Tiny Things Last

A tiny thing can last for years.

The memory of it can be as fresh as the first second, the leaves on the bush as green, the soil underneath as loamy and dark and the tiny elves’ footprints as distinct.

My brother would motion for me to come look under the bush. “Come over here, Red. Look at what I found.” Then he’d move the branches and the leaves so I could see clearly the tiny footprints left by the elves from their party the night before. He’d explain how the elves gather at night to sing and dance but scatter in the morning so as to avoid discovery.

I believed him. I was eight. Maybe I should have known better but I thought it was possible there were such beings as elves and having my seventeen year old brother tell me so made it definite. He said there were elves under the bush in our yard. And so there were.

Hunting for elves stopped when my brother went to college. I’d look myself but there were never any footprints and, after a while, I decided it had been a fiction. I gave up looking and took up sitting in the branches of a tree next to our house and then, later, hiking off to the woods where there was a small, damp cave. There were no elves in either place but they were special for their loneliness and felt like home. Home was hollow without my brother.

My brother and I grew up and away, from home and each other. Our differences more powerful than memories of elves under bushes. He disapproved of everything, so I thought. I opposed everything he supported. He seemed angry a lot of the time, not at me, just everything. Geography made it easy to back far away and so I did.

Then one year, after many years of very little contact, he gave me a sterling silver bracelet with a single elf charm. The elf was sitting with his arms around his knees and looked like all the elves I’d imagined under the bush. The bracelet was a sign of gentleness and love for me that I hadn’t felt in twenty years. Had he thought of this himself, I wondered, or had he told his wife the story of the elf parties and she bought it. I never knew. I decided to believe he’d sent it on his own.

I stowed the bracelet in the drawer of a jewelry box on the dresser of an old house we owned on the shore of Lake Superior. It was a fairy place to me, magical, and so I decided the bracelet should live there.

And then the house burned down. It was January, powerfully cold with a great wind blowing off the big lake that turned our fairy place into a giant ball of fire that lit the night for miles around.

After the fire, I walked through the ashes, finding pieces of carpet, the lace edges of pillowcases. I found a metal ladle and tiles from the bathroom. There were nails and shattered glass everywhere. But there was no elf. There would be no elf for me. The elf was gone. Everything was gone. A crowd of things was gone. The elf was lost in the crowd.

After our house was rebuilt, my brother and his wife came to visit. We hadn’t seen each other in a dozen or more years so having him there on our porch, on our beach seemed dreamlike, almost like we had become the elves.

I told him that the bracelet had been lost in the fire and he seemed, for a moment, not to remember having sent it. But then it came back to him and we joked about the elves under the bush. I remember him standing on the beach, him in his plaid shirt and Texas jeans, holding a beer, me standing in Lake Superior. We talked about the bracelet and the joke of the elves. But I didn’t tell him what I was really thinking.

What I was really thinking was that my brother had saved me with his stories about the elves, the wee footprints he would make with his fingers, his feigned surprise at the discovery of the elves’ having been there, right in our yard, while we were sleeping. He had saved me from being lonely and invisible, last on everyone’s list. He had created a tiny time of enchantment. He had made me feel special, blessed by elves’ visits. He had given me a gift that has lasted nearly sixty years.

He’d given me the elves.

Poor_little_birdie_teased_by_Richard_Doyle

Image: Poor little birdie teased by Richard Doyle

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