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TRAVELLERS

Ray threw down the book she was reading. Its heroine had been examining her love letters, raptures of teenage boys. Ray scowled. Her own high school years had been a desert. No raptures. No romances. She had never received a love letter in her life, certainly not from her husband, a fine man but somewhat remote. The Financial Times had a better chance of receiving a love letter from him than she did.

So here she was, middle aged and settled, yet somehow restless. She reminded herself of a statue that hadn’t quite hatched from its stone shell. There was nothing very romantic in her past, and nothing very exciting in her present. When she was young, still young enough to think the answers to life’s questions lay out there, she’d made a number of trips - to Europe, to India - but no place had lived up to expectations.

Suddenly, she had an idea: she would go on a journey with the moon man. The moon man was Ray’s friend, her special friend, luminous and uncanny. He came when he was needed, and each visit was a memorable occasion.

That night, she called for him and he appeared. Ray proposed an adventure.

“Let’s just go,” she said, flinging her arms out wide, a gesture that would have surprised her family, her friends, but didn’t surprise the moon man. He knew Ray was not precisely what she seemed.

“This is my favourite way of traveling,” said Ray as they started off, “nothing to pack, nothing to worry about.”

“Except our sanity,” the moon man teased.

Ray laughed. “Between us, we have plenty of common sense. Besides, you’re here to protect me.”

Her companion raised a silver eyebrow. Ray, who was generally so timid she couldn’t phone to change an appointment, even with very good reason, flashed a happy smile and said, “onwards!”

They soon found themselves in a forest, a forest so dark that only the moon man’s glow provided a little light to travel by. The air was still, too still, as if all life had been suspended. Ray took a huge breath and blew it out, and, suddenly, there was a racket of rustling leaves and calling birds. Masses of fireflies rose into the darkness as if a dragon had snorted.

A bird hopped down from a branch and greeted them. “Are you looking for anyone in particular?” he asked. “I’m afraid we’ve lost most of our main attractions. The blue bird’s gone. The fairy king and queen have moved their entire household, I don’t know where. We had our farewell party for the witches only last week. There’s one witch left, however. She lives in a cottage not too far from here. Don’t take your silver friend, though,” advised the bird, “the witch is dangerous to males of any kind.”

“Well, you know, he’s not exactly male,” protested Ray. She glanced over at the moon man to see if he looked offended, but he was watching the bird with a calm expression.

The bird made a chortling sound. “He’s male enough for the witch, I assure you. She sniffs them out. If you’re not careful, she’ll melt him down and turn him into silver filigree earrings.”

“I’ll meet the witch alone,” Ray said quickly. The moment she uttered these words, the moon man vanished.

What had she done? Ray didn’t relish a solitary confrontation with the witch. In fact, she’d counted on the moon man’s reassuring presence throughout her journey. Now there was no choice but to press on.

She followed the bird’s soft trills, the glint of moonlight on feathers. Soon, she found herself on a neat path with flowerbeds on either side. A small stone house stood before her lit up like a chandelier. Sounds of laughter and music came from within. She’s very cheerful for a witch, thought Ray, surprised.

“Let’s wait a moment,” chirped the bird, “she knows we’re here.”

Ray waited. Almost at once, the door opened and the witch emerged. She was the prettiest creature Ray had ever seen, dainty and perfectly groomed. Her trim figure was draped in rainbow silk. Ray smelled perfume, enticing and expensive.

The witch held out a hand sparkling with rings. “Welcome Ray,” she said in a pleasant voice. Winking at the bird, she drew Ray into her cottage.

Ray found herself in a tastefully furnished lounge.

“Please sit down,” invited the witch. “It’s good to have a visitor at last. The population of the forest has dwindled sadly. All that’s left are a few disgusting trolls, a ghost or two, an oracle so decrepit he can barely manage to croak a prophecy. The truly glamorous creatures have moved elsewhere.”

“But you are glamorous,” said Ray ingenuously.

“Oh, pooh,” tittered the witch, “a few gowns, a few baubles left from better days. Soon, I’ll be leaving too.”

“Where has everyone gone?”

The witch laid a slender finger against her cheek. “I’m not certain…another forest, a better neighbourhood. Every few centuries, we’re all pushed out of our homes. It’s very annoying.”

“Every few centuries?” Ray was aghast. “But how old are you?”

The witch smiled coyly. “I’m ageless, I suppose.”

“That’s wonderful!” said Ray.

“It has its advantages.”

“It must be tiring, though.”

The witch shrugged. “Not at all. When I need rest, I sleep for a few decades and wake refreshed.”

“Being human is much harder,” blurted Ray. “We have old age and death. Our world is full of suffering and injustice.”

The witch nodded. “It’s men who are at the bottom of all the trouble.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Absolutely,” answered the witch, fluffing her hair.

“But some men are rather nice.”

“I suppose you mean your very attentive husband.”

Ray had the honesty to blush.

“Though men do have their uses,” the witch allowed. “I have several to amuse me in my toy room. When I’m through playing, I put them in a cupboard where they can do no harm. The old and shabby ones, I throw away.” She paused. “I’m rather bored. I wouldn’t mind a new one.”

Ray was horrified. It was difficult to imagine this charming creature behaving so callously.

“I’m forgetting my manners,” said the witch, fluttering her lashes. “Would you like tea?”

Ray was relieved to talk of other things. The witch left the room and returned a short time later with two steaming cups on a pretty tray. Ray’s tea was hot and sweet, the way she liked it.

“This blend does wonders for the complexion,” said the witch. She handed Ray a mirror.

Ray gasped. What a transformation! She was still herself, but each feature had been enhanced. Her skin seemed to be glowing from within. Ray turned to the witch, stammering her thanks.

“A trifle,” responded the witch, “a small thing, really. Women must help each other.” She twinkled at Ray. “You can help me, too.”

“I…help you?”

“Certainly. I hear you have a friend, a gentleman friend, an attractive silver friend.”

Ray was a truthful person. She couldn’t help nodding.

“Well,” said the witch, “I’d like to…acquire him.”

“I don’t understand,” said Ray, hoping she didn’t.

The witch pursed her lips. “I forget you are a stranger to our ways. I can bring him to me easily enough – she snapped her fingers and, to Ray’s astonishment, the moon man floated in the center of the room – “but,” said the witch, “you must agree to let me keep him. That’s one of our laws,” she added, grimacing, as if to imply the laws were foolish and the forest badly run.

Ray stared at the moon man. He didn’t smile or even glance at her. He seemed to be utterly indifferent. The witch leaned close to Ray. “Give him to me,” she whispered. “I’ll make it worth your while. Think of anything you want – talent, possessions, knowledge – I can provide them.”

“I’d rather not,” said Ray.

“Beauty,” finished the witch, smiling sweetly.

Ray couldn’t speak. She’d led a quiet life. She’d never faced such complicated choices. She needed the moon man to advise her, but he was suspended in the witch’s spell.

“I’ll treat him well,” said the witch.

She looked so lovely, sounded so persuasive. Her rainbow dress glistened in the lamplight. Ray gazed at the delicate fabric. She’d thought it was silk, but now, inspecting it more closely, she saw that it was made from iridescent feathers of hummingbirds. And from each of the witch’s ears hung a chrysalis, its unborn butterfly entombed within. Ray shuddered. “I won’t,” she declared. “Not ever.”

The witch shrieked and the cottage disappeared.

Ray stood trembling in the darkness. A few moments later, the moon man joined her. She cast him a stormy look. “Why didn’t you help me with the witch?”

The moon man ignored her anger. “We must move on. I wonder what awaits us,” he said softly.

Ray didn’t feel eager for new adventures. The encounter with the witch had frightened her. The moon man found a clearing ringed by pines where she curled up on a bed of fallen needles and fell asleep.

She was woken by shrill voices. An ugly old man and a child were quarreling as they passed. The man held a bar of chocolate.

“Take this,” he said to Ray. “My girl doesn’t deserve it. She’s been naughty.”

Ray was extremely hungry. She seized the sweet. But as she devoured it, she started feeling odd.

A short time later, the moon man appeared with fragrant herbs for tea and an armful of twigs he’d collected to make a fire. But Ray was gone. He began to search the clearing. As he searched, a small gray spider scurried up his leg. The moon man stretched out a finger and coaxed the fragile creature into his palm. He studied it, then picking up a leaf he folded it carefully around the spider and dropped the leaf into a pocket of his cloak.

The moon man continued to roam through the forest. After many hours he came to a chasm and sat down on its edge, swinging his legs.

Suddenly he smelled fire. He turned and saw the trees behind him burning. Smoke sequined with sparks billowed upwards. Small animals fleeing from the destruction gathered round him. Moths and butterflies, their wings too delicate to make the long flight across the gorge, perched on his shoulders. Reaching into his pocket, the moon man took the spider from its leaf and placed it on the rim of the abyss. The spider began to work industriously. In a short time, it had spun an enormous web. The moon man flung the web across the chasm so that it tangled in trees on the other side. He slipped the spider back into his pocket and very carefully, so as not to dislodge the creatures that clung to him, he crossed the web to safety.

“It’s useful to own a spider,” said one of the chipmunks.

“A good thing, indeed,” said the moon man.

The next thing the moon man did was to find some flexible twigs and fashion a small cage for the spider. He placed green leaves inside and even a yellow flower for decoration. Later, he trapped gnats and tiny flies and dropped them in. All in all, he took devoted care of his companion. But late that night he heard the spider crying.

The next day, when the moon man wasn’t watching, a small boy discovered the spider’s cage and opened it. He seized the spider, tore off all its legs and ground its body into dust between his fingers. When the moon man turned around, there was Ray, stretched out on the earth near the broken cage, looking dirty, rumpled and furious.

“You beast!” she shouted at the moon man. “Why didn’t you protect me from that bully?”

“Was it very painful?” asked the moon man.

“Yes,” said Ray, “it was. Extremely painful.”

The moon man put his arm around Ray’s shoulders. She sat stiffly at first, but after a few moments, she leaned against him. The moon man smiled. Reaching into his cloak, he pulled out a pair of earrings with purple stones and fastened them in Ray’s ears. “Peace offering,” he said.

The lush new forest raised the travelers’ spirits. Ray picked a colourful bunch of flowers and presented it to the moon man. Later, as they were passing through an orchard, the moon man gathered fruit. He served it on an enormous glossy leaf and Ray ate every bit. Afterwards, she drank from a nearby stream.

“I think I could stay here forever,” murmured Ray, stretching out on the springy grass.

Just then, a troop of fairies burst into the clearing, not the languid, airy creatures Ray would have expected, but as ragged and boisterous as gypsies. They were arguing loudly.

“I saw it first,” said one.

“It’s mine,” said another.

Ray wondered what it was they wanted so badly. They brushed by her without a word of greeting, and one even flung her an odd, ill-natured glance.

When they’d gone and their cries had grown faint, Ray looked into the stream to admire her earrings. To her shock, one of them had vanished. She and the moon man searched the ground, but without success.

Ray scowled. “The fairies must have taken it…little thieves!”

“Perhaps we can follow them,” suggested the moon man, “and get it back.”

They went off in the direction the fairies had taken. Once, they were sure they’d glimpsed them among the trees, but it was only a peacock strutting through the forest flaunting its tail.

Finally, near dusk, they heard chanting. Gathered on a rock not far away were all the fairies, harmony restored, sitting in a circle, swaying together. They’d placed Ray’s earring in the center of the circle and seemed to be worshipping it.

With an outraged cry, Ray rushed into their midst and seized her earring. The fairies flew up like a swarm of angry wasps, and one of them snatched the amethyst back.

“It’s mine,” bellowed Ray, “you stole it!”

“It’s not yours,” shouted the fairies in unison, “it’s ours and always has been. You are the thief.”

They passed the gem from hand to hand, and tossed it over Ray’s head like teasing children. Ray began to cry.

“It’s mine,” she repeated wildly, “a gift from a precious friend,” she added, hoping to soften their hearts.

The moon man slipped quietly to her side. Ray expected that he would help her, but he whispered, “Let them have the jewel.”

Ray was astounded. “But they stole it,” she protested.

“You have another,” said the moon man. “It’s true they behaved badly. Still, it would be kind to let them keep it.”

Ray looked at the fairies. The dimness blurred and faded their vivid rags. Their large eyes glistened with resentment. One of them clutched the amethyst to his chest. Ray touched her ear. The second earring was indeed in place. Abruptly, she turned her back and stalked away.

After a while, Ray’s anger subsided. She looked back, expecting to see the moon man, but there was no one. Night had fallen without her noticing and a moon as round as a wafer hung in the sky. She peered into the trees hoping to discern a silvery glow but saw only unrelenting blackness. It was difficult to go further without light, so Ray lay down under a tree and tried to sleep.

Perhaps she succeeded, perhaps not. She heard singing nearby, and soon a little girl came into view. Over her shoulder she carried a large straw basket. When she saw Ray, she smiled. “I’ve found you at last,” she said with a sigh of relief. “You left these in my care. According to our laws, I must return them.”

The child heaved the basket down. As she did, two objects tumbled out. One was a dead bird the colour of sunlight. The other was a small, brown paper parcel. Inside was a tiny pup. It had clearly been in the bag a long, long time, for the paper adhered to its fur. When Ray had carefully peeled it all away, she saw, to her dismay, that the pup was blind. Its eyes were as opaque as two black buttons. It was also weak from hunger and neglect.

Ray stood and looked around. The child had gone. She took up the golden bird and stroked it sadly. Its feathers were soft and still a little warm. Gently, Ray laid it on a bed of moss. Then she turned all her attention to the puppy, wondering what on earth she could feed it. Just then, a pearly sap began to flow from the little finger of her left hand. Holding the puppy in her lap, she shook a few drops onto his mouth. He licked them eagerly. Ray fed him until, sated, he curled up and fell asleep. Then Ray slept too.

When she woke, it was morning. She looked around for the pup, but he had vanished. Ray went to the spot where she’d left the yellow bird, but it was gone as well. She inspected her little finger. It looked completely unexceptional in the daylight. “This forest evokes strange visions,” murmured Ray.

She set out to look for water. As she walked, she picked an apple and a pear and ate them ravenously. Nearby, she found a pond fed by a spring that gushed from the roots of a tree. Ray bent down and gazed with satisfaction at the purple glitter of her earring. It was then she noticed the earring in her other ear, a small, creamy opal sprinkled with rainbows. Lifting a finger, she stroked the earring’s smoothness.

Ray drank a little water and washed her face, wishing she had the pup for company. Without the moon man she felt lonely and disconnected. The forest had lost its wild and tempting beauty. It was only an ordinary forest, with insects that tickled her face and twigs that scratched. Everywhere she went, Ray looked at birds. There were scores of them, birds of every colour, but none of them was as yellow as a sunbeam. I suppose I killed the only one, she thought.

Suddenly, she heard laughter and noticed a shape moving through the trees. Impulsively, Ray followed. To her surprise, she saw the bully who had heartlessly crushed the spider. He was throwing stones at birds flying overhead, whooping with joy when a feather floated down. Blood rushed to Ray’s head. She crept up behind the boy, seized his torso, and tore off his arms and legs. He was surprisingly light and easy to dismember. She threw the boy’s limbs into the bushes then sank to the ground, heart hammering wildly, shocked by her violence.

Moments later, a song drifted from the bushes. To Ray’s amazement, a yellow bird rose into the air, a bird the colour of buttercups, of daisy hearts, of sun. “Follow me,” it sang.

Ray followed. After a day and a night and another morning, the bird fluttered down and perched on a low branch. Ray saw that they had reached another chasm. Over this chasm stretched a silver thread, and from this thread was suspended a silver world. Houses and streets and parks. Rivers and mountains. Forests of silver trees and silver flowers. Silver birds and silver animals. Somehow the thread, which looked so fragile, could hold them all.

“This is my realm,” said a voice, “would you like to visit?”

Ray turned and saw the moon man, hand outstretched. Ray took it eagerly. Together they explored the nooks and crannies of his kingdom.


At last, sated with wonders, Ray returned home. She was just in time to greet her weary husband, back from his International Conference on Taxation. He kissed the top of her head, slid off his shoes, and went to see if his Financial Times had been delivered.

Ray made them tea, which they drank in comfortable silence. After a while, her husband glanced up fondly.

“Well, my dear, what have you been up to?”

“Nothing too unusual,” said Ray.

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