She swings on a vine, letting her white dress float out behind her amid the scent of moss. She lives in an enchanted forest and comes to people the dream world of little girls. In a tale in which fantasy goes hand in hand with reality, the novelist Astrid Eliard has drawn the playful portrait of a sylph, but who is she?
Of all the stories that one tells to children, rare are those that resist the test of adulthood. Many are lost; all the others end up raising an indulgent smile. And that is how enchantment – fairy keys, elves, magic flowers – is extinguished. With a wry little smile.
The one I requested of my mother for years and years without her ever tiring of it, grew up with me. And today, it gives me the impression of a mighty oak tree, its branches reaching above the canopy of dreams. Because of this tale, I wandered lost in forests as night fell. I took unconsidered risks; I headed straight into storms threatening the Forest of Tronçais, of Brocéliande or Rambouillet. I espied wild boar furiously rooting in the earth. I listened to sound of raindrops, after the rain had ceased to fall when there remained only droplets falling delicately from the leaves. I lifted stones swarming with little beetles, gathered twigs, anemones and periwinkles for my herbaria. On returning home from my excursions, I always felt a little sad as I brushed away the soil from beneath my nails or befuddled the bloodsucking tics on my arms and ankles that with ether. Already I missed the forest.
At the beginning, the story, like so many others, told of princesses, of cauldron-bubbling witches and enchanted forests. My mother had a gift for variations and digressions, and thus from magic potion to child-eating ogre, she finally introduced her to me, perched high up in an ash tree, swinging from a vine, her white dress fluttering in the breeze. I am almost certain that in her hair she wore a crown of ivy. My favourite. I was less enamoured of the diamonds and the ribbons of plaited gold that adorned her thereafter.
From then on, castles, secret passages and even outlawed princes camping out among the brambles with a view to rescuing their beloved ceased to interest me. It was her I wanted. I papered my bedroom walls with her image – I spent my days drawing her, flying from tree to tree – all day I awaited the evening with impatience, longing to hear all about her impossible loves with mortals that she pursued to their very doors. Many of them died, doubtless too many, but my mother adored snuffing them out with a breath. I found them terribly weak, those men: they certainly did not live up to the marvellous names they had been given – Gibraltar, Ventur, Elléon or Théor. I did not understand how one could die for love so quickly, without even a kiss and I told myself that I would know how to hold on to her, if she ever appeared before me one day.
Time passed, the time for stories also, and so anything but geography became out of the question. My mother took such things very seriously. She bought me atlases – I fell asleep over them, one hand resting on the page, the other holding on firmly to my torch – she drew maps for me. She answered all my questions: in which forest did she live? She migrated with the seasons, like swallows. What language did she speak? She knew them all. Could she die? Of course, but not like us, of illness or old age, but of grief, of madness, she could. Could she … grow old? She had been eighteen years old for so long … “Grow old? No, I don’t think so…” she replied thoughtfully.
At the age when children give up fairies and when I should have abandoned her, she became more real than ever. Strangely, my doubts reinforced her presence, perched in trees, smiling and amused, on the look out for wanderers who would fall in love with her. For I did doubt, a lot. Whenever I had a sheet of paper to hand, I would draw a line down the middle and fill the two columns, separating what was real – the neighbour’s cat, our building, our neighbourhood with the school, the bakery, the crossroads with their zebra crossings, the bus shelters – from what was not – ghosts (although …) the kingdom of Atlanta, seven-league boots. I never could find a place for her in either column and she often went from one to the other, as from tree to tree – springing light and agile. That suited me. As long as she flitted like that through the air, the mad hope that she existed was permitted me. I talked about her to those around me, at school to Mrs Vermeil, my teacher, who saw in her nothing but “stories for little girls”.
“Now then, grow up, you know very well that sirens don’t exist.”
“Sylphs not sirens.”
“Oh… it doesn’t matter what name you give them…”
She gave a little tap on my satchel and sent me out to join the others who were playing catch or skipping. It was brilliantly sunny that day, the chestnuts were in flower, the holidays were approaching, but for me the world had suddenly become drab, children’s games stupid, their laughter silly. So this, then, was life? This and nothing else? Was there nothing up there, in the forests? When I got home, I tore down the drawings of her from the walls of my room; I ripped up the maps my mother had taken such pains to draw, and sobbing, contemplated the shreds of my childhood. I was angry with my mother, terribly angry. Why had she lied to me? Why tell stories if you couldn’t believe in them. I would have been content with this world if I had only known that it was so confined … I would have made do, but now…
“Who says it’s confined?” my mother interrupted. “The world is not limited to what you can see. Lots of things remain unknowable but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
“So don’t listen to what other people say.”
We patched up the maps with sticky tape, went over in indelible ink the borders of her country, forests of oak, of birch and pine, forests with cycle tracks or trodden with paths, forests of black or red, of green tender or dark, and we set off, at last, to find her.
People took us for Sunday ramblers – a bit better equipped certainly: rucksack, water bottle, compass, walking shoes, cap and packed lunch. “Have we forgotten anything?” my mother would say before slamming the front door impatiently. It mattered little what direction we took, providing we came to a forest. My mother liked them lightly wooded, bathed in light; I preferred them sombre and dense. Side by side, without saying much, we wandered for hours from morning to night. I walked along head in air – in this way I learnt to recognise passerines: tits, pied flycatchers or treecreepers – hoping to catch a glimpse of a white skirt floating through the air. But my mother would often say to me with a knowledgeable air:
“She won’t show herself here,” and she pointed to the beer cans, tissues and plastic bags littering the edge of the paths here and there.
“She lives far away from us, in a world so wild that we cannot imagine it. We must walk farther.”
We picked up the rubbish that soiled the forest – her home – rubbish that, according to my mother, kept her at a distance.
I don’t know how many years we walked like this, cleaning up the woods. I amassed a hoard of objects: a gold coin, a watch, a medal, some sunglasses, a silk scarf, but she always eluded us. The less I saw her, the more I hoped.
My mother aged, too quickly. She was diagnosed with an illness that made her confuse days, seasons and people and made her talk nonsense. I was lost in her babbling, but one thing remained clear in her otherwise confused discourse: the incredible story of that young girl of eighteen who lived in forest trees. She talked a lot about her, and the nurses looking after her listened patiently, one hand pressed against her forehead, as if to calm her ardour: “Yes, yes, there, there … Shhhhh.”
Until the very end, I remained faithful to my mother’s story. Perhaps it was madness … Of course, it was madness, taking the plane to Poland or Germany because my mother, with vacant eyes, had placed her trembling hand on maps of them in an atlas. It was senseless to pursue the quest of a lady who looked twenty years older than she was, who spent her days in a dressing gown, a lady of whom no doctor could say when her dementia had begun, but hope is not sensible, or there would be no sense in hoping.
And then, one day, it happened. She was there. Cross my heart, she was there, rustling the leaves in an oak tree in a forest in Scotland. It was a morning in June, the forest floor was carpeted with violets trembling in the dew. I had slept under the stars, I was chilled to the bone and would have given anything for some coffee and the corner of a sofa. I plunged on, however, where there was no longer a path, no abandoned plastic bags. Moss deadened my footsteps and all was so calm that I thought for an instant that I was wandering in a dream. A deer passed within inches of me; I followed her as far as a stream where she leaned over to drink. It was there that I heard the sound of foraging in a tree. There was no wind, and no bird, not even a big one, could have shaken the branches so noisily. I raised my eyes, dazzled by the rays of sunlight piercing the canopy like sharpened blades. I didn’t see much – as my mother once said to me, you can’t limit the world to what you can see – but a wedding ring falling from the sky bounced off my nose before landing on the mossy ground. Inside the ring was engraved in italics: “I will always love you”.
From whom had she stolen it? Ventur? Elléon? Who had died of love for her? I kissed the ring and slipped it on my finger. The stories we tell to children are not always what they seem.