Shame and sorrow were to be her lot in life. The legacy given to her and the legacy she herself would pass on.
Endora was born below the earth in a realm so little thought of that it had no name. That was why the many peoples who lived there took such care with and pride in their own names. “Endora” meant “light.” Oftentimes, her name was the only light in the cozy but humble hollow where she and her family made their home.
She grew up hearing stories of the world above the firmament of earth that was her sky, stories of a world where the sky was endless and ever-changing, sometimes shining brilliant blue, sometimes broiling with a thickened fog that was called “clouds” that crashed together and erupted in flashes, and sometimes dark violet and sprinkled with millions of glinting lights from far away. There was one light that rose in this sky, a light so gloriously bright that one could not set one’s eyes directly upon it.
Some of these stories were legends passed on from those who were descended from people in the upper world, or from fairies who resided both under and above. But many of the stories that Endora heard came from her best friend, Lio.
Lio was a dirbeghh. They were rodent-like burrowers with a special kind of covering, something like feathery fur that could flare up and expel all the dirt that stuck to them as they burrowed. Their broad ears were sensitive too, which is why they didn’t tend to be out in the open whether below or above the earthen firmament.
Endora was a child when she first spotted him, tunneling out of a corner of the market square. He noticed her watching and flared his ears. Burrowers were supposed to be so shy and cunning that no one ever saw them, not directly. Most people did not believe they truly existed at all, at least not for a long while.
Endora thought the dirbeghh looked like one of the flying creatures that roamed the upper world. Something called a “butterfly.” She had always been charmed by such creatures, bees, butterflies…birds. There were no flying creatures in the realm under the earthly firmament. The burrower’s curiosity led him to her time and again, and they soon became friends. Endora named him Papillio—Lio for short.
Lio could not fly, but he could and had burrowed all the way to the top of the earthly firmament, and he had seen the unending open sky of the upper world. He brought back word of the world above to Endora. Though Lio understood her, he never spoke. She only knew what he meant by his expressions and by the tapping of his fingers on a surface (typically her hand). In fact, she had unknowingly learned the language of the dirbeghhs, for the tapping was how they “spoke.”
When no one else around her proved able to see him, Endora thought he was a very vivid imaginary friend. Yet he followed her out of childhood and into her maturity.
When it came time for Endora to marry, her mother told her she must give him up. For when she left her own home for the home of her husband, it would surely be noticed and remarked upon that Endora spoke to the ether. It might even lead to her being rejected or shunned and unable to marry at all. Endora had always imagined that her husband, whoever he would be, would understand. Or if he did not understand, that he would tolerate her bond with a creature that only she believed to be real. But she realized that there was a difference between an oddity and outright madness. One could be tolerated, but the other…
She did not believe she was mad or even ill. But just as her family looked up to the earthen firmament and longed to rise up and past it, so did she. Endora had always looked up. She had always hoped and dreamed to seeing the unending sky. She had dreamed of seeing it with Lio perched upon her shoulder.
Lio too was deemed odd among his kind. The burrowers were intensely curious, but just as intensely shy. No other dirbeghh would dare to stand within the gaze of another creature. Lio had. He inspired suspicion, awe, and frustration within his own kind. So when Endora told Lio that it must be so, that she must grow up, and he must return to his own kind, and they both must find other friends, Lio agreed.
Their words firm, their hearts uncertain, they both agreed.
Endora’s family was not among the well-to-do, but they were asked to a celebration that the cave fairies put on to find a suitable mate for one of their lords. None of his kind wanted to marry him, for he was a somber and sober fellow. Not at all suited to the typically whimsical natures of the other cave fairies. (It was modern times that brought such whimsy. Cave fairies had traditionally been known for their somberness.)
Lio sat upon Endora’s shoulder, peaking out at the festivities from behind her long loose hair. She tried to hide it, but it was noted by some that she often appeared to be speaking to herself. But not to all. The fairies, especially the lord, noted that Endora was speaking to a creature that, while common, was shy and rarely spotted out in the open. The fairies knew that dirbeghhs were not just difficult to spot, but were in fact, invisible to many creatures and many peoples. Even some fairies of the upper world could not see them. They whispered about Endora and her dirbeghh friend.
The fairy lord was intrigued enough to approach Endora. Lio retreated into the safety of her hair. The fairy lord remarked about the dirbeghh in low tones. He wondered if Endora could see Lio because she had fairy blood. He spent the evening conversing with her, and she was charming enough to charm him. Endora herself was charmed by the lord’s handsomeness and more so by his acknowledgement of Lio.
Later that night, lying in her bed in the dark, unable to sleep, wondering as the fairy lord had wondered, Endora asked aloud, “Is it true? Can I see you because I have some fairy blood in me?”
Lio tapped out his answer upon the back of her hand. No, you see me because you choose to.
Endora’s parents were much pleased with how the night had progressed. Endora herself was as well pleased to learn that there were others who could see Lio. She knew he was real. But there had always remained some small doubt. She wondered what might have been if she had never encountered any cave fairies. She and Lio spoke of not having to give up their friendship after all, if she were to marry the lord or any other person who could see Lio.
Endora soon learned that the fairy lord favored her and had asked for her hand. Her parents had agreed, and Endora agreed. She was intrigued by the fairy lord and liked him well enough, but she was more excited at the prospect of rising to the upper caves. If she arranged for a likewise upward marriage for her children, and on and on, then their line may one day rise up above the earthen firmament and live beneath the ever-changing and eternal sky. They would live as the highest of beings. They might even do noble works and bring more from below up above without the need for unions of convenience. She dared to dream that she herself might visit the upper world sometime.
She asked her husband-to-be if he had ever ascended into the world above. The fairy lord said that he had indeed, but there was nothing to see there that in his judgement exceeded the beauty of the world below.
As dowry, the fairy lord asked of only one thing, a portrait of Endora, to be painted by a painter of his choosing, and to be paid for by him. To this Endora’s family was quite agreeable. They had amassed a small amount of treasure to launch her forward and upward, but it was so little as to be an insult to someone of the fairy lord’s rank. The fairy lord told the painter to paint Endora as she truly was.
Endora sat for that painting for three days. Each day, she donned the same dress of blue and green with a delicate vine pattern upon the deeply dipping collar. Each day, her voluminous hair was swept back and tied into a neat and elegant bun. Each day a delicate golden circlet, with ornate filigree rising from the band like a crown, was placed upon her brow. Each day she sat in the same pose for many hours until the lamps and candles burning all about began to dim.
On the last day, to keep her company, Lio sat on her shoulder and tapped out jests upon the delicate skin of her neck, and blew tiny gusts of air into her ear. Endora struggled not to laugh. When the painter was finished, they waited another three days for the painting to dry and set. Upon the portrait’s revealing, all were stunned.
Her parents were mortified, for there was sorrow in Endora’s expression, sorrow and shame in the way her eyes were cast down and averted to the side. All but the fairies present were shocked to see the concerned-looking creature perched upon her shoulder.
Endora too was surprised. She insisted to her disappointed parents that she had smiled for the whole time she sat for the portrait, even until it hurt her cheeks to keep the expression. But she was secretly curious and wondered why it appeared as if she was both sorrowful and ashamed. And why Lio appeared so concerned when he had behaved even more carefree than he typically was. Perhaps she was ashamed that she didn’t earn her way to the privileges she was soon to enjoy upon marrying the fairy lord, especially since she did not love him as yet. She had always thought she would marry for love. As one of humble upbringing, it was the one freedom she was certain she would enjoy, and she had looked forward to it. Perhaps beneath the excitement was the shame of the betrayal she had committed upon her own freedom.
The fairy lord announced that he would not marry an unwilling partner, and Endora’s portrait proved that she was unwilling. When her parents insisted that she was indeed willing and asked what she might do to prove it, the fairy lord was so moved by their entreaty that he took pity on them. The next day, he set a challenge before Endora. If she could meet it, she would prove to him that, despite the truth of the portrait, she truly wanted to wed him.
Endora, sickened that she had let down her family, accepted the challenge at once.
The fairy lord gave Endora a locked box within which he had placed a treasure that was dear to him. With the box, he gave her a map and instructed her to follow it and carry that treasure to the upper world. She would find clues along the way that would lead her to the key that opened the box. Once she found the key, she was to bring the box to its final destination—also on the map—where the lord would be waiting for her. She must not open the box until she reached him. Only then could she unlock the box and claim the treasure that lay within.
Endora was certain that what lay in the box was the fairy lord’s own heart. Fairies knew enchantments to separate their hearts from their bodies and yet live, for a while. She did not dare ask the lord if it was indeed his heart that lay in the box. She was both eager and fearful. She did not want to risk him changing his mind. But she did have a request.
She asked if she might bring a companion to help her. The fairy lord granted her only one companion of her choice. Endora’s father volunteered, but she refused him and asked if Lio might go with her instead. She chose Lio because he would be of more help to her, being a burrower, and one who’d traveled to the upper world.
She, who had never risen more than half a league from the height where she was born, was guided by the cave fairies to the upper caves. It was there that Endora was given the map and told that she had but seven days to meet the fairy lord in the upper world.
For the first day and much of the second, Endora followed the map and rose through the caves and tunnels of the fairies. Lio guided her when she was unsure about the path laid out on the map. They encountered fairies on occasion, but none gave aid. They all seemed to know that she was on a quest. Endora wondered if the fairy lord or his kin had marked her in some way that all other fairies would recognize.
By the end of the second day, she had moved above the territories of the cave fairies to a series of vast caverns connected by larger tunnels. On the third morning, Endora and Lio slowed as they passed one particular cavern, attracted by the glowing fire within and the smell of something savory. They came upon a small dragon, who was making a soup. She lived deeper in the cavern and was happy to invite two travelers inside for some soup and tales of the world below or above, depending on the way the travelers were traveling. Endora only said that she was traveling to the upper world for the first time, so she could see the unending sky.
After sharing in Endora’s excitement, the dragon warned her if she was to survive in the world above, with the flaming sun upon her, she must adapt her eyes and her skin to the sun. She could cover her skin with dense cloth, but her eyes would suffer unless she glazed them a shading spell. The dragon had no such spell at hand, but claimed she could acquire some, if Endora would do her a favor and gather some special mushrooms for her that she particularly enjoyed in her soups and stews.
Endora did not want to be delayed, but nor did she want her eyes to burn out once she ascended. When the dragon went to fetch some spice, Endora asked Lio if the dragon could be lying. After all, the fairy lord would surely have warned her of any dangers. But then, perhaps, he might not know, being a fairy, what dangers she—not being a fairy—might face. Lio was not sure about the dragon, but he did feel it was safer to believe that her eyes would need some protecting in the upper world. Endora had planned to travel quickly enough to arrive with one day to spare, just in case situations like this arose, where she might have to go astray from the marked path. She agreed to the bargain, and the dragon told her where to find the mushrooms.
Endora found the mushrooms that the dragon needed, but the dragon had neglected to tell her one important detail about the special mushrooms. They were being grown by a territorial gnome, who suspected, when Endora offered to purchase the mushrooms, that she planned to take them to the dragon. The gnome claimed that this selfsame dragon had previously stolen the mushrooms.
Endora explained the bargain she made with the dragon. The gnome grudgingly agreed with the dragon’s advice. He warned her not to trust the dragon to give her the correct potion, however, and to test the potion herself. Endora asked how she might test the potion. The gnome claimed to know, but he would not tell her, and he would not sell her any mushrooms, unless she did a small task for him first.
To do the task, she must ascend to the tunnels of the dirbeghhs. Here, the gnome glanced at Lio, and Endora started. She was still unused to meeting anyone who could see Lio. Though it was a different colony of dirbeghhs than the one from which he hailed, Lio might be able to help. The gnome believed that the dirbeghhs built their tunnels upon a rare vein of a rare ore that he desired above all other desires, even above his desire to keep his precious mushrooms from the mouth of that greedy dragon. The dirbeghhs were generally agreeable, but so shy that none could find them or speak to them to bargain with them. It would be uncivilized and cruel to simply invade their tunnels. Since Endora was already familiar with one dirbeghh, the gnome thought she would have an easier time of finding and speaking with the dirbeghhs, and passing on the gnome’s request. She could ask the colony to shift their tunnels so that the gnome could mine that vein of ore. As to what compensation they would receive, the gnome told Endora that was part of her task. If she could do as he wished, then he would give her the mushrooms.
Endora was upon the fourth day of her journey. She was supposed to have found the key by her fifth day, and she wondered if she should risk just emerging into the sun. But she feared blindness. She studied the map and found that if she could convince the dirbeghhs to help her in another way, they should be able to dig a temporary tunnel leading up, one that would bypass the path on the map. She would make it to the fairy lord in time. She still had to hurry, for she would have to turn back on her path to fulfill her part in her bargains with the gnome and the dragon.
With Lio’s help, she soon found and spoke to the dirbeghhs. They were so agreeable that they did not ask anything of her in return, either for diverting their tunnels or making a new one for her. Endora knew that she could just take their gifts for granted, but she could not let their grand efforts go unrewarded. As she was in haste, she vowed to herself to return and find some way to repay them.
She decided that she may need to emerge without the shield upon her eyes after all, to ensure that she reached the fairy lord in time to present the box to him. When it was quiet enough, and when she held the box up to her ear, she heard a soft rhythmic beating. Lio too heard it with his far more sensitive ears. So it could be nothing but the fairy lord’s own heart. Every day it was outside his body, the enchantment that kept it alive was wearing down. She guessed that was why he gave her only seven days. She hoped he had allowed himself an extra day, that it would actually take eight days for the enchantment to break and his heart to fail. But she could not take that chance with the life of another.
So she raced back to the gnome and told him that his request was granted and that the dirbeghhs, as deft as they were at digging, had already left the tunnel for him. He gave her the mushrooms and grudgingly admitted that the dragon might indeed have what Endora sought.
Endora then raced to the dragon. She delivered the mushrooms. She expected the dragon to go and acquire the eyes-shading spell from somewhere else. She told the dragon that she did not have time to wait but appreciated the dragon’s help. But the dragon stopped her and told her she need not go anywhere or wait long. If she waited only a quarter of an hour, the dragon herself would make the spell to shield her eyes, for soups and stews were not the only magic the dragon could muster. Indeed, the mushrooms she sought were needed for the spell (though they were also delicious in soups).
Endora received the spell and thanked the dragon, who asked how she got the gnome to agree to part with his precious mushrooms. Endora was reluctant speak, as the dragon and gnome appeared to be rivals if not outright enemies. But she did tell the tale. The dragon’s eyes gleamed at the mention of the rare ore. She asked Endora if she could come along on her quest.
Endora stated that, alas, she was only allowed one companion on her journey. The dragon was perplexed. She thought Endora was alone. Endora realized that the dragon could not see Lio. Indeed, the dragon had not mentioned or looked at the dirbeghh upon their first meeting. Endora apologized profusely and offered a compromise, that she would go on ahead and announce to the gnome that he would soon have a guest. She had not intended to visit the gnome again, but she feared that the dragon and the gnome would get into some conflict.
The gnome was expanding and shoring up the new tunnel that was now his. Endora told him the dragon was curious about the ore and was coming along. Though it might waste some time, she offered to stay with the two until they parted. The gnome was amused by her concern, but insisted that he and the dragon would not kill each other if she were to leave to continue her quest. When Endora hesitated and cast a worried glance at the tunnel from whence the dragon would emerge, the gnome grew touched that she cared so. He gave her a parting gift, a chunk of the ore that he had test-mined. He told her that it was rare and precious, and she should keep it safe and hidden until she needed it. She should not sell it or use it as currency, for it was more useful to her than anything she might purchase with it. The ore’s properties were mysterious, and might work differently for different manner of beings. He only instructed her that she should handle it carefully, and that she should take it out when she was in dire need, and tell it of her need.
Endora thanked the gnome, and trusting him and the dragon, she left. She made it through the dirbeghh tunnel. She considered giving them the chunk of ore in return for their kindness, but she did not want to dishonor the gnome by giving his gift away, and did not think the dirbeghhs much cared for the ore anyway, if they never mined it when they had the chance. She asked Lio what an appropriate gesture would be. He told her that it would be best if she merely let the dirbeghhs be. She had already satisfied for them the curiosity that warred with their timidity. But if she continued to barge in upon them, they would certainly grow tired of it.
So Endora, still hoping she could somehow thank the dirbeghhs later, ascended to the region known as the Water Table. They were still underground, but the waters of the upper world flowed through that region. According to the map, she would need to travel two more days to reach the spot where the fairy lord would be. But she only had one day left and did not yet have the key to the box.
The dirbeghh tunnel brought her within half an hour’s walk from the place on the map where she would find the key. Endora reached the spot, the shore of a slow-moving river. She searched the shore. She found no key. She searched and searched. She fearfully waded across the shallow river to search the other shore, though the map clearly indicated that the key was upon the shore she first searched. At last, weary, anxious, and dripping, she sat down and pulled out that chunk of ore that the gnome had given her. She asked it to lead her to the key, hoping perhaps that the key would be metal and that the ore would attract it.
The ore began to the transform, right in Endora’s hand. It remolded itself from a shapeless lump to an ornate black key. Endora wanted to try the key on the box’s lock, to make sure it fit, but she could not. The box might open and that would forfeit the bargain she had made with the fairy lord. So on faith, she continued on, hoping the ore has transformed into the correct key.
Again Endora consulted the map to search for a faster path to the upper world. She traced the path of the waters. She had not paid much attention to them before, for she had not planned to travel by them. She did not know how to swim or row. Even if she did, many of the waters rushed by with such force, they would surely crush and drown her. Many of the rivers and falls she passed were scalding. Some seemed deadly, brewing with foul odors that burned her nose and eyes. There was one on the map that reached close to the spot in the upper realm where the fairy lord would be waiting for her. It was a strange river that flowed upward and burst through the earthen firmament, spraying up toward the unending sky. There was a chant written beside it. And a figure drawn beside the river. The figure had his arms crossed over his chest. The same figure was shown in the river, floating in the waves. Neither Endora nor Lio understood the words of the chant. But Endora believed that it might be some protection that allowed one to ride upon the upward-flowing river.
Before the hour was done, she had reached the river. At the speed the waters were flowing, she reckoned that she would reach the surface and have enough time to meet the fairy lord if she ran and found no other obstacles. Lio gripped her shoulder as tightly as he could.
Endora drank the eyes-shading potion, and she spoke the chant on the map. She took a final breath and pitched herself into the river.
She was swept away at once. She feared sinking below the waters, but she floated upon them. She bounced upon them. She breathed in and blinked away the spray and splash of the waters. Before she knew it, she was lifted from a lying position to a standing one, though she did not stand upon anything. She was caught in a swirl of water that formed a tunnel, in the hollow of which, she rose. She shifted her hand to feel for Lio. He was still holding on to her.
In an instant, Endora was spit up into the air by a burst of water, and then she fell. She cried out, but was caught by the rushing waters, and slid and then tumbled down to the ground. Soaked, but alive and well, she checked on Lio again. He was still there. He puffed out his feathery fur and flared his ears to dry himself as best he could.
Endora was exhausted. Panting, she let herself rest for a moment. But then she quickly checked the map and began to run.
She hastened to where the fairy lord would be so quickly that she did not notice the sky at first. But then, she caught herself. She looked up as she ran, and spotted birds soaring gracefully against the bright blue sky. She marveled and informed Lio that, as skilled as he was at storytelling, she had not expected such beauty. If she did not reach him in time, she hoped the fairy lord let her savor it before casting her back down to the realm below for failing in her quest.
Endora found the fairy lord just in the nick of time. He stood before the mouth of a small cave. He looked well, to Endora’s relief. He gave her permission to open the box. Despite all the trouble she had been through to reach that moment, she hesitated. There was just a touch of doubt about whether or not what she wanted was within the box. Or whether it was even for her. If it was the fairy lord’s heart, then his heart would be hers. The fairy lord saw her hesitate and asked her why. She told him and he gave a strange smile. He told her that whatever was in the box, he was in no danger from it, even if she decided not to open the box.
Endora could not fathom not opening the box, after all that she had done to reach that moment. The key fit the lock. She turned it and lifted the lid.
Within the box was a heart. It sparked and throbbed with life. Endora frowned.
She glanced at the crook of her elbow, where she felt Lio sitting. She did not see him. She blinked and he seemed to appear. His ears were flattened against his body. His nose twitched as he peered at the heart.
Endora turned to the fairy lord, who was similarly peering, as if he had not known what was in the box. He stepped toward her and nodded when he saw the heart.
“It is not mine,” he said.
He explained that the heart Endora held in her hand was her own. It passed into the box when she first accepted the challenge and took the box into her possession. Had she failed in her quest, it would have returned to her body and the box if ever opened would be empty. If she truly wished to wed the fairy lord, before she opened the box, her heart would have traded places with his own, so she would have lifted his heart out of the box even as her own beat within his chest.
Endora believed she had failed, but the fairy lord reminded her that she was only wedding him to raise her family’s status. But now she had raised herself, all the way to the surface world. And she could stay if she chose. He would find another.
At that, Endora’s spirits rose again. Again, she glanced at her arm, where the dirbeghh was perched. Again, she did not see him right away.
The fairy lord noted her reaction and told her that her eyes were adjusting to the sights of the upper world, and as they did, her sight of all that lay in the realm below would slowly fade. Even after the eyes-shading spell wore off, her eyes would adjust. She was losing sight of her friend, for her senses were adapting quickly. Soon, perhaps before the next sunrise, she might not be able to find her way back to her family, even with the best of maps.
Before Endora could despair, the fairy lord told her that there was a way for her be a being of both the upper and the lower worlds. She could become a fairy. For she was the first to ride the river reverse and emerge from the great fountain since the last age. She could become a fairy of the waters and travel to any place below or above.
“How?” Endora asked.
“Fairies are not always born,” the fairy lord said. “Sometimes, with great effort they can be made. Like the great effort of your quest.” He took the map from her, the map she had studied, marked, and relied upon. The map that had been her second companion on her journey. In his hands, it transformed into a tiny vial full of a dark red liquid. He handed her the vial.
He told her that if he poured the liquid onto her heart before returning it to her body, then all the blood that flowed through that heart would become fairy’s blood, and the one whose veins carried that blood would become a fairy.
Or Endora could remain as she was, and choose where she would spend the rest of her days, above or below.
Endora knew that there was a steep price to the choice. Fairies, it was said, had no souls. The fairy lord explained that this was true, but there was more to the saying than her folk knew. Fairies lost their souls because they had great powers, among them, the power to remain youthful. The more they used those powers, the more of their souls they lost, bit by bit, until all their souls were changed into their powers.
Endora thought for a moment. She heard the chirping and singing of birds and felt the warmth of the sun upon her skin.
She uncapped the vial and poured the dark red liquid on her heart. The fairy lord instructed her to place the heart back into the box and lock it. They walked back to the fountain that had carried her up into the realm above the earthen firmament. When she next opened the box, it was empty. But she knew it would be, for she felt her heart hammering within her chest. She marveled that she had not felt that it was missing for seven days. She felt the blood rushing through her veins, charged with new energies.
She kept glancing at Lio, and each time, she found him where she felt him. For she had chosen to see him.
Wanting to preserve her soul for as long as she could, Endora decided to limit her power by anchoring herself to the waters of that one river, and vowed to find a way to preserve and replenish her soul.
“If there is a way,” the fairy lord said, “I am certain that you would be the one to find it.”
“And if there isn’t,” Endora said, “I will make one.” She felt a tapping on her shoulder, and glanced at Lio. “Forgive me, we will make one.”
She embraced the fairy lord, startling him. He smiled for the first time she ever saw, though not the last. He numbered among her new friends, as did a certain dragon, and a certain gnome.
When she returned home to tell her family, they were overjoyed and also saddened, for she would only now return to visit. Her new home lay between the realms of the bright above and the dim below.
As for the portrait, the fairy lord gave it to Endora as a parting gift. Many told her to have another painted, to show her in her joy and glory. But Endora refused. She wanted to remember, no matter how long she lived, that sorrow and shame were once her lot, and might be again, if she did not take care. And if she ever wanted to see joy upon her face, she need only look upon her reflection in the waters.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Portrait of Endora and Lio” by Sanjay Patel.