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A Merry Heart

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I am sometimes, in these modern days, pleased to linger in the hills of Malvern. This is how I came upon the Lygons, riding to the hounds, late in the season. Yes, I do pay attention to these mortal niceties. I have not had much else to dwell on since my lord absconded to the fairer plane.

The fox, poor creature, was nearly dead with running. I cast a glamor over him and the hounds were foiled, babbling to their masters. Horses stamped and whinnied. The hunters waved their arms and stormed and sighed, and I am not too proud to say I laughed. Who else's mischief is there, these days, that I might laugh at, save my own?

It has been some centuries since the caper with four mortal lovers and the man-turned ass. While time does pass differently for us, an aeon is still a long, long time to wait. Not that I would wish my lord out of humor with the lovely queen Titania. I have done my best to remain away. But...we did have such larks. Vexing mortals on one's own does not satisfy so fully. Laughter is louder in company.

Mortal faces tipped toward the sky, as if they heard my sniggering. And in doing so, they stopped it, for here was a family of singular beauty. If given to flights of fancy, one might suspect a sylph secreted away amongst the branches of their family tree.

Two girls and a boy, all fair and flushed, looked heavenward. For a moment I thought they saw me, but then the boy held up a hand, palm open. Taken by a naughty turn, I spat in it.

"Rain, I think," he said. Then, turning in the saddle, "Evelyn!"

I also turned, to see whence his attention strayed. A fourth rider, ungainly on his horse, came cantering up adorned with mud and leaves. Not handsome, like the others, but small and neat and pointed in the face. No brother this. A friend?

"Next time," he crowed, jovial despite his disarray, "glue me to my seat."

"You'd only fall out of your breeches." The older girl grabbed his horse's bridle and drew him up alongside. "The weather's turning. Let's go back."

I regretted spitting; these golden creatures had captured my attention, and I did not want them wandering from my wood. But the sky had indeed begun to blacken, and my normally chaotic nature subsided into sympathy. I would not leave them, pixie-led, lost in the storm. Yet neither would I let them leave without me.

Silent as a leaf I dropped down in front of the fourth man's horse. It bucked and snorted, throwing him. With a flick of my wrist I cast another glamor. He stood rooted to the spot, wrapped in the seeming of a hawthorn tree. I waved goodbye with my fingertips--turned now to his, by magic--and slipped among his friends unnoticed.

"Evelyn, you are truly hopeless." The younger girl reached down to brush bracken from my hair. "Hughie, can you help him up?"

"Don't bother." I hauled myself onto the horse. It had been many decades since I rode a rade, and this beast was none of our stock. But I remembered the curve of a saddle and the tension of a bit.

Thunder growled in the south. "Hurry," I said, "or we'll be soaked."

Poor Evelyn was left with his leaves rustling in the wind.

#

We came out of the woods at the edge of a closely-groomed lawn. It stretched away beneath low-hanging clouds, up to a grand house of red brick and towering spires.

"Maimie, Coote," hollered Hughie to the girls. "race you to the house!"

He said nothing to me, but then, the face I wore was the face of a poor horseman. The three of them thundered away and I let them go a while. Then I dug my heels in and told my horse--in his own language--exactly what he'd get if he didn't overtake his friends. We won easily, clattering into the courtyard well ahead of the mortal children.

Maimie, the elder sister, drew up first, and scolded me soundly. "Bo, what were you thinking? You could've been killed!"

Bo? Was I not called Evelyn in this guise? But I am a trickster, and I know confidence can substitute for knowledge in a pinch. "I didn't want to get wet," I said. As if in answer, the skies let loose. We all ran screeching into the house, leaving our horses for the grooms.

The place was very grand, in the way that mortal houses can be. Large and dark and filled with things: sculptures, paintings, books, and stone. But the staircase...it was railed in crystal, which sparkled in the lamplight.

When last I had gamboled in the palace of the fairy king, the walls and floor and sweeping staircase had been all of gems and crystal. I had to blink--my eyes ached and itched in an unaccustomed way. But the room was dim. That must be it. Puck does not weep, except in laughing. I am merry by nature. I am.

When Coote, the youngest, called out "Bo!" I turned and smiled so my cheeks ached. "Go get changed," she said, "Or you'll catch cold in those wet things."

They left me, trailing mud and laughter. I climbed the staircase, fingers lingering along the crystal. I did not need to find poor Evelyn's room to change--I could glamour myself into new clothes if I needed to. And so I took the time to wander, rearranging bric-a-brac and setting all the clocks to chime at different hours.

I stopped before a curio cabinet, all filled with tiny carvings in ivory and jade, in ebony and creamy English lime. A chess set caught my eye--mortal figures made up the white side, wrapped in gaudy ruffs and topped with mitres. But black was a fairy court, from tiny imps arrayed as pawns, up through stately knights on wingéd steeds and on to laureled king and queen.

I put my hands against the cabinet panes and wondered: would they miss just one piece? But a game of chess is moot without its king. I left him there, behind my handprints on the glass.

#

We had cocktails in the hall, beside a fireplace of opulent pink marble, then wandered to the hothouse--Hughie's buttonhole, and mine, required orchids. For no reason, really, except that they were blooming, and we were in high spirits.

He ran ahead to find the finest specimens. I walked arm in arm with Coote and Maimie, the mingled scents of their perfumes twining 'round my head. Coote disappeared into the lush green foliage every now and then, returning with some treasure--a flower, a leaf, and once a tiny frog. The warm, damp air flushed her cheeks and made her hair turn wild. I thought of dryads, unselfconscious in their wonder as they peered between the branches of their trees.

Maimie clung closer, chattering and cheerful. She steered me to a bench and patted the seat beside her. "Come and sit." When I lowered myself, she lewdly pinched my rear.

"Oh, don't look so gawpish." She chucked me beneath the chin. "Payback for the goose you dealt me in the yew maze yesterday."

So, my stolen seeming must belong to a mortal after my own heart. Unless these two were...no. There was no look of lust in Maimie's eyes. Only sparkling mischief, and a trace of...pity?

Defiance leapt up in my breast--I am merry! I am Puck! I have no need of mortal sympathy!--before I checked myself, remembering I was Evelyn. And Maimie pitied me. But why?

Like a mind-reader, Maimie looked around to see her siblings were away, then leaned in and asked me, "Are you quite all right, Bo? Only, you've been quiet lately."

Lately. Not just since I slipped into Evelyn's place. The man I wore as my disguise was troubled. That was no good. I was here for merriment and mirth.

As if in answer, Hughie appeared, bedecked with orchids, bearing a tray of cocktails he had conjured up from somewhere. He tucked a flower into my lapel, then kissed my cheek. This magical family was enchanting. I resolved to put aside my seeming's woes, to dance and sing and show them just how charming I could be. I wanted them to look at me with wonder, and not pity; to make them laugh as I had, on occasion, done for my lord.

#

By feigning drunkenness and stumbling after Hugh and Maimie, I finally found Evelyn's bedroom. When I passed it, they turned me around and shoved me over the threshold, giggling. Once the door closed behind me, I shed my false inebriation and my glamor, letting moonlight touch my true skin.

On the bedside table, half a bottle of flat champagne stood by sleeping pills and an empty glass. The covers were rumpled--badly slept-in. Balled-up paper tumbled from the overflowing wastebasket. A satchel and a typewriter sat upon the vanity. Behind the ink strip, the paper was blank white except for three stark expletives, centered at the top.

I thought of the fleeting glances in the hothouse and over dinner, which the Lygons had sought and failed to hide from me. The tenderness that flowed beneath their jibes and joviality. If Evelyn sought to keep his misery a secret, he had failed.

Pawing through the mess of pens and crumpled paper, I came upon a photograph much folded, fingered, and abused. A young woman of sly and seal-like grace stared out from under heavy lashes, her pert and pointy nose turned up.

A note on the reverse read To He-Evelyn, from She-Evelyn. We-Evelyn forever! She had kissed the paper, though much handling had smeared the mark.

Was this why the Lygons called him Bo? So he would not have to hear his name and think of her? I held the photo but stared through it, letting myself sink into the sadness of my stolen self.

He must have missed her terribly. But he was angry too--the photo had been crumpled, several times, then smoothed again.How hard it was, to love and lose. To be left alone.

I turned the photo over and touched a finger to the kiss. Then, more daring, I put it to my lips. This too, he must have done, coloring his mouth with the memory of hers.

Holding the picture to my breast, I went to the window and looked out across the silver midnight field onto the black sea of the treetops. Evelyn could not be more lonely in his hawthorn tree than he had been here. Could he?

I remembered how the Lygons clustered 'round me, laughing, petting, kissing, joking. There was a strength of purpose behind their cheer, like hounds that sense their master's sadness and bury him in love. I had basked in it, pretending in the leafy beauty of the hothouse I was once again among my people. Now, in the dark and stuffy bedroom where Evelyn had obviously spent nights awake, alone with his despair, I felt a pang of something strange to me. As if I had stolen from a man who had absolutely nothing save the golden siblings here who cared for him.

#

I do not need to sleep as mortals do, for hours at a time at night. So while the Lygons dreamt, I roamed.
The gardens 'round the house were vast and filled with charming mortal wonders, of which the yew maze was most wonderful of all. I had seen it from my window and I knew the route. Still, I took wrong turns on purpose, striving after merriment. I did not find it, and came to the center dispirited, never having lost my way.

A sundial set in the locus of the maze told time with moon shadow. The paradox appealed to me, and I approached. Beneath the gnomon, an inscription curved across the dial plate:

That day is wasted on which we have not laughed.

One could not compose a more Puckish proverb. And yet...

In the center of the yew maze, where the branches hung heavy with dew and darkness, I faced a truth which had so far lurked only at my back, weighing on me like a burden.

I was no longer lively. I lacked a trickster's disposition. Oh, I still snuck and spied, pinched and prodded, stole foxes and left men tangled in hawthorn trees. But in the center of a maze in which I could not lose myself, I came at last to realize: I was weary, homesick, and alone.

Turning from the sundial and its mocking message, I saw a light burning in one window of the house, shining through stained glass. Someone else was up and suddenly, I desired company. Required it. I fled the maze, unerring, much faster than I had entered.

#

I found my way through the house in darkness, seeking the single lamp I had seen lit from the garden. My quest brought me to a grand, imposing set of doors, left open just a smidge. I slipped between them into a room which stole me, momentarily, away.

How do I describe that library? I suppose it was...as near as mortals come to fairyland.

Trees of silver, leaves of gem. Moonlight filtered through the wings of stained glass angels. I half expected my lord stretched out on the skin of a leopard, eating grapes, his sloe-dark eyes half-closed. I paused at the entranceway, to catch my breath and ease a sudden pain behind my ribs. Heartache is a cruel sensation in one whose temperament is made for joy.

There was a skin rug--bear, not leopard--and Mamie laid upon it, cradling a cocktail. "Evelyn," she said. "Can't sleep? I have some cunning little pills that might put you out."

I shook my head and sat down beside her. "Mamie? Do I make you happy?"

"Every day, Bo."

"I wish I could do the same for myself. I used to do, I think."

She shook her head. "I don't think you ever have."

"No," I said, "I know I did. I used to have a merry heart."

"Of course you did, and still do. But Bo, you're the kind of man who doesn't laugh yourself so much as...infect others with it. I've seen you sit there in the middle of a crowd all roaring at your wit, with nothing but a half a self-satisfied smile on your face." She touched the corner of my mouth.

"Everything seems hollow, though, all of the sudden." Was I acting as Evelyn or telling the truth? I could no longer distinguish. "Even humor. I am no longer loved."

"Oh, Bo. There are people in this world who love you very much. Who want to see you happy. If only because they're selfish and they need a little light in their own lives." Her eyes flickered away and I wondered what it was in her life that made her grateful for Evelyn's amusements.

Guilt sank into my skin. I had left Evelyn in the woods. The man who needed their love, who made them happy even in his misery. But I wanted that love. I needed it. Why could it not be mine?

Because, little Puck, my better nature told me, there is someone who does love you, out there in the world. To whose life you bring that little light. Who gives it back to you in turn.

For so long I had stayed away. The task was done, the king and queen together. My lord did not desire my presence any longer. He had his queen, and he was happy. But then, whoever desired the presence of Puck? When have I ever acted on any whim except my own? Perhaps it was time to stir the still waters of my lord's domestic bliss. I knew where to find him, who had been my fastest friend. And I knew what to say to make him doff his crown and come a-roaming. No one orders Puck, or makes Puck wait. I had been the architect of my own loneliness, denying my nature in an attempt at deference. No more.

"There it is," said Mamie, her finger on my lips. "That little smile. I hope it's there to stay."

#

After Mamie fell asleep, sprawled across the rug before the fire, I made my escape from Madresfield. In one long corridor I passed a cabinet and realized I had walked this way before. Ebony and lime, ivory and jade. And there, the fairy chess set.

This time, I did not hesitate. The Lygons did not need a king; they had their Evelyn, or would as soon as I had freed him and sent him stumbling home. I popped the glass doors open and lifted the tiny carving of my lord from his square.

A game of chess is moot without a king, but a life without friends is worse than pointless: it is dull. I leaned into the cabinet and whispered to the fairy queen. "Lady, my word I will return him hale and whole, and only staggering a little."

And then I was gone, out of the house and sprinting along the breeze, unpinning the twist of magic that kept Evelyn imprisoned in his hawthorn. As I slipped across the silvery curtain that separated the mortal plane from fairyland, I saw him shake himself awake and look around in the dark, despairing. I conjured a willow-the-wisp to light his path. Not to send him stumbling into a pond or thorny bracken, to play a rude and ribald joke upon him, but to lead him straight and safely back to love.