Part 1: The Faerie Lights
A free serial short by Erin Zarro
It happened the summer I turned seventeen. My family and I loved camping, and took several trips throughout the season. There was something about getting away from everything, being close to nature. Sometimes the hustle-bustle of life got to me.
My younger sister, Jane, especially enjoyed bonfires. She was autistic, and did not speak. But her face would light up like another sun whenever we made a bonfire. Her hands would reach toward the amber flames as if she wanted to capture them. It made me happy to see her engaging with her environment.
On the day it happened, I was alone. I sat in my camp chair and watched the campground. Kids running and playing. Dogs barking. The smell of someone grilling. The smell of other campers’ bonfires, so unique, that it took me back to simpler days. Simpler years.
The sun had set, turning the sky into an obsidian blanket, filled with the pinpricks of stars. I felt almost as if the stars were twinkling only for me.
And then I saw it.
Our campsite was near a small forest. Trees obscured the path I knew existed. It was so dark, true dark that sucked all of the light away.
And then there were glowing lights in all colors of the rainbow. They kept me transfixed. I saw nothing else. They beckoned me to them, soft whispers in my mind. They soothed me and relaxed me. I felt invigorated, all of my fears and worries slipping away. I was in the midst of something important, something bigger than life itself.
I glanced at my parents, who were playing cards at the picnic table. Jane sat next to Dad, her little hands flailing about. Trying to grab the cards. She loved to play with things.
One light flared right in front of me. I wanted to capture it. Nothing else mattered right now, this minute.
“Maria? Do you want to play a round with us?” Mom asked. Her eyes narrowed. “Is there something wrong?”
I could hear her fine, but I couldn’t make myself answer her. The light held me in its thrall.
It moved slowly across the campsite and toward the trees, toward that impossible darkness. I followed, my steps unsure. I heard Mom ask me something again, but my attention was entirely on the light and the trees.
Come home, a voice whispered in my ear. I have been waiting for you for a long, long time.
Follow me, another voice murmured. I shall guide you home.
Footsteps told me my parents were near. I couldn’t let them know what I was doing. They’d think I was not in my right mind.
Slowly, just before I reached the trees, I turned to face them. The light dimmed. Summoning a smile, I said, “Don’t worry. I just want to take a walk.”
Mom nodded, reaching out to touch me. “Just be careful, okay?”
“Don’t get lost out there,” Dad said, eyeing the trees. “Don’t be gone too long, now. We’re thinking about doing a bonfire.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be back soon.”
My parents both smiled and went back to their game. Back to Jane and normalcy.
I had the sudden realization that I was about to leave the world of normalcy, and enter the world of the lights, of the unknown.
A warmth spread through me, filling me with energy and hope.
This is where you belong.
The second I stepped into the darkness, I was transported to another forest, lit by thousands and thousands of lights. It was filled with trees with plump fruit hanging from their branches. Others bore leaves in pastel shades – mauve, light blue, and light green. Some were even silver and gold.
This was not my world.
In the center sat two ornate thrones. A woman with golden hair and a long, flowing gown sat upon one of them. She wore a simple crown; her hair flowed to the ground, sparkling and bright.
I looked down at my clothes. I’d worn shorts and a tee-shirt that, unfortunately, got dirty today while I’d played with Jane.
But…these weren’t my clothes. I was dressed in a similar gown as the woman on the throne. And I – was there a crown on my head? I felt the curves of jewels and metal work, the weight of it. And my hair…oh my God. My hair was just like the woman’s, trailing behind me as I moved toward her. It wasn’t something I was consciously aware of. My feet, which bore satin, petite slippers, moved completely on their own.
Hundreds of lights surrounded me, brushing up against my body. A little zing of current went through me at their touch.
They formed a straight line in front of me. An explosion of sparks and light revealed people with wings. They were women and men dressed in fancy clothing. It reminded me of Cinderella and the ball. Beautiful, colorful dresses and shirts, fancy hairdos, glittering jewels. Pointed ears and wings.
They went into a deep bow in front of me, their foreheads touching the vivid green grass under my feet.
My stomach twisted with anxiety. Where was I? Why was I dressed in fancy clothing and why were these people with wings bowing to me?
Me. Maria. Daughter of Alex and Corinne. Sister of Jane.
Lover of summer…
The woman turned to me, a bright smile upon her face. She glowed with golden light. “I assume you are confused, dear.” Her voice was melodic and so soothing. I relaxed a bit. “I have waited for you to return to me for many, many years.”
The anxiety came back a hundredfold, my stomach twisting itself into knots. “What? I can’t return to you if I’ve…never left.” I would’ve remembered this place and all the people. And the lights.
The woman chuckled. “You do not remember, dear, but this was your home. You were born here, but an unfortunate accident took you away from us. We have mourned your absence every year about this time, when you first disappeared. We have been calling for you.”
My eyes narrowed. Something felt wrong. “Who are you?”
The woman stood and came closer to me. She reached out with glowing hands and took mine in them, that zing stronger than ever. She felt familiar. She tipped my chin up so we were eye-to-eye. Her eyes reminded me of rubies, the red so pure and vivid.
I remembered my eyes. They were brown, but they had the thinnest edges of red.
“Dear, I am your mother. My name is Sorcha. I am the Queen of the Summer Court of Faerie.” She swept her arm outward, indicating the people still bowed. “And these are our people.” Her eyes met mine, and the world spun. “Tell them to rise. You are their Princess, my heir to the throne.”
Her voice seemed so far away. The lights blurred in front of me, a kaleidoscope of color. Voices whispered in my ears, and hands reached out to touch me.
I backed away, frantically trying to remember how I’d gotten here.
I couldn’t remember.
“Aisling, listen to me. You are home, where you belong. Our people wish to greet you and swear fealty.”
I backed up again, my insides clenching. My heart thudded so fast. Everything was floating away…
Who was Aisling?
Was she me?
Why was I here? Where were my parents?
How did I get here?
How do I get…home?
“Don’t leave us, Princess,” a male voice said. “Please don’t leave us. We need you to stay alive.”
That jolted me out of my trance. “What do you mean?”
The guy was quite handsome, with long black hair braided down his back and eyes that glistened like diamonds. “We need our sovereign here to continue to live. You bring the Summer to us and we are nourished by it.”
“How would I…do that?” I asked, mystified. I’d never heard of such things. Sure, fairy tales – oh, holy God. I was in my own fairy tale.
How did I get here?
I looked down at the others, still bowed. What did the woman – my mother? – say to do? “Um, rise. You can rise.”
They rose almost in sync, beatific looks on their faces.
“They love you,” the guy said. He turned to gesture toward them, and I noticed his very black wings. “We have been hoping for your return for so long. We have been dying. See that tree over there?” I looked where he pointed, to a tree turned white, barren of bark and leaves. It looked…sickly. “That is our tree, the one anchors us here. And it is dying. It needs you.”
I glanced back at the woman. “Why does it need me? I’m just human. And confused.” A headache throbbed behind my temples.
“Aisling, your magic can heal it. And us.”
“Please, stop – Aisling? Is that…my name?” I asked. My voice quivered, betraying my fear. I was Maria, wasn’t I? Not Aisling.
“It means ‘dream’ in Gaelic. I named you thus because you were the dream of Faerie. Its savior.” My mother – I couldn’t think of her that way – tried to embrace me, but I moved out of her reach. “Aisling, I know this is very confusing for you. But this is your destiny, and I am your mother. We are finally together again.”
The woman who claimed to be my mother reached out to touch me again, and I felt compelled to look into her fathomless, infinite gaze.
My heart lurched and my mouth went dry.
Reality fell away.