“If fairies don’t have souls, then what happens to them when they die?”
My nephew asked the question, and I turned to him to answer. But I stopped in the midst of taking a breath, for I saw that he was turned away from me, toward his grandfather, the storyteller.
I studied fairies for my profession. My nephew knew this. But he also knew that I had no spellbinding stories tell.
Except that this time, I did. For I had seen a fairy die once. A prince, he was. He glittered like a star.
All the better that my nephew had not turned to me with the question. For I would not have wished to answer it in my father’s presence anyway.
My father did not altogether approve of my profession, believing it to be a “frivolous pursuit.”
Just as the tension was easing from my shoulders, my father did a surprising thing.
He looked at me with his inscrutable gaze. “Why don’t you ask the scholar?”
During the slow pivot of my nephew’s head toward me, I composed a scholarly answer. Something that came close enough to truth to satisfy.
“Fairies,” I began, “do have something like a soul.”
By this time, my nephew’s wide brown eyes were fixed in place. His attention was fixed upon me.
“This something, let me call it a well,” I continued, “should be a source of infinite energy, and allows them to be immortal in body. Though, they are not immortal beyond the death of that body, should that death come by sudden violence, rare illness, or other rare conditions. And it allows them to do magic, though there are limits to their magic, and to this well. That is, a fairy could be drained of magic, as a human could be drained of energy. But rest and food could restore it—this energy—as they restore humans.”
It was the slightest of shifts, the slow sliding down of those brown eyes. He was trying, poor boy, but my nephew’s attention was already beginning to drift.
At this point, my typical response was to muss his hair and release him from his duty of listening to his elder, to me.
But it was I who now did a surprising thing. For this time, I felt my heart ache when my nephew did not hear my words.
“But if that well were drained all at once, say if a fairy were to cast a grand spell, can you guess what would happen, nephew?”
My nephew’s eyes suddenly widened again, as if my final words had just prodded him awake. He had not been listening, and so he did not know how to answer.
“If a fairy cast a spell so grand that she drained her well of magic,” I said, “the well that to her is what your soul is to you, what do you think would happen?”
“She would…she would have no magic anymore?”
“She would die,” I said. “Every other part of her would die. Nothing would remain to pass into another life. There is no next life for a fairy.”
My nephew’s eyes glistened. And I gave the poor boy no ground to retreat to.
“There are some wicked fairies who try to drain their fellows to perform grand spells, spells that would tamper with forces that no living being, be they fairy or human, should tamper with. I have never met such a fairy, I am glad to say.” I felt my brows draw in, and my breath hitch. “But I have met a fairy who was drained and killed. He was a prince.”
From the edge of my vision, I saw my father shift in his chair, but I did not look up, afraid that I would lose my composure and the will to tell the story of the prince, for it was in part my story too.
Among the fairies there are many princes, and many queens. For any who name themselves so are so.
A fairy who named herself a queen of a small but glorious hollow had a son. A prince, he was. He glittered like a star.
The prince enjoyed a life of mischief and favor. He had little to do and little to fear. But one day, a wicked fairy came across the prince in his carousing, drawn to the glittering well of magic that he held within his being. So abundant was this well that it spilled into his eyes, and made them glitter too.
The wicked fairy tricked the prince and drained him of his magic, all of it, and all at once.
The prince was wise enough to flee, though it was already too late, and to seek the aid of his mother.
The fairy queen cast her own spell, one that sought to counter the spell upon her son, to protect him, to bind him to life.
She bound him to her own life.
She did not know what it would mean.
The fairy prince died.
The queen lamented.
She did not yet know that she had not failed.
But even as she cast herself upon the ground where her son had stood mere moments before, empty ground now, for a fairy’s form vanished upon death, she felt a light hand brushing her shoulder.
She raised her head, and there she beheld a silvery glittering haze that shaped itself into the form of her son.
The fairy prince had not dissipated into death.
He had returned as something that no fairy could ever dream of being, a ghost.
But he was a ghost whose existence could not abide, unless it was nourished with magic.
The queen found that she could cast no more magic, for the well of magic that sustained her life was now feeding the ghost of her son.
She did not care if it was so. She did not care if she was driven from the throne for being a most disturbing creature, a fairy without magic.
But she was not cast out, for hers was a realm full of few fairies. And all of them loved her.
And they loved her still when she slowly began to fade.
It was illness at first that struck her, an illness that could not be cured, for all the magic that was poured into her left her being and fed the ghost of her son.
It was the prince who now lamented, hovering in the halls outside his mother’s bedchamber. For the fairies who tended to her feared him and would not come near if he was near.
A curious youth, mortal, and human, wandered into the fairy realm, led there by study and fortune and mischief. His soul was bright and shining, as all human souls were unless they were corroded by evil thoughts and spoiled by evil deeds willingly committed.
Many fairies were drawn to this youth, among them the ghostly prince.
In life, the prince would have sought merriment with the youth. But as a ghost, whose mother could not be treated with magic, he sought the mortal remedies that the youth might know.
The pale prince did not reveal that he was a ghost, or that he sought the youth’s aid. Instead he appeared before the youth, laughing and sauntering, and casting his glittering gaze upon the youth.
“Now, now, what amusement should cross my path on this bright day?” he said.
The curious youth smiled. Dazzled by the prince’s jolly laugh and sparkling cloak, he gave no other reply.
“Has someone bewitched you and stolen you tongue?” the ghostly prince said. He flourished his cloak. “Show them to me, and I will fight them and get it back for you.”
In bashful response, the youth dropped his gaze.
When he raised it again, the pale prince beamed at him. “You should meet my mother, the queen,” the prince said. “Her magic is even more powerful than mine. And if she finds favor with you, she will send her courtiers out to declare that you are protected in this realm. None shall harm you. But I will entreat her to leave the recovery of your tongue to me.”
In reckless reply, the youth looked up and followed the prince down the path toward the glorious hollow.
It was a journey of many days upon the path, for they were constrained by the youth’s only means of travel, his feet.
The prince boasted that he could fly them both to his mother’s castle in mere moments. Then he confessed that he preferred the longer journey so he might spend more time in the youth’s company.
They grew fond of each other, the pale prince and the curious youth.
By the time they were at the doors of the queen’s castle, the prince had made his true confessions.
The youth did not flee upon discovering that he had been traveling with a ghost, nor upon being set with the burden of finding a mortal medicine to heal the queen.
Indeed, upon seeing the misery upon the prince’s face as they approached the castle, the well-meaning youth made a reckless promise.
“I promise you, my prince, that I will find some way to save you both.”
The ghostly prince’s heart grew glad. The fading luster upon his pale cloak brightened. He led the youth into his castle. And to the chamber of the fairy queen, where the youth grasped the queen’s cold hand and made her the same promise.
The words were uttered. The spell was spoken.
The youth’s promise was all the magic that was needed, for the queen began to stir, and by evening, she was wake.
By the next morning, the queen was strong enough to rise from her bed. She feared for her son, until she saw that the ghostly prince was still there. She did not know how it could be so.
By the third day, when her magic returned, she began to look upon the youth whom her son had brought into her castle with suspicion, thinking him to be some warlock. For who else could have cast such powerful magic as to rouse her and still bind the ghostly prince to life?
She was soon to discover that the truth was not sinister but sad.
The fairy prince, rejoicing at his mother’s waking, grew even fonder of the youth. The queen watched the youth, who was humble and sweet, bashful at her son’s attentions, believing only that the prince was grateful. It was so. But it was also that the prince had come to love the youth. And alas, if the youth had come when the prince still lived, it might have been a happy time for all.
But as the queen watched, the youth who was her honored guest for many, many moons, began to fall ill. One day, he took to bed.
All the while, the ghostly prince had begun to manifest an almost solid form. He gained color and then touch. He even cast a small spell. The queen understood what had happened. And so did the prince.
He was bound to the youth now, but the youth was not a fairy. He did not have a well of magic. The youth was human, and humans had souls. The fairy prince, though unwitting, was draining the youth’s soul. So powerful was that soul that it was not just anchoring the prince to life, but granting him a material body. If the youth died, then it seemed the prince might live again, resurrected.
When the fairy prince realized this, he begged his mother to undo her magic, to unbind him and let him disperse into death. He could not bear to think that his existence was causing the death of another, another whom he loved.
The queen had feared that he would ask it of her. Once her son died, she would never see him again. For fairies had no afterlife, no afterworld. It was the consequence of the manner of being that they were. Haunted by the prince, she finally relented. She tried to undo her own spell, but could not.
The fairy prince did not believe that she had truly tried. In anger, he almost cursed his own mother. Before he could utter words that he would surely regret, he stormed off and went to the chamber of the youth, who by then had fallen into a stupor.
He took the youth by the hand and promised that he would find some magic to keep the youth alive, until the curse of their binding could be broken. The prince hoped that his reckless promise would be magic enough, as the youth’s reckless promise had been.
But nothing happened. The youth did not rouse.
And the fairy prince only grew stronger.
But not strong enough to save the youth.
He again entreated his mother to cast a spell of preservation upon the youth. The queen tried and failed again. Her magic had never quite recovered. But she believed that she could still cast one spell that she had cast before.
“I will cannot undo the binding,” she said, “but I can shift it back upon myself.”
She would die, and when she did, so too would the prince die. But until then, he might spend some time with his beloved youth. And when they were both gone, the youth would remember them, and his soul would remember them. Through him, they would have their immortality.
The queen began to cast the spell. With great effort, she performed the casting. The fairy prince feared that she would again fail. He feared she would drain herself and die. But then the youth stirred. And then, the youth woke.
The fairy prince rejoiced and embraced the youth one time. He beamed at his mother. And while the binding hovered between the youth and the queen, the prince saw it, and he saw that he could break it.
And so, the fairy prince broke the binding.
“I will see you again, mother,” the prince said, as his form faded, “if there are worlds beyond this world where fairies may flutter.”
To the youth he gave only his brightest smile, a smile that grew ghostly and dim.
And so, saying farewell to the two whom he loved most in life, the fairy prince vanished, never to be again.
To my great surprise, I did not find myself weeping at the end of the tale. But I had entranced myself, it seemed. For I had quite forgotten that my nephew and my father were present. I blinked, and shook myself awake.
I prepared myself to answer the certain slew of questions from my nephew about the wicked fairy who had started the ordeal.
My nephew’s gaze was fixed upon me. When he spoke his voice was quiet, gentle.
“You, uncle? You were that youth?”
I released a breath that had been pent up within my chest for many years.
“I was,” I said.
I dared to look at my father and was taken aback to find that it was he who was weeping. He blinked his eyes to pinch away the tears, and wiped his cheeks with the cuff of his sleeve.
I thought of my story, and of the fairy queen and her son. I gaped as I realized something that had never occurred to me before. Perhaps my father’s disapproval of my studies had nothing to do with disdain about my skills or passions.
Perhaps he despised my profession out of fear for his son, fear of me coming so close to death, all because a fairy loved me. Perhaps he was afraid it would happen again. Or perhaps I assumed too much. But it seemed so plain and so clear in my father’s eyes now.
“He didn’t mean to do it, father,” I said. “It was I who spoke so recklessly, who used a word that should not be uttered unless it is truly meant, the word ‘promise.’”
“Your soul made magic, uncle,” my nephew marveled.
My father moved toward us and clasped one hand on his grandson’s shoulder and one hand on mine. He peered at me.
“It is not the stars that glitter and burst that are most precious, son. It is the ones that burn steady for eons, casting light and warmth on those who draw near.”
My father’s gaze held mine for a moment, then dropped toward my nephew, before he again looked at me.
“I have made our hearts heavy with my tale,” I said, glancing between my nephew and my father.
Indeed, my heart was still pained, but the pain was easing, as it had been slowly over the many years since my youth. And I would not have it burden the ones I loved any further.
I grinned a grin of mischief. “Perhaps the next time I tell a fairy story, it should be…frivolous.”
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel