The Fairy Ring
By Christian Young
It was a cold spring morning when little Essie awoke and found her home suspended in the dream-like stupor that often greets those earlybirds that wake when the sky is still orange. The yellow Sunday sunlight shone through the windows, highlighting every piece of minute dust suspended in the unnaturally warm air as Essie made her way downstairs, reaching up to grab the banister to make sure she didn’t fall—there did seem to be more dust than usual, didn’t there? Her parents were nowhere to be found, which, for some reason, didn’t upset Essie as much as it should have. Instead, she revelled in the newfound freedom that is rarely afforded five-year-olds. She cleverly undid the “childproof” lock on the front door and flung it open with the dramatic flair of an aged Broadway star, facing the open world like everything was hers for the taking. With that attitude, she could have probably done anything she wanted; if she had wished to fly, the very air itself would have likely propelled her into the sky’s loose embrace. But, being the young child that she was, Essie was content to go play in the forest unsupervised.
Essie did not have the natural animal affinity which all animated princesses seem to share; birds, insects, and all manner of forest creatures fled upon her footfalls. Every now and then she would hear the rustling of a rabbit which was oblivious to the approaching danger but, upon her next step, would look up at her: ears alert, eyes strangely piercing, it would freeze in place until she moved, and when she did (for movement was inevitable for a child with little self-control) it would disappear quicker than Essie could cry “Wait!” at the top of her lungs. It never occurred to her that such noisy disturbances might perhaps be the cause of her isolation, but even if it did, it wouldn’t have stopped the determined little child from trying to befriend every miscellaneous organism as they scampered off.
It was in the midst of the great green expanse that Essie discovered the curiosity that was to occupy the remainder of her day: a small toadstool, a mix of brown and tan, which would have gone unnoticed but for the fact that it was just big enough to cause a girl of Essie’s diminutive stature to stumble and fall as she pranced through the forest. The fact that there was a mushroom in a forest was not the fact that piqued Essie’s immature interest: it was the second toadstool, right beside the first, and the third next to the second, that caused her to turn her head and see a line of resplendent golden-brown mushrooms leading off to her right. The trail curved slightly to Essie’s left, as if tracing an invisible circle through the maze-like canopy of trees and underbrush—though Essie, being the oblivious five-year-old that she was, barely could comprehend a circle beyond being the easiest thing to draw with a crayon; regardless, to a child, such a phenomenon would seem as obvious a path as a yellow brick road, and so Essie set out on the first real adventure of her life.
Essie followed the trail for as long as her imagination could hold out, for as she was wearily treading along the toadstool trail her mind was picturing the pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow: perhaps it led to a small colony of fairies, as the old legends of these circles would so emotionally argue to be the truth, or maybe it was a waterfall where mermaids lured wandering travelers to a perpetual life underwater, or, once upon a time, a unicorn strode through these woods and the mushrooms grew in its magical footprints. The possibilities seemed endless, which only disappointed Essie more when the path appeared to end at the corner of a large cyclone fence, marked “Private Property—No Trespassing” in large, red, emphatic lettering. Essie knew the property well enough; everyone in the town spoke of the old wizard Vincentio’s place, and how the recluse never let anyone know what he was doing inside his private kingdom. The children feared it, the gossips loved it, but nobody went near it: the fear of the unknown did more to keep people out than the rather ineffective fencing. The butterflies in Essie’s stomach were especially agitated by the girl’s proximity to the property, yet, in a display of rare courage, Essie’s curiosity outweighed her fear, and she approached the corner of the foreboding metal construct which had been the cause of so many childish fantasies at night.
Essie was delighted to see that the path of toadstools continued past the corner of Vincentio’s property in a gentle arc—but she also noticed that the fence, having made a ninety degree angle in the corner as fences do, continued in the same direction as the mushrooms. In a feat of mathematical instinct for her infant mind, Essie concluded that the fairy ring probably circled around and met the fence at another corner, and so decided to follow the fence instead, hoping it would prove itself a shortcut to her destination. Instead of a magical unicorn, Essie was rewarded with a gate in the fence, and an unlocked one at that; and as orange sunlight cast its rays through the foliage, Essie could see that the ever-present dust which was possessing her small town of Asteria was even thicker inside the wizard’s mystical retreat. Essie’s natural curiosity, combined with the present opportunity, got the best of her common sense, and she ventured inside the forbidden part of the forest.
She did not make it far: sickly-looking but fierce dogs, chained to stakes in a circle not fifty feet inside the fence made up Essie’s greeting party, but it was the marvellous aberration ahead that made the trembling youth stop dead in her tracks. Presently, a man with an unkempt black beard and a lab coat appeared from behind a tree and wordlessly escorted Essie back to the gate. After he locked the gate behind her, he called out, startling the child.
“Little girl, you do best tuh f’git what ya seen here, an’ don’ come back agin.”
Essie didn’t need to be told, and it was easy to chalk up the image of the hundred-foot, golden-brown, dust-spewing mushroom to the disturbing machinations of an intense nightmare.