Spiderweb Alley

Elverie, noun. obscure.

Fairyland, Elfland, the Otherworld of myth and folktale. Often conflated with the Land of the Dead. Dialect term from the west country still in use in remote areas of the coast.

—“Glossary” in Stories That Tell Themselves,

by M. McKennan, TopTree Press, 2007.

These things happened in a place

where no one goes anymore,

a nameless country of steep cliffs

and icy rivers, and dark forests

where strange beasts prowl unchecked.

Cottages of grey stone perch on headlands by the sea.

Along the coast fishing-boats beach on rocky shingle

where fishermen unload their catch.

Over it all a water-color sky is filled

by day with clouds like drifting sails,

and at night with the curious patterns of stars.

That is in summer.

In winter, grey roofs the earth.

Sometimes a north wind comes,

and the ground covers with white,

rivers lock with ice and trees glaze and glitter

under a cold sun.

Then the people bank the snow high

around their houses to baffle the wind.

They bar the shutters to keep out the night,

and draw close to their fires.

They tell the stories that folk tell

on winter nights.

The tale of Kath and Mick

is one of these stories.

On the Road

It was a fine evening, cool but not cold, with a steady onshore breeze. On the seaward side of the road, separated from it only by a narrow belt of windbent trees, cliffs dropped sheer to the waves that beat against them.

On the landward side hillsides reared like the shoulders of giants half buried in the earth. There was no traffic, and the road soared and dipped with the rise and fall of the land. Mick, at the wheel, concentrated on negotiating the switchbacks. Kath drank in the scenery.

For a while they drove in silence through the slow, luminous northern twilight. Mick had met Kath at the coach station and immediately, as she had mock-complained, “hustled her off to parts unknown.”

Unknown but beautiful, she reflected, enchanted by the slow-dying sunset and the way it lighted earth and sky.

Mick spoke. “What are you thinking?”

“That we’re in a different world from where you picked me up in — what’s its name? That little town?”

“Great Wicken.”

“Some ‘great’! Is there a Little Wicken that’s even smaller?”

“Probably. Somewhere. Out in the boonies.”

“I almost hope not. It’s so remote up here. Kind of uncanny—can you feel it? Like fairyland. Maybe it’s the light. Or the stillness. I can hardly even hear the waves.”

“You’ll hear them where the road gets closer to the water, but I agree about the light. It is spooky.”

“Yes, but I like that.”

You would, he thought. Anything out of the ordinary is right up your alley. He glanced affectionately at her profile silhouetted against the light. Memory swept him back.

The Information Desk in Special Collections. The scent of freesias in a jam jar next to the computer competed with the library smell of old paper and rubbed bindings. The redhead behind the computer was new, probably a student assistant, probably responsible for the freesias. Her oversize hornrims gave her green eyes a nearsighted innocence, and the dusting of freckles on her nose made her look even more like a kid. Her smile reminded him of the Cheshire Cat.

“Can I help you?”

“I hope so. I’m looking for a book.”

“You’ve come to the right place. Any old book? Or a particular book?”

Oh ho. Ms. Hornrims had a bite that belied her innocent look. “Yes. A particular book. Popular Antiquities, by Auberon Layland, two volumes, published in 1886. In ‘particular’ (he gave her back her sarcasm) Volume II.”

She shook her head. “Never heard of it.”

He relented. “You’re not alone. Neither have most people. It’s hard to find. Which is why I’m here. Your online catalogue says you have it, but I can’t find it. It’s not checked out, but it’s not on the shelf.”

Her fingers danced over the keyboard, hesitated, danced again. She peered at the monitor. “We have it all right. Both volumes. But they’re ‘Out to Repairs.’ That means in the basement, in the shop. Probably be re-shelved by the end of the month. You can put in a green slip for the volume you want and we’ll let you know when it’s ready.”

“No, I need it now. End of the month is too late.”

“Sorry. If you could come back in a week . . .”

“Not possible. I’ve got to hand in my thesis the end of this week. I absolutely must check some references and verify a couple of footnote citations.”

“You’re writing a thesis on antiques?” She seemed surprised.

“Not antiques. Antiquities. Folklore, fairy tales, local customs, superstitions.”

“Oh, fairy tales.”

She brightened, but before she could go on he added, “I’ve only got the one day free, and I’ve spent half of it just trying to chase down the book. Please don’t say the other half’s going to be a loss too.”

She tilted her head to one side, considering, the feathery bangs spilling untidily into her eyes.

Time to pull out the stops. “Look, Miss . . . um—”

“Kath,” she said.

“Good to meet you, Kath. My name’s Mick.” Out came all the stops. “Look, Kath, you’re my only hope. There’s not another library within traveling distance that has that book. What will it take? Can I buy you a coffee? Mocha? Hazelnut? Chocolate? Whipped cream? The sky’s the limit.”

“Well, when you put it that way. . . .”

The wide, generous smile that lit up her face made her suddenly pretty, and her next words were music.

“Okay, big spender. I have a buddy in Repairs. Here’s a green slip. Fill out the call number and I’ll phone it down. You should get both volumes in about half an hour. Do you have a study carrel?”

“No, but I’ll get one.”

She shook her head. “No you won’t. They’re all in use. It’s the week before exams.”

“Yes, I know. For me too, and I should be hard at work thinking up unanswerable questions for my students. Isn’t there a corner somewhere that nobody else wants? I’ll take anything you’ve got.”

“How about a study table on rollers? There’s a spare one there next to the elevators. Wheel it over, and I’ll scrounge you up a chair.”

“You’re a lifesaver. Coffee coming up.”

“Save it for my break. Cappuccino, hazelnut and two sugars.”

The study table was a rickety little number whose plastic wheels rattled the library silence when he manhandled it over to the Information Desk. She scrounged a chair and he sat and waited. When the half-hour mark had come and gone, he went to check.

“They can’t find it,” she told him. “I just called down again, and they’ll keep looking. How about I take you up on that coffee, and when we come back it’ll be here.”

“Fair enough.”

He made good on the cappuccino, hazelnut and two sugars. He had a double espresso. They spent her break curled around the coffee cartons in the courtyard where he apologized for breaking the quiet of the reading room.

“Although,” he said, “if they were minding their own business, keeping their noses in their books, they wouldn’t have noticed.”

“Oh come off it. Nobody minds their own business all the time. That’s one of the Seven Deadly Virtues.”

He was charmed. “What are the other six?”

“Let’s see.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Not Stepping on the Cracks, Not Coloring Outside the Lines, Looking Before you Leap, Being on Time, Saving for a Rainy Day, and ummm . . . Going Without Dessert.”

“Ah, that’s where I’d fall into Error,” he confided. “Never could pass up forbidden fruit.”

“The only kind worth eating,” she agreed.

He told her about his thesis and the collecting trip he was planning once exams were over. She asked him about Popular Antiquities and whether “customs and sayings” included fairy tales. Her love of fairy tales marched in step with his own studies, except that with her the tales weren’t studied: they were lived.

“Relic of my misspent childhood,” she confessed. “While the other kids were trading rock star photographs, I was turning round and round with Baba Yaga in the hut on chicken legs. Chicken legs! I mean—really! What a concept!”

“You were in the right place,” he assured her. “Rock stars come and go, but chicken legs will never let you down.”

There came a sideways quirk of the head and a look from under the bangs.

“I wouldn’t bet on that,” she countered. “Sometimes fairy tales don’t live up to expectations.”

“Hold on a minute,” he said. “The whole point of a fairy tale is to live up to expectations. The Happy Ending, remember?”

“Yes, but how you get to the Happy Ending is important. And some stories use pretty weird devices. Like ‘The Frog Prince.’ I hated that one when I was a kid. I wanted to re-write it. Still do. It’s all wrong. Why would slamming the poor frog against the wall turn him into a prince? It never did that for me. The princess is a spoiled little twit who makes a promise she doesn’t intend to keep, and uses violence to get out of the bargain. A real brat, she was. Talk about expectations. I’ll bet you anything they didn’t live happily ever after.”

“Possibly not,” he conceded. She wasn’t as naive as she looked, and besides, he was enjoying the argument. “It’s the flip side of Beauty and the Beast, where compassion brings about metamorphosis. ‘The Frog Prince’—the proper title is ‘Iron Henry’ for reasons I never could fathom—is the reverse of the medal. But isn’t the mismatch the whole point? A princess and a frog: that isn’t supposed to be a match made in heaven.”

“I’ve seen worse,” she said. “That frog just needed the right princess. He obviously deserved somebody better. Like me.”

She was talking, Mick noticed with amusement, as if the story had happened just yesterday, and she had read it in a gossip magazine. It was the first of many times he was to come up against her penchant for making herself a part of the story, as if she recognized no distinction between fiction and real life.

Popular Antiquities never did show up, but by then he didn’t care. He was more than charmed. He was in love.

He was still in love when Kath’s voice broke his reverie. “I hope where we’re going isn’t too uncann—. . . Mick, look out!”