that a little now to explain the middle section of the poem, “The dream” because there’s a mystery there. Since spring, I’ve had a recurring daydream of a golden wood, a pine hollow baked dry and amber by the sun, full of hills that roots break through. It’s warm, silent, peaceful, safe, beautiful, sad. There might be a castle nearby; I think it has a wishing well. It may be from a book or movie (Ever After, Bridge to Terebithia, The Book of Three, Prince Caspian) or somewhere I have traveled (New Hampshire, Cape Cod, Pennsylvania, Yosemite). I thought it might be in Acadia National Park, but I didn’t find it there in June.
As I included that dream in my poem, I read Rebecca D. Martin’s beautiful article, on the Rabbit Room, “The Stories of Others.” I liked it so much that I went back and reread her Rabbit Room article from February, “Significant Lights.” The fourth paragraph brought me to a full stop: she describes a childhood dream
… infused with a beauty so rich I can still sense it. In the dream, I walked through a golden wood, as haunting as autumn, as living as spring. There were elements other than the forest, too: a castle, the sense of mystery, a deep feeling of belonging and hope, and even sorrow—a pervasive sadness that I couldn’t keep staying here in this most perfect place. . . . sometimes I still lay on the edge of sleep longing for a glimpse of that forest again.
Is my golden wood a subconscious memory of Rebecca’s article? (Probably.) Or did we both dream of the same place, miles and years apart? I have no idea, but the second idea reminds me of something I read in Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: L’Engle noticed that a certain image she used in her book A Swiftly Tilting Planet, a bonfire of roses, also appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy, George MacDonald The Princess and Curdie, and T.S. Eliot Little Gidding.
Where did the fire of roses originate? I suspect that it goes back beyond human memory. Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, chapter 10, “The Journey Homeward”
Is the golden wood a whisper of Deep Magic? I want to believe that.
I think the golden wood will haunt me in the darkness of winter in Scotland (six hours of light per day). I think it will come back to me when I slop through slush in the streets or feel cold, wet winds slicing through my jacket. I hope that instead of making me grumpy and discontent (as I can be), that fragrant silence, delicious heat, and golden radiance warm me from the inside out.
August is hot. Humidity hangs heavy in the air and (some mornings) paints fog on the windows. The leaves have darkened from their fresh spring green and hang limp, shriveled. I’m writing this while sitting on the back porch steps, my feet on the dusty earth and brittle grass, as our golden retriever sits in the middle of a lawn chewing a stick. Crickets murmur in the woods. Just now, though, a cool wind just came running through the tree canopy with that delicious rustling sound like running water.
My Faerie research has lapsed (somewhat) as I work through summer reading for St. Andrews. On our Montana trip, however, I read Charlotte E. English’s delightful Faerie Fruit, a tale with shades of Eden, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” and C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew mixed in with small-town intrigue and told with enchanting prose. The first section was my favorite, but the whole story was a fascinating look at food and eating in Faerie (a branch of study I need to examine further), community and friendship, self-control and desire, love and choices.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post also concerns choice and desire. Loren Warnemuende, who wrote a retelling of “King Thrushbeard” earlier this summer, also contributed an excerpt from her manuscript, Exile. It’s the first book in a trilogy named Daughter of Arden which retells the Grimm Brothers’ tale of “Maid Maleen.” I’ve had the privilege of reading some of the first drafts of the series, and it’s marvelous – rich, exotic, compelling, and gripping at every turn. I hope to see them in print someday. Enjoy!
by Loren Warnemuende
“Her Royal Highness, the Princess Maleen!” Minister Gooldon boomed. Echoes reverberated through the Hall, up against the arched stone ceiling and down across the glimmering windows.
At the front of the Hall King Darrick rose, and the assembly turned toward the center where Maleen must walk. She swallowed. There were so many people watching. Three days before she had stood here alone with her father when he had given her the incomprehensible choice—marriage to Prince Jared of Dranneth, or sojourn in a tower. He said the tower was the only alternative to the marriage, and both were to keep her safe from the looming war with the barbarous Kalomenn. Maleen had begged him to consider other options—if only he would consider Prince Melanor of Pandor, the one she loved, who loved her!—but the king wouldn’t bend and now she had to announce her decision.
Maleen took a deep breath, fixed her eyes on her father, and swept toward him. Colors swirled along her sides and the path moved on and on. She felt she traversed the history woven into each of the tapestries lining the walls, back to the dawn of Arden. At last she reached the steps of the dais. King Darrick stepped down to meet her and took her hands in his.
They stood, brown eyes to brown. She did not speak, and tried not to look down, forcing her face to give no signs of her turmoil. The hush in the Hall was almost unbearable.
“And so, Maleen?”
His words were soft, but they permeated her being and flowed through the Hall. Maleen lifted her chin, but her gaze dropped.
“I choose the tower,” she said, and the weight of the stone pressed in around her. But it was the only option that would give Melanor enough time to come for her.
The king gripped her hands tightly and a chatter of voices rattled like tossed pebbles through the Hall behind her. The king’s hold loosened, and he sighed deeply. He stepped up to his throne, leading Maleen to her delicate copy of his massive seat before he sat down. He motioned to a guard who stood by the council chamber door. The guard stepped within, then emerged followed by a man and a woman. They approached the dais and bowed deeply to the princess and the king.
“Princess Maleen,” King Darrick said, “I would like you to meet Sage Granimor and Dame Marietta. Granimor, as you know, will build the tower.”
Maleen nodded in acknowledgment toward the man with the wind-grained face and bulky shoulders. The man’s frame seemed out of place in the ornate hall.
“I am honored to see to your safety, Princess,” Granimor stated, looking at her with piercing blue eyes. He carried his authority as a sage like a mantle. Maleen wondered how honored the man really felt for Granimor revealed nothing.
“And this,” Darrick continued, “is Dame Marietta, who will join you in the tower.”
Maleen jerked her head toward her father, then turned her full stare onto the woman before her. Someone to accompany her? The thought had not crossed her mind! She assumed she was in this on her own—how could her father impose such a fate on anyone else? Then she realized her father would never force someone to join her. But who would come willingly? Not, of course, Maleen reminded herself, that they would actually enter the tower, but what if…. No, the idea was unthinkable.
The woman stood quietly before her and Maleen wondered what far corner of the castle she had been found in. Her hair, dark brown except for some gray at her ears, was pulled back loosely from her tanned face. She, too, had keen blue eyes that were fixed steadily on the princess, and her mouth was firm, but not tight. A blue sash tied the waist of her brown linen gown and her back was straight.
She stepped onto the first step of the dais and took Maleen’s smooth hands into her rough ones. Her eyes were now level with Maleen’s.
“I am looking forward to serving you again,” she said smiling. Her voice was low and rich.
Maleen gaped openly at the woman now. She was sure she had never laid eyes on her, and yet this peasant had the audacity to take her sovereign’s hand. Maleen closed her mouth, smoothed her face, and drew her hands away. Marietta, unperturbed, nodded slightly and stepped back to the foot of the dais.
Maleen saw her father frown faintly before he turned to her.
“Marietta has been a faithful member of this household since before you were born,” King Darrick explained. “She has worked in the library and kitchens, but it was she who nursed you your first two years.”
“Oh.” Maleen had no other words. She knew someone must have nursed her after her mother died, but no one ever said who. She’d never thought to ask. She stared again at this quiet woman who smiled at her with peaceful assurance.
The king waved his hand at the enigmatical pair, and with another bow they retreated to the council chamber. Maleen couldn’t take her eyes from the door where they exited. The rest of the Hall no longer existed.
Her father spoke beside her. “My dear, I hope you will continue your regular activities until the tower is built. It will be some months before it is complete.”
Maleen tore her eyes from the door but focused on her hands and didn’t look toward him.
“Yes Father, of course.”
He coughed slightly, and stood. She looked up into his face, trying to put away any feeling. The sight of his sad eyes, brows crumpled, and mouth compressed was too much for her. She stood quickly so she could avoid looking into his face again.
“You may go now,” the king said, his voice low. And then, “I will try to call you in more frequently, my child.”
“I—I thank you,” Maleen stammered blankly. She turned and stepped down the dais, moving toward the distant open doors, willing herself to remain calm and poised. She must be stalwart before her people. What would they think if she broke down now? And how could she let her father see how she felt? Let him show his pain! He should be anguished over sending his only heir and daughter into a prison. Besides, she thought, there’s no need for tears or tantrums! Melanor will come and take me away, far away, from all these people who pity me. She raised her chin again and left the hall with swift, unfaltering steps.
She had expected her ladies would follow. They had said they would stand behind her, and she thought they’d want to be there, if only for the purpose of scrutinizing her initial reactions. She had looked forward to venting her frustration onto them. But no one followed, and when Maleen reached the bottom of the Hall stairs she realized she was alone save the stony sentinels of the King’s Elite. She caught her breath, forcing down an unexpected lump in her throat, then conversely welcomed the rushing wave of relief that she was alone.
Maleen strode toward Ramia’s Garden, thankful there would be no unwanted company at this time of year. She wandered the paths in silence, trying to think only of the muted colors of winter. Eventually she settled onto a stone bench hidden in the rose arbor and wrapped her arms about herself to ward off the evening chill.
No roses bloomed, but the branches entwined the trellises, providing shelter from the cool winter breezes and possible prying eyes. The sun slipped behind the castle wall, but its ambient light cast a soft glow over everything. Maleen sat, drinking in the quiet, pushing thoughts away. Her eyes wandered, settling eventually on the brown stone of the Akklesia visible over the gardens. This building, a place of worship to the Mighty One, had stood for centuries here in Ardenay. It was a symbol of hope for the people—a center. It was only a small Akklesia, structured for the worship of castle inhabitants. Every castle and large town in the country had an Akklesia, most far more grand than this. But this one was significant because it was the first. Arden’s first king and queen had built it with their own sweat and blood, forging a core for their young kingdom. It was they who lit the first Light, the eternal flame that burned on a pedestal in the Akklesia, representing the Mighty One’s constant presence.
And what was the Mighty One’s perspective on Maleen’s situation now? Wasn’t he worshipped and honored because he protected his chosen people? Maleen was from the line of Arden’s kings and queens—the blood of the firsts flowed through her. Why didn’t the One Who Saves reach down and change her situation now? Why had he even let it occur?
No voice answered her questions; she hadn’t expected one. Instead the clear tones of the Akklesia choral girls rose, singing their evening hymn of praise. The single line of notes climbed sweetly into the clean air, dragging with it the lump lodged in Maleen’s chest. It rose into her throat and then mouth, and with it came the tears she had repressed so fiercely. A final ray of the sun lanced over the castle wall catching the roof of the Akklesia, and the water in Maleen’s eyes magnified it so it seemed to ignite and consume the building, annihilating hope. Without further care for appearances, Maleen lowered her head and sobbed.
When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles including wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids. Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool co-op, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope and a way to share the stories and big ideas that fill her mind and heart. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog Willing, Wanting, Waiting…..
Hot, bright days that burn the grass brown and brittle; dim, humid days when the air hangs heavy; gray, stormy days of booming thunder and sweet, cool rain. Lately, I’ve been enjoying the aurora borealis of Coleridge’s theology and poetry through Malcolm Guite’s Mariner, the golden web of mythology and folklore through D.R. McElroy’s Superstitions, the thick jungles and shining palaces of India through Joseph Jacobs’s Indian Tales, the green mountains and stone castles of Wales through the Mabinogion, and the silver dreaminess of legend through Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
While not every myth or fairy tale is my favorite (for instance, some of the monsters in Superstitions were quite shocking) I love how these stories remind me of the wonders of this world – fog on mountains, green tree-reflections on water, the glowing moon – and make me yearn to look over its edge into the wonders of eternity.
This week’s Summer of Faerie story expresses that same wonder with a burning brightness like fireflies at night. Rachel A. Greco retells Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale,The Nightingale, with grace and depth, using such vivid language that I feel like I dreamed it. Enjoy!
The Nightingale’s Song
by Rachel A. Greco
Travelers braved the Briny Sea, the Peaks of Misfortune, and the Sands of Time to hear the nightingale’s song. Brighter than summer’s sun, sweeter than roses, it left the stoutest warrior’s heart quivering. But only at night did the enchanting music flood the forest.
Although the nightingale sang in the forests surrounding his palace, Emperor Ghanzou had never heard or seen the bird.
One evening, while showing dignitaries the splendors of his palace’s porcelain walls, ambassador Rolf asked the emperor, “Have you heard the nightingale’s song? It made me cry like a baby.”
“I have yet to see or hear the bird,” the emperor growled, annoyed the men weren’t complimenting his sculptures. “How do we know such a creature exists? Perhaps it’s just the temple bells or a dragon’s song.”
“Oh no, your majesty,” Rolf said. “It must be a nightingale.”
“Then bring it to me,” Emperor Ghanzou commanded.
The men stood as silent as the jade statues, for they didn’t know how to capture a nightingale or even find one.
The kitchen maid’s daughter had overheard the conversation as she scuttled by to prepare their tea. “Please, your majesty,” she bowed before him, “the nightingale is a special friend of mine. I can convince it to come and sing for you if you wish.”
The Emperor stared at the bowed head and food-smattered apron, surprised such an insignificant girl knew something the men did not. “Bring it at once.”
The maid darted away.
Emperor Ghanzou awaited the bird’s arrival after dinner and told a servant to bring a net in case the bird was as splendid as everyone said.
The emperor’s fingers tapped against his jade throne. The windows opening onto the balcony let in moonlight and the fragrance of jasmine.
A bird landed on one of the windowsills. It was a small, simple creature. How could such magnificent music come from such an insignificant source?
The bird opened its beak, and Ghanzou no longer cared. Crystalline music filled his head with sunnier days, when life was simple and sweet. When he stole kisses from a kitchen maid whom he had loved but couldn’t marry. Tears streamed down his face.
When the bird stopped, Ghanzou blinked as if coming out of a trance.
With his permission, his servant leapt toward the nightingale with his net.
The bird darted out the window.
“Get it!” Ghanzou thundered. “I must have that bird.”
The reward was set, the hunters found, and the search began.
Although the sharpest-scented dogs and sharpest-sighted men trekked through the empire, they couldn’t capture the bird. Years passed, and the nightingale continued to sing, often near the palace, but the little bird proved too clever for the emperor and his men.
Emperor Ghanzou’s rage and longing for the nightingale’s music drove him to bed with illness. As his strength drained away, his anger and greed drained with it. All he wanted was to hear the bird sing one more time before he died since he hadn’t heard its song since the night it escaped.
One evening, when his coughs kept the nurse beside his bed, she said, “The nightingale has come to sing for you, your majesty.”
He turned and saw its small figure on the windowsill, its beady eyes examining him. “So you’ve come now that I’m dying.” He sighed. “I suppose it’s what I deserve for trying to capture you. Thank you for coming.”
The bird opened its mouth and sang. It sung all through the night, and the emperor smiled for the first time in a long time.
“Your Majesty, the nightingale has turned into a girl,” the nurse’s voice hauled Ghanzou out of the pleasant memories the song had given him.
The kitchen maid’s daughter sat on the sill, dirty and simple. But the dawn cloaked her in light.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“I am a nightingale by night and Chynna, the kitchen maid’s daughter who has no father, by day.”
She stared at her feet. “You didn’t want me as your daughter, so I hoped you’d want me as your nightingale. I didn’t want to live in a cage, though.”
She glanced up. “I heard you were dying, so I came to sing for you again.”
Ghanzou knew the kitchen maid had carried his child and let her stay on. But he had put them from his mind so he could rule and produce heirs. Over the years he had forgotten the woman and child until the music had reminded him. He gazed at the young woman. His daughter. Poor and filthy, but not as insignificant as he once thought.
“Come here.” He opened his arms.
She sank into them, healing him with her song.
Rachel A. Greco
Rachel Greco is a YA fantasy author who wishes she was a dragon. Her short story, Fairy Light, won an honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition and another was published by White Cat Publications. When not writing, she can be found reading, kayaking, or dancing with elves in the forests of her South Carolina home. Visit https://www.rachelagreco.com/ for book recommendations and news about her writing world.
Summer: the smell of pine, sunscreen, and wood smoke, the feeling of the hot sun on your skin and wet grass on your bare feet, the sight of green leaves everywhere. For me, this is the time of greatest freedom and beauty: the season when you can turn on your favorite playlist in the car with the windows down; swim in cool water until your hands and toes are pruny; star-gaze in the warm nights; pick blueberries and bake them into cobbler. I taste sehnsucht when I see blue mist over the sea or hear the weird, chuckling cry of a loon.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post is a fascinating one by Emma Fox. Emma introduced me to the French composer Claude Debussy, a lover of mythology and friend to many Symbolist poets and artists. Her poem was inspired by an image of Debussy and his beloved daughter Emma in a forest south of Paris, taken shortly before their deaths near the end of WWI (see the picture below). Debussy is famous for his orchestral work, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” This poem asks, what if he really did see a faun there in the woods?
Debussy was fascinated the concept of Gesampkunstwerk or “total work of art,” or unifying text, visual art, music, and even movement into one work. In honor of that concept, I recommend listening to “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” as you read this poem (and, perhaps, finding some woods to sit in as you do) – let them take you into this time, this moment, this vision.
Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun: A Prelude
by Emma Fox
There really was a faun— I know, because I glimpsed him in the southern forest. The war had dragged on, at the Somme and at Verdun, Verdant no longer, but choked With ragged brambles of barbed wire The tongues of dragon fire and poisoned fumes Driving from the woods both deer and dove.
Paris had become a cage for us. The shuttered shops of the Champs-Elysees Sagged pale and weary, windows boarded up, Unable to bear the Arc de Triomphe Stranded in the star, cut off at the hip Like the legs of a broken Colossus.
We fled to the forest, my daughter and I. We galloped on an iron horse to a far kingdom Where castles rose like broken dreams From the shrouded groves of memory. We found a spot between the trees To spread our blanket and eat apples, And listen to the language of the birds.
That’s where we saw the faun. Just his curled horns at first, sticking out from behind a tree— He slept, unaware of our presence, His naked chest rising and falling with each breath And his furred legs nestled in the grass like foxes, While his bright hooves twitched to a silent tune.
A warm wind stirred the leaves above our heads. He slept on—dreaming perhaps of virgin groves And naiads bathing in the stream, And the music of flutes beneath the stars In ancient times, long before Caesar Stormed in with the legions, striking down trees And strangling rivers with aqueducts.
The faun never woke. We tiptoed away— Folded our blanket, and walked through the wood To the station. We were silent the whole journey home, But in my daughter’s eyes I saw summer leaves and starlight. And on the iron platform, her buttoned leather shoes Twinkled, waltzing to some silent melody.
And I knew this afternoon would be the prelude to her song.
Emma Fox first met a faun at age seven, when wandering through the Narnian woods. She fell in love with Claude Debussy’s music in high school, eventually leading to degrees in music and art history and a lifelong interest in the intersection of music, art and literature. She now lives in the “Magic City” of Birmingham, Alabama, along with her husband, three book-loving children, and a loyal border collie. Her debut fantasy novel The Arrow and the Crown has received multiple awards, including the Warren S. Katz Award for Juvenile Fiction and 1st Place in Young Adult Fiction from the SCBWI Southern Breeze division. Explore more of her fantasy world and work at http://emmafoxauthor.com/.
Spring has fallen upon us all at once this week: gray clouds have melted into clear skies, bright green leaves have filled up the woods, and the temperatures jumped from the 50s to the 80s. For me, this Memorial Day weekend is the real beginning of summer, when lawnmowers roar to life, lilacs fill the air with sweetness, and the heat of the sun fills your winter-harrowed soul.
After enjoying several creative collaboration projects with other writers for Thanksgiving and late winter, I wanted to do something fun for this summer. I toyed with a few ideas, but finally settled on a project called Summer of Faerie that was born from my love for fantasy and fairy tales.
For this Summer of Faerie project, I gave some fellow writers from The Habit the following prompt, inviting them to contribute:
Short, prose fairy tale retellings
Faerie/fairy tale-themed poetry
Creative nonfiction about fairy tales in general
I had three suggestions for these works:
Consider focusing on something other than romance.
Consider mythologizing your own region through this work – how can your hometown or city be just as magical as a castle on a mountain or tower in the wilderness?
Consider how we can meditate on the Gospel through thinking about fairy tales. G.K. Chesterton argued that “conditions” of fairy tales teach us a “The Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that parallels the truth of the Bible: “A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” (I’m quoting his weird and wonderful essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” in his book Orthodoxy.)
Several writer-friends responded to the challenge, and the contributions so far have dazzled me. One of the first contributors was AJ Vanderhorst, who just released an amazing novel, The Mostly Invisible Boy. Enjoy!
by AJ Vanderhorst
Two parents with too many hobbies. Two parents with four crazy, precocious boys. We overlooked the low sales price. We overlooked a lot. We were a little desperate, well, more than a little. We needed someplace big and HOA-free and durable—and fast.
The missing background didn’t bother me at first and I’m a journalist at the Kansas City Star. At least I used to be. Go on, laugh. These things have a way of creeping up on you.
The house’s previous owner, a genial, raisin-skinned gentleman who gave you the impression of holding nothing back, told us the sprawling four-story place was built in 1915. We believed him. Not that we cared, because the house was gorgeous. Dwell Magazine with vintage swagger. You felt taller just standing in the shade of its colonnades.
By the time I got around to checking, the origin story proved impossible to verify. No records on micro-fiche. No permits at KC Planning & Development—not that they looked very hard. For a while I dug around in the basement, hoping to find old documents in a forgotten corner. Believe me, there were plenty of those.
Forgotten corners, I mean.
When we knocked down nonstructural walls, which happened a couple times as we got moved in, I’d scan each yellowed page of newsprint while the kids sifted dust for arrowheads and shark teeth. Nothing.
Sometimes the clue you need is staring you in the face. In this case, the clue was: nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Plenty of dirt on everyone else though. One rabbit trail through KC history gave me an inside track on the next door neighbors. They’d been accused of witchcraft in 1740, which, reading between the lines, was code for “really big jerks we don’t want at the barbecue.” That family is still here and they’re still obnoxious and I can totally see it.
In 1911 someone’s rooster got blasted with a shotgun and buried in concrete for crowing at 4:59 instead of 5 am. I can’t help feeling neighborhood news has become a lot less interesting.
In the more recent past, I learned how mob “Boss Tom” Pendergast got his claws in the KC Code Department—and made it so crooked that today it still can’t stop citing and snickering long enough to look you in the face.
But I found nothing on our cavernous brick house. Only the growing feeling, as I walked its wide staircases and traced the shadows of its vaulted ceilings, that it wasn’t normal. Which was fine at first. Because downtown thought our family, with its size and irrepressibility, was pretty weird too.
I formed a theory that an exasperated realtor had pulled the 1915 date out of thin air and slapped it on his deed of sale. There were no records of the behemoth’s original use. No tales of mobs it’d outlasted with its quintuple-thick walls. No reason given for its many secret crawl spaces. The deep gouges in its irreplaceable timber floors. Or its poured concrete roof.
At the time, my most intriguing find was a sentence from an 1875 account of Kansas City’s stockyards: “The beef barons shipped their assets on the hoof, and herds of cattle, sheep and pigs overran the West Bottoms daily. This was a stark contrast to the more exotic, costly creatures that were rumored to arrive on the riverfront under cover of darkness.”
The “news” story gave me a prickly feeling behind my eyes. The feeling was hard to pin down as it scurried along my bones. I labeled it curiosity and tried to forget it. Curiosity isn’t usually so nagging. It doesn’t usually cause you to turn on extra lights and stay up late at night.
But the story appeared next to an ad for “MAGIC medicinal TONIC for the FORTIFICATION of boys, girls and calves.” So I felt justified in dismissing it, or trying to. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know this was my first mistake. Snobbery toward old news—news I stupidly wrote off because I could associate it with hoaxes.
Before everything happened, people often asked me for advice (free of course) about buying and fixing up old houses. Now, as the sun hangs in the middle of the sky and cocktail hour approaches, I know what I should’ve told them:
“Yeah, remodeling physical history is a nasty beast. But let’s step back. How old is the place? Is it too big? Just…Way. Too. Big? In a strange Hitchcockian way that gnaws at you slowly, offending your sense of proportion? Are there too many fireplaces? Do the quiet, twisting hallways send centipedes down your spine?”
That’s all the free advice I’d offer. But if they could afford to pay me for my time…and my scars…and my abrupt career change, I’d say:
Dragons. It just might be dragons. So point me in their direction and get out of the way.
AJ Vanderhorst is a husband, dad and author who loves barbecue, as do all right-thinking people. His relationship with monsters is long and complicated. Visit him online at ajvanderhorst.com.
Summer is in its noon. This season, midsummer, was always the most heavenly time for me. New England is steamy with humidity on sunny days and rumbles with thunderstorms at least once a week. The lilies are opening up like small trumpets, pink tea roses bloom in my mom’s garden, and every weekend, the highways glimmer with the red taillights of families going to or from the beach.
In my childhood, mid-July was the climax of the year: swimming among the water lily pads in the kettle ponds of Cape Cod, hiking and catching salamanders in the green mountains of New Hampshire, and backpacking in the blue wilderness of Yosemite.
A few months ago, I was musing about story climaxes and happy endings. My favorite stories ended happily, usually in one of three ways: with a war (or at least a battle), a wedding, or both. (To be precise, the war is often the climax, and the wedding is the happy ending.)
Wedding – Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Half Magic, Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, The Sherwood Ring, Time at the Top, Ella Enchanted, The Farthest-Away Mountain
War – The Hobbit, Harry Potter, The Battle for the Castle, A Wind in the Door, The Great and Terrible Quest
Both – The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, the Prydain series, The Fairy Rebel
Wars and weddings make excellent climaxes/endings: the violence and suffering of war resolves itself in victory, and the pain and desire of love are resolved in marriage. I think there’s a deeper reason why these events make good endings, though: they point us towards the true end of the world.
Christians believe that history is teleological, or has a purpose and and ending (instead of being random, meaningless, or endless). The telos or purpose of history is the fulfillment of God’s judgement and redemption. God created humans to be in an intimate relationship with Him, but when the first man and woman sinned (broke God’s law), humanity separated from God. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross paid the price for sin and allowed humans to be reconciled to God. At the end of the world, that reconciliation will be complete, and those who believe in God will enter heaven to be with Him forever.
The end of the world includes the end of a War that has raged throughout history, the battle between Satan and the armies of God. It will conclude with a Wedding, the marriage of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church.
I think every story that ends with a war, a wedding, or both foreshadows the reality of the last days. The War will be greater and more terrible than the flood that destroyed the old world – but it will end with victory. The Wedding will be more glorious than a summer sunset. Believers will cross the edge into eternity, where worshipping God is truly our happy ever after.
Revelation 21:1-4 – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Happy endings anticipate eternity. When a good book or series ends with “happily ever after,” readers can imagine the victory and marriage continuing in perfect joy, without having to watch the problems that are inevitable in a fallen world.
Not all good books end with wars and weddings – or, the war and the wedding are not the whole resolution. Some end with new beginnings, like Anne of Green Gables or Hannah Coulter. Others end with homecoming, like The Hobbit. Some end with a joyful death, like Les Miserables. I think all these happy endings are wrapped up in our yearning for heaven: the Homecoming, the Rescue, the beginning of the delicious mystery of Eternity.
A few years ago, one of my favorite English professors warned us about climax seasons. He said times of greatest joy and fulfillment – such as our wedding days – can also carry the greatest grief and yearning. Climaxes remind us how much we yearn for the true Happy Ending.
In this climax season (of the year, if not my life) of summer, I yearn for the end of the War, the Wedding, the Homecoming, and the New Beginning. And the happy endings of the books I love remind me that it is coming soon.
In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, Emily’s gruff teacher shuffles through her poetry with a critical eye and sarcastic asides. “Ode to Winter – the seasons are a sort of disease all young poets must have, it seems,” he remarks.
If delight in the seasons is a disease, I’m not sure I want to recover. The music of spring, summer, autumn, and winter fascinates me. When I was younger and obsessed with summer, I felt the year was a great wheel that reached its joyous climax in midsummer before turning back down to autumn.
I’m only two and a half years out of school, and I still analyze each year separately. Each summer since college has brought its own blessings, challenges, and questions of yearning.
How Yo You Fully Live? Yearning for Purpose
The first summer after college, I had just gotten my first job. Every day, I thanked God that I found work that used my writing skills – but sitting alone in a cubicle in a dead-silent office all day was hard. I was lonely and bored.
Is this what real life is like? I asked myself. Did all my teachers in school inspire me to change the world and follow my heart just so I could tap away at a computer for the rest of my life?
One weekend, I went with some friends to a lake house in the mountains. We slathered on cool-smelling sunscreen and played catch in the blue shallows under the hot July sun. After a while, I sat on the warm wooden dock to listen to my friends talk and watch the others laugh and splash in the game.
How do you fully live in this world? I kept pondering. Is this how you do it – work a boring job all week so you can have fun on the weekends?
For all the life principles Sunday School and my parents taught me, I couldn’t figure it out. How does God want us to balance pleasure and pain? Should we (American Christians, in my case) try to make money to donate to good causes and enjoy, or become foreign missionaries and live on beans? Should we pursue work that’s interesting, noble, or lucrative?
I couldn’t answer these questions under the hot July sun, or through that long year. In retrospect, I think God was teaching me to seek Him, not just a lifestyle or a calling that was labeled and packaged with a bow. The words of Ravi Zacharias helped with my questions about pleasure and pain:
Anything that refreshes you without distracting or diminishing or destroying your final goal is a legitimate pleasure.
“How do we fully live?” is a question to ask every day, not just once. However, if my final goal is to glorify God, I should enjoy pleasure that refreshes me on the way and persevere through pain. But my gaze needs to stay firmly on Him.
How Can I Participate in Community? Yearning for Fellowship
My second summer out of college was possibly the happiest of my life (though that summer after kindergarten with the slip n’ slide was pretty great). I had just changed jobs and now had kind, thoughtful coworkers who I could actually see and talk to, interesting work, and a gorgeous New England town of cobblestone streets and a blue harbor to explore.
In this new place and new commute, I ached to invest in friendships and meaningful work. How do you participate in community? I wondered, especially toward the end of last summer. Outside of the microcosmic bubble-worlds of high school and college, how do you build relationships and find good causes to join in? After some research and seeking, I found a Christ-centered, vibrant church and joined a small group and a ministry.
Those two weekly church events were torches through that fall and dark, cold winter. Some nights, I arrived breathless and feeling as though burning frost was eating away my skin. Some nights, swan’s-feather snow and icy highways kept me at home. But the nights I could go were feasts of fellowship: warm, encouraging, funny, and fascinating.
My small group read through the Book of Acts and watched the drama of the fledgling Church unfold, marveling at Peter’s new wisdom in the Spirit, of Paul’s perseverance for the church. The ministry group centered on carrying the light of grace and hope into some of the darkest places I know of.
How do you participate in community? is a question is one to ask in every season of life, not just once, but I began to discover that loving friendships and worthwhile work (especially ministry) go together. Striving side by side is the best way to find the intimacy of understanding and trust – easier and more lasting than building relationships on conversation alone.
This summer is slipping past like a dream, and it’s different from the last two: I don’t know that there’s a central question yet, other than how can I find joy in a season of waiting?
Even as I worry about every unknown, I remember how lovingly God has shepherded me through post-graduate life. I need to learn again the simple trust of abiding. And, in the meantime, attend to my summer adventure bucket list before these golden days are gone.