Mama Nette knew her odds of finding the fairies were better if she followed the wind. Fairies enjoyed drifting on the wind just like dandelion seeds. A stiff breeze was blowing toward the north west, so away she set from her house and from her heartbroken daughter. Night was closing in, and the air was growing colder, but that wouldn’t stop her from tracking the fairies down. She knew they were the key to finding her grandson.
She kept a brisk pace and an eye out for anything amiss; fairies liked to cause trouble. The wind’s path led out of her neighborhood and into the next until she came upon two boys poking through the shrubs in a front lawn. One boys had a baseball bat in his hand. “Excuse me. What are you doing?”
The boys spun around, eyes wide. “Sorry miss, we know Mr. Caufield doesn’t like us on his lawn, but our baseball rolled over here. We’re just trying to find it real quick, we promise!” one boy said. The other boy nodded his head rapidly in agreement. They both looked to be about seven years old.
Mama Nette walked closer to the boys, then leaned on her walking stick. The children looked up at her in trepidation. “Have either of you two seen a young boy earlier this evening? About this tall, black, one or two years older than you?” They shook their heads no. Mama Nette frowned. “Well since you helped me, I’ll help you look for your ball for a moment.”
“Oh thanks, miss. You can’t miss it. It’s bright yellow.” Mama Nette poked in the shrubs with her walking stick while the boys got on all fours and looked below. The sound of breaking glass shattered their focus.
“I think that came from next door,” Mama Nette said. The three of them jogged to the neighboring house where resting beneath a window they saw a halo of glass fragments and a bright yellow baseball resting in the midst of it.
One of the boys slapped his hands to his head in anguish.
“Not Mrs. Greenblatt’s house! She’s even worse than Mr. Caufield!”
The other boy shook his head rapidly again and said, “But we didn’t even hit it over here!”
A woman clad in a house robe and slippers exited the front door. She examined the damage to her window with her mouth agape and her face growing red in the porch light. The two boys took off like a shot down the street aided by the speed of youth and the fear of the neighborhood tyrant.
“Why those little…..HOOLIGANS!” she said yanking off one of her slippers and throwing it in the boys direction. It landed sole up just a few feet away. “This is the third window this year! Don’t they know how much of a hassle it is to replace solar panel windows?!!?”
“This looks bad, but it’s not their fault. This is the work of the fairies,” Mama Nette said.
“What? Fairies?!!? Fairies?!!?” Mrs. Greenblatt cried.
“I’m off now,” Mama Nette said. She wrapped her thick, crocheted shawl about her and marched west after the wind.
Armand tried to wiggle his fingers and feet. They wouldn’t budge. He wouldn’t have imagined being buried up to the shoulders to be so constricting. The dirt around him squeezed his legs and belly and made his clothes press up tight against him. He could move his head and neck freely and his shoulders just barely. He had stopped shouting for help a long time ago and had actively begun trying to free himself from the soil’s grip. Armand grunted and strained but in the end said something that his parents would have grounded him a month for. He’d much rather be stuck in his room for a month without technology than literally grounded in the ground like he was now. He’d wish he’d have just closed the gate like his Mama Nette had told him. He wished he’d never seen those stupid, good for nothing fairies!
After Mama Nette had gotten onto him about not closing the gate, Armand had gone back out to the garden to swing it shut. That’s when he saw a small cloud of fireflies at the entrance to the garden. They suddenly swarmed at him, and as he swatted them away from his eyes, he realized they weren’t fireflies at all! Not unless fireflies had faces and hands like people! In an instant, his long-held belief that his Mama Nette was a lunatic evaporated. Her fairy stories had been true the whole time!
The swarm of fairies hovered around him for a moment while he stared at them in shock. Then a gust of wind carried them up and around the corner of the house. A lump of fear plummeted to the pit of his stomach. Those were Mama Nette’s fairies. And they were getting away! She would never forgive him if she knew he had lost her fairies.
He had chased after their flickering lights for miles and miles, and had sweat clean through his shirt. Sometimes he thought he was close enough to snatch them up, but then the breeze would send them spiraling up and out of reach. Seeing his frustration at being so close, yet failing to catch them, the fairies laugh. It was a strange sound, like rustling leaves.
At last the wind died and Armand had managed to grab hold of one of the sprite’s delicate legs between his thumb and index finger. The other four fairies in the group swarmed at him again, kicking him and pricking him with their thorny fingers. They scratched his face and pulled his hair. Hard! He let go out of self-preservation and fell backward into a pile of pine needles. One fairy gave him a final kick to the nose which made his eyes water. The fairies then sped away on their insect-like wings, their flickering glow fading into the distance.
Armand sat up, rubbing his stinging nose and looking around him. He was in a forest, surrounded by tall, dead trees with rust colored leaves still clinging to their branches. A slight breeze blew, rattling the leaves. A spine tingling creak came from his left, and one of the woeful trees leaned toward him slowly. He rolled out of the way as it came crashing to the ground. His breath came fast as his mind tried to put together his whereabouts and the possibility of other trees falling on him. He had lost the fairies for good this time and he had no idea how to get back home. His mom AND Mama Nette were going to be so ticked off at him.
An eerie sound came from behind him then, of something sliding through the leaves on the ground. Armand froze, hoping whatever it was wouldn’t notice him and slither on by. The noise stopped as a tangle of roots came together at the side of the fallen tree. The roots explored the tree, touching the length of its barky surface before contracting and changing shape into the figure of a woman. Armand gave a tiny gasp at the unexpected change and the woman turned toward him. One sad eye rolled in one half of a wrinkled and withered face. It was the tree woman from Ju-Long’s viral Skytrain video!
Terrified, he scurried backward, but found himself with his back against a tree. The tree woman extended her arm and it grew toward him, wrapping like a vine around his torso. She lifted him up and drew him close, studying him thoughtfully. Armand screamed into the woman’s face, but she appeared unaffected. He shouted for help and tried to kick out, yet the tree woman’s grip held firm.
Vines extended from her open ribcage and plunged into the ground, digging up dirt. When she was finished, there was a large hole into which she plopped Armand and held him in place. She filled in the empty areas around him with unearthed soil. Finally, the woman transformed back into a ball of roots and slithered away into the forest.
Armand had shouted for help until the sun sank below the tree line, and he realized it was no use. No one knew where he was. He didn’t even know where he was! Now, the light was almost gone, and there was no warmth in the cold, damp soil. He was exhausted and hungry and alone. He let his head droop and bit his trembling lip.
From the trees at his right side, rhythmic steps sounded. He couldn’t see what was making the noise in the fading light. All of a sudden, something had ahold of his shoulder. Armand screamed.
With aching knees, Mama Nette had followed a trail of minor destruction and people lamenting their lost keys until she reached the unoccupied ranger station. She stalked the fairy glow around to the back of the log cabin where she found a small group of fairies attempting to spark a pile of dried leaves on the adjoining deck. “Stop this here,” she hollered as she stamped out any embers she could find. The fairies flew at her face and threatened her with sprigs of speargrass.
“What’s this now?!!?” Mama Nette said taken aback, for these were not her garden fairies. She didn’t recognize any of them. Their features were hard and weedy, and they had an air of wildness about them as if they hadn’t seen a human for centuries. These were forest fairies.
“What are you doing out here?” Mama Nette demanded of them. That was all the provocation the forest fairies needed. They began stabbing her with the speargrass, biting and needling any exposed skin they could find with their prickly fingers. Mama Nette dropped her walking stick and waved her hands about her to shoo them away, but they kept up their onslaught. She was desperately snuffing out a spark on the tail of her braids, when she heard pebbles hitting the deck around her. The forest fairies were being driven back. Another light whizzed about Mama Nette as the forest fairies retreated. It was Ginger, one of her most potent garden fairies, and boy was she in a spicy mood. The leader of the forest fairies turned her back and zipped away toward town followed closely by the others. That was not good news for Newburg, but Mama Nette had bigger things to worry about.
“Ginger, what happened to Armand? Have you seen my grandson?” she asked the fairy as she straightened out her clothing that had been pulled in the fairy fight. Ginger pointed to the forest urgently, waving for Mama Nette to follow her there. “Is Armand in the forest?” she asked. Ginger answered by grasping a few braids and pulling her bodily toward the trees. Finally, assenting to the fairy’s insistence, Mama Nette said, “Alright, I’m going!” Ginger picked up Mama Nette’s walking stick with ease and set it in her right hand. “Let’s go get him.”
Mama Nette followed Ginger’s pulsing glow into the deepening darkness of the forest. Her knees felt like they were about to groan their last, when she spotted a different light up ahead. Unlike the warm glow the fairies gave off, this was a bright bold light, almost like daylight. Ginger sped up her flight through the trees, and Mama Nette hurried after her. The light grew brighter and brighter yet without any discernable source. Ginger came to a sudden stop and Mama Nette skidded on her heels to avoid a collision. She looked down to find her toes hanging over the edge of a pit surrounded by powerful construction lights mounted on pedestals. A man in cargo pants and a plaid flannel shirt stood in the middle of the pit, shovel in hand and stared up at her in surprise.
Mama Nette brandished her walking stick like a baseball bat and looked around frantically. “Where is Armand?! What have you done with him!?”
The man dropped the shovel and held his hands up defensively. “Hey, hang on there. I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about, but I hope we can both calm down a little.” Mama Nette didn’t drop her walking stick, but she did wait for an explanation. “I’m Eric Jimenez. I’m a botanist. I’m trying to get to the bottom of the forest related incidents in Newburg. On top of all the recent…um…plant attacks, the tree die off is increasing.”
Mama Nette withdrew her walking stick and looked to Ginger whose warm glow was becoming white hot in her agitation. Ginger signaled rapidly in a full body sign language that Mama Nette had become fluent in over the long years that this man was hacking and digging at the ground. Clearly he was to blame for the forest being in the current state. She added that Mama Nette should beat him to a pulp with her walking stick. Mama Nette shook her head no and then asked, “What is that smell?! Ugh.”
“I just put on a fresh coat of bug spray. You should too. The mosquitos here seem to be the size of birds! And they hurt when they bite!” Eric said reaching for a metal can at his feet.
Mama Nette wrinkled her face in disgust. “You use those nasty chemicals?!!?”
“Hey, me getting malaria isn’t going to help the forest. Those roots still haven’t receded from Mercury Street, and people are hacking at them despite my objections. I have to figure this out now.”
Mama Nette glanced around the pit, her eyes having adjusted to the bright lights. Eric had a shovel, a can of bug spray, a canteen, and a small rucksack. Large tree roots were sprawled along the bottom of the hole. She counted three fairy halos, blinking in and out like fire flies around the pit. Ginger, Bissy, and Nettle. Cassia and Aniseed were nowhere to be seen.
“Where are the others?” Mama Nette asked Ginger. The three sprites gathered and together used a vigorous pantomime to communicate that the forest fairies, unable to strike down Eric, had turned their attention on the town instead. Bissy and Nettle had stayed to keep an eye on Eric, while Cassia and Aniseed pursued the forest fairies. Ginger had flown to find Mama Nette for help.
“But where is my Armand?!!?” Mama Nette cried in despair. The three fairies simply shook their heads.
“Are, are you talking to me?” Eric asked, confused.
“No!” Mama Nette spat. “I’m talking to the fairies.”
“Fairies. Hmm. Just when I thought nothing about this place could shock me anymore.” Eric glanced around, trying to see any evidence of fae folk.
“My grandson has disappeared, and I thought one of my garden fairies was leading me to him. But she led me to you!” Mama Nette kicked a rock with her boot. Then she had a sudden thought. “Maybe he’s made it back home by now.” She tried to turn on her com-ring to call Louisa, but couldn’t get a Li-Fi signal.
“There aren’t any Visual Light Communicator towers around here,” Eric said sympathetically. “I’m sorry to hear about your grandson. I hope he is back at home now. I haven’t seen anyone out here. But I think I’ve found something. Something big. And I have no idea how to fix it.”
“What is it? Maybe we can help, if you wipe that foul spray off. It’s why the fairies couldn’t get at you.”
“Oh? Should...should I leave it on then?” Eric looked around him uneasily.
“Do you want our help or not?” Mama Nette snapped at him, trying to hold back tears.
Eric removed his outer flannel shirt, turning it inside out and tying it around his waist. He used his canteen to wet a bandana from his rucksack and wiped the remaining bug spray from his skin. With his help, Mama Nette climbed down into the pit, the rim of which came up to her head.
“I’m Eric Jimenez, by the way.”
Mama Nette offered a dirty hand to Eric, “Annette Treme. People around here call me Mama Nette.”
“See here, um..Mama Nette?” Eric pointed to a layer about a foot below ground level. “The mycelium just stops.”
“The what now?”
“It’s the fungal mass that runs under the soil and connects to every plant in the forest. It forms delicate fibers that spread out like spider webs. But see here, its growing back in on itself. It doesn’t make any sense.” Mama Nette nodded. The fairies hovered around where Eric was pointing and pulled curiously at some of the fibrous mycelium, stretching it out between them. Eric gave a concerned side-long glance at the web like strands, dancing in mid-air, but continued. “And, hiking around the forest in the day time, I’ve noticed that while most of the trees are quite tall, there are no giant trees that stand above the rest. We call them mother trees and every forest has them. Except this one doesn’t. Mother trees are incredibly important to a forest because they pass on learned information to the surrounding environment.”
The fairies, having grown bored with the mycelium, had begun to rummage through Eric’s rucksack. Finding nothing of interest there, all three of them picked up Eric’s shovel and spun it slowly in the air behind his head. Mama Nette watched them out of the corner of her eye.
Eric gestured to the ground beneath their feet. “Digging here I found these enormous roots that seemed a promising indication for a mother Tree, but when I dug along them to find their source, they all pulled loose from the soil. The ends look they’ve been sawn off. These roots are dead, and I can’t dig any further for some reason. The soil is rock hard.” Eric then winced and ducked as Mama Nette thrust her arm up behind his head to catch the swinging shovel before it hit him.
She gave him a quick, apologetic smile. “Fairies. They’re like children when they’re bored. I can tell you right now why you can dig no further. You’re at the Edge Line.”
“Edge Line? I thought that was in Lower Newburg.” Eric said as he snatched the can of bug spray from the ground and clasped it to his chest.
“Not many people know it stretches all the way up here too. If it was light out, it would look like there was more forest beyond here, but you can’t get there. Its dark now, but you get up there and walk west. I’ll bet you walk right back to these lights.”
Eric shrugged and dropped the can of bug spray to the ground again. He climbed out of the pit and walked away from Mama Nette who peered over the edge. She couldn’t see past the lights in the darkness, but after a few steps, Eric nearly tumbled back into the hole. Mama Nette held up her walking stick to stop his fall, but it was the fairies who held him upright.
“Whoa. Whoa! I came right back out! That’s insane!” Eric said, as he crouched down to hop back into the pit.
“The Edge Line goes up to Mount Farther as well. People can climb the mountain, but no one knows what’s on the other side because they end up coming back the way they came.” Mama Nette said as she watched the three fairies lift Eric’s can of bug spray from the ground.
“It’s the dark areas of the map!” Eric declared to a baffled Mama Nette. Eric explained. “When I first arrived, the Watchers showed me a globe of Newburg, but there were blank areas on it. At the time, I thought they were places that hadn’t been explored yet, but now I see we just can’t go over there,” he said, staring into the darkness with bewildered fascination.
“Or there is nothing over there,” Mama Nette said ominously.
There was a squeak and a quick snapping sound from the ground inside the pit.
“Hey! The nozzle broke on my bug repellant. Was that-did the fairies do that?!!?” Eric asked incredulously.
Mama Nette gave him a look that said maybe she knew, but she’d never tell. And then a new sound moved through the forest. The sound of something large sliding among the leaves, groaning and creaking as it traveled. Eric pivoted one of the construction lights toward the noise to see massive roots gliding around and past the tree trunks headed north. Some of the roots looked like they had been cut into. Some carried chunks of cobblestones along with them.
“I think these are the roots that invaded Mercury Street,” Eric said. “They’re retreating.”
“To where?” Mama Nette asked.
“I have no idea. Let’s follow,” Eric threw his ruck sack around his shoulders and climbed up the pit wall. Mama Nette considered her options. She wouldn’t find Armand by staying in this hole in the ground. Having also watched her three mischievous fairies whiz away after the roots already, Mama Nette agreed to follow the roots and took Eric’s helping hand as she scrambled out of the pit.