The Life and Death(and everything in between)
A Not-quite-forgotten Tale of Neverland
- The Very First Fairies and Their Child
Only one child can claim the privilege of beginning childhood. No one remembers his name, but we shall call him Fergus. All other wild children would come to look like him: deceptively small, sticky, and crazy-haired. For this first child, like all children, the world was a mess. The lights were too bright, the sounds were too loud, and the objects around him were far too orderly. The first part of his life was spent by storming about the forest and in crying—an act of protest to let him set the world aright. But Fergus was so busy putting the world in its place that he didn’t notice what was taking place within himself.
Some time later, when Fergus finally ran out of breath, he was forced to pause while he drew back the string on his next volley of sobs. In this act of refitting these noisy arrows, he realized that he had been releasing something into the world that was not there before. This something – or rather, these somethings – were dull and grey and ghostly and were slowly drifting away from Fergus. They looked a bit like himself, but were missing his wild tangle of hair, were even smaller than he was, and were as blurry as the world looked when his eyes were full of tears. Their heads were bowed as they moved slowly into the surrounding forest, and try as he may, Fergus could never catch them.
In the silence that followed, Fergus saw something else that was not too bright, heard something that was not too loud, and sensed something that was not too terribly orderly. What Fergus beheld was a little bird. This bird was just red enough to be interesting, and it flitted about in front of Fergus while it made curious little chirping noises.
“Boy, why are you crying?” the bird asked (for in these days, creatures would talk to children just as often—if not more—than children would talk to them).
“What is ‘crying?’” replied the child (for in these days, children could speak much more freely than they do now).
“Why, it’s that awful noise you’ve been making for several months now.”
“Oh,” Fergus said hoarsely, for he began to sense his voice had gone on a partial holiday. “What is a month?”
“Why, it is a length of time that passes far too quickly for some and far too slowly for others. But your crying has had the peculiar effect of lengthening time for everyone around you, especially for yours truly. I’ve never felt time to be so inflexible as when you started crying.”
“Sorry,” said Fergus. “Nobody told me about time before. Who are you?”
“I am Cardinal, master of the Four Primary Directions and apprentice to several of the more Demanding Directions.”
“I do not know any of the Directions yet,” Fergus croaked. “Can you tell me when they are?”
“Not when. Where. Directions help you get to a place, which is a space. But…I suppose time is also a space of sorts. Oh, look, you’ve gone and confused me.”
Cardinal landed on a branch and looked at Fergus with his head cocked. Head-cocking is one of the universal signs of confusion among the animals, and Cardinal was so regularly confused that he could no longer fly in an entirely straight line. However, his confusion was mostly the effect of a very curious mind, so this did not bother him much.
Cocking his head to the other side, Cardinal asked, “Haven’t you any toys? Every child must have toys, otherwise, how will one tell which is a child and which is a whale?”
Fergus looked puzzled for a long moment. He then asked, “What is a toy? Are you a toy?”
Cardinal cocked his head yet again, blinked his beady black eyes, and then replied. “I don’t think so. But I have heard it said in the wilds between Directions that toys are what keep children from crying, and I certainly have stopped you from making that miserable noise. So perhaps I am a toy. Or, I am your toy at any rate.”
“Oh, how wonderful—my very own toy.” Fergus clapped in delight. “What else do toys do?”
“Well, I have heard that toys get lost and found and broken and fixed and old and worn and lost again. But I am too scared to do any of that. May I bring you another toy in my stead?”
Fergus nodded and Cardinal flew off into the forest. It might have been several days that passed as he waited in the forest clearing, or it may have only been an hour or two. You see, children are terrible at telling time, in part because, for children, anticipation will push against time until it almost stops. In the end, the bird was gone for an entire day (in the way that grownups reckon time) before returning with a strange-looking bundle clutched in its feet.
“Here you go, boy,” Cardinal said, as he laid the shrouded object on the ground before Fergus. The boy picked it up, unveiled the gift, and saw what looked like a misshapen version of Cardinal.
“Is this supposed to be you? Wait—I know. This is you after you’ve eaten too much and your head has grow as big as your belly!”
Instead of cocking his head, Cardinal shook it. “Why, nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a very special toy, but it is not fashioned after me. When you said you wanted a toy and I realized I had never actually seen a toy, I went to Mother Owl. I am, after all, her fourth cousin thrice removed and twice returned. She is the wisest creature in the forest, even wiser than the Great Oak Tree—with whom I am no longer on speaking terms, if you must know. She has poor taste in birds and holds grudges and takes ages to say anything.”
Fergus cocked his own head in confusion. “If nothing could be farther from the truth, then what is ‘the truth?’”
As expected, Cardinal cocked his head. “An excellent question—this is a matter of almost constant discussion among the Directions. Some of them say the truth is like shapes the stars make when you look at them for a very long time. Others say that the truth is any group of words that are spoken very loudly. I, on the other hand, am somewhat partial to the idea that the truth might be a very nice dream that the Neverland is having. But I could be convinced otherwise. I will let you know when I’ve come to a conclusion.”
“No,” Fergus exhaled in exasperation. “What is ‘the truth’ about that toy?”
“Oh. It’s an owl.”
“Like Mother Owl? How splendid. Can I play with it?” Fergus looked hopeful.
“Certainly. But I’ve been told that is only one of its purposes,” replied Cardinal.
Fergus didn’t care to ask what Cardinal meant by that, and there is no need for us to explain this to him—he will no doubt find out some day. The boy grabbed the toy owl by its thick neck and, running around the forest clearing, waved it up and down so that its wings flapped in the air. Fergus was so pleased with this toy that he stopped and hugged it. To his shock, the owl made a noise.
Fergus stopped dead in his tracks. “What?”
“No,” Cardinal answered from a nearby tree branch. “Who.”
“Who?” Fergus asked.
“You. Or, at least I think it was addressing you. I believe I am a ‘whom,’ but I could be mistaken. The Grammars are a snooty bunch who don’t like it when you ask them questions.”
“You,” Fergus told the toy. He hugged it again, and again it called out, Hooooooooooo!
“You!” Fergus replied. He kept on squeezing this miniature owl—it kept hoo-ing and he kept “you”-ing: You! Hooooo! You! Hooooo! You! Hooooo!
Something rose like the sun within Fergus until he felt like bursting out into song. When he opened his mouth, a laugh appeared. It was brighter than the sun, more clear than the moon, and sparkled more than all the stars. The laugh hung in the air in front of him before drifting this way and that, until it finally rested on the forest’s floor.
Once it touched the earth, this laugh shone even brighter for a moment and then broke into a thousand pieces. Instead of simply falling back onto the ground, each piece began bouncing for a few uncertain steps before gaining greater confidence and then went skipping around the forest clearing in a wide and shimmering circle.
After staring at this sparkling ring for what seemed like ages (for time seems to pass more slowly the closer one is to the ground), Fergus noticed that its singular brightness was, in fact, made up of different colors—mauve, white, and blue. Each color moved to a slightly different rhythm that grew more and more distinct as time went on its way, perhaps to visit a newer part of creation that it had not yet grown bored of.
“What are those?” asked Fergus.
Cardinal’s head was tilting so rapidly from side to side that Fergus thought it might tilt right off. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it. Or them. They seem to be moving in a Direction I have not met before, and I am embarrassed to ask for its name.” Cardinal knew very well that there are three things one does not ask of a strange Direction, and names are one of them.
The circling lights grew more distinct (the “it” was a “they,” after all) and now they began to make very small noises, as if clearing their throats. A single blue light broke off from the circle and whizzed up to within inches of Fergus’ face.
“Who are you?” Fergus asked. “Or are you a ‘whom?’”
The flying light opened its mouth to answer, and a lovely tinkling sound filled it, as if a bag of golden bells had been suddenly poured out upon the ground. Fergus looked about for these fallen bells until he realized they were not really bells, after all. He also realized that he didn’t know what bells were, either. It was several moments before he discovered that this noise was the light’s voice and that this light was trying to tell him something. It was several more (and much longer) moments before Fergus decided to listen, and it was only then he was able to make sense of what it was trying to say: “I am a fairy.”