With the coronavirus lockdown and school out for the summer, 9-year-old Maya Gebler's social world had shrunk to her immediate family and a few friends.
When her human pen pals stopped writing, she turned to the fairies who had taken up residence at a tree in her Virginia neighborhood. And the fairies wrote back.
"They care about you," she said. "And they want to write to you."
Beneath a crape myrtle at the edge of a lawn in Norfolk lies a fairy village. A sign on a small wooden door shaped like a slice of bread lets visitors know fairies are sleeping behind the smooth bark. Tiny buildings with mushroom spires and flowers line the sidewalk below.
Perhaps just as important are the cedar tables and chairs, the paper and the pens. One mailbox, often brimming with envelopes, welcomes correspondence. Another offers responses from the likes of the Fairy Godmother, Fairy Queen Lysandra and Tinker Bell.
The fairy tree village appeared in July outside the home of journalist and children's book author Lisa Suhay, 55, a mother of five. Word spread online and now youngsters arrive wearing pixie wings or princess gowns and a website connects children who live farther away.
In the past few months, more than 700 letters have arrived — from neighborhood children but also from nearby cities such as Virginia Beach. Not a small number appear to be from students at Old Dominion University, a state school down the street.
For some, the letters offer a reprieve from days stuck at home and in virtual school. They also provide something much deeper — a therapeutic opportunity for wishing, confessing and venting.
One child writes: "Can U please make the corona disappear very soon?"
Another says, "We are moving to Guam but will you still be my friend?"
And yet another tells of a mother, a teacher, who was crying and asks, "Can you help her?"
Some are drawings of Tinker Bell. Others come with gifts, such as a cicada shell.
There are complaints about school. And demands to know if fairies are real.
"Dearest Queen Lysandra, I'm sorry I ever doubted you," began one letter, clearly not the first from its author.
Older letter writers share anxieties and insecurities. One thanked the fairies for advice to break up with her "toxic" boyfriend. "I've never felt so free!" she wrote.
Some express gratitude. Many wish for peace.
And then there are those like Maya and her two friends, sisters Sophie and Cate Carroll. They've become deeply engaged in this fairy world, which includes pixies, elves, gremlins, hobgoblins and trolls.
The fairies reached out to a local cable provider when Sophie and Cate's Wi-Fi went down as school was starting and the company made their network "gremlin free."
Maya wrote about her 5-year-old brother Aiden, whose hearing disability made communicating through masks difficult. The Fairy Godmother sent along masks with clear plastic windows around the mouth.
"It's given her an outlet to vent some of her concerns and fears and feel a little more secure," said Maya's mother, Jennifer Gebler. "She can have a sanctuary that's removed from all the craziness that we're seeing this year."
And the children who visit the wee village under her tree bring Suhay something in return.
"I find myself feeling weighed down by all the negativity," Suhay said. "And all it takes is looking out my window and hearing a little girl singing a song from 'Frozen' at one of the doors to the tree. There are no bad days when this is in front of your house."