Perdita, Meaning Lost
by Edd Vick
When Ailsa and her husband the King lost their firstborn daughter to the fairy maid who spun gold from heather, they were broken in heart and sought their child in every way they knew. They offered rewards, they sent freemen and peasants to scour the country, diplomats and spies to seek her in other lands, and rogues and privateers to search the seas. They consulted witches and wizards, wise crones and learned fools, and even a talking horse; who truth to tell was not nearly so intelligent as he claimed.
As hard as the king and his men searched, Queen Ailsa searched all the more, for it was her indolence that had lost the child. All she had done was guess several names a day until time ran out. Too late she heeded a chambermaid repeating a song the spinner had sung. By then her daughter was gone.
When all else failed, the queen took her knowledge that her daughter’s taker was an elf and sought the ways one might enter Faery. She explored mushroom circles and toadstool rings, she followed elusive birdsong through rock-strewn hills for mile after countless mile, she talked to every animal she encountered and was generous to every wanderer she met. For she had been raised on fables.
Nothing availed, and too quickly the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. A year slipped away. Despair and resignation whelmed every seeker but one. The King gently pressed her to attend to affairs of state and to bear them another child.
For four seasons Ailsa had started each day’s search saying, “Today is the day I shall find my daughter.” Now, on the anniversary of her loss, she whispered, “Today I must find my daughter or count her lost forever.” From dawn’s first light to dusk’s last she tramped the countryside, seeking a sign she was not pursuing a fool’s errand. The king himself brought her a lantern, silently embraced her, then quietly bade her look until the bells tolled the midnight hour.
More desperately she cast about as time passed. When the first chime of the church bell sounded, it startled her so, she dropped the lantern. By its dying light she saw a glint of answering reflection. Falling to her knees, she felt for the thing that had gleamed, and finding it, she lifted it. The bell tolled on. Four. Five. Six. The thing was an arrow, its head a triangle of some untarnished metal. Seven. Eight. Nine. She caught her breath; she knew what it was. Ten. Eleven. She said it aloud.
A great stillness fell on the world. No twelfth tolling of the bell arrived to herald the newborn day. She stood, knowing which direction to go. The arrowhead she held pointed the way. All she must do was retrace the arrow’s flight, and this she did. Turning about, she walked, her tread heavy after so long a day and half the night of tramping. After, it must be said, a solid year of trudging.
It seemed she walked another day and a night through that rock-strewn landscape, though no sun rose to light her way. By the meager illumination of the slivered moon and stars she near-felt her way along, stumbling over rock and gorse alike. There was no path. All she could do was convince herself she walked a straight line. Finally before her rose a hill, taller than most, with a natural archway sheltering a declining passage. Breath halting, heart thudding, she stepped through.
The way was narrow, but smooth. The walls closed in. After the first few steps the tunnel was black as her hair. Still she walked.
When it seemed she must have traveled still another day and half a night, she felt a cobweb brush her face. Reaching up, she brushed it away, to find herself sweeping aside the curtain of night. Before her blazed a summer sun, around her were fields of golden flowers and proud trees. Behind her, she saw no tunnel.
She stood still, looking about to memorize her surroundings. The legends suggested she must retrace her steps exactly to find her way home. She saw no path nearby, no house, no castle. It was as if she had appeared newborn in the middle of this field. Finally she tramped a circle of grass down and placed the elf-shot in its center, its tip pointing the opposite of the way she had been facing when first she saw Faery.
For Faery this must be.
In the distance to her right a sea glittered. For lack of a better plan she turned and walked toward it. Human habitations were often to be found near water, and she hoped the Seelie Court would choose likewise. She could only hope that she would happen on the realm of those inclined to help humans first, rather than the Unseelie Court.
By and by she noticed that sound was returning. Birds sang, insects droned. Just as a pang of homesickness struck her, she heard a child’s cry. She caught her breath, then gathered up her skirts to hasten toward the sound.
Rounding a tree, she saw a white bundle on the ground. Approaching, she found it to be a child no more than a few days old. It was swaddled in a cloth that covered its body and head. The cloth appeared to be pinned with thorns; the iron pins she had used on her baby’s clothes would be unwelcome here. Looking around, she saw no caretaker, certainly no child-stealing elf.
Her daughter would be a year old, would she not? Ailsa had sought her for that long a time. But no, she had heard tales of wayfarers caught in Faery for a few days who returned to find all they knew dead and gone. Mayhap her daughter really had only just arrived.
At any rate, this was a child in need, and no succor to hand ‘cept Ailsa’s. She stepped forward and picked up the child. She felt clumsy holding it. She had not carried her child for a very long time. Then she realized this baby weighed much less than a child should. Her hand trembled as she reached to uncover the child’s head.
Pointed ears and devilish green eyes met her gaze. “Won’t you help me, mother?” said the child in a mature voice. “Let me suckle. Carry me back to your home and hearth. I’ll be ever so good.”
To her credit, Ailsa did not drop the changeling. “No,” she said calmly. “I seek my own baby.” She pursed her lips briefly, unsure of her duty. “I hope to find aid at the Seelie Court. Perhaps I could find someone to help you there.”
“That is not necessary.” The child threw off the rest of the cloth and stood before her, transformed into a perfect homunculus. Without wings, he lifted away from her arms to hover. “Your kindness is appreciated, though. You pursue the correct course.” He flew up and away.
She plodded on, deeply tired. Cresting a hill, she saw an old woman resting in the shade of an apple tree, if indeed these silvery fruit were apples.
The beldame hailed her. “Your pardon, Great Queen. Can you reach me one of these apples, that I might assuage my hunger?”
The weary traveler knew this was no simple crone, not here in the land of the Fey. Doubtless she was some elf come to try her conviction or her knowledge or her kindness. Then a darker thought came to her. What if this was her daughter, grown old in only a year? The crone’s long lank hair draped her shoulders much as Ailsa’s did, and there seemed a reflection of her husband’s strong blocky hands in the gnarled ones that reached up to her.
Drawing near, Ailsa plucked an apple. The sight and scent of it set her stomach to grumbling. Once it was in her hand, desire for the apple grew a hundredfold. And yet, the craving was as nothing next to her wish to see her daughter once more. Ailsa handed it down to the woman, who rewarded her with a gap-toothed grin.
“Thank you, Wise Ruler,” she said. “Why not try one for yourself? A single taste will satisfy both hunger and thirst.” She worried a bite out of it.
“Thank you, aged mother. I am only a visitor here, and would not wish a longer stay.” She well knew the fate of those who ate the products of Faery, and had worried long and deeply how to carry her daughter home. That was a rainbow she’d cross when she came to it.
“I see you have studied the legends.” The old woman turned jade eyes of such ageless perception on Ailsa that she knew this could not be her daughter. “Your wisdom does you credit. You are on the correct path.”
Dipping her chin as one queen would to another, Ailsa passed onward. She saw that she was quite close to the sea, and that a pavilion of golden cloth had been raised on the shore. She walked toward it.
A dozen feet from the entrance she found a girl perhaps ten years of age crouched on hands and knees, running her fingers through the sand. From marks between the child and the tent, Ailsa perceived she had been at this pastime for a long while.
“Hello,” said the queen, crouching.
“Who are you?” asked the girl, not looking up.
“I am a mother seeking her lost daughter. An elf stole her a year ago.”
“I know an elf,” said the girl, combing the sand with a wide sweep of one arm, then the other. She glanced back at the pavilion, then moved to an unmarked spot. “I know many elves. There is one I call mother, and she has not left Faery since I was a babe.”
“What are you doing?”
The girl sat back on her haunches and regarded Ailsa suspiciously. “I am searching for iron, that I might rid the land of it. Visitors from the human realm can be very clumsy, sometimes on purpose. You don’t carry any, do you?”
“No, for I well know it harms the Fair Ones.” Now that the girl was looking at her, the queen saw how her midnight-black hair framed a face so like her own, how the girl’s sulky expression so matched the one she saw at times in the mirror. “Girl, what is your name?”
“You are not to know my secret name, for names have power.” The girl folded her hands in her lap. “My given name is Perdita, meaning–”
“Meaning ‘Lost’. I know.” The seeker crouched across from the sought. “Perdita, you are my daughter. You were brought here a year ago, but time has passed differently for you.” She smiled. “I have come to take you home.”
Ailsa blinked. “Why? Because you are my child, because your father and I and all our subjects have searched for you high and low, because you are our heir and our heart!”
Perdita leaned a little forward to search her face. “But why would you take me away from the life I know? Pardon the saying of it, but I do not know you.”
Ailsa was struck silent. Of all the obstacles she had expected, an unwilling child was the last. Finally she said, “An elf stole you away from me. I have already lost many years of your life.”
“I am not your possession.” The child went back to sweeping the sand.
The queen straightened to her feet. Anger flared. “Listen, child–“, she said. “You are our daughter. We are responsible for you, as you will be for our kingdom once you are an adult.” She extended a hand. “Come along.”
Perdita looked up at her with troubled eyes. “I have responsibilities here,” she said.
“Sweeping sand?” Ailsa looked around at Faerie, which seemed so still it might be holding its breath.
“You should be learning to rule a kingdom, not be forced into such menial tasks.”
“You mistake me,” said the girl. “I hunt metal because it causes pain to those I love. These duties you say I have? I renounce them.” For the first time she raised her voice. “I want nothing of your world, or of you!”
Shaken, the queen dropped her hand back to her side. What could she do? Persuasion did not avail, neither did appeals to obligation nor outright command. The child had met logic with logic, duty with duty, passion with passion.
Doubtless she would counter force with force, and besides that was no way to treat a treasure. Ailsa felt a growing admiration for the person her babe was becoming.
And with that, she knew her quest was done. Perdita was no longer lost.
The queen dropped to her knees. “Daughter,” she said. “I am happy you have found welcome here. Please, know that I am your mother, and that I would have named you ‘Máel’. Use it if you wish, it is how I will remember you.”
There was a moment of utter silence. Ailsa’s ears rang as if she had stood next to the blacksmith for an afternoon.
The child swallowed, and when she looked up at Ailsa there was a sheen of tears in her eyes. “I was wrong,” she said. “There is the one thing I will have from you.” She reached, and touched her fingertips to the queen’s knee for a moment. She whispered ‘Máel’ so softly her lips merely formed the name.
Ailsa put her hand on the sand to push herself to her feet. Something stabbed her thumb. When she pulled her hand up, she saw hanging from it an iron pin, exactly like the ones she had used on her baby’s clothes.
Pulling it out, she held it up, saying, “How clumsy of some human.”
“Farewell, mother,” said her daughter. “If you please, you could take that pin, and these, back with you.” Máel passed over a bit of cloth on which sat a small mound of similar pins.
Feeling healed in the heart, if only a little, Ailsa walked away. She looked back twice. The first time, she caught her daughter’s gaze. The second, Máel had gone back to combing the sand. The queen smiled ruefully and walked on.
Queen Ailsa went away to be with her husband the King. They raised twin children, a girl and boy, said to be so wise and so kind that it was as if they were elf-touched. The queen slipped away from the castle once a year at just before midnight, but her departures were little remarked. She was known for finding her own way.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Mary Murphy is an actress/voice-over artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Narration/Audio Drama highlights include audiobooks for Audible & Dreamscape, an audio drama of Dracula by QuickSilver, and the award-winning children’s audio series Billy Brown. Currently she can be heard voicing the role of Dashi on Disney Junior’s Octonauts, voicing multiple role for PBS Kids’ Past/Present, and voicing several characters for the series Muzzy in the US. She also performs regularly in radio theatre and can be heard on the Fireside Mystery Theatre podcast and Midnight Shorts Series. You can find her on Soundcloud.