© Charles Vess 2019
An hour’s drive from Inverness, on the southern shore of the Beauly Firth, there was a sprawling, single-story building with extensive grounds enclosed by high hedge of yew. A discreet sign just off the motorway, at the entrance to a small parking lot, informed Janet that she and Tom had arrived at their destination: “Greenhaven, a rest for those weary of the world”.
Thomas cut the engine, and they sat quietly for a moment. Janet breathed in and out, trying to calm her nerves, preparing for whatever she would find inside the institution. The air around them was fragrant with the nearby sea, and the sky above was thick with heavy clouds that threatened an early afternoon rain. Just before she climbed off the bike, Tom put a gentle hand on her arm before speaking. “Janet, I do not know what will happen within this place…”
“You mean in what condition I’ll find my mother?”
“I hope she will be responsive to you. But even if she is not, we must get both herself and you back within the protection of your father’s estate as soon as possible. You are in great danger outside its protective walls. If the Huntsman has survived, he will find us wherever we are.”
Janet’s hold on his shoulder tightened. “And you think he survived, don’t you?”
“Then I promise I’ll be as careful as possible.” Suddenly, a quick grin lit up her features. “And I do have you with me, don’t I?”
“Then let’s go.”
An earlier phone call from her father had already cleared the way for the visit, so at top of a short flight of stairs, a pleasant-looking woman wearing a trim fitted suit greeted them. Their guide led them through the wide glass doors into the facility with a never ceasing stream of inconsequential conversation. They followed the woman through another set of secure doors, with its own key code, into a small
,well-lit waiting area.
Janet looked curiously around the facility that had incarcerated her mother for so many years, her grip tightening on Thomas’ hand. It was clean, orderly and surprisingly peaceful. Several attending nurses walked purposely up or down the long hallway wheeling small carts filled with various medications as well as their patients’ charts.
At least it doesn’t look like a fucking loony bin…
Their charming guide led them into a large office and introduced them to a trim, efficient-looking older woman sitting at a broad desk littered with paperwork. Dr. Lindeman, the chief resident of the institution, brushed a strand of stray sandy blond hair away from her eyes and looked up to greet them. The pause that followed was momentary but still made Janet uneasy.
Yeah, I know I’m my mother’s daughter. I bloody don’t look anything like my father.
Then, shrugging off whatever surprise she felt, the doctor quickly got to her feet and held out her hand. “It so good to finally meet you, Ms. Ravenscroft. Thank you so much for coming.”
Janet nervously shook her offered hand. “I’ve thought of nothing else for years and years.”
“Then I’m surprised you’ve not visited long before this.”
Uncomfortable, Janet shifted from foot to foot, “You’d have to ask Father about that.”
There was a slight pause before Dr. Lindeman continued. “I think I understand. Mr. Ravenscroft is an excellent benefactor to this institution, but sometimes he can be rather unsympathetic in dealing with what others may want or need.” Still smiling, she released Janet’s hand and turned to Thomas before speaking again. “And who is this handsome young man, your fiancé perhaps?”
Janet was startled to realize that she was blushing, “This is my friend… my good friend, Thomas Lynn.”
Thomas, unable to prevent his ingrained courtly manner, greeted the doctor with a flourish, bending low over her hand and lightly kissing it. Over him, both women looked awkwardly at each other, and Janet smiled to herself, noticing that Dr. Lindeman’s cheeks were now flushed as well.
The doctor cleared her throat. “Well, enough of that. I expect that you, Ms. Ravenscroft, are rather anxious to see your mother?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
The doctor walked them into the hall and indicated a room, three doors down, labeled Mairi Ravenscroft. “Before you go in, Ms. Ravenscroft, let me explain. We have very few restrictions here as most of our patients are low-risk and extremely non-violent. The doors to their rooms remain unlocked except at night, so that they come and go as they please. In the rear of the facility, we have an extensive garden that allows our clients to enjoy the sun and feel a breeze on their faces.
“We find it especially beneficial to their well-being. Unhappily, throughout your mother’s stay with us, she’s absolutely refused to leave her room.”
Janet’s brows knit in a concerned frown. “Always?”
Doctor Lindeman’s placid face displayed such deep concern that it startled Janet. “Yes, ever since she arrived here 18 years ago. And be warned, Mrs. Ravenscroft keeps her shades drawn, so it is a bit dreary in her room. The few times we’ve attempted to open them she became so agitated that we’ve acquiesced to her desire.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
Hand-in-hand, Janet and her knight walked down the corridor. They paused in front of her mother’s door as she glanced at Thomas, holding his hand a little tighter. “Could you wait here? I want to see my mother by myself, okay? At least at first…”
Tom smiled reassuringly. “Of course. Call for me if there is need.”
At first, there was no answer when she knocked hesitantly on the door. Waiting a few moments, Janet slowly pushed it open. After her eyes adjusted to the dimness inside, she saw an older woman, barely five feet tall, her dark skin a startling contrast to her long pure-white hair, sitting in front of a sturdy easel. The woman had several brushes held in one hand and a paint-loaded pallet in the other. Spots of bright color were flecked across the otherwise tidy green smock she wore.
When her mother looked up, a gentle smile lighting her face, Janet had to restrain herself from impulsively throwing her arms around the small woman. After a thousand imaginary meetings and as many imaginary conversations, tears began to course down Janet’s cheeks as she realized that this time, it was real, very real.
Wiping her cheeks with the sleeve of her jacket, Janet began to speak. “Mother…it’s me, your daughter Janet.” Not saying a word in response, Mairi continued to stare up at her as Janet continued, “I…I’ve waited so long… so long, to meet you. And now that you’re here in front of me, I don’t know what to say first…”
She tried her best to fill the silence. “Well, okay. Dad says hello, of course… and, I’m eighteen now…and grown up, I guess.” The woman continued to stare blankly at her daughter, giving no signs that she recognized the young woman standing in front of her. “So I’ve…I’ve got a boyfriend. His name is Tom, but I think he likes to be called Thomas better… he’s really nice, even Dad seems to like him. And, trust me, that’s never ever happened before.”
Nervously she continued, “Tom…Thomas is out in the hall right now. Do you maybe want to meet him?” But Janet’s confused attempts at conversation seemed of no interest to her mother. Mairi quietly turned back to her easel and softly began to hum to herself.
Ineffectively, Janet wiped at the tears that continue to run down her cheeks. “Mother, won’t you say something… anything?” But Mairi was totally absorbed in brushing paint onto canvas, oblivious to her daughter’s raw emotional turmoil. Whatever Janet had expected to happen when she came here, being met by a wall of silence was not one of them.
In that uncomfortable silence, Janet began to study her mother’s room. Pinned to the wall were hundreds of crudely painted pictures, layers and layers deep. Each obsessively depicted minutely rendered scenes, crowded with vast groupings of strange creatures both large and small. Some had wings. Some tails. Some had both, but all of them had long slanted eyes, solid black with no pupils, reflecting a world that was not of this earth.
The crude paintings began to stir disturbing memories that Janet had been trying very hard to forget.
Fuck me! I see these same creatures every time I look through that damned Queen’s eyes.
Janet’s bleak thoughts fell away, though, when she recognized the tune that Mairi hummed. Under her breath, she begins to sing softly along with the older woman, astonished that she remembered every word of the song.
“I’m as brown as brown can be
My eyes are as black as sloe
I’m as bright as a night-time nightingale
As wild as the forest doe.
My love was high and proud
A fortune by his side
But a fairer maiden than ever I’ll be
He took to be his bride.”
This is so weird. I can remember every bloody lyric I heard in mother’s room like I’ve been singing those songs my whole life…
Hearing Janet sing the ancient ballad, her mother turned back to her, eyes suddenly lit by joy. She rose from her chair to clasp her daughter’s hands and joined her voice with Janet’s. But when they finished the verses of the song, her mother grew silent once more, the joy draining from her eyes, the smile from her face. Once again, Mairi looked through her daughter as if Janet weren’t even there.
Desperate to regain their connection, Janet began to sing another ballad, and when that song was finished, another and another, her mother joyfully harmonizing with each. When Janet stumbled over the lyrics of a long border ballad, her mother’s voice grew stronger, leading her on. However, when Janet had finally sung every song she could remember and the last notes of their lovely voices joined in harmony faded away, her mother grew silent once more. A look of worry filled Mairi’s dark green eyes as she feebly tried to pull her hands from Janet’s tight grip.
Reluctantly, Janet let go and gently helped the older woman
back into the chair in front of her easel. There, Mairi sat, staring inward at a world of quiet madness where Janet couldn’t follow.
Frustrated, Janet walked slowly along the wall of her mother’s room, marveling at the strange world that moved across the surface of her mother’s paintings.
When she carefully lifted one edge of the heavy curtain that blocked the world outside from entering the room, Janet caught a brief glimpse of the gardens and the sea beyond. At the far end of the distant rocky beach, she was surprised to see a tall, thin standing stone. But hearing her mother’s startled, high-pitched cry, she immediately dropped the curtain back into place and turned. Mairi’s eyes were wide and full of fear, her hands holding her brush in front of her face as if it were a sword that could protect her. The older woman dropped to the floor and jammed herself between the bed and the corner of the room, scattering around her on the carpet tubes of paint and brushes. The sharp smell of spilled turpentine filled the room.
Terrified, Mairi cried, “No! Don’t let them in. They’ll steal everything from me. Again! Again! Again!”
Immediately, Janet crouched beside her mother and tried to comfort the frantic woman. “Mother please, it’s okay. There’s no one out there that will hurt you. Let’s put you in your bed, okay?” The older woman’s body still shuddered with emotion as her daughter helped her up into the bed. Janet, looking into her mother’s wide, unfocused eyes, tried to smile, “There, that’s more comfortable isn’t it? But once in her bed, Mairi frantically pulled a quilt over her and curled into a tight ball, leaving her confused daughter staring down at her muffled form.
Outside in the hall, Tom and an attendant, who waited by the door to the room in case they were needed, both heard Mairi’s startled cry. They looked at each other, and worried by the low wailing cry within, the nurse immediately pushed open the door to see Janet seated beside the huddled figure of her mother in the bed.
Thomas quickly crossed the room and gathered Janet in his arms as the attendant calmly took charge of the situation. “Right. This has happened before. I’ll just go and get her medication. Won’t be a minute.”
After the nurse left Mairi peered cautiously out from under the thick covers. Her face lit with joy when she saw Thomas. Throwing the quilt off, she sat up and eagerly reached toward him, clutching her daughter’s hand in her left and Tom’s in her right. Instinctively, Janet reached for the support of Tom’s other hand and gripped it firmly.
The instant the circle was complete, Tom sensed the presence of The Queen deep within both the older woman and her daughter, aware and struggling for release. At once. all the accumulated guilt he’d kept locked inside flashed through his mind and Thomas whispered, “Forgive me, I did not intend to abandon you…”
Looking past Janet’s mother. he saw for the first time the hundreds of paintings fixed haphazardly to every available space on the walls of the room. Raptly, he scanned the obsessively scrawled eyes, the gnarled hands, the small pearlescent wings, the long, tapered ears, the multitude of odd, misshapen faces that he instantly knew as creatures of the Fae, all staring back at him. At first, Thomas recoiled in surprise. But the images were so compelling that he began to look closer and see that behind the minutely rendered mass of rolling, tumbling, dancing figures were bits of soaring architecture that he recognized as the great hall, the court of The Queen of Summer’s Twilight.
Then, hearing the song Mairi began to sing. Thomas was astonished by the words.
“Oh I forbid you maidens all,
that wear gold in your hair,
to come or go to Carter Hall…”
With a smile brighter than any summer’s morning spreading across her face, Mairi continued to lend her voice to the lyrics of the ancient ballad.
“First she plucked the red, red rose…”
Beside them, Janet began to choke and her body to convulse. Oblivious to her daughter’s emotional trauma, Mairi continued to sing.
“Then came young Tam-Lin,
saying “Lady pull no more.”
As her convulsions grew more violent, Janet’s face was bathed in sweat. Her mouth snapped open to disgorge a single red rose. The crimson bloom with its long stem fell end over end to the floor, landing at her feet. Utterly entranced by the fallen rose, Janet pulled her hands away from her companions and slipped off the edge of the bed, to fall to her knees. There she cupped the remains of the already wilting flower with both her hands, crushing the petals to her breast as if they were something unimaginably beautiful that she had now lost forever. The withered petals fell through her trembling fingers, floating softly to the floor.
Janet looked up at Tom, her eyes wide with fright. Her lips were streaked with blood where the thorny stem had torn at them. She wiped the blood away before speaking. “Again, I saw through that damned Queen’s eyes.” Her own eyes wide with astonishment she gestured at her mother, who stared back uncomprehendingly at them both. “And bloody hell, you were right. She is there within my mother as well.”
Before Tom can offer any explanation, the window beside them burst open, showering them all with shards of glass. And just as suddenly, The Huntsman and his beasts stepped dramatically into the room.