Paper Boats

    When I was young, I used to write letters to fairies. I would spend all morning writing them down, and then my grandfather would show me how to fold them into tiny paper boats.

   There was a stream in his backyard, and we’d go down to the water together, where between two big mossy boulders, there was a place where the stream flowed strong, so strong that if I dipped my foot in it would rip my sandals right off and carry them away. We would dangle the little paper boats just above the water, and then we’d let them drop two at a time so as to race each other, and the water would carry the ships, and the words they moved, far away.

    You could watch them meander with the river for a while, catching glimpses of white between the willows and pines along the river’s edge. If I dashed along the river bank, ducking in and out of the underbrush, I could just barely keep up with them. But I could only chase them for so long before I became too out of breath to continue.

   The river never seemed to be in any hurry whatsoever, it moves slowly but continuously. But for me however, no matter how quickly I rushed, ripped up my dresses on thorns while tearing through bushes, and I cut up my hands and knees tripping over roots, and no matter how hard I tried I could never catch the little boats as they casually drifted along, seemingly oblivious to the world on the shore.

   I always found it infuriating, how the little boats never tried to get away from me, they never tried to get anywhere, but they still got to where they were going. And yet, I could never keep up with them.

   As a  child I would run along the shore shouting at them as though they could somehow hear me, “wait!” I would shout, “wait!” as the boats just passed me by again and again. Never stopping and never slowing down.

   My grandfather used to tell me that the boats drifted all the way passed the fairy kingdom and then onward still, all the way to the ocean where the tide pulls them out into its vastness, and then beyond to worlds I could barely imagine.

   But try to imagine I would. I would dream at night that my bed was a giant paper boat, bobbing up and down in the middle of the sea, slowly carrying me off to the magical places I used to read about in my books.

   My grandfather used to say that If I could keep up with the boats for far enough that they would lead me to the fairy kingdom where my letters got picked up. I still remember his hearty laughter while I ran after them along the river’s edge.

   He used to tell me that miles downstream fairies lived along the edge of the river. That they lived under toadstoles, in the knots of trees, and in burrows among the roots along the bank. But despite all my efforts, I never could find one.

   My grandfather used to explain to me, “That they’re too small and too magical to be seen by a little girl like you. But they’re out there.”

   I often tried to run down the paper boats as they drifted down the river, but despite all my rushing and efforts, they would always get away without ever even trying. I would catch a final glimpse of white paper on the horizon as they casually, effortlessly, drifted and bobbed away forever.

   But the fairies would always write back. The morning after releasing the boats, I would wake up, jump out of bed, and frantically run outside to the mailbox. And without fail the letters would always be there, one for each boat I sent out. Written on tiny pieces of paper, in a font so small- having been written by fairy hands- you could barely read it without a magnifying glass.

   My grandfather used to tell me that, “For a fairy, this is actually extra large writing, and they must be doing it just for us.”

   As I grew up, I came to understand that it was my grandfather who wrote the letters. Although he would never admit it for as long as he lived. Even after I was grown, and there was just no need to keep the act going any longer, he would continue to insist the fairies were real.

   I had already helped my parents put the presents under the tree on Christmas, and hid little plastic eggs in the yard on Easter, and stole my youngest siblings teeth from under her pillow at night, and replaced them with coins. So no, I didn’t believe in fairies anymore.

   But even after I stopped believing, I kept writing the letters. I figured out that my grandfather would collect the letters from under the old stone bridge that the Number 26 bus drove over.

   I knew it was him who wrote the letters back to me, and this was perfectly fine by me. I wrote him letters anyway, and he always responded. It was a way for us to always feel connected to each other. I could tell him anything in those letters.

   I would write out my fears, my hopes, my dreams. I would write the things I didn’t have the courage to say out loud. And he would always respond the next morning as a fairy, giving me caring advice and words of wisdom, or sympathy when sympathy was all he could provide.

   One thing I never did quite figure out however, was how he wrote the letters so small. He must have used a tiny pencil, and meticulously with a magnifying glass wrote out the tiny words. It must have taken him forever, particularly later in his life when he had terrible arthritis in his hands. But somehow he managed to write it out so incredibly small.  

   But no matter how old or wise you are, if you asked my grandfather who wrote the tiny letters, he would look you dead in the eye and tell you, “Well, obviously, the fairies wrote them. Just look at how tiny the font is.”

   He used to say it with so much conviction, and with such adamant, obstinate, assiduous belief in his eyes, that even the most practical and sensible of people would begin questioning their own understanding of the world.

They would be forced to think to themselves while looking into the old man’s deadly serious gaze, “Maybe fairies do exist after all.”

   And for the rest of their lives, they would never really know for sure.

   But one thing that is for sure, the day my grandfather died, after living a long meaningful life, the fairies letters stopped arriving.

   Although, I still go down to that stream sometimes, where I diligently fold a letter written to my grandfather into a paper boat, just how he showed me years ago, and I set it down in the river and let it go. I watch the tiny craft as it makes its way out to the ocean. Never rushing, never in a hurry, but impossible to keep up with, and impossible to catch. I stand on the bank and watch the paper boat meander left and right as the river turns back and forth. I wait until it disappears on the horizon, and onward to places I can only dream of.

23 thoughts on “Paper Boats

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