what you believe it to be

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I don’t think I’ve been to the Michigan Renaissance Festival since I was a kid, and although I don’t remember it, I would imagine that my father probably hated it and made us leave promptly. It’s just the kind of overheated, excessively crowded place that would make his skin crawl.

I think in order to understand this, you have to understand my good friend K and her family. They are a big family and full of similarly beautiful, elfin girls and they’re all kind of Ren fans. They don’t exactly dress up, but they don’t need to, as their normal fashion sense of riding boots and fingerless mitts and floating skirts and scarves makes them fit right in as they drift dreamily up and down the mazey Renaissance alleys.

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I expected that the whole day would be a bit of an ironically humorous situation but it was actually incredibly fun. There were of course a lot of drunk people weaving around the labyrinth streets, there were ankle-deep seas of mud and indescribably horrible privies, but there were also a lot of craftspeople. And there were a lot of people dressed in elaborate and wonderful costumes, performers, face painters, and little dreamy fairy girls wisping and wishing that they had been born in a Pamela Dean novel, and honestly, who doesn’t wish that. Every time I saw someone in a carefully constructed dress or costume, I had to smile, thinking about them in their office cubes all week long, looking entirely different and probably not telling any of their colleagues that they saved their money for steampunk, fur, and a stitched leather jerkin to feed their fantasy life and their deep wish to have been born in another time and place.

We ate giant turkey legs and big pickles and K knew where to find the best honey place and the schneeballs. (“What’s a schneeball?” asked the man in the polo shirt standing in line behind me, looking dubious. “I don’t know but it’s probably good,” I said.) Miss L had her face painted and while most little girls might have picked the unicorn or the fairy, she wanted the spiderweb, to the delight of our fairy girl escorts. (And yes,  in the morning it was definitely cold enough for scarves and mittens.)

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We watched a joust and Miss L screamed with delight and terror when our knight Sir Tyler (…Tyler?…just sayin’.) advanced to the final round.

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I have to admit, I was yelling too, and shelling out money for a wooden sword and striped knee socks. I sort of wished that I’d dressed more like K and her girls. K is the kind of woman who always looks like she should be walking down a cobbled street in Europe. Her long fair hair is always perfect, just a bit mussed, she wore good boots and an artful scarf and I felt pretty out of place in my all-weather running clothes with my hair pinned up haphazardly. You can’t catch the eye of a hot bagpiper when you’re wearing Nikes at the Ren Fest (not that I am in any way ready to bring home anyone, much less a bagpiper).

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By the end of the day, my wallet was feeling the hit and Miss L was drooping down the alleys, eyelids heavy, dragging her little sword behind her; but one last piece of magic. A woman in an incredibly elaborate dress, petticoats and corset and wool stockings, bustled up to Miss L in the crowds and presented a plastic tiara.

“Begging your pardon, miss, but did you drop this?”

Miss L gawked. “No, it’s not, mine,” she said shyly.

The woman ducked her head and said, “Well then, will you be keeping it? It seems to suit you, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

Miss L bent her head and let the woman slide the tiara into her red hair, then step back and drop a deep curtsy. We were all smiles as we continued on our way, and made one last stop at a dark little shop selling pixie dust.

“And what is your name?” the shopkeeper inquired. Miss L told her, and the shopkeeper raised a shout, “ALL HAIL PRINCESS L!” The window shelf was full of necklaces dangling tiny stoppered bottles, catching the light. The shopkeeper ran her finger along them, setting up a tinkle of glass, and describing the kind of pixie dust in every bottle. Dreams of dragons, dreams of fairies; images of your own true love, but take care, just take care, because magic is potent.

“It’s just GLITTER?” another round-eyed child said, sounding very much like he wanted to be convinced otherwise, and the shopkeeper tsked.

“It is if that’s all you believe it to be,” she said, and for that, she earned her $10 and Miss L got herself a little bottle of magic pixie dust.

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