© Charles Vess 2019
After a dreamless night Janet slowly opened her eyes, squinting at the dim room around her. Languidly stretching under the heavy, hand-made quilts as a cascade of memories from last night swirled through her thoughts: Thomas stroking her hair, her body. Her fingers brushed across slightly swollen lips, remembering the endlessly slow, intense kisses that only made her want more. Soon, though, she was aware that the blissful cocoon of warmth generated by their two bodies was melting away, and suddenly she was wide awake.
Clutching the quilt around her, she remembered how their bodies had fit together as if they had been made for each other, each arm and leg shaping comfortably over the other’s. They had slept, still clothed, tightly wrapped in each other’s arms for the rest of the night. And now he was gone.
Pushing the tangle of quilts aside, Janet shivered in the cool air of the cellar room.
Must be upstairs… with my father.
Better go make sure there’s no serious joisting going on…
Minutes later, Janet stepped into the hallway above, and hearing the murmur of voices, followed them into the great room, where she found Tom and her father deep in surprisingly civil conversation.
“Thomas, those detectives were absolutely insufferable. They kept asking me the same questions over and over again, trying to catch me out in a lie, I suppose. But I knew what I had to tell them, and I stuck with it even if I didn’t get to my bed until well afterdawn.”
Janet interrupted, “Were they so awful?”
John Ravenscroft glanced up then and saw his daughter standing in the doorway. “Ah, Janet, there you are.”
She crossed the room to sit on the arm of the sofa beside Thomas. Protectively, she laid one arm across his broad shoulders, then kissed the top of his head, and breathing in his scent asked, “Has my father been treating you well?”
Across the room John considered the casual intimacy on display between his daughter and this man that he hardly knew and successfully adjusted his impatient reply, “We’ve just been discussing my round of cut and parry with the two gentlemen of the law that came to see me last night.”
Remembering the difficult conversation, Ravenscroft growled, “I’ve bearded bigger and better adversaries than those two, before either of you were born…” He cleared his throat then. “Well… perhaps not you, Thomas.”
Her father quickly recovered his accustomed poise and continued, “Yes, Thomas has been telling me the most fascinating tales about himself. If I didn’t already know better, I would find them hard to believe, very hard indeed.”
Janet didn’t even try to hide her smile of triumph, “So, does my gentleman caller suit you, Father?”
John Ravenscroft returned that smile, warmly, “More than satisfied.”
“Okay, then.” Janet stood, looking at the two men. “Would either of you gentleman like some coffee or tea? I know I do.” When they both nodded their heads she continued, “I’ll just brew a pot of each, shall I?”
But before she can leave the room her father called to her, “Janet, hang on a moment, I have something for you.” Reaching out, he pressed an old-fashioned skeleton key into Janet’s hand. “I’m very sorry that I’ve prevented you from knowing anything about your mother for so long.”
Janet turned the key over in her hands, hoping against hope that it is what she thought it was, “What…which door does it open?”
Ravenscroft cleared his throat again. “As you know, there is a locked door in my office.” At the mention of that particular door, Janet’s body stiffened with tension. Then her father continued. “That key will open it.” He looked steadily at his daughter for a moment. “Everything I still have of your mother is in that room.”
Clutching the polished brass key to her breast, Janet was stunned and just as suddenly dismayed by what she might find there. “Thank you! Thank you, Father…”
John Ravenscroft studied her face curiously. “Well, I’m sure we can forgo that coffee for now. Off you go. We’ll join you there later.”
Unable at first to face whatever she would find behind that door, Janet wandered aimlessly through the house, restlessly sitting for a moment in a particular chair or at a desk. In the library, she ran her hand along long shelves of leather-bound books, all with their titles stamped in shining gold leaf. She randomly pulled a volume down and flipped through it, only to slide it back into place a moment later.
I’ve spent endless hours imagining what would happen if my mother were to suddenly step out of my dreams and become real…
What if I don’t like who she is?
Finally, she paused by a long row of windows and stared out at the mysterious hedge, hoping to see a small elfin face peering back at her.
But Tom says that would be impossible here…
Turning, she walked determinedly upstairs to her father’s office at the end of the long hallway on the east wing of the house. For as long as Janet could remember, her father had forbidden her to ever enter it.
Maybe this bloody house is finally ready to give up a few of its secrets?
She had stood before this door so many times when she’d been growing up, her imagination fired by the mystery of what could be hidden behind it. Janet couldn’t begin to count the number of times she’d tried to unlock the door. But she’d always been caught, and the punishment meted out by her father had become severe enough that Janet had finally quit trying. Now she was standing in front of the only door in the entire house without a keypad access code.
Janet inserted the key. Turning it, there was a decisive click before the heavy oak door swung open on well-oiled hinges. Inside there was a clean, well-kept bedroom.
Father must come here often.
She was immediately drawn to the far wall, which was covered in framed photographs. Most of them featured a small woman, dark-skinned like Janet, displaying a wide, pleasant smile. Overwhelmed, her daughter burst into tears.
Why did he take you away from me?
She reached out to touch one of the photographs, then another and another. They were all so real: Her mother graduating from university, diploma in hand.
… singing in a café.
… smiling at her father, looking very much in love.
… holding a newborn infant.
When Janet looked closely at that particular picture she saw a troubled, confused look on her mother’s suddenly gaunt face that made her feel uncomfortable. The slightly faded photograph showed her mother, shoulders tense, sitting out on the garden patio, directly beneath where Janet’s bedroom window was now. Through the shade trees the sun cast a soft dappled light over everything in the picture. On either side, amongst the leaves of the two trees she sat between, Janet thought she could see a multitude of grotesque faces with tiny bodies sporting wings and short curling tails.
But how could that be if Tom is right about the Rowan hedge?
Janet shivered and placed the photograph face-down on top of a nearby dresser. Beside it was an instrument case that held a well-worn guitar, carefully preserved. Curiously, she studied the dresser and then slid out one of its drawers. It was full of neatly folded clothes, all suffused with a dim fragrance that nevertheless still infused them.
Janet collapsed onto the bed clutching an armful of blouses, her face pressed into them, crying.
After her tears had finally dried, Janet began to explore the rest of the small room, and she found a bin of old record albums. Every one of the cardboard jackets showed the same wear as a well-loved book that had been read again and again, but was still well preserved.
Curiously, she thumbed through them. There were recording of singers that Janet had never heard of before: Jeannie Robertson, Ray Fisher, Lizzie Higgins and so many others. In a cabinet above the set of albums, she found what she decided was an old record player. After several eager, fumbling attempts, Janet succeeded in getting one of the records to play.
At first, she was disappointed to hear only odd scratchy pops, but when a gorgeous singing voice suddenly filled the room, she was mesmerized. Fascinated by the songs, Janet eventually listened carefully to each record. Until at last she played one that had a huge scratch running across its surface, making the needle jump at every revolution. Still, the lyrics of the song entranced her.
Bloody hell! It’s the same the story that Tom told me last night.
She turned the jacket of the album over and looked for the title of the tune. She read: Tam-Lin.
Of course, Tom Lynn.
As the damaged record continued to play, Janet leaned back and carefully looked around at her mother’s room, thinking about Tom and the song and her mother.
Somehow they all add up to one answer, don’t they?
Lost in thought, Janet felt another presence in the room, and startled, looked up. “Mum?” But instead, she saw her father standing awkwardly in the doorway with Thomas hovering close behind him.
His face stricken, John Ravenscroft slumped heavily into an old-fashioned lace-covered chair before burying his face in his hands. Tom remained standing quietly, directly behind the older man. As the record continued to play, her father placed a small, carefully wrapped package into his daughter’s hands. She stared at it for a moment before removing the covering and mutely gazed down at the mysterious painting that her father had said he’d destroyed.
“There’s none that goes by Carterhall
But they leave him a gift,
Either their rings, or green mantles,
Or else their maidenhead.”
The surface of the canvas was worked with wide, crudely handled brushstrokes, as if the painter had been well-meaning, but an amateur.
The dense woodland scene was of leaves and twisted vines framing the small figure of a knight. Here and there a smear of bright red or orange paint indicated ripe fruit hanging from a tree that remained unseen, as if it might grow just past the picture’s edge. The colors of the fruit hanging from the dense canopy of trees and the twilight sky beyond, alive with a multitude of stars, was saturated, intense, lending what would have been a conventional landscape a unique quality that was other-worldly and strange.
“Oh tell to me Tam Lin” she said
“Why came you here to dwell?”
“The Queen of Fairies caught me
when from my horse I fell”
Janet looked up at Thomas, her face twisting with a sudden, intense realization. “This is the world that I see when I look through your Queen’s eyes. It is all liquid edges … nothing is in focus… everything… everything there, shimmers with an intensity of color that we don’t have here in our world.
“But tonight is Halloween
and the fairy folk do ride,
Those that would their true love win
at mile’s cross they must bide.”
A tentative smile struggles across her face as she remembered visits to museums in London and Paris, “Maybe Van Gogh and Gaughan were simply fairy painters?”
John Ravenscroft reached out and gently held his daughter’s hands. After a lengthy silence that threatened to grow into something more ominous, her father cleared his throat and answered the unspoken question his daughter seemed to be afraid to ask. “Your… your mother painted it.”
Janet’s eyes shone with that acknowledgement. “Of course she did.”
“It is the only painting of hers that I kept. I’ve burned all the rest…”
“You… You burned her paintings?”
Ravenscroft looked straight into his daughter’s eyes before continuing. “Janet, you will never know how much I regret that now, and… and there were so many other unpardonable actions as well. But what is done is done and can never be undone.
“Only forgiven, if that is even possible, daughter?”
However, her father’s fumbling attempt to explain his actions only filled Janet with sudden anger. Her other emotions rose then, to eagerly greet that anger like the familiar escape that it had been for most of her life. But with sudden insight, Janet realized that if she let herself give into it and the sharp words that would most certainly follow, then the fragile understanding that had just begun to build between her father and herself would shatter. Shaking her head, Janet asked, “But why would you keep one of my mother’s paintings and not even tell me it was hers?”
“In the middle of the night
she heard the bridle ring
She heeded what he did say
and young Tam Lin did win.”
Her father remained silent, replaying the past in his thoughts. After a moment he began to speak again. “That song was her favorite. Mairi kept singing it the day I sent her away… That was so long ago now that it almost seems like a dream.” He shook his head trying to dispel those thoughts. “More like a nightmare really!”
Janet whispered, “Mairi?”
“Yes, that is your mother’s name.”
“Then up spoke the Fairy Queen,
an angry Queen was she
“Woe betide her ill-faired face,
an ill death may she die”
When the song finished, her father spoke once more. “She loved the old ballads. Sang them any chance she got. I could never understand why? Most of them seemed filled with fairy tale make believe. I’ve never had any time for any of that foolish nonsense.
“And none of them had anything to do with the people or the island where she was born and raised.
“She was singing those old ballads the first time I ever saw her in a little café on Bloer Street.” He paused for a moment before continuing, “It was Club 320, owned then by Daniel Parsons. We all became great friends.” Ravenscroft turned back to his daughter, “And soon, I fell so helplessly in love with your mother that I didn’t care about the color of her skin or what songs she sang.
“My parents had passed by then and all my other relatives lived far away. So, there weren’t any outright objections to my marriage to a woman whose parents had immigrated here from Jamaica with skin the color of deep, rich chocolate. Anyway, that didn’t concern me at all. I would love to have met her mother and father, too, but sadly they had died as well.
“After your birth, though, when your mother came home from hospital, everything changed, most of all Mairi. Physically she was still here, but your mother moved through this house as if she could hardly see it around her. I was forced to hire a nurse after Mairi couldn’t take care of herself or even her own daughter.
When John begins to weep his daughter knells at his side, trying to comfort him.
“When I tried to talk about what was happening to her, Mairi just looked right through me as if she couldn’t even see me. Only when your mother sang her ballads did she show any semblance of her old personality. I was jealous then and began to actually hate those songs. It was as if they had stolen her away from me. Even just a few short verses would fill me with such desperate anger and despair.
John’s eyes opened wide as his memories fixed on the last few weeks that his wife spent in the house, his head nodding with understanding before continuing.
“Soon after she came home from hospital there was a great storm. A hundred feet or more of the fence and the hedge were swept away. I planted them again, of course, using the instructions passed down from my ancestor. But Rowan takes many years to mature. Afterwards your mother began to express an almost hysterical fear of anything green and growing.
“She threw the plants and flowers that she had loved so out our windows where they shattered on the patio. Mairi refused to even look out on the lawn or the gardens and hung thick drapes over every window.
“I thought then that her madness had begun to infect me, because, I too, began to see odd things flicker through the leaves in the trees outside our home. Myself, who had never believed in a spook or goblin, even when I was a child. Now, suddenly, I thought I could see strange creatures peering through the gap in our temporary hedge, or God help me, flying above it, and I was certain that I was going mad as well.”
Janet held up the photograph from the dresser in her hand. Her father looked at it for a moment and then shut his eyes tight when she murmured, “Of course, that’s why they were able to enter. The protection that you had was gone.”
The elder Ravenscroft’s eyes grew dark with his even darker memories. “I kept telling myself that it was all just a trick of the light…
“One day I came home to find the kitchen in flames. Your crib was in the very next room. You were screaming, frightened by the smoke. And your mother Mairi was hiding behind a wall of chairs that she had stacked in front of her in the bedroom, claiming that the fairies had come looking for her. That’s when I decided that she would be better off in a place that could take care of her properly.
“And, after she was gone… I saw no more faces in the leaves.”
His eyes haunted, he continued, “Now I know that they’ve always been out there, just past the edge of that wall of Rowan, haven’t they?”
Janet gripped her father’s knee again and spoke quietly. “And it’s up to us to make them go away again.”
John Ravenscroft looked seriously at his daughter. “Yes. Yes, of course. If I’d accepted that truth before this evening, then my men wouldn’t have been slaughtered and left to die in their own blood out on my drive.
“And… and perhaps, my daughter would not hate me so much?”
Janet got to her feet and gently placed the small painting of her mother’s on top of the dresser, alongside the photographs. Then Janet turned to put her arms around her father, kissing him on his rough, unshaven cheek.
“Then all this…”Janet gestures around them. “The house, the guards, the bloody security cameras everywhere, they were to keep those creatures out, not me in. Weren’t they, father?”
His eyes closed tightly, “Yes, and none of it did me any good, did it?”
After a moment of silence, Tom’s hand reached for Janet’s, “I must tell you both that I have been told by one who should know of these things that there is yet another caught along with us in the web of my Queen’s madness.”
With sudden clarity, Janet’s hold on his hand tightened, “ And… and you think that this other could be my mother?”
“Yes. Your father’s story all but confirms it.”
Janet stood deep in thought, considering everything she’d just heard. Then looking straight at Thomas, she said, “So all my blackouts, my sleep walking, my speaking in bloody tongues and my mother’s madness have this Queen of yours to blame?”
A stricken look etches itself on her father’s face. “Of course. Of course they do…”
She turned to her father, “So it shouldn’t be news to you, then, that I have to see her now… my mother, that is. We absolutely have to find out what she knows about any of this, don’t we?” Gazing at her father then, she realized that the man she saw slumped in the chair, looking fragile and almost lost, was a far cry from the John Ravenscroft she’d known all her adult life.
Silently he handed Janet a carefully kept business card before speaking again. “I want you to know that I love your mother… I always will. Mairi was my life. If there had ever been any way to bring her back here, I would have done so. Whatever it would have taken.” Holding the card tightly in her hand, his daughter stared at him as he continued. “That is her address… where she resides now…”
Janet frowned, “You mean, the institution that takes care of her?”
Her father sighed.“If you must call it that, yes. But Janet, I own the facility, so there’s no question that her every need is taken care of.”
Crouching close beside him, Janet lightly kissed his cheek again. “Thank you, father. And please… I don’t want to see any of what might remain of your army following behind me when I visit my mother.”
John looked up at his daughter, his face stricken. “There are none left. Early this morning, I asked everyone who was still alive to leave. Catastrophic assaults by invisible fairy creatures aren’t something I’m willing to wager anyone’s life on but my own.”
He looked at both Janet and Tom. “So, you will be careful? Both of you, I mean.”
“Well, I do have The Knight of the Rose with me. If he can’t protect me, then I don’t know who can?”
Janet regarded her father ruefully, “And father, can you tell me the code for the lock down on Tom’s bike?” When he related a string of seemingly random digits, the smile that lit Janet’s face lifted the grim expression on his own.
Minutes later in the garage Janet knelt and punched in the code to unlock the Vincent. Curious, Tom asked, “Is there something special about these numbers?”
Janet looked up at him and smiled. “It’s my birthdate.”
Tom laid a hand on her shoulder. “Yes, of course.”
Afterwards, Janet climbed on behind Tom, and he kicked the machine into gear. Soon the wind was whipping past them as they flew down the road toward the nearby coast. She buried her face in the long brown hair that escaped his leather helmet and tried hard for a moment to will away all the responsibilities that threatened to overwhelm her life.
Couldn’t we just run away to some desert island and hold each other forever? If I was still that same silly, selfish girl who refused to grow up, I guess I might even want to…
A worried frown creases her brow as she stared out at the landscape that flashed by them.
My mother… after all these years, I’m finally going to meet her… talk with her… what will I say?