It’s just like the story:
You have this lover that you meet in the woods—you’re always out wandering in the woods, have been climbing those trees since you were a child, and then, one day, you run into this man who seems to love them as much as you do and, well, one thing just leads to another. You don’t really think, at the time, that it’s strange you don’t know where he lives or even his name or that you always happen to run into him at the same tree at the same time every day. His eyes are so beautiful, the deep green color of late summer leaves and his hair is like sunlight and the way he kisses you is so much better than eating even the ripest and juiciest strawberries.
You find that you aren’t really thinking at all, which is the point, isn’t it, of this whole experience, of this taking a lover—your first—kind of thing. You aren’t the kind of girl to have boyfriends. You don’t do your hair or wear make-up. You’re more of tomboy type really, always climbing trees and going for hikes on your own. You’re a little bit solitary. You say you’re shy but really you’re just disinterested, just bored by the reality of things. But this boy in the woods is so unlike the boys at school, is so far removed from the reality you know. You can feel it.
And sometimes, in his arms, you feel like you’re making love not to a person but to a whole forest. You feel the roots of the trees tangle you up in them and the branches lifting you into their leaves and the mossy ground so soft it sinks you right into it. There’s something wonderful in all of that, a feeling like you could change from girl shaped into something else entirely.
So, you keep going out to meet this guy and you don’t tell your parents, of course, they’d be furious. In fact, you don’t tell anyone. You think that you must be scared that, if you tell, the whole thing will vanish, will show you just how unreal it really is. But, one day, your lover tells you that his name is Tam Lin and you start writing it all over your notebooks during trig class. You surround the name with little hearts. You dot the “I” with one too, for good measure. When you finish, you feel disgusted with yourself. You are not the heart-drawing, boy’s-name-notebook writing kind of girl—at least, you didn’t think you were until you met this guy, this Tam Lin, this fairy tale of a boy, with that hair and those eyes and those hands and those lips that tell you he loves you.
And when he tells you that you tell him, because you heard it this way in a movie and you think it might cancel out all the naïve-seeming heart-drawing, that he probably says that to all his girls. He looks hurt when you say it, like you threw his love back in his face, but he’s still there the next day and the next at that same tree at that same time after school. And so things continue on through September and into October until you wake up one morning and realize you haven’t had your period in two months and you wonder what kind of ensorcelled you are to have forgotten all that freshmen sex ed. and those condoms you shoved into your sock drawer two years ago “just in case.”
So you tell him the next time you see him and when you say, “I’m pregnant,” he just says, “Oh dear,” like a prudish old aunt and you aren’t really sure what you wanted him to say except that you wish it had been something else, something like, “I’ll drive you to the clinic,” or “I’ve always wanted to be a father,” or “I’ll support you whatever you decide.” But instead, after the “Oh dear,” he launches into a story, a really crazy long one about how he was walking in these woods one night seven years ago and he met the fairy queen and became her lover and he hasn’t left these woods ever since and how the fairies have some kind of human sacrifice every year on Halloween and he and the queen are on the outs so he’s pretty sure he’s it this time. He reminds you that Halloween is this very night and, before you can wrap your head around any of it or tell him that fairies aren’t real or ask him how he’s survived in these woods for seven years or whether his family misses him or mention that, if he had sex with the fairy queen seven years ago and he’s been stuck in the woods ever since, that would probably count as statutory rape and kidnapping, being that he isn’t much older than you are and should you maybe be calling the police?—before you can do any of that, he’s telling you that you have to save him. He’s telling you to come to the woods just before midnight and wrap your arms around him and hold him while the fairy queen changes his shape and that, if you can hold on, eventually she’ll give up and let him go and you two can get married and have this baby.
You don’t believe him, not for a second. You think he must be nuts or playing some kind of practical joke. But he looks so sincere that all you can think to say is, “Ok, I guess I’ll see you tonight then.”
But, walking home, you start thinking. You aren’t even sure if you want to marry this guy or if you want to have this baby or if you want to get married or have babies at all, ever. You’re all of sixteen years old and you thought you had time to decide these things, time to graduate high school and go to college and have a career and date. And this story about fairy queens and shapeshifting, what does he really mean by it? Is he trying to scare you away? Does he really want you not to come back? And would it be so bad if you didn’t, if you spent tonight handing out candy at your house, looking at all the little kids in costumes and watching Halloween specials on TV instead of stumbling out in the woods in the dark for a guy?
When you get back home you go online and you start reading about fairy queens and Halloween sacrifices. And that’s when you get truly scared. That’s when you start thinking that maybe this whole traditional family structure thing just isn’t worth it, that maybe this whole love thing isn’t even worth it. That’s when you start to think that whoever said, “Love conquers all,” must have been really really stupid. Because what you learn is that fairy queens are mean and that you do not want to go up against them. You learn that they can turn people into horrible things like snakes and spiders and hot coals and worse, that this whole holding onto someone through all of that is going to be an ordeal, is going to take every bit of effort and courage and will that you aren’t sure you have. And for what? For a boy you’ve known for two months, a boy stupid enough to get himself mixed up in all this fairy queen business? But what choice do you have, really, now? You’re caught up in the story and its moving along and its growing inside you and are you really the kind of girl who abandons a person you love when the going gets tough, when they’re in mortal danger and only your true love can save them?
So you go back to the woods just before midnight and you hold onto Tam Lin as the fairy queen changes him into every beast and briar she can think of. Her face, while she watches you, is cold and distant and regal and it seems to shine with its own light and you can’t help but be a little enchanted by her. You wonder what she must be thinking as she watches you, this completely mundane mortal girl, trying to hold onto this guy as he squirms into a mouse and slithers into a snake and starts scratching at you with porcupine spikes and tiger claws and rose bush thorns and eagle talons. You wonder if she finds this entertaining or if she’s just bored, if she’s seen it all before, over and over, this love thing. You wonder if she’s ever loved someone so much that she’d do something like this for them. Because you know, now, that you must love him. How could you not? Holding onto a porcupine like that, embracing a confused freaked out tiger, takes an immensely strong epic degree of love. At least, you hope that’s what it is.
But you’re also really angry at him for all of this, especially because you thought that love would be different, would feel better, like finding a soul mate who understood you, who you understood. And you find this boy incomprehensible and yourself incomprehensible with him. And when the fairy queen finally gets tired and stops changing his shape and walks off in a huff saying, “Fine. He’s yours then,” you think you should feel happy but all you feel is exhausted and suddenly old.
But there he is, panting on the ground like he’s just run for miles, looking up at you with the most immense gratitude there in his eyes and so you lay down next to him and you both fall asleep on a soft patch of moss feeling warm and exhausted together.
And when the baby is born, some months later, it isn’t a baby, not a baby human at least, and you feel strangely relieved by that because having a kitten, even if it probably plans to grow up to be a tiger, instead of a child seems like a little less responsibility, feels almost entirely doable. But Tam Lin looks disappointed in the delivery room. You watch him as he eyes you suspiciously even as he tries to smile the expected joy while he holds the tiny mewling thing in his arms. And the look makes you wonder what it is he is wondering. You think he is trying to puzzle out what has shifted inside you to make this tiny clawed creature come out, trying to decide to what extent he is responsible. And you can’t be sure yourself what has changed, but you know something has, some story has moved itself inside you and jumbled things up and you can’t be sure what happens next, what happens now, at the end of it.
Miranda Schmidt’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Driftwood Press, and other journals. Miranda grew up in the Midwest and now lives with her partner and two cats in Portland, Oregon where she edits the Sun Star Review and teaches at Portland Community College. A graduate of the University of Washington’s MFA program, Miranda is currently at work on a project inspired by shapeshifting fairy tales.
Artwork: Kmye Chan, “Beauty and the Beast”