"Uncle Merry! Uncle Merry, Uncle Merry!"
Ellen is seven. Her parents have given her watercolors and pastels and her efforts paper the nursery walls. She is seven, and her father has been away on one of his digs, sending letters home to his young and impressionable daughter. He has been gone weeks - practically forever, because she is seven - and his letters are full of old stories and half sketches and she fills pages with her attempts at illustration. They are, her mother says dotingly, really quite good.
She does not know, or care, about this opinion on the day her father comes home, because he is home, and she has missed him as only a child can. When Uncle Merry comes to join them just a few days later, it is the best of all things, because Uncle Merry tells the best stories, maybe even better than her father's. She has so much to show him.
So, on the second morning of his visit, she comes tumbling into the parlor with a fresh illustration of the story he told her before her bedtime last night - a story of sad king in a castle of glass, who lived in a lost land and made beautiful things. She has drawn the castle and the trees and the sword and the sad king and she knows that Uncle Merry can tell her if she's gotten it right.
"Uncle Merry," she says, as he calmly sips his tea. Her mother has caught up with her, dabbing at the smudges of color that cover her hands and dress and face. "Uncle Merry, see!"
Ellen thrusts the drawings at him, full to bursting with excitement. He smiles absently and flicks through them with his normal air of slight distraction. But when he gets to her favorite, of the castle and the trees and the sad, sad king, his face goes very still. She's gotten it wrong, she thinks, and her heart sinks. But then he looks at her, long and sharp and quiet, and says in his deep, rumbly voice, "Yes, my dear. I do see." To her delight, he follows her up to the nursery to see all of her pictures.
It is her first clear memory.
"Uncle Merry! Father never said you were coming!"
Ellen is sixteen, home on summer hols. She's returned to a quiet house; her mother passed away her second year at school and her father is in Greece - or possibly Italy, she thinks, but she hasn't yet received his weekly letter. She supposes she could have stayed at school, or with friends, but she doesn't really mind. Here, at home, she can wander and draw and paint and no one will mind her silence. As long as she is home for tea, Mrs. Whitpole won't fuss.
She sees her Uncle only rarely now; she knows, too, that he is an Uncle because there's no other proper title, not because he and your father shared a mother, or because he married your aunt. Still, he is her Uncle Merry, and she is an only child of only children, which makes relatives of any sort a valuable thing even at the ripe old age of sixteen. And he is good to her - he's paid for extra Arts tutoring for the last three years, which never could have been afforded on an archaeologist's salary. But above all, he is Uncle Merry, full of odd stories and dry, gentle humor and, most importantly, because she is sixteen and full of ideas and dreams and hopes, fully willing to listen to her talk about the things she cares about. He always asks to see her sketches.
Today is no different - only it is, because he has a request.
"I should very much like it," Uncle Merry says, thumbing through her latest folio, "if you could paint something for me."
"Oh," Ellen answers, sixteen and flustered and embarrassed. "Yes, Uncle Merry. Of course." She rises clumsily from the sofa. "I'll just -"
He waves her down. "After tea." Mrs. Whitpole bustles in with a tray and Ellen's sudden attack of nerves subsides. It's just Uncle Merry, after all.
Later, he tells her about his home, rolling hills and wild sky, and she paints it for him, paints it the way it sounds in her head. It flows beautifully, easily, and it feels true. When it's finished, when she steps back, the real world breaks over her in like a shock of cold water. Uncle Merry is watching her carefully.
"Would you like to see?" she asks, unaccountably shy.
"I would," he replies gravely, and she passes him the still-damp art paper, the watercolors delicate and sharp and clear. It isn't till the tension leaves his face that she realizes it was there. She cannot help thinking that she has disappointed him.
"Did I get it right?" she says.
"It is lovely." He rolls it up. "May I keep it? As proof I knew you when."
He has not answered her question, but her smile is genuine. "Uncle Merry. Of course." She kisses his cheek, and he waits while she tidies her paints.
She knows now what it feels like to paint true, or at least to paint truthfully. Uncle Merry may be disappointed - or he may not, Ellen never is sure - she is, herself, satisfied.
"We've missed you, Merry. It's been an age."
Ellen is twenty-five. She'd stopped using the "Uncle" years back, but Merry looks exactly as he always has, completely unchanged. He'd called three days ago to see about a visit. She's not entirely sure when the last one was. Her father's teaching now, and anyway, since she left for university and then married Dick, they've moved further away.
"You've had quite enough to do without a visit from me on the schedule," Merry says. In the highchair, Simon squawks. They both smile.
Ellen shoves a stray hair out of the way. "It has been a bit... much," she concludes ruefully. "A new baby, one on the way, Dick's new practice, the gallery show going off as well as it did. Not that I'd change a thing." She rubs at her stomach as the baby adds its own commentary. "Oof. Hush, you."
"Boy or girl?" he asks.
She grins. "We don't know. Spoils the fun. We're taking bets, if you've a mind. We've had a horrible time choosing names."
Ellen pours the tea and passes the plate of biscuits. "Jane, if it's a girl. But we're terribly divided over what it should be if it's a boy. I refuse to let Dick name him after his cousin Harold."
"Harry's a good English name," he says, his voice stern. He's smiling, though.
"Yes," Ellen says, "only then Dick says, 'and we can get a dog and name it Falstaff.'"
She'd forgotten Merry's laugh, rich and mellow. It really has been too long, she thinks, and tells him so. "But then, I'm sure you've been terribly busy too."
Ellen can't ever describe what exactly changes in Merry's face - nothing moves, nothing changes. But something shifts. The smile he's wearing doesn't fade, isn't any less genuine. It's just a little... less. "I have," he admits, and sips his tea.
She would worry about it more, but Simon chooses that moment to fuss and she realizes he's overdue for his nap. She plucks him from the highchair and walks into the sitting room, settling him into the playpen with a blanket and a toy. When he finally starts to doze, she looks up to find Merry standing in the doorway. "He'll be down for an hour or so," she says. She should go up and paint while he's down. She's promised another three pieces to the gallery, and she's behind.
"Why don't you go work," Merry says, like he's reading her mind. "I have a letter to write, and you only have two hands."
It's terrible of her, she knows, but it's such a relief to accept. "It'll only be an hour," she promises, even as she's heading for the stairs. Merry just smiles. She has her hand on the banister when he says her name. Ellen turns. Even from across the room, his eyes are very deep, very dark.
"I think," Merry says, "that I wish to place my money on a girl." He pauses. The room is very quiet. The stillness makes her shiver. "Jane is a good name. Strong. Kind. Generous." These are good things, Ellen thinks, feeling a little like a woman in a fairytale. Merry's eyes are so dark. He's a very strange fairy godmother, thinks the pragmatic part of her brain, and breaks the spell.
"Oh good," she says, grinning. "I'll be certain to tell Dick. He might change his mind and try to name her Hortense."
Merry's laugh follows her up the stairs.
Standing in her studio, staring at a fresh canvas, she rubs her belly protectively and worries about what Jane, if that's who the baby is, might have to be strong for.
"That's quite enough. I'm terribly sorry for all the excitement, Merry. They've been shut up for days because of the snow."
Ellen is thirty-three and she has three small, snowbound children. Merry's voice on the phone announcing his visit had been the best tiding of joy all season, because, she thinks - maternally, fondly, exasperatedly - it will be a wonderful distraction.
Her children aren't hoydens, and Ellen loves them with a fierceness that startles her on occasion. She's raising them on stories and common sense and as strong a sense of self as she can give them, and every day, they surprise her, make her laugh, make her grateful. But they have been cooped up for days, as Simon puts it, his voice entirely anguished, and the novelty of snow is wearing thin. For Simon, Jane, and Barney, Merry's visits are like something out of a story. Ellen remembers feeling that way herself. Merry never changes.
Only - only he has, a little. She watches him carefully, out of the corner of her eye, as she pours tea and rescues the jam and redirects the beginnings of a squabble. He looks tired. She doesn't know why the idea makes her hand tremble as she pours the tea. When she passes the cup, she's gotten herself steady.
They chat over the children's noise, warm and snug in the kitchen. She likes this part of the snow, likes the way the weather wraps around the world and holds it close, safe and familiar. Something in Merry's face eases gradually as the children pepper him with questions. She can't ask - won't - she doesn't know why, apart from feeling like she hasn't the right. But she can give him the space of her house, the warmth of her home, a little piece of sanctuary. Maudlin, she thinks, cutting off a discussion of skeletons that's sure to leave more than just Jane with nightmares if it goes too much farther. I'm terribly maudlin today.
Merry, bless him, is gracious as always, letting her dash up the stairs to work on her current piece. He seems content, more at ease than when he walked in the door, and so she allows herself to slip away. This painting is a good one, one of the ones she hates to step away from, and it leaves her in a bit of a distraction when she takes a break and recalls her duties as hostess.
It's in this abstracted state that she walks down the stairs, stopping silently, not quite hidden by the corner of the stairwell, as Barney rushes in with his current favorite toy, a small sword. "I'm on a quest for Arthur," she hears him say. "But I came to you first."
Merry leans forward. She can't see his face from this angle, but the fond indulgence in his voice makes her smile. "And why is that?"
"You're the court wizard," Barney says. "You come and go and travel through time. It's how you know about helicopters. I wanted to know my quest is good. And you're smart."
Oh, Ellen thinks, suddenly frightened and not certain why. Oh, Barney. Oh, my little boy. Merry's back has gone tense. She holds her breath as he reaches out and touches her son's head like he's granting a benediction.
"Your quest is good, Barnabas," Merry says, and something terrible in her chest eases. "Now run along," he adds, and Ellen realizes she's clinging to the stair-rail with white knuckles. She marches herself up to the top of the flight, sits herself down, and lets reality assert itself. Too much painting hath made her mad, she thinks, and laughs, and goes back down the stairs. She think's she's heard Dick's car in the street, and it's nearly time for supper.
When Merry leaves, she does something she hasn't in years - she leans up, tip-toe, and kisses his cheek. "Thank you, Merry." He looks surprised - and pleased. Ellen watches him drive away, and goes back in to her family.
Ellen is thirty-seven. Dick's long overdue for a vacation, and she's making him go whether he likes it or not. Merry had called out of the blue, and she'd thought to ask his opinion. Over the phone line, she hears him chuckle. "Excellent golfing, I'm told." His voice is as deep and rich as if he's right next to her.
"We'd thought Scotland, maybe. Or the Lake District." Ellen doesn't know why she doesn't want to go to Aberdyfi. Dick would love the golfing. The children could ramble to their hearts' content. And the scenery would be gorgeous - she's ready to start a new grouping. She tells herself to stop being silly.
"Wales is lovely in the summer."
Ellen laughs. "Merry, you sound like a pamphlet."
He harrumphs, and she laughs again, and promises to mention it to Dick.
Even as they set out, the house locked and closed behind them, she looks at her children in the car, faces bright and eager, and part of her wishes they weren't going. That same part, the part that only surfaces now and then, wonders if she's done what she should - if they're learning what they need.
She wonders what will happen to them, out in the world.
"He wanted you to have it, Mrs. Drew."
Ellen is fifty. Merriman Lyon has been gone for thirteen years. She thought she'd seen the last of his estate's administrators years ago. Even now, it's hard to believe that the train crash took him, that he won't simply show up, unexpected, on her doorstep. The young man on her doorstep, stocky, sturdy, laden with a small, rectangular package, had been similarly unexpected. That he'd had her painting, her first good piece, the one where she'd learned what is was like to catch something real and put it to paper, had been dumbfounding. That this young man, a friend of her children, should have it makes no sense at all, but Ellen does not want to ask that question. Instead, she focuses on the carved frame in her hands, tracing the curve of a leaf with her thumb.
"Thank you. It's - it's a surprise. But a lovely one."
Will Stanton leaves. She ought to feel like crying, Ellen thinks. Instead she smooths a hand along the wood of the frame, rich and golden, and looks down at the wild country she'd painted for her uncle, for Merry, so very long ago. Somewhere, far off, she thinks she hears something like music, high and strange and sweet.
On the stove, the kettle whistles. Ellen sets the painting down and goes to warm the pot.
"[A]ll love has great value. Every human being who loves another loves imperfection, for there is no perfect being on this earth - nothing is so simple as that."
-- Silver on the Tree