Today I came across three slim books in my mother’s boudoir, entitled Of Herbs and Faeries, Of Love and Faeries, and Of Thoughts and Faeries, by Jacquie Eastlake. They used to stand on the top shelf of one of the big glass-fronted oak bookcases in the living-room of our country house in Normandy, next to a book on aromatherapy and some yellowed copies of Jane Austen’s novels. All these were not in the other bookcase, which contained the children’s books – Heidi and Winnie the Pooh and my mother’s own copy of Caroline and her Friends, which she had got for her seventh or eighth birthday – and of course, it was these that I was most attracted to. The fact that the bookcase locked with an ornate brass key that clicked loudly when it was turned made it all the more alluring. I used to wait till I was all alone (for the magic worked best when not under adult supervision) and then creep stealthily up to the bookcase and turn the key oh-so-slowly, with both hands around it, to muffle the tell-tale click. The doors, when opened, released a strange smell of beeswax, cedar balls, musty old paper, and damp (for the house was unoccupied for most of the year and, as everybody knows, it rains as much in Normandy as it does in England). How I loved that smell! I still do, as a matter of fact – the house is sold now, but occasionally I come across something we used to have there and which is still impregnated with a faint but persistent scent of mould, and I grin foolishly and recall happy summer holidays.
At the time, I didn’t give a fig (if you’ll excuse the pun!) for gardens or for gardening. There were two rose beds beneath the kitchen windows, which had been planted twenty years before our time, and the roses looked very pretty against the wooden shutters, despite the cobwebs with which the latter were also decorated. But because we were so rarely there, the rest of the tiny garden ran wild – the wild grasses would grow so tall in our absence that my father’s first task was always to take a scythe to them, so that my brothers, my sister and I could run around without fear of snakes. We loved that garden all the more for its being untamed.
There was a chestnut tree which we loved to climb and then hang upside down from, a silver birch with two trunks growing at an angle from each other, in which my brothers built a rickety tree house, and a cave-like hollow in the hedge at the bottom of the garden, where the stone path disappeared in the undergrowth, which we called our Headquarters and which we could only “enter” once we had jingled the bell that hung from a twig and spoken the password (which, for a long time, was “mint sauce” because of our admiration for the Secret Seven). There was also an old, gnarled plum tree in what used to be the kitchen garden, which gave the biggest, purpliest, juiciest plums I have ever tasted. The four of us would scale the garden wall and perch like oversized birds on the slanting corrugated iron roof of the woodshed and spend whole afternoons conversing and feasting on those plums, which we only had to lean over and pick from the nearest branches. I don’t recall us ever getting sick – though sometimes, having feasted a little too well, we were not hungry come dinner-time.
In fact, it was exactly the sort of garden in which one could imagine pixies, gnomes, and all kinds of fairy-folk, living and playing around in with the mice and the shrews. Jacquie Eastlake gave enthralling shapes and voices to these folk. Her fairies were not pretty little girls in coloured frocks, like Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies (though I liked those well enough), but queerer, wilder pen-and-ink creatures, not exactly graceful, for they had knobbly knees and bony shoulders, twig-like fingers and curiously elongated feet, naked, slightly sagging breasts, and grotesque features, with high prominent cheekbones, slanting kohl-rimmed eyes, flat noses and wide mouths. Most people make fairies look too much like humans, simply miniaturized, but Jacquie Eastlake seemed to know that their power lay in their strangeness, their otherworldliness. Creatures that consort with insects and toads by moonlight and know the secrets of mushrooms and herbs are not meant to be entirely reassuring.
Accompanying these drawings were little verses: recipes for face lotions and love potions made from garden herbs (my mother’s lavender never seemed prosaic after that!), proverbs and old wives’ sayings, basic elements of astrology, and tales of metamorphoses involving the Greek gods. Italics, old-fashioned spellings, and rhyming couplets confer on a text the power of an incantation: there those books lay in a locked cabinet, untouched for most of the year, and almost out of reach of my inquisitive fingers, and I was convinced that, given leave to consult them and to collect the necessary ingredients, I really could cook up magical potions and remedies, and become a sort of witch myself. When we sold the house in Normandy, the bookcases were brought to our new house, along with all the rest of the furniture. But their contents were sorted out and rearranged, and the Faery books vanished I knew not where. I couldn’t remember who had written them, and only their strangeness lingered in my memory, like the particular mustiness that emanated from those bookcases. Until today.
Of course, now that I am all grown up, their potency has faded a little. But the pictures and the verses are still odd, and quaint, and full of charm. And in my heart of hearts, I am still very fond of fairies, and more than half willing to believe in them.
© Florence Berlioz 2011