It wasn’t the fairy queen who first caught my eye.
It was the glimpse of a laughing face, glowing in some dim reflection in the dark lush forest behind, its deep green shadows holding more magical mysteries, every wonder found in the natural world, and wonders beyond ordinary fantasies.
But then I stepped closer and the face wasn’t there. It must have been the way the afternoon sun was angled against the threads. A breeze blew my hair across my face, and when I pulled a strand out of my eyes and leaned closer to look, that laughing face was there again.
I straightened and stepped toward the tapestry.
The tapestry was tattered along one edge and sun-bleached along a corner. It was only the length of my forearm, and only half that wide.
The vendor at the flea market told me it was handmade, but I didn’t really care much about that.
As soon as I showed my roommate, she made the joke I expected her to make. I wasn’t supposed to actually bring home fleas from the flea market.
I thought she would like the fairy queen. But she just winced and frowned, worried about diseases or toxins. She forbade me from hanging it anywhere in our common areas. And she asked me to wash my hands thoroughly every time I handled it.
I hung it in my own room, across from my bed, so I’d see it whenever I lay down. Then I changed my mind and hung it above my desk, on the right side, next to the bookcase.
I stood back and looked, to make sure I was doing it justice.
With the tapestry in that position, the mighty fairy queen’s gaze was turned to the side as if she were looking at my bookcase, right at the level where I had put the fancy faux-leather bound printings of classics, and some of my favorite sketchbooks that I’d done. Her face was a little frayed, but I think she was just starting to smile. She had the ears of a wolf, the tail of a cat, and wings that looked like they were made out of curved swords.
She probably never got shuffled and shoved around in a crowd, not with those sharp wings.
I thought about my new tapestry when I was at work, mentioned it to whoever asked me if I’d found any treasures at the flea market.
But the way I talked about it was different from the way I felt about it, if that makes sense.
So even though it was on my mind off-and-on throughout the day, when I walked into my room, dropped my bag onto the floor, blew out a sigh as I plopped into my chair, and looked at the tapestry, I gasped.
The leaves at the corners, making a border, were woven in five different shades of green. It looked like they made a doorway, a portal that I could walk through if it were to my scale. Those leaves seemed to gleam at me. Like they were happy to see me.
I smiled at them and said a silent “hello.”
And then I noticed that there was a little green beetle cleverly woven along the edge of one leaf. I rubbed my sore eyes, stood up, and peered at the other leaves. Another one had a little green butterfly hanging from it.
I grinned and searched the other leaves for any more little surprises. And I found some. A vivid green spider. A sweet little green lizard.
I hadn’t noticed these details the day before.
Still grinning, I shifted my gaze up to where that laughing face was in the dark forest, as if I were telling the face, “I found your secret.”
That weekend I tried to clean the tapestry a little. I’d been researching safe and gentle ways to do it. I took my time. I took before and after pictures. But it didn’t seem to make a difference. And I didn’t want to try anything harsher.
If I was lying in bed, I’d look at the pictures I’d taken of it. But it wasn’t the same as looking at the tapestry itself. The pictures were beautiful. I showed people at work and a lot of them seemed surprised at how “rich” the colors were. I had described how the tapestry looked when I first brought it home, faded and dusty-looking.
When I showed my roommate the actual tapestry again, she also noted that it looked better. (Though she was still worried she’d catch something from it.) Maybe my cleaning had worked after all, but I hadn’t noticed the difference because I looked at the tapestry all the time.
By the next weekend, I could see it too. The tapestry looked cleaner, sure. But there was more. The threads seemed less frayed, the colors less faded. There was this stream, way in the distance just before a chain of hills or mountains, and the threads were woven so they made the stream seem to ripple.
Gazing at the tapestry was almost as good as really being outside, somewhere with soft grass and streams, and that sweeping sound of wind moving through trees.
I started taking walks on my breaks at work, trying not to step on the berries that the trees dropped onto the sidewalk, listening for the different kinds of bird songs I could hear, and looking up to watch the clouds float by. I wanted to appreciate the ordinary magic of my ordinary world.
And then, when I came home, I had the tapestry.
It took another week for me to notice the next thing I noticed.
I pulled my roommate into my room again to show her.
She glanced at the tapestry as if she were ready to tell me it looked fine, and it looked the same to her. But then she did a double take.
And she actually stepped closer to it.
She reached out a hand, her index finger extended, rising up toward the fairy queen’s face. But she seemed to realize what she was about to do, and her hand jerked back.
Then I pointed it out to her.
When I’d first put the tapestry up, I’d aligned it at the border between my desk and my bookcase. But now the edge of the tapestry was curling against the bookcase.
And I could swear, I saw little flower buds through the layers of border leaves. Flowers that I hadn’t seen before, even though I had by now surveyed every thread of the tapestry.
She just commented that whatever I was doing to restore it was working really well. She shook her head and she left my room.
I hunted down a tape measure, and I measured the tapestry.
In another week, I found myself repositioning the tapestry on the wall so it wouldn’t be folding over on itself as it pushed against the bookcase.
I stared at it, at threads that I was sure were fresher than when I had brought it home, at details that weren’t visible before, as if the frame was expanding to show me more and more of this fairy realm.
The queen remained at the center, still swishing her cat’s tail, still on the verge of smiling at my charming bookcase.
That laughing face in the dark wood remained.
Still laughing, because I hadn’t discovered their secret after all.
A week after that, it was too obvious for me to pretend that I was just noticing things I somehow hadn’t noticed before. It had already been obvious. But I’d still been trying to tell myself that I just hadn’t unfolded the tapestry properly when I first got it.
The tapestry was growing. And it was expanding. It grew and grew, and as it did, it revealed more and more of the scene around the queen. On one side, supplicants bowed to her, bringing her gifts. On the other, members of her court seemed to be speaking to her in animated gestures. They were human-like, but not quite human. A small group of supplicants had wolf ears, like the queen, but no wings or tails. One of the queen’s court was a man with dark purple-brown skin and brown eyes…and two pairs of arms. Animals were revealed too, beside all the green creatures hidden in the bordering leaves. A pair of squirrels sat on the back of a horse, all of them looking up at the sky. Just behind the horse, I caught a branching pattern that I thought might be a tree at first, but now I could see it was antlers.
In time, I saw a quarry in the distance, with the skull of some huge creature, a sharp-toothed predator that had gone extinct in our world, but had once ruled here.
When I slept, I swore I could smell things I shouldn’t be smelling past all the familiar night smells—smoke wafting down from the upstairs neighbor, and savory food smells from the neighbor below who got home late from a swing shift. Mingled with those, stronger than those, I’d smell a leafy minty aroma, cool as cloves. And earth, like freshly dug up soil.
When I slept, I swore I could hear things I shouldn’t be hearing. The quiet whickering of a horse. Rustling, not from outside my room, but inside.
The first few times I heard it, I panicked and froze. And then reached from some kind of weapon (a pen I could maybe stab with) before I turned on the light.
There was no intruder. There was only what I had brought into my room myself.
I saw a green bug crawling over the green leaves. I roll up a piece of paper, so I could sweep the bug away, thinking it was crawling on top of the tapestry. But the paper scraped against a flat surface.
Then I saw the leaves bordering the tapestry fluttering and wafting, as if they were blowing in some unseen and unfelt wind.
I learned to recognize the sounds from the tapestry, the same way I’d learned to recognize the high-pitched human-like bark of a neighbor’s dog. It wasn’t alarming once I knew what I was hearing.
When I could spend all day at home, I would see the change in the tapestry’s colors, mellowing into darker shades, brightening into light. Sometimes growing dim as if the whole tapestry was covered in a gauzy gray.
Day into night. Sunny to gloomy.
I tried to have my roommate come in and see again, but she thought I was trying to make some kind of point, to rub it in her face that she had been hasty in passing judgement, and wrong about the tapestry’s beauty and worth.
She joked and told me to let her know when it did something really wild.
When it did, when the tapestry did something really wild, I didn’t tell her.
I didn’t tell anyone.
I surprised myself. I would have thought that I would need the validation of one other person, at least, one other human perceiving and witnessing what I did.
But that presupposes that I cared whether or not what I perceived was real.
Real in the sense that the perceptions of most people would align and agree.
But I’d been spending weeks convincing myself that there was a logical…that there was an ordinary reason for what I was seeing, and smelling, and hearing.
Yet the tapestry continued to defy ordinary reason.
One day—it was day—I was at my desk. It was Saturday. I was catching up on some correspondence with friends and family.
Till that moment, the tapestry had grown until it was bigger than my bedroom door. No heavier though, strangely. If it had gotten heavier, I probably would have had no way to hold it up or hang it properly. I’d had to move it to the one empty wall, and turn my bed so it wouldn’t block the view. The tapestry’s borders had remained straight, braided green thread that blended into the pattern of leaves. So I had just kept repositioning it, aligning its bottom border with the floor.
As I typed away at my messages, I heard a familiar rustling.
I stopped and turned my chair around.
I gasped and stood up.
The borders of the tapestry were unraveling, and then weaving together again, twisting into tendrils, plaiting into the shapes of leaves. That would have been enough to shock me.
But it’s not why I jumped out of my chair. Not why my breath was caught in my chest.
The fairy queen had turned her head.
She was looking at me.
Soon the day will come. Either she will step into my world. Or I will step into hers.
There are so many wonders in our world. They are obscenely offset by the horrors. Probably the same is true of her world. But I don’t see that in the tapestry. I do see things that frighten me. The bones of a great creature. Eyes blinking in the deep dark wood. But they don’t frighten me because they are horrors. But because I want to be there with them, in the dark.
Is that what would happen to me, if I stepped into the tapestry? Would I become a pair of golden glowing eyes, blinking in the darkness, watching the world that used to be mine?
Or would I be able to come back?
I pondered all the time. And all the while the tapestry grew, vines extending to the edges of the wall. I fell asleep to the distant bellowing of an elephant. I fell asleep to soft night breezes carrying the scent of fruits from a season yet to come. I fell asleep under the watchful eye of the fairy queen. She didn’t blink. She didn’t move at all when I was looking.
One evening, I came home, tired but ready for the weekend. I’d put in some extra hours. I hadn’t meant to, but I was in the middle of something that I just wanted to finish, to wipe off my board.
I opened the door to my room and saw that the tapestry had unfurled its leaves and flowers all over the floor. Flowers with wide white petals. They had a subtle powdery scent. Fresh. Calm. I took off my shoes, because I didn’t want to trample them. Fireflies were winking and bobbing all around the room. Or I think they were fireflies. I’d never seen them in person.
I flicked on the lights.
I saw that the fairy queen was gone from the tapestry. My throat went dry, and I cleared it, wincing at the sound. I heard night birds singing in the trees outside my windows.
And I heard night birds singing from the trees in the dark wood in the tapestry.
That laughing face in the wood was still there. It had never changed or moved in all the time I had the tapestry.
I wanted to call out to that face and ask about the queen. But I just listened to the trickling of a stream, just visible through the screen of leaves and flowers, running straight into the dark wood.
I didn’t know what to do, so I sat on my bed. I was hungry. But I was too tired to fix myself something. So I lay down on the bed. The bed had once been positioned against the wall, but the tapestry now occupied that wall. And I had positioned the bed to face the tapestry. I expected that I’d fall asleep. And I hoped that when I woke, she would be back.
As I watched the tapestry, I saw that laughing face in the wood move for the first time. The face in the darkness, visible in a dim reflection. It turned downward as if the head was bowing.
And something moved in the wood, through the wood.
I sat up.
Someone was walking out of the wood.
I swung my legs around and stood up.
The fairy queen emerged from the edge of the wood, smiling, and striding forth, in flowing robes that matched the colors of the night sky. She slowed when she reached the threshold of the tapestry.
I rubbed my eyes and felt my heart grow as full as the moon.
Her silver wings glinted in the moonlight that poured from the tapestry’s night sky. It matched the moonlight in my own sky.
She didn’t speak, and didn’t walk toward me. But she reached out first. Her hand flickered through the many colors and complexions that fairies possessed, and then the many colors that humans do.
The moment had come. I didn’t want to lose my chance. But I also didn’t want to lose myself. I didn’t know if it was allowed, but I looked into the fairy queen’s eyes, hoping I could read something comforting there. I probably should have kneeled, or at least bowed my head, like that laughing face in the wood had bowed the head.
But I didn’t.
Both of us stood at the threshold of each other’s worlds.
I stepped toward her, and she stepped toward me.
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel