“The Good Ones Grow With You”
by Katie Harrs
The children of Myrtle Avenue believed that Miriam Merthyr was a witch. Sometimes she caught them watching her with wide eyes through the gaps in the fence. They hurried when they passed her house on the way to school, even crossing to the other side of the street. That she didn’t mind; it kept them out of her garden. She did, however, mind hearing the stories the children told each other around campfires and the ditties they sang while jumping rope. She had, on more than one occasion, seen them playing a game next door in which that horrible little Danny child played ‘Miriam the Witch’ by chasing and attempting to eat the others.
It wasn’t that Miriam was offended by the insinuation. She had known some very pleasant witches in her time, though it had been a century since she’d encountered one. The rumor was merely inaccurate. Miriam Merthyr was not a witch.
“Where do they get these ideas?” She asked the purple clematis that curled onto her front porch. “I have never cast a spell in my life!”
The clematis nodded in sympathy.
Miriam couldn’t entirely blame the children for the rumor. With her wispy, disheveled hair and age-gnarled hands she supposed she looked the part. Her house was not in the best shape either. The paint was chipping and the shutters hung slant-ways where the hinges had given up, but it wasn’t as if she could just fly up and fix them. She absentmindedly stroked the place on her shoulder from which her wings had sprouted – before the factories had begun to belch smoke and ash into the air, before the rest of the Fair Folk had retreated to the Other Realm and locked the gate behind them. She alone chose the world, and her wings faded.
“Children these days wouldn’t recognize a fairy if she flew over their heads.” The clematis shrugged, and the white rose beside it shook its buds lazily. She smiled for a moment, admiring the myriad buds: hundreds of potential flowers tightly coiled with possibility. Then she sighed. Not that I’m much of a fairy anymore, she thought, and shuffled down the porch steps to her garden.
Miriam watered flowers, pruned shrubs, and pulled weeds for most of the morning. She did not love pulling out the hawkweed or the ragwort that grew voluntarily among the other flowers, but she knew that if left to their own devices, the weeds would take over her entire garden.
As the late spring sun climbed higher in the sky, she stopped to rest, leaning on the ancient hawthorn at the front of her garden. It had sprouted in this spot on the day she was born, and she had taken care of it her entire life. A pair of small brown birds fluttered in the branches, twittering excitedly. She wondered where their nest was.
It’s in the highest branch, the tree said. Don’t worry; they will be safe.
Miriam shook her head. But you won’t. She ran a hand along the rough bark of the eight hundred year old tree, pausing over a knot in the trunk where a branch had broken years before. The injury had healed over time, scar tissue filling in the wound and knotting out in smooth ridges. She had failed to protect her tree then, and she was failing now. She pictured workers coming in to cut away the roadside bough, their chainsaws roaring through the sturdy flesh, severed branches devoured by the wood chipper. Miriam shuddered; it would happen within the week, and there was no way she could stop it.
The elderly fairy’s reverie was disturbed by a knock at the gate. Her neighbor, Mr. Withers, was waiting impatiently, tapping his food and glancing at the sleek silver watch on his wrist. The slender, rat-like man held a briefcase in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. His abominable child stood a step behind him, tugging at his sleeve. Mr. Withers pulled his arm away sharply, sloshing the coffee, and flashed a shark-toothed smile.
“Excuse me, Mrs… er, Ms. Merthyr?” Mr. Withers scanned her garden with predatory eyes.
“Miriam is fine,” she said. They had been neighbors for four years.
“Ms. Merthyr, I’ve got to run to the Town Hall for a council meeting and my babysitter called in sick. Could you watch Danny for me? It would only be for a couple of hours.”
Oh good lord no. She stared at him blankly. Was he serious?
Mr. Withers took her silence as consent.
“Thanks! This road-widening business is really becoming a hassle. We’ve got petitions for and against it, and construction is supposed to start in a few days.” He wiped his forehead on a sleeve, splashing more coffee onto the sidewalk. “Well, I’ll see you around two. Behave, Danny.”
He left her garden, abandoning Danny by the gate. Miriam curled her lip at the chubby seven year old. He was a round faced, freckled child, with disheveled hair, sticky fingers, and a constantly running nose. She watched the child warily. He stared back, his bright eyes expectant.
Be nice, the hawthorn reminded her. Miriam furrowed her brow.
I’m always nice.
Danny broke first. “I get to ride the school bus next year,” he announced as if it were an accomplishment.
Danny shriveled and looked away. As the silence dragged on, he began to fidget, stubbing his toe into the ground and wiping a sleeve across his nose. Finally, he looked back at her. “Can I go play now?”
“No one is stopping you.” She watched as the menace shyly wandered up the path that looped through her garden. She continued to monitor his progress until he shuffled to the edge and squatted to terrorize an anthill.
Satisfied that none of her plants were in immediate peril, Miriam turned back to the flowerbeds. Her daffodils were fading, their petals paper thin, crinkling into nothing. Their long fronds were tipped with brown. She was always sad to see them go, but that only meant it was time for the next round of blooms.
“Take that, Goblin King!” Danny brandished a stick as if it were a sword. With a cry of triumph he leapt forward and attacked the lilac bush once more.
Miriam gasped. “Danny! Curb your destructive tendencies!” She ripped the stick out of his hand and threw it down. Danny stared at her, openmouthed.
“Stop mauling my shrubbery.” The fairy eyed him coldly.
Danny’s eyes went wide. “I didn’t!” He cried. “I really didn’t do anything!”
What? She had seen him; he had hit the tree right in front of her. Flustered, she threw up her hands. “Just don’t do it again!” Humans. Miriam wondered if the Fair Folk had been right.
As if to confirm it, Danny swerved from the path to stomp on a patch of mushrooms, squashing them into the dirt. Miriam pursed her lips but allowed it and resumed weeding.
A loud crack split the air. “What was that?” Danny asked, swiveling around. He was sitting on the path, braiding pieces of grass and munching on Turkish delights. They had established some ground rules: Danny was not allowed in the flowerbeds, he was not allowed to pick flowers or touch any plants without permission, and he would get a snack every half hour. Miriam leapt to her feet and strode to the side of the house, her bare soles slapping the flagstones, the boy trailing after. There on the path, a crumpled heap of feathers lay mournfully still. Danny immediately squatted down and began to poke it. “I think it’s alive!”
Miriam shooed the boy aside, then gently scooped up the bird and cradled it in her hands. She could feel its heart fluttering against her fingers. The bird – a wren – began to stir, fluttering one wing weakly.
“You poor little idiot. Why would you fly into the window?” She murmured.
“Is he going to be okay?” Danny stood on his tiptoes and pulled at her wrists to get a look. The wren attempted to sit up and merely flopped forward onto its chest. Its legs were disconcertingly still, and its right wing was mangled. “Can you fix him, Miss Miriam?”
“I don’t know, Danny.” She wondered if it would be best to put the bird out of its misery. There was a time when Miriam could have laid a hand on the tiny broken animal and given it the strength to heal but no longer.
“You have to try.” His brown eyes were wide, wet, and pleading. He ran a sleeve across his dripping nose. “Please.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent on the porch. Miriam brought the supplies outside, and Danny painstakingly set up the perfect box. He lined it with a wadded up towel, pressed into the shape of a nest. Miriam found him a small teacup and saucer to use as a water bowl and plate, and these Danny snuggled down into the towel (“so they don’t spill”). Miriam set the bird inside, warned Danny not to touch him (“He’s a wild bird, and he will get scared”), and got back to her chores. Every so often she looked up to see Danny still hunched over the box whispering encouragement.
At two o’clock sharp, Mr. Withers returned for his son. Danny grabbed the handful of wildflowers Miriam had allowed him to take and ran to his father’s side.
“Look! Look!” He bounced on his toes, shaking the colorful bundle. “Aren’t they pretty?”
Mr. Withers’ lip curled. He brushed Danny aside and shook Miriam’s hand. “Thank you again for the help. We’ve finally got this whole road business straightened out.”
“So they are going through with it?”
“Of course! It’s for the best you know.” He smiled in that predatory grin. “We’ll be able to increase traffic and fit larger buses and trucks. It will do wonders for Holyhead’s economy.”
Miriam nodded curtly and looked back at her tree. I’m sorry.
It’s not your fault. The tree replied. Everything will be okay.
Mr. Withers clamped Danny’s shoulder and steered him from the garden. As they passed the gate, Miriam saw him reach out and knock the flowers out of the child’s hand.
The next morning, the sky sagged under a burden of clouds ripe with the threat of rain. The air was thick and still, and Miriam’s bones ached as she bent over her bushes. She followed the swath of destruction Danny had cut through her garden, straightening what she could. Tenderly she lifted a stem that had fallen victim to the boy’s marauding boots. The bruised petals were velvet beneath her fingers, their color deep and vibrant as blood. The crumpled bud had been on the verge of opening. Miriam threw it in her compost heap and continued picking up the casualties.
She had just finished and was settling down into the chair on her porch when the perpetrator returned. Danny had climbed the fence that separated their gardens and was running across her flowerbeds, trampling the blue bells and nearly tripping over the Virginia creeper.
“Stick to the paths!” Miriam scolded the seven-year-old. She wondered who was supposed to be watching him and briefly considered building a higher fence.
“Yes Miss Miriam!”
“Don’t you have school work to do?” Miriam asked, and she stood, wincing at a pang in her back.
“Dylan from the college rugby team came over, so Miss Gwen said I should play outside,” Danny explained. His tongue and teeth flashed blue as he spoke from some artificially colored candy. “Where is the birdie?”
Resigning herself, Miriam beckoned for him to follow her inside. As she held the door open, she noticed for the first time the unkempt state of her house. The front hall was cluttered with empty flowerpots; stacks of unread newspapers; and boxes of gloves, trowels, and seed packets. Dust motes swirled and eddied in the draft, illuminated by a beam of light from the open door. Danny picked his way through the boxes to peer through each doorway.
“He’s in the kitchen.” She indicated the door and ushered Danny through. The kitchen was no cleaner than the hall. Half of the counter tops were covered in various sized planters and garden labels. Potting soil dusted the floors and sat in piles on the counter where she had spilled it. Delicate cobwebs adorned the small chandelier and crowded in the corner. Miriam glanced at Danny, who seemed to merely be taking everything in, with shoulders hunched and hands shoved deep in his pockets.
“Here he is.” She picked up the shoebox from the counter to show the boy and stopped short. “Oh dear…” The bird lay perfectly still, eyes closed, feathers slightly disheveled. She knew immediately that it would be cold and stiff beneath her touch. “I’m sorry, Danny.”
He gaped at her, eyes bugging slightly. “Why, what do you mean? He’s okay, right?” Danny peered into the box and gulped. “You are going to be okay, little birdie,” he whispered. Stretching out a finger, he gently stroked the dead wren.
“He’s gone,” Miriam spoke as gently as she knew how.
The child’s eyes began to mist over, and he rubbed them with impatient fists. “Can we have a funeral?”
She nodded, and he marched out of the house. Miriam watched, stomach knotting, as Danny began to hunt around the garden for the perfect resting place. “Perhaps…” She trailed off. She thought it might be insensitive to suggest burying the bird in the compost heap.
“Ah! Here, these are good flowers,” Danny indicated the bed of lilies. Miriam gritted her teeth. She tried to propose the empty space of dirt under the holly bushes, but Danny was insistent. “These are perfect; these are funeral flowers. They always have these.”
Miriam pursed her lips but allowed it. Danny began to dig, scooping out the earth with his bare hands, throwing clumps of dirt about haphazardly. Miriam’s heart plummeted when he ripped the largest of the flowers out by the stalks to make space for the widening hole.
“I think that’s quite enough; we don’t need to put the box in, too.”
Danny blanched. “He needs a coffin!”
Miriam met his accusatory glare with softness. “It’s better this way. He won’t mind the dirt. He’ll get to feed the worms and the beetles and help the flowers grow.”
Danny sniveled and bobbed his head rapidly as Miriam laid the tiny body in the grave. She piled earth over the wren’s crumpled form and set the lilies that had been uprooted on top of the heap. Danny began to blubber, fat tears rolling down his face. He screwed his fists into his eyes and turned away.
Miriam stared. She bit her lip and shifted her weight. “It’s okay,” she said, attempting to pat Danny on the back in what she thought might be a comforting manner.
“Don’t look at me.” He shrugged her hand off and hunched his shoulders against her. Miriam was at a loss. What in the Mortal Realm was she supposed to do with a crying child? Digging in her pockets, she came up with a small handful of seeds and an idea.
“Look, Danny, we can give him a Fairy burial.” She began pushing the seeds into the ground. “Will you help me?”
Danny sniveled, wiped the snot on his sleeve, and turned around. Miriam offered him the seeds, and he pushed one half-heartedly into the ground.
“This is how Fairies bury the dead. This way, one life has ended, but a new life will start. The flowers will take their nourishment from the bird; it’s as if a part of him lives on in them.” Danny didn’t reply but he smeared his arm over his face again and began planting the seeds with vigor. When they were done he sat back and studied the little mound.
“My dad says fairy stories are for babies.” His face was blotchy and red, and his eyes still watered. “Mum used to tell me about the fairies, but I’m too old for them now.”
Miriam raised her eyebrow. “That’s ludicrous. You don’t outgrow stories, Danny. The good ones grow with you.” Danny squinted at her, not comprehending. She sighed. “How about a snack?”
The workers came at eight o’clock in the morning. They pulled into Miriam’s driveway in a rattling, kelly-green truck with the name “Cedric and Sons Gardeners” emblazoned on the doors above a cartoon rose. They dared to call themselves gardeners. Defilers, she thought, shuffling barefoot onto the porch. The truck doors slammed with a sharp clang, the noise slicing through the crisp morning air, startling several birds into flight. They fluttered and wheeled, twittering in alarm before settling back to their roosts. Miriam watched a lone female wren return to a branch in the hawthorn tree, still fluffed up warily.
The workers trod across her garden and dumped their tools in the flowerbeds at the foot of the tree.
“My lilies!” Miriam marched down the path from her porch to tap the man that appeared to be Cedric on the shoulder. She drew herself up to her full terrifying height of five foot one. “You may be paid by the town to vandalize my tree, but you do not need to damage the garden more than absolutely necessary.”
“Apologies, mum,” Cedric said, tipping his felt hat. He rubbed an unshaven cheek with the heel of his hand. “We won’t damage your garden at all, mum.”
As soon as he had finished speaking, he turned and directed one of his sons to set down the chainsaw directly on top of a patch of crocuses.
“Goodness gracious, you hooligans!” Miriam stepped around the gardener to pick up the chainsaw and set it down on the flagstones. “Was that so difficult?”
“Mum, I’m going to have to ask you not to touch the equipment.” Cedric attempted and failed to sound respectful. “These saws can be pretty dangerous.”
“Yes, I know. You’re about to use them to mutilate my 800 year old tree.”
Cedric rubbed his face again and ignored her.
The men asked to plug the saws in, but Miriam told them she didn’t have working outlets anywhere in her house. When they tried to measure the girth of the bough that hung over the road, the tape measure went missing and they had to return to the truck to get another. It turned up later half-buried under the ivy. Miriam was underfoot everywhere they turned, tripping them up and slowing them down. Eventually, however, she could no longer delay the inevitable. The saws were plugged in to a chain of extension cords reaching to the Withers’ front porch. Traitors, Miriam thought. Typical.
Cedric lifted the saw and touched the spinning blades to the branch. The whir deepened to a roar with the resistance. The tree began to scream. Miriam pressed her hands to her ears but could still hear the cries of the cracking, splitting wood, and beneath that a moan as deep as the earth itself. The pain was so great Miriam could feel it reverberate through the ground in waves of anguish as every twig, leaf, and root cried out.
Unable to bear it, she fled the garden. Cowering in her kitchen, Miriam felt the saw cutting through her own limbs. When there were only a couple of inches to go, they stopped the saw. One of the men gave a tug on the branch, and it fell, the wood splintering sending slivers into Miriam’s heart. The branch tumbled to the ground and the fairy fell with it.
Miriam remained in her kitchen for hours after the men had left. Orange beams of sunlight slanted through the window, dust motes glittering gold in its path. She rose shakily and steadied herself on the counter. She hesitated at the front door, certain of what she would find in the garden.
It was worse than she’d feared. Tire tracks and boot prints cut through her flowerbeds, and the crushed stems lay scattered across the drive. The soft earth beneath the hawthorn had been trampled flat by the men’s heavy boots and was strewn with cigarette butts and wooden splinters. Miriam forced herself to look up. The wound was raw and oozing. She reached out with trembling fingers to brush it gently, and jumped at the shock of pain.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
Miriam fled the cold blanket of dusk that was falling over the garden. She sat in her darkened kitchen, cradling a cup of tea and trying to stop shaking. Voices filtered through the open window, youthful shrieks and laughter from next door. She was working up the motivation to get up and close the window when she heard her own name.
“You’re making that up,” a nasal voice said.
“No, it’s for real!” Miriam recognized Danny’s shrill tones and peered out into the dark. A small tent sat in the middle of the Withers’ lawn. It glowed from within by the light of a Coleman lantern swinging from the apex.
“I’ve seen her riding her broom at night!” Danny insisted. Not this again. Miriam was really not in the mood.
“Yeah, right. Witches aren’t real,” the nasal voice was having none of it.
“No, I’ve seen her too!” A third voice jumped in. “On full moons, and I’ve heard her shouting curses!”
This was ludicrous. She was sure even the children didn’t believe themselves.
“Well I’ve been inside her house!” Danny proclaimed, silencing the third. “It’s all dark and dusty, and there are cobwebs everywhere, and she’s got a big cauldron in the middle of her kitchen, and there are jars of dead frogs and eyeballs and birds!”
This was too much. Miriam covered her ears to stop the chatter, but their tiny, shrill voices cut through her skull. She groaned, and her garden shivered as if in a breeze. Enough, she thought. Miriam marched out the door and down her porch.
“You want a witch?” She muttered, “I’ll give you a witch.” She closed her eyes and placed her hands in the soil. Please, she asked of the garden, do this for me. The ivy began to unravel from her fence. It crawled along the ground towards the tent. She laughed, throwing her head back in a harsh cackle, and shouted, “I’ll give you a witch!”
The tent unzipped and three small heads peeked out of the door. They looked around in confusion, not yet noticing the tendrils creeping along the ground in the fading light. Miriam suddenly lifted her arms above her head, and the ivy reared, swaying six feet into the air. The boys screamed and stumbled out of the tent, running for the house. She sent the ivy flying after them, allowing it to just brush the backs of their necks and ankles before pulling it back. They yelped in fear and shoved each other to reach the house first. She laughed and laughed, sinking to her knees, until her laughter turned to sobs.
Miriam opened her eyes. She had fallen asleep in the garden. The sky was growing light in anticipation of the dawn. Miriam shook the dirt from her skirt and pressed cool hands to her face.
Her garden was a disgrace. The ivy had draped itself back over the fence in a tattered veil. Its leaves were torn; its tendrils blackened and shriveled from last night’s exertion. A ring of toadstools had sprung up around her at some point in the night. And the hawthorn… Miriam crossed the garden to check up on her aged tree. The wound was still sticky, oozing sap, but now the edges were crusting over, and something that looked suspiciously like rot was accumulating along one side.
Miriam pressed a hand to the tree. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said. She wanted to go back. She wanted it more than anything, but the Gates were sealed. The Other Realm was closed to her. Miriam closed her eyes against the growing light in the east. There were other ways to cross over; there had to be. It was just a matter of figuring out how. Even if she couldn’t return to the Other Realm, there were ways to be free. I am human enough to age, she mused. Perhaps I am human enough to die.
“Hullo, Miss Miriam,” a hesitant, high-pitched voice cut the still morning air. Danny peered hesitantly around the front fence. Miriam ignored him, shutting her eyes again and turning back to the tree. “I-I…” Daunted by her aggressive silence, he fumbled for the right words before blurting, “I know you aren’t a witch.”
Miriam grunted without looking up. Danny continued shakily, almost in a whisper, “Witches don’t have wings.”
Miriam started, momentarily forgetting her anger. “Pardon?” Wings? But they had faded years ago. Even she couldn’t see them anymore.
“Witches need brooms to fly, but you have wings.” Danny was rambling. “So you can’t be a witch because…”
“You can see my wings?” It was a hope-filled breath, nothing more.
He nodded mutely.
Maybe I’m not as human as I had thought. Miriam turned to look over her shoulder. Her heart fluttered in her throat, making it difficult to swallow.
There was nothing there. “Are you sure?”
She turned in a half circle, trying to catch the hazy morning light at the perfect angle. She flexed her shoulders and – there! A glimmer of iridescence. Miriam gasped, but it was only an instant. “How long have you been able to see them?”
The child shrugged. “I dunno.” He tilted his head. “Why can’t anyone else see them? I asked my dad once; he told me not to make up stories. The other kids called me a liar.”
Miriam didn’t answer. The first rays of pink light crept over the hills, the rosy glow hit her back, and she saw them: her wings. Not particularly bright, somewhat dingy and creased at the corners, but there.
Danny cocked his head and blinked at her. “Maybe if you didn’t sit in chairs with backs, they wouldn’t be so fade-y. They probably get squished.”
Miriam laughed, “They are beautiful!” She spun in a circle, admiring the way her wings glistened in the dawn glow. Danny clapped as she danced, twirled, and leapt across the garden. As she moved she felt her wings grow stronger, brighter. She stopped at the fence and looked at her hands. If she still had wings… Miriam reached out a hand and touched the tattered ivy. She felt the spark of life, the rush, and watched as the leaves knit together and the vines curled more tightly around the beams.
“My tree is going to be fine!” She sang, taking Danny by the hands and twirling him around. “I can fix him!”
Her joy was infectious; Danny was glowing with it. “Can you fly?” he asked, giggling. “Can you?”
Miriam looked up at her house and smiled. Flexing her wings, she leapt into the air and flew up to straighten the shutters.
Katie Harrs is a student at Colgate University.