Oki was only five years old when his mother passed away, and as such there was little more he could do than gather small fruit and berries. But his father gave him the task, and bid he do it well, so he dried his tears and set off into the woods with an empty basket.
Trembling with electric nerves, Oki plucked fruit from branches and vines as gently as his thrumming fingers allowed. He selected only the finest fruit, disdaining any blemish, bruise, or insect bite. Only the best would attract fairies, and his father had stressed how important it was to have fairies carry their prayers to his mother in the afterlife. With painstaking care, he gathered until his laden basket contained luscious raspberries, tart blueberries, and bursting wild peaches.
His father smiled — rare these days, and Oki cherished it — and the next day took the fruit deep into Fairy Forest, where he set traps. Oki watched the dirt gather beneath his father’s fingernails, reside in the cracks of his knuckles; calluses rubbed against ropes as he pulled them taut. Oki knew his father’s fingers to be brutal — he’d been on the receiving end of their blows when he spoke back to his mother, and he had seen them string a bow he couldn’t even bend. But arranging the cages in hidden holes, covering them with a gentle layer of leaves, they seemed tender and loving. Vulnerable.
“Have I done well, Father?” Oki asked him.
One thick finger rose to his lips, bidding Oki to be silent. But his expression was mild, his eyes kind. He nodded, and replied that the fairies would love the fruit.
A week passed before the ceremony on the lake, and now Oki watched those hands again, the traces of dirt still present despite having spent the afternoon bathing, scrubbing, anointing their heads with oil and perfume. The garments Oki wore, he’d only worn once before — the day his uncle and aunt had been married, and he’d borne their rings. They were pristine, wrinkleless, slightly stiff and itchy, but he stood straight, knowing that his mother would have shed a tear.
Oki and his father left his aunt and uncle on the shore and cast off in a small boat. Oki had the honor of lighting the lantern at the bow, shining orange light onto the black water. Theirs joined the dozens of other lights on the lake, cruising to the center.
“Do you remember your prayer?” his father asked him.
He would never forget the prayer for as long as he lived. “Yes, Father. Did I do well, Father?”
“You tell me. All of your fruit is gone, and our fairies are silent and content. What do you think?”
Oki smiled. “They liked it.”
“They loved it. But remember — don’t let them out before they hear your prayer.”
The boats converged, and it seemed to Oki that all at once the light was great and kingly, the darkness of the water something forgotten. In the unity of the many lanterns, Oki saw somber faces rack their oars and pull the drapes off their cages.
When his father stopped rowing, Oki took the covers off their two cages. Twelve pairs of large, bright eyes looked up at them; those that had been sitting now stood; many stretched their wings, the thin membranous sheen of a dragonfly. After a moment, the six in each cage all held hands and stared upward, expectantly.
Oki thought they were beautiful — small and graceful, as his mother had been, and in their eyes twinkled a hint of mischief that he recognized from a mirror; he noticed with delight that light blue stains lingered on their teeth.
Suddenly he longed to release them. His vision blurred until their limpid eyes were all he could see. He heard music; its beauty made him feel like a beam of sunlight dancing through green branches. Oki reached his small fingers to the simple latch — it would be so easy to flip it and watch them flutter into the sky.
“Oki!” His father’s voice, in the tone he reserved for discipline, broke the spell. “Not before you say your prayer.”
So he said it, softly, so only his six fairies could hear. It mentioned love and longing and hope, but mostly it spoke of thankfulness for having known his mother, and the comfort that gave him.
The fairies’ eyes captured the starlight and made it into something liquid that glimmered each time they blinked. At last the moment arrived, and together Oki and his father opened the cages.
The fairies sprang into the air at once, joining the ranks of those from the other boats until the collective beating of their wings formed a low purring that Oki felt deep in his belly, like when his father hummed sometimes while smoking a pipe on the back porch. The starlight in their eyes flashed, effulgent, radiating the lantern light. Then, all at once, they began to sing.
It was a strange union of soprano tinkling, like wind through dangling crystal, and something more guttural — distant thunder echoing through rocky mountain passes. It filled the air as they rose, growing louder and stronger, the thrumming of their wings providing a backdrop on which to paint their scene.
Other sounds joined the song; Oki couldn’t place where they came from. They were voices, though he couldn’t make out any words. He felt a warm breeze through his hair, and clear through the twirled and tangled sounds he heard his mother’s voice, fluttering past like a leaf on a breeze. He ran to the bow of the boat and looked upward.
The sound of her singing blended and rose high over the lake. Oki watched the lights of the twinkling fairy eyes rise and dim, until, much later, the last echoes of the ascension song had diminished, and there was only the wind and the soft lapping of the lake beneath their feet.
Devin Miller is a tar heel who writes stories… and sometimes does other things, too. His fiction has appeared in magazines such as Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, Ray Gun Revival, and others.