The Illuminator Leaves – Molly Etta

The Illuminator Leaves – Molly Etta

When the Fata first found me, I was very small, and I had lost my voice. Nevertheless, she took me in, and proved both kind and cruel thereafter.

I used to gesture pleas, begging for the return of my voice. But she never seemed to understand why I would want such a burdensome thing back. She gave me colors — gold leaf, ultramarine blue, vermillion — so that I could draw and paint instead of speaking. The Fata found all such radiant things more compelling than the heavy and tangled mess of mortal language.

One day, after years of silent appeals, I paced about the Fata’s court and sighed. Then, an idea came. Weren’t mortals clever creatures, in their way? Perhaps they had developed some science or trick, that could return some semblance of a voice to me.

When I made up my mind to leave, at first, I could not find the Fata. I wandered through the dovecote, the apiary, the scriptorium — a kind of garden where the Fata grew books. Blossoming pages fluttered softly beneath the wind, and oak galls heavy with ink practically burst from the trees, surrounded by a shimmering profusion of wasps.

The Fata was perched atop a laurel tree; its trunk cradled her as she nestled in the fork between two vast limbs that arched overhead to provide her with shade. Usually the Fata’s radiance made everything around her as bright and beautiful as she was; the laurel tree, however, proved stubborn, and persisted in looking rather unhappy, its trunk gray and patched like a rag, its leaves browning.

The Fata contemplated me while she organized a small pile of leaves, pale and brittle in her lap of red and purple silks.

“What is it, dear?” she asked. As though she did not already not know. She picked up one leaf, inspected it, flicked it away.

I went down on one knee and drew in the dirt, spelling out my request.

The Fata sighed.

“You’ve never belonged here, you know,” she said. “Do you think you belong to the world you came from?” (I didn’t know. I rather thought — hoped — I would.) “My dear, I’m afraid that you are lost wherever you go, be it forward or backward. However … since you are a sweet child, I will help you as I can.”

She sorted through the folds of her skirt, and extracted an unlikely set of objects: a long and curved quill harvested from the barnacle goose, a set of brushes with gleaming crystal handles, a vial of dragon’s blood. She delicately placed all of these items, and others, into a velvet pouch embroidered with gold thread, and handed it to me.

I held my gift and stared at it.

“What is it?” asked the Fata, laughing at my confusion. “You have asked me to release you, and so I will. I will even go so far as to find you a new situation.”

I opened the pouch and studied the instruments she had given me. I did not want to seem ungrateful. But, there was something else I craved. I pointed at my mouth, touched my throat, and hoped, for once, that she would understand. But the Fata did not notice my gestures (or pretended not to). She continued to play with the leaves in her lap, and I realized that she was binding them together into a garland. A laurel crown.

“You realize that many of the trees in my gardens, in this scriptorium, were once my kindred?” asked the Fata. “Fairies and nymphs are the same kind of creature at bottom, as you know.”

I nodded, although I could not recall her ever mentioning the laurel tree in particular. It was hard to keep track of all the stories she had told me, of all the trees and flowers and springs that once laughed and wept and danced.

“But unfortunately,” said the Fata, “this one is dying.”

She hopped down from her perch, and dusted off her skirt. For a moment, she contemplated me, then she placed the laurel crown atop my head, and hooked one arm through mine as she steered us out of the garden.

“Now, I am helping you a great deal,” she said. “And you know, I am not so very good or foolish as to grant favors for nothing. I will require a gift in return. And I will take it at my leisure.”

I tilted my head at her and wondered what she meant.

“No, dear, I can’t tell you what I’ll take,” she said. “You will have to wait and see. But know this: I cannot abide gaps in my scriptorium. Every lacuna must be filled.”

I did not know what she meant, but I nodded.

She left me in the shadow of a great holm oak, and I hugged my bundle while the wind came to welcome me home. The violence of its greeting startled me. I was sure it would scrape my skin from my bones.

And so, the first thing I did was curl up between the roots of the oak and shake in silence, already convinced I had made a terrible mistake.

Once my shivers and the gale had both exhausted themselves, I got to my feet, and followed a lonely road. It was dark, but before long, I discovered a remarkably even grid of beacons. Candlelit windows. And then there was a door. A solid, oak door. A cousin of the tree I had just been cowering beneath. I thudded my fists against it until a man appeared.

He took me for a beggar at first, but then I upended my pouch, and glittering fairy things littered the floor. I am sure that Ladone would have turned me away, if not for that.

Perhaps he would have taken the Fata’s gifts and kicked me out, but it soon became clear that they were for me alone — if anyone else tried to touch them, the brushes would stiffen and dry, the pigments boil and splatter. Reluctantly, Ladone put me to work. At first, he would only permit me to touch up panels the others had been working on, or trace the flourishes of acanthus and flowers that filled the margins of a romance. But after a few weeks or months (I cannot keep track of mortal time very well) he let me draw and paint initials, then miniatures. It struck me that creating these things was a little like having a voice. But, the voice in question wasn’t my own; I could only paint what Ladone told me to. He frowned and shook his head if I tried to do otherwise.

Ladone was my master, then. Now he is my guardian.

One of my earliest memories: the Fata, holding out a hand to me. She let me pry her fingers apart to reveal a few shimmering flakes of gold leaf. The wind stirred it about, and I remember thinking it looked like radiant ash, as it fluttered and drifted down to settle atop something or another I had been drawing in the dirt.

The glowing stores of gold Ladone kept in the workshop made me dizzy. Shells full of powdered gold, and layers we carefully spread across gesso, then burnished. My master yelled if I tried to scatter it to the wind as the Fata had.

Vibrant things made me think of the Fata. They made me akin to her, somehow.

I painted the Fata’s court and gardens, and the tales she had told me, of nymphs and fairies. I could almost hear her singing: of beribboned oak trees who wore human faces, of a nymph who subsisted in echoes, of women who became nightingales and swallows.

I had left her, as I wanted to, but her world now seemed much more vibrant to me than the place I had come to inhabit.

Sometimes, when I awoke in the middle of the night, I would flail around, to reassure myself that I remained swathed in my covers rather than painted upon them. All too often this new life felt false and flimsy, like a shoddy representation of mortal existence rather than the real thing. The artisan who first crafted the mortal world seemed to have finished his work rather more carelessly than I would have hoped.

Not even Ladone seemed right. Or at least, he seemed a poor substitute for the Fata.

One day, he happened upon a study I had been working on. It was a depiction of the laurel tree, with gleaming bones that shimmered through her flesh and reached upward to become boughs radiant with silver light. Pages of bark enfolded the laurel nymph’s torso. I had filled her all up with calligraphy.

“Who is responsible for this?” asked Ladone.

One of the apprentices gestured toward me; I stayed in my corner of the room and pretended I had not heard, as I hunched over my work. I feared my master would reprimand me for something.

“The mute?” said Ladone. “Come here, girl!”

I approached him, head bowed.

“Child, why is this nymph you’ve drawn wrapped in a book?”

He seemed to forget sometimes that I could not speak. I stared at him. Unperturbed, he answered my silence: “I believe this odd detail must reflect a flaw in your understanding of the Latin.” He looked at me expectantly, and so I nodded, to reassure him that he was right. “The word Ovid uses to describe the bark enfolding Daphne’s chest is libro, which you seem to have conflated with its other meaning: ‘book.’”

I nodded.

“And yet, in spite of its strangeness, this picture is delightfully constructed,” said Ladone. “And it just so happens that our latest commission will demand a similar aesthetic.”

My master showed me the sketches he had been preparing, and he unfolded a swollen portfolio, sent by our patron (a mysterious and powerful countess). He drew out and untwined a few strings, which represented the (imposing) dimensions of the book she wanted, and flowers fell about our feet: poppies and violets, whose colors she wanted to see replicated on each page. It would be an immense and beautiful project.

I kept one of the violets in my hair for days; its color made me feel more cheerful. But the feeling curdled when other violets began to sprout across my brow and I had to tear them out. Soon I noticed other roots and leaves appearing in strange places.

The Fata had warned me.

Gatherings of parchment began at last to arrive in the workshop, neatly ruled, full of a large and elegant script. The apprentices murmured together when they noticed that several folios had been left blank in their entirety, and Ladone said that such leaves should be decorated as lavishly as possible, like proper paintings rather than mere miniatures.

“The Countess requests a book in which every picture is like this,” he said, holding up my laurel nymph as an example.

My fellow apprentices seemed a little upset. I tried to make mistakes and spill inks and that appeared to soothe them. They liked to forget that I could paint more beautifully than they could, so that they could see me as an unthreatening kind of odd, I think.

But then, the leaves and roots came back. They coiled around my feet and made it difficult for me to move from my station, and the apprentices took to avoiding me and gossiping all over again. Perhaps because I could not speak, some of them assumed (when convenient) that I could not hear them either, or understand. And so, they muttered together.

“Have you noticed? Whenever Ladone wishes to speak with the mute, she grabs her own legs, and tugs, like she’s pulling a carrot from the earth.”

“Yes, her feet become stuck wherever she stands.”

“But how? Why?”

“Who knows. Either she’s mad—”

“Quite likely.”

“—or cursed.”

“Even likelier. What else could have condemned her to such silence?”

I showed Ladone my work: nymphs and fairies who became lotuses, heliotrope, poplar trees. He said I was changing the stories. Perhaps I confused or stitched some together which had once been separate, but I did not see why that made them wrong. There were nymphs with pine needles for hair, who wept amber, who cradled human infants in their arms and took them away to strange, glittering places. The muttering in the workshop became louder. They called it dark magic, and wondered where I had come from, or whom I was communing with. My colors were eloquent, since I could not be; green leaves whispered together in dismay, and beads of red wept across the parchment.

Ladone corrected me whenever I went too far “astray” (as he said).

“The Countess will not approve of this,” he said. “Tomorrow, you will show me something more sensible.” I nodded in silence. And so that he would not be too annoyed, I painted sensible things.

But it was becoming harder and harder to feign sense and normalcy. Anyone who peeked beneath my work table would see that my feet were sinking through the floor tiles. And then, I did not need food anymore. If someone left a piece of fruit by my elbow, I would more often than not leave it to rot. Perhaps this was my mistake — I should have shrunk as my work consumed me. But I forgot to shrink, and I grew instead. Ladone seemed frightened. I tried to smile, to make him feel better, but he did not see. Ever since I had become taller than him he refused to look up and meet my eye.

The pictures I crafted always fell just short of complete. Some corner of a scene always gestured toward the next page, which seemed to intrigue and irk Ladone, all at once. He stopped trying to correct me. It is harder to correct someone you have to crane your neck to look at.

I kept returning to my illustration of the laurel tree, which always struck me as wanting, in spite of my master’s initial admiration of the image. I extended its branches, until its limbs bent and tangled throughout the parchment. Then, I painted a guardian for the tree. I started by drawing Ladone — high cheekbones, and haughty, leonine brow — but as I came to his torso, it occurred to me that a serpent’s tail might suit him better than legs. He became a dragon, the tree’s defender, yet at the same time he was nothing more than a lonely man lost between its roots. Symbols clotted the margins of their own accord — weird and glittering characters from the language of the fairies, that even I did not fully comprehend.

Ladone seemed displeased when he came to check on my progress. I could tell, because his face changed. His complexion was naturally reddish, but when he looked at my work he became as pallid as the fine vellum of his portrait.

“What — what curse are you trying to wrap me up in?” he asked.

I did not know what he meant by that. But he seized the parchment and ran away with it. I was upset, because I had worked very hard on that miniature. I would have chased Ladone and tried to take it back from him, if I could. But I could not leave. My roots had burrowed deep beneath the workshop, gripping the earth.

I cannot recall when exactly, but I think I spent one night weeping, as I tried in vain to uproot my legs. I thought of the Fata, who had told me that she did not grant favors for nothing. True to her word, she was taking her price.

I was afraid, at first. But then came relief.

The violets reassured me. They were sprouting all over the workshop, shedding petals in unlikely places. They clustered in particular about my feet.

This will give me my voice, I hoped.

I did not mind when I noticed the leaves that clung to my hair, since I knew they would bring more color with them still.

The Fata visited me, before I was entirely transfigured. She stood, scintillating, as leaves surrounded my brow, as bark (or libro, should I say?) began to expand from my feet to crawl upward and consume my waist, enfolding my torso. Just like the laurel nymph.

She leaned over the work table and peered at my latest creations, rifling through the folios.

“Good, good,” she said. “I am so pleased to see my commission treated with such appropriate gravity.”

She came across a picture of Pan and Syrinx — one of the first stories she had ever told me.

“Ah, yes,” she said, holding up the parchment so that her jewels cast more light upon it. “How lovely.”

I had painted a caricature of Pan, as an old goat with a beard like a sodden storm cloud, who tearfully harvested a handful of reeds from a riverbed they seemed loath to part from. Each reed glittered beneath a sheen of gold, and had a mouth that seemed to scream. Panpipes — of a different sort.

“Do you know, it occurs to me now,” said the Fata, “that Syrinx is rather the inverse of Daphne, and there is a kind of victory there. While Daphne lost her voice when she became the laurel tree, Syrinx gained a voice when she became Pan’s instrument. And everyone listens to her now.”

My leaves shuddered as though to nod.

“You see, my dear,” said the Fata, “hidden and secret stories often find a way of speaking, even when their heroes lose the power of speech.”

I did not answer. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, the Fata had gone.

Overnight, my roots became restless as a nest of serpents, and they began to unsettle the tiles of the workshop. The violets ran amok. My hair grew and reached upward, craving the absent sunlight.

When the apprentices arrived that morning, they took one look at me, and then fled.

Then Ladone came.

“What the — is anyone here?” he squeaked. “What in the world has happened!” The last cry came out more as an anguished declaration than a question.

I am here, I thought.

He did not hear me.

He probably would not have recognized me at all, but for one detail. I still had hands, and they still clutched a shell full of pigment, and a fairy brush with a crystal handle. I continued my work, painting upon the ceiling now, since I could no longer reach the parchment upon my work table. I wanted to show Ladone, that although I had changed, I was still a dutiful apprentice.

But my boughs strained against the rafters, and I could feel my fingers stiffen into twigs, and the roof begin to groan.

Ladone had gone all pale as vellum again.

He scrabbled at me, like a stray rabbit trying to dig out tubers in a garden. He tried to tear me out by the roots, cut me, burn me. I watched him, without feeling a single blow. My wounds brimmed over with crimson beads of amber — more like jewels than battle scars. The Fata would approve.

I could not say how much time passed, but at last, Ladone sat down between my roots and watched me grow, until my canopy tore the roof away.

As dusk filled the workshop (or, what had once been the workshop), my master became more thoughtful. He traced a hand across my bark. He seemed to recognize the large, neat script from the book, inscribed everywhere, all across my trunk and limbs. I let my petals unfurl and my leaves fall about his feet; they were full of my pictures, painted in ultramarine blue, gold leaf, and dragon’s blood red.

Ladone hesitated for a moment longer. Then he set about gathering the blossoms and fallen leaves.

He never fled, as the apprentices had. Instead, Ladone took his time, and he brought a needle and thread, and sewed together all the leaves and petals I let him have. They were full of new and old stories about silence and song. This is how we finished the book at last. The book the Countess — the Fata — had first commissioned. I am her libro, her book, the new tree for her scriptorium. I am full of her stories, and she will tell stories about me.

Ladone tried to pray, but it went wrong. I heard him reciting myths instead of psalms.

He is my guardian now. You can visit me, if you wish. He will welcome you, and read my stories to you, and show you the pictures I made.

I’m afraid we don’t have very many visitors. Most of them run away, like the apprentices, as soon as they catch the fragrance of enchantment that falls from my petals. But, I swear a visit is worthwhile if you dare to smell a gift rather than a curse.

The Fata is wise, and she found a way to give me back my voice after all, although I always believed she thought voices were silly things.

You must come read me to hear mine.

One comment

  1. What a delightful introduction for me to this magazine! I followed a link in an e-book I just bought (Tales from the Storystream by Jamie Brindle) and am so glad I did! Wonderful imagery – so vivid I feel like I just watched it rather than just read it!

    Sylvia W

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