Tree fairies lived beneath the old sycamore tree in rooms separated by woody, finger-shaped roots pointing out like spokes. Every afternoon Emily cleaned house for the fairies. Then she set their bark table with acorn-top bowls, and covered their moss beds with mats woven from the tall grasses growing along the edge of the forest.
Emily knew the fairies worked during daylight hours, but returned to the tree to play, eat, and sleep at night. It was her job to nurture them and beautify their home with nature’s accessories.
Emily carpeted the fairies’ rooms with fuzzy leaves in summer and milkweed fluff in autumn. During winter months she swept the snow-covered cubicles with a broom made of dry white pine needles. But spring was Emily’s favorite season since she could decorate the fairies’ house with a variety of miniature wildflowers.
Emily created tiny flower arrangements with delicate, almost-lavender “spring beauties” and brash yellow “buttercups.” White “mayapple” blossoms became puffy bed pillows. Red “trillium” marched around the bedroom walls, while ivory “dutchman’s breeches” stood ready to be worn as pantaloons by the girl fairies. Emily covered the floors with a tweedy combination of miscellaneous petals. The fairy house became a flowery paradise.
As seasons came and went, and came and went again and again, little Emily grew up. She went away to college and met a young man who talked of the south wind sighing in the pine tree outside the bedroom window of his parents’ farmhouse. She fell in love with him – hoping he was another of her kind who understood what it meant to love a tree.
More seasons passed. After Emily bore her third daughter, she fell prey to chronic, debilitating depression. Her sighs and tormented pacing often filled the house. Still, each spring she took Liz, her youngest daughter, to the woods to search for the spring wildflowers of her youth. With childlike anticipation she gathered them into bouquets and told stories about the tree fairies and the old sycamore. She could not afford to forget.
Her daughters became adults and sought lives of their own. The seasons continued to push days into months, months into years, and years into decades. Emily’s health failed and eventually she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She moved from the house where she had lived for over forty years to a nursing home.
One warm spring day, Liz visited her mother and offered to take her on an outing. Emily lunged across the parking lot with the dizzy gait typical of her disease, then sat in the front seat of the car like an obedient child, stiff and mute, staring ahead. “Whs swunt cestoon mwah?” It was impossible for Liz to decipher her speech or even guess what she was thinking.
Emily and Liz drove through town and into the country, with no particular destination in mind. At a small clearing surrounded by virgin forest, Liz pulled over and helped her mother out of the car. The two walked along the edge of a rushing stream together, arm in arm. Dappled sunshine streamed boldly through waving tree branches not yet fully clothed with new leaves.
Emily mumbled incoherently, but with mounting intensity. “Mussr cug woohem, chutseek wumblemen asheemlik!”
The women stepped slowly and swayed together above the wet, mossy earth until Emily suddenly stopped and bent down. She stood, cradling a single tiny flower in her gnarled hand as if it were a precious gem, and gestured with it toward her daughter.
“Why thanks, Mother! Do you know this flower’s name?”
Without faltering, Emily replied, “Why, now that’s a ‘spring beauty’!”
Those were the last coherent words Emily spoke.
Six months later, Emily passed away on a cold, drizzly day in October – a withered remnant of the energetic child who once cared for the tree fairies. After the burial, Liz returned to her mother’s house and walked through the yard, reminiscing. While a recent frost had already killed the grass, a small patch of green remained underneath the garage eaves.
Liz knew her Mother transplanted “spring beauties” from the woods to that spot in her yard years before.
It was the only portion of the yard not yet shrouded with crisp, brown leaves. Liz approached the green patch with a sense of reverence. What was that - right where the spring beauties would bloom next spring?
A dead butterfly lay with its wings outspread, as if to announce the end of a season and the beginning of another.
Author’s comments: Emily’s story is true. She lived from 1906-1988, and was my mother. I was her youngest daughter.
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