“Once upon a time…”, ugh!
“In a land far, far away…”, she made a face as she reached up to scratch her nose. Hmmm…what was that old adage about an itchy nose? Visitors? Someone thinking about her? She looked down at her needlework and sighed. Knowing her luck, it was just a bunch of bugs that decided to take up residence in her nose and dance the quadrille. She brought the tapestry closer to her face and noticed that the stitches still looked fine, but from a distance she could no longer tell one stitch from another. Where was magic when you needed it? Achy knees, pretzel fingers, belly that was the size of a huge eggplant and the precursor of a sneeze. It was totally depressing to be the old queen in a faerie tale. Witches could magically “fix” their problems. Princes could fall madly in love with their princesses. Kings could subdue the evil forces that threatened a kingdom. But old queens? They just got headaches from dealing with curses instigated by wicked witches, obstinate off-spring, and, on really bad days, a band of tightness that would encircle their chests and squeeze a flood of tears to wash away the sadness of a child dying too young or a husband lost in a duel with a dragon. Why is it that faerie godmothers failed to mention what came after the “happily- ever-after”? What in the world had God been thinking when he let this happen?
Illya wiped the stray tear that escaped out of the corner of her eye, pushed her long, thick gray braid behind her shoulder, and rocked into a standing position. The knees held once again, thank God. Old queens might not have much to offer in the world of dragons and magic, but they could still look out windows while they mended and sewed for the family. Lately, the land beyond the moat had captured her attention more than the chores. It had taken on an almost luminescent quality. Fields, forests and even the dry, dusty road seemed to sparkle; begging for her attention and…what was that other feeling? Anticipation? Sometimes, in the pockets of a sleepless night, it was definitely anticipation that seeped into her thoughts, and she felt like she was 18 again just waiting for Talliard to come calling for her on his silver-gray steed.
Who would come to see her these days, she chided herself. Even if they did it would be impossible to greet them properly. It was a major chore just to move from one room to another, let alone walk through the courtyard to greet a friend or stranger. Anyway, that was the job of her son’s wife now. A young queen who didn’t sew, didn’t weave tapestries, and didn’t have time to talk to an old queen or her own children. Maybe it was time for the old queen to get off her behind just a little more. Maybe today she should go for a walk. The courtyard wasn’t all that huge, and if she could jut put one foot into the moat and feel it’s cool water again, perhaps…
Ilya looked around at her beloved tapestries and the latest generation of hounds bred from the original pair that Talliard had given her on their wedding day, but something was wrong. The walls faded in and out of a gray mist. Oh God, have you decided I don’t need my eyes either? What will I do then? Can’t walk, can’t see, what good will I be? Her eyes must be getting worse. Everything looked kind of…
“Miss Gilly? Are you ready to wake up? It’s time to take your pills, Miss Gillian? Kathy is here to play bingo with y’all.”
She opened her eyes as wide as possible. Miss Gillian? Gilly? Where was she? She looked around. Tapestries and hounds had been replaced by soft pink walls, and paintings with large purple flowers. Strange people sat in sturdy vinyl-covered chairs across from her. Running her hand over the soft nappy yarn in her sweater, her mind clicked the missing piece into place. She must have been dreaming again. She rubbed her eyes, you would think if she was going to dream she would dream of a healthy body instead of a worn out one. She sighed as she scratched the side of her nose. Well, at least that part of the dream was true.
“You awake now, Miss Gillian? I got your pills right here.”
“Maria, is that you?”
“You got that right, Miss Gilly. I do believe you are havin’ a good day, if you can recognize this face of mine. It’s all swollen due to a bad case of poison ivy. Gardening when you don’t recognize leaves of three can be a bad thing.”
“Ha, I can’t see any face with these big black dots in the middle of my eyes,” Gillian chuckled as a small drop of spittle leaked from the side of her cracked lips and down her papery skin. “Besides, it’s not your face, but that warm, smiling voice that I recognize. Did you bring Daisy today?”
“No, ma’m,” Maria said as she cupped Miss Gillian’s cheek and gently dabbed at the small trail of wetness with the pad of her thumb. “This is a school day for that granddaughter of mine. Although I know that she would much rather be here singing with you or listening to those stories you have running around in that head of yours. She was singing herself to sleep the other night with that song you taught her about that gypsy rover.”
Maria put the pills into Gillian’s right hand and wrapped the fingers of her left hand around the small plastic cup of ice water.
“My goodness, how many pills do they expect me to swallow today?” Gillian used the back of her hand to rub her nose again as she took the last swallow of water. Her eyes drifted to the light coming from a nearby doorway. There was something sparking out there.
“What are you thinking about, Miss Gilly? Anything you need me to do? I’ve got a few minutes before I make rounds.” Maria took a comb out of her pocket and lightly picked Miss Gillian’s dyed red hair into the puffy style that had been Gilly’s trademark for the past 30 years.
Gillian tried to see the face in front of her. This nurse was the nicest one of the bunch. Most of the workers just treated residents like a chore that needed to be done…like cows in a barn, but not Maria. She always gave a little of herself to each of them. “Did you ever have dreams that seem just as real as this chair, Maria?”
“Can’t say I have very often. Why?”
“Oh, just seems that lately my dreams are as real as you and I sitting here and having this conversation. I used to be able to tell the difference between my stories and real life. But lately,” she paused as if she need to steady herself, “lately, I’ve been living my stories in my dreams, but even there, I’m just plain old and tired.”
“Well, they say that dreams are the path that God gave us to work out those troublesome things that bother us in our daily life. Maybe those dreams can be your inspiration to write a new book for all of the rest of us to enjoy. Most of my friends, and all of my grandchildren, love them. Did I tell you that our book club chose one of your books for our discussion? It was so fun. Daisy says that she likes your faerie tales the best.”
Miss Gillian let her whole face smile as she whispered, “You tell her that they’re my favorites, too. In fact, the one about the gypsy rover is the one I keep dreaming about. I wrote the storybook for that song back in 1936. You tell her, I wrote it for my husband, Willard, and it was the first story I ever published,” she closed her eyes hoping to see Talliard the way she first saw him in that story.
“Miss Gillian, do you want me to walk you down to bingo? I know that Kathy and the others would be glad to see you, and later, I believe that Dennis and his worship team are coming in to lead devotions for the evening.”
“Perhaps later. Right now I just think I’ll sit here, look out the window and talk with these fine folks beside me.”
Maria looked around at the others dozing in their chairs. There wouldn’t be much talking going on here. Perhaps it was just as well. The hospice people who had been in earlier today said that Miss Gillian would be sleeping more and more now. The cancer seemed to be spreading faster than they thought it would, but she sure wished that Miss Gillian would have opted for treatment. Even a few more months might have encouraged Miss Gillian to write a new story or song for a world that was sorely in need of “happily-ever-afters.”
“You go on now, Maria. I know that there are others just waiting for your visit.”
“Okay, but I’ll be back to visit with you before I leave.”
“You just check back when Dennis gets here. He always sings a lot of my favorite hymns and by then, maybe I’ll feel like a little walk. My eyes just don’t take well to looking at things quickly, even that oversized bingo card that Kathy made for me requires too much effort.”
Maria patted her shoulder before she moved on to her next patient while Gillian stretched her swollen legs out. She could see the others out of the sides of her eyes. Bumps on a log, she thought, that’s all we are. A mis-matched family united by their infirmities, wrinkles and dependence upon their caretakers. She closed her eyes and rubbed her enlarged belly. Seemed like the ache never went away, even with the new medicine that young doctor had given her. At least old queens could still dream.
“Grandmere, Grandmere, come away from the moat,” a voice was calling her from a distance. “Papa says come back inside because the sun is setting, and you have been out too long. Besides I’m bored, and you promised to show me how to do that special stitch that you used to make the tapestries look so real.”
Gillian settled deeper into the chair. Who did that voice belong to? A gentle shake on her shoulder pulled her deeper, “Grandmere, are you listening to me?”
“Shush, child, I heard you the first time.” Illya reached up and traced the small dimple in her granddaughter’s chin and pushed the curly hair back of the child’s sweet face. “Just daydreaming, Francine.” She looked down at her feet soaking in the moat and wondered why they felt so heavy. You’d think the cool water would make them feel stronger, not weaker. “Hmmm…my legs aren’t feeling real strong right now. Franci, you go fetch your papa to help me get up. Don’t know how I got down here in the first place,” she groused.
“Grandmere, you are so silly. You weren’t daydreaming,” her young voice so full of laughter and innocence was a song to Illya’s ears, “you were sound asleep and didn’t even hear me the first few times I called you.” The little princess laughed as she threw her arms around the person she loved best in the world, “I love you.”
“And I you, Sweetling. Now run along,” Illya encouraged as she rubbed at the tightness in her chest.
“Will you tell me a story as we sew?” Francine spoke as she climbed the rocky path toward the castle keep.
“Only if you go get your papa before I fall asleep again.”
Illya listened to Francine’s laugh and watched her run the rest of the way. There was a day when she could have transverse that bank as easily as her granddaughter. Looking around, she wondered how in the world she had managed to get herself down here in the first place? No matter. It felt good to let her swollen feet chill in the cool water of the moat even if it didn’t help her feel stronger. Why, she could barely feel them at all now. The drowsiness of the early evening swept over her again. Many of the villagers had already left the castle for home, and she could see the first star of the evening in the eastern sky. Illy sank back into the rocky crevice that had served as a fishing or diving seat for generations of royal family members. She could almost see Talliard introducing her to this spot so many years ago.
“Illya?” A gentle kiss brushed her forehead.
“Talliard? Is that you? I was just thinking about our wedding day.”
“Indeed. Well, I was thinking that you might be ready to ride with me again. Would you ride with me to the furthest reaches of my realm?” He tugged lightly on her braid, and she felt her stomach flip-flop just like it did when she was 12 years old. Then her thick braid had been a dark red and Talliard had teased her mercilessly. What had he said? Ah yes, he had said it felt like the rope that anchored the big boats safely to shore. Years later, he had wrapped it around his hand and claimed it was the rope that held them together.
She let her eyes linger on his strong face. It looked much as it did in the early years of their life together, as it had before all the skirmishes and worries that everyday life could bring to the face of a caring king. She reached her hand up and touched his hair. She had always loved touching it. Now, his long dark hair was bound by the leather thong she had given him on their wedding day. Where had he found that? She thought it had been lost long ago. His eyes continued to rest on her, and when she looked back into his, he smiled. How she wished she could get up and ride with him again. “I’m too old, Tally.” She felt his fingers brush the wisps of hair that curled about her face. “My body is old. I am not the same girl who rode bareback with you so many years ago.
“No, you are not. She was just a rough sketch of the masterpiece that you have become over the past few years,” Talliard’s dark brown eyes didn’t waver in the promise they held. “Just take my hand, Illy. Just take my hand. You will be amazed at what you can do.”
Illya looked at him and smiled. She could never refuse this man anything, even the impossible. Slowly she raised her hand.
“Miss Gillian?” Maria’s voice called out from the moat. “They’ve started to sing…” But the voice faltered. Illya looked at the moat her hand mid-way between herself and Talliard.
“Oh, Miss Gillian, it’s alright,” came the moat’s voice again. “It’s okay, Miss Gilly. You can go if’n you’re ready. I’m sure Mr. Willard will be waiting for you.”
Gillian looked at the gray water of the moat. It seemed to swirl and tempt her to answer, but then she looked into Talliard’s eyes once more.
“It’s your choice, my love,” Talliard’s words sang without sound straight into her heart. “We can ride another day,” but his hand remained steady.
The voice that had been her pride and joy over the long years of her life, seemed to fail her now. The stories and the songs that she had sung danced across the tiny ripples of the moat. A legion of laughing children’s faces filled her mind’s eye as she listened to the voices in her head. One beckoning and one absolving.
“It’s okay, Miss Gillian. I can tell you are tired, and I’m not leaving. I’ll just hold your hand. Daisy and I recorded all those stories that you told us, and she says, someday, she wants to be just like you and write faerie tales for children. She’s got all of your books memorized, especially that one about Queen Illya and King Talliard. She just loves it. What was that song you sang? Oh, I think I remember.
“The gypsy rover road over the hill,
Down through the valley so shady…”
The far-away voice sang the familiar song as Illya reached for her gypsy’s hand. Her love wrapped his strong fingers around her slender ones. She stood easily and brushed the dirt from her gown. She was herself again as she mounted the silver steed in front of her beloved. Sometimes, she thought, “happily-ever-afters” just needed a song to lift the burdens that life laid upon a body. Illya looked back at the castle one more time as Maria watched Miss Gillian’s eyes tightened briefly.
“Talliard, where are we going?” Illya whispered as she leaned back into her husband’s solid form.
“First, to meet Our Lord, He wants to welcome you home himself and answer some of those questions you’ve been sending His way. Then,” his eyes smiled down into her own, “we have eternity to explore this new kingdom together. I hear there is an opening for a teller of stories and songs.”
“Is this a happily-ever-after kingdom?”
Talliard bent his head and kissed the top of his bride’s dark red hair. “You always did have a gift for words, my love.”
Illya let her hand rest on the strong one that was holding the reins. She smiled as she looked back at the stone fortress that had been their home for so many years. Talliard’s gaze followed hers as they watched their son and granddaughter start across the bridge. “Blessings be, my children,” her words sang into the wind.
“Blessings be,” Talliard echoed as he turned the horse’s head towards the crystalline fields of yellow, blue and purple flowers.
Illya took her first real deep breath in a long time and smelled the fragrance that floated all around them. Familiar faces of friends and family were riding towards them from the forests just ahead of them. Joy flooded Illya’s soul at the sight of all of them. Faerie godmothers were right about “happily-ever-afters.” It was just that sometimes, you had to wait a little longer than expected for the real faerie tale to begin. She continued to smile as she heard Maria and Daisy’s voice singing:
“He is no gypsy, my father dear,
But Laird of these lands all over,
And I shall stay forever and a day,
With my whistlin’ gypsy rover.”