GRACE LILY WHITE parted the curtain to peer through her kitchen window into Ashley Tombley’s yard. She squinted. Are those gargoyles? Yes, they are! It was bad enough that Ashley moved in, pulled up the grass, replaced it with black and gray gravel, and then tore down the nice, white picket fence so that she could erect a black, cast iron one, but now, gargoyles?
When Ashley repainted the house, Grace said nothing, although the house didn’t need new paint. The Dearborns had freshened the property when they decided to sell. It had been a beautiful robin-egg blue with slightly darker trim, but Ashley painted it a stark, yellowed white with black trim. It looked like a daguerreotype of the house that used to stand there. Cast-iron furniture appeared on the porch. Two cast-iron benches faced each other in the black-graveled back yard. Cast iron meant a lot to Ashley, Grace decided.
No plants in Ashley’s yard, just gravel, boulders and twisted hunks of driftwood. It looked like a nuclear wasteland as far as Grace was concerned.
Grace loved, collected, and displayed lawn fairies. She also sought ceramic fairy bridges, fairy doors, and the occasional mobile, if fairies dangled from it. Starting in February, when the snow cleared, she bundled out to her yard, digging, scraping, and rearranging the landscaping. By early spring, she planted seeds and bulbs, spread the new groundcover, and waited for when it was warm enough to relax in a lawn chair with a book, surrounded by her collection.
Grace opened a lawn ornament catalog on her kitchen table. She’d dog-eared the pages with new figurines, but she couldn’t stop herself from returning her attention to Ashley’s yard. It was lurid, desolate and terrible.
During the winter, she longed for summer smells, a good book’s heft in her hand, the sun’s caress on her shoulders, and the company of her lawn friends, peeking from under the lilacs, hidden among the daffodils, and frolicking in the periwinkle. Even now, she saw the fairy jamboree she’d arranged near the fence. Fairies danced through the snow-in-summer. A tiny tea party convened around a table in the purple sedum.
For years, she added to the collection, never minding that the neighbors thought her a little batty. Once she overheard Beatrice Angelo talking to Wanda Lewis in the supermarket after Grace passed: “It could be worse; she could keep cats,” said Beatrice. Of course, Grace would never keep cats, nasty things that dug into the sandy areas in her yard, hunting the little winged creatures who came to her fairyland bird bath.
The talk didn’t bother her. What bothered her were little kids who’d sometimes steal her figurines, and the occasional hailstorm that broke them.
I’m fifty years old, Grace thought. I deserve to be happy.
She put on a shawl, went out her front door, down the rainbow-speckled steppingstones that lead to her fairy-green with yellow shooting stars mailbox, and down the sidewalk to Ashley’s front gate. She paused as she unlatched the cold metal clasp. Ashley had added a pair of stone wolves just inside the gate. They stood hip-high, made of dark granite, posed viciously with snarling expressions and shiny, black teeth.
She’d never been inside the gate since Ashley moved in. Now she saw an iron snake coiled in a waist-high rock’s shadow. Against the house leaned a very convincing tombstone. In front of it, a pewter hand, buried at the wrist, reached out as if a corpse was trying to claw from the grave. Figures hid everywhere behind the boulders, invisible from the street: scorpions, spiders, a weird half-bear half-man the size of a puppy, trolls, and by the porch, a pair of pale stone lions. Ashley had even painted the sidewalk black. Grace pulled her shawl a little tighter, mounted stairs to the door, grimaced, and then seized the skull knocker.
Ashley answered, cigarette dangling from her black lipstick painted lips. She was taller than Grace, the same age, broader in the shoulders, henna-red hair that hung to the middle of her back. Her maroon Victorian riding jacket sported dull silver buttons, but ordinary blue jeans and white sneakers spoiled the effect.
“You have gargoyles in your backyard,” said Grace, primly, realizing that she had nothing else to say beyond that.
Ashley flicked her cigarette into a bucket by the door. “Do you like them?”
Grace couldn’t tell if the woman was being sarcastic.
“They’re facing my kitchen.” She could picture their stone eyes now, contemplating her house. “They’re inappropriate for the neighborhood.”
Ashley laughed. “Your yard looks like a unicorn threw up on it. Who is inappropriate?”
Grace suddenly felt ridiculous. The conversation had turned improper and confrontational. “Could you display them so I won’t see them? I like the view out my kitchen window.”
“They’re seventeenth-century stonework. Genuine articles off Irish Catholic monasteries. They’re art. Get used to them. Have you heard of a gargoyle garden? I’m making one.”
Grace swallowed weakly. “More gargoyles?”
Ashley nodded. “It’s taken me twenty-five years to afford my own house. It’s going to look the way I like.”
“I’M SORRY MS. White,” said City Planner Filcher. “The area you live in is not covered by restrictive covenants. Ms. Tombley’s obligations as a homeowner are to keep her yard clear of weeds and the house in good repair. She’s not running a business out of the home is she?”
Standing in the kitchen, Grace gripped the phone tight to her ear. Ashley, in her back yard, unpacked a set of three, dishwasher-sized boxes. Two young men helped her cut the cardboard away. Their truck sat in the alley at Ashley’s back gate. “No! I told you that she’s putting repellent statuary in her yard. Did you get that she’s using black landscaping stone? It looks like the House of Usher over there.”
“Let me see what else is a possibility.” Grace heard paper shuffling. “Is she noisy between the hours of 10:00 pm and 6:00 am, or are there large groups of people coming and going from the property?”
“No.” The cardboard had come off the first box, but bubble wrap and strapping tape hid the contents. Ashley gestured to the corner next to Grace’s yard. The two men levered the wrapped mystery onto a dolly.
“Are there noxious odors, trash fires, automobiles in disrepair, abandoned appliances, piles of used tires, industrial equipment or barrels of toxic chemicals?”
“No, of course not. I told you the problem.”
“I’m just reading from the city standards for home owners, ma’am.”
“Come out here and look!” said Grace desperately. “Or I can send you pictures.”
“Wait a minute,” said the city planner. “Are you Grace Lily White?”
Papers rustled. Faintly, a computer keyboard’s clackety clack came through. “You live in the fairy house, don’t you? I thought your address was familiar. You’re in the system. Theft and vandalism complaints. Oh, and the ‘she’s the mistress of darkness’ call from last year.”
Grace felt herself blushing. “That was a misunderstanding. Selma Wall is a religious nut. She said my yard ornaments were idolatrous and not right for a Christian community. They’re fairies, not the devil!”
“I believe the city backed you up on that issue. Am I right?”
The memory stung to think about. In Ashley’s yard, the workman peeled the bubble wrap in a long strip, revealing a black-stone winged figure crouched on a pedestal. Under Ashley’s direction, the men turned the heavy piece so that it looked right into Grace’s window.
Grace stepped back, as if it could see her. “I have another option,” she said, and ended the call.
GRACE KNEW SELMA Wall from grade school. They’d both lived in the neighborhood their entire lives, but had never been friends. In elementary school, Selma carried a Bible everywhere, which she quoted from with grating precision. Then, in high school, she went through a brief slutty period, marked mostly by sleeping with each of the three boys Grace had a crush on. Selma returned to the Bible years later when her marriage fell apart. Grace wouldn’t have had any contact with her at all, except that Selma put in the complaint with the city about Grace’s yard.
They had sat on opposite sides of a conference table in the Mayor’s office. The Mayor, a retired telephone executive who ran for office on a can’t-we-just-get-along platform, mediated.
“Miss Wall. Could you explain your objections to Miss White’s decorating choices.”
If Grace thought that the misunderstanding could be settled amicably, Selma’s opening put that hope to rest.
Selma put a manila folder filled with papers on the table. “I’ve been investigating. Most people think of Walt Disney and Tinkerbell when they picture fairies, but it’s not well known that faeries,” (she spelled it out) “or the ‘fae’ as some practitioners refer to them, are minions of the devil. This woman’s display is an affront to our community’s Christian values.”
Two weeks later, after four more increasingly acrimonious meetings, where Selma accused Grace of witchcraft, and Grace called Selma a “sanctimonious twit,” the Mayor dismissed the complaint on religious freedom principles.
Grace said to him later, “But I don’t worship fairies. This isn’t religion. They’re not real. I just like them. They’re pretty.”
The Mayor said, “I know, but she can’t see it any other way. Take your victory and run.”
SELMA LIVED IN a tidy bungalow tucked behind a much larger house that faced the street. Grace walked up Selma’s gravel driveway, staying far away from a huge dog that followed her on the other side of the big house’s fence. It didn’t bark, but Grace had never heard more threatening breathing in her life.
If Selma thought Grace’s yard was bad, what would she make of Ashley’s? Certainly the two of them had a bad history, but she hoped to convince Selma that the enemy of her enemy was her friend. Grace imagined Selma galvanizing her church behind her. Selma wouldn’t make the mistake of going to the city this time. She’d organize protest rallies in front of Ashley’s house, because, after all, fairies were innocent, while gargoyles were clearly demonic. She wondered what Selma would make of Ashley’s black lipstick.
Smiling, Grace knocked on Selma’s door.
A wave of incense washed over her when Selma greeted her. She wore a long, orange robe with gold tassels hanging from the hems and a loose yellow sash across her chest. Selma faced her hands palm to palm, fingers up, and bowed slightly as a welcome.
“Selma?” said Grace. The last time she’d seen her, Selma dressed like an Amish matriarch.
They shared tea. The incense burned so thickly that Grace’s eyes watered. Grace knew long before Selma announced somewhat redundantly, “I’ve become a Buddhist,” that she wasn’t going to find an ally here in her battle with Ashley.
When Grace left, Selma said, “Namaste.”
“Whatever,” said Grace.
LATE THAT NIGHT, a spring wind came out of the north. The weather station predicted a freeze, so Grace covered her roses and the more delicate flowers. She apologized to the fairy figures that she covered also. “I know you like the outdoors,” she said, “but the plants need protection.”
Wind whistled through her old home’s eaves, and the oak tree in back that she’d been meaning to prune brushed the siding with creepy scratching and thumping. She pulled a quilted throw off the couch to wrap herself, sat in her favorite chair with a new book, and read by the light of her Tiffany lamp. On the table beside her sat a warmed scone under a napkin and small glass of wine.
The book had come in the mail the day before, Reflections of the Cottingley Fairies: Frances Griffiths – in Her Own Words: With Additional Material by Her Daughter Christine. The Cottingley fairies had been a sensation around 1920. Two sisters claimed to have photographed fairies in their garden. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes books, became very interested and championed their experiences.
Grace ran her fingers over the black and white photographs of the two young girls who appeared to be within inches of the delicate creatures, but even to her uncritical eye, the pictures screamed fake. How could anyone have thought them genuine? Decades later, the girls admitted the images were false, but still maintained they’d seen fairies in their garden.
Grace sighed. She didn’t believe that fairies were real, but she liked to imagine them.
She did her own fairy photography, too, with a digital camera and editing. She’d covered the walls in her library with them, and now, by the Tiffany lamp’s light, they looked over her benignly.
Something whapped hard against the side of the house, rattling the photographs. Grace jumped, straining her ears. The wind had picked up, but she didn’t believe it could carry anything large enough to cause what she’d heard. It was if someone had smacked her siding with a shovel.
She grabbed a flashlight and a coat, slipped the deadbolt on the back door, then cracked it open. A cold breeze pushed in. She shut the door behind her. From the back stoop, the yard became a dark symphony of movement, illuminated only by a streetlight through the wind tossed tree. Shadows danced, branches creaked, and the fairy mobiles clattered like skeleton teeth.
Her flashlight cut through the night. Torn leaves and dust dashed through the beam, peppering her face. She swept the light to her left and right, but she didn’t see anything that would account for the noise. Holding her coat tight around her neck, Grace moved to the corner next to the driveway away from Ashley’s house. She didn’t like the idea of looking at the gargoyles in the middle of the night, but nothing seemed out of place there either. Among the tossing flowers, her fairies and gnomes seemed content. The wind had pushed over one of the larger pieces. It could wait for the wind to settle down before she put it upright.
A shape moved just beyond the light. A dog? Grace scanned her neighbor’s bushes. Other than the branches pitching left and right, nothing. Occasionally she’d seen a fox in the yards. Maybe that was the movement.
The front of the house was clear too. Her glider with canopy strained against the wind. The canvas awning snapped sharply, but she’d anchored the chair solidly against the possibility of wind (or thieves). It hadn’t made the noise either.
With dread, she turned the corner toward Ashley’s house. She directed the light at Ashley’s yard. The new gargoyle, the huge one who’d been staring at her kitchen window was gone. Had the wind pushed it over? She couldn’t imagine the wind had been that strong, although now it plucked at her coat and blew hair across her face.
A glittering in the flower bed before her caught the flashlight’s beam. She had arranged a tableau of wood nymphs beside a two-foot tall fairy castle in the center of the bed. Grace’s breath froze in her throat. A castle parapet hung loose, dangling from the ribbons that decorated the building. Below the drawbridge, sparkling fairy wing fragments and ceramic shards were all that remained of her display. No wind could have done this. Grace swept the flashlight down her garden, revealing unbroken fairies, but not where she’d placed them; a busted gnome; and a fairy mobile, jangling crazily. She picked up a whole fairy, a delicate beauty in lavender and pink, as long as her hand. It dropped into her pocket.
A torrent whirled around her filled with twigs and sand. She shielded her face against it and turned her back.
The light revealed a dent in her siding. On the ground next to the house, black marble pieces mixed among her white stones. Most were no bigger than jagged, ugly marbles, but one piece, as large as a softball stood out. With her foot, she rolled it toward her. The pointed ears and leering mouth revealed themselves. It was from the gargoyle Ashley had installed earlier in the day.
The wind wasn’t even blowing from Ashley’s direction.
A mass swept by her head, tugged at her shoulder. She jerked the flash up, but whatever it was vanished. From the bed of Virginia Bluebells, though, a faint globe of light rose, and from the Geraniums, another. Dust swirled, stinging her eyes, but she could have sworn that within the light’s auras, fairy wings fluttered, steady in the wind. More appeared out of the Black-eyed Susans and the Golden Rod until a dozen lights floated above her head, like an umbrella or shield. Were they protecting her?
In the storm’s roar, something howled. Panicked, Grace pawed through the Lenten Rose and Coneflowers for unbroken figurines. She couldn’t leave them outside, but the howl called again, and two of the globes winked out. A shadow against the roiling clouds swept above.
Her pockets full of fairies, and others cradled in her arms, Grace closed her backdoor against the wind and the unnerving noise. She gasped heavily.
Carefully, she put the fairies on a shelf, only a handful of her collection, and it wasn’t until she took her coat off that she discovered a long cut in the shoulder, like from a razor or a talon, and a corresponding rent in her blouse. Her skin was untouched.
GRACE STOOD AT the gate, waiting for the owner of Chōzō Gardens and Lawn Art to open. A tree limb had come down across the street, blocking the sidewalk. A city crew with chainsaws and a wood chipper closed a lane of traffic.
“Ah, Miss White. Glad to see you again,” said Eiji Kagome. He held a large bundle of keys in one had, and a coffee in the other. “Your regular business pays my girl’s tuition.”
“No time for chit chat,” said Grace. “I’m on a mission.” She pushed by Eiji as he opened the gate and headed for statuary at the back of the lot.
ASHLEY RESTED HER forearms on her cast iron fence. “Quite a storm last night.”
Grace surveyed her yard. Besides the shredded flowers and several small oak limbs, the damage wasn’t terrible, as long as she ignored destroyed figurines. Dozens more had shattered. Some were ones she’d owned for years and had sentimental value. She moved with determination, picking up trash and dropping it into a heavy garbage bag.
“I see you lost a gargoyle.” Grace tried to keep calm. She had thought about going into Ashley’s yard at dawn with a hammer, smash for ten minutes, and her losses would be avenged, but she ate a breakfast of toast and oatmeal instead while waiting for Chōzō Gardens to open. Did Ashley know what happened last night? Was she responsible?
“Yeah, darnedest thing. They must have installed it poorly for wind to knock it off the pedestal.”
Grace didn’t think Ashley knew. She bent and straightened, bent and straightened. It would take the rest of the afternoon to get the yard where she wanted it.
A delivery truck parked in front of Grace’s house. She smiled, took off her work gloves, and went to meet it.
“I’d like them at the corners,” she said. The college-aged workman with a thick neck and impressive biceps, wearing a t-shirt that said, OLD GARDNERS NEVER DIE. THEY JUST THROW IN THE TROWEL, grunted as he hefted a box onto a dolly.
“I’ve cleared spots for them.”
A half hour later, the last box had been removed and the statues leveled. Ashley watched through the process.
“Dragons?” Ashley said. “Not really your motif.”
Grace wiped down the jade-colored beauty that faced Ashley’s yard. The wings, partially extended reached three-feet across, and the long head tilted slightly to the side, as if studying them. Each well-muscled, powerful creature looked poised to leap or fly. Strong faces. Unflinching eyes. Razor sharp claws and teeth.
“I think of them as heavy artillery,” said Grace. The smallest dragon was half again as large as the remaining gargoyles in Ashley’s yard. Much more imposing than Ashley’s wolves. Dragons topped the mythological food chain, Grace thought. Nothing stronger. Nothing more intimidating, and nothing more territorial.
On the kitchen table, she spread her catalogs. The broken fairies could never be replaced. She mourned, but new ones could appear. Grace would grow to love them too. She imagined the tiny cottages nestled in the Marigolds, the fairy rings among the Sunflowers, under the dragons’ watchful gaze.
They’d dance, the fairies would, maybe only when the wind blew hard, but now that Grace knew, she’d come out at night with her camera. Maybe if she waited all night, perfectly still, full of the purest thoughts, they would dance for her like they had at Cottingley. Last night they protected her, and now she protected them. She’d told the Mayor that she didn’t believe fairies were real, just as she’d told herself that they were only pretty figurines.
What a relief to know she was wrong.