‘Púca’ is a short story that aims to pursue ideas on the uncanny in a historical setting, allowing for a narrative that the modern reader will find fascinating. It is a piece of adult historical realism, whereby all fantastical elements give way to rationality and superstition in order to remain historically accurate yet allow room for the reader to provide their own analysis.
Synonymous with Angela Carter’s reimagined fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber, I am looking to adapt folklore in a modern light, including mature themes that are disregarding of the innocence often surrounding traditional tales. 21st century themes are thus given a historical slant, adhering to the patriarchal discourse of the time where the church and home were dominated by the masculine force, whilst also resonating with the modern reader. Feminist and uncanny themes of womanhood and sexuality are also explored within the character of Orla. She is cherished by parents who still treat her like a child and cannot accept her sexual awakening. Therefore, her disappearance is deemed an act of violence rather than that of a young woman reaching sexual maturity and choosing her own path in life.
She walked with a grace she had inherited from her mother; head held aloft, footfall soft, the corners of her mouth upturned. Her hair, golden as spun sunshine, fell in waves to the small of her back. Every now and then she would stroke a tendril from her neck and pass it over her shoulder to join the rest.
Ciarán watched as she thanked the salesman, taking the bundle of fabric and tucking it away beneath her cloak. She flashed her blue eyes at him once more
and moved on, tugging her hood closer about her neck. She was beautiful. Ciarán followed on a few yards behind her, skilfully swiping an apple from the
grocer’s stand and shining it on his collar. When she eventually stopped at another stall, he brought himself close beside her and leant against the table.
‘Mornin’, there,’ he said, offering her the apple.
‘Orla! Sit still, leanbh.’ Aoife pulled the comb deftly through her daughter’s hair, working quickly over the knotted ends.
‘Mamaí!’ Orla said, pressing her knuckles against her scalp and leaning her head away.
‘Do I tug?’
Orla twisted herself round and took the comb from Aoife’s hand. ‘I’ll do it myself.’ She stood and made her way to the window. There, she leant her temple against the wooden pane and fingered her blonde locks, easing the comb through them absent-mindedly.
Aoife clicked her tongue and smiled. ‘Don’t let your da see you still up,’ she said, ‘or the fey will come nibbling at your toes of an evening.’
Orla narrowed her eyes at her mother but smiled back all the same. ‘G’night, ma,’ she said.
‘Goodnight, sweet girl.’
As a hush fell upon the animals in the yard and the farmhouse slept, Orla lay awake as she had done for the last seven evenings. Her heart beat fast as she strained to listen through the roaring silence. And then—
It cut through the silence like a blade through butter. Heart hammering harder still, she worried it would leap from her throat altogether.
It was a timid voice, but deep and rich. The kind that could carry over the loudest of blizzards, but whisper sweetness in the dead of night.
She slipped quietly from the bed and lit her candle on the dying embers of the fire. Pressing her fingers to her lips as if to stop from crying out, she crept across the cold floor and peered into the black.
And there he stood, his midnight hair melting into the night.
Fergus Moore wiped his nose along his arm, dragging dirt from the fields across his upper lip. Having no son of his own to teach, Orla’s father did the farm work of three men. His brutish arms pushed hoes, his calloused fingers raked feed, yet his gentle touch was the only one that could soothe a spooked mare or milk the elderly sow. Orla admired him. She watched as he dropped his hands into the wash bucket by the kitchen door and pulled them over his face. Sweat and soil collided beneath the rim of his hat and ran into his auburn beard. She could hardly tell where freckles ended and soot began.
‘Done for the day?’ she asked.
‘Far from. Some gippo’s trodden down all my crop again.’
Orla turned her face back to the mending in her lap, her cheeks burning. ‘Mightn’t have been a traveller, dadaí.’
‘O’course it was, Orla. They’ve been disorderly since they arrived.’ Fergus smacked his boot heavily against the doorframe, scattering showers of dried mud and debris. ‘Heard what they did to Mary’s goat? Spooked it half to death playing tricks on it.’
‘Dug its horns into the ground. Poor wee thing laid there for hours ’til morn.’
Pursing her lips, Orla avoided her father’s gaze by means of working slowly and deliberately on the sock she was darning. She often helped her ma with the mending; not for the money but for the joy. Her fingers would move nimbly over button holes and seams, her tongue poking between her lips when embroidering. But now her hands had begun to tremble, her palms clamming. She swallowed through the drying of her throat, knowing that his eyes were upon her, and concentrated on the technique her mother’s mother had taught her. Over one stitch, under the other. Weaving carefully over the hole, making sure to leave shrinkage slack. But the needlepoint skidded across the fabric. She gasped as it caught her skin, a bead of blood swelling underneath the sock.
Fergus eyed her before pulling the lapel of his coat tighter and turning to make his way back to the fields. With one last glance at his daughter, he shook his head slowly. ‘Gippos,’ he muttered.
On the tenth evening, Orla didn’t bother turning back her quilts and settling for sleep. She bid goodnight to her parents early before climbing the stairs in
silent anticipation. After changing quickly and quietly into her nightdress, she stood at the window and took the comb slowly through her hair in case her ma decided to peep her head round the door. The candle by her bed was burning low, the wick almost to its bottom, and it cast a gentle light that mimicked the glow of the low-hanging sun outside. The hill they sat upon overlooked the village and the breezeless evening saw steady streams of smoke retreating from the chimney tops, moulding long, heavy lines across the horizon. Orla sighed as she admired the land they possessed; the fields that Fergus tended to with such care; the cattle shed her grandfather had built that was still standing strong. Its occupants were lowing gently to one another, quiet evening conversation before they wound down themselves.
Orla pressed her forehead against the window frame as she had done for so many nights now and watched the sun being snuffed like a candle along the horizon. Minutes turned to hours—or so it felt—before the orange hue around her dissolved into darkness. Her parents had long since retreated to their marital bed, Fergus’ occasional snores muffled through the walls. Orla waited in still, peering across the field to the gate at the far corner. It didn’t once
open—rather he vaulted himself over it to avoid the tell-tale squeak that would no doubt send the animals into a frenzy. Heart pumping once more, Orla threw the window wide and leant out. She didn’t notice her comb tumbling to the ground below.
‘I’m here,’ she called, before pressing the back of her hand against her lips.
After expertly picking his way through the field towards her window, he pushed his hands deep into his pockets and looked up at her. He pored over her gentle features and sparkling eyes, even in the dim candlelight; he admired her yellow hair and heart shaped lips, the way they parted slightly over her teeth when she smiled down at him. She leant tentatively through the window, as if closing the distance that minuscule amount would somehow bring them together.
‘Ciarán,’ she breathed.
‘My, you’re a beauty,’ he said as he gazed at her. ‘Have you decided?’
‘I’ll do it.’ She barely had time to garner her thoughts before the words came tumbling out. ‘Tomorrow evening, at the gate.’
Father Byrne woke to the sound of fists against his front door. Night had not yet fully succumbed to day and by the time he had lit a candle and found his way through the darkness, the banging had stopped. On his doorstep, shivering against the early morning air, stood the Moore man and his wife. Fergus was holding Aoife to his chest, pinning her arms down with his own as she shook.
‘Mister Moore? ’Tis not yet morning, man. What brings you here?’
‘Apologies, Father Byrne. ’Tis my iníon. My Orla.’ Fergus paled at his own words. ‘She’s gone, Father.’
Aoife stifled a sob into her husband’s coat, before turning her sodden eyes to the Father. ‘She’s been taken.’
Silently standing aside, Father Byrne beckoned the two into his home. He bent over the fire, stoking the embers to a blaze, and delicately lit the bowl of his pipe. Then, sitting before them, he leant towards Aoife.
‘Taken, Missus Moore?’
Aoife’s colour drained just as her husband’s had. ‘Yes, Father.’
‘My wife—’ Fergus took her hand gently ‘—believes, Father.’
He nodded sternly and took a slow drag from the pipe.
‘I have the Knowledge.’ Aoife’s voice rose in a panic. ‘You must believe me. ’Tis a pooka, Father, has got my Orla. I heard it with my own ears.’ She lurched forward and grasped his wrist, the shawl that was covering her head slipping loose. Her once gentle eyes were wide with turmoil. ‘I heard it calling her name last night, while we were safe in our beds. She has gone to it.’
‘A foul thing. Goblin fey, with fur so black you can’t barely see it through the darkness. Just its burnin’ red eyes, Father.’ Aoife pulled the shawl around her quivering shoulders. ‘Burnin’ red.’
Father Byrne closed his tired eyes sombrely, the pipe swaying in time to his undulating jaw. ‘I know the stories, Missus Moore,’ he said as he looked up and moved his hand over hers. ‘But that’s just what they are: stories. You mustn’t believe them, my dear. Your pooka was made up to scare wee children.’
She snatched her hand away and held it to her breast as if his touch had scalded her skin. ‘Lies. It came upon our land and called on our Orla. And now she’s gone.’
‘Missus Moore,’ Father Byrne said softly, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. ‘Have you considered the possibility that Orla… perhaps chose to leave?’ He took the pipe between his fingers and traced the mouthpiece along his bottom lip.
‘No,’ she snapped. ‘My Orla would never leave me.’ Her mouth began to tremble again.
‘I see these cases year upon year. You must be rational. Has she had any gentleman callers recently? She may have simply had her way with a young man.’
‘No.’ Aoife’s ivory skin crimsoned.
‘—No! A being has taken her.’
‘Missus Moore,’ Father Byrne said once more, his tone hardening this time. ‘The only being you should be concerning yourself with is our Lord and Saviour.’
Aoife took in a sharp breath and bowed her head.
Having been silently brooding for so long, Fergus suddenly stood. Both Aoife and Father Byrne watched as he began to pace the clay floor and pull on the whiskers along his chin. His dark eyes, such stark contrast to the forget-me-not blue of his daughter’s, were clouded with grief. Dark circles had formed beneath them, echoing the streaks of silver above his ears.
‘You believe me, don’t you, Fergus?’ his wife murmured as she rose to his side. Her own forget-me-nots shone in the candlelight and Fergus was suddenly reminded of Orla when she was small, eyes brimming with tears as she looked up at her dadaí for comfort.
‘Thank you, Father,’ he said with a bob of his head, before taking Aoife’s hand and leading her out into the morning.
Keeping her gaze low, Aoife scurried through the village with an intensity that had the townspeople watching from their windows. A miserable drizzle pattered against the thatch, creating muddy bodies of water that seeped into her boots.
Everything had changed since the arrival of the pooka—Aoife could feel it. The air around her had darkened, her weight heavying somehow. Her Knowledge was racing, and her exterior reflected it; dark shawl covering her head, arms buried deep within her winter cloak. When she eventually neared the humble hut of Mary McConnel, she brought her body up tall and pinched the colour back into her mourning cheeks. Then, with a deep breath, she knocked sharply, three times.
Mary was a stout lady, with crooked teeth and grey hair that was always pinned close to her scalp. She peered curiously at the woman on her doorstep before realisation struck. At that, she brought a hand to her wrinkled forehead.
‘Aoife, wee dear!’ she cried, though Aoife was far from wee nowadays. Mary’s kind hands had seen her through childhood, and even helped deliver Orla safely into the world. Fergus had waited outside the room, pacing as he had done in Father Byrne’s own home, until his child was brought out to him. Mary had swaddled her in cloth and eased her into his arms. ’Tis a girl, she’d cooed, and he’d wept against her. Aoife trusted Mary, wholeheartedly.
‘Come in, come in,’ she said, batting Aoife across the threshold. She busied herself with the warming of a cast-iron pot over the fire. ‘What brings me the pleasure of your comp’ny?’
It hadn’t quite occurred to Aoife that telling Mary she’d found her daughter’s bed as empty as their bellies during the famine meant having to relive the nightmare twofold. Her time with Father Byrne had left her feeling defeated, as if all hope of help had been ground into the mud and spat upon. The sun had set and risen again since their meeting, and Orla still hadn’t returned. Aoife couldn’t be sure where she was. But if there was one thing Aoife could
be sure of, it was that Mary McConnel was the Town Talker. If she wanted news to spread like the pox, Mary was the one to make it happen.
So, with an inhalation that made her heavy chest throb, Aoife pulled away her shawl and began to talk. This time, she kept her tone steady. Her eyes, though raw and stinging, stayed dry. Mary nodded along in silence, her lips tight and brow furrowed. Every now and then, she would lean to administer a comforting pat on Aoife’s closed hands or gently squeeze her forearm. And when Aoife had finished, the water on the fire had boiled over. She leant back, exhausted, and fanned at her cheeks. Mary was staring fixatedly into the flames, shaking her head.
‘You’re sure, wee love?’ she finally breathed. ‘’Tis all so… so—’
‘—I know. ’Tis the stuff of stories.’ Aoife felt herself delating.
‘No, love. ’Tis all so terrifying. I never did believe your Fergus when he said it was travellers that spooked my goat. I knew there was something more.’
Aoife could hardly contain her tears; joy and despair filled her all at once, spinning her head till it hurt.
‘’Tis a mighty shame,’ Mary said, clasping Aoife’s hand in hers. ‘But Orla is a good leanbh. She’ll be brought back to ye.’
‘Aye, she is. Not a word about this to anyone, please, Mary?’
‘Not a word, wee Aoife.
The farmhouse quickly fell into an unhappy slumber, as if the walls themselves were mourning a loss. Aoife crept round the place in a stupor, running her errands in silence and snapping at Fergus’ words, no matter how gentle they were. He sorely missed her wind-chime laugh and tuneless singing, and would trudge back from the fields to find only a cold, quiet kitchen.
‘There’s a lame horse that needs seeing to. Want to do it in the morning?’ he asked her one night, knowing how she loved to be close
to the animals.
She kept her eyes on the dress she was patching, saying nothing.
‘The sweet calf from last spring. He knows your touch.’
‘No, thank ye.’
‘Talk to me, Aoife,’ he now pleaded, leaning closer.
Her needle clattered to the table. ‘I’m going to Mary’s.’ She stood and made her way to the door, flinging her cloak over the crook of her elbow.
‘But it’s dark out!’ he called as the door slammed behind him.
Looking down, his eyes found Orla’s unfinished sock. It lay forgotten on the table, neither mother nor father having the heart to put it away for it would feel like accepting her disappearance. Fergus ran his finger across the darning and imagined her floating down the staircase at that moment, taking her position with a smile and continuing her work. Over one stitch, under t’other. How’s the potatoes looking, da? she would say. Better than last year? Aye, you are clever. He saw her tuck the loose tendrils of her plait behind her ears just like her mother always did; he pictured the way her brows would knot together when her needle found a particularly tricky spot. Over one, under t’other. Fergus sighed and dropped his head into his hands, callouses itching against his hot skin. She was gone. Be it gypsy or pooka that had taken her, his daughter was gone.
One cool afternoon, having spent seemingly hours mucking out the animals, Fergus wheeled a barrow of manure round the perimeter of the house with intent to spread it over the struggling crops on the far side. Trodden and yellowing, there were patches that looked as though they hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. The soil had been scuffled upon, great holes driven into the dirt.
Fergus felt a familiar anger burning within him, though his heart was still hurting. Months of work nursing the onion saplings had gone to waste. With a sigh, he began following the beaten path towards the house with his barrow, shovelling and cursing all the way. Gippos. An hour had passed before he lifted his face to the winter sun, stretching his aching back—but something stopped him short. A flash of colour amongst the dirt. Small, shining, white. Leaving the shovel dug deep into the shit, he closed in on the object—and cried out.
‘Don’t you see? Don’t you believe me now, Fergus?’ Aoife’s hands found her face the moment she saw it.
He held the little comb, barely bigger than his palm, as if it were a flower that would wilt under his breath. ‘Aoife…’
‘This proves it, Fergus.’
‘I don’t know.’ He ran his thumb over the wide teeth, gently brushing dirt from its surface.
‘My Orla would never leave without her comb,’ Aoife insisted.
‘Think it through, my love. Doesn’t this prove that she left through the window? Trying to be all secret, like?’
‘Well, doesn’t it? She sure as anything didn’t take the front door,’ he said, voice rising.
‘That proves nothing. Whether she fled the window or the door, you still don’t know what took her.’
‘Maybe she wasn’t taken, Aoife! Maybe Father Byrne was right.’
His wife’s cheeks turned a rouge they hadn’t seen in days. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Just what I said.’ Fergus sighed, squeezing the comb until its teeth bit into his skin. ‘Maybe he was right.’
‘You think she would leap the window with nothing but the nightclothes on her back for some buachaill?’ She sprang to her feet and began to pace the length of the kitchen, wringing her fingers till they turned purple. ‘And how could a human foot as hers destroy your crops so?’
‘Might’ve been two humans,’ he replied tentatively.
‘’Twas no human, Fergus.’ She looked at him with glassy eyes, her jaw pulsing against her gritted teeth. ‘I feel it here. You know I’m right.’
That night, Fergus tossed and thrashed through nightmares; Orla, her porcelain skin bitten, blood oozing from between her close lids; her hair as black as the darkness that had swallowed her, all sunshine missing from her face; Aoife, jumping the window and joining her daughter.
He woke abruptly, his nightclothes tight against his sweating skin. Aoife. He didn’t need to turn on the palette to know that she was gone. He could not feel the familiar weight of her beside him, nor hear her breathing through the gloom. The bed was empty, Orla’s handstitched quilt thrown back and the door left ajar. He fled the room without question, running the breadth of the house and flinging the kitchen door wide.
‘Aoife!’ he yelled into the night. ‘Aoife! Aoife, a ghrá?’ He leant through the door frame, the coming winter biting at his cheeks, his mind all the while racing with his wife’s words. Pooka. A pooka. Calling her name.
Then he heard it—a great howl like the keening of a banshee—and he ran. He ran from the door, not caring that his feet were bare and the ground cold and sharp. He ran through the fields, ignoring the thrumming of his heart in the back of his head. He wasn’t losing her, too.
When it came again, he stopped sharp. His fingers throbbed with blood, his throat tight and raw. Breath held, he waited in the silence until it was once again ripped apart by a great, guttural scream. His feet pounded the floor in response, stones digging their way through his skin, until finally, finally—
She was on her knees, her forehead pressed to the earth. Her feet, as bare as his own, were dark with soil and blood. Slowly, she lifted her head to the moon, her face contorted with grief and shining with tears. Another cry escaped her and Fergus ran once more.
‘Bring my baby back!’ she screamed. Her fists pummelled at the ground, ripping up shoots. ‘Bring her back to me!’
Fergus fell towards her and took her face, wiping at her cheeks with his thumbs. ‘Aoife, my love. I’m here. I’m here.’ Her skin was cold as death beneath his fingertips, her loose hair wet with tears or sweat or dew.
‘I need my baby back.’ Body shaking beneath her words, she leant away from him and searched desperately through the darkness. ‘What have you done with her?’ she cried into the night as she stood, stumbling further towards the dense trees surrounding the field.
Fergus caught her wrist and pulled her close to him. He wrapped his arms around her waist as she struggled and screamed for him to let her go, let her go.
‘Don’t you care? Don’t you love her?’ she cried, finally turning to face him. Her lips were grey, the dark circles under her eyes making her skin paler still. She balled her fists against his chest. ‘Don’t you love her?’
‘I love her more than anything.’ He held tight to his wife, his own tears now falling. Bringing her body close to his, he tucked her head beneath his chin and rocked her shaking body like a child’s. He felt her skin prickling with gooseflesh beneath her nightshift. ‘I love her more than anything in this world. I want her back, too.’
They stayed this way until her sobs softened, her arms sinking into him. The condensation of their breath intertwined around them. When her cries had finally ceased, he took her in his arms and carried her back through the fields, laying her gently down beside the fire where he washed and bound her bleeding feet. And as she slept, he cried in silence.
‘Can I help ye?’ Fergus held the door ajar.
The man on his step had knocked three times before calling through the cracks of the house, Missus Moore? Missus Moore?, his nose pressed against the frame. Now, he stood quickly upright and clasped his hat in both hands. ‘Mister Moore?’ he asked.
‘Begging your pardon. Name’s Eoghan, I live in the first house just down the track. My land neighbours yours.’ He smiled as though expecting the same from Fergus, but his age-spotted cheeks dropped when no such response came. ‘I was hoping to ask advice of your wife.’ He walked his hands around the rim of his hat, turning it in circles as slow as his words.
‘Aye. I heard what happened to your daughter, God bless her. And my own told me that Missus Moore is of the Knowledge.’ He lowered his voice around the words, craning his wrinkled neck forward.
Fergus winced. ‘We can’t help you,’ he said, moving to close the door.
‘Please!’ Eoghan’s hand shot out, landing heavily on the splintered wood. ‘There’s something been killing my fowl.’
Aoife returned from the market late that afternoon to find a man at her kitchen table. He was tall and hunched, his fingers shaking as he lifted a mug of steaming liquid in both hands. His eyes were as wet as his lips, which were in turn framed by a bushy white beard that was stained yellow at the corners. As she entered the room, he moved to shake her hand before she had even taken off her cloak.
‘Missus Moore. Your husband said you wouldn’t be long.’
Fergus stepped forward from his leaning post in the corner. ‘Eoghan Kelly,’ he told her. ‘He’s come to talk to you about your pooka.’
Heart racing, she immediately settled herself in the seat opposite Eoghan and folded her sore feet beneath the table. ‘Call me Aoife.’
Eoghan’s shoulders relaxed. ‘Aoife,’ he breathed. ‘I’m scared. I’ve only one hen left. Found a third this morning, strangled to death.’
Fergus grunted. ‘Gippos.’
‘Not a gippo. Couldn’t be. What gippo would take a bite from the thing?’
Aoife’s hand instinctively shot to her face, her calm demeanour shattering. ‘A bite?’
‘A bite, miss, taken right from its broken neck. As God is my witness. No gippo would leave behind a perfectly fat hen for the taking, let alone mutilate it so.’ Eoghan clung tighter to his vessel, dirty fingernails turning white. ‘I tried to think nothing of the first two deaths. Thought maybe it was the doing of a dog. But after what my daughter told me yesterday morn… Your poor leanbh… taken by—what, a pooka?’ He looked from Aoife to Fergus. ‘I’ve never believed before. But I heard it last night. Calling to me. My own name across the wind, I swear it. So I stayed tight in my bed and woke instead to find the wee bird, dead and bitten.’ His pallid cheeks trembled. ‘Something has to be done. If it’s not me taken, it could be my daughters. My granddaughters.’
‘You’re right,’ Aoife said. ‘We should go to the Father. Two heads are better than one.’
‘You think he’ll help? He’ll know what to do?’
Aoife’s eyes darted down to her lap. ‘Aye.’
Easing his grip, Eoghan nodded. ‘We’ll go to the Father. And there’s a lady in town – Niamh O’Sullivan – that said she’s had some goings on, too. She’ll surely come.’
‘Aye. And Mary. We’ll need as many of us as possible.’
‘What are you planning on doing?’ Fergus barked from his corner. ‘A mob outside the man’s house isn’t going to make a mite of difference.’
‘If this village is being terrorised by daoine maithe, Father Byrne ought to know,’ Aoife insisted. She looked up at him, her face firm and knowing. ‘I
want my daughter back,’ she whispered.
Fergus simply leant back against the wall, closing his eyes and hanging his head.
‘What will he do?’ Eoghan’s gaze darted between the two of them again, his lips moving around soundless words.
‘He’ll banish it,’ she said. ‘And if he won’t, we will.’
For a man of many years, Eoghan walked with surprisingly brisk determination. Aoife struggled to match his pace, her soles still raw, whilst Fergus, legs strengthened by years of lifting hay bales and lugging pales of milk from the barn, glided along effortlessly beside him. He kept his head down, hands deep in the pockets of his breaches.
A whir of adrenaline festered within Aoife. Her stomach was alive with the same flutterings that had overcome her when Fergus had asked her father for her hand all those years ago. She clutched at her ribs and thought through her plan; Father Byrne’s house was beside the church, right in the centre of the village. They could collect Niamh and Mary along the way, the five of them marching to the Father to demand his help. Help. That’s all Aoife had ever wanted. She’d felt so alone since her Orla had been taken, felt like there wasn’t a soul left that believed her or her Knowledge. But things were changing.
They walked the track in silence, passing Fergus’ fields of struggling winter crops and paddocks of animals. The old sow he had raised from birth wandered towards them as they walked, leaning her nose over the fence towards her master. He patted her velvet skin gently and moved on without a word.
About a mile down, Eoghan waved an uncaring arm in the direction of the house they were passing. ‘My land,’ he said.
His home betwixt the trees was dark and shuttered, its surrounding property void of life. Not a crop had been nurtured, and just a single, lonely hen was visible rummaging for feed. Aoife knew the place well; she passed it most days when running her errands in the village and had supposed it abandoned, housing squatting travellers or nests of rats. She craned over her shoulder at the gloomy view as they hurried away from it.
Fergus cleared his throat. ‘You don’t farm your land?’
‘I am too old.’ Eoghan did not shift his forward-facing gaze. ‘My son kept it going for years, but after his death there was nothing I could do for it.’
‘Sorry to hear that,’ came Aoife’s gentle reply. ‘How did you lose him?’
‘He went missing. They found his body in the Shannon three weeks later.’
Aoife swallowed through the lump that had quickly tightened at her throat.
Niamh’s home was a good three miles from the Moores’, deep in the heart of the village. A small structure of mud and stone, it was cobbled together haphazardly to make one open living space. Its thatched roof was sprouting moss and weeds, and its wooden door bulged under the weight of the rainfall it had soaked up. Eoghan knocked and called her name as he had done at the Moore household earlier that day, cooing through the windows and circling his hat. There came no reply.
‘Strange,’ he said, looking at the icy sun that had slowly started to dissolve into the horizon. ‘She’s a widower with a wee boy, usually home at this time.’
Aoife turned her attention to the other homes surrounding the church, all stone and clay and straw. They were cradled close together, just a stone’s throw from one another, and she was suddenly aware of how different village life must be from their own, nestled high on the hill with fields of air surrounding them. Father Byrne’s house took pride of place beside the séipéal, where he led Sunday Mass and manned the confessional—and
just visible on the doorstep, with a bundle of white in her arms, was a young woman. Aoife had never met Niamh before; but somehow, she knew. ‘There she is,’ she said, and ran.
Niamh was clawing Father Byrne’s door with one hand, the other clutching a child to her hip. ‘’Tis the truth!’ she cried, her words strangled by her tears. She balled her fist and pummelled harder, before turning her back and leaning defeatedly against the wood. Aoife gasped, her hand clasping at her mouth.
The boy in Niamh’s arms was limp but living. His little lips chewed on the air, his dark eyes gazing through everything. The freckles dusting his nose looked like smatterings of dirt against his ghostly cheeks. Niamh didn’t look much better; tearstains streaked her cheeks and strands of orange hair were pulled free from her dishevelled bun. When she saw Eoghan, fresh tears brimmed.
‘Mister Kelly! It’s got worse,’ she cried. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s got worse.’ She fell towards him, holding the baby at arms-length. He hung like a sack of flour. ‘My Sean’s been bewitched, or changed, or—or something. And the Father, he won’t listen. He turned me away, Eoghan! He—’ Her words caught in her throat where they slowly morphed into a long, choking sob.
Aoife couldn’t help but notice how young the girl looked as she cried. Not a wrinkle blemished her milky skin and her wet lashes were long and youthful. She looked much like a scolded child. ‘There, now, Niamh,’ Aoife said as she stepped in front of Fergus, who had paled drastically. ‘I’m Aoife, a friend o’ Eoghan’s. Let’s get you home.’
The inside of Niamh’s bothan was cold and barren, the fireplace draughty and unlit. The clay floor under Aoife’s feet was dusty and the mud walls crumbling, instilling a fear that anything she touched may disintegrate beneath her fingers. On the floor in the corner, with a threadbare blanket pathetically draped across it, was a straw cot that the two shared throughout the night. Niamh brought baby Sean over to it and gently laid him down, pulling his swaddling tighter and covering him over. When he was settled, she looked down at him with her fingers knotted over her chest.
‘There’s somethin’ wrong with him,’ she said through barely moving lips.
Eoghan quietly came up beside her and took hold of her elbow, guiding her to the floor beside the fireplace. ‘Have you no wood?’ he asked, his wet eyes glancing about the space.
Niamh simply shook her head.
‘Never mind. I’m sure Mister Moore here wouldn’t mind fetching some.’
Fergus had barely stepped across the threshold. His eyes, shadowed by his dark, bushy brows, were trained on the baby beneath its blanket. He began to chew on his lip, unnoting of the attention being on him.
He jumped at Aoife’s words, flinching as her hand found his arm. ‘Aye?’
‘Would you mind getting the wood?’
‘Wood, aye.’ Offering a half-hearted smile, he ducked out of the hut without another word.
After helping Eoghan down to the floor beside Niamh, Aoife settled herself on the hearth. The room was ill-lit, what with the sun beginning its descent, and it cast long shadows across Niamh’s features. It hooked her nose, deepened her eyes, lowered her brows, and suddenly she didn’t look so young anymore.
‘Tell us what happened, Niamh,’ Eoghan said, leaning towards her. ‘Aoife here is the one my Dana told us about. She has the Knowledge. She’ll help.’
Niamh’s eyes shot up. ‘You’re the one whose daughter was stolen?’
‘By a pooka, she says.’
Aoife nodded. The room felt hotter despite the draught that was coming through the empty fireplace. She wanted more than anything for Fergus to return with his armfuls of lumber. He would light the fire and sit silently beside her, his sturdy presence keeping her grounded. ‘Yes,’ she finally said. ‘My girl was taken by goblin fey. It disguises itself as anything it wants so it can entice you in with its calls.’
‘Even a person?’ Eoghan asked.
‘Even a person. It steals you away for its own mispleasures.’
‘Stop it,’ Niamh suddenly burst, her voice rising like a whimpering child’s. ‘Stop! You mustn’t talk of the good people like that. They’ll hear.’
The space fell into an uncomfortable silence, as if all three were holding their breath.
‘Something was calling to Sean,’ Naimh finally released. ‘I thought it was a dream. ’Twas the dead of night; I heard the whispering of his name, but I sat up and it stopped. There wasn’t a soul there.’
‘I went to the window,’ she said. ‘Looked right out but there was only darkness. Didn’t dare open the door.’ She shivered. ‘Now I’m glad I didn’t. But ever since that night, he’s been silent. Not a laugh or cry since. I’ve tried everything mamaí used to talk about. Even left a wee plate of milk out for the daoine maithe, to keep the misfortune away and the like.’
Aoife nodded in solemn agreement.
‘But still he just lies there…’ Niamh looked over to the palette in the corner where the baby lay motionless. ‘Like all the life’s gone from him.’
A wet fog, thick and blue against the dusk, crept across the village. The Moore farm on the precipice of the hill broke through the top of it, and from where Fergus stood he could barely make out even the steeple of the church. Atop the hill was only mist, but it was as wet and cold as the body of fog below. Fergus took off his hat and shook the dew from it.
‘They’re not coming,’ he said, not daring to turn toward his wife.
‘They’re not late yet,’ came her quiet reply. ‘I told them nightfall.’
‘Nightfall is fast approaching, my love. Don’t you think we ought to go back to the house?’
Aoife’s face remained calm, though her stance proved otherwise. Her shoulders were hunched, almost meeting with her ears, and she jostled up and down impatiently on the balls of her feet. ‘They’ll be here,’ she said.
Clamping his hat back over his head, Fergus adopted a demeanour similar to Aoife’s and continued to watch the fog roiling below them. He stared intently, searching for a light in the distance as if Eoghan, Niamh and Mary would appear through it like angels at the Gates. It wasn’t so; when the time came, their ominous figures emerged through the trees as silhouettes, shielded by the mist and darkness. Fergus felt his breath catch in his throat as he watched the three bodies. He quickly plotted where he would run to, Aoife in his arms, if they were not the townsfolk she was expecting.
It was Eoghan that appeared first. His beard shone like snow through the mist as he negotiated the dark track. As they neared closer, Fergus could make out the white bundle of Sean in Niamh’s arms. Closer still and Mary’s roundness finally came into view, her chalky hair hidden beneath a scarf. He exhaled—Mary, he trusted.
Aoife started forward without a word, almost running through the darkness towards her friend. Following in silence, Fergus watched the two embrace. Mary took Aoife’s face between her hands and kissed her forehead ferociously.
‘You’re sure, wee Aoife?’ she said.
‘Aye. It needs to be done.’
Mary dipped her head before taking Fergus’ hand in her own. She squeezed it tight and patted his fingers. ‘You’re a good man for doing this with her, Fergus. She’s saving us all.’
Fergus nodded, though his hands had taken to shaking.
The mist quickly thickened as they picked their way through the fields, the wetness of the grass weighing down the ladies’ skirts. Fergus’ socks were cold and full, and a chill ran up his spine with each cumbrous step he took. Their only light was the moon, heavily stunted by the fog, so he kept his eyes trained on the ground in front as he followed the dark dancing of his wife’s cloak.
‘Here,’ she finally said.
The space she had chosen was open and undergrown, but heavily surrounded by trees and shrubbery. Fergus recognised it immediately and closed his eyes against the sting of memories. The moonlight had been strong that night, and her tears shining against her cheeks still imprinted his thoughts.
They quickly set about gathering kindling – even Niamh, who had Sean strapped close to her bosom, darted through the undergrowth. Eventually, they had a pile that would be large enough to light their faces. Aoife sat neatly on the grass, sitting uncomfortably still and upright, and nodded to the others to do the same. Silently, she arranged them into a tight circle around the unlit fire. Fergus and Mary were either side of her, the three of them almost shoulder to shoulder. Niamh stayed close to Eoghan. She pulled her cloak around her son and let her body close in on itself, rocking slowly back and forth as she shivered.
‘Did you bring what I said?’ Aoife asked, turning to Mary.
Mary puffed her large chest towards the sky, rubbing her palms together in front of her stream of hot breath. ‘Aye. ’Tis all here.’ And with one last readying glance at Aoife, she opened her cloak and produced a small bundle of fabric tied with string, a crumpled book of matches, and a knife.
Emitting a gasp, Naimh gathered her lifeless son closer to her body. Fergus took to fidgeting his beard, tugging at it until his skin was sore. He watched as Aoife nodded a silent thanks to Mary and lifted the knife. It caught the white light of the moon as she, in one smooth motion, split the string of the parcel. Niamh relaxed slightly as Aoife laid the blade in the grass and leant into the centre of the circle. She delicately arranged the contents of the bundle atop the wood until, just visible in the blue light of the moon, a pile of herbs and a large handful of coarse salt could be seen.
‘Rosemary and anise,’ she said under her breath, ‘to cleanse. Salt, to heal.’ She struck a match along its bed of sandpaper and dropped it into the centre. The smell of burning rosemary permeated quickly and Fergus held his breath as the trail of smoke was carried into the mist. Aoife lifted a sprig of it to waft delicately within the confines of their circle. Her face was stern, heavy-set with determination as she moved to light the pile of wood.
An uneasiness stirred in Fergus. He glanced quickly through the fog before turning his attention back to his wife, his fingers still working furiously against his whiskers. Aoife’s pale features burned with an orange glow as she brought her face close to the heat. She blew hard until the flames took hold. The wood, wet from weeks of November rain, soon enough sent billows of grey smoke high into the air, tarnishing the mist around them and disappearing into the darkness.
She sat back and looked around the other faces, each flickering and contorted by the fire. Her gaze didn’t seem to reach Fergus. Instead, it lingered on Eoghan. His beard cast shade over most of his features, but his eyes, as wet as ever, shone brightly.
‘What next?’ he asked. Fergus could feel the old man tremoring beside him.
Aoife took a deep, hollow breath. ‘We must lure the pooka.’ Slowly, gently, she picked up the knife. ‘We must lure it to us and banish it from our land.’ She brought the coolness of the blade to her lips, before pressing the tip into the crook of her elbow.
‘What are ye doing?’ Fergus shouted.
‘Hush, now.’ Mary didn’t look away from the blade in Aoife’s hand. ‘She knows what she’s doing.’ But she did not seem convinced by her own words. Her fingers were laced tightly in her lap and, even against the rage of the fire, her lips were whitening.
‘What are ye doing, Aoife?’ he roared again. ‘We didn’t agree to this.’
Aoife kept her gaze steady and cleared her throat. ‘I know you hear us, pooka. I ask you leave this family be; leave this town be.’
‘Answer me, Aoife.’
‘I offer you my Knowledgeable blood in return for our safety.’
The flames raged higher and Fergus’ pulse quickened. His instincts told him to spring forward, knock the knife from his wife’s skin. But his fear tethered him to the ground, rooted him with a force he had not felt before.
‘Fergus, in the name of the Lord,’ came Eoghan’s cry. ‘Stop her!’
But she continued on. ‘A sacrifice, pooka. My Knowledge for yours.’
‘This isn’t right. This isn’t…’ Eoghan fumbled over his words, his tongue attempting to wet his drying lips. ‘No superstition is worth this, Missus Moore.’
Still, she took no notice. ‘My blood for my daughter’s.’
Fergus lunged a hand towards hers. It was hot and clamming despite the night they were sitting in. ‘Aoife—’
She snatched herself away, the blade momentarily lifting toward his throat. ‘It has to be done,’ she said, before bringing the tip back down to her vein.
‘You’re being foolish, a ghrá. This is witchcraft!’ His skin rippled beneath his layers.
‘’Tis the only way, Fergus.’
And with that, she pressed the metal deep into her flesh. Her face twisted and teeth bared, but her trembling fingers did not loosen their grip. A steady
stream of crimson ran to her wrist and Fergus froze, tied even tighter than before. He looked to Mary, but her eyelids fluttered and closed—she fell back
against the ground, her head hitting the dense earth. Eoghan braced himself against Niamh’s body as she screamed and flung herself against him. His shining eyes did not move from the wound, but his mouth returned to whispering its silent prayers.
‘I want my baby back,’ Aoife snarled through gritted teeth. The blood dripped steadily from her fingers, saturating her skin. ‘I want my baby back!’ she
cried again and yanked the knife free.
Her blood, almost black against the fire’s light, pooled beneath her. She dropped the blade and cradled her elbow against her body. Fergus’ own blood thrummed in his ears, a devilish ringing filling his head. The light of the fire reflected in Aoife’s streaming eyes as she looked up at him. ‘It will come.’
He dove towards her once more but she pulled away, staggering to her feet.
‘Don’t touch me! Get away! The pooka must see it.’ She smeared her fingers across the wound and held them up to the sky. ‘Here I am, goblin! Where are you?’ she screamed through the darkness. ‘Where are you?’
‘What in the Lord’s name are ye doing?’ A voice thundered through the night, bouncing from tree to tree.
Fergus leapt to his feet. The air was thick with smoke and fog, the light of the fire only making it harder to see through. Niamh whimpered against Eoghan, whose face was grey and war-torn. Aoife began to sway and shiver, her blood running to her feet, but still she stumbled forward.
‘There,’ came her strangled cry. ‘There!’
A figure, large and skulking, was just visible treading through the field towards them. ‘Aoife!’ it shouted. Fergus took hold of his wife by the waist as he had done the last time, keeping her close despite her struggles. The voice came again, louder, angrier. ‘Aoife! Aoife!’ And then the owner, shielding their face against the smog, stumbled towards them.
He was hardly the same man as the one Fergus had rudely awoken in the weeks prior. His hair was tamed and covered. A white collar was fastened tight around his throat and a pair of golden-rimmed glasses were perched on the end of his nose, echoing the light of the fire.
‘Father?’ Fergus stammered. ‘Father Byrne?’
He stopped before them, coughing against the smoke. ‘What in the…’ His eyes widened at the sight of Aoife; white and convulsing, her dress shining with blood.
‘No,’ she whispered. Her fingers found Fergus’ arm. ‘No! It should have worked…’ She collapsed against him, shaking violently. ‘It should have worked!’
‘What have you done?’ Father Byrne moved to lower Aoife to the ground, cupping her head against the frozen earth. Her fingers clawed into the grass as her eyes rolled back into her skull. Fergus found himself whispering his own soundless prayers, asking, begging his Lord for help, for forgiveness. But still she threw her head back and screamed skyward, the tendons in her neck flexing. Then—as if summoned by the screams of her ward—Mary was beside them.
‘She’s losing blood,’ she said as she crouched beside them. Whipping the shawl from her neck, she wound it tight around Aoife’s elbow and propped it on her own knee. ‘’Tis okay, wee Aoife,’ she called as she worked. ‘You’ll be okay.’ Her eyes, frantic and searching, found Fergus. ‘We need to get her inside. She’s cold as ice and losing blood.’
But Fergus was not looking at his wife, who had fallen silent. Nor was he watching Mary. He was fixated on something in the distance—a ghostly outline at the edge of the field. It hovered for a moment before turning back through the bushes.
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ came his whisper and he was on his feet running.
Their cries were muffled through the fog as he ran, boots pounding the solid earth, but he did not hear them. His eyes stayed trained on the object, the figure, the being. He fought his way through the shrubbery and into the next field, starting to panic when the grey outline shrank farther and farther away. His lungs stung as he panted. With each inhalation he heard Aoife’s words whirring in his head, I want my baby back I want my baby back I want my baby back, and his eyes prickled with the heat of tears. I want my baby back.
The closer Fergus got to the house, the denser the fog became. He stared through it, seeing only obscured shapes and dampened colours. He turned this way and that, his feet beginning to sink into the freshly turned mud, but the figure had vanished. It had sped away from him faster than he could keep up. The only movement he could make out other than the looming trees was the swaying of his old sow. She keened softly as she sauntered towards him, butting her forehead against his shoulder. Her ears were pricked and shoulders quivering. He steadied himself against her, laying his palms against her warmth. The cold was fierce without the heat of the fire and it had fingered its way through his layers.
‘There, old girl,’ he whispered. ‘’Tis alright.’ He patted her hindquarters and followed her desperate gaze. She snorted, great clouds escaping her nostrils,
and jerked towards the way she had come. Keeping his hand to her spine, Fergus followed obediently until the ghost of the farmhouse emerged in a far-off corner. They walked farther still, the house staying to their left. Fergus all the while stroked the sow’s shaking body, cooing at her when she grew agitated. And as they neared the edge of the Moore property, Fergus found his pulse begin to quicken.
For there, slowly coming into view beside the old, rusted gate, was the shaded silhouette he had been chasing. It seemed smaller now that he was so close. Fergus took a shaking breath and gave the sow one last pat. Then, fists clenched in fear and determination, he pushed through the last of the fog.
He’d imagined a black beast; the body of a human, the face of a dog, the curling horns of a goat. But instead, he found himself confronting a man. Not even a man—a boy. He was leant against the gate, chest heaving. His head was hung low, a mop of dark hair covering his closed eyes.
‘Boy! What are ye doing here?’
His head shot up at Fergus’ bark. ‘I—I was looking for someone.’
‘This is my land. Who are you looking for?’
Fergus narrowed his eyes. ‘Aye?’
The boy’s face clouded. He shot a hand out to grasp the gate, sending its screeches across the fields as it swung wide. The mud that he landed in had been churned soft by the wheels of Fergus’ trap and coated the seat of his breaches. He looked quickly at Fergus before dropping his face into his hands and weeping. ‘O—Orla,’ he stammered through his sobs.
‘Where is she?’ Fergus had the boy by the scruff of his jacket and lifted him to his feet. ‘What have you done with her?’
‘No, sir! I loved her, I’d never see no harm come to her.’
‘Where is she?’ he said again, his voice almost pleading.
‘She said she’d marry me.’
An icy blade shot through Fergus’ stomach. He dropped the boy and turned away.
‘I’m sorry, sir. I never forced her or nothin’. She said she’d meet me here by the gate.’
Fergus’ gut wrenched at the memory of his daughter, her face hidden as she mumbled into her darning. Mightn’t have been a traveller, dadaí. His crops,
trampled and torn beneath Orla’s window. He was right all along. Father Byrne was right, too. His mind now fled to his wife, lying bloodied in a field, perhaps never to wake beside him again. All because of some story. Some púca. He felt his body begin to quake at the word.
‘Where’s my Orla?’ he spat.
‘’Twas a cold night, sir, and I waited and waited. I’ve waited every night since. Right here. But she never showed.’ He stared through the fog to the shadow of the farmhouse. ‘She never came, sir.’