Until the end of the 19th Century, the faerie and human realms overlapped quite considerably. The soft places, where the skilled can walk two paths at once, were once common. Clearings in the woods, hilltop earthworks, faerie rings and even the bottoms of gardens hid gateways to the Summer Lands through which faeries came and went quite freely. Such effortless access meant that human children could be easily replaced with faerie changelings and human adults lured or tricked into crossing the border into Faerie, mostly never to return. (Those who did came back… changed. Just look at Byron.)
But in 1867, Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio in America was granted a patent on his invention of barbed wire and, in helping farmers around the world parcel up their land, so Smith cut the faeries off from the human world. As the barbed wire went up across the country, the faeries found their way blocked. The glades where they would slip from world to world were now surrounded by strands of galvanised steel that formed a barrier as impenetrable as a curtain of fire. As every child knows, faeries cannot abide the touch of iron and what is steel but iron with bits in?
The invention of the barbed wire fence did more to divide humans from faeries than any other single invention in history. And because we barely knew the faeries were there, they fell into myth and legend, their visits to our world put down as hoaxes or the tales of the over-imaginative, stories told to children to make them behave.
And over the last century or so, of course, us humans have become less and less likely to go a-wandering, less likely to stumble into those few remaining soft places and there lose our way. We might go walking up that hill, but never cross the barbed wire fence that keeps us out of the ancient tree-ringed circle at the top. We might wander through the woods but never leave the path to sit and daydream in that sun-dappled dell.
There are a few places where the Summer Lands still intrude upon our world. Little enclaves of the faeries’ world overlain on our own, where the link betwixt is strong enough to survive the encroachment of modern living. Places where the faeries are bounded on our side by iron, but where the the path to their lands can still be walked by those who know how.
We must be careful in these soft places. The faeries are quite capable of walking amongst us entirely unseen. A simple glamour can make us think that they are human or, indeed, that they aren’t there at all. And in the crush of city life, do we pay attention to the tall, beautiful lady in the park, sitting on the oak bench and watching our comings and goings? And when she offers us a buttercup, we should stay the hand that wants so much to betray us by automatically accepting. With faeries, a gift is never just a gift.
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