Human Child, Thistledown had called him, when her fairy hand wrapped around his chubby fingers and led him to this place so many seasons ago. But Human Child took too long to say when there were games to be played, dragonflies to dance with in the waterfall’s spray, or frogs with whom to sing. He had a new name now–Child–and she was calling to him.
Child rose with a groan, knees aching, breath unquiet, and hobbled toward the shore.
Thistledown capered by the water’s edge. “The skimmers are racing!” She laughed her sparrow-trill and cheered on the insects flitting over the ripples, then flew up and wrapped her arm around Child’s swollen-knuckled thumb. “Who’ll win this time, do you think?”
Child smiled wearily. “Whichever pleases you.”
Her voice had woken him from fractured dreams. A warm, sweet smell he couldn’t name, but made his mouth water. A tuneless voice, somehow more pleasing than the wren’s, rising and falling like waves against the shore.
Thistledown frowned. “Your eyes are far away. Shall I fetch you some berries?”
He shook his head. Empty pressure throbbed deep within his breast. “Do you ever feel there’s something important you’ve forgotten?”
“Forgotten? If I’ve forgotten something, it was never important enough to remember. I have you.” She leaned her golden head against his palm. “Why would I ever need more?”
Child woke to a sky filled with dewdrop stars, glinting moonlight over the copse where he slept. Thistledown nestled beneath his chin, his white beard serving as her bedspread.
His heart raced, a thin flutter. In the distance the tuneless voice was singing again. He knew that voice in the depth of his marrow, but could give it no name. No meaning beyond a longing so intense it curled his knees to his chest and drew tears he’d long-since forgotten how to shed.
Thistledown stirred and touched the salty trail that slid down his face. “Child?”
“The song. It hurts.”
Thistledown clambered free. “You need more berries. It’s been too long.”
The memory of those red-ripe fruits burst over Child’s tongue, accompanied by a cotton-wool haze spreading through his head. How many times had he tasted of them? How many times had he fallen under their spell?
Before Thistledown could fly away to the hidden place where he couldn’t follow, Child clutched her hand. “No berries.”
She knelt at his shoulder, smoothing away the wetness from his skin. “But you’re weeping.”
“Is that what this is called? I think I’ve done this before, a long time ago.”
“You were weeping when I found you, Child. Humans hold so much pain until it breaches the banks of their eyes and floods the world. It’s why I brought you to this place where there is only joy. Please, let me bring you peace.”
But with every weary sob, the tears washed away the last of the berry-haze that Child had never before thought to notice. In its place the phantom voice rang clearer. Words took form. A song to ease a babe to slumber. A voice that stretched back through time until Child’s fingers were chubby once again, his steps awkward, not with pain and exhaustion, but with the clumsiness of toddlerhood.
“Mama.” The word slipped from his lips, pregnant with longing.
His feet remembered. Rounded pebbles. Pine needles, spiky-sharp. A path circling up and up, beyond the falls and the shrouding mist to where fragrant smoke rose from a leaning cottage’s chimney.
“Child, please.” Thistledown’s voice trembled like a reed in the wind.
He released her hand.
A watery smile spread over her face. “I won’t be long.”
He knew she wouldn’t. In the stillness she left behind, Child stumbled to his feet.
The song’s call led him from the waterfall hollow. Up the now overgrown path as fast as his bent body would go. Up through the mists, his chest clutching each shallow gasp of air. The memories grew clearer with each painful breath.
Just a little farther and he’d see her again. Eyes the color of rich honey. Hair that smelled of warm, milky oatmeal. Arms spread wide in welcome.
He paused in the last remnants of mist at the verge of the open lea.
Stark moonlight illuminated the cottage’s bones. The chimney lay in a spray of toppled stone beside the rotted timbers.
No smoke. No light. No life.
Child fell to his knees, air wheezing in his constricted lungs.
A soft touch drew his gaze to his crabbed hands. Thistledown hovered there, satchel bountiful with berries. She fluttered to his shoulder and silently proffered a ruby orb. One taste and the emptiness would fade, this lifeless place nothing more than a curiosity for however few breaths he had left to spend.
But he was so tired, and the song ringing over the lea had sung him to sleep so many times, wrapped safe in Mama’s strong arms.
Thistledown’s wings drooped, her shoulders quaking. “You’re leaving me?”
Child gently scooped her from his shoulder with fingers gone numb and set her on the mossy ground. Tears slid heedlessly down her face. “It hurts so much, Child. Is this what it is to be human?”
“It will be all right.” Child curled himself down beside her. “Taste of your berries. You won’t remember me.”
She slipped beneath his long beard, her little body the last spark of warmth against his heart. Mama’s voice sang louder, drowning out the breeze and the sound of Thistledown’s tears. The smell of oatmeal filled Child’s last shallow breaths.
He closed his eyes, a faint smile on his lips
It was time to sleep.