The cries were wretched.
Gráinne struggled in the soldier’s arms as they tied her mother to one of the trunks in the circle of trees. She looked so frail then, reaching toward Gráinne, her arms thin like branches. She looked like she belonged among the trees, her smile a gouge in the wood. The congregation was shouting. Their raised torches crackled, spitting hungry flames. Above it all, her mother’s screams circled them. Halfway between anguish and laughter.
The Constable stepped forward and read from a paper decree, in English. His voice was dispassionate.
‘Eilís Ní Thuama. For the crimes of blasphemy and witchcraft, you have been found guilty, and are hereby sentenced to death.’ That was all he gave to the gathered. He nodded to the soldiers, who set their torches to the ring of trees.
Gráinne cried silently, beating her fists into the red coat of the soldier, who restrained her until there was nothing she could save. They left her in the dirt and she stayed there until the sunrise found her, kneeling before the burnt carcasses of the trees.
Gráinne awoke, sitting up in the night. She clutched the blanket to her chest, feeling it soaked through with sweat.
She had been woken by something; a sound, escaping from a dream. It echoed through the room around her. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. Deep moonlight filtered through the net curtain, painting the room in shades of blue.
She peeled back a corner of the curtain and looked outside. The moonlight etched the yard: the stone walls, the clothes line, and the cattle shed at the far end. Inside, the cattle were calling out in wild noises, noises she had never heard, never conceived that animals could make. Their cries overlapped endlessly, high into the night.
Gráinne lowered her feet onto the cold stone and left the bed, rubbing her eyes. In the kitchen the last cinders of the fire waned softly into ash. She must not have been asleep for long. She found the lantern on the table and struck a match to it. The single flame did little to brighten the stone walls. She took down her coat and pulled on her boots, but hesitated at the front door. Instead she looked into Roisín’s bedroom, through the narrow gap in the door. Roisín was asleep still, her tiny body making a landscape out of the blanket.
‘Go gcoinní Dia i mbos A láimhe thú.’ Gráinne muttered, absentmindedly made a quick sign of the cross. The makeshift prayer her mother had taught her, to ward off the bad spirits. May God keep you in the hollow of his hand. She meant it as thanks, but she thought too of her mother. She had been sentenced a week ago. The loss was raw still as it had been that night.
Outside the night was bitter. Cold found its way beneath her coat and constricted her muscles. The cows were crying harder now. She swore she could see the shed cladding rattle. She felt hollowed with fear, but pressed on across the yard. The soil was slick and she almost went over, her lantern swaying wildly as she caught herself. Dangerous shadows danced back and forth.
She came to the shed and reached out for the latch. The ground shook as though the cattle were trampling in their pens, their cries reaching an unbearable height. She remembered her mother’s laughter as she burned. She thought she could hear it then, among the cattle’s screams. Flakes of rust came away at her fingertips as the bolt slid back, and the shed gate swung open. Gráinne brought the lamp up to the darkness, and –
– the crying stopped.
The cattle were silent and still. They were all standing in their pens, fixing her with their beady eyes, reflecting the light. They didn’t make a sound. Gráinne’s fear turned to embarrassment. As though she had inconvenienced them. She walked slowly past their pens, feeling their eyes follow her. She crouched down and reached through the bars of one. Her finger tips ran gently through a cow pat, carving out a scar in the dung. The animal watched her silently.
She backed up and closed the gate quietly. The cattle were all still watching her, until they were locked in the darkness again. She crossed toward the cottage, walking backward to keep the shed in view, looking for any sign of a disturbance. She expected it to come alive with nightmarish cries again, but all remained still and calm. The wind in the trees sounded like rain.
She paused then, halfway across the yard, to look east. There in the neighbouring fields was the circle of charred trees. Without them, the field seemed barren in the moonlight. Though far away, she could see the ruins of unnatural black bark. It looked as though the night was drawn out from them.
She stepped back inside, closing the cottage door behind her, and froze. There, in the middle of the kitchen, stood Roisín. Her little frame was traced in the lamp light. She was staring off into the dark corner of the room, where the light of the lantern did not reach. Gráinne felt a true terror then. She could not bring herself to look upon it.
‘Roisín?’ she whispered, loud as she dared, keeping her eyes firmly on her sister. Roisín did not answer, still as a stone. Grainne inched closer, reaching out with her soiled hand.
‘Roisín!’ Gráinne tried again desperately. Her sister looked at her then, snapping out of a trance. Gráinne seized her by the shoulder, and rushed them through into her bedroom. She shut her door behind them.
‘Mam?’ Roisín whimpered, confused, rubbing her eyes.
‘It’s me, Gráinne.’ She reassured her. She bent down, face to face with her. There were tears in her sister’s eyes, glistening in the lamp light. Gráinne smeared a line of the drying dung down Roisín’s forehead, muttering her mother’s prayer.
‘Go gcoinní Dia… i mbos A láimhe thú.’ She drew another line. The sign of the cross. She quickly did the same for herself, repeating the prayer, then lifted Roisín onto her bed and lay beside her. She hoisted the blanket above them and they huddled together, shaking with fear.
She heard skittering claws, grating across the stone floor on the other side of the wall. She could not move but to hold Roisín closer, covering her sister’s mouth, and to clutch the blanket tighter above her head. The claws came to the bedroom door, and she heard the creak as it opened.
Time might have stood still in that darkness, if not for their hearts beating. Through the thin blanket Gráinne could see the outline of the frail figure, reaching toward her, its arms thin like branches. Desperate to touch them, but it could not.
How long passed like this, Gráinne could not know. Eventually, the sunrise found them, and the world outside the blanket brightened. She lowered it slightly, mustering enough courage to peak over its edge. Then she sat up.
They lay in the circle of the burned trees.
Read this while listening to ‘Attestupan’ by Bobby Krlic.
Caoimhín is a geology graduate from Cork, Ireland based in Edinburgh. He works primarily with flash fiction, short stories and visual poetry. He can be found online @ kevinjuly.
WORDS FROM THE AUTHOR
Fairy is heavily inspired by Irish folklore, where fairies are malevolent creatures, especially upon any intrusion or damage to their homes. They can adopt any form, often the image of those closest to you. When colonial forces destroy the nearby fairy fort and take her mother, Gráinne finds herself with a newly inherited motherhood, and dangerous entities all around.