An Afternoon Riddle

“Mother!” The child’s voice rang out, high and melodic, like the chirruping of a finch. “Mother! Mo-ther!” Around the corner of the stone cottage, a tousled golden head bobbing atop a willowy frame came tumbling pell-mell into the little garden. Right behind him ran his sister, her knees and shins covered in crumbly bits of moist black earth and hay. Their faces were pale and their eyes wide; they were clearly agitated about something.

“Mother, look!” The girl pushed past her brother and held out a fist, palm-up, then slowly uncurled her fingers. It was a torn butterfly wing. A tear glistened in her eye. “It must have been Claude. Aren’t there enough mice in the barn to keep him happy?” She closed her chubby fist over the wing again and cuddled it close to her heart.

“Do you think the fairies will take revenge?” The boy’s sober face as he asked this was simply too much for their mother; her studied expression of concern split into a merry smile, and she concealed it quickly with her hands before composing herself again. She didn’t want to ruin the fun.

“Listen to me, you two, and listen carefully.” Both sets of tear-stained cheeks tipped upward to look at her. She crouched down, her long skirt draping onto the ground around her like the wilted petals of a flower. “Your father left me with strict instructions. If I were ever to find evidence of violence towards a fairy while he was away, we were to make amends in the best way we could. Now, Sarah,” she took the girl’s hand and gave it a squeeze, “Claude may be a legend among cats–mighty mouser, hunter of hunters. But no matter how fast he is, you know that Claude could never, ever catch a fairy. Most likely he just caught its wing with his claw, and it flew away to safety. You know very well they can become invisible whenever they like.”

Sarah looked abashed; this was a very big expression on such a very small face. “But,” she managed after a moment’s silence, “they’ll still be vexed! What if they curdle our milk, tip over the ash bucket, tie my hair up in knots–”

“No, no, no, Sarah–and I’ll tell you why. We are going to make an apology on Claude’s behalf. We’re going to build them,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “a fairy house.” Both children’s faces brightened. “Now, Ben, go and fetch me the mossiest rock you can find by the well. Make sure it’s flat and smooth.” Benjamin ran off purposefully, his small brow furrowed with determination. “You and I will find the perfect spot for it.” She took Sarah’s hand and set off towards the edge of the clearing around their house and into the thick woods.

As the three worked together, gathering lichen-encrusted twigs, silky acorns, fragrant pine cones, and other debris from the forest floor, she told the children a riddle:

“We dance beneath the golden bower
beside stone wall and royal tower.

Each maiden fair through sunlit hours
bows golden head to fragrant flowers.

Then, when the sun bids all goodnight,
return we each in dainty flight

To halls of gold and sweetness fair;
we each of gold and ebony hair

Do dance before our fairy queen–
elaborate steps show what we’ve seen

In microcosm, pantomime–
where in her realm we next shall dine.

Who are we?”

“I know the answer! Fairies!” blurted Ben.

Their mother laughed. “No, I’m afraid not in the sense you mean. These creatures are real–not invisible or magical.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Like the fairies, they can hurt us if they become frightened, but normally they are friendly, and ever so helpful.”

The two children worked carefully, stacking up tiny pebbles to build a chimney and arranging a few loose feathers artfully around the doorway. Charlotte repeated the riddle for them a few more times, but they were baffled. Then, buzzing low across the churned-up earth where Charlotte had been hoeing earlier that day, a fuzzy black and golden bumblebee caught Sarah’s eye as it lighted on a purple clover flower.

“They are bees!” she cried out.

“Very good! You’ve solved it.” The girl grinned, wiping the back of her hand across her dusty forehead. The amber sunlight of late afternoon, warm like candlelight, slanted through the thick branches above them. Broad green vine maple leaves caught the light like translucent panels of stained glass; tiny ruby huckleberries dangled like glass baubles on spindly huckleberry plants; lazy swarms of gnats hung thick in the air like clouds of incense. It was easy, Charlotte thought to herself, to believe in fairies during moments like this one. She smiled down at the two little golden heads bowed down over their painstaking work, laying out a palatial construction that would only be inhabited by dreams; for her, the natural world held enough magic of its own.

Photo credit: “The Artist’s Family in the Garden,” by Claude Monet, from Image is in the public domain.