Every year I could remember, five people were sent invitations to meet the faerie queen. One morning I found mine under my pillow, perfectly folded with a wax rose for a seal.
I clutched it to my chest, my sweaty fingers smearing the elaborate curlicues on the front. “Don’t you see, Mother? I have to go. This is the chance of a lifetime.” I scrunched my bare toes in the damp grass behind our cottage—more like a hovel, if you asked me. “Everyone says that she’ll grant anything ya want. I could wish us away from this…this dump.”
“Shannon! Watch your mouth, your sister is right there.” Mother glanced at my baby sister who was playing with her rag doll in a mud puddle.
Brea continued mumbling in her toddler talk. Noticing we were looking at her, she squealed, showing her adorable gap-tooth smile. She dropped her doll and wrapped her arms around my leg.
I scooped her up with one arm, being very careful to keep the invitation out of her reach. “I could get Brea a pony. Or ya a new spinning wheel instead of that creaky one. Athair has been wanting a new plow horse too.”
“Horsey!” Brea added as if in agreement. She pulled on my tangled mess of red curls.
Mother plunged her hands into the soapy water and rung out a worn apron over a blooming rose bush. “Ya know the stories. No one ever returns.”
“But,” I began, but she cut me off.
“We McCoys don’t get involved in this kind of foolishness. When I received an invitation, I burned it. My sister was not as wise. And where is she now?” Mother held the apron out to me and pointed to the clothesline, signaling the end of the conversation. “Ya are not going to any castle, invitation or not.”
I shoved the invitation into my pocket and flung the apron over the clothesline next to another worn-out frock. It used to be blue. Now it looked gray. Like storm clouds. Brea pulled the apron off the line before I could pin it up and it fell into the mud.
Perhaps my aunt had wished herself far away from this rotten place. Maybe I’d do the same.
Because I was going. No matter what Mother said.
That night, after everyone was asleep, I shoved some bread I’d saved from dinner into a knapsack along with my best dress. I was going to meet a queen, after all, so I might as well look presentable, though I couldn’t do much about my freckles.
I tiptoed past the sleeping forms of my parents and stooped to kiss my Brea’s cheek. “I’ll miss you,” I whispered, brushing a coil of red hair from her forehead. Even asleep, she was as beautiful as an angel straight from heaven.
I opened the door just enough to squeeze through, careful to not let it creak. Without looking back, I took off down the beaten path to the faerie castle, my bare feet kicking up little puffs of dust under the starry sky.
As I skipped down the path, I imagined all the things I could ask for. Jewels, a castle, love, beauty, oh, so many things. To be entirely honest, I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted. I never dreamed that I, Shannon of Éire, would receive an invitation to meet the faerie queen.
After a while, I decided I would be queen of the whole, entire world. When one is queen, what does wealth or beauty mean to you? You have the whole world at your fingertips. No one will mock you for your freckles or too short skirts. And if they would dare, you could throw them in the dungeon.
Perhaps, when I was queen, Mother would see she was wrong all along. Maybe I’d even invite her to my castle. She’d sob at the foot of my throne. “Oh, Your Majesty, I was ever so wrong. Could you ever find it in your benevolent heart to forgive an old woman?”
Then I’d reply, waving my bejeweled hand, “Yes. You can even have a whole wing of the castle to yourself.”
I tripped over a rut in the road and lost my daydream. Stupid carts and horses. When I was queen, I’d outlaw them.
A few hours later, the land began to come alive. Sunbeams lit the hills and the dew glowed on the scarlet roses now lining the road. I must be getting close, for three faeries about the size of my palm in green dresses flew across my path, chattering and twinkling like fallen stars.
The faerie castle came into view as I came to the top of a little rise in the road. The spires reached like fingers to heaven, pointing to the brilliant sunrise. The path to the door was lined with even more dew-kissed roses, the petals reaching for me. I tripped on a root of some sort, but the guards didn’t seem to notice. They let me in without question, not even asking to see my invitation.
This is really happening. My heart thumped so fast I pressed a hand to my chest for fear that it would jump out.
Two young men and two young women clutching invitations already stood in the grand foyer. They stopped whispering when they saw me.
“She has been waiting.” Another guard opened an elaborate door. “Proceed one at a time to make your wish.”
The others went ahead of me in silence. I heard a soft buzzing near my ear. Assuming it was a fly, I swatted. It dodged my hand, then alighted on my shoulder.
“Wish for anything but beauty. Or do not wish at all,” a small faerie whispered in my ear, her musical voice tinged with a warning.
I scoffed and brushed her off. “I shall have no need of beauty when I am queen. I shall have anything I want.”
As she fluttered away, she whispered, “Remember.”
I smirked. Who did this faerie think I was? A foolish girl who only desired good looks and love? Ha, I’d show her, when I was queen.
The guard motioned for me. I walked down a long hall lined with scarlet carpet so deep my bare feet almost disappeared. Mirrors lined one wall, reflecting my frizzy red hair, an extra generous helping of freckles, dull gray eyes, as well as the massive windows opposite, which overlooked a rose garden. I noticed I had forgotten to change into my good dress. Oh well, when I was queen I would have finer gowns than that old rag.
My stomach clenched as I saw the throne. It towered over me at the far end of the hall. Two guards stood at the bottom, dressed immaculately in deep red. Even more roses and vines surrounded the throne, leaves open in a desperate plea.
The woman on the throne was larger than most faeries, even than most men, but I guess when she could grant wishes, she could be as big as she wanted. Her black hair fell in a waterfall down her back and her green eyes glistened like dewy grass in a face so flawless it nearly glowed.
“What is your wish, dearest?” Her voice was smoother than warm honey, but with a tinge of vinegar, barely noticeable, yet still there.
I opened my mouth. “I wish for…” My eyes caught a glimpse of my tangled red hair, sunburned cheeks, scattered freckles, and gangly limbs in a mirror behind her throne. The words died on my tongue.
The roses seemed to plead for me to run away. I could have sworn they whispered to me.
No, no, no.
I swallowed. What queen ever concerned herself with beauty? I started again. “I wish for…” My mouth wouldn’t form the words running through my mind. Instead, I blurted out, “I wish for beauty.”
“Your wish is granted.” The queen smiled and extended her golden scepter.
I felt a change come over me, starting in my chest and spreading outward like vines.
I looked in the mirror—no freckles, no red hair, no gangly limbs.
Only a rosebush with tiny red buds.
“Guard. Take this new rose to the garden.” She paused to give a cool smile. “She will look quite beautiful there.”