It’s quite easy to get into the fairy realm, you see. They want you to come to them. They need you to come to them. So quite easy to get into the fairy realm. But almost no one gets out.
Since Valda was a small child, her grandmother and grandfather would tell her and her older sister stories about the fairy realm. Grandmother’s stories were full of danger, like dragons whose fangs dripped with blood, their bodies covered in scales, and their faces covered in fur. Grandfather’s stories were full of mischief, like sprites who stole the crown of a merciless empress, whose hunters hounded them until they hid in the hovel of a humorless harridan.
But there was one thing their stories had in common. They always started with a warning.
There were eight hundred and eighty-eight doors leading into the fairy realm. And only eight leading out.
And so, it was far, far easier to get into the fairy realm. But near impossible to get out.
Valda was certain she need not worry. Though she was curious about many things, as most children were, she had no desire to visit the fairy realm.
But when her elder sister, Mirabel, disappeared without a trace one day, disappeared mid-step as witnesses claimed, none doubted she had vanished into the fairy realm. And while her mother and father wept for the loss of a child who could not possibly be recovered, Valda decided to enter the fairy realm to get her sister back.
“In order to enter the fairy realm and return from it, you must be a person who can dream, and you must be a person who can stop dreaming. I am such a person,” Valda said.
She stood in the middle of the forest behind their little town. Beside her stood the dearest of her friends, Frida. Valda shrugged to secure her travel pack over her shoulders.
“How can you be so certain of yourself?” Frida asked.
“Because I must be, for Mirabel’s sake.”
“But Val, if you are wrong, then your mother and father will have lost two children.”
Valda frowned. “They aren’t even trying to search for her.”
“That’s not true. They’ve called for a champion.”
“But none have answered the call.”
Frida put a hand on her friend’s arm. “Can’t you be patient? Just a bit longer?”
“No,” Valda said, frowning as she gazed ahead of her. She turned to her friend and her frown vanished. “Don’t worry. I will see you soon.”
“Does anyone else know you are going?”
Valda smiled at the sign of her friend’s worry for her. “I told grandmother, and she will likely tell grandfather. That’s all right. But I asked her not to tell my mother and father.”
Frida sighed. “Then I suppose I can delay it no longer.” She walked over to the wheelbarrow full of provisions that they had rolled into the forest with them, and she lifted another travel pack. She rejoined a surprised Valda. “I am, of course, coming with you.”
“Don’t convince me to let you go alone. You will succeed, and then you’ll be lost in the fairy realm, and I’ll waste away from the guilt.”
Valda’s eyes widened and a grin spread across her face.
Frida crossed her arms. “Eight hundred and eighty-eight doors…but I’ve never seen one.”
“We pass by these doors every day,” Valda said, still grinning. “We pass through these doors every day. But so long as we keep out wits about us, we will not step into the fairy realm.”
“So the first thing we must do is throw our wits far away from us.”
Valda nodded. “Just as my sister did.”
Both girls had their doubts about the ease of entering the fairy realm. Many a time had each of them been lost in thought, daydreaming as they traipsed about town, or making believe as they lay in the grass and moss beside the river. And never had either of them found themselves in the fairy realm.
So Valda wondered vaguely why it should be any different now, even as she wondered at the shapes of the clouds above, and hardly watched where she stepped.
Valda had cautioned that at least one of them must keep her wits at any given time once they entered the fairy realm, so they could make their way through the realm until they found Mirabel.
“But why? Why do they want to trap us there?” Frida wondered aloud as they walked along.
“Perhaps they are stealing our youth. That’s what fairies do in the stories. Steal youth.”
“What for? What do they do with it?”
“Keep themselves young.”
“To live forever?”
“I say again, why?”
Valda shook her head. “I’ve no idea. The stories never said.”
As she and Frida made their way down a well-trodden path, it began to look just a bit unfamiliar, as if it were a part of their own town that they had never visited before. But soon, they came across another forest, and from it wafted a most enticing and unexpected aroma.
Both girls walked forward sniffing the air, following a warm sugar-baked breeze until they came upon a grove of trees bearing the most astonishing fruit they had ever seen.
Frida stopped and gazed up. She rubbed her eyes. “Val, are you seeing what I am seeing?”
“Are you seeing a tree that seems to be growing sugar cookies?”
“It worked,” Frida said in a whisper.
Frida turned to Valda. “We shouldn’t eat them though, should we?”
Valda was staring at a stroopwafel tree. Its vanilla and caramel scent beckoned her. “We should stay on the path,” she said.
“Yes, the path,” Frida said, nodding. “It will help us keep our wits. But how will we return home?”
“If daydreaming opens the door into the fairy realm, perhaps the opposite of daydreaming will lead us out of the realm.”
“What is the opposite of daydreaming?”
“We must be reasonable, practical.” Valda stomped one of her feet on the dirt. “We must be responsible.”
Frida gazed longingly at a snickerdoodle within reach on a low branch. “But we’re children. We’re not supposed to be practical or reliable…or responsible.”
She reached for the cookie, but Valda slapped her hand.
“No! Eat only what you’ve brought with you.”
“Let her have a cookie,” another voice said.
Frida gasped, and Valda pressed her back against her friend’s and glanced around, her head shifting in small, quick movements, like a bird’s.
“Over here,” the voice said, and the girls both glanced at another low branch, upon which was perched what appeared to be a boy the size of a robin.
Valda inhaled the sudden scent of sugared berries.
“But you are right,” the tiny boy said. “You should not eat the cookie here. You should take it and go back the way you came and to where you came from. This realm is not as pleasing as it first seems when you arrive.”
“We intend to leave,” Frida said. “After we—“
Valda put a hand over her friend’s mouth. “Yes, we will leave soon, we assure you.” She began to walk along the path, toward and through the grove of cookie-fruit trees. She removed her hand from Frida’s mouth.
“If you are trying to leave, you are going the wrong way,” the tiny boy said, hopping from branch to branch, following alongside them. “The deeper into this realm you go, the harder it will be to come out.”
Valda frowned, for what the boy spoke was the truth, and yet she sensed some deception in him, his words, or his manner. Perhaps it was just that he was obviously a fairy, and her grandparents’ stories had filled her with suspicion toward fairies.
“Thank you for your counsel…”
The tiny boy sprung off a branch and landed directly before them on the path. “Blackberry,” he said. “Blackberry Jam.”
The girls stopped. It was not wise to walk over a fairy. They would have to wait until he stepped aside for them, or try to convince him to.
“And your names are?” he asked.
It was also unwise to give a fairy one’s name, or at least, one’s true name.
“I am Friday,” Frida said, placing a hand on her chest. “And this is Wednesday.” She waved a hand toward Valda.
Valda smiled and nodded to the fairy. And she spoke a silent thanks to Frida and her quick thinking.
“I’ve met your kind before,” the fairy Blackberry said.
He leapt into the air and landed on the branch of a gingerbread cookie tree. “I can help you find the way back home.”
Valda grew nervous. “That’s very kind of you, Mister Blackberry.”
“Call me Jam,” the fairy said.
“I agree, Jam,” Frida said. “That’s quite a favor. What could we do to return the kindness, I wonder?”
Valda marveled at the cleverness of her friend’s question. Of course the fairy expected a favor in return, but he never would have revealed it if he wasn’t asked, and it would have been rude to ask. So rude that his kindness might turn to cruelty. But in expressing the question aloud as if she were merely asking herself, Frida had managed to ask the fairy without being rude.
“Catch me!” Jam said, and he sprung into the air toward the girls.
Valda reached out her hands and stretched her arms, and Jam landed on the edge of her right thumb. And now he was close enough for Valda to see that he had dark purple hair and eyes to match.
Frida and Valda began to walk onward again.
“Has anyone taught you of the dangers of my realm?” Jam asked. “There are three, you know. And you have already encountered the first.”
Both girls knew the answer, but they listened to the fairy, to judge if he would tell them the truth. He had so far, it seemed. For they had indeed encountered the first of the three ways that the fairy realm trapped those who wandered in, temptation.
“Temptation,” said Jam. “And what is more tempting to a sweet mortal child than a sweet baked morsel? Some filled with fruit, some with spice. Some soft as summer, and some crunchy as ice.” He sighed as if he too were longing to take a bite out of one of the hundreds upon hundreds of cookies they passed, all of them warming the air with a freshly baked aroma.
“Next,” said Jam, “is confusion. Perhaps your path will twist and turn, or the stars by which you are guiding your way will shift position in the sky, or your attention will drift, and stray thoughts will enter and fog up your mind. There are many stray thoughts riding the winds of this realm.”
Even as he spoke, an actual fog began to form at their feet, covering the path they were taking.
“And lastly,” said Jam, “is illusion. If you have gone so deep into the realm that you have reached illusion, then I fear, my dears, you will be beyond my reach.”
“Thank you, Jam,” Frida said, “for the warnings. We will heed them.”
“Will you? I hope you are not a lier.”
“Oh no, I speak the truth, good fairy,” Frida said.
But as she spoke, they reached the end of the grove, and beyond them was a great meadow. A thin layer of fog still lay upon the path, but the meadow was clear of fog. The meadow was covered in flowers, and scattered all about were people lying on blankets or directly on the grass. All of them gazed up at the sky, where puffy clouds drifted by, birds darted to and fro, and the sun cast down mild rays of light and warmth.
“Behold,” the fairy said. “The meadow of liers.”
Valda felt a great drowse overcome her, and she understood the new danger. They were still within the grasp of temptation, for there was an empty blanket lying on a patch of grass, on which both she and Frida could fit, if they both lay down and just rested for a bit. But she feared that if they lay down here, they might not want to get back up again. She grasped Frida’s arm, and felt Frida grasp back. They searched the meadow for any sign of Mirabel, but did not see her. They gazed down at the path and kept it under their feet. And Jam, without any branches to hop upon, bounced along on the path beside them.
Beyond the meadow, they reached what Jam called the great game houses, where they could hear the laughter and joyous screaming of children playing games all day.
Valda wondered if Mirabel’s voice was among those cries of delight and triumph. But if she and Frida went to search the game houses, they might become trapped by temptation. She had believed it would be difficult but manageable to keep her wits about her if she only focused. But she had almost dropped into sleep right there on the path when they passed through the meadow of liers. She did not trust that her will and Frida’s will alone would suffice to see them through the realm.
Though she did not trust the little fairy, she believed he could be of use to them, if they were careful.
“Jam,” she said, hesitating. “I wonder if you have seen any girls who look like me, only a bit older.”
“Of course,” Jam said. He flourished his arms. “There are many such girls here.”
Valda felt a stone settle in her stomach, for she had decided to do something that might put her sister in danger. “I wonder if you have seen any such girls who answer to…who answer to the name…Mirabel.”
“Ah,” Jam said. He stopped hopping along, and the girls stopped too and turned toward him. “I knew you were searching for something. You don’t want to be here, and yet you resist my insistence that you leave.”
“Yes, we are searching for her, and once we find her, we will leave your realm and we will take her with us.”
Jam grinned and clapped his hands. “Then I can answer your question.”
Frida and Valda exchanged a look, both frowning in confusion.
“You wondered what favor I would ask of you in return for the kindness of showing you the way out. I would ask that you take me with you.”
Valda hesitated again, wondering what might become of her and Frida if she refused the fairy. The stories her grandparents told her had varied. Sometimes a fairy would become amused at a mortal’s defiance. Sometimes a fairy would become murderous. But she could not agree to let Jam into her realm.
“We already know the way out,” Valda said. And she said nothing more. It was not a direct refusal, but it meant that the fairy had nothing to offer them, and therefore, they need not offer him anything in return. “But if you help us find Mirabel, we can offer you a valuable gift, a gift that is rare in your realm.” She patted the bottom of her travel pack. Within was a wheel of cheese. There was no cheese in the fairy realm. And according to some stories, some fairies were as drawn to cheese as…well, as children to cookies. Some parts of stories could be wrong. Valda hoped the cheese part was right. But all she needed to do was convince Jam to agree to whatever reward she had in her satchel. If he agreed without seeing, all the better. Then, even if it were untrue that fairies loved cheese, he would be bound by his word to accept that gift and none other.
But Jam shook his head. “I am tired of this realm. I want to explore other ones. What is the harm in that? You have come to visit my realm. Why can’t I visit yours?”
“We didn’t come to visit. Mirabel become lost and entered your realm by accident. We have only come to recover her.”
Jam crossed his arms and frowned. “Very well, then. See how well you do without your trusty guide by your side.” He took a running leap into the air and bounced away from the path and out of sight.
Valda felt both relief and worry, for though Jam had not truly guided them, it had felt as if there were some order to the place when he was with them.
Frida managed to call over a child who was playing a game by himself on the porch of one game house. She asked about Mirabel. The child was certain that she wasn’t there in the game houses. But he did not know where she was.
Valda and Frida carried on, walking the path and keeping to it, even when it twisted and looped ahead of them and it would have made more sense to walk a straight line. They struggled to keep their thoughts from straying, and spoke to each other of ordinary things, like their schooling and chores. They described the road they took to their school, and the patterns on their mother’s dresses, and they counted the buttons on their coats, all to keep their minds from wandering into fanciful notions. And all the while, that strange fog persisted, though the weather was warm and the sun still above them.
They rested only briefly, and ate and drank little, and only from what they had brought with them.
“You were right to mistrust me!”
Frida and Valda stopped reciting their multiplication tables after the familiar voice spoke. The fairy Blackberry bounced into view.
“I did not speak the truth.” He began to pace back and forth on the path before them, his tiny form cutting a furrow through the fog. “I know this Mirabel of yours. And I know where she is. I entreated her as I entreated you, to let me pass into her realm, your realm, with her. You see, I can indeed lead you to the doors out of this realm and into yours. I can see the doors to other realms, but I cannot pass through unless accompanied by a native from that realm. So I tried to entreat your Mirabel, but she was already too enchanted with this realm, and this realm became enchanted with her. You see, she came to our court and she charmed my queen, and charmed her so well that my queen made the girl her jester. In doing so, she displaced the former jester.”
He stopped and sighed heavily, and as the fog reformed around him, he leapt into the air.
By instinct, Valda held out her hand, and Jam landed in her palm. And by instinct, she felt the threads of both truth and lies twining through his tale.
“You?” Valda asked.
Jam again exhaled a heavy sigh.
“Do you see now why I wanted to flee this realm? But if I lead you to the court, and you can convince your Mirabel to leave with you, then our debts to each other are paid.”
Once again, he leapt into the air and bounced ahead of them on the path.
Valda leaned toward Frida. “He is telling us half-truths and half-lies, to keep us confused,” she said.
Frida nodded. “Then we must sort out which halves are true and which are lies.”
“Indeed we must.”
Valda and Frida walked side by side with their arms entwined as they followed the bouncing fairy toward the court of the fairy realm’s queen.
By the time they arrived, night was falling. Jam snuck them through the grounds of the queen’s castle, a grand castle that seemed at once to hulk and to float. Lights flickered in many a window, but Jam led them down darkened hallways to the private chambers of the court jester.
“It is still early,” he said. “If you wait here, the jester will come to you.” With that, he left the chambers, and the girls glanced around.
There was a new moon in the sky, and little light by which to see. They whispered to each other, arguing whether or not they dare light a lantern. At last, they decided it should be safe enough, and they lit a lantern. And when the saw the jester’s chambers more clearly, a terrible unease crept into Valda’s heart.
“The drapes are the color of wine,” Frida whispered. “And look, there is a velvet cloak thrown upon the chair. It is the same shade as his eyes. But all of these things are our size.”
Valda grasped her friend’s arm. “Let’s go. Mirabel is here somewhere. Of that truth, I am certain. But we must find her on our own.”
Frida nodded and they left the purple-hued chamber. They tried to keep to darkened hallways, as they had done when they arrived, but it seemed that all the hallways were now brightly lit against the night.
They walked as quietly as they could, and they listened as keenly as they could.
And still, they were surprised as they turned a corner, and came face to face with the queen of the fairy realm.
She was tall and slim and dressed in layers upon layers of shimmering silk shaded in the various colors of the sea. Her dark hair fell in a loose braid over one shoulder. Her crown of unset jewels floated above her head. And she raised a single brow as her gaze fell upon the girls.
The queen said only one word. “Valdie?”
Valda gaped up at the familiar face.
It was Mirabel.
“We’ve come to bring you home,” Valda said.
Mirabel narrowed her eyes. “Home?”
Valda gasped as a realization dawned upon her. “This must be an illusion. Break free of it and come with us.” She stepped forward, but Mirabel stepped back.
“Maybe she doesn’t want to,” Frida said.
“Then…she’s under some enchantment. Mira, just follow me. I can lead us out.”
Mirabel shook her head. “You never heed my words. You must heed them now.”
What happened next happened in a flurry, for Jam bounced into view and landed between the girls and the queen. The queen recoiled, and her guards rushed forth from behind her and grabbed the girls. Mirabel—the fairy queen—turned away from them, giving the guards only one command.
“Take them to the dungeons.”
And to the dungeons they went before either girl could utter a word.
“Is Mirabel really the queen?” Frida said after the guards left them. “Or are we trapped in her illusion? Has she turned into a villain?”
Valda was wondering everything Frida was wondering. They were thrown in the dungeon by the queen after all, but something still felt odd. For one thing, the dungeon they were in was not so terrible. It was a bit dirty, but only smelled mildly of mushrooms, and there was quite comfortable bedding for each girl. There were no chains or shackles in sight. Perhaps if they stayed long enough, they would even be served a hot and tasty meal. That hardly seemed villainous on her sister’s part.
She was not surprised when only moments after they were jailed, Jam came bouncing into view.
“You lied to us, Jam,” Frida said, all pretense of politeness having vanished.
The fairy shook his head. “No, she truly was the jester…for a while. Now she is playing at being queen.”
“Where is your true queen?”
“She will be restored if you take your sister away. And I can help you escape this dungeon.”
“We are not sure if we believe you, Jam.”
“You lied to me as well,” the fairy said, crossing his arms. “Your names are not what you claimed. But I understand. You lied to protect yourselves, as well you should. And so did I.”
With that, the fairy Blackberry began to grow bigger and bigger, until he was a head and a half higher than either of the girls. At that size, his dark purple hair was vivid and his dark purple eyes were striking.
Valda gazed at him. “We must discuss amongst ourselves whether we will accept your help.”
“Discuss quickly. The queen is angry with us all, I fear. Angry with you for coming, and angry with me for leading you here.”
With that, the fairy Blackberry shrank again and bounced away.
Frida leaned toward Valda. “You never told him she was your sister,” Frida whispered.
Valda shook her head. “No, I didn’t.”
“Mirabel doesn’t like him,” Frida said. “Did you see how she drew back from him? It’s a clue, I think. He cannot be trusted, but I think he is the key to our escaping this place.”
Valda frowned. “I don’t understand. He cannot be trusted, yet you want his help?”
“No, we don’t need to get his help. We need to get his secret.”
“Whatever he’s hiding from us. Maybe the reason Mirabel dislikes her own jester.”
They were silent for a moment.
“Mirabel!” Valda’s eyes widened. “She asked me to heed her words. What if she knows the fairy’s secret?”
Valda called to the guards and asked them to convey a message to the queen. Valda wished for an audience with the queen alone, because she was ready to listen.
And then they waited, and they waited. But either the guard did not convey the message, or the queen did not grant the audience.
They did indeed receive a tasty meal, one that both girls, though hungry, did not eat.
“I will soon find it hard not to let my mind wander,” Frida admitted. “And to let my stomach go hungry.”
Valda peered at the tray of food, for she had been fearing much the same. But as she stared at the glint of light on the fork, she was struck by an inspiration.
“We are in Mirabel’s illusion, are we not?” she asked.
Frida raised a brow. “We cannot be certain.”
“Perhaps we can, if we test the illusion.”
Valda grinned. She marched across the dungeon chamber and swiped a fork from a food tray.
“The walls of illusion should crumble before the marks of truth.”
Valda began to scrawl on the grimy dungeon wall. As they had done when they walked along the path to focus their minds, Valda wrote down simple lessons they had learned in school. One and one make two. Two and two make four. Four and four make eight. Frida joined her and started writing down facts about hatching chickens that her mother had taught her. Valda thought she felt the wall softening as they wrote. She glanced behind her every so often to look for the guards, but they did not seem to notice. She feared that they would come running when the wall began to crumble.
But the wall did not crumble. It simply faded away.
“Do you think that would work with your sister?” Frida said. “Maybe we can try writing facts on her face.”
On the other side of the vanished dungeon wall was a small corridor that lead straight to the castle grounds. It was a bright day, close to noon. Valda did not lead them back inside to the main hall of the castle where she might expect to find the queen. She led them to where she might expect to find her sister, to the gardens.
From behind a row of hedges, Valda and Frida spied the queen sitting on a bench under a trellis covered in climbing vines.
Frida stayed where she was, keeping watch, while Valda approached her sister.
Mirabel turned and watched Valda approach. The queen did not call for her guards, but Valda guessed they were nearby, as they likely always were.
Valda felt the urge to speak, to tell Mirabel that she would listen. Mirabel was right. Valda rarely listened to her older sister, because Valda was often so certain of herself that she did not see the need to listen or heed.
Valda resisted the urge to speak. She instead sat beside her sister, and she noticed that Mirabel had a book in her lap. She handed the book to Valda, who opened it. It was a journal, written in Mirabel’s hand. And it detailed a familiar journey past trees bearing cookies as fruit and game houses and paths laden with fog and a boy wearing a purple cloak and claiming to be the queen’s jester.
Valda read in silence about how Mirabel came to the queen’s court, and how the boy with the purple cloak transformed before her eyes into a tall and stately woman with violet eyes and a crown of unset jewels swirling above her head.
Valda’s mouth was agape as she read the final words in the journal.
Blackberry Jam is the queen.
Valda felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned and saw Mirabel sitting beside her. Mirabel as she was on the day she vanished. The gown and the crown were gone. Mirabel inhaled and smiled as she released a breath.
“The spell is broken,” she said.
“You told me to heed your words.”
Mirabel grinned. “And so you did.”
“And we can go home now?”
Mirabel nodded. “But we must be careful. The fairy queen seeks to follow us back to our realm, for she is tired of her own realm, and seeks to find something new and fresh. But if she comes to our realm, she will bring confusion and illusion with her, for it is a part of her.”
Frida came running up to them then. “She is coming! With her guards!”
Mirabel nodded as she and Valda rose from the bench. “Her spell upon me broke when you learned the truth. I could not speak the truth, so I wrote it down. I had forgotten, until I saw you both.”
Frida glanced between them. “How do we find the door back to our own realm?”
“Describe the path back to the town,” Mirabel said. “Every detail we can remember, so long as it is true.”
“But what if she finds us and follows us through?” Frida said.
Valda grasped each of their hands in each of hers. “We must be quick.”
Mirabel shook her head. “No, she is right. We can’t risk the queen following us. We must think of some way to lock the door behind us.”
“There is no way.”
The girls, still gripping hands, turned toward the sound of the voice. It was familiar and yet different now, deeper and yet smoother.
The fairy, the queen, Blackberry stood before them, draped in layers upon layers of silk in various shades of purple, under a cloak of indigo fur. Her eyes were a bright violet, far lighter than Jam’s dark eyes, and upon her head swirled a crown of unset jewels, all of them glinting purple in the fair sun of the day.
“What if you did not have to follow us?” Mirabel said, stepping forward.
Valda gripped her sister’s hand more firmly.
Mirabel gripped back, but took another step forward. “What if you could explore our world without entering it?”
Valda’s sister was a dreamer. In her mind, she could create worlds, the way their grandparents did when they told their stories. Valda marveled at the visions those stories created in her mind. She could never create such visions.
But her sister could.
Mirabel spoke. She began to describe their realm, their town, the path into town. As she did, the path behind them began to change, shaping itself according to her words, but so did the path before her. Behind them was the door to their realm, but before them was its mirror image, an illusion, a gift for the fairy queen.
Valda held her breath, nervous about the open door that stood behind them, guarded only by three girls.
But the queen appeared amused as she glanced about her.
“You truly are one of my best jesters,” she said to Mirabel. “I agree to your bargain, but be forewarned. Someday, I will grow tired of the illusion you have built for me, and I will come looking for your realm.”
Valda, Frida, and Mirabel walked backwards onto the path behind them, watching the queen and her guards fade as they left the realm of fairy and found themselves back in their own realm.
After a while, they turned forward and walked the path into their town, glancing back often. With twigs they scrawled equations in the dirt to test the path, and the path did not vanish, for they were truly home.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel