I want to teach my child to shed numbers like a skin in the summer, in the shimmering heat of the ever-warming summer.
—Susan Briante, The Market Wonders
For our small child, the earth recedes, day by day, into disavowed fictions, unruly enchantments dispelled by cold facts. For our child of climate change, the earth unravels, year by year as she grows, into ever crueler fictions. On this collapsing planet, she has come to adore winged beings.
We wanted to teach our child, A, to shake the subway voltage tickling her toddler’s shins, to nurture in her second skin a forest testament. We wanted her to spot a blackberry bramble and a fiddlehead, to glide through a tunnel of rhododendron blooms. Most of all, we wanted her to put one hiking foot in front of the other.
Needing help with our sylvan lessons, we summoned the fairies. Under the eaves during a summer rain we made our invocation. We’d gathered fallen limbs wreathed in lichen. We’d read the contours of the ridge, walked the pillowy pine needles of its switchbacks. We’d pondered the transitive property, the willful child, the terrain of the unseen, the prime measure of our veneration wilting all around us. The woods beckoning, we requested tiny wings to lead us in. Help us, fairy friends, finish a two-mile walk in the woods with our stubborn preschooler.
High-Stepping Matilda knew the way to lure A into the trees, to coax her little legs up the mountain path. The trail fairy left Skittles at unpredictable intervals. Greens on stumps and logs. Blues below rocky overhangs. Yellows under root tangles. Reds riding canoe-shaped leaves. Purples hugging wildflowering switchbacks. Oranges on stones or split-rail footbridges.
This taxonomy shifted with A’s seasons. Sometimes no yellows arrived, at others the purples no-showed. My partner S and I weren’t sight-impaired, but our peripheral vision was woeful. Only a child with her head on a swivel, eyes peeled, would spot the tiny orbs at belly-button height or surfing the ankles. Matilda was a firm fairy. Scooped up in S’s arms? She stayed away. Piggy-backed or on my shoulders? She skedaddled. Matilda didn’t countenance complaining either. Whining and griping grated her ears, finely tuned to the chirps and snaps of the forest.
Once cracked open, a world commands shelters, so we built for Matilda landing places. Our fairy houses and playgrounds were transit hubs and message portals. We began with the fallen, grounded, and buried—branches, leaves, a robin’s feather and once a vein-blue egg, acorns and pinecones, maple whirligigs, seeds, stones, and berries. Impromptu, leaning things, the houses rose from studs of twigs. Insulated in moss, roofed in lichen, with siding of wild onions and mushroom chimneys, we braided the forest into habitable forms.
Sometimes not a single Skittle dotted the trail. When Matilda ghosted, for reasons undisclosed, we joined A in speculating why she hadn’t come. Trial too close to the road. The only thing Matilda hates more than traffic is crowds. No, the rain. The clouds. The sun. Trail too far from her home. Surely, she hadn’t forgotten her human friend? A rarely blinked. What, to a child, is revision if not the play of time, the drama of becoming? Usually, Matilda came. Usually, A put one sneaker before the other, singing Mati Mati Mati, Matilda my fairy dream.
Our typical fairy house featured fairy reading nooks, hammocks, swings, and beds, fairy see-saws, kitchens, and potties. Pine needle blankets, cicada shell dolls, flower-petal doorknobs. These assemblages we bonded with a hot glue gun or those scorned plastic straws, sometimes with bottle caps, string, and scraps of map. Once “finished,” we placed the house creekside, atop a fieldstone hearth, or beneath a towering red oak. Then we waited for a visit.
When the writer Nan Shepherd bristles at fairies, she’s minding this sort of world building. In The Living Mountain, her World War II-era meditation on the Cairngorm mountains in the Scottish Highlands, Shepherd objects to their interference with our perception. She allows that “a night of the purest witchery,” when the crags and ridges seem to liquify in the lakes and moon, reasonably reinforces a belief in fairies. This distorted vision is sufficient, she laments, “to make one credit all the tales of glamourie.” Glamourie—the belief in an enchanted world—offends Shepherd because it “interposes something artificial between the world, which is one reality,” and a complex, mysterious one at that, “and the self, which is another.” Her simple plea: don’t build worlds over the world, for such fictions separate the self from skin-tingling encounters. Yet, in an era when technology penetrates all forms of daily life, I wonder: Has Shepherd’s ideal of unmediated perception become a greater fiction than our fairies?
Matilda’s cosmos grew ever more elaborate, her world spilling over and into ours. With no online oracle at hand in the dead zone of the woods, our fairy metaphysics evolved in needs-must fashion. We’ve gleaned some principles. Unlike guardian angels, which are authorized by a supreme, patriarchal power, fairies are free agents. Unpredictable, even fickle, they alight and entice, tempt and enchant. Their language is the forest’s, primed by the renewable energy of childhood and channeled through a drum kit, autotuned with reverb, echo effects, and the odd mandolin twang. We wanted to teach our child to listen for the roaring silence of the woods.
Shepherd’s command is absolute: “Let us have done with spells.” For our part, we aimed to show our child how to call a spell a spell. In the perpetual summer, the spell of capitalism has cast the planet into its toxic cauldron. The spell of numbers hypnotizes, it quantifies your toenails: the stock market, the bottom line, the cost of doing business, the world without birdsong, ribbits, and crickets. In their place, the avatars and emojis invented to cleave our minds from our bodies.
With A, we continue to speculate on the origins of Matilda’s name. We’d read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, imagining the trail fairy casting spells over bullies. We’d played on loop at bedtime the lullaby version of the Australian bush ballad “Waltzing Matilda.” Unbeknownst to us, the chorus— “You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me”—depicts a suicide. Imagining fairies as suicide bombers, earth-martyrs, holds great appeal; as we rush headlong into ecological catastrophe, Matilda’s ready for radical maneuvers. To date, our best theory derives from the name’s genealogy. Matilda is a Teutonic given name meaning “mighty battle maid.” High-Stepping Matilda the Mighty Battle Maid, come to save the planet before the superrich can eat it. Matilda the Mighty Battle Maid, help our child to imagine what can’t be seen, teach her to conjure fictions liberatory rather than cruel. Where “High-Stepping” came from we have no clue.
If you invoke the fairies of the forest, they’ll eventually find their way into your home. The inseparable pair who found their way into ours is known as Maybelle and Pudge. More Marx and Engels than Lewis and Clark, more Thelma and Louise than Hansel and Gretel, M & P, as they’ve signed their messages, have been more reliable than Matilda.
In A’s bedroom, a purple fairy door lies between the register, which blows coolish air constantly in the near-constant summer, and a communist-era sheepskin stool, which we bought for a song in a Berlin flea market and lugged around sweltering Germany at A’s insistence. A has left all manner of things at the doorstep: letters, notes, drawings, paintings, crafts, stones, flowers, blueberries, homemade jewelry, pinch pots. In return, M & P have smuggled through the ducts messages and charms. One rule has so far held: A initiates the exchange. Another verges on maxim: M & P are resourceful, using only materials they can pilfer from our house and yard.
A has invited us to participate in her imaginative life, we who wield no airtight story of celestial cause and effect or good and evil. At first, we set the stage, directing the action and sketching the narrative arc. For a child, what is a fiction if not a shared enchantment? How many times has our child reasonably confused “fiction” and “nonfiction” in reporting on the stories she reads in school? For a child, what are explanations if not the ends of unknowing? Together, we’ve nurtured the mystery of origins and destinations. Have we been delaying the inevitable?
At first our agency was fundamental, then we became marginal to our own creations. Soon, we were excluded. Was A teaching us to respect her autonomy, having learned it from the fairies? Was she alerting us to the sanctity of permission? She began keeping her messages to M & P to herself, then she started squirreling away their responses to her. One night while writing a letter, she shielded it from me as I read nearby. You’ll think it’s ridiculous, she said, suddenly timorous. I won’t, I promise. She passed the note, which read, in part: “You are a star at flying. Pleas bring me a set of wings that rilly work. Is that to much to ask? Pleas do it! Love, A.” She hesitated again before showing me her next letter, a follow-up to M & P’s answer. “Your write I don’t need wings can we get over that please!” Then, abruptly, A pivoted: “Different topik.”
Of the many topics A has broached with M & P, the most pressing involves the fairies’ homes and origins and, dare I say, their ontological status. Variations on questions such as “Where do you live?” and “Is Fairyland real?” appear in letter after letter. M & P were alive, somewhere, in a realm where what matters most—nature, art, friends, family, games, and language—is what matters most to our child. They live in the world she would build if she were in charge. For A, the fairies are “so glameris,” a glittering, prismatic amalgam of mica, quartz, and waterfalls, dirt under the nails and a tongue of Skittle purple.
“Fairyland is real,” M & P responded, “But you can’t find it on a map. It’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Let’s just say it’s the most beautiful place you can imagine, full of trees and rivers. Some places are closer to it than others. The Blue Ridge is a door.” We still search for that portal in our stories, though less frequently on the trails, which no longer require candy to entice A up John Rock or Black Balsam Knob. Across A’s correspondence with M & P a deep gratitude, tender and earnest, each for the other, child and fairy, abides. In some dark dell in Panthertown I imagine M & P reveling with Matilda in A’s love of the forest.
For nearly four years we’ve been living on fairy time. We’ve been juggling the contradiction of viewing our child as an adult-in-training and rejecting that cold instrumental calculus. We’ve wanted her to dwell in childhood without regard to our uncertain planetary future. In our shared belief in an enchanted world, have we also modeled a durable resistance to our culture’s desecration of nonhuman nature? Have we achieved a momentary reprieve from the tyrannies of representation and rationality? With one million species at risk of extinction, with the loss of three billion birds in North America in the past decade, will the capacity for imagining the unseen and the disappeared prove essential for A’s, and her planet’s, survival? For fairies reveal not their bodies but their passing, in disturbed cairns and rustled understories. Soon, the horny toad, then the fence lizard, finally the common wren.
We wanted our child to shed the flammable uniform of Planet Fast Fashion. Planet Screen Time. Planet Dollars and Cents. Planet Clearcut, Landfill, and Forget It. Like her parents, she remains a work in progress. Consider the “topic” A took up after her wings were rejected: “Difrent topik. Can you pleas leav me muney instead of a note pleas!” Was she conflating the capitalist Tooth Fairy with our ungovernable sprites? She quickly sensed the unspoken household rule she’d broken. She hasn’t asked for cash again, though a few bucks still make their way into her tooth pillow.
How can we prolong the world we have built with High-Stepping Matilda, Maybelle, and Pudge? Now that our child loves hiking, now that she longs for the forest, will Matilda stop visiting us? Will M & P find another child to charm, comfort, and challenge? What fiction, what desire, if not for money, approbation, and “success,” will have the power to supplant such creatures?
On this teetering planet, what is a child if not the vectors of her errant imaginings? As the ruling fiction hastens the extinction, scrolling the growth charts and stock tickers like ingredients for a lethal cocktail, can a child’s fictions short-circuit the death march, lifting ferns and fish in flight?
These are all ways of asking, What’s our end-game? The end-game is the end. The trail fairy assists our parent acts for the end of the world, when the species of the woods have been eviscerated, when fauna and flora must be simulated by the few stewards of a cancelled planet. As I type this sentence, the last message M & P sent to A through her fairy door signed off with a plea: “Keep us fairies in your heart and your head. We need humans like you to care about us and the earth, the trees and rivers and animals and plants. We need you very much.”