“Maroussia, don’t go too far from the house!”
The little girl shrugged. The old lady was calling to her from the cottage steps, waving her stick like when she rounded up the goats at nightfall.
“Grandma, I have to go to the old well!”
“What do you mean? It’s a new moon. The darkest night of the year. You’ll get lost!”
“That’s why, Grandma. I have to see the fairies… It’s important!”
“What a load of garbage! There’s no such thing as fairies. Come back right now, you’ll catch a cold running around in the snow like that!”
Could Grandma not see the signs? The sun was growing weaker by the day, its trajectory over the horizon lower and lower. And now the moon… Did she not understand?
The old lady waved her stick again.
“Come on! I don’t know where you get all this nonsense from, but you’ll get a taste of my stick if you don’t come back immediately.”
Huh! Grandma would never be able to catch her. Maroussia was a big girl now, she was nearly five. She wasn’t frightened of the stick anymore. And she had a mission to accomplish. Pulling her woolly hat down over her curly hair, she turned her back decisively on the cottage and started down the snowy track that led into the forest. Behind her, her grandmother’s protests grew dimmer until they were just a murmur in the bare, frost-covered branches.
No star was visible when she arrived at the rim of the well, and the sky spread like a black cloak over all the countryside. Maroussia listened out in the hope of catching familiar laughter but everything was quiet. They say that fairies are nourished by rays of moonlight. There was no reason for them to come out this evening. Yet she really needed to see them and explain to them… Rummaging under her cape, she brought out the stump of a candle that she had carefully saved from the winter nights and a handful of the wild juniper berries that the little fairies adored. She lit the candle and leaned over the edge of the well, trying to see into its depths. It’s not as good as moonlight but maybe… she thought. The flame sputtered, powerless against the almost palpable darkness emanating from the gaping hole.
“Fairies, fairies, are you there?” she shouted over the edge.
Only the echo replied.
“Fairies, fairies, answer me!”
The candle was already nearly finished, the hot wax was running over her fingers. In a few seconds, the flame would go out, and with it, all hope of awakening the fairies. Maroussia clung on even tighter to that burning stump, unable to stop the tears streaming down her face and disappearing into the bottom of the well.
It might have been the effect of a tear, of her courage or of the dying light of the candle, but a crystalline voice seemed to rise up out of the depths. It was so tenuous that the little girl had to lean right over the edge, almost falling in. The sound was repeated, weak yet real. Maroussia wiped her nose with the edge of her cape and began to jump for joy.
“Fairies, fairies, you are there! You answered me!”
Soon they came into view. Three little fairies were darting around with difficulty, so diaphanous that you could see their surroundings through them. They were nothing more than shadows of themselves and Maroussia felt her heart breaking.
“Fairies, fairies, what has happened to you?”
“It’s… the Goddess… Marena.”
Their voices were nothing but a murmur. They took turns to speak, each uttering a bit of a sentence, which the next one completed, as if they only had one thought between them.
“Marena? Who is she? What has she done to you?”
“She is the Goddess of Winter. For weeks she has been prowling around these woods and everybody she touches has their heart turned to ice. You cannot stay here.”
They were now flying all around the little girl, weaving long blue threads around her.
“Go, little one, go away, or Marena will turn you to ice.”
“Fairies, fairies, the sun is dying a little more every day. Soon it will disappear altogether. You must help us!”
“That is the curse of Marena. She is looking for the sun’s dwelling, the place it goes to rest every day after its journey through the sky. So, she can suffocate him in his sleep. She will suffocate you too. Can’t you feel her presence in the icy wind? Go away, little girl, before she finds you.”
“No! You must help me. Help us. Don’t you want to see the sun again?”
“The sun is nothing to us because it’s the moon that keeps us alive, little one. We were called by your tears, but we can’t…”
“Wait! You don’t understand! The sun… it’s the sun that makes the moon shine!”
The fairies stopped in mid-flight.
“What do you mean? The sun is the sun and the moon is the moon.”
Maroussia bit her lip. She had to find a way to convince them. Even if she had to lie a little bit.
“No, that’s just it. I… I read in a book that it was the sun that lit up the moon. If the Goddess of Winter manages to turn the sun off… well, you won’t have any moon either!”
This news sent a shock wave among the fairies who started fluttering in every direction before gathering around her, suspiciously.
“You are very young to be able to read.”
“It was Grandma. She taught me. How else would I know your language?”
The three fairies consulted each other in low voices. Maroussia could no longer feel her feet, numbed by the cold despite her felt shoes. When the fairies spoke to her again, they seemed a bit embarrassed.
“Of course… no more moon… that’s a nuisance. But we can’t go against Marena, you understand. That would not be a good idea.”
The three flew up to her ear.
“However, because we have been moved by your tears… Go home, little girl, and put your slippers in front of the fireplace. In the morning, you will find something, a gift from us. A magic gift. But you will never be able to say where it came from, do you understand?”
Maroussia nodded her head vigorously, scattering the little fairies.
“You must make up a story, do you understand? You seem good at inventing stories.”
“Alright, alright. No need to discuss it. You go now. And don’t come back to find us again before spring.”
The fairies looked all around them to make sure no one had been spying on their conversation and hurriedly disappeared to the bottom of the well. Maroussia set off happily back to the cottage, skipping all the way.
In the morning, she ran to the fireplace and cried out with joy when she saw the superb rag doll that the fairies had left. Without even saying good morning to Grandma who was watching her and pretending to knit, Maroussia rushed outside. The sun was coming up right over the forest. It was still weak, but she felt the faint heat warming her. Because they say that all the sun needs is the happiness of a little girl calling to it every morning to give it back its strength.
Translated by Wendy Cross