‘If one more person congratulates me, or makes a joke, I cannot be held accountable for my actions. This cannot be my life. Let it go … deep breaths … LET … IT … GO,’ Phoebe Fardink mumbled to herself. ‘I should have moved away from this godforsaken place years ago.’ She tried to stay calm and suppress her anger as she made her way across the town square to her antique store called ‘The Checkered Past’.
Why did she live in such a small, backward town? How could that one insignificant incident from her grandmother’s life be immortalized by a three-day celebration every Memorial Day weekend? And the way it had been blown out of proportion? It was beyond ridiculous. The embarrassment of being tied to it forever was simply unbearable.
Phoebe stared up at the “Phyllis Fardink Ferguson Falls Ferry Fairy Festival” banner strung across Main Street and groaned. They’d outdone themselves this year with a pigtailed gray-haired cartoon fairy wearing her grandma’s trademark black horn-rimmed glasses, a bubblegum pink tutu and knee-high black rain boots. Of course, the fairy was holding up a ferry token.
People waved and called out as she hurried on her way. Phoebe curtly waved back, but she refused to stop to chat. Her hand shook as she tried to unlock the shop’s front door. Once inside, she relocked the door, pressed her back against it and exhaled loudly. She closed her eyes, took deep breaths, and willed herself to calm down.
A few hours later, Beverly Baumeister entered the store. “Hi Phoebe! Isn’t it just the most beautiful day? I can’t wait for the festival to start tomorrow. Can you believe it’s the 50th anniversary? You must be so excited!”
Phoebe steeled herself and forced a smile. “Hello Bev. No. I really can’t believe it’s been going on for 50 long, long, long years,” she replied. “What have you got there?”
Beverly grinned and with a great flourish shook out the t-shirt she was carrying and held it up by the shoulders. “Don’t you just love it?”
Phoebe nearly fell over when she saw the shirt.
It had the same ridiculous cartoon fairy as the one on the street banner, but the fairy on the t-shirt was in profile, facing left with one hand covering her mouth, her eyes rolled skyward toward the ferry token held high in her other hand. Behind her tutu-ed butt was “Pffffff …”. Beverly quickly turned the shirt around. The back said, ‘Phyllis Fardink Ferguson Falls Ferry Fairy Festival 2026’. Beneath that was written ‘Celebrating 50 years of Pffffff … fun!’.
Phoebe gripped the counter in front her both to steady herself and to prevent her from leaping over it and strangling Beverly with the humiliating t-shirt.
“We’ve sold almost 200 shirts so far on the website!” Beverly exclaimed. “Isn’t it wonderful? We have hats, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, water bottles, backpacks, Christmas ornaments, and a bunch of other great items too. This year’s fairy is just so adorable and so much pffffff…fun! Oh, I think this will be the best festival ever!” she laughed while Phoebe silently fumed. “I’ve got to run. So much to do before tomorrow!”
Phoebe gritted her teeth and waved as Beverly walked toward the door. She counted the seconds until Bev and the horrendous t-shirt would be gone … five, four, three, two …
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Beverly whirled back around. “Daniel and Tonya Davies managed to get one of the national morning television shows to do a story on the festival this year. I can’t remember which one, but the reporter will be arriving tomorrow. They’d really like you to take part in the interviews since the festival is because of your grandma and all. Tonya will be calling you or stopping by your shop later today.” Beverly smiled broadly and hurried out the door.
'There is no way in hell I’m doing an interview about this stupid festival, especially with this year’s extra-humiliating fairy and souvenirs’, Phoebe thought as she closed the antique store early and headed home. She tried to figure out how she could leave town for the entire weekend, she but knew it was no use. Family honor prevented her from ditching the festival. Despite the embarrassment she always felt by being associated with the event, she’d loved her grandma and felt duty bound to hold her head high and respect her grandmother’s memory.
Phoebe wondered again how such a simple, insignificant act had been spun into such a huge local legend, spawning a festival that had now spanned half a century.
When she retired, her grandmother Phyllis Frances Fardink had volunteered at the local children’s ballet studio. Everyone in town knew she was a good seamstress and some of the parents had asked if she’d make alterations to their daughters’ tutus for the upcoming performance.
Phyllis always walked to and from the studio. On that ill-fated stormy afternoon, she’d pulled on her black rain boots before heading out clutching an umbrella in one hand and the tutus in the other. She struggled against the wind and rain as she made her way home. She needed to take the ferry across the river and when she arrived at the dock, she saw that people on the lower vehicle level were agitated, yelling, and honking their horns. Cars were lined up around the corner waiting to drive aboard.
Her old friend Burt Ledoux was the vehicle level token master and she could see him fidgeting in the booth, anxiously trying to figure out how to handle the situation. Burt wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was a loyal friend and Phyllis wanted to help him.
She handed over her pedestrian token on the upper level, hurried onboard the ferry and made her way down the stairs to Burt’s token booth. He explained the token machine was jammed and he couldn’t fix it. Drivers were continuing to honk their horns, shouting for him to get a move on and Burt was beside himself.
Phyllis thought for a moment, then suggested she go from car to car to collect the tokens while Burt manually held up the boom barrier and kept a tally of the number of cars that passed through. The two of them would make sure the number of tokens matched the number of cars. Burt gratefully accepted.
Apparently, Phyllis walking from car to car swinging a bunch of pink tutus caused quite a stir and before long most of the drivers were laughing and calling her the ‘Ferguson Falls Ferry Dancer’.
Over the next few weeks, the tale of Phyllis’s act of kindness evolved from her walking around collecting ferry tokens, to people swearing she’d been ballet dancing in a pink tutu and black rain boots, pirouetting from vehicle to vehicle. Eventually she became locally known as the 'Ferguson Falls Ferry Dancing Fairy' because the most widely circulated version of the story had her doing the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ from the ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ as she collected tokens.
A few years later, the town board was looking for a way to draw tourists to the area and someone suggested an annual ferry festival celebrating the town’s river history. It reminded one of the board members about Phyllis’s so-called antics and the ‘Phyllis Fardink Ferguson Falls Fairy Ferry Festival’ was born. They not only capitalized on the town’s historic ferry, but also took advantage of Phyllis’s tall tale to incorporate the fairy angle.
Within a decade, Ferguson Falls became known as the fairy capital of the state. The fairies sprung up everywhere. Statues and windsocks adorned front yards, porches, gardens, and parks. Drawings and banners were hung in home, school, and business windows. The stores in town filled their shelves with painted rocks, toys, magnets, postcards, t-shirts, and every other fairy tchotchke on the planet.
Phoebe thought back to her childhood.
Every year as Memorial Day approached, the kids at school would tease her mercilessly about the festival. They’d ask where her tutu was, make farting noises when she passed by in the hall, and taunt her with chants of ‘Another farting Fardink!’ or ‘What’s that smell? Oh, it’s Fardink stink!’ and the one she hated most of all 'Pffffff-Phoebe Fartdink.' She’d heard it so many times, even from a teacher or two, that she’d almost come to believe her last name really was Fartdink.
Her grandmother and parents had been sympathetic, and they’d stressed that what her grandma did was a good thing. She’d showed kindness to a friend and helped him in his moment of need. Her grandma had always embraced the made-up hoopla with good humor and grace.
Friday was dicey, but by Saturday morning Phoebe had pulled herself together. She’d even agreed to be interviewed by the national news about her grandmother. She showered, dressed in a pretty pale purple shirt paired with plaid pink, white, light blue and pale purple capris. She pulled her long, dark hair back in a ponytail and headed to the festival.
Like her grandmother, Phoebe walked everywhere, and she loved taking the ferry every day. She was enjoying the view of the river until she got close to the dock. It was packed with tourists and locals all waiting to board the 9am ferry. Based on the size of the crowd, she was sure she’d have to wait for the next ferry, but that would mean she’d be late for the television interview.
She saw Beverly talking to event organizer and town board member John Garfield and hurried over. After explaining her situation, John rushed her to the front of line and had a brief conversation with the ferry’s pedestrian token taker. He made darn sure Phyllis Fardink’s only remaining relative got on the 9am ferry.
Phoebe waved to John and called out a final thank you for his help as the ferry pulled away from the dock. She laughed as a group of little girls in their pink tutus and fairy wings ran back and forth between the railing and their parents. They’d be marching in the parade this morning and couldn’t hide their excitement.
Phoebe saw Daniel and Tonya Davies by the snack bar and made her way over. As they discussed the details for the interview, they heard screams coming from the back of the ferry and less than a minute later Tommy Davies pushed his way through the growing crowd toward his parents. “Mom! Dad! Some of the ballet dancers fell overboard. They were pretending to be real fairies, climbed up on the rails and when the ferry hit a wave, they fell in!”
Phoebe didn’t hesitate. She ran for the back of the ferry, pushing her way through the crowd. She was a licensed lifeguard and she knew how cold the river was in May. Someone had to get to those girls immediately.
When she reached the back of the boat, Phoebe saw that the crew had thrown life ring buoys into the water and were trying to lower a life boat, but she could see the girls flailing in the water and she knew they’d never reach them in time. She kicked off her shoes, climbed up on the railing and dove into the river. It was like diving into ice water.
Phoebe surfaced and headed for the closest child. She towed the girl to a life ring, made sure she was secure, and started swimming toward the next girl. Again, and again she helped the children to life rings, making sure they were okay and asking how many more girls had fallen overboard. She was feeling the effects of the cold water and the current in the river was wearing her out, but she couldn’t stop.
She heard one more girl screaming for help. As she treaded water, Phoebe spotted the child at least 40 yards downriver. She started swimming as fast as she could toward the little girl.
As Phoebe got closer, she saw that the child was going under more frequently and she tried to swim faster. The little girl was sinking fast when Phoebe reached her. She took a deep breath, dove, and just managed to grab hold of the child’s fairy wings; she kicked hard and pulled the girl to the surface.
A life ring floated on the waves about 10 yards away and Phoebe towed the child toward it. She laid the girl across it and began CPR as best as could while in the river. When the girl coughed up water and started breathing, Phoebe couldn’t hide her relief. She began pushing the girl toward the others who had managed to paddle themselves into a tight group.
About halfway to the other girls, a strong current pulled Phoebe under. She was too cold and too tired to fight it. Her body wasn’t found for three days. All the girls survived.
Over the next few weeks, the story of Phoebe’s heroic actions took on folklore status. People swore she was wearing a pink tutu and that she and the girls had done an amazing, synchronized swimming routine during the rescue. The life rings were remembered as inflatable duck pool floats.
Fifty-one years later, on a sunny, crisp Labor Day morning, 83-year-old Beverly Baumeister made her way across the cemetery to Phoebe’s grave. “Hi Phoebe! Isn’t it just the most beautiful day? Today’s the last day of the ‘Phoebe Fardink Ferguson Falls Ferry Flotilla Festival’. Can you believe it’s the 50th anniversary already? My husband Ed won the rubber duckie race this year! We were so excited! Oh, I brought this year’s t-shirt to show you.”
Bev held up the pale blue t-shirt by the shoulders and turned it toward Phoebe’s gravestone. There was a dark-haired fairy in a pink tutu with a duck float around her waist. She had a swim mask and snorkel. Behind her tutu-ed butt, was written “Pfffff …” and behind that were several little girls in pink tutus and fairy wings sitting in duck floats holding their noses. “Don’t you just love it?”