For my dozens of younger cousins (I lost count long ago), I’ve embraced a special role: I am the caretaker of wonderland. For decades, I’ve hidden Easter eggs, ghostwritten letters from Santa Claus, and set — then secretly sprung — leprechaun traps. Yet my crowning achievement has been leading my youngest cousin, who happens to be my goddaughter, on a yearslong fairy hunt.
Here’s how it works. Ten minutes into any family gathering, I feel a tug on my sleeve and my goddaughter whispers, “I think I heard a tinkle.” This is our signal to break away from the crowd and begin a forensic search for fairies. If we spot a stain on an old carpet, we decide it’s the burn mark of a fairy landing. If we find a fallen pine needle, we declare it a fairy sword.
My goddaughter proved early on to have a brilliant improvising imagination. Before long, I was deferring to her authority. One Christmas, we came upon a mound of winter coats piled on an upstairs bed. I suggested fairy intervention. She looked at me as though I’d lost my mind. “The fairies are too tiny,” she said, pinching her fingers. Then, out of pity, she threw me a bone: “Maybe if they used teamwork...” When I asked her how she became so knowledgeable about fairy behavior, she shrugged and said, “I’m a very smart little person.”
There’s a reason I’m willing to spend every family party rooting around in attics and basements, ignoring the inviting din of distant laughter and scraping silverware. During my own childhood, my godfather had been a globe-trotting businessman who showered me with exotic coins from far-flung countries. I worried I could never measure up to his standard. But one April morning, I fished a corroded penny from a drainpipe and watched my goddaughter’s eyes widen as I placed the coin, fresh from the fairy mint, into her open palm.
Over time, our fantasy world developed shadows. One summer afternoon, while about 150 of my relatives were cooling off in my grandmother’s pool, my goddaughter and I knelt in the nearby garden, scrutinizing a withered shrub. “Cursed by an evil fairy,” she concluded. She seemed to intuitively grasp the amorality of the fairy tale realm, in which one is just as likely to be eaten by wolves as raised by them. In Ireland, the fairies of folklore are called the “Good People” not because they are benevolent but because they must be appeased.
We had our own fairy scare a few years back. I had been ordering plastic fairies off the Internet and hiding them for my goddaughter to discover. She kept them in a treasure chest. One day, while cleaning the toy room, my aunt found this treasure chest empty. She searched the house; the figurines were gone. Under our gentle cross-examination, my goddaughter maintained that the fairies had flown away. My aunt was freaked out, but I was proud. For years, I’d been stealthily using these cheap toys to stir up my goddaughter’s imagination, and now the 6-year-old had turned the tables.
During the pandemic, I’ve kept up my role as a conduit to never-never land, fulfilling my duties through the mail. I send my goddaughter sketches of fairies surfing on lily pads and napping in the shade of toadstools. Compared with hunting fairies in the real world, these drawings are feeble magic. How could they compete with COVID, the invisible entity that transformed her childhood world with the potency of an evil spell?
When the pandemic finally becomes a once-upon-a-time, will my goddaughter and I be able to recapture the old enchantment? Maybe she will have outgrown the crowded fantasy world of our conjuring. Maybe she will see reality as heavier, duller, and less littered with magical doorways to fairyland.
But I have faith in her and in her prodigious imagination. After all, she is a very smart little person.
Will Dowd is a writer and artist in the Boston area. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.