Read an Excerpt
“Do you believe in fairy tales, Professor McFay?”
I turned to the young man who had asked the question, searching his bland and innocent face for traces of sarcasm or derision. I’d just finished going over the syllabus for my Introduction to Fairy Tales class and had asked the class to write a short essay on their favorite childhood fairy tale. When I asked if there were any questions, I’d gotten the usual: “How long does it have to be?” “Can I use the personal pronoun?” (Who, I always wondered, had ever told them not to?) and “Can I borrow a pen?” I wasn’t expecting an inquiry on my personal beliefs on the existence of fairies, though the young man looked harmless enough. Like so many of the new freshman class, he was tall, blond, and athletically fit in his snug Alpha Delta Chi T-shirt. He had the face of an angel—but that, I had learned recently, wasn’t necessarily a good sign.
I looked down at my roster to remind myself of the student’s name. “Good question, Mr. Sinclair. What I believe is that fairy tales are culturally important, provide an essential outlet for a child’s imagination, and by studying them we gain a critical understanding of Western literature. I believe very much in the value of fairy tales.”
“But do you believe that the things that happen in fairy tales really can happen?” he persisted. “That pumpkins turn into carriages and frogs turn into princes? Do you believe in fairies?”
The kid was definitely a plant. What eighteen-year-old would ask that question with a straight face? Of course, it would be easiest just to say that I didn’t believe in fairies, but somehow I couldn’t. I’d feel as if I were killing Tinker Bell.
“I believe, Mr. Sinclair, that if I spend any more time on your question I’ll be shortchanging the class of their thirty-five minutes allotted by the English department to complete the diagnostic essay,” I said. “Why don’t we put your question off to another day?”
Adam Sinclair merely smiled and shrugged, then picked up his pen and began to write, as did the twenty-three other young people in the class. I breathed a sigh of relief and picked up the extra copies of the syllabus I’d handed out. As I shuffled the papers, I noticed that my hands were shaking. Sinclair’s question had disturbed me; maybe it was a mistake to teach this class. I’d thought at first it was a tamer choice than my usual “Sex Lives of Demon Lovers” or “Kick-Ass Vampire Slayers” classes, but I was beginning to wonder if teaching a class on fairy tales at the new Fairwick College wasn’t akin to running up a red flag.
I retreated behind the podium and made myself look busy. Usually I wrote along with my students to model the assignment, but when I picked up my pen and asked myself what my favorite fairy tale was, I nearly laughed out loud. Then I started to scribble furiously.
There once was a young woman who came to a town where fairies and witches lived together. She moved into an old house covered with honeysuckle vines. The house was inhabited by a prince who had been turned into a demon by the Fairy Queen; he was cursed to a demon fate until someone loved him. The woman almost fell in love with him, but when she realized he was a demon, she sent him away. He returned in disguise, and, although she didn’t recognize him, she fell in love with him at the exact moment he was slain by an evil monster.
A drop splatted on my paper, smearing the ink. I quickly wiped the tear away and glanced up, hoping no one had noticed. Most of my students were hard at work, their heads bent over their blue books—all except for Nicky Ballard, who was watching me with concern. I smiled at Nicky and mouthed, “Allergies.”
I looked back down at my paper and reread what I had written. What a sad fairy tale, I thought. The heroine fails twice—shouldn’t she get a third chance? But there wasn’t going to be another chance. I crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the garbage can.
“Time’s up,” I said, then checked the clock and saw there were ten minutes left to the class. Crap. The last thing I felt like doing right now was leading a discussion. Adam Sinclair might start in again, asking if I believed in fairies. “Would anyone like to read their essay aloud?” I asked, without much hope of getting a volunteer. But then Nicky Ballard—bless her—raised her hand.
I called on the raven-haired sophomore and she began to read.
“The story I loved when I was little was called Tam Lin . . .”
I almost stopped her. Although it had been my favorite fairy tale when I was a child, it was the last story I wanted to hear right now. My parents had often told it to me, and after they died, I imagined a fairy-tale prince had come to tell me the story. Except it turned out he wasn’t really imaginary.
“I love Tam Lin,” Nicky continued, “because the heroine, Jennet Carter, doesn’t listen to what other people tell her. Everyone tells her not to go to the Greenwood, an enchanted forest filled with boggles and haunts, but she goes because the ruins of her family’s castle, Carterhaugh, are there, and she’s determined to reclaim it.”
Ah, I thought, no wonder Nicky liked this story. The Ballards had once been rich and powerful but had fallen on hard times. In fact, they had been cursed. Generations of Ballard women had squandered their beauty and intelligence on alcohol, drugs, and teenage pregnancies. Nicky would have gone down the same road, but I’d discovered last spring that it was my family who had cursed hers. I was able to lift the curse, but Nicky still lived in a decaying mansion with her ailing grandmother and alcoholic mother. No doubt she dreamed of reclaiming her family’s honor as Jennet Carter did.
“So she goes through the enchanted Greenwood to Carterhaugh and meets Tam Lin, a handsome young man, who tells her he was kidnapped by the Fairy Queen seven years ago and tonight, on Halloween, the fairies are going to pay their tithe to hell by sacrificing him. Then he tells her how she can save him.”
At least Jennet received clear instructions, I thought enviously. But then, Jennet didn’t waste time worrying about whether or not she really loved Tam Lin. Not like some people I knew . . .
“She goes to the crossroads at midnight and waits for the fairy host. They ride by on horses decked out in gold and silver, with goblins and bogeys leering and shrieking, but Jennet doesn’t run. She stands fast until she sees Tam Lin, wearing only one glove—”
“Like Michael Jackson,” someone sniggered. Nicky glared at the interruption but kept on going. Good girl, I thought. She’d grown up a lot during her summer abroad.
“—and one hand bare, the sign he’d told Jennet to watch for. She pulled him down from his horse and he immediately turned into a fierce lion, but Jennet wouldn’t let him go. He’d told her the Fairy Queen would make him change shape. Next he turned into a writhing snake—”
“Oooh . . .” a girl began, but Nicky and I both glared her into silence.
“Still Jennet held fast to her Tam Lin. Next he became a burning brand, but Jennet didn’t let go. When he was again Tam Lin, she wrapped him in her green mantle. The Fairy Queen was really pissed.”
A few students laughed, but I didn’t check them. They were with Nicky now. Even though it was time to go, they weren’t collecting their books or texting on their phones. The story had caught their attention.
“ ‘If I had known you would leave me for a human girl,’ the Fairy Queen said, ‘I would have plucked out your eyes and heart and replaced them with eyes and heart of wood.’ But Jennet held fast to Tam Lin, and there was nothing the Fairy Queen could do. She rode away to fairyland, and Jennet and Tam Lin married and lived in Carterhaugh in the enchanted Greenwood. I like this story because it’s the girl who saves the boy and also . . .” Nicky paused, swallowed, and looked up at me. “Because it shows that sometimes you have to believe in someone even if they look like a monster. Because people can change.”
There was a murmur of assent from a couple of upperclassmen, and one girl, Flonia Rugova, who had roomed with Nicky last year, reached over and squeezed her hand. I imagined Flonia knew, as I did, that Nicky’s mother, Jaycee Ballard, had joined A.A. and was trying to sober up. “Absolutely,” Flonia said. “People can change.”
“That was lovely, Nicky,” I said. “I think Nicky has answered Adam’s question for me. That’s the kind of fairy tale I believe in, Mr. Sinclair. The kind that gives us the courage to persevere through hardship and fight for what we believe in. Think about Nicky’s story while you’re reading the Bettelheim chapter for the next class.”
With only ten minutes to make it to their next class, most of the students took off in a panicked stampede. But Nicky lingered behind and fell into step beside me as I left Fraser Hall.
“I don’t want you to be late for your next class, Nicky. You know the new administration has a zero-tolerance policy on tardiness.”
“I’m free next period,” Nicky said. “What’s up with all the new rules, anyway? Fairwick College is totally changed.”
I sighed. “I know. It’s the new administration. They have a rather different . . . um . . . pedagogical philosophy.”
“No kidding! We’ve got curfews! And mandatory dorm meetings. I get, like, twenty emails a day from campus security—and those new security guards are downright creepy.” Nicky lowered her voice as we passed one of the new guards, a short, broad-shouldered man in a green jumpsuit. He leered at Nicky in an unsavory manner. “I don’t mean to be mean, but they look like trolls.”
Now that Nicky mentioned it, they did indeed. I wondered . . . “Stay away from them,” I told her. “If you have a problem, call me or Professor Delmarco or Professor Lilly.”
“Thank God you guys are still here, but so many of my favorite teachers are gone. I was going to take Stones for Poets with Professor Van der Aart, but he’s gone on a sabbatical. Now I have to take two required science classes and a class on Milton.”
I let out an involuntary groan. I’d barely been able to get through Paradise Lost in grad school; the new requirement for the entire student body to read it seemed crazy. “Some of the faculty are trying to . . . er . . . persuade the administration to change their policies. We’re meeting this evening to go over our . . . er . . . strategies.”
“I’m sure you’re doing everything you can, Professor McFay. I don’t mean to complain. It’s just that everything is so different now—even the students. Like that Adam Sinclair and his frat brothers. I mean, one of the things I liked about Fairwick was that it didn’t have a big Greek life like the state schools. But this new fraternity . . . well, look at this flyer I got in my mailbox this morning.”
Nicky took out a piece of bright magenta paper and unfolded it. Beneath three large Greek letters—Alpha, Delta, Chi—was a crude drawing of a muscular man in a toga. Hey, ladies! the speech bubble by his head announced. It’s never too early to try out your Halloween costumes. Whether you’re going this year as a slutty vampire, a slutty cat, or just a total slut, we invite you . . .
“Ew,” I said, taking the offensive page from her. “That’s gross—and completely inappropriate. I’m on my way to the dean’s office right now with a list of complaints. I’ll add this invitation to them.”
Nicky shrugged. “Don’t get yourself in trouble over it. No one I know is going. It’s just that those Alphas act like they own the campus—”
Nicky’s next words were drowned out by the pealing of bells. Loud, obnoxious bells ringing the quarter hour. “And that’s another thing,” she yelled over the clanging. “Those bells! They wake us up at the crack of dawn!”
“It’s on my list,” I told Nicky, offering her a wan smile. We’d reached Main Hall. The Gothic gray stone exterior had always given me a sense of calm and stability, but now that it housed the new dean it felt like a brooding, unassailable castle right out of Dracula.
“I feel better knowing you’re doing something,” Nicky said. “But I didn’t follow you only to complain. I wanted to talk to you about my research paper.”
“Let me guess, you want to do it on Tam Lin.”
“Well, not exactly. You see, the thing is, I’m actually feeling a little . . . well, disenchanted with fairy tales these days.”
“Oh,” I said, unable to hide my disappointment. “You’re not dropping the class, are you?”
“Oh, no! You’re my favorite teacher, Professor! It’s just . . . well, when I was in Scotland this summer I came across this collection of fairy tales and ballads that were collected by a woman folklorist named Mary McGowan—there’s a ballad in it that’s a sort of variation on Tam Lin. I wrote about it in my essay, but I didn’t read that part in class. Anyway, I thought it was interesting that the stories were collected by a woman folklorist and I’d like to find out more about her . . . like what made her interested in folktales and how she came to write about them. I thought it would be interesting to write about a real person instead of just writing about fairy tales.”
“Hmm . . . I’ve never heard of her. It sounds like a fascinating topic, Nicky. Of course you can write about that. I look forward to seeing what you dig up.”
“Thanks, Professor. And I hope you don’t mind what I said about fairy tales. I know they’re your thing.”
“It’s perfectly all right, Nicky,” I told her as I turned to go into Main Hall. “There are days lately when I wish I had specialized in something a little more practical.”