Field Biology of the Wee Fairies
When Amelia turned fourteen, everyone assured her that she’d find her fairy soon. Almost all girls did. You’d find a fairy, a beautiful little fairy, and catch her. And she’d give you a gift to let her go, and that gift was always beauty or charm or perfect hair or something else that made boys notice you. The neighbor girl, Betty, had caught her fairy when she was just nine, and so she’d never even had to go through an awkward adolescent stage; she’d been perfect and beautiful all along.
Not all fairies were equal, of course. Some of them would do a much better job for you. The First Lady Jackie Kennedy, for example, had caught the fairy queen. Or so almost everyone said. “So keep your eyes open,” Amelia’s mother told her.
“I don’t want to catch a fairy,” Amelia said. “If I did catch a fairy, I’d keep her in a jar like my mice and study her.”
Everyone laughed when she said things like that, except for Betty, who rolled her eyes and said that Amelia would change her mind when she grew up a bit. “You don’t want to be an old maid like Miss Leonard,” she pointed out. Miss Leonard was their English teacher. No one had ever asked her about this directly, but everyone agreed that Miss Leonard had never caught a fairy.
Amelia had quite a few mice. She was working on a science project for the West District Science Day at the Central State College. In her project, which she’d been working on for over a year, she was teaching mice to run mazes, to see what factors affected learning. To eliminate the problem of genetic variation, she was training litters rather than individual mice. Each litter, she divided in half, once they were weaned, setting one as the control group and one as the experimental group, marking their tails with indelible ink to keep track. She’d train them for two months, making careful notes on her results. When she was done with an experimental group, she’d donate the mice to the local zoo to feed to their boa constrictor. The zookeeper was quite perplexed the first time she came over with a jar of mice, and even more perplexed when Amelia wanted to stay and watch the snake eat the mice. He clearly thought they were her pets. “Don’t girls like cute things?” he said.
Amelia was baffled by his attitude. Sure, the mice were cute, but they weren’t pets like the cat and the dog, they were experimental subjects. Also, if she kept all of them, she’d quickly be drowning in rodents. Her parents were willing to tolerate a certain amount of smell and mess, as long as Amelia kept it to her room, but they had their limits.
(“It will be fine,” her father had said to her mother. “Sooner or later, she will surely find her fairy and move on.” Move on to dresses and hairstyles and makeup and boys, was what he meant.)
Amelia’s father taught history at her high school, which made some things better and some things worse. Better: she got a ride to school every day. Worse: she got in trouble twice anytime she got in trouble at school.
One day in late November, she was in her Spanish class and the idiot boy sitting behind her thought it would be hilarious to repeatedly poke her with his ruler. Amelia told him to stop. He didn’t stop. So she took out her math book, because it was the heaviest book in her bag and also her least favorite, and threw it at his head, knocking him out of his seat. Getting sent to detention was worth it. But, of course, her Spanish teacher tattled on her to her father and he took away the book she was reading for a week and her parents made her wash all the windows. That was a lot more annoying.
“You’ll appreciate attention from boys once you meet your fairy,” her mother told her as she wrung out the cloth into the bucket.
“I don’t want to find a fairy,” Amelia said.
“You’ll change your mind eventually,” her mother said.
“How old were you when you caught your fairy?” Amelia asked, curious.
Her mother’s eyes got a little distant. “I was a good deal older than you, actually. I was nearly eighteen and I’d pretty much concluded there weren’t any fairies in our part of Virginia. My sister and I were out together, and we saw two, and you’d better believe we chased them. Luckily, they ran in different directions. Mine went left and Reva’s went right. If we’d wound up chasing the same one, I don’t know what we’d have done!”
Amelia’s mother would have let Reva catch it, Amelia was pretty sure. If it had come to that.
“It wasn’t too long after that I met your father.”
Amelia’s parents had met during the war. Her father was a Yankee from Maine, her mother a poor farmer’s daughter from Virginia. You could see the fairy’s gifts in the first pictures of them together: her mother’s beaming, glamorous smile, her perfect posture. Amelia actually had the perfect posture, even without a fairy: the “posture” unit in gym class was the only one she’d gotten an A in. But her teeth were crooked, and she couldn’t see a thing without her thick glasses. Also, makeup was time-consuming and fancy clothes were usually uncomfortable.
“I want to be a scientist,” Amelia said.
“You can be beautiful and a scientist,” her mother assured her. “You know, I went to business school a few months after I caught my fairy. You’re smart enough for college and I certainly hope you’ll go.”
“I’ve heard some kids say that Miss Leonard killed her fairy.”
“That’s nonsense,” her mother said. “Some girls never do meet fairies and that’s probably all that happened to your English teacher.”
During Christmas vacation, Betty came over one afternoon. She admired Amelia’s mice and then wanted to do Amelia’s hair. “It’s so straight and long,” she said. “We could totally make you look like Audrey Hepburn.” For a minute, Betty almost had it in place, but then a pin slipped out of place and the hairstyle collapsed like a fallen cake.
“I can try to do yours,” Amelia offered, although Betty already looked like a girl out of a shampoo ad: a band held it in place as it rippled in shining waves. Probably thanks to the fairy. “What did your fairy give you, anyway?”
“Perfect hair,” Betty admitted. “I sometimes wish I’d asked for nicer skin. I figured that would be easier to fix with makeup. Some days it is, some days it isn’t.”
The sun was slanting low in the sky outside and Amelia started weighing out food for the mice. Betty watched with interest for a while, then asked, “Can you tell your mother I tried?”
“That you tried what?”
“That I tried to do your hair?”
“I guess? Wait, why?” Amelia put down the scoop and turned to look at Betty. “Did my mother put you up to this?”
“That’s a terrible way of putting it. She might have asked if I’d have a go at showing you some new styles, though.”
Amelia heaved a long sigh. “Well, I’ll tell her. You don’t have to stay any longer, if you don’t want.”
“I was sort of hoping you’d show me your mice running their maze, though,” Betty said.
“Really? Or did my mother put you up to that, too?” Amelia knew even as she asked that this was a ridiculous question. Her parents put up with her science project and they’d be happy enough when she won, but they certainly weren’t going to try to convince Betty to fake an interest. She pulled the maze out from under her bed and took out the log book, stop watch, and peanut butter.
“What’s the peanut butter for?” Betty asked.
“It’s the treat when they finish the maze. Mice like it a lot better than cheese.” She opened up a package of crackers and started spreading peanut butter on them.
“Can I help?” Betty asked.
“Sure,” Amelia said, and handed her the knife.
“They’re so cute,” Betty said when the mice came out.
“Do you want any when I’m done with them?” Amelia offered.
“Oh, no. My mother would probably die on the spot if I brought a jar of mice home.” They set up the maze and Amelia ran the mice through.
After Betty had gone home, Amelia finished her record-keeping and then brushed out her hair, which was still stiff from the hairspray Betty had used to try to keep it in place. She wondered if a fairy would make her hair stay in place properly, or if a fairy would make her want to keep her hair in place properly. If she hadn’t pulled the pin out when Betty wasn’t looking, she probably could have brought the style off.
Amelia found her fairy on a freezing-cold January day, when she had to walk to school because her father had needed to go in very early for a meeting and she hadn’t gotten up in time to get a ride.
She was wearing dungarees under her skirt because the wind blew right through her tights. She’d have to duck into a bathroom as soon as she got to school, to slip them off and put them in her bag. Also, a heavy coat, gloves, and a wool hat and scarf, even though they made her itch. The fairy, of course, was wearing a diaphanous dress that looked like a turquoise-blue wedding veil and she had tiny, fresh flowers in her hair. She dropped out of the air right in front of Amelia and hovered enticingly. Fairies, it was generally agreed, wanted to be caught. They wanted you to have to chase them, but they definitely wanted you to catch them. If it accidentally got away from you, it would probably come swooping right back.
The stories didn’t say what would happen if you just refused to chase it at all. Amelia figured it would be interesting to see, so she ducked her head and continued walking to school. The fairy zipped around her, so it could bob in front of her again, like it was thinking, “Oh, she just didn’t see me.” Amelia looked straight at it, made eye contact, and then continued on her way.
The fairy zipped around her again.
“Look,” Amelia said. “I don’t want your gifts. I’m not interested. Go offer them to some other girl.”
When she got to the school, she looked back and saw a flash of turquoise in the tree in front of the school. She heaved a sigh and went to shed her pants and coat.
School was more annoying than usual. There was a Science Club at school, but only boys were allowed to join it; her Biology teacher had some of the boys in the club stand up to talk about their projects. Like hers, they were being prepared for the West District Science Day. Amelia made notes on each. John: No original research. Frank: Started three weeks ago. Clyde: Doesn’t seem to actually understand the scientific method.
When the boys had all finished talking, Mr. Crawford quizzed everyone on the previous night’s reading. Betty, it turned out, hadn’t done the reading, and didn’t know the answer to any of his questions, and he made her say, “I don’t know, Mr. Crawford,” five or six times before moving on. Amelia had done the reading, so instead of raising her hand, since she knew he wouldn’t call on her, she averted her eyes and did her best to look like she was trying to disappear into her seat. To her immense satisfaction, he called on her next and she was able to answer all the questions, which she could tell he found utterly galling. It was hard to take as much pleasure in it when Betty was almost in tears next to her, though.
In English class, they were reading Romeo and Juliet. Earlier in the week, they’d done the balcony scene (which, Miss Leonard had pointed out, was actually a window scene). Betty had read the part of Juliet and one of the boys had read Romeo. Today was a scene with Romeo and his friends. Amelia impulsively volunteered for the part of Mercutio, because he had all the best lines, and was surprised when Miss Leonard let her do it. Betty promptly volunteered to play Romeo and another girl raised her hand for the part of Benvolio. Miss Leonard looked out at the class and said, “Any boys want to play Juliet’s Nurse? Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, every part would have been played by a male actor.” None of the boys volunteered, so a girl read that part, as well.
After saying her last line in the scene (“Farewell, ancient lady; farewell”), Amelia studied Miss Leonard, thinking about the story that she’d killed her fairy. That would certainly be one way to get rid of it, if it was persistent.
English class probably would have been the bright spot, but at the end of the class, Miss Leonard handed back the essays they’d turned in the previous week. Amelia had never gotten a grade lower than an A- for an English class paper before she’d had Miss Leonard; so far, this year, she hadn’t gotten anything higher than a B+. Today she had a B and lots of comments, all written in Miss Leonard’s crabbed script in the margins. You can do better, it said at the bottom. Amelia crammed the paper into her bag and went to history class in a bad mood.
She got into her father’s car at the end of the day. “The boys in the Science Club are all doing projects that aren’t anywhere near as good as mine.”
“Well, that’s fine,” her father said. “You’ll show them all at the Science Day, then.”
“It’s not fair that I’m not allowed in the Science Club.”
“Mr. Crawford is old-fashioned about girls.”
“It’s 1962. He needs to join the twentieth century.”
“Maybe when you’re awarded first place at Science Day, he’ll reconsider.”
Amelia stared out the window. The fairy was sitting in a tree next to the stop light; then it was sitting in a tree on the corner, when they slowed down to turn; then it was hovering outside the car in the carport by their house. Her father didn’t seem to notice.
“Anyway, if you were in the Science Club, you’d have to stay after school for the meetings; you wouldn’t get to ride home with your good old dad,” her father said heartily. “Are you coming in?”
“In a minute,” Amelia said.
She sat in the car, feeling the warmth from the car heater slowly fade away. The fairy was hovering just outside the front windshield; after a minute or two, she perched on the car’s hood ornament, her ankles folded delicately, her hands in her lap, her wings vibrating like a hummingbird’s wings in the air. Amelia got out of the car. The fairy dodged away, then came back. Amelia stared at it for a moment, then went inside.
When her mice weren’t running the mazes, she kept them in gallon pickle jars with holes punched in the lids, with newspaper to shred and ladders for stimulation. There were four pickle jars waiting for new occupants, clean and lined up under her window. She grabbed one, unscrewed the lid, and took it back downstairs.
Outside, the sun was low in the sky. She crunched her way across the snowy yard, back to the car, looking nonchalant. She didn’t see the fairy right away. She opened the car door, sat down in the passenger seat, and waited.
The fairy bobbed in front of her, maybe ten feet away. She looked at it, then looked away.
It came closer.
She could see the delicate folds in the fairy’s dress, the shining strands of its hair, the tilt of its head, when she sprang. She didn’t want to touch it—she wasn’t entirely convinced that touching the fairy wasn’t what actually made the magic happen—but she swooped up with the jar and brought the lid down, trapping the fairy inside. Then she screwed the lid down, took it upstairs to her room, and set it on a shelf next to her mice.
At her desk, Amelia made a list.
Things I have always wanted to know about fairies:
Can boys see them?
Can adults see them?
Can younger children see them?
What would happen if I handed it directly to a boy?
What would happen if I handed it directly to a female child who’s much too young for a fairy?
If Miss Leonard actually just never caught a fairy, and it’s not true she killed hers, what happens if I give this fairy directly to her? (Would she even want it?)
She turned back around and looked at the fairy again. She could go show the fairy to her parents right now and see if they could see it, but of course, then they’d know that she’d caught a fairy, even if she’d caught it in a jar like a lightning bug and not the way you were supposed to catch a fairy. They’d probably expect her to start caring about her hair more.
The fairy had been hovering inside the jar, but now she landed on her feet, folded her wings against her back, and sat down, glowering at Amelia through the glass. She was less ethereal-looking trapped in the jar.
Amelia set the fairy on the shelf. She needed to feed her mice and mark the Test and Control groups from the most recent litters. She grabbed the box of food pellets and her little scale and started weighing out food portions, jotting down more questions about the fairy as they occurred to her. What do fairies eat? Will it be able to get out of the jar if I don’t let it out? Do fairies talk?
Mouse food pellets seemed like a thoroughly unkind thing to feed the fairy. Amelia supplemented the mouse diet with carrot peels from the kitchen, and those seemed like sort of a nasty thing to feed a fairy, too. “What do you eat?” she asked, not really expecting an answer.
The fairy lifted herself up again and spread her wings. “Let me out!” she shrieked. She did have a voice; it was high and shrill.
“So, you can talk,” Amelia said. “That’s good.” She took her notebook out to jot down observations. “Can other people see you?”
“Let me out!” the fairy demanded again.
“You could have left me alone, when I ignored you. Why were you so persistent? Do you eat?”
The fairy didn’t answer. After a while, Amelia went down to retrieve the carrot peelings from the jar where her mother left them for her. She set out a fresh jar and grabbed today’s jar to bring upstairs. Back in her room, she started weighing out portions of carrot peelings and dropping them into the jars with the mice. The fairy watched her, silently, for several minutes.
“What are you going to do with me?” the fairy asked, finally.
“I haven’t decided,” Amelia said.
“Are you going to kill me? Or feed me to the snake?”
“No,” Amelia said. She screwed on the last of the pickle jar lids and sat down to look at the fairy again. Feeding the little white mice to the snake was fine. Feeding a talking creature to the snake was completely different. Now that she was nose-to-nose with an actual fairy, she thought it was very unlikely that Miss Leonard had actually killed one.
“How long are you going to keep me in here?” the fairy asked.
“I haven’t decided that, either.”
“Wouldn’t you like my gifts?” the fairy asked. “You caught me, you know. You can demand a forfeit in exchange for letting me go.”
“No,” Amelia said.
Downstairs, her father knocked on the wall at the bottom of the stairs. “Supper!” he called up. Amelia heaved a sigh, jotted down the weight of the carrot peels, and went downstairs to eat.
Amelia’s mother worked at Wittenberg College as a secretary. She’d spent the day fixing mistakes made by a very new, very inexperienced secretary who wouldn’t have messed up so badly if she’d had just a quarter ounce of ordinary common sense, according to Amelia’s mother. The new secretary was also very pretty, and her mother speculated the girl had traded her intelligence for long eyelashes when she caught her fairy.
“I thought they didn’t do things like that. I thought you just got that stuff as a gift,” Amelia said.
“Well, all I can tell you for sure is that I didn’t have to make any trades when I caught my fairy,” her mother said. “Maybe I’d have gotten longer eyelashes if I’d offered to trade some smarts to get those, too.”
“That would have been a bad trade,” Amelia said.
“Definitely. Don’t go trading away your brains, girl,” her father said. “You can have looks and smarts.”
Amelia had something else in mind entirely. When she went back upstairs after dinner, she asked the fairy, “Can you make me more intelligent, instead of prettier?”
“No,” the fairy said, grumpily.
“What if I want something else? Like, what if I want to get into the Science Club that’s just for boys, can you make Mr. Crawford change his mind about that?”
“No,” the fairy said.
Amelia reached for the jar and the fairy jumped to her feet, shrinking away from her. Amelia pulled her hand back. “Look, I’m not going to hurt you,” she said. “I just don’t want anything like long eyelashes or perfect skin. I don’t want to be pretty.”
“Well, what do you want from me, then?” the fairy said.
“I want information about fairies,” Amelia said. “Answer my questions and I’ll let you go.”
“Oh.” The fairy seemed genuinely surprised by this. Her wings slowly settled as she relaxed a bit. She sat back down, arranging herself to sit cross-legged, with her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands. The flowers in her hair were beginning to wilt. She looked up at Amelia expectantly. “Okay,” she said. “Ask.”
“Can adults see you?”
“Just like with girls, there’s a point when they can see us. Most of them pretend they can’t, though, and they almost never try to catch us.”
“What happens when a boy catches you?”
“Depends on the boy. Someday, when you’re older, you might meet a boy who will admit to having caught a fairy. Ask him how it went.”
“Can you make someone strong, instead of pretty?”
The fairy gave her a sort of a sideways look. “We don’t actually make anyone pretty.”
This was new information. Amelia sat down and took out her notepad. “Go on.”
“This is very complicated, and you probably won’t understand it.”
“When you touch us, that lets us see into the future. Just a little, right after we’re caught. So, when we want to have that power for a while, we find girls who can see us, let them catch us, and then we promise them something based on what we can see about their future.”
“So, am I going to be pretty whether I want to be or not?” Amelia asked with revulsion.
The fairy looked her over. “If you were a normal girl, you’d have caught me this morning. And this afternoon you’d have told your mother that you’d caught your fairy and she’d have cried because her little girl was growing up, and then she’d have bought you a lipstick and taken you to the hairdresser because that’s what mothers do after their daughters catch a fairy. And if you’d wanted to be pretty, then you’d have been pretty. You might turn pretty eventually, anyway; I can’t tell from here.”
Amelia hadn’t written any of this down. She looked down at her notepad, wondering what she’d even say.
“Will you please let me out now?” the fairy asked.
Amelia steadied the pickle jar and unscrewed the lid. The fairy shot out and streaked up to the top of Amelia’s bookshelf, like she thought maybe Amelia was going to shut her up again. Amelia opened her bedroom window, so the fairy could fly out.
The fairy dropped down to the sill, then hesitated. She looked back at Amelia nervously. “So … would you like to know if you’re going to be pretty?”
“No,” Amelia said. “I want to know if Mr. Crawford will let me into the Science Club after I win first place at the District Science Day.”
“Hold out your hand.” The fairy leaped into Amelia’s cupped palm. She weighed nothing—Amelia wished she’d thought to put the pickle jar on the scale to see if that was literally true—but Amelia could feel the faint pressure of the fairy’s hand as she gripped Amelia’s thumb.
“He won’t,” the fairy said. “He’s never going to let you in. Is there anything else you want to know?”
Questions crowded into Amelia’s mind. Would she win first place? Where would she go to college? What would her life be like? Did she need to be pretty to be happy?
“Will I ever get an A from Miss Leonard?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” the fairy said. “Yes.” And then she was gone, like someone had switched off the beam of a flashlight. A gust of cold air made the window frame rattle and Amelia closed her window again.
He’s never going to let you in. Amelia turned back to her mice, doing the last of the day’s recordkeeping, her hand filling out the day’s chart even as her thoughts were elsewhere. Never. She looked down at her project, realizing that she’d been assuming her father was right: that when she won first place at the District Science Day, Mr. Crawford would realize how wrong he was about girls, and about Amelia, and whether she belonged in the Science Club. But the fairy said he wouldn’t. It’s better to know, Amelia told herself. It’s better not to have false hope.
She did the rest of her homework and brushed her teeth. It’s better not to have false hope, she thought as she turned off her light for bed, but this time another thought occurred to her. It’s better not to have false hope because now I can stop wasting my time trying to impress Mr. Crawford and find another way.
Amelia’s project won the first prize at the West District Science Day. She was given a pin and a certificate, and she had her picture in the paper. Her parents bought multiple copies of the Springfield Daily News, to send clippings of the article to her relatives in other states, and one for Amelia to save.
The next day, she told her father not to wait for her and found Miss Leonard in her classroom. “I have a question,” she said. “I checked the handbook, and it says that to start a club, you need a faculty advisor, but it doesn’t say the faculty advisor has to be a teacher of a related subject. I want to start a science club for girls. Will you be our advisor?”
Miss Leonard looked surprised. “Amelia, that’s a lovely idea, but Mr. Crawford isn’t going to let us use the science labs for experiments any more than he lets girls into the club.”
“I was thinking we’d work on projects that didn’t require a lab.”
“Do you have any other members in mind?”
“Betty wants to join. And she thinks she knows other girls who would, too.”
“Funding? Running a club costs money, and I don’t think we can count on any from the school.”
“Betty offered to organize a bake sale,” Amelia said.
Miss Leonard nodded brusquely. “I’ll consider it. Write up a proposal for me.”
“I already have.” Amelia handed the four-page proposal—typed, even, on her mother’s typewriter—to Miss Leonard.
Miss Leonard looked at the proposal, then at Amelia. Something had shifted in her eyes. She looked Amelia up and down for a moment, then inclined her head. “Have a seat while I take a look.”
Amelia stared at the window as Miss Leonard read. It felt like she waited for a long time.
“All right,” Miss Leonard said. “I will advise your club.” She tucked the proposal in the drawer of her desk.
“Also,” she said, “I expect all your papers for my classes in the future to be typed and written at the quality level of this proposal. You’ve been holding out on me.”
“It’s my mother’s typewriter and sometimes she’s using it.”
“Plan better.” The crispness of this instruction was undermined by the warmth of Miss Leonard’s smile. “Bring Betty tomorrow. We have a bake sale to organize.”