Once upon a time, there was a girl and a boy, and that’s where things really started to get complicated. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start again.
Once upon a time, there was a girl. Much better.
As with all girls when viewed correctly, she was beautiful. She had eyes and a smile that were the subject of cheesy poetry, but it was her her-ness that made her beautiful; she was the kind of person who believed in things, a quality only equalled by her unending curiosity. All year round she cared for her mother, whose health got worse which each passing week, and during the summers she worked as much as she was able on a small fruit cart a stone’s throw from the beach – and a personal best five stone throws away from the ocean.
Our story starts the day mother and daughter set out for an adventure, carrying a picnic basket full of enthusiasm, apples, and a mix of tomato and cucumber sandwiches.
‘You know where we’re headed, right?’ the girl said to her mother, her voice hanging in the dewy air of the forest. Their feet crunched through fallen needles.
‘Into the forest,’ her mother replied as a matter of fact.
‘Into the Jackanape’s lair,’ she corrected. ‘It lives in this forest, remember? Dad used to tell me the stories every night before bed. It could be behind any tree, just lying in wait for us as we speak. Is it behind this one? What about this one?’
Her mother was clearly unimpressed. ‘You know you’re too old to still believe in fairy tales.’
She knew; she just didn’t care.
‘No one quite knows what it looks like. I’ve heard that it’s like a dragon, a twee leaf-coloured thing that tiptoes through the canopy, stalking its prey. Although, someone else told me it’s a tree monster, a haunted oak that comes alive to snatch kids up with its gnarled branches.’
‘I’ve heard that girls who live in daydreams never find good jobs or good husbands,’ her mother fired back. But her daughter wasn’t listening. She was losing herself in the magical tales her mind was spinning.
‘Someone else told me that it has knobbly knees and turned-out toes, and a poisonous wart…’
‘My dear, that’s the Gruffalo,’ but again, her words fell on deaf ears.
‘…on the end of its nose. That one I’m not sure about. What else? Oh, the best one!’ She was absorbed in her reverie, swinging round trees like she was singing in the rain. ‘How could I forget? The best one; detachable jaw like a snake, lumping great steps like an elephant, body like a grizzly bear. The perfect man-eating machine.’
She knew she’d gotten carried away; her mother’s neck craned towards every imaginary sound, her nervous eyes damp with tears she fought to hold back.
‘Oh c’mon, Mam. I’m just messing. It’s all just a story. It’s not real,’ she lied.
No reply was forthcoming.
She decided to give her mother a little space. Though they were close, they were still mother and daughter. They fought, they brooded, they scowled at each other, and had become experts in creating an atmosphere capable of being cut through. Space was the remedy to this. Space was the solution. With the kindness of a teenager, she left her mother to unpack their picnic alone and set out beyond the clearing where they’d settled. She let the optimistic adventurer inside her navigate the route and quickly she was lost. It amused her how easily it had happened; lost in a mix of guilt and delirious daydreaming, she had simply let her feet guide her, forgetting that feet have no eyes and therefore make very poor guides.
One foot in front of the other had been working until her step found no solid ground to support itself, and she was sliding downwards before she could stop herself. With a bump and a thud, she was into a bush. Then out again, with equal uncomfortable force. She tried to catch herself on the trees that spend past her. She couldn’t. Her fingers were left sore from her failure. When she gathered herself at the bottom of the hill, her backside thoroughly soaked and muddy, she found herself in a small clearing, staring at an enormous sleeping bear-like lump.
It stirred, and rolled over.
Initially it had been fear that had sent her body into shivers, but now she sat there trying to stifle the giggles that bubbled up inside her, staring at the most peculiar thing she’d ever seen. It was easy to understand how she’d mistaken it for a bear, with its massive torso covered with thick, dark fur and stumpy legs, but it certainly wasn’t. Like a scrapping alley cat it had gaping gashes of fur missing, with blankets of it now strewn across the ground. Where the fur had come from, there were now patches of peach-pure strips of skin growing through. It was moulting into a man. Its face was pure human, and had she been in a different situation she might have thought it cute. As a whole, it looked ridiculous.
As if it could hear itself being judged, the creature opened both its fist-sized eyes, just barely. ‘Why have you disturbed me?’ it moaned, barely awake. ‘I just want to sleep.’
She didn’t know what to say. Waking up a mysterious boy-creature without permission was an altogether new experience for her, and she didn’t know the social etiquette for such occasions.
The presence of the girl seemed to take a while to dawn on the creature, but when it did, it exploded awake in a frantic tangle of limbs, and by the time it had hoisted itself up to its full and intimidating height, it was entirely monster.
‘Why have you disturbed me?’ it repeated with much more force. Its breath stank of raw meat; its tongue was thick with green, oozing pustules.
‘Why should I tell you?’ the girl tried to roar back, feigning bravery, though her voice was wavering and weak. ‘You have told me nothing of yourself, which, if I may say so, is a very impolite way to deal a lady such as myself. A gentleman always introduces himself first.’
In one move, the Jackanape was upon her; he lowered his face to hers, overpowering her with his size and his pungency. But against everything her body told her, the girl did not back down. She stood strong, breathing as little as possible.
‘Do I look like a gentleman?’ he spewed.
‘I know who you are, anyway,’ she continued. ‘You’re the Jackanape, right? The big and scary monster of the forest. Ooooooo! Everyone knows who you are, and I’m not scared.’
She was scared.
The creature smiled broadly, dried mud flaking from its puffed out cheeks. ‘You should be.’
She could feel the blood draining from her face. The Jackanape’s smile grew.
‘Go! Get out of here,’ it screamed, backing away slightly. ‘Leave me in peace.’
It felt like she was breathing for the first time. But before she could acquiesce, something decidedly unexpected happened. With an underwhelming pop, the monster in front of her was gone, and in its place she found a boy, roughly her age, butt-naked, two trembling hands covering his decency. She recognised the face instantly. It was cute.
‘Oh no,’ he said, and he was off running.
‘Wait,’ she screamed, and into the half-light of the tight trees she sprinted after him. She didn’t know why she was chasing him. It was something her legs were doing and she was simply along for the ride.
Drizzle hung in the air. The world smelled like morning. She tore through the hanging branches, leaves dislodged into her hair. Creatures of every description – and some beyond words – watched her, awoken by the commotion. Their eyes saw the blur of this alien creature trespassing. Everything was wild.
The boy was nowhere to be seen. She was lost again.
She was red faced and breathing heavily when she stumbled on someone else.
‘Has a naked boy run through here?’ she asked, coming to a halt.
‘What have you been up to?!’ replied the someone else with scandalous curiosity.
It wasn’t until she moved closer that she realised that the someone was a him. He had a mysterious quality of being blurry from a distance, as if he exuded short-sightedness. A large beard consumed his face, a beard that appeared to be made mostly of breadcrumbs, and in which three robins had made their nests. He wore what once might have been a white t shirt, but it was now heavily stained with a pungent brown liquid that was best not thought about. Most peculiar of all were his legs, which left his hips in normal, leg-like fashion and then twisted around each other like a corkscrew, culminating not in feet but in the base of a pogo stick.
The girl fell to the floor with appropriate teenage melodrama.
‘I was chasing this boy,’ she said, spread-eagled into the soil, ‘this boy-creature-thing, but I lost him, and now I’m lost too.’
With a boing, the man was in the branches above her. ‘I might be able to help.’
‘How, exactly?’ she replied with suspicion.
‘Because as it happens, I’m a Homing Fairy,’ he said proudly.
‘I’m too exhausted to pretend I know what one of them is.’
‘Then allow me to explain,’ the fairy countered. ‘Homing Fairies are the most noble, handsome, and charming of all the creatures of Fae. We’re kinda like brain surgeons. We’re specialists. Sure, we could’ve done the whole jack-of-all-trades thing, but we like being masters of our craft. Ain’t no one better at transporting people than us.’
‘Can’t all fairies transport people?’ she questioned.
‘Can’t all… Can’t all fairies…’ the fairy answered with disgust, ‘yes, all fairies can transport people, technically, but then anyone can perform brain surgery. Some are just better at it than others.’
‘So you could take me home?’
‘Without breaking a sweat. As long as that’s really where you want to go. Bit of small print transportation spells have; we’re only allowed to take you to the place your heart wants to go.’
‘My heart wants to go back to my mam,’ she sighed. ‘I’m tired and I’m sick of this forest, and I doubt I’d find the Jackanape again even if I searched for weeks.’
‘As long as you’re sure.’
He didn’t wait for a response. He threw himself out of the branches like a missile, straight at the fruit-seller. She tried to shield herself with her arms but she was too slow. Puff. The fairy was gone, and everything went black.
She woke with a start.
The fire beside her spat with pride, filling her surroundings with a melody of echoes and sending flashes of light into pitch-black recesses. She tried to sit up but couldn’t. Her reluctant body refused to move, leaving her staring up through the darkness at a cave roof.
‘Stay in bed,’ said a voice hidden behind the glare of the fire.
‘I don’t think I could move even if I wanted to,’ she replied.
She was surprised to find that the voice belonged to the Jackanape; he emerged, fully human and fully clothed, from behind the blinding glow to stoke the fire, prodding it with a nearby stick.
‘Well this isn’t my home,’ she commented, shifting slightly under the threadbare blanket which covered her. ‘How did I get here?’
‘I was hoping you’d tell me. You were passed out here when I got back.’
‘Is this where you live?’ she asked, but no answer came. Absentmindedly, she watches spiders weaving webs along the walls. Small streams of water ran down the walls like veins. The boy continued to play with the charred logs, flicking flakes of ash around like dandelion seeds. She sensed an unexpected opportunity to get a few answers. ‘So what’s with the big monster-y thing you do?’
His solemn voice sank into the flames. She strained to hear.
‘I was born quite a while ago. I’ve lost count of the years, but needless to say there’s no one left around from when I was a kid. And back then magic was the norm, especially in places like this. There’s just something about magic that draws it towards forests and mountains and small secluded towns. Anyway, one day I was playing alone out here in the woods and came across this cave. Back then, there was a witch living here. I was too curious for my own good, so I stuck in my head in for a closer look. I’d hoped she might be a nice witch – always see the best in people, that’s what I was brought up to believe – but she wasn’t, and she didn’t take kindly to trespassers.’
‘And you got cursed?’ she quizzed. With palpable sadness, he nodded. ‘Is there not a cure? There’s always a way to remove a curse, everyone knows that.’
‘Oh, there is.’ He moved closer, resting himself at the foot of the blanket with which he’d covered the fruit-seller hours earlier. The weight which had been holding her down eased, and she sat up to meet his eyes. They were wild like the deep forest. ‘True love’s kiss.’
The moment took her, and seconds later she broke from his embrace, the earthy taste of his lips still strong against hers.
‘Which obviously isn’t you,’ he continued, standing up and moving back to the fire, clearing his face of its puppy dog look with the ease of an Etch-a-Sketch, ‘but you’re pretty hot, even if you do smell a little sweaty.’
She shot up.
‘What the hell?’ and she hurled the blanket at him. It missed the fire, just, but missed him as well and fell limply to the floor. ‘That’s not cool.’
‘You chased me through the forest while I was naked. I call that getting even.’
‘I call that taking advantage of someone who’s apparently hundreds of years younger than you,’ she shrieked.
She was about to tear into him when everything around her stopped, and she heard a very faint pop. The boy was frozen mid-shrug. Sparks from the fire hung in the darkness like stars. Only the fairy, who had appeared parrot-like and parrot-sized on her shoulder, moved.
‘This is a strange place for you to live,’ he said nonplussed, ‘but to each their own, I guess.’
‘I don’t live here. This is where you sent me. I said home to my mam and you put me in this bloody cave,’ she scolded.
‘I sent you where your heart wanted to go. That’s how it works, so this must be where you really wanted to go,’ the fairy corrected, and then taking in his surroundings, added, ‘who’s the boy? He the naked one you were after earlier? Because that would explain things.’
‘That would not explain things,’ she said as a matter of fact. ‘That boy happens to be the Jackanape, and I want nothing to do with him. You made a mistake.’
‘Fairies. Do. Not. Make. Mistakes. If you intend to try and argue otherwise then I’m afraid I’ll have to go.’ He was half disappeared before her stubbornness was forced to subside.
‘No, no, wait,’ she frantically said. ‘Can you still send me home?’
‘Only if that’s really where you want to go,’ he replied.
She thought about this. Where did she really want to go? Sure, she missed home, missed her mam, and was getting painfully sick of all this weirdness, but a big part of her wanted answers. It wasn’t every day she became embroiled in a story involving fairy tale creatures, and she felt it would be a shame to leave without a quick peak at the last page.
‘Take me to the witch,’ she decided.
‘The one that turned him into that monster. He said a witch cursed him, and I want to see if I can reverse it.’
‘As long as you’re sure.’
Once more the fairy didn’t wait for a reply. He jumped from her shoulder and grabbed her hand as he fell, dragging her into the earth with him. Then, as if blown from a whale, she popped out the ground just outside the cave, no more than twenty metres from where she’d been before. She spat hair from her mouth, picking herself off the ground. She stood staring at a door jutting from the cave wall in front of her. It was a door that demanded to be opened.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to find on the other side, but the inside of a modestly decorated apartment wasn’t it, and neither was the young girl sprawled across a sofa watching Geordie Shore. ‘Oh no,’ she said, before scampering behind the sofa out of view.
‘You’re the witch?’ puzzled the fruit-seller. ‘But you’re my age.’
A head shot up above the sofa arm like a meerkat.
‘Jillian the Witch, at your service,’ she said, coming out and shaking the girl’s hand with enthusiasm. ‘Sorry about that, but you can’t be too careful. Witch hunters seem to be all the rage these days. Probably safe with a teenage girl though. Anyway, how can I be of service?’
In any other situation, she never would’ve believed that the girl in front of her was a witch; she was too pretty, with no visible warts or patches of green skins, and instead of a long black dress she wore a pair of grey sweat pants and a t shirt with a black cat on it. But it was a day to just go with it.
‘I want you to remove the curse on the Jackanape.’
‘What curse?’ the witch replied.
‘The one that makes him big and scary and furry?’ answered the girl, confused.
‘Oh, that’s not a curse. No, no. That’s just his thing. He’s always done that. Did he tell you… Jack!’ the witch roared, and with a pop, the boy appeared in front of her. ‘Have you been chatting up girls again with that stupid story?’
The boy didn’t know where to look.
With a face of thunder, the witch turned back to the girl. ‘Look, I don’t know what he’s promised you, but it’ll have been lies, trust me. He’s a waste of space – you’re a waste of bloody space, Jack! – so it’s best you just forget about him and leave.’
‘Baby, I’m sorry,’ Jack tried, but was cut off immediately.
‘Don’t you dare baby me, you cheating little rat. Why am I so stupid to keep believing you? Why?’ the witch implored, ‘why will you never change?’ and she flung her arms at him in a fury of fists. Jack managed to block the first blow but the frenzy was too much, and she beat against his arms and chest with deceptive strength until a thunderous pop propelled her back.
‘Maybe I wouldn’t need other girls if you weren’t turning into your mother!’ roared the monster, hunching its back against the ceiling.
‘Oh, don’t you go bringing mothers into this, fleabag. Yours was a hedgehog,’ the witch flung back at him.
The fruit-seller backed away slowly from the fracas, unable to take her eyes off the furious couple’s squabble, thoroughly impressed at the creative insults they continued to throw at each other like spears. It was then that she was greeted with another pop, and the fairy reappeared, this time sat on her other shoulder.
‘So, how are you?’ he mocked.
‘Take me home, take me home now,’ the girl said. ‘I give up trying to help and I give up with all you magical things.’
‘As long as you’re sure,’ the fairy replied.
She closed her eyes and braced herself for another fall into another strange and unwanted place, but nothing happened. Cautiously, she opened them. The fairy remained perched on the girl’s shoulder, staring at her. ‘Well?’
‘I’m sure,’ she impatiently answered.
And then they were gone, flying past the still-arguing couple like a shot from a catapult and disappeared into the wall. Everything blurred past her in a palette mix of colours. With a crash, she landed in a tree, her hair and arms caught up in the branches.
She struggled for a while, trying to free herself, but she wasn’t really trying. At first sight, the tree appeared to be magical-creature-free. It was such a reassuring feeling. No shape-shifting boy werewolf things. No pogo stick fairies. She eyed the branches, confident in the knowledge that they were branches, not snakes in disguise or the antler of a giant underground reindeer, just normal branches. The nap snuck up on her. It was beautiful.
‘What on earth are you doing up there?’ came a familiar voice from below, waking her.
She untangled herself frantically and climbed down with reckless haste, missing many a step. It didn’t matter. Seconds later her arms were wrapped around her mother.
‘You’re a sight for sore eyes,’ the girl said, letting go. Relief was plastered all across her face. ‘But let’s go. I’m sick to death of this place.’
‘We’ve only just got here,’ replied her mother.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ replied the girl, no longer shocked by the strange goings on, ‘it feels like I’ve been here for hours. How about the beach? Let’s go to the beach. I can throw a stone from my fruit cart into the water in just five goes. I’ll show you. And we can eat the food while we’re walking back to the car.’
‘What’s gotten into you?’ but her mother never got her answer. Instead, the girl tugged at her arms until they were walking back, away from the forest. They hadn’t parked the car far away, just a long enough walk for the girl to eat an apple from the picnic basket. She was acutely aware that her mother kept looking over at her, and could sense the questions being kept prisoner behind those lips. But she knew her mother would never believe her if she told the truth, and lying just seemed silly when what had actually happened was so bizarre. The one thing she knew was that she’d had her fill of fairy tales and magical creatures for that day.
Once they’d settled into the car, her mother turned to her. ‘Look, please just tell me what’s going on,’ she pleaded. ‘I know we had a bit of a fight, but…’
‘It’s not that, Mam. Promise. We’re good.’
And she told her. She told her everything, every strange little detail without trying to rationalise or understand it, hoping that she wouldn’t see the usual glazed-over look in her mother’s eyes when she told her some of her fantasies. Because this wasn’t a fantasy. This was real. With every word of the story, she could feel it becoming more and more real, more tangible, more touchable.
Mother and daughter stared at each for a long time before the older woman reached over the handbrake and hugged her daughter. ‘I really don’t know what to say.’
Neither did the fruit-seller. Like an explosion, the words had flown from her mouth when she was telling the story, when she was overwhelmed with the fantasy that she’d loved since a child, but now she was back in harsh reality and it felt like her voice had been left behind.
‘Let’s go,’ she said, finally.
They weren’t looking at each other, and they did it with force. Her mother tried the engine. It revved then died. She tried again, with the same result. The girl was still looking out the window, sulking. She tried a third time, and this time, no noise at all.
‘Looks like we’ll have to find another way to get to the beach,’ joked her mother, trying to break the ice.
The girl’s heart leapt. She knew what was coming.