Frances Griffiths pulled her case up the gravel path to her cousin’s house. Her mother chided her for dragging the case, but was so uncomfortable under the sun that she didn’t enforce her threats of punishment. So Frances continued to drag the expensive suitcase, huffing and complaining that her arms hurt while her mother fanned herself with a hat.
Sweat settled on Frances’s brow and she swiped at it. “I’m so tired,” she said.
“We’re almost there,” her mother replied, nearing an end to the path that Frances was too short to see. Frances looked back at the decline to the main road, realising in that moment how steep the hillside path was. She wondered if her case would roll down the hill like a sledge if she hopped on its top and pulled in her feet. But, deciding that the climb upwards would be even more painful the second time, she let the idea flitter out of her mind.
“Here you are!” a woman shouted up ahead. Frances peered around her mother’s legs to see her aunt waving from the doorway.
“Hello, you!” Frances’s mother called back, stifling the sigh of relief.
“Elsie!” Her aunt leaned into the doorway to call to someone inside. “Come and help your cousin with her case!”
Moments later a girl much taller than Frances stepped out into the street and smiled. Frances smiled back, a little nervous, already admiring her older cousin. She would do everything from that moment to make sure that Elsie became her new best friend.
“Hello, Frances,” Elsie said and offered her hand to take the case from behind Frances.
“Hello!” the younger girl parroted.
“There’s water on the boil for tea,” her aunt said to her mother as they walked ahead into the house, arms linked and sharing the luggage. “Are you hungry?”
“Almost,” her mother replied.
“I am!” Frances called from behind.
When Frances stepped into the house, she looked around and followed closely behind Elsie.
She watched her cousin fold away fabrics and lace on a table in the corner of the sitting room.
Frances didn’t know how to sew and had watched her mother a few times, but it never impressed her much. Now, watching Elsie shift the sewing table to make a little room to move the sofa back, Frances decided she wanted to learn.
“Do you make your own dresses?” Frances asked Elsie.
“Sometimes,” Elsie replied, patting the seat on the sofa for Frances to perch beside her. “I mend other people’s dresses too, like mum does. She gets really busy sometimes.”
Frances nodded as though she understood. Frances thought of her friend in South Africa, Johanna, and how jealous she would be that Frances was best friends with an older girl now.
“Elsie, darling,” her aunt stepped through from the kitchen. “Why don’t you and Frances go out and play while we have some tea. When you come back, food will almost be ready.”
“Okay, mother,” Elsie sighed. She would rather talk with her mother and aunt than entertain her cousin, but she obliged, and Frances was none the wiser about her disdain. “Frances, do you like fairies?”
“Fairies?” Frances repeated, delighted. “Like in the books?”
Elsie had a mischievous smile as she rose from her seat and walked through the house to the backdoor. Frances trailed after her as she wove between laundry on the line and onto a worn path at the back of the street.
“There are loads of fairies in England,” Elsie finally said. “You just have to know where to look. But you have to promise something…” She stopped walking at the edge of the woods and bent over so her face was level with the girl’s. “Firstly, this is a secret. You can’t tell anyone about it.
Or the fairies won’t come out anymore.”
“I wouldn’t!” Frances said loudly.
“I know,” Elsie shushed her, “but I just needed to make sure. Secondly, you have to be grown up. You can’t play with them like dolls. They don’t like it.”
“I am grown up.” Frances lifted her chin. “My mother says so all the time, and I don’t play with dolls.” Frances knew this last part was a fib. She loved her dolls dearly, but she would never again draw them out to play as long as Elsie was around.
“Good.” Elsie continued through the trees until Frances heard the gushing of water.
The two girls sat along the beck in the shade of a bowing tree branch, and Frances listened intently to all of Elsie’s tales. Using dry moss as a cushion and the stone wall to lean on, Frances was lost in the imaginings of her cousin. The water soaked the hem of her dress, but she paid it no attention. It was only when her feet began to chill inside her sodden shoes that she was called back to reality.
“Usually they dance here along the brook,” Elsie said.
Frances looked around with narrowed eyes, but she saw nothing but the fluttering leaves and vines.
“There!” Elsie whispered, her hand outstretched, finger pointing deeper into the woods. She grabbed Frances’s wrist, making the girl jump and gasp. She frantically searched the spot of grass that Elsie gestured towards but saw nothing fairy-like at all.
“I can’t see anything!” Frances spoke with such frustration that the older girl was convinced she would start stomping her feet and throw a fit.
Hiding her grin, Elsie climbed to her feet and raised the skirt of her summer dress so it did not trail in the water. She hopped across the stream, soaked to her ankles, and followed the imaginary fairy into the forest. Frances clambered after her, looking back only once as the edge of town quickly disappeared out of view. She didn’t want to look like a scared little baby, so she ran after her cousin, shoes squelching as she went. Elsie ran so quickly that Frances struggled to keep up until she stopped suddenly and dropped into a crouch.
“They saw us coming,” Elsie whispered frantically when Frances knelt beside her. “You have to go very, very slowly so you don’t spook them.”
Frances’s heart beat so fast, and she held her breath so as not to make a sound. She pushed her toes along the earth, afraid to snap a twig if she lifted her foot from the ground.
“There!” Elsie thrust her finger into the air again and Frances saw the rustling of weeds and heard the soft pitter patter of running feet. She jumped up and ran as fast as she could. Elsie watched the girl dive through the weeds, chasing a gust of wind, and then sat back and sighed dramatically.
“Frances, you scared them away!” Elsie chided. “They won’t come out again today. We’ll have to come back.”
“But I didn’t even see them!” Water rose in Frances’s eyes.
“Don’t be silly,” Elsie tutted. “We’ll come back when they’ve settled.”
Frances copied her cousin in wiping down her dress and shaking her mucky shoes. Nothing was to be done about their sodden footwear for now, and they both strolled back to the house for dinner with frozen toes. Frances couldn’t think of anything else the whole evening even as her mother fussed and told her to pay attention and not to be rude to their hosts. When it was time to resign, she quickly fell asleep, already dreaming of fairies dancing along the Cottingley beck.
“Hello Frances.” Elsie found her cousin perched on the front doorstep, reading a book of fairytales in the midday sun. “I had an idea about the fairies.”
Frances looked up eagerly and tucked a ribbon between the pages of her book. She climbed to her feet and asked, “What idea?”
Elsie drew five fairies from behind her back, perched on hat pins and twirled them in her fingers. “We need to encourage them to come out and trust us.”
Frances beamed up at her cousin and grabbed her free hand. They ran together, giggling, through the house and out onto the path behind it. Elsie’s father called after them, but they didn’t notice. They had a mission, a mischievous plot to meet the fairies, and it was all that occupied their minds. Elsie carried a set of cardboard cut-outs, each one depicting dancing girls with stuck on fairy wings.
They sat in the clearing where Elsie had last seen the fairies, and she imbued her cousin’s imagination with stories and ideas about what they looked like. “Just like the dancing girls,” she said with absolute authority. “They’ll see their sisters, and they’ll want to come out and play with us, too.”
Soon it was mid-afternoon and the girls lay, blissful, basking in the sunlight that bled through the canopy overhead. Frances thought about fairies twirling through the grass, raised on their feather-like wings so their toes, clad in pink slippers, barely touched the ground. She was so focused on her imaginings that she almost didn’t notice the burrowing beneath the earth, a mere metre from where she lay. She finally caught sight of a mound of dirt shifting, something pushing up from underneath, and thought it must be a mole or another burrower coming up into the sun. She tapped Elsie on the wrist, who lay half-asleep beside her.
“Elsie,” she whispered as loudly as she dared. “Look.”
Elsie raised herself onto her elbows, looked to Frances’s fingers still gripping one of their fairies.
She began to roll her eyes until there it was again, the earth moving. She held her breath, confused and wondering. What would come out of the earth? The last thing that Elsie expected to see was a tiny silver hand, delicate fingers shimmering like the satin her mother sewed, as it poked out of the mound.
Frances began to breathe quickly, audibly, and Elsie lay a reassuring hand on hers. The two girls lay, half-raised on the shaded ground in their flowing white summer dresses, hand in hand, as the fingers disappeared back into the ground and were replaced by the crowning head of a real fairy. Neither dared move. Elsie was in absolute shock, watching the story she teased her little cousin with come to life before her eyes. And Frances, only half sure she hadn’t fallen asleep on the grass, surrounded by daisies, pinched her own thigh until it hurt.
The crowning head emerged to reveal two large black eyes and pointed ears, a little nose the shape of a new-born baby’s, and, finally, a mouth. It had a face not dissimilar to a human’s, though the eyes were significantly larger than any of its other features. As it rose, its eyes were focused intently on the girls as theirs were on it. A neck and shoulders followed, until a figure no bigger than Elsie’s palm crawled out of the hole in the ground and perched, head tilted. Its motions were fast, jolting, as it twitched out of the way for another to emerge. Its upper body was composed much like the anatomy of a person, but if Elsie and Frances looked closely enough, they would see their fingers extended into sharp, small talons instead of rounded tips. Their skin, silver and glistening in the sun, had ripples like the veins of hemlock leaves running from head to toe. Their legs, unlike human legs, were longer, and like those of a maned wolf, black at the pads and lightening to silver at the tibia.
“Hello,” Frances murmured, unmoving as two, three, four more fairies emerged from the ground.
Elsie squeezed her hand, a warning.
They moved closer, big black eyes drawn to the twirling figure in Frances’s other hand. When she noticed their inquiring gaze, she stopped twirling. She made a move to sit up straight and they jolted back to the hole in fear.
“It’s okay,” Frances said, slowly raising and holding the cardboard fairy, moving it closer.
They didn’t understand the language she spoke, but the slow gesture and smile on Frances’s face drew them out. Elsie sat quietly, fearful but curious, watching as Frances interacted with the creatures. The first, seemingly the most confident, stepped towards the fake fairy and Elsie noticed how blades of grass passed though the being, as though it weren’t really there. It tilted its head this way and that and prodded the paper with its sharp claws, not bigger than the tip of a toothpick.
Its body began to quiver and a moment later the other four, a step behind, were shaking too, their skin rippling. The leaf-like veins raised and pressed from underneath the skin until the sharpest points poked through. The small creatures made a soft whimpering sound until the bare veins fluttered behind them. The skin that clung to the veins tightened until wings formed. They reflected light like an oil slick on the road or a rainbow in a daylit storm.
“Oh my,” Elsie gasped as the small creatures shifted into a mirror image of their makeshift fairies.
Patches of skin raised from their heads and deepened into a blonde mane of hair. Their eyes retracted into their faces, their cheekbones and browbones becoming more pronounced. A ripple ran across their bodies until their skin colour mirrored that of the little girls and their dancing fairy cut-outs.
Their faces were as motionless as the drawings, but they did look like the fairy tale creatures Elsie and Frances were accustomed to seeing in books. The fairies fluttered all around the girls until Frances giggled, and Elsie followed soon after. Frances held up her hand for one of the fairies to land on in its silken, curled slippers and twinkle its wings.
When the fairies suddenly drew away and disappeared into the hole in the earth, the girls were shocked. They were gone in a twinkle of silver light moments before the sound of breaking twigs sounded from behind them. Frances and Elsie turned and saw Elsie’s father traipsing through the woods with his camera. He waved at them and the girls returned the gesture, watching as he wandered off into the woodland.
The girls said nothing of the fairies as they gathered their playthings and stepped back in the direction of the beck. Both girls feared what voicing their experience would do, almost as though it would take away the reality of what they’d seen. Real fairies. They jumped across the rocks, splashing their dresses with water, and trod silently to the house for tea.
The girls returned to search for the fairies many times but failed to draw them out from the mysterious hole in the ground. Word got out that they had been playing with fairies, and Frances stuck adamantly to it being true, no matter how many people called them liars. They went back with Elsie’s drawings and a camera, but nothing fluttered or shimmered while they sat there.
Eventually, Elsie grew bored of the game, because that’s what it became for her, a game. A game concocted to entertain her little cousin. It was on one of the last days of summer that Frances grew bored of the book she was reading and ventured out to look for Elsie. She walked out onto the street and saw Elsie talking with some other older kids, leaning against her bike, playing with her hair. Frances walked towards them and heard Elsie laughing at something a boy had said.
“Elsie,” she called. It was on the third time of saying her name that Elsie turned, irritated by Frances. “Can we go talk to the fairies?” Frances asked her, coming to a stop before the group of sixteen-year-olds.
“I’m busy, Frances. Maybe some other time.” Elsie shooed her away and turned back to the boy. “Kid never stops following me around.”
“It’s cute,” the boy laughed. Frances folded her arms and stomped her feet as she walked off determinedly. Frances hated being treated like a little kid, and Elsie was supposed to be her best friend. They found the fairies together, but Elsie acted like it had never happened.
Frances crossed the waterfall and strolled into the woods. She made sure to only go so far as she could still hear the water, just in case, but not because she was scared or anything like that. She was perfectly capable of going off by herself. She danced alone, twirling a stick like a magic wand, and hummed rhymes for the trees.
Frances didn’t notice how the little silver creatures watched from their perch in the grass, close to the familiar mound of upturned earth. They nudged one another like siblings until one, the same confident one from their first meeting, fluttered into the air. It didn’t take the form of Frances’s favourite fairies this time, and remained in its natural form. It moved through the air until it was face-to-face with Frances. She gasped and slipped. She would have cried at the fall, but she’d already felt like a baby that day. Instead, pushing back tears and biting her lip, she looked up at the fairy that fluttered above her head.
It came down to land on her knee and plod along her thigh. After a moment, the other four swept through the air to sit with her. Frances talked to them as though they could understand everything she said. She felt comforted, looking down at the creatures, as they stared at her intensely. They climbed all over her, making her laugh, their tiny feet tickling her wherever they touched, and their wings tickled her ears when they hovered about her plaits. She unravelled her hair, explaining to the creatures what it was.
They poked at her skin curiously, careful not to startle her with their sharp talons. Frances was so distracted by them that she didn’t notice the pinprick of blood forming just behind her ear where one of the fairies twirled locks of her hair. Nor did she notice the little droplet of blood on the back of her left calf where another danced for her, or the tiny pricks on her right hand that rested on the grass where two more fairies teased and tickled her fingers. She thought only of the grass swaying in the breeze and the fluttering air around their beautiful leaf-like wings. The little creatures pricked her skin where her veins sat just beneath the surface, and they sucked and licked at the droplets that formed.
They took turns fluttering and twirling in front of her while the others sliced tiny marks into her flesh. In her mind, they were absolutely harmless.
It was only after she heard her aunt calling her name from the water’s edge and the creatures all flew away that she was walking home and looked around for the patch of nettles that must have stung her. Soon the itching subsided and Frances forgot about those tiny pricks of pain she’d felt along her legs. But the taste of Frances’s blood was not forgotten. Nor was the ignorance of the little girl who let the creatures suckle at the wounds they inflicted as though they weren’t happening at all.