June 9, 2019

ON THE EDGE by K. A. Wiggins

There are two types of stories about
fairyland. Ones where the traveller
returns, and then there are the other ones...
I always believed I could walk on water.

You know how there are kids who jump off the roof because they believe they’re Superman?

Like that, but with less broken bones.

Don’t tell me you’ve never wanted to try. You sit on the edge of dock with your shoes and socks heaped beside you and your jeans rolled up. Instead of dipping a toe in, you just reach out and place your sole against the surface, feel it push back against your foot.
And then a wave breaks over your toes and you pretend you never really thought the water would hold you.
But secretly, you wondered. Maybe this time, you’d stand up and walk along the hidden paths to one of the magical places over the rainbow or past the second star to the left or through the wardrobe.
I’ve always been able to see the paths, but over and over again they refused to carry me away. Then I got too old and stopped looking.
There was that time in Cornwall. I was twenty, on the hunt for magic before the adult world finally took me for its own. I’d made the trek out to Tintagel, that tumbledown ancient kings’ seat on the edge of the world.
It was late in the day. I’d already missed the last bus back to my hostel. Everyone had gone, but the site staff hadn’t yet come searching to eject stragglers from the island.
I sat on the edge of the cliff and gazed out on the rippling path of golden light over the waves, uncaring that the ancient stones beneath me might give way at any moment, almost praying for a sudden gust of wind to push me off the edge and onto the hidden way before it disappeared.
I couldn’t look away.
I could already feel the warm, soft resistance of the path under my feet; taste the buzz of magic on my tongue. If I just leaned out, shifted my weight forward the slightest bit—
And a guide called out behind me, breaking the spell, chasing me back to solid ground and a long, panicked evening of trying to scrounge a cab to take me back north up the peninsula.
I wasn’t ready to give up.
Caernarvon, Wales. The seawall stretched into the distance. I was compelled by some unnamed instinct or call to reach the furthest point and gaze across open water toward my homeland.
An hour or more in, the seawall veered deep inland to curve around a wide but shallow bay. I followed the irresistible summons right into the water.
Wet sand sucked at the soles of my boots. The waves lapped at the laces, dribbled over the top, and had surged above my knees by the center of the bay. It wasn’t as shallow as it looked, nor as quick to dart across—or perhaps the tide was coming in. With each step, the water rose, weeds wrapped around my ankles, and the sand sucked harder at my heels.
For all the fairy stories I’d read, I couldn’t have resisted the urge to follow the path into the water, nor told you which creature called me—but I knew enough to panic, if only at the last moment.
I tore free from its grasp and struggled onward to dry land once more.
But even after that fearful escape, I hadn’t quite given up on finding my Neverland. I had one final chance before adulthood closed over my head and submerged me in the weight of responsibility.
Ireland—a small island off the west coast. A bright day, but not too warm. There was a small mountain, covered with low grasses and dotted with sheep. The summit was a gentle, boulder-dotted curve, and always within view.
But the sinister path called, a winding clamber past still pools ringed by flowers and prickly bushes. It got steeper and more treacherous as I went—pebbles sliding underfoot, slick mud under its bright green covering threatening to send me backward onto the rocks. And the ridge was ringed by boulders.
I’d turn 21 in a week. There was no going back. I was in the homeland of the fairies, and I was determined to follow the path to its end.
I reached the mountaintop. And remained.
Ten minutes. Twenty. An hour. I wandered its dips and ridges, climbed the boulders, hunted for rings of flowers or mushrooms, or stones. Mystical pools. Anything.
I’d taken a wrong turn; veered right off the path when I should have shifted left. Forgotten to bring an offering, or worn too much metal. Did I have a sock turned inside out? I knew I had started on a hidden path, but the world from the top of the mountain looked no different than the one I knew. When I finally grew tired and descended, the old farmhouse-turned-hostel was familiar, the Guinness in the pub leaning against it just as bitter.
And so I went home and grew up. Suffered. Endured. Looked to a future of promotions and dollar-an-hour raises and endless, mind-numbing overtime. And vacuuming. How could a tool that makes things vanish be so unmagical?
But that’s not the end of the story.
Look back to the old tales of fairyland. Look back to legends of monsters and magic.
Our stories have changed, but the world behind the world never does. We tell stories about boy wizards and children stepping through cracks between the worlds, but in the old days it wasn’t just children who walked out of their lives and never returned.
And so a decade later, when I rebelled against the pressures and responsibilities of adulthood and it spat me out into the kind of freedom we all fear and crave with equal measure, I once more looked out across the water.
A small town on the edge of the highlands. A stone-lined harbour, full of fishing trawlers, pleasure-craft, and island ferries. A high seawall to catch the storm-waves before they swamp the narrow highway. Grueling long days turning over beds and scrubbing pots and clinging to existence at the edge of the adult world.
And hidden paths.
Some nights after the midges gave way to the full dark and the day-trippers had all returned home, I walked the seawall, singing to the waves and waiting for the sea to sing back.
Other nights, I stood at the edge of the harbour to watch the pier’s lights streak its mirror-dark surface, and felt a hidden gaze in return.
How can I describe the delicious tension of that quiet bay? The rainbow brightness of blue, gold, red painting the night. The liquid dark surrounding all that light, raising it aloft as a brilliant cloak to hide . . . something. Or someone.
For all was not quiet below the surface.
I could feel it—or them—there, waiting. Watching. Calling.
I spent weeks visiting the harbour in the night, creeping down from the manor-like hotel on the hill, skirting the noise and unexplored danger of the fisherman’s tavern.
It was a hidden way, that much I knew. But was it a place of beauty, like that golden bridge across the waters in Cornwall? Or a nightmare of murk and filth, like that treacherous bay in Wales?
There are two types of stories about fairyland. There are the ones where the traveller returns, with fantastic tales of their sojourn. And there are the other kind. The ones where someone goes missing: an infant, a child, a drunk, a husband or a wife.
I was none of those. And there is a rule about stories: the storyteller must always survive, in order to tell their tale.
So you will want to stop here, while you still believe my words, while your world remains as it should be. Because this is the sort of story that cannot be told.
It was late in the season. The summer tourists were gone, and even the second wave of labourers having their late vacations had passed. Too cold for anyone to be out, even at dusk. The heater in my spartan labourer’s room had gone out, and it was warmer to be out walking than to stay shivering under a mound of blankets and the entirety of my meagre wardrobe.
Too cold to go near the water.
But the lights in the harbour were all the more beautiful for their crystalline stillness. The water seemed heavy with frost. And I left the harbour walk to descend the broad stone-paved steps to the water’s edge.
From below, the sea seemed vast and ink-dark, the light a gossamer sheen floating like a mist above it. Or an oil slick.
A musty dampness exhaled from the shadows under the piers, a note of rotting fish-guts and decaying wood creeping into the sharper scent of the waves themselves. Pebbles shifted underfoot, the slippery give of seaweed crisp with a rime of ice. The water itself burned when I put my hand out.
The beauty was indescribable.
Fascination warred with horror. My muscles trembled as I put my foot out over the water. And shook all the harder as it met resistance.
You will say that I did not tread the path to the Otherworld that night. That I could not have. That I must have turned back, in order to tell the tale.
To that I say, you do not understand the Folk if you think that nothing is left behind when a traveller goes to them.

K.A. Wiggins (Kaie) is a Canadian writer who publishes fantasy with a speculative edge for young readers. Her work explores social movements, environmental crisis, and identity issues through intricate, dreamlike tales of monsters and magic.
Her debut novel, Blind the Eyes, was selected by Barnes & Noble Press as one of their "20 Favorite Indie Books of 2018."
This story was inspired by her extended travels across the UK in search of magic (which she later discovered is just as prevalent in Canada—but the change of scenery was nice!)

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
Follow her on Twitter @karenleestreet
Check out Karen's book
Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru