“Do you remember that night?” she asked him.
“I think so,” he said. He could recall sitting on the porch on a hot summer evening. What was it they had talked about?
“You asked him a question, remember?”
That’s right, he thought, I did….
* * * * *
“Have you ever seen an elf, uncle?”
The boy sat on the floor with his back against a porch column. The smell of citronella from the candles waxed and waned at the evening breeze’s whim.
The old man sat in his rocker, staring out at the thicket behind the house. He held his pipe in his hand, but it had gone out. It wasn’t quite dark enough for lightning bugs. “Well, Master Sam, I reckon I did the first time I ever saw your Aunt Lilly.”
The boy thought about that for a moment, then said, “No, I don’t mean a person. I mean an elf. A real elf. You know, like the ones you say live in the woods yonder.” The boy pointed toward the scrub.
“Well…” said the old man, then stopped and coughed violently. When he was finally able to catch his breath, he asked for water. Sam went into the house and came back with a glass. The old man took a few swallows and cleared his throat. Sam waited for a moment, then took the glass and put it down on the table next to the rocker.
The old man took a deep breath, and then said, “Now, what were we talking about?”
“Ah, yes. Elves…” the old man closed his eyes and hummed a snatch of tune to himself. “You mean you’ve never seen any?”
“Nope,” said the boy. A single cicada started singing, and then a full orchestra’s worth of the insects joined in.
The old man shook his head. “By the time I was your age, I’d seen elves plenty of times. Well, ‘elves’ isn’t quite right: one elf. But I saw her quite a lot.”
“Her? Are you talking about Aunt Lilly again?”
“No, no. I didn’t meet your Aunt Lilly until I was all grown up. I was just your age…fact, a bit younger. Don’t remember the first time I ever saw Tina. I know I saw her in dreams a lot….”
“Oh, so you just dreamt about elves, you didn’t actually see them.”
“No, no, I saw her too: in real life, plain as day. But I reckon I saw her in dreams for awhile first.” The old man sat up and reached for his matches. He struck one and tried to light his pipe again, but the match went out. He sucked on the stem for a bit, and then put the pipe down on the table beside the water glass.
“Here’s how it is, Sam. Elves aren’t folks you have a lot of say-so with. They pretty much come and go as they please. At least, that’s been my experience. The one I know used to hang around a lot until I was…oh, maybe in the third grade. Then we moved to the ocean because the doctor’s said it was better for my lungs. After that…well, I reckon she didn’t like the ocean too much, because I saw her less and less. Dreamt of her less and less, too. But she still shows up now and again.”
“Well, what’s she like?”
“Yeah. Isn’t that what you said her name was? Doesn’t sound like an elf’s name.”
“Well, that’s because it wasn’t. I called her that.”
“Didn’t she ever say what her real name was?”
“Well, she didn’t talk about herself all that much, and I don’t expect I ever asked her proper. But she was a real elf alright. Pretty thing. Always dressed in white, and she was always dragging me out of bed at night and hauling me off into the woods on adventures. That was in dreams, though….”
“Wait a minute. She wasn’t all smoochy, was she? Like regular girls are?”
The old man smiled. “No, but you know I wouldn’t have minded if she was, even though I was younger than you and wasn’t interested in ‘smoochiness’ any more than you are now. ‘Feisty’ is what I’d have called her: kind of like your Aunt Lilly. She laughed a lot…usually at me. She thought I was such a slow-poke.” The old man sighed. “Guess she was right, because I never could keep up with her….”
They sat for a while and listened to the cicadas. The crickets were joining in now, too.
“There’s one!” said Sam.
“One what?” asked the old man.
“A lightning bug. See, there it is again!”
“Yep, I saw it. Pretty things. Tina thinks they’re pretty too, lighting up all the time, luring you into the woods; kind of like if you followed ‘em, you’d end up…I don’t know, someplace enchanted, someplace really wonderful….”
They watched in silence as more and more fireflies glittered in the gloaming.
“Uncle, why do you reckon I can’t see elves?”
“Well…” said the old man, “I don’t know for sure. Some folks can see ‘em and some can’t, seems to me. But have you ever asked to see them? I mean, in your prayers at night?”
“That doesn’t seem right to me, asking to see elves when I’m supposed to be talking to God.”
“Why not? Don’t you think elves were made by God, same as us?”
“I don’t know. Lots of folks say elves don’t exist at all.”
“Lots of folks say God doesn’t exist at all, but do you believe them?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Well, then, don’t believe them about elves. If you’re meant to, you’ll see them someday. Matter of fact, I’ll make a deal with you. If you’ll stop listening to those idiots…” and here the old man leaned forward and lowered his voice, “…if you’ll stop listening to the folks who tell you elves don’t exist…and I know they include your father…then I’ll make you a promise.”
“What sort of promise?”
“I’ll promise you that next time I see Tina, I’ll ask her to make sure you see the elves. What would you think about that?”
“That’d be great! But, didn’t you say you hadn’t seen Tina in a long time?”
“It’s been a spell, for sure,” said the old man. “Last time was…oh, I think it might have been when your Aunt Lilly passed away.”
“But that was when I was a little kid!” said Sam.
“It was, but I can’t help that. Elves don’t notice time the same way as you and me.”
They paused for a few moments as the cicada chorus boiled around them once more.
“So, is it a deal?” asked the old man.
“Sure, it’s a deal.”
“And you’ll make sure you ask to see them in your prayers, right?”
* * * * *
“So, do you remember now?” she asked.
He nodded. “But, I was still just a boy. That had to be ten years ago.”
“It was ten years ago,” she said.
“So, where have you been all that time?” he asked, looking at his visitor. She appeared to be a youngish girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen, but her green eyes were bright, intelligent, and mischievous. She was dressed completely in white, with a silver sash cinching her gown at the waist. Her pointed ears protruded above hair that was curly and dark, and her lips were pale silver.
She giggled. “I’ve been right here, silly! Don’t you know anything?” She punched his arm.
“Ouch!” he said. “But, wait a minute, why did you come along now? I mean, after all these years?”
“Your uncle promised he’d ask Tina next time he saw her, right?”
“Well, Tina’s been busy. He didn’t need her around much ‘til tonight.”
“So, you’re not Tina?”
“No, of course not!”
“Then who are you?”
“That, mister smarty-pants, is something you’ll have to find out for yourself.” She poked her tongue out at him.
“But wait a minute, what do you mean uncle ‘didn’t need’ Tina?”
“Oh, he hasn’t been sick or lonely enough to bother with her for some time. When he was a boy, he was in and out of the hospital a lot, and that was how he got to know Tina so well. But, you’re healthy as a horse, so don’t go expecting to have me hanging around much…unless you’re really out of sorts, in which case, I’ll consider it. I’ve got enough work to do looking after you as it is!”
She gave him a stern look, and then put her hands on her hips. “But, that’s that. I’ve done what I was asked to do; you’ve seen an elf. And, since you’re about to wake up anyway, I’m going now….”
“Wait, when are you coming back again?”
“Whenever you need me. Whenever you really need me. But, since you asked, and since you hate ‘smoochy’ girls, here’s something to remember me by.” She leaned over and gave him an enormous sloppy kiss on his forehead. “There! Now, time to get up!!!”
The telephone rang.
Sam started up out of bed. The elf was gone. He reached over and grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”
“Sam? This is your dad. Listen, I hate to wake you, but I thought you should know. Your uncle passed away about an hour ago. It was sudden; none of us was expecting it. He died peacefully, though. I’m sorry; I know you two were close….”
“Yeah, we were, dad.” Sam said. He rubbed his eyes. “Did he say anything to you? I mean, before he went to bed last night? Or in the last couple of days?”
“Well, he said he’d been dreaming about your Aunt Lilly a lot lately. Said something about when it was time, he figured somebody would come and show him how to find her again. Funny thing to say, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, funny,” said Sam. “Thanks for letting me know, dad. I’ll call you later.”
He put the receiver back on the phone, rubbed his eyes and lifted his head. That’s when he noticed it. He could see himself reflected in the mirror, and on his forehead, a silver mark glistened in the early morning light. It was in the shape of a kiss.