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Wild Strawberries and Moonlight

by Charles Haddox

Zoë locked the door of her shop and set out with three of her roommates, Zodiac, Winter and Carla, for the Elysium Fair. The midsummer evening was warm and clear, and a girlish moon dressed in lace danced cheerfully in a luminous sky. Zoë and her friends were walking to the fair, which was on the other side of a sleepy river at the far end of their rural neighborhood. They were wearing party gowns and harlequin masks they had made themselves out of soft black felt and faux bird feathers.

The full-length gowns made walking a little difficult in the silky night, but they were in no hurry, though each was full of excitement and anticipation regarding the fair; even Zodiac, who had only been there through the tales of the others. Despite their eagerness, they had decided to take the opportunity to stop for dinner at Old Dominic's Castle, which happened to be on the way, a small country inn with whitewashed walls and heavy oak doors and a brick-paved courtyard where they could sit under strings of twinkle lights and a sheltering birch tree that was over a hundred years old and had been planted by the Spanish. The fair didn’t begin in earnest until eleven.

Zodiac, Winter and Carla wore fairy wings, but Zoë could never keep hers on for very long and instead wore a shimmering green shawl and a garland of pink tea roses on her head.

When they arrived at Old Dominic’s Castle and were seated in the old-fashioned courtyard, Zodiac began telling funny stories that had Zoë and the others roaring with laughter. They each ordered a cold mug of yeast-topped honey wheat beer, except for Winter, who couldn’t drink beer because of a mild liver complaint. She decided to have a sparkling ginger limeade that was sweetened with honey instead of simple syrup.

Zodiac adopted an eccentric version of her usual Dutch accent and playfully answered every question with, “I have a reason.” The broad comic accent made the phrase sound like “a hefeweizen.” It made Zoë laugh until her sides felt as if they were ready to burst, and she laughed even harder after the waiter got confused and brought more beer, convinced that Zodiac was actually ordering another round.

They ate flatbread drizzled with rosemary-infused olive oil, and dandelion, chicory and cherry tomato salads with apple mustard dressing. The main dish was stir-fried tempeh with baby carrots on rice in a kalamata fig and pine nut glaze. Finally, a delicious dessert was served: chocolate and cordial cherry cupcakes with peppermint icing.

Zoë ate only one of the cupcakes because she wanted to leave room for spicy roasted almonds and a raspberry ice and a cup of blood-colored claret mulled with spices at the fair. She asked her roommates if there was anything else that they wanted and, in return, received their wholehearted assurance that satisfaction had been achieved by all.

“We can’t stop here; the fair’s waiting just for us,” Zoë said with a laugh.

“There is no fair without us,” Winter added.

And standing up and twirling her skirt, Carla cried out, “’Cause we are the fairest,” a sentiment that was met with cheers and whoops from the others.

Zoë laughed, surprised to see her sisters, usually so quiet and restrained, full of liveliness and festivity..

They set out along the tree-lined road for the softly chanting river, and the little bridge of wood and brass that would lead them to the rolling park where the Elysium Fair was held each year on the night in June when the full moon arrived.

“I can already see the bonfire,” Winter said, pointing to a bright orange glow in the distance. There was always a great bonfire on the shore of an artificial lake that had been built near the center of the park.

Zoë’s heart beat with excitement, just as it had when she was a child. Several of her favorite local singers and musicians were set to perform, and an all-girl folk group from England was headlining. She was anxious to see what the vendors, artisans like herself, were offering for sale. Carla had asked her why she didn’t sell her own work at the fair, and she answered her that the fair was for fun, not for work. The year before, Zoë had bought a silver sun pendant from a pale, wistful young woman, and she wore it all evening to celebrate the season.

As the little troupe of roommates and sisters approached the fairgrounds, Zoë noticed that the wild strawberries growing in small patches along the road were already ripening. In the shadowy moonlight the fruits looked like clever serpent heads. She and her roommates loved to pick wild strawberries under the summer sun, and she was happy to know that it was nearly time to get out her willow gathering baskets. Everything had worked together to make the special night magic, and Zoë knew that there were plenty of marvels still to come.

Cars heading to the fair passed them on the road, and one driver, a young man with a friendly smile, asked Zoë and her roommates if they needed a ride.

“No thanks,” Carla called to him, “look, we’re almost there anyway.”

In fact, the fair lay just ahead of them, across the little footbridge that spanned the sleepy river. Chinese lanterns of red and white illuminated the booths that sold food and libations and trinkets and handmade clothing, as well as the stage where a tin-whistle player was performing with a local band. Beyond the lanterns, the bonfire rose into the night like dragon’s breath.

As soon as Zoë and her friends arrived, they scattered through the fair to find their own enchantments. Winter and Carla went to watch the musical performers; Zodiac, to have a mug of mead and dance near the bonfire, and Zoë, to wander amid the vendors’ booths.

Zoë found an elderly couple dressed as iridescent Junebugs who were offering cups of water from the Well at the World’s End. They were tall and very dignified, even in their fantastic insect costumes, and both had plentiful white locks that fell over their shoulders like silver waterfalls. Zoë struck up a conversation with the woman after emptying a goblet-shaped cup ornamented with an engraving of the famous well inscription, and learned that she and her husband were over two hundred years old! Zoë thanked her for the drink and she answered in return, “May you always be strong of heart.”

Zoë continued to make her way through the crowded fair, past revelers in costume and tall puppets made of cloth and wood, surrounded by the smell of fire and delicious treats for the hungry and the thirsty. She watched the jugglers and stilt-walkers and fire dancers, the magicians and clowns and acrobats. A child dressed as a cat sold smoothies with her mother. From their tree branch perch, friendly pirates hailed Zoë.

“Come to sea with us,” they shouted.

“No thanks, I’m quite happy here on land,” she answered.

“The sky is an ocean, too,” the eldest pirate, who was bald and had a long red beard, shouted in a warning tone. “An ocean without harbors or quays, where the only lighthouse is the moon.”

A little boy about eight years old came running to Zoë and took her hand. “Princess, princess, will you come with me? I want to ride in the hot air balloon at the far end of the fair, but the pilot will not let a little boy ride without an adult to look after me.”

Zoë studied the boy closely and began to doubt that he actually was a child, or at least a child of Adam. But he seemed friendly, and did ever so much want to ride the balloon, which looked for all the world like a giant glowing yellow cupcake as it sat off in the distance ready to depart for the clouds.

“Okay, I’ll go with you in the balloon, but just over the fairgrounds, and you must behave and not lean too far over the basket, because you have parents somewhere who will expect ‘yours truly’ to keep you safe.”

“I’ll be as good as gold, as electrum, and you can tell my parents if I don’t behave.”

“Sounds good,” Zoë said, and because she was already very fond of him (he was Monday’s Child if ever there was one, with his long golden hair that broke into a thousand little curls on his graceful neck), she reached into her bright cotton bag and produced a present. It was a flipbook she had drawn herself, based on the story, “Magnus North of Stockholm.”

The flipbook began when Magnus was still a boy and first met the blue ogre, and continued with his trip to see the king when he was a young man. Finally, the living pictures finished with Magnus’ marriage to Berit, the blue ogre’s beautiful blue daughter, after he out-danced the Chief of the Ogres at the Äsjölarsgård Fortress.

The boy was thrilled by such a precious gift, and flipped the creamy pages with his careful little hands.

“Oh, Magnus, I remember you. You were quite the troublemaker in your day. But you turned out to be an excellent father. I saw one of your great-great-grandchildren the other day. He’s an accountant and has his head full of taxes and depreciation and balance sheets, but he’s bluer than Berit and a better dancer than you ever were. Ha, ha, Magnus, but I see you still dance well enough in the flipbook.”

“Let’s go,” Zoë said. “The balloon is about to leave the ground.”

They could almost hear the oohs and aahs of the crowd below as the bright balloon drifted over the fair. Everyone was looking up at them in their fragile wicker basket as the gas flare illuminated the lofty yellow bag that towered above them. It would be a short trip, as the pilot meant to land in an open field just beyond the river. But what a trip it was!

The moon looked surprised at first to see them gliding so near at hand, but it wasn’t long before she smiled and waved, taking pleasure in the marvelous spectacle just like the crowd below. A flock of half-asleep flying fish sailed by, adorned in brilliant chain mail and silent as the dead. They sailed through the pungent blue smoke rising from the bonfire below that smelled of pine and St. John’s wort.

The night wind whispered, “Don’t let the boy fly away,” as it passed through Zoë’s long, dark hair, making her tresses flutter like raven’s wings. She held her companion’s hand a bit tighter, and he smiled at her.

The moon began to flirt with the boy in a childish way, and he flirted back, flattered.

“What’s your name, little moon?” he called out to her. “You look so pretty in your blushing haze.”

“Arvella,” she sang, “Arvella Halcyon Pearl.”

She beckoned to him with her fetching smile, and continued the conversation in a welcoming voice, until a tall evening cumulus took her from their sight.

“That moon doesn’t need to be flirting,” Zoë said to the boy. “She got carried away by the bright balloon and the lights of the fair. She needs to remember where she belongs and where you belong.”

But the boy continued to scan the sky.

Space debris with strange inscriptions from a thousand worlds rained down about them like mahjong tiles. And in the distance a blue and red dragon kite that had escaped its string in China hovered about, its tail in tatters and its long, forked carmine tongue rather faded.

Zoë saw that its huge, bulging reptilian eyes were gloomy, and she asked him, “Why are you so sad, magnificent shen-long, you who are usually so auspicious?”

The little boy answered for the dragon. “He’s sad because he’s lonely, drifting up here in the sky all alone.”

“Come down to the fair,” Zoë called to the dragon kite. “All the people will welcome you.”

But the shen-long kite said nothing. He just drifted and stared with all his might.

The girl-moon, who was pale as a drowned sailor and not much older than the boy in the gondola, burst through the cloudbank with the suddenness of fate. She looked with love and longing at the boy, who held his flipbook in one hand and Zoë’s warm palm in the other, and she sang a song to him in her sweetest celestial voice:

The sky is an ocean of briny lights
That dance to the drum of the moon,
With our jewels and the gold of Great Constantine,
We call you from your balloon.

Stay in our treasury far from the earth,
Where the quicksilver waves are years.
The wings that will bear you upon the strong winds
Are fashioned from angels’ tears.

The boy slipped his hand out of Zoë’s just as the balloon touched the earth again.

* * *

Zoë sat by the lake with her roommates, eating a raspberry ice and watching the bonfire die down. Her hair was damp from the sweet morning dew. Carla was sleeping contentedly, her head on Zoë’s shoulder. Winter had lost her fairy wings, and Zodiac, who was a little drunk, wore on her head a red muslin scarf that she had bought at the fair. Soon day would be breaking.

Zoë raised her open hand to the east. “Little boy, little boy, come back from the sky, so I can see you home.” No one answered her, and the flames by the water decayed to glowing embers ahead of the quiet dawn.

* *

[Author’s note] Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas. He has worked as a grant writer, community organizer and in fair trade marketing. You can read more about Zoë and her friends in Sein und Werden, the Wunderkammer issue; Chicago Quarterly Review, volume 15; Forge Journal, 7.1; and New Dead Families, Number 9. This story originally appeared in Bickley, Sparrow & Rooke’s lovely print journal, The Germ.

Copyright © 2018 by Charles Haddox

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