[by Jordan Taylor]
“Ireland’s Fairy Tours:” The green, Celtic script took up almost half of the guidebook’s page. Droplets of rain plinked onto the page and ran down its silken surface, briefly highlighting letters, words – “A,” “I,” “hills,” “sky.”
I was lost.
I’d sunk onto a bench outside of the nearest pub and opened the guidebook at random, one page surely not any more helpful than the next. Commuters rushed past me, umbrellas held over their heads, scarves wrapped around their necks. Lights and laughter spilled out of the pub, though it was not yet 5 p.m.
Dublin was a maze in the rain. I’d been roaming the city in a borrowed raincoat, the guidebook I’d checked out from the library back home clutched in my hand. I’d been to see Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the National Museum, the Writers’ Museum, but I hadn’t really seen them, only piles of wet stone, a grey blur, there and then gone.
And now I was lost.
He had always been the one with the sense of direction, the one who led the way. I felt safest under the open sky.
The Louth Valley, in the rain.
I woke into darkness, the fat drops pounding on my earthy roof. I rose and stretched like an earthworm, humming a song I’d once composed to my own beauty and grace. The roots poking through the roof twined to my music as I went about my morning routine, teeth sharpened on my special tooth-sharpening stone, hair parted down the middle with my stolen hair-parting comb.
Oh my cleverness! Oh my glee!
I crawled out of my burrow into the wet morning, and all the hills sang for joy.
Dublin, in the rain. My phone told me to take the number 9 bus back to the neighborhood I was staying in, and I prayed that I would be able to make the right change with my foreign bills, that I would recognize my stop.
That I could find the bus station.
I had come to Ireland on a whim, really, chosen this city for the wonder evoked by its name, for the round, rising vowel sound and the descending trill on the end, like a green, wet-furred hill in the morning mists. Dublin.
In the rain. It had been pouring when my plane touched down, the pilot banking into a turn and circling back, wary of the slick runway.
It had not stopped drizzling since.
I’d needed to get away from my Chicago apartment, whose 500 square feet had seemed so suddenly large with him gone. I felt as if my life had come to a blind curve, one which I was stuck in the middle of, that I couldn’t see behind or ahead. Instead of getting any work done I’d been sitting at my desk and staring at my computer screen while ignoring my editor’s calls.
I’d never been abroad on my own before, but I’d thought the sound of it —abroad— like an independent Victorian woman on a pleasure trip,was exactly what I needed.
Now I remembered that it had been he who liked cities, not I. Not the girl who had grown up in a tiny town just west of suburbia, mud between her toes.
After several years, I thought, it was easy to forget.
It will be easy to forget.
Still, I briefly wished he was here, he who could turn the map in my guidebook at just the perfect angle so that the tangled lines and the snarl of streets matched up, like two pieces of a Chinese puzzle.
See? See how simple?
The Louth Valley, in the rain, and the wonder of a perfect morning.
I made my rounds, I gave my good-mornings. I spoke to the crowding slick stones, to the bone-snapping hard-root wind-bending trees, to the dark-eyed birds and the ancient hills.
And they spoke back to me.
Greetings cousin, they said, greetings, and they gave me gifts—a round polished stone, a wet green leaf, a shimmering black feather, the wind on the heath.
Back in the apartment where I was staying, the rain knocked against the windows like a chorus of tiny fists. I’d had to ask for directions to the bus station, my face burning as I’d stopped a kind-eyed woman on the street. The cheerful young couple who lived in the apartment was still at work, the brightly decorated rooms holding only their remembrances, their ghosts.
I was sleeping in their somewhat cramped extra bedroom, which I’d found on AirBnB. My first day, when they’d seen that I’d brought nothing but my old wool peacoat, they’d said, “You can’t go out in that!” and pulled a black raincoat spotted with tiny yellow dots out of their hall closet, threaded my arms through its sleeves, smiling at me as if they were my parents.
Now I paced the Kilim rug in their living room—a fake?—dialing a number in the travel guide’s registry of fairy tours at random.
When I was a child, I’d believed in fairies.
I’d believed, not in silly leprechauns and winged dancing sprites, but beautiful beings, magical beings who could change at will, like the elementals of the Victorians. I’d seen them, or so I’d believed, dancing in the moonlight on the lawn outside my bedroom window, peeking from behind trees and between the underbrush as I played in the scrubby woods which bordered my house, seen them for a second and then they were gone.
A trick of the light? An arrangement of branches and leaves?
As I grew up, I’d lost my belief somewhere along the way, like a religion, my former sightings chalked up to childhood imagination and natural occurrences. There was no place for them in an adult life, a life lived in front of my fluorescent-blinking laptop screen, in metal-shelved grocery stores, in a roaring, synthetic-upholstered car and a tiny city apartment three floors up, surrounded by iron fire escapes and filled with stony silences.
Once I could have explained why. That seemed so long ago, now I could not even do that.
“We’ve room for one more tomorrow,” the man on the other end of the line told me. I imagined him elderly, smiling, with glasses so small they’d be called spectacles and arthritic fingers like twisted roots. He gave me the address of the nearest village, where the tour company had an office, and when to meet everyone there.
I typed the address into my phone’s GPS. I could take the bus. It would be a long ride.
In the Louth Valley, it was still raining.
I mused on the sound of Louth as I tramped through the wet grass. Louth, Louth. My editor would tell me I did this too often. She’d also introduced me to him at a local conference, and so on this trip I had decided to hell with her.
Louth was the wind through the wet grass. Louth was a thrown stone.
The village where that morning I’d met up with the rest of the group had been called Knockbridge, which was itself so comical and twee as not to be believed.
On the bus ride over, I’d chewed my nails nervously, suddenly wondering what kind of tourist signed up for a fairy tour, wondering if the whole thing would turn out to be unbearable.
The others, gathered on the sidewalk in front of the gaily painted and carved little building which held the company’s offices, had been a mixed batch. There were some of the expected weirdos—a tall, British woman who told everyone within earshot that she was a witch, “a good witch,” two teenagers with badly-dyed black hair and heavy makeup—but there was also a happy Chinese family with an eight-year-old daughter, two little old ladies who looked too frail to hike through the hills, and a backpacking couple from France.
One, an overweight, middle-aged and clearly American man in a brilliant red windbreaker and foggy glasses, came over to me and introduced himself. He was traveling the world and “doing all of the nature stuff,” he told me, rattling off names like Peru and Alaska, because that’s what his wife, who’d recently lost a hard battle with breast cancer, had always dreamed of.
I tried to imagine him in Alaska, standing on the deck of a fishing vessel, his thinning hair dripping with icicles, but could not. Instead I saw his wife, charging into the imaginary battle, her sword in her hand.
“She’s home with Jesus, now,” he’d said with a smile, and seemed so pleased by this that I, who had lost all faith somewhere between the 10th grade and my first full-time job, could only blink at him and smile feebly in return.
Now he puffed steadily by my side as we climbed through the hills. Their green hummocks spread out around me like a story. Droplets of water clung to my skin, slipped from my borrowed raincoat. The air smelled fresh, as green as the hills, and I breathed it in, panting from our climb. The wind brought tears to my eyes.
The two little old ladies had fallen far behind us, as I’d worried they would, and the British woman, the good witch, turned back to help them.
The tour guide, an older woman herself, but with muscular thighs and a long, grizzled braid down her back, narrated our journey from the front of the pack, though I was only halfway paying attention.
“Louth was supposedly the birthplace—and death place—of the legendary Irish hero Cúchulainn…”
The stillness into which her words fell was astounding. The soft, round hills appeared to be sleeping, slumbering giants that might blink awake at any moment, but did not. Not for me. Not anymore.
“It is said that Louth’s hills are full of the graves of Irish warriors, and also that these graves are pathways into the realm of the fairies. They’re often called ‘fairy mounds…’”
My spirits should have been soaring—like the raven I could spot riding the air currents above the hills—but all I felt was a weak flutter. Once I’d seen fairies in the undeveloped land outside of suburbia. Now I saw nothing, even as I climbed through their mounds.
And yet—I turned in place on the hilltop where the tour guide had finally let us pause, the wind whipping the air from my lungs, my eyes streaming, the startlingly green grass singing around me—I did feel something, out here, away from the city, under the open sky. Was the wind washing the scales from my eyes?
“Perhaps they are here even now,” the tour guide was saying, “running through the grass with the wind, peeking out at us from behind those stones.”
In the rain.
And a party of humans who were moving nearer.
I tiptoed beside them through the mists, tiny dark footprints in the wet grass, though they were so deaf and blind—surprise!—none looked my way. I winked at them like the rain.
I donned my shimmering feather, my body shivering into the change, and I soared over them as a raven, riding the high air currents. Droplets struck my feathers. The humans moved below me like prey, and suddenly I was hungry. Hungry for mischief and trickery! Hungry for mirth!
One of the humans, a sad-eyed woman in a spotted raincoat, looked up at me, and I became the wind in the heath, whispering through her brown hair.
Did you see me? Do you see?
I landed on the earth with a thump. I peeked out at her from behind the tumbled stones, for a moment showing my nose in the wide blue air. I knew where I came in. I had heard the tour guide’s spiel many times.
When she left with the group to return to the village, I followed them, a green leaf in the wind, a thrown stone.
The village of Knockbridge was full of squat stone cottages and painted wooden storefronts smiling in the rain. There was no bridge, or none that I saw.
The faux-medieval carvings that graced the building housing the tour guides’ offices reminded me of the couple who had taken me in. Half of the bright building had been made a souvenir shop and, reluctant to return to the grey city from this place of hills and wide skies, I followed our tour guide and some of the other guests inside.
The interior of the shop was just this side of tacky, the local and seemingly authentic mixed with the cheaply imported from China. Cloth fairy dolls and children’s gossamer wings sparkled in one corner. A bundle of carved wooden walking sticks stood by the door. After the wind on the hills, the air was stuffy and warm, and I unbuttoned by raincoat as I wove through the shelves.
Handmade geode jewelry clacked on a nearby display, and I reached out to pick up one of the necklaces, an opaque dark stone shot through with green veins, a large hole bored through the middle, hung on a leather thong. Something about the stone jogged my childhood memories, tugged at me like a child playing blind-man’s-bluff.
“No Sight, love?” the tour guide asked from behind me.
I turned in surprise, the stone clutched in my hand.
“That’s used to see fairies,” she clarified with a smile.
“Oh,” I said. And, “No, not anymore. I seem to have lost it.”
I slipped through the shop door in a gust of wind and rain. A little brass bell jingled at me, and I put my finger to my lips.
On my way in, I’d plucked a hair from a tourist’s head—the head of the happy man who had walked beside the woman in the raincoat—as he turned down the street to the bus stop. I’d been invisible, and I’d laughed as he slapped a hand to his head, confused.
I could see the raincoated woman I was after, the one who had spotted me when I was a raven. She held a special stone in her hand. I waited until the tour guide walked away from her, and then, taking the shape of the happy man, I approached.
“What’s that you’ve found,” I asked, as I took the stone from her hands. Her hands! So small, so delicate in these large ones I wore!
It was a stone from the hills, one with a hole bored through. A rare thing, and luck. I had seen such a thing before. With such a thing, I knew what to do.
“A Seeing Stone,” I said. And I held the stone up, up to my man’s eye and the lens of glass he wore there, and I looked through the empty circle at her.
She stared at me, her face frozen and stunned, and I stared back, knowing that I saw what she had become, and that she saw what I had become.
“You see?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said, and she laughed.
Jordan Taylor grew up in a small town in the American South, where she was raised on equal parts Jesus and fairy tales. She has since lived in New York, Portland, and now Raleigh, NC, where she keeps several bookshelves full of books and one cantankerous corgi.