IN THE COUNTRY of SHADOWS
Pamela watched the old man, feeling the shiver of anticipation in her son, and the echo of it in her own body. Such a night lent itself naturally to the telling of tales, for the wind was moaning eerily round about the chimney top, and the rose canes scratching against the windows had the sound of spectral fingers, tap-tap-tapping at the windowpanes.
Like a true seanachie, the old man pulled a wisp of reverie from the night, from the elements of fire and air and then took a swallow of his whiskey in a manner that said he was going to get down to the serious business of storytelling. He leaned forward a little, crabbed hands inscribing the air about him with another time and another place.
“The world was different then, ‘twas as if the doors were open between this world an’ that one, particularly of a moonless autumn night. People believed an’ so they saw, now people are blind because they don’t believe. But I’ve seen the Good Folk, an’ no man will ever make me doubt the sight of them.
“’Twas the dark of the moon, an’ the night so thick a man could barely see his hand upon his own nose. I’d been down the pub, havin’ a pint an’ a bit of craic with my friends. I was a young man, not yet married to either woman or cause. It was autumn, an’ near to All Hallows’ Eve. The night had felt ordinary enough when I went into the pub an’ the sun was settin’ on as fine a day as a man is like to see. It was harvest time an’ I’d had a full day of it, an’ maybe just the wee bit too much to drink for I was tired an’ wantin’ to get home to my bed. So I took a shortcut, past a patch of bog land that I normally would’ve avoided that time of night. It was the sort of land that seemed haunted even on a fair day— wee twisted trees grew here an’ there upon it an’ the water was a dull color, like bronze clouded by time an’ dirt. It put the hairs up on the back of my neck at the best of times, an’ it could only have been the drink cloudin’ my judgement that made me decide to go past the beaten old path that ran along its edge.
“I was halfway along its rim when I heard somethin’, a strange high sound that I thought was a bird at first, maybe somethin’ hurt an’ trapped in the bog.”
The old man’s eyes were lit with memory, and Pamela shivered slightly despite the heat of the fire, for she could feel the night as he described it, and smell the smoke and earth of the bog under an autumn sky.
“I stopped, so that I might hear better an’ know which direction the noise came from an’ if there was some desperate creature in need of assistance. It took a moment or two to realize it was voices I were hearin’, but like no voices I’d ever known before. It was as though the wind could suddenly speak in words, or the waves of the sea rose up an’ told ye a secret. Ye’ll know,” he tilted his head toward Pamela, “what I mean, for I daresay with those eyes, the sea does whisper its secrets to you.”
She merely nodded, wanting him to keep on with the flow of his narrative, even as the chill of it crept into the house with them, settling in along her backbone and creeping out along her nerve endings. Conor snuggled more tightly to her, and she ran a hand over his curls in reassurance.
“It wasn’t a language I knew, but I understood it though I know that makes no sort of earthly sense. Yet, I could glean the gist of what they were sayin’, even if the words themselves meant nothin’ to me. There was a feelin’ of waitin’ upon the air, an’ as if there were a great crowd o’ folk that had gathered for a specific reason; ye know how that energy is, when everyone is waitin’ an’ yearnin’ upon the same thing. It shifts the very air, that sort of energy.
“I came round about a clump of trees an’ there they were, in the middle of the bog, a crowd of little people, each not more than a foot in height. The clump of trees had hidden them from the path, but once I stepped off I could see them clear. I was certain I was hallucinatin’ an’ yet nothin’ in my life had ever seemed more real than that scene before my eyes. I knew it wasn’t a good thing to be caught watchin’ them, an’ so I kept behind the trees. It was as if I was lookin’ through a glass that sharpened the edges of everythin’, an’ into a world beyond my own. A world of silver an’ gold, an’ trees that bore both flower an’ fruit at the same time.
“I didn’t dare move, I didn’t dare to breathe for fear they would see the fog of it upon the air. ‘Twas then I heard the sound of horses’ hooves, soft thuds along the ground, echoin’ through the earth so that I felt the thrum of it to the marrow of my bones. There was an old oak that had fallen partway into the bog; the bit that was out was a huge gnarled branch, one of the sort that is near to a tree itself in size. It arched into the water like a bridge that led to the depths of the bog. Local legend had it there was no bottom to that bog an’ some of the old women did say it opened into hell itself, for more than one creature had disappeared into it, never to be seen again. ‘Twas over this oak came a carriage pulled by six tiny horses, black as coal, all I could see was the light of their eyes, glowin’ red in the night air. The carriage they pulled was like onyx reflectin’ moonlight, though of course there was no moon that night. ‘Twas lit up like a star sat within it on fine cushions. I kept tellin’ myself I was seein’ things, that there’d been somethin’ in my pint of bitter that made such madness appear before my eyes.
“One of the wee men rushed to open the carriage door, an’ a woman stepped down, light as air, an’ I could see clear it was her they had all been waitin’ for. ‘Twas as if a sliver of moonlight had been carved off the full, an’ transformed into this small woman, this creature, and alit there in the bog. ‘Twas clear to me she was someone of great importance to them, an’ she carried herself as an empress would, for sure an’ wasn’t that what she was?”
There was a look of longing on the old man’s face that made Pamela wonder if this story was not all together the fairy tale it seemed to be.
“She walked as if she were moonlight too, just driftin’ across the dark wet ground, her skirts held high in one hand. It was then that the music began. ’Twas the sort of music that defies words, only that it drew the soul from a man’s body an’ returned it as somethin’ less an’ somethin’ more at the same time. I’ve been in many a pub an’ heard many a pipe an’ fiddle since that night, but none that satisfied me nor sounded half as lovely as the music did that night by the bog.
“She danced when the music began, an’ what a sight she was. When I turned my head just so, I saw she wore a simple dress, brown an’ homespun, lookin’ like ‘twas woven of beaten rushes an’ sere grass. But then if I turned my head to the other side, she wore a gown all of silver to match her eyes an’ skin. Her face was always the same—fierce it was, with somethin’ unholy in the set of it, an’ yet I’d not seen a lovelier woman in all my years, until I set eyes upon yerself this very night. Ye put me in mind of her, ye look delicate an’ yet there’s somethin’ wild about yer beauty that might frighten a lesser man than a Riordan.”
She started slightly and Conor stirred. “Mama?”
“It’s all right, Conor, Mr. Connelly just surprised me a bit.”
The old man continued on, after a glance at Conor’s sleepy countenance.
“She danced like she were no more than a bit of thistledown on the wind, an’ yet the dance was both deliberate and wild. At one point her little shoe fell off an’ I saw her foot— an’ it worn’t like no human foot you ever see’d, but webbed an’ delicate as a frog’s foot, outlined in frost, or so it appeared, for it glittered so.
“It seemed only a moment before I felt the shift that comes in the late hours, when suddenly ye know that night is loosin’ its hold upon the spinnin’ world an’ the stars fade to smoke an’ the sun trembles behind the hills, waitin’ upon its turn. ‘Twas then they left, disappearin’ into the last of the night, as if they had never been more than a scent on the air, a vision of somethin’ that was once, but could be no more.
“I stood there for a long time, ‘twas as if I were hypnotized. I could smell the water an’ wood on the wind in a way that I never had, an’ just a tracery of the fairy smoke, richer than peat an’ earthier, too. I felt like I had no flesh an’ the air moved direct through my bones an’ blood, an’ stirred my soul to somethin’ dark an’ strange. I was terrified at the same time, for I had looked into the wee woman’s eyes, an’ I knew it was wrong even as I did it. I knew I ought to move, for I was sore tired for my bed by then, but still I stayed because there in that moment ‘twas as though I knew all the ages of the world, all that had come an’ gone, an’ all that was still to come, an’ was sad for it, too, with the sadness of the ages. I’d been given a vision of a world that might be, but I knew in my soul that it wouldn’t ever come to pass, an’ yet the hell of it was that now I would always know the difference.
© 2016 Cindy Brandner