The Night Janet Brought Her Rhymer Home
by Stephanie Friedman
I want to tell your story, not his: the unpoetic woman who waited while Thomas, your Rhymer, was spellbound by the Fairy Queen. Every stitch you squinted at bound you to the steady life you stood for. You drew water in the chill-dark dawns, hands red-roughed and swollen, wisps of fading hair grazing the gray woolen muffler wound tight around your neck, until the night you were called to the crossroads.
You hurried toward the bobbing flames of their torches as they tramped closer, and there he was at last, his brown homespun exchanged for the iridescence of her retinue, fists clenched at his sides as though his arms were bound. The guard surrounding him, clad in chainmail that shone like starlight, stopped when you stepped forward. The queen rode above them like the moon, pale and perfect. You tried to catch her eye, woman to woman-like, but she didn’t even favor you with a kind of curiosity, her face a finely boned, untroubled mask. The only sound was the silver bells on her stallion’s saddle jingling.
You breathed deeply, and stared into his unfocused eyes until he recognized you slowly, like someone coming up from underwater, expressions of fear, regret, and longing the rivulets that mingled to crease his cheeks and brow. That was all you needed to know you could save him.
Stories are for the one who goes out, the presumed daring of that movement, the beautiful and terrible enchantments that could cost a man his soul—we shiver to think of it. But I want to know what simmered in you those seven years that felt three days to him, how the slow drip of time weathered you lean, sinews taut enough to hold him through all his transformations. They were just surface alterations, compared to the deeper, subtler shifts in you.
What possessed you to hang on despite the claws he grew to rake your cheek, the terrible gnashings that were him and not him? That’s another stinging nettle poultice, you thought ruefully as his contortions wrenched your shoulder, but the long years had taught you to work through such pains. For now, there was the task at hand. Silly man, he would ever run after the glimmers he was sure beckoned him, following the twisting paths that led away into dimness, although he had also loved to sit by the hearth, stretching his long legs out before him as you sewed in the flickering light.
“I’ll never let you go, Thomas!” you cried, not just to remind him of your steadfastness, but his own, that part of him that knew the weight of one hand in another, the rhythms of those that yoked together pull the plow. How did you know this was the night and the road on which he would be led as the teind to Hell? To face all that awful glamour and the hold it had on him required more than dumb loyalty. You understood that she would never really share all that she possessed with him.
There’s a strength in what’s common that power never knows, too busy looking at its own splendid reflection. As for Thomas, he could see the glitter of Faerie at one end of the road and the glow of Hell at the other, but not the bog myrtle and bracken growing alongside it, good for tisanes and tinctures. You could see it all for what it was, and you could hold on. That was enough to bring him home.
Stephanie Friedman’s work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, the minnesota review, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” Prime Number, and Blood Orange Review, and was listed among the “Notables” in Best American Short Stories. She holds an MA from the University of Chicago and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and teaches in the Writer’s Studio, a program for adult students at the University of Chicago.