Living under fairy rules
Migraine triggers are like fairy rules, where small violations lead to disproportionate consequences.
You know this story. Some hapless human–a huntsman, a young woman picking flowers, an adventuring knight, a drunk–steps, by accident, into some land claimed by the fairies and through ignorance makes a small mistake that violates fairy law. They look up when they should have looked down, pick the wrong flower, say a wrong word, wear an item of clothing that means something they didn’t intend, cough, sneeze, spit, drink from a stream, fall asleep, sing–who even knows what the violation is exactly. But the punishment is swift and severe, devastating out of all proportion and irrevocable. And so they are struck dumb, blinded, driven mad, transported through time (to age prematurely or return to the world to find everyone they loved dead of old age), or just killed on the spot. Worse, it’s not even necessarily clear that it’s a punishment. It could just be some kind of natural consequence in a world where the laws of nature are different.
“There ain’t no entertainment, and the judgments are severe” #
There’s something horrifying about fairy rules, but also something mythically resonant. There’s a hint of playing by fairy rules when as a child you’re punished for something you didn’t know was wrong, or as an adult when you tread on an unfamiliar taboo in a new social group, but that’s not yet fairy rules. Because when you play by fairy rules, there’s no recourse, no one to whom you can voice your complaint that it’s unfair.
Migraines, for example, play by fairy rules. If you’re a lucky migraineur, you know what your triggers are. While there are some common things that trigger a migraine, there are no universal triggers, and the lists of potential triggers that you might want to watch out for just in case are as bizarre and contradictory as fairy lore: red wine, changes in weather, bright lights, specific smells, skipping breakfast, eating too much, not sleeping enough, sleeping too much, exercise, sex, orgasm, not enough exercise, stress, relief from stress after a period of stress, airplane travel, chocolate, coffee, not enough coffee, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and the list goes on.
Expose yourself to a trigger and BLAMMO you might be in for an aura with spectacular and terrifying effects like partial blindness, aphasia, confusion, nausea–then followed by hours of horrible pain. The pain is often so severe you can’t really think and can only experience pain, utterly in the moment, and the moment seems eternal. When it’s over, you arise confused, often with lingering milder pain and sensitivity to light and sound, strange cravings, awkwardness, feeling the world has moved on while you were out. I find that when I recover from a migraine, whatever happened in the days before doesn’t stick around in memory the same way as it would. It seems to have all happened long ago, as though the hours of pain built a wall between me and the past. People who have bouts of chronic migraines have told me of losing years like that.
But, not all migraineurs know their triggers, or all of their triggers. And so one day you may be doing something perfectly ordinary, like taking a train through a forest near sunset on the way to see your friend in another city when suddenly a void of Nothing appears on one side of your vision, first very small, just enough to cover a single letter in a page of text. The Nothing grows and spreads and soon it takes up half your vision, leaving a hole in the world, not just vision, really, but the entire concept of that portion of the world. Later you’ll second guess everything you did that day. Was it a new food? Was it the airplane flight? Was it, perhaps, and at last it comes to you, this was probably it, the way the setting sun flashing through the forest with the movement of the train created an effect like a strobe light? There is no recourse in fairy rules. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t know. The migraine comes and sweeps away your entire evening.
If you’re lucky, you might have a magic potion to mitigate the fairy curse, and if you’re clever and lucky, you might remember to use it in time.
Fairy rules in film: Stalker and EO #
Fairy rules aren’t just for migraines and old stories. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO (2022) both give a sense of life under fairy rules. In Stalker, the characters enter the Zone, which is a kind of fairy land where your wish might be granted but where you must follow strange and strict rules or die. Stalker leaves the reason why the Zone is what it is a bit ambiguous, but the novel it’s based on, Roadside Picnic, makes it explicit that the Zone is left in the aftermath of an alien visitation. The aliens left behind technology and artifacts that might be useful, dangerous, or simply inexplicable to people. When humans enter the Zone, they are confronted by the baffling otherness, as confused as ants might be by the discarded garbage left behind after a roadside picnic.
EO is a film about and from the point of view of the titular donkey who formerly performed at a circus and suffers a series of increasingly tragic turns of fate. In one scene, EO, who has escaped from a donkey sanctuary to try to follow his former co-performer, finds himself lost in a forest. He hears the hoots of owls and the howls of wolves, who are, perhaps, stalking him. Suddenly, a mess of green laser beams crosses the forest. EO doesn’t know how to react to them. A sound rings out and a wolf lies dying next to EO, who doesn’t understand the danger he was in, either from the rifle sights or the wolf. He runs through the forest until he finds a field of windmills, equally opaque to him.
That scene in EO immediately reminded me of Stalker. At that moment, EO is an animal in the inexplicable world of humans who don’t exactly wish him harm, but neither are they looking out for him. And he can’t understand what they’re doing. The people who explore the Zone in Stalker are in a world where they take on the status of animals, incapable of ever really understanding the rules they try to obey. Inevitably they, like EO, fail in some way they couldn’t possibly anticipate.
Under fairy rules, you're an animal #
Thinking about EO, and how inexplicable the human world is to animals, I realized the essence of living under fairy rules is being an animal in relation to a power that does not and perhaps cannot relate to you as a sapient or perhaps even sentient being. To the advanced aliens who left behind the Zone in Stalker, the humans are like animals, interacting with the inexplicable artifacts. In EO, EO is quite literally an animal. Migraines and migraine triggers also operate on your embodied existence as an animal.
Not just that, though. When aphasia--language loss--is part of my migriane aura (which it is about half the time) I can't read, understand speech, write, speak, or think in words. When I am aphasic, I can still feel normal emotions, and relate to people through physical expressions, like an animal. Similarly, for many people (and for me luckily not very often) the pain of the migraine attack is so severe they can't really think or speak either. In either case, we become like animals without language, or at least without the ability to voice our complaint in a language the power we seem to have offended will comprehend.
I suspect that migraines are not the only illness that makes its sufferers feel like they are living under fairy rules. The rules don’t make sense, and other people don’t necessarily even believe you when you warn them, yet, nonetheless, despite how sensible or smart or moral you might be, you might find yourself accidentally breaking a fairy rule and suffering the consequences, suddenly all animal.
Because, I think, we see language so much as the key difference between the human and the animal, large language models which imitate the appearance of thought, possessing language but no animal self, are so very confusing. But that's a topic for another time.
- “There ain’t no entertainment, and the judgments are severe” – Leonard Cohen, Ain’t No Cure for Love, excerpt from lyrics
- "If this is hell, then I'm going to do it right" - Warrior Nun, TV show