He'd heard of writers who claimed they set out a dish of milk each night, and found a scroll of mouseskin parchment covered with ideas in neat, tiny letters each morning. He'd thought it was all a joke, but he was getting so desperate he just might try it.
That night, shaking his head at his own folly, he set a shallow saucer of milk out on the side porch. In the morning, the milk was gone, but there was nothing in its place. Of course, it was an idiotic idea. Then Phil wondered, what if a cat simply got to the milk first?
That night, he set a fresh saucer on a ledge under the porch roof. In the morning, it was empty again. He shook his head. He knew he ought to just give up on such an absurd idea. On the other hand, could he be absolutely certain no cat could reach that ledge?
That night, he set a saucer full of milk on the same ledge, but he eased the door open to check on it every few minutes. The first few times, it sat undisturbed. Then, a while after midnight, he fell asleep in his chair. He woke with a start, unsure what time it was, and cursed.
He jumped to his feet and padded over to the door. At first, all he saw was the cat. He had his mouth open to shout when he noticed the creature pinned beneath one paw. The other paw was raised, probing delicately. Then he heard a thin cry, barely loud enough to reach his ears.
"Let me go, you furry monster! I won't warn you again!"
Phil rubbed the grit from his eyes, sure he must not have completely awakened. This merely had the effect of making his view of the fairy a bit less bleary than before. He blinked. She was still there, struggling.
Finally convinced, he rushed out the door, siezed the cat by the scruff of its neck, and forced it to pull away from her. Trembling, she stood up, then made a little bow.
"Thank you, kind sir."
"Please, don't even mention it. I didn't think cats could get up here."
"Those monsters can get anywhere they please, worse luck!"
"Would you come inside, and allow me to make certain you're all right?"
"If you've more milk, and perhaps some honey, I'd be most grateful to partake of your hospitality, most kind sir."
Phil held up his hand, and she jumped into it and let him carry her inside. He set her on the table, with a word of apology, then bustled about, filling a bowl with milk, digging out a nearly empty jar of honey and mixing its contents with the milk, then setting the bowl before her.
She bent over it, cupped her hands, and drank greedily. As she did, he studied her. She was a little over three inches tall, and could have been a miniature woman except for a few features.
Her hair was precisely the shade of pure gold, her face was a trifle thin and her eyes slightly large and very, very violet. Of course, there were also the filmy wings on her back, that shimmered with amber highlights as she moved. When she thrust out her tongue to lick the stickiness from her hands, Phil saw it was long and narrow.
He stared, entranced. When she had drunk more than he would have imagined her capable of, she turned and saw him staring.
"You've never set eyes on one of the Fair Folk before, then?" Her voice was light, almost mocking.
"Well, no, of course not."
She sighed, a gentle murmur laden with grief and loss. "'Tis true, there are so few of us now. Your folk sicken us with cold, cruel iron, poison us, scatter our mounds as if they were anthills..."
"I'm sorry. I don't think I do any of those things."
"I wouldn't have come otherwise! Oh, you do stink of cold iron, but all of your kind have, for more years than I care to remember. Those of us who survived have grown to tolerate that."
"I'm sorry. We find it useful."
She snorted, delicately. "Gold and silver are useful, and they're beautiful, too. Bronze is also useful, and it is at least pleasant to look on. Iron is dark, cold, and harsh, and it lacks all beauty."
"Look... I'm not sure what I should call you."
"Verielissa will do."
"Look, Verielissa, I'm sorry you don't like iron, and I truly don't wish to offend you, but I couldn't change anyone else's mind about it even if I tried."
She tossed her head. "I suppose you're right. Very well, shall we get down to business?"
She set her hands on her hips and glared up at him. "It has been many long years since any of your kind deigned to feed us out of pure pleasure at our acquaintance. You were hoping for something in exchange, a trade."
Phil felt his face grow hot. "I suppose so. Look, I'm desperate. I need some ideas."
"Ideas? Ideas are all around you!"
"What about the stories? The writers who've left out bowls of milk and found parchments with ideas written all over them?"
She made a sound like tiny gold bells hopping around in her throat. After a moment, Phil realised it was laughter. He glared at her, and she stopped. "You really believed those stories?"
"Well, not really. Not at first. But I needed an idea, and when I couldn't find one, I thought it might be worth a try. Then, when you showed up..."
"You set out a bowl of milk, three nights running, so I had no choice but to come."
"And you said you'd offer something in exchange, so if ideas are so easy to come by, why won't you let me have a few?"
She tilted her head and looked up at him. "You truly wish me to do that?"
"Didn't I say that was what I wanted?"
She sighed. "Yes, but when humans have dealings with the Fair Folk, getting the things they say they want generally doesn't turn out the way they seem to hope it will."
Phil grunted. "I'll risk that. Just give me the ideas."
"On your own head be it! In place of each bowl of milk you set out for me, I'll leave a scroll of ideas."
"What about tonight?" Phil blinked and felt foolish. By the time he'd finished the sentence, she had already drawn a small parchment, a tiny pen, and what he supposed must be a pot of ink, from the pouch at her waist. She settled cross legged on the table and bent forward, writing swiftly.
When she was done, she fanned it with her wings to dry the ink, then handed it to him. He took it, thanked her, and stowed it away carefully in his desk for the next morning. After that first night, he didn't see her, but every evening, he set out a bowl of milk, mixed with a little honey, and every morning he found a tiny, densely written scroll laid beside the empty bowl.
Every day, he sat down at his desk, scanned the list of ideas, and struggled to choose one. They were all excellent, even he could see that, but not one of them was a story he felt he could write. The first few days, he shrugged this off, certain the right idea would come along soon enough.
When he'd been collecting scrolls for a week, and still hadn't discovered a single idea he could use, he began to grow concerned. Verielissa was keeping her end of the bargain, and she'd tried to warn him, but he hadn't understood. He grew so desperate, he finally begged for a job bagging groceries at the supermarket.
Every night, he still looked over the tiny scrolls, trying to find an idea he could use to restart his writing career. Every night, he went to bed having written no more than the night before. It took him three years, but he finally understood he would only be able to make use of an idea that spoke to him directly.
Even though he knew the ideas were useless to him, Phil couldn't bring himself to break the bargain. He continued to set out bowls of milk and honey, and collect scrolls full of ideas he wished he could develop. Instead of poring over them, though, he struggled to learn how to recognise the ideas hiding around him, coax them out of the shadows, and capture them in stories.
He wrote, slowly and painfully at first, and the stories he sent out were returned with nothing more than a polite note. Over the next three years, he began to sell some of his stories again, and towards the end of that time, he even began to accumulate his own list of ideas he might be able to use later.
One evening, sitting at his desk, writing, he realised that, in her own way, Verielissa had contrived to give him what he truly needed. Although he never so much as glanced at any of the scrolls again, he continued to set out a bowl of milk and honey every night, and collect the scroll left beside it every morning. He believed it was no more than her due.
Occasionally, when someone asked him where he got his ideas, he would tell them he set out a small bowl of milk and honey, and found a new scroll of ideas waiting for him in the morning. They always laughed appreciatively, but he sometimes wondered; would any of them ever grow desperate enough to try it themselves?
He supposed they'd never discuss it, not seriously, just as he never did. And, although he listened for any whispers, he never heard of a single deceased writer who left behind a collection of tiny scrolls with ideas written in an impossibly small hand on them. Perhaps every writer had them; he couldn't be the only one, could he?