THOSE WHO WANDER
A worker in a medieval peasant costume was tying off the rope to the entrance of the Mermaid Tank exhibit, while a little girl cried and turned red in the face, pointing at the man with a slobbery fist like she was trying to make him vanish on command and let her in. The attraction was the newest at the Renaissance Festival, and had to close frequently while the women changed shifts and the tank was cleaned out and refilled. The exhausted mother was rocking the child, who couldn’t have been more than four years old.
I took a deep breath, stepped up to them with my best expression of surprise, and pointed at the glittery wings strapped over her pink dress. “Are you a real fairy?” I asked.
She glared at me through her tears, but stopped mid-wail to stare at my dress, leaning out of her mother’s arms to look where the blue fabric trailed at my feet in the leaves and dust. She rubbed at her eyes.
“Are you a real fairy, Isabella?” her mother asked. She bounced the little girl and we smiled together in sync. Slowly, refusing to play along, the girl shook her head.
My face of utter despair. “Really? Because my friend the Fairy Queen gave me a very special present, and she said I could only give it to a true fairy.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed, and I held out my hand, adorned with rings and henna and glitter. I opened my fist one finger at a time and gave a dramatic gasp when I revealed a blue stone. It was a simple pebble from one of the art stands, a light teal color that sparkled when I held it to the sun. The girl hiccupped and bit her lip, trying not to smile.
“Tell you what,” I said. “Can you keep this safe for me, and give it to a fairy when you see one? It’s very important.” She took the pebble without a word, showing it to her mother who mouthed a ‘thank you’ to me.
“Try the glass blowing exhibit,” I said as they strolled away.
I had started out the morning with a leather pouch of ten pebbles, and had already given them all away. The bottom three inches of my dress were stained with a level of dust. So many people walking, so many feet stirring the dry ground, raising an invisible haze of respiratory nightmare. If you had bad allergies, you would be blowing black mucus for the whole following day. Every year it was like this. And every year, people had assumed I worked there.
I had worn a different outfit for this, my first time back. Before, years ago, it had been a short Pocahontas-type dress that I’d altered to look more like a wood nymph. I’d piled my hair on top of my head and used green body paint all over. The flowers I’d pinned onto my crown circlet served as the treasures I gave away one by one. This time, I’d switched to a medieval floor length dress with a girdle and long, parted sleeves. My red hair reached down my back, draping over the baldric that held my sword. It was plain longsword, two-handed hilt, but I loved it.
A balding man in a Journey shirt and horrific face burn the outlining shape of sunglasses stopped me and pointed at his map. “Can you tell me where the joust is?”
“Central Field, my good sir,” I said. “Go back the way you came, make a left at the Pirate’s Cove, and you shall see it yonder on your right. If you hurry now, you may yet make the 1:15 show.”
His eyebrows fused together, and I gave a royal wave as he mumbled a thank you and tripped off in the wrong direction. I rolled my eyes as soon as he was gone. Coarse chuckling came behind me, and I turned and saw an older man, probably in his late forties, working at a tent that bore the sign, King Richard’s Armory. He was polishing a Persian sword, and he dropped it on the rack as I approached.
“Idiots,” he said, shaking his head. He wore a plain tunic and breeches, nothing else to the costume. He pushed his eye-glasses up his nose. “I never talk to them like that. I know we’re supposed to, but I just can’t make myself do it.”
I shrugged. “I think it’s fun. You get to be someone else for a day.”
The man just scoffed. “There’s no pretend in this. These tools are my life. It’s an art, and it’s how I make my living. It’s how my father made his. I travel the world selling these things, and nowhere else do I have to make a fool of myself. I would give up coming here altogether, but it’s a venue I can’t afford to quit. It’s too big a profit.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t look at it that way.”
“You’re just a staff worker. You’re probably in college, am I right—yes, of course, and you’re just here as a weekend job. A gig.”
I started to reply that it was far from a gig, but he threw up his hands and shuffled to the back, disappearing through the tent flap.
In the valley by the Three Sirens concert stage, the wood nymphs settled in a circle with the queen. Blankets and baskets were spread. The girls sat cross-legged, crafting flower chains, while a boy juggled glass balls, vying for their attention. Three others had a lute and violin and a small, round harp. The queen sat with her chin in her hand, watching them while the girls put the flowers in her silver hair. Like everyone, they showed signs of dirt and messed attire from the day. Blue skirts had ruffled, glitter brushed from shoulders, hair slipped down, and feet were nearly black.
They waved at me, and I waved back when something tickled my shoulder. Buzz ran past me and flopped into the middle of the group, laughing and buzzing away. He was my favorite fairy; a new character, he wore blue body paint and green stockings, shirt and vest. His hair was a brown mop with specks of glitter and blue paint, and he had giant goggles on his head, spray painted and decorated to look like bug eyes. He had knitted gloves on his hands, and layers of scarves and belts and trinkets. He carried a little jar of “buzzes,” miniature kazoo-like toys that he handed out to children and taught them to play.
Earlier, I had heard the queen looking for him, asking guests if they had seen him. No one had, of course. A little boy had lost his buzz, and they were all searching for the giggly fairy who never gave any greeting other than “Buzz-Hi!” and “Buzz-Bye!”
A tiny girl in a princess Aurora dress walked by with her father. The queen reached out a slender arm and twisted a flower toward the girl. A flower woven of reed, intricately simple. The father encouraged the girl to take the offering. The queen and faeries bowed to her as she did.
I was aware of people passing me, of the way that I couldn’t feel my feet. It occurred to me that I should have been a human statue that year instead. Between the archery field and the Stage of Fools there was always at least one, sometimes painted all in gold, sometimes in silver, and he would stand frozen in poses all day long while people came and took selfies with him, never leaving anything in the tip jar stationed at his feet. I could be a statue. People could just walk by. They wouldn’t even want to take a picture. The village idiot was chasing the faeries, now. I could be the village idiot, too. Why hadn’t I been the village idiot?
Even as I stood there, thoughts more and more disjointed came peeking after years of solitude. And in the center of it, a woven flower, the yellow reed faded, lying in a taped-shut shoe box in the back of my closet, buried with other tokens from my childhood in this place. A brochure with the map, a ticket receipt for a turkey leg and kettle corn, a Polaroid of me and the winning knight at the joust. A smaller one of me and my dad.
My face met the ground as someone bumped into me and tripped over my dress. I crawled forward a few paces, head ducked, hoping no one else would step on me. There was no real sense of direction—people walked both ways without looking. Then a hand took my elbow, and I was lifted. A blue hand appeared, gentle, and the dusty mulch was brushed off my dress, arms, and hair.
“Buzz-Hi!” he said. He reached up to my forehead and straightened my circlet, clapped his hands under his chin, and blinked at me through the blue paint. His face was wide up close, and the way he smiled reminded me of Robin Williams in Hook. He gave a mischievous grin and held up a small kazoo. When I took it, he brushed a tear from my eye. I could feel the moisture steal the paint from his finger. He blew his own buzz between his lips and danced a jig. I couldn’t help the laughter that burst from me, had me closing my eyes, tilting my head back as a weight I couldn’t express was lifted from me.
“Buzz-Bye!” He bounced away. When I opened my hand, I held six more pebbles.
When I neared Central Field, the jester’s comedy act was just finishing with the reluctantly clapping audience, the drunken men in the front row who had enthusiastically been called up on stage. One was still wearing a yellow bra over his t-shirt from the act. The crowd for the joust was filling up. Stadium seating was made up of hay bales set up the hill on either side. They had talked for years about building wooden bleachers. The only empty bale I could find was near the back, where the sounds of the show blended with those of the concession stand and the man who always stood in the same vendor spot shouting, “FRIED PICKLEEEEEEES!”
My dress was hot, and I was trying to air out the front when someone dropped down next to me. The hay bale was small, and I had sat in the middle of it on purpose.
“Mae g’ovannen,” he said.
“Yeah, hi. Look, I’m sorry but…wait, did you just—?”
The young man wore a white tunic with a black leather jerkin, coffee brown trousers, and dark boots. His belt held a scabbard, and the sword was on the other side of him, resting on the hay. He was taller than me, long hair pulled back at his neck, and he was leaned forward with arms over his knees.
“I saw you earlier,” he said, “and I wanted to apologize. My father was rude to you.”
I frowned. “Your father.”
“He and I work the blacksmith stand. I was in the back, and I only saw you as you were walking away, so I didn’t get a chance to say anything to you.”
“It’s quite all right. I—did you say you work the stand with the swords? I’ve not seen you there before.”
He laughed and looked at his feet, twisting his hands. His eyes, sitting above high, tanned cheekbones, were the same shade as his pants. Shouts and cheers rang on below us amid the sound of splitting wood and metal and pounding hooves in sand. The man hadn’t shaved, and he looked like he either should have, or should have grown the rest of the scruff.
“No, this is my first year. My father needed help, so I came away from the shop. He’s getting older. He thinks he can still do all this, but I’ve had to take on more and more orders for him. That’s a nice sword you’ve got yourself there, though it’s no Hadhafang.”
“Well, you are dressed as Arwen, aren’t you?”
“So you did speak Elvish earlier!”
“You caught that, huh?” He laughed and gave a shrug. “I was acting on a hunch.”
“What if I hadn’t been Arwen? Or known what you were saying?”
“Then I would have pretended I sneezed.” His grin seemed fueled by my clear excitement, but I couldn’t keep the joy from my face.
“Shut up! You’ve made her sword? What about Anduril? And Glamdring? Oh, and Sting! What about Sting?”
“My dad has made Arwen’s sword. The curvature is tricky. Aragorn’s sword is pretty popular, yeah. Gandalf’s, not so much. Bilbo’s sword, now that’s very popular. We end up getting more orders for Sting than anything else.”
“That’s a shame about Hadhafang.” I’d leaned toward him more, bumping his knee. The jousting was louder, and I wouldn’t realize until later that I’d been shouting at him in exuberance.
“You know that Arwen really didn’t have that big a role in the books. Glorfindel came from Rivendell to rescue Frodo and the others, and he let Frodo ride his horse. Frodo took Asfoloth himself all the way across the River Bruinen, but Peter Jackson wanted to make Arwen a bigger character, so he gave her that role. I don’t mind, obviously. Other things I mind.”
He squinted. “Like the fact that Frodo never banished Sam on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol? That bugs me.”
I opened my mouth and closed it. “What is your name?”
“Stephan.” He laughed and held out his hand. It wasn’t as rough as I’d imagined it to be for a blacksmith.
“Well then, Margaret. Tell me what a walking Tolkien Encyclopedia is doing at a place like this all alone.”
“I…” I hesitated, took some of the kettle corn he offered, and sucked on it. “I used to come here a lot, actually. My dad took me. He used to dress up, too, buy me dresses and flowers and all that. We did it every year when he was home. It was really special. He liked these things. Said it was good for the imagination. Can you picture a Navy SEAL walking around in leather armor with a fairy princess on his shoulder? Mom never came. She’s all I have left now, but we still don’t get along on a lot of things. It’s okay, though. I’m majoring in biochemistry, so I keep pretty busy.”
I don’t know why I was telling him so much. I couldn’t stop myself. I knew nothing about him, but there I was talking about my father as easily as I’d gushed about Arwen. I could have lied and he wouldn’t have known. Perhaps that was the release—the fact that I could say anything for the first time, yet felt I had nothing to lose by telling the truth. His eyes were amused, and I realized I was still talking too fast.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Well, there was this one biology lab in high school where—”
“No.” He laughed, then seemed embarrassed. “I meant your dad.”
“Oh. Well, the last time I spoke to him was over five years ago. He was in Afghanistan at the time. He was telling me to take good pictures that year, and pick a new leather-bound journal for him. When Mom and I got the news about his unit, I just sort of decided not to go. This is the first time I’ve come without him.”
Stephan was quiet for a moment. Then he put his hand over mine. This time, I felt callouses on his fingers and palm.
“Thanks for what?” I asked.
“Just for coming. I was supposed to come last time, but I didn’t. Guess it’s a good thing I did this year, or I wouldn’t have met you.”
“I may be a geek, but that’s pretty bad.”
He laughed. “It is, isn’t it? It’s all I’ve got. Oh here, take this.” He shoved the rest of the kettle corn at me. “I told my dad I was going to get drinks, so I’d better get them and run back. Come find me after the joust.”
He looked like he was going to do something else, but then he smirked and gave my hand a quick kiss instead. I tried to say, “Namárië,” but he was already weaving through the crowd at the concessions. I huffed and faced front again, clinging to the popcorn.
When I found Stephan later, he was teaching sword fighting to a small group of boys in an effort that seemed to have been long going. Filthy and sweaty, they all had wooden swords and an affinity for knocking Stephan on his back. Their terms for peace apparently included the keeping of the toys, because they hollered and ran off cheering while Stephen pulled himself off the ground and shook leaves from his hair. Still smiling, he tucked back the strands that had fallen against his face, and resumed his work cleaning the weapons. Most had been packed away already—all that were left were the daggers.
I walked up, realizing I had been standing back for nearly ten minutes. As soon as I came near, he straightened, beaming, as if he had been waiting the entire time. A few pine needles fell from the folds of his tunic. I reached over and plucked a hidden leaf. He put it in behind my ear.
“Dad, I’ll be right back!” he said. There was a rumbling shout from the back of the tent. Stephan laughed silently as he tossed the rag, and ran around the table, taking my hand.
We dashed to the last venue to close, the Ivory Tavern. Clouds cooled the still heavy air. Dead leaves flew as we ran along the ground, slipping. A tall pirate made room for us, and we squeezed through the dancers to a stool near the stage. Stephan ordered two ales in clay tankards, and we watched the musicians and dancing gypsies while we swayed back and forth. He was standing behind me, his arm wrapped loosely across my shoulders. Nothing fancy, nothing drastic. Nothing that would go beyond that day. I felt completely safe with him. There in that space of time, people who had never seen each other before were family.
Other people were doing the same, slowly dancing, or sitting with faces of contentment and raised drinks in cheer. Outside the tent, the faeries were doing circle dances with the children, and Buzz was in the middle of the ring, jigging his jig and buzzing his buzz. The queen was off with the king. Everyone was in costume. Everyone was pretending for the day. Outside cares, pedestrian life fifty feet outside the parking lot, had no reach on us here. There was no judgment—only utter acceptance.
“Dad would have loved this.”
“I’m sorry.” Stephan murmured in my hair against the noise. “I know you must still miss him very much.”
“I do, but it’s alright. I should have come back long before now. It’s like I still feel him when I’m here. I think this will always be our place.”
“You’re a lot like the other people here. For many of us, this is the only place where aspects of ourselves can exist. Here, we don’t feel so lonely.”
I was smiling, but facing away from him, he couldn’t see.
The tambourine raced faster. The violin matched its pace. Wenches were stomping their feet, whacking men with their aprons. A wizard was tapping his staff in the corner, smoking the longest pipe I’d ever seen. A child darted between the tables in a hobbit costume, complete with furry feet and a waistcoat and buttons. And a full armored knight was twirling a princess in some sort of Spanish tango. None of it made any sense. And yet, I realized, it all made sense. A glitter of pink fairy wings passed, and I thought of the girl from that morning and the one from years ago, and if they would ever wander and find each other again in their wanderings.
BRYANA FERN is a Doctoral candidate in English at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is a member of the Center for Writers and teaches Composition. Her work can be found in Sou’wester, Red Mud Review, Converge Magazine, Washington Independent Review, and Women at Warp. Her scholarly focus is in nineteenth century British literature and in narrative theory. A native of Tampa, Florida and an alum of the University of South Florida, she remains homesick for genuine beaches, palm trees, sea-side restaurants, boating, and, of course, Publix Supermarket.