There are places of Cardinal Magic, the kind where everyone who walks near or through a place gets affected by it in the same way; sometimes the accounts given of the experience, by people who don’t know one another and are sometimes separated by vast geographical or historical chasms, are given in disconcertingly similar words, as though these strangers had somehow got together out of space and time in order to “get their stories straight”.
The other kind is the Ephemeral Magic, the kind that will touch you with the breath of a summer breeze – no two pairs of eyes will ever see the same thing, nor can it ever be described it in the same way twice even though every individual account given can be brilliantly clear with details standing out as though etched into the memory. It’s just not the SAME details. Not ever. It’s Faery magic, their humour, their joke, and if you listen carefully you can hear them laughing in the whisper of the wind in the leaves.
When I was young, my family would go and visit the weekend cottage of my Great-Uncle Ivan. (Oy, this already sounds like a Russian fairy tale. There are no Baba Yagas lurking in the woods, though. Promise.) The place itself was pretty basic – a two-roomed hut, one of which was the kitchen, with an out-house out back, surrounded by fields of corn, my Great-Uncle’s tiny vineyard, and his beehives out on the small stretch of greensward and underneath the shadow of the summer trees. I used to play with the half-ripe corn cobs that were plucked from the corn and handed to me, the cornsilk hanging down like some princess’s luxuriant tresses, a cartoonish face drawn on the cob by untutored but loving hands in order to make me a corn-dolly. The dusty grapes had a peculiar heady, musty smell if left on the vine too long, and I watched them shrivel and turn to raisins sometimes, out there in the baking sun. The somnolent hum of the bees was everywhere.
The cottage had no running water as such, and the water needed for cooking and drinking had to be fetched from the well down in the village. Pairs of us would set off, bearing containers – sometimes larger plastic ones, often the elegant glass carafes with a nest of woven and plaited rattan which cradled their rounded bowled bottoms and which (when full of water) were heavy and difficult to carry. We would pad up the narrow road leading up from the village to Great-Uncle’s cottage – no more than a track with worn dusty bits where the car tires, when the occasional car drove this way, went, and a dandelion-infested grassy mohawk in the middle – like modern-day water-bearer nymphs, dangling water jugs from our hands, panting under the summer sun, imagining the cool lemonade that was waiting for us under the shady trees at the back of the cottage.
You could gain this rural road by going out of Great-Uncle’s front door and then, gaining the road, taking a sharp left – which would take you, following the road itself, straight down into the village.
But there was another way to go – the road less travelled, as it were, of which I knew long before I had read Frost’s famous poem. If you didn’t turn left but crossed the road and followed the path across the meadow and into the wood… but here, the Ephemeral Magic begins, and no two people quite remember this place the same way.
In my own mind’s eye, it was a cathedral of beech and silver birch and maybe young oak, and perhaps aspen. There was barely a path to be seen in the undergrowth, and the whole was wreathed in that kind of unearthly green-gold light such as is filtered through leaves into the woods, and it smelled of tree bark and sap and lush green growing things, and it was full of birdsong – things I couldn’t identify, a high sweet warbling song that was a choir of small woodland winged creatures, and some that I could, the solemn call of a mourning dove which we in that time and place and with our own brushes with history interpreted as saying “U-TUR-SKU! U-TUR-SKU!” (literally, “To Turkey! To Turkey!”).
It wasn’t a great stand of forest, not by any means, and you walked through this light and this heavenly choir of birds and you came out on a hillside, a green slope covered in soft grass and full of those tiny sweet white daisy-kind flowers which I used to sit there and cheerfully murder (i.e. pick great handfuls of them) and then thread into endless necklaces and wreaths to hang upon my small person. I can close my eyes and see it now – this greensward slope covered in a galaxy of tiny white stars, with these ruins (I believe I was told they had once been a monastery of sorts) standing guard over to the one side and the fairy woods behind me, and a view of the quiet and settled and pastoral fields in the shallow valley beneath me, full of corn and hops and sweet green peas and spreading crowns of apple trees and walnut trees and the cherry trees laden with ripe red fruit, somnolent in the lazy golden sun of summer… lying there on my back in the grass covered in crown and necklace of white flowers and staring up at those tiny cotton-wool-puff white clouds that like to hang out in hot and vividly blue summer skies.
It was easy to think that I was no longer in the same world as that which contained a dreary autumn rain in the city, or a mound of homework in a subject I did not like at school, or a quarrel with a friend or some member of one’s family who was utterly incapable of ‘understanding’ me, or being hungry, or being cold. This was the world of a quiet summer happiness, where nothing could possibly go wrong and thus nothing ever did, and it was like lying in a bower strewn with rose petals and being sung anthems to by creatures who wore wings and did not look in the least ridiculous while doing so.
It is quite easy to BELIEVE in the magic of the Ephemeral Places while you are there. They surround you and envelop you and creep inside of you with every breath that you take, and you become part of them, and they a part of you… and when you leave them, they vanish, and what’s left behind is just a memory, like a taste on your tongue of some sweet and potent and heady drink that you will never have again.
My woods, my birds, my ruins, my meadow, my daisy-chains made from white stars – they are a part of the Ephemeral, now, lost to me, left behind in that golden childhood that once was. But here’s the thing about places like this, and it is something that the Faery never quite understood. When you take that memory of the Ephemeral Place away with you, in the time-honoured way of Faery exchange, you always leave a little bit of your own self, a tiny scrap of your own shadow, behind in your place. The Fae might like to think that they tease and then expel and then refuse you the right of return – but it isn’t true, and that anchor piece of you can always take you back to where you were. And the Fae themselves are sometimes troubled by uneasy dreams because what they did, when you stepped through that veil and walked in their world, ties them to YOU as much as it ties you to THEM.
True magic binds strongly.
Believing in true magic binds completely.
Sometimes it’s just a child’s unwavering faith, preserved in memory like a fossil insect in amber, perfect and beautiful. But it’s enough. You’ve walked in the enchanted realm, and you remember it, and you believe… and therefore it is real, it will always be real, and it will always be there. Just close your eyes for a moment and pretend that you feel the warmth of summer sunlight on your hair and the softness of the white petals beween your fingers, that you hear the song of birds in the treetops and the hum of insects in the grass, that you can sense the quiet breathing of the past in the ruins which bear mute witness that others have walked this way before you came here.
Push aside the veil, and step back into a childhood dream.
All you need to do is believe.