Once upon a time, there was a sleepy village of no particular account. It nestled at the foot of a mountain of middling height in a duchy so unremarkable that its duke was able to avoid visiting court for decades at a time without notice. The only claim to any note that this village could make was a contest called (for reasons no one could remember) the Pareidolian Stare.
The contest was held at no fixed time. Instead, at some point during the year, the oldest person living in the village would walk into the street, grab the arm of the first passerby, and whisper in that person’s ear: “Pounds and pence, the Pareidolian Stare is one month hence.” That passerby would find repeat the message to the first person they met, and so on and on, until a month later, the whole duchy from the duke on down knew it was time to descend on the village.
The rules were simple. At dawn on the day of the contest, the oldest person in the village would find the youngest person in the village who could talk. The elder would watch the child until he or she stopped to stare at something in the way children will. Anything at all would do: a tree stump, a mud puddle, a water stain on a wall – as long as it stayed put all the day long.
Then the elder would say “Pence and pounds, the Pareidolian Stare is open to rounds.”
Everyone who had come would line up (with no little jostling). One after another, the contestants would take a long look at what the child was staring at, then tell the crowd what they saw therein.
One might say “It is an apple tree, lush and tall.” Another might say “It is a herd of milk cows, lowing in the field.” A third might say “It is the shadow of a finely tailored suit of silk.” And so on it would go, from dawn till dusk.
The duke would consider all of the claims late into the night. At dawn the next day, he would announce the most eloquent and convincing description of the Pareidolian Stare. The winner then received exactly what he or she had described – making this possibly a quite lucrative contest indeed. You may be assured that every year hundreds of men and women claimed with many passionate words to see vast treasure in water spots on a wall. They almost never won.
One year, a clever and curious woman was travelling through the duchy from a distant land, gathering quaint bits of foreign custom, when she happened to hear of the Stare.
“Well,” she said, “this is why I left home,” and made all haste to the dull village.
As chance would have it, she found herself at the head of the Pareidolian Stare. She had come intending only to stand to one side and take notes on the odd cultural practice. But when she arrived, she was caught up in the jostle of the crowd. Seeking a quiet and elevated vantage to observe, she instead was elbowed and nudged right up to the large marbled stone at the center of the proceedings.
“I don’t think I should—” she tried to say, but her efforts to demur were drowned out by cries from the crowd to hurry it along. She glanced at the old man next to the little girl in front of her. He guided her eyes with his own to the large piece of white and grey rock protruding from the black dirt field. He winked, and she took his meaning.
Her mind was racing, trying to think of something to say that would allow her to return to simply observing and making her notes. When she looked down at the stone though, she was transported into a vivid vision.
“I see a beautiful man! He is lost on a mountain. He has been led astray by the fairy – no, wait, he is a fairy. A fairy prince, tall and glittering, but he is lost, lost on the mountainside. He must be rescued!”
So powerful and real seemed the vision she saw in the rock that there was nothing for it but to run from the village and up to the mountain. The villagers were so shocked, they paused the contest for all of a minute before gathering their composure and shoving the next contestant up. He saw a thatch-roofed hut with three rooms, and the Pareidolian Stare was back on its course.
The researcher from another land, meanwhile, had run pell mell for an hour up the side of the mountain before coming to her senses.
“Wait!” she shouted, entirely for her own benefit (for sometimes one must speak firmly aloud to oneself to hear reason). “This makes no sense at all. I am sure it was merely a trick of the light, or some manner of collective hallucination. Clearly, I got caught up in the excitement of those peasants’ ritual and lost my head.”
She looked around. She was in a clearing, just under a small waterfall that trickled into a creek down the side of the mountain and back towards the high road, far below.
“How embarrassing,” she thought. “Perhaps I should just keep traveling on. I will put the Pareidolian Stare in a footnote for someone else to write up.”
She made a quick note in her papers and set off walking.
She had not taken two steps down the mountain towards the road when she heard a man calling out behind her.
“Weilaweilaweila wo! Where am I from, where shall I go!” he cried. “Weilaweilaweila wo!”
With that, he walked into the clearing.
The woman tried to say seven different things at once and nothing came out. The man was the spit and image of the fairy prince she had seen during the Pareidolian Stare.
When he saw her, he stopped wailing mid-weila. He bowed, most courtly.
“You seem wise, milady,” he said, “and knowledgeable. Can you tell me where I am from and where I must go?”
“Remarkable,” the researcher said. She walked slowly around him. From every angle, he was the same man the rock had shown. “Simply remarkable. I must be mad.”
“Why then, are we both,” he replied with a laugh. “The mad leading the mad. This ought to be a lark.”
At that moment, the woman heard a small voice whispering across the clearing. She strained to hear it. It babbled on the very edges of her hearing, almost making sense… almost… almost… She realized it was the plip-drip-plop-trickle of the waterfall, playing tricks on her. Yet, she could not help but listen, until the water spoke, and it said:
“Through the willow’s bitter bark, on the line twixt light and dark, turn left from everything, and there you’ll find the Fairy King.”
“What did the water say?” the man asked her. “I cannot hear its voice any more.”
She repeated the rhyme. He took her by the hand in a most familiar way. “I think I know where to go.”
Her curiosity battled her wisdom and won in the first round. She let herself be led uphill and down, until they came to the largest willow tree she had ever seen.
“The water never lies,” the fairy prince said. “you take the right and I’ll take the left, and we’ll meet on the other side.”
With that, he let go of her hand and began to squint very closely at the willow bark, working his way around to the left. Unsure of what was expected of her – the customs of plain folk were confusing enough, she knew nothing of the fairy – the researcher followed suit to the right.
“It is willow bark,” she said. “That much I can see.”
“Keep looking,” the prince replied from the other side.
Pausing to scribble a quick summary her mountain journey thus far (for she was a researcher), she continued her inspection. Right as her hand touched the prince’s again, on the westernmost edge of the great tree trunk, they both saw the same crack in the bark.
“There!” they cried in unison. They laughed in the way people do when they say the same thing at the same time.
“Forgive my discourtesy,” he said, “but I think it best if I go first.”
She made a mental note that the fairy considered it courteous to let a woman go first, but that the rule could be waived.
The prince drew in his breath and wedged himself into the crack in the bitter willow bark. He stopped halfway in. “I may need your help,” he gasped.
She took his meaning at once. She lowered her shoulder and shoved the stuck prince as hard as she could. With a squeak, he popped through the crack, and she came tumbling after.
Unfortunately, they fell squarely onto a sleeping monster, set to guard the Willow Gate to the Fairy Kingdom.
Seven enormous eyes, black as thunderheads, glared at them. A deep rumbling filled the dim inside of the Willow Gate. Flashing like lightning, crooked claws raked the prince across the chest and sent him reeling to the floor.
He began weilaweiling up a storm. The researcher hoped that this was some sort of battle cry. She quickly realized it was not.
She was not, however, one of those researchers whose wars were laid away in books. It can be a dangerous business, gathering up other people’s customs on paper. She had trained as well for combat as she had for anthropology.
Pulling a handful of quills from her satchel, she threw them quick as can be, one through seven, each one unerringly hitting one of the monster’s terrible black eyes. It rose, its fur bristling and crackling with static, and lumbered towards her. She emptied out every inkpot she had into a slick puddle in front of it. She grabbed the prince and, ignoring his rather undignified wailing, rolled with him out of the way of the monster, right as it slipped on the ink-pool.
Pausing to stuff a sheaf of paper into the prince’s mouth – more for her own peace than anything else – she leapt back to her feet. The monster had skidded, out of control, right into the crack in the willow bark. It bellowed, stuck fast.
The researcher paused, unsure of what to do next. The monster pulled at the willow bark, which splintered. She did not have long.
It was then that she noticed that the streaks of ink on the ground made a pattern that was the perfect image of the monster’s anatomy. Moreover, by happy coincidence, a small splash of red ink (she so seldom needed it, she barely had any at all), made an X at a certain spot. In a flash, she realized that was the monster’s weak spot.
The beast tore its head free from the willow, still wearing a ring of bark like a collar. Drawing her pen knife, the researcher charged it. Before its slashing claws could end her story, she plunged the little blade as deep as she could into the spot marked on the ink-pattern anatomy on the floor. The monster reeled back. In a puff of mist, it vanished.
“Well,” said the prince, pulling the wad of paper from his mouth. “It seems the way is clear.”
She looked and she saw that, between the line of the very last of the sun’s light and the very first of the night’s dark, a vast kingdom opened up. The prince led her in.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” he said. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to get married and become Queen some day.”
The researcher gazed out over the varied and wondrous country before her.
“I think not.”
She left the prince weilaweiling by the broken Willow Gate. She spent the rest of her life traveling from place to place in Fairy Land, watching and learning and making notes. In the end, she wrote a long book about every custom the length and breadth of that marvelous place. It was a remarkable tome, the true love of her life. At last, time closed the cover on her and her magnificent book, as it must for us all. They were buried in the same grave, and the kingdom mourned them.