Universe by Linda Dunlavy

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acrons and acron shells on the ground with twigs


We’re in the forest looking for acorn shells, because they make good bathtubs for the fairies. I have only one daughter, and she thinks a pinecone would be a good hiding place – fairies like to play hide-and-seek. “That’s a great idea,” I say, and put a couple in my pocket with the twigs and pebbles that we will arrange together later.

She steps cautiously, tucking a blonde lock behind her ear as she scans the ground. I’m cautious too, looking down for tiny treasures, but mostly I watch Riley as she steps, scans, imagines. She’s wearing her old gym shoes, flowered stretch pants and her jean jacket with the rhinestones on the collar. Afternoon sunlight beams through a break in the clouds and continues past the tree branches to find her.

The fairies must be busy. We’re amidst the early rumblings of the forest’s explosive resurrection party. Bright baby buds pop from mother branches, critters scurry under old damp leaves, not seen, only heard. And then there is what we can’t see or hear, but only feel – air that teems with power and touches everything, the medium for the magic. For me, trying to explain it would be ridiculous, so I just breathe it in. After a phenomenon like rebirth is understood, scientifically, to the satisfaction of the human mind, we like to move on – the mystery is conquered! It’s fascinating, certainly, but I’ll stay a little longer, to let this air satisfy something else.

Riley is reading books about fairies, a popular phase for second grade girls. At bedtime, we take turns reading aloud, wedged in among the soft fuzz of stuffed animals, blankets, and decorative pillows. There is a fairy for just about everything a girl loves – Ally the Dolphin Fairy, Holly the Christmas Fairy, Gemma the Gymnastics Fairy, and so on. There is Tinker Bell and her friends, Barbie-fairies, and even the old-fashioned kind, illustrated in the books from her Nana. The fairies who look sort of real—and a little ominous.

I’ve seen lots of pictures of charming fairy gardens, with Riley over my shoulder as I clicked and scrolled, noting what’s pretty and what we might be able to replicate. We consider making a tiny structure, maybe a house made of bark, paths, stairs, a thick twig for a bench. Some bright green moss would give them a soft place to land. I steer her toward the simple designs. I’m not especially knowledgeable about horticulture or miniature landscaping. Most of my projects are noticeably imperfect, but that doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out together, in her only spring of being eight.

With the pinecones, acorn shells, twigs and stones laid out in the backseat, we go straight to Home Depot to get some little plants for our project. I watch Riley navigate the Home Depot garden center like the forest – focusing, thinking, visualizing. She’s at the same level as the lower shelves and runs her hand gently over the flats of flowers as we walk by. There might even be fairies flitting about right here, too small and fast for us to see with our eyes.

She says, “Thanks for making a fairy garden with me,” as if she understands that I could be spending my time doing something else.

We try to think of what the fairies would like. It’s for them, after all. What is small and enchanting and fun? Riley suggests flowers that are pretty but too big, or plants that are the right size but too short-lived. She understands when I explain. She wants to be guided. I have some knowledge from years of gardening mistakes. I put a fern-type thing in the cart, then a groundcover with miniature white flowers. I send a quick prayer that they don’t die within a week.

In the parking lot, my hand reaches out instinctively for hers. Mine is bony and veiny; hers is soft and cushy. I rub my thumb across the back of it, that soft, alive place that might be the center of the universe.

Riley does not know the history of European folklore about fairies. She does not know that their existence has never been proved or disproved; but nonetheless, people worship and fear them, believing that they make the wind blow, flowers bloom, rainbows appear. She does not know that they spoil crops and cause physical pain if humans offend them. She does not know they ended up on Earth because they were banished from heaven, but were too good for hell, and that many people swear they have seen them. She does not know that grown-ups all over the world believe these things. She only knows that fairies are pretty and magical and fun. They have wings, flouncy skirts, and impetuous movements. She knows how it feels to imagine them.

I know the feeling too. When I was her age, I did not know the history of Catholicism or if there was any evidence that the people in the Bible really lived or that those stories really happened. I only knew that the images of the saints made them look beautiful and holy and wise, and that my guardian angel was always over my shoulder. I am still comforted to know that there is a patron saint for anything I need to pray for – Saint Anthony when I lose something, the Blessed Mother when I need help being a good mom, Saint Jude when I feel like a lost cause, and so on. The nuns taught me that the saints would answer my prayers and my guardian angel would save me from being hit by a car. So far, I have no reason to doubt them. Back then, needing proof never occurred to me. My young brain was still developing, but my invisible antenna was always buzzing. It sensed and tingled and caused me to feel good or bad, even when I couldn’t explain why.

When I was Riley’s age, my mom prayed the rosary with me before I went to sleep. She sat at the edge of my bed, on top of the blue and white gingham bedspread that covered me. The light from the hall and the clock radio was just enough to see her above me as we prayed. I kept track for us, bead by bead. We did a decade a night, each of us saying half of the Hail Mary, ten times, then one Our Father. Sometimes, after the rosary, we’d talk, still in low voices, and she would patiently answer the questions I didn’t want anyone else to hear.

My daughter is Catholic too, but it takes up less space in her life than it did in mine. She goes to public school and is not steeped in religion or taught by nuns. Her Catholic roots are closer to the surface, exposed in the loose topsoil, not buried, deep and immovable, like mine were. She has faith, but she feels free to question religion with boldness and thought. She says, “God didn’t really make the whole world in seven days, right?” We evolved. She learned this. She doesn’t even realize it’s a controversial question. I try to answer her with boldness and thought, “Well, we don’t really know how the world was made, do we? We weren’t there. All we know is how it feels to believe one thing or the other.”


We scoop the soil into the box that my husband built with wood scraps, that Riley and I painted with leftover purple paint. The box sits on the picnic table in the backyard, where we will turn it into a respite for the fairies, an homage to their place in our imaginations. We discuss where to put the plants and the tiny metal table and chair we found at a garage sale last week (we both knew as soon as we saw them that they’d be perfect for the fairy garden.) She makes a curving path, one pebble at a time. She places the acorn shells, twigs and pinecones, then changes her mind and rearranges them. I tell her she’s doing an awesome job and she says, “I love you Mom,” like she does sometimes, when the feeling wells up and spills out in words. I say it back, and feel a flash of bewilderment, like I do sometimes, even now, that this girl is next to me and the enormous miracle of that. I am bewildered by the fact that I am a human being, responsible for a life – my own – and that my husband and God and I made another life and here she is full of light and surprises, covered in soft skin, placing pebbles in a garden in the backyard.

I planned to mold her like clay into an amazing person. I planned to teach her to make good decisions. I planned to teach her how to be grateful and kind and confident and creative. But instead, she teaches me these things. So I trust her, because within her there seems to be some universal wisdom that I can’t properly describe except to say I want to be near it. Her antenna is tuned in to a different frequency, like the one I used to pick up but then lost as I sped along, distracted and eager to grow up. Riley tells me sometimes that she doesn’t want to grow up, except to be a mom.

I imagine the fairy shenanigans that will happen when we’re not watching. Fairy jealousies and squabbles, practical jokes, tea parties, raucous dance parties, a relaxing acorn-shell bath after a day of fairy magic. We’ll giggle as we think of what could have caused the tipped-over pinecones.

She stops and looks up. “Do you believe in fairies, Mom?”


Why do we believe things we can’t prove? What do we gain from having faith in something? From having faith together? Do I believe in fairies? Miracles? Prayer? Magic in the atmosphere?

All of my experiences are tossed into this pot of questions that has been simmering on the back burner. She brings it to the front. The timer dings.

“Yes, Riley, I do.”

“Me too,” she says.


There are no answers to questions about faith. There are only people’s stories.

Mine is this: All the lessons, the revelations of the heart, all the reasons we surmise that we’re here, it all lives and breathes in the universe of Riley and me. The “big bang” happened the moment the + appeared on the pregnancy test that I held in my trembling hand.

It is a thing so palpable and true that bombs explode in my chest, stunning me with their suddenness, leaving me to just concentrate on catching my breath again. Every time I wrap my arms around her, stroke her back and smell her hair, the tremors come again.

It isn’t angels or fairies, God or nature, a prophet or a little girl. All possibilities coexist. So, with the statement of belief we just said out loud, Riley and I go boldly into the mysterious, not discounting anything, and not certain of anything either. We navigate by feeling, the only thing we can be sure of.

Our universe won’t be proved, disproved, or understood. Yet here it is, undeniable.

Linda DunlavyLinda Dunlavy’s writing has appeared in River Teeth Journal, Matador Network, Wanderlust and Lipstick, and in many grant proposals. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, son, daughter, and others felt but not seen.



STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/YellowBecky

  2 comments for “Universe by Linda Dunlavy

  1. Like the author’s daughters, I, too, loved fairy tales. When I was young, I read and reread every fairy tale book in the library. I never thought about the larger themes in fairy tales. I like how, in this essay, those themes flow so poetically and visually.

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