Napsbury Mental Hospital (St. Albans), Middlesex County, England
Opal gazed out her third floor window at the distant scattering of trees that lay beyond the cultivated gardens of Napsbury. She wondered who, among the many great firs she had loved so long ago, might have relatives living among the deciduous giants that grew beyond the walls of the asylum. Perhaps she would know a few by name, for she had known their distant cousins, certainly. The forest invited her to return to Oregon, to the singing creek where the willows grow – to her childhood, where the trees talked and listened, and sang with her. It had been so long since she had sung to the trees. So many years since she had heard star songs in the fields at night. More than anything, she wanted to hear those songs again.
The square glass – middle pane, one down, two over – rattled a bit in the frame of another fading day, shivering in the autumn chill. A thin crevice of icy air seeped in under the sill. The radiator hissed low at her feet, gurgling and clonking in its rumbly way, pushing back against the early-trespassing winter. She tugged the shawl about her rounded shoulders. The Woman Who Wears White wouldn’t be back until the sun was well down. She needn’t fear any more, they told her, the People in White. No more ice baths. No more stinging bees in the cap. She was past all that.
Her nose itched, and she raised her hand, but the bandages reminded her not to scratch. Still, even through the gauze, the faint trace of camphor and dried rosemary leaves wrapped themselves around her, and she nodded…
Opal opened her eyes and shifted on her seat to get a better view. The carriage window was high and she had to stretch to see. She put her hands, small and delicate even for a 5-year old, on the frame of the open window. One of the iron-rimmed carriage wheels hit a gopher hole with a whump! A plume of dust blew in through the open window, scattering the fairies. Not that they minded the grit or the heat of the stuffy coach on this late summer afternoon. These were dust fairies. Opal knew that well enough, though she had limited experience with this tribe since they lived far beyond the river from her home in France, and she had only heard of them from Angel Father. They were kind, he had said, for they bathed often in stargleams.
The Woman Who Wears White sitting across from her on the thin, cushioned seat held a white handkerchief to her mouth and nose, and squinched her eyes closed against the dust. Beside her, the Man Who Wears White sat making marks on a white piece of card paper. He must have enjoyed it, he made so many marks. He reminded Opal of someone. A man who was coming, but whom she remembered. It was bothersome, but no too much. Opal smiled a kindness on him, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there yet. He gave her a smile and wink. He knew.
To the casual observer Opal’s new coachmates would have appeared to be flitting about like inebriated dragonflies, confused and tumbling in the swirling dust. But Opal knew better. Fairies dance in butterfly patterns that must be explored with greater patience than most big people could afford, even if they could recognize the fairies in the first place. Opal had met very few big people who could see the fairies as they truly were, even when she pointed them out sitting quiet and still on a bee’s wing, or on a fishing pole. And it was a rare thing for the fairies to quiet themselves even for a second. For they did love to dance very fast, very fast indeed, especially when they were making room for new friends, as they were now for the cloud of newbies that had just poured in through the coach window, past the tied-back curtain.
The interior of the coach swarmed with multi-colored wings and the glass-like trill of fairy songs, which they used in greeting one another when they were excited. Apparently, their meeting like this was a happy coincidence, and provided an opportunity for an impromptu reunion. It was all quite wonderful. Opal smiled and tried to breathe in the vapors as her tiny friends called them, but she choked and coughed. The Woman Who Wears White made a waving motion with her hand.
“Where are we going?” Opal asked the Woman Who Wears White.
“You know,” she said, and she looked out the window, the way big people do when they want children to hush now.
The Man reached over and touched the sleeve of the Woman Who Wears White. He looked looks at Opal that were filled with puzzles. “What’s your name, little one?” he asked.
Opal giggled. “I am, yes.”
“You are?” The Man asked. The Woman Who Wears White looked back at Opal with impatience lines on her face. “You are what? Who are you?”
“Little one – petite, I am Petite Francois. But not my real name.”
“Then, who is Francois?”
“Dear Saint Francois of Assisi. I have thinks he did love all the little people in the trees, and all the animal folk, and so I do. And so they call me.”
The Man made more marks on his white card paper.
The Woman Who Wears White shifted on her cushion. “The way she talks,” she said out the window, as if she was angry at the world inside and out. “Ain’t natural. Ain’t right for a child.”
“So,” said The Man, paying The Lady no mind. “Petite Francois. But that’s not your real name?”
Opal laughed, and the fairies flew up to her so she could see them all in a cloud. They whispered with fairy whispers so no one else would hear. Opal looked at The Man. “You know,” she said, the way children do when they understand more than big people.