Be a Helper (part one)
Be a Helper
Now it is the case with sprites, that one rule curtails them. In the Realm are a thousand variants, as to types and strengths of magic; and probably a thousand areas of specialization. Groundworts and lugdors have their wishes, as do box turtles and flying squirrels, as do full-grown men and women.
A sprite has the power to grant any wish, provided it is helpful to its requestor. In the Council’s opinion, given in the case of Nuthatch v. Charming (Prince), the Sages note that everything is ultimately unhelpful to everyone. The recipient of a wish must therefore have expected it do good, whether it turns out so, or not.
This ruling (which is Magic’s, not the Council’s) circumvents greed, and lust, and cowardice, and all shades of anger, and even goes far against false humility.
Bede Dwale was a sage, though not the Council-worthy sort, and a man who kept an excellent house, a tidy and pleasant house, with three stories above ground. Five beds on the first, eight on the second, provisioning against flood and invaders taking up much of the third, but four beds even here, and against the threat of a royal visit, a pair of elfin poster-beds, canopied and curtained, in the attics. His house was particularly open to sprites; he had made it his personal quest to rescue and teach meaningful work to as many as word-of-mouth brought his way.
At present, Bede’s rooms accommodated a mere handful. A mother and daughter, all the second story theirs for the festooning, the shifting of furniture, and the emptying and filling of closets…
As, on a technicality, sprites are permitted to please one another’s goodhearted whims…
And they are goodhearted creatures.
Bede had also his three bachelor sprites, each straggled in independently, each refugee from some damaging excess. For sprites, left to judge matters for themselves, have a fatal inclination to overtry.
The month was March, the weather unseasonable. Dire winter a week ago; summer today. Bede’s domain lay at the Realm’s edge. The western End of Things was thought to be touched by ocean, but all land a sane person would set foot on was flat between forbidding cliffs, and these undulating hills that rose to a higher (topographical) plane. There, at the miasmic horizon, was a scrubland of scald and despair; then, very far to be seen, on the clearest of days, mountains. Bede’s hills had no roads built over them, for the people who farmed here walked to their barns, their orchards, their planting grounds, and made paths private to their needs.
A few were capable of hunting, and made tracks to and within the forest. The forest was a viny, mossy, dewy place, rainclouds hovering there for days after seastorms had blown inland to weep themselves dry.
Bede loved the trees, and lived nearer them than the other farmers. He possessed six hills, a large fall of building stones where in ancient times a seventh hill had collapsed, and a border along the Desolate Fell, where none from the Realm sought to go.
His woods were safe from poachers and hunters, because Melchior kept his manor there.
The stranger would be challenged to distinguish Melchior’s camouflaged entries from a ring of rocky pillars, many become parts of trunks, of pines so tall and so full of life that they made their own weather. Little squalls of rain would overtake climbers; impenetrable banks of fog deliver their feet to thin air.
But Melchior was a giant, and his house must fit his size. “And,” he would say, “I trouble the world as little as possible.”
He and Bede were in agreement. So the adage went, that a thing of nature had nature’s wisdom in it; a thing of man, man’s. (Bede’s particular friend would not allow it woman’s.) Bede kept a cow, and for the milk—if his neighbor’s bull came wandering—let her calve. Sheep he kept for their wool, and when the wolves took prey from among the elderly, this he counted the Goddess’s sound practice; even the wildcats, or a passing eagle, might have a lamb. He kept chickens, but ate only their eggs. He kept hazelbushes, without hating the deer or squirrels for looting them, although like anyone he was very fond of the nuts.
Waters this day ran in streamlets over all the hilly earth. Snow, which ought not to have been so persistent, had at last melted. The sun wore a decent veil, and radiated a warm, gentle light. Bede saw that in his best herb bed two of his sprites had done magic.
“Gadwall! Scoter! The soil is not to be turned when it’s soggy. Besides which, you have wished yourselves an outsized turnip, and I don’t see why you should.”
“Well,” said Gadwall. “It was meant to be a beet. Jorinda says they have sugar, and we like sugar. But I was only picturing it. I’ll have to guess, then, that I don’t know the difference!”
Scoter laughed, going on for a minute or two, as sprites always find their mistakes a merry business.
“Now who is going to pull that mammoth thing up by the roots? The bed will need topping with compost, and left quite alone ’til proper spring, the two of you!”
For all that his hope was to wean them from the use of magic, and teach them the basics of cultivation, tasks even a sprite could manage (they were two-thirds Bede’s own size…not, like an elf, endangered by gusts of wind), Bede was peeved. Among his six hills, there was not enough manure straw, and he would have to go abroad for it.
He would have to find Melchior, for only Melchior might want the turnip.
Chores, chores! When he had wanted to stroll to the woods, and note the first spring changes.
He knew this hope was vain. Sprites were much like dogs, and cats, and ponies, and even venturesome chickens, all of whom fell to a train in Bede’s wake when he went off strolling anywhere. Cats, ponies, and chickens would lapse at the forest edge, dogs and sprites trek on. The third of his lads, Whimbrel, tumbled from the roof of the shed he’d been turfing, a progress Bede did not yet want to observe at close quarters. The daughter, Finch, and her mother, Bunting, leapt from an open window, able by some craft in their garments (cardigans, otherwise, and floral skirts) to glide from heights—even those greater than a second story’s.
“No, I can’t have all of you,” said Bede. “Whimbrel, run tell Jorinda we’ll be in the woods, but soon back.”
Whimbrel arrested himself in such a way that Finch and Bunting crowded close on his heels, while a chicken off-guard fluttered to perch on his hat. The cow, penned next to this path, came prying her horns at the fence rail.
Whimbrel took a mirror from a pocket; Finch made the illuminating remark: “Won’t she need one of her own? Or the mirror in the hall, but you’ll have to summon her, won’t you? How will you go about that?”
“Why wouldn’t I call out to her?”
“Because,” said Bede, “you can well do that from here. We are hardly out of earshot. More polite if you’ll simply run, as I said.”
“Go! Go!” Finch passed him to Bunting, who seized his jacket in turn and flung him towards Jorinda’s workroom.
Jorinda was at the sill already. “What is it now?” She spied the turnip. “Wish it away, Gadwall!”
“I tried that. I tried wishing it another thing than a turnip. I’ve spent the goodwill, I suppose.”
This was scant, for humor, but the sprites all laughed.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Jorinda.
“It’s got a purpose of its own now,” Scoter said. “Whatever it’s good for, counts more than the good of getting rid of it.”
“Then I’ll second Bede, and hope you’ve learned your lesson.”
(They never learned this lesson, not to do… Just the hint of magic. Truly, the least small improvement, the tiniest—and wholly well-meant—kindness, after all, when you came down to it…)
Bunting said: “We are all going to find Melchior.”
“But can’t you help me with the wool, love? You and Gadwall. Gadwall’s a wonder at carding.”
Be a Helper
(2021, Stephanie Foster)