from the story "The Erlking"
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
It is just as Kate hoped. The worn path, the bells tinkling on the gate. The huge fir trees dropping their needles one by one. A sweet mushroomy smell, gnomes stationed in the underbrush, the sound of a mandolin far up on the hill. “We’re here, we’re here,” she says to her child, who isn’t walking fast enough and needs to be pulled along by the hand. Through the gate they go, up the dappled path, beneath the firs, across the school parking lot and past the kettle-corn stand, into the heart of the Elves’ Faire.
Her child is named Ondine but answers only to Ruthie. Ruthie’s hand rests damply in hers, and together they watch two scrappy fairies race by, the swifter one waving a long string of raffle tickets. “Don’t you want to wear your wings?” Kate asked that morning, but Ruthie wasn’t in the mood. Sometimes they are in cahoots, sometimes not. Now they circle the great shady lawn, studying the activities. There is candlemaking, beekeeping, the weaving of God’s eyes. A sign in purple calligraphy says that King Arthur will be appearing at noon. There’s a tea garden, a bluegrass band, a man with a thin sandy beard and a hundred acorns pinned with bright ribbons to the folds of his tunic, boys thumping one another with jousting sticks. The ground is scattered with pine needles and hay. The lemonade cups are compostable. Everything is exactly as it should be, every small elvish detail attended to, but, as Kate’s heart fills with the pleasure of it all, she is made uneasy by the realization that she could have but did not secure this for her child, and therein lies a misjudgment, a possibly grave mistake.
They had not even applied to a Waldorf school! Kate’s associations at the time were vague but nervous-making: devil sticks, recorder playing, occasional illiteracy. She thought she remembered hearing about a boy who, at nine, could map the entire Mongol Empire but was still sucking his fingers. That couldn’t be good. Everybody has to go into a 7-Eleven at some point in life, operate in the ordinary universe. So she didn’t even sign up for a tour. But no one ever told her about the whole fairy component. And now look at what Ruthie is missing. Magic. Nature. Flower wreaths, floating playsilks, an unpolluted, media-free experience of the world. The chance to spend her days binding books and acting out stories with wonderful wooden animals made in Germany.
Ruthie wants to take one home with her, a baby giraffe. Mysteriously, they have ended up in the sole spot at the Elves’ Faire where commerce occurs and credit cards are accepted. Ruthie is not even looking at the baby giraffe; with some nonchalance, she keeps it tucked under her arm as she touches all the other animals on the table.
“A macaw!” she cries softly to herself, reaching.
Kate finds a second baby giraffe, caught between a buffalo and a penguin. Although the creatures represent a wide range of the animal kingdom, they all appear to belong to the same dear, blunt-nosed family. The little giraffe is light in her hand, but when she turns it over to read the tiny price tag stuck to the bottom of its feet she puts it down immediately. Seventeen dollars! Enough to feed an entire fairy family for a month. Noah’s Ark, looming in the middle of the table, now looks somewhat sinister. Two by two, two by two. It adds up.
How do the Waldorf parents manage? How do any parents manage? Kate hands over her Visa.
She says to Ruthie, “This is a very special thing. Your one special thing from the Elves’ Faire, O.K.?”
“O.K.,” Ruthie says, looking for the first time at the animal that is now hers. She knows that her mother likes giraffes; at the zoo, she stands for five or ten minutes at the edge of the giraffe area, talking about their beautiful large eyes and their long lovely eyelashes. She picked the baby giraffe for her mother because it’s her favorite. Also because she knew that her mother would say yes, and she does not always say yes—for instance, when asked about My Little Pony. So Ruthie was being clever but also being kind. She was thinking of her mother while also thinking of herself. Besides, there are no My Little Ponies to be found at this fair—she’s looked. But a baby giraffe will need a mother to go with it. There is a bigger giraffe on the table, and maybe in five minutes Ruthie will ask if she can put it on her birthday list.
“Mommy,” Ruthie says, “is my birthday before Christmas or after?”
“Well, it depends what you mean by before,” Kate says, unhelpfully.
Holding hands, they leave the elves’ marketplace and climb up the sloping lawn to the heavy old house at the top of the hill, with its low-pitched roof and stout columns and green-painted eaves. Kate guesses that this whole place was once the fresh-air retreat of a tubercular rich person, but now it’s a center of child-initiated learning.