They, the Big People that is, think we’ve gone away. But we haven’t, gone away that is, we haven’t gone away at all. Just because we are seldom seen doesn’t mean we aren’t there. Or here. Or anywhere. Or somewhere. We are most definitely here, with ourselves, among ourselves and even, dare I say it, amongst you.
The old folk, just about gone now from among you, used to say that we went when the TV, the telly, the television came. So it seemed, for a while at least. How could stories of us compete with the bright lights of the world as seen on your magic lantern box in the corner? From the very beginning you were glued to this, in the early days right down to the disappearing white dot in the centre at the end of the night. You were held, mesmerized. Nowadays there is never a fascinating white dot telling you it’s over for another day. Nowadays there is no other day, there is no night, there is no new, there is no old. There is nothing but an endless wave of overwhelming waffle and the tales of us are well and truly buried underneath all of that. This suits me.
For centuries, even for the very millennia you are so fond of but cannot truly see, it has been my work to protect us from you. I know, you would think it ought to be the other way around. That you should be protected from us, but from our point of view, over a great length of your time, we have needed protection from you.
Out of sight, seldom seen, lingering about places you have almost totally forgotten, mostly it is easy. We don’t let you see us and you only speak of us in stories for children, the very stuff of fairy tales. We whisper in your ears at night when you cross the border and are dreaming. In the bright light of day we can barely be seen anyway. We are only half remembered thoughts as insubstantial as the drying dew. As I said, this suits me.
Of course borders and boundaries are breached, burst and broken all the time. This is also true of the line between us and you. Sometimes, among you, there comes along a gifted one. Even they might not always fully realise or appreciate their gift. There were many who hid their gift, disguising it as the gift of storytelling, Mr Anderson for example, and the Brothers Grimm were others. Some were not so lucky and were at times burned at the stake. Many resist and refuse to believe in their second sight., their ability to see the unseen, to hear the unheard, the voices from beyond or the fiddle tune that comes in on the wind.
Musicians like Mr. Scott catch it sometimes. With his friends the Waterboys they broadcast it everywhere but how many have ears to hear I wonder? Poets too know a lot, people like Mr, Heaney and Mr. Yeats. That’s a man I knew, I had to watch him a lot and I often chased his thoughts o’er airy mountains and down by rushy glens. Oh yes, easy for me to remember how he could sense the stolen child with the tale I’m trying to reveal.
Fearghail of our folk was the one who stole the child. In any language he’s much younger than I am and maybe that’s why his pity and kind heart overcame everything else. He lost his clear sight and his long vision because his heart ruled his head and his head became as soft as his heart. His feelings were good ones, I don’t dispute that, but feelings led him astray and the consequences for a time were grave, very grave indeed.
He saw the life the little child had. Parents who just didn’t care, at least I think so. He told me afterwards that he was wandering along the ancient track leading from the sacred well to the grove of old oak trees and he heard crying coming from the human house. It was, he said, what a banshee must sound like to the big folk, terrible because they don’t understand it. Fearghail did not understand this cry and it terrified him. He knew that babies cry, that they cry when they are hungry, when they are hot, when they cold, when they are wet. He knew all that, but this cry was like nothing he had ever before. His heart was moved and with it he moved, he turned away from his path and went to look and that was his downfall.
What did he see? A small child, a baby, in a filthy cot, dirty blankets he could smell even outside and a clearly upset little thing screaming with a high pitched scream and no-one near. He was stunned. He could tell this baby was hungry and even worse had been hungry for some time. This child was seldom properly fed and had more experience of hunger than being full and satisfied. There was no-one else, he could sense. in this place. This baby was all alone and no help was nearby. The baby was helpless and could only cry. Fearghail was red faced with anger first and that was it, without further ado he was going to intervene, to step inside and he did.
Maybe stunned momentarily with the wonder of a little man the size of himself the baby cooed and rocked the cradle. Fearghail realised the baby could see him. Convinced even more he reached for the flask at his belt, drew out some drops of nectar on his finger and let the baby suck. What they call magic worked, it is only nectar but some call it magic, whatever that is. It worked by spreading warmth and food, proper food, through the little baby’s body. Quietness reigned in the little house and under that cloak of quiet Fearghail lifted the baby and slipped away in the night.
Fearghail, like all of us, had plenty of caring and nurturing skills. He had no concerns about wandering our world with the baby. He knew he was looked after better now than before. Everywhere Fearghail went he was popular with all and praised by many for rescuing the child from such a terrible life. Who wouldn’t be moved to do such a thing? What sort of person, big or small, can hear and see a child in distress and not be moved to take action, to do something, anything?
While many praised, and many helped, especially among the Sidhe, others were not so sure but held their counsel. I remembered that among the Big Folk there had been many legends and stories and poems and songs about the changeling, about the stolen child. I wondered what might come of all of this, for Fearghail had acted impulsively and had left no changeling but now had a true stolen child. Anyone interrupting the delicate balances of nature must needs be aware that you cannot always foresee the consequences. To throw even a pebble into a pond means you do not know what effect the tiniest of ripples might have.
My own journey, you see, took me back that way some time later. There I too heard weeping, loud, wailing, bitter weeping, as I passed along the ancient track leading from the sacred well to the grove of old oak trees and I too thought this must be what the banshee sounds like to the others. The heart break in that cry would break and torment any heart, human or otherwise.
It was the woman who was wailing, or so I could see when I stood by the window and peered in through the dirt and grime. All who were there were no longer children and so could not see me. There was a woman, an older version of the keening lady and I could tell she had the sight and could sense me. She had the feeling she couldn’t say upon her and looked around wondering, as she stroked the hunched back of the keening lady. A wild eyed, red faced man stood weaving and wobbling in the middle of the floor, shouting in strong language that he would swing for whoever did this. The spirits that were upon him were no friends of any spirits I know.
Men in blue uniforms whispered to each other and seemed to be waiting for the others, a man and a woman with notebooks on their laps, to get some answers to their questions. The whispers told me they were called social workers and other whispers told me the men in blue were very suspicious of everything they heard and saw. The oldest of them was looking around all the time and I could tell he was taking in everything he saw. Every dirty baby’s bottle on the sideboard, the dishes in the sink, the overflowing ashtrays, the half rotten scarps of meat peeping out from under the sofa, it was all being absorbed by him. This was a man who was not easily fooled.
“You’re in here a long time, do you want to come out for a fag?” He said this looking at the older woman.
She took a last long look at her daughter, for so it was, glared at the red faced man and wrapping a coat around her went outside with the blue clothed man. I stepped back into the shadows and listened to them. The keening inside had subsided now to a shuddering sobbing, the mother was becoming exhausted by her own grief and pain.
As the cigarettes reddened the air around them they spoke about what might have happened.
She said, “well Sergeant, what have you come up with so far?”
“I was just going to ask you that myself,” he replied. “We have no idea, yet. Missing babies are a very serious matter. I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but that pair don’t seem to me to be the best of carers?”
Snorting in anger she said, “they can barely mind themselves, let alone an infant!” For a minute she couldn’t look at him or say anything. He seemed to wait, not wanting to prompt her, letting her find her own words. I admired his technique. Then it worked.
“I blame that goddam shit she took up with. Have you seen him! His baby’s missing and he’s mouthing off full of drink. I’m not saying he did anything, mind you.” Here she looked sharply at the man. “I’m just saying that something was bound to happen here, the way those two lived.” She paused, thinking again, then, “blame myself too, should have been here more often,” flicking ash away, ”should have taken the baby myself ages ago!”
When she was quiet then he asked, “is that what you think happened, the baby’s been taken?” He waited. I waited. She hesitated. “I don’t know, maybe. In a way I hope so. Did you find anything yet, what do you think?” Underneath her tough exterior I could see plain as day her weakness, her own longings and frailty, her desire for an answer that would make sense to her. I knew there was none that could or would.
“We’ve found nothing yet, only a pair who should never have had a child in the first place!” he said bitterly. Scrunching out his cigarette he continued, ”sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” His voice was softer then, “you see, like yourself I have grandchildren too. Wonder what I’d do if it was mine?”
“Different, isn’t it? I hope you’ll do the same for mine as you’d do for you’re own.”
He was business like then. “There’s no sign of any forced entry, no sign of disturbance other than the mess they live in, no-one saw or heard anything, there’s nothing showing up in all the searching, inside or out. We have nothing. It is a bloody mystery. I tell you, i’d love to pin something on that useless gobshite inside, but so far I can’t. We have a missing child and for all I know it’s vanished into thin air.”
Very quietly she added, “I keep on praying that wherever the poor little thing is, it’s in a better place than here. Not easy say that, but at least I can hope it.”
They were quiet then, I suppose they had nothing more to say and I knew the dark thoughts each of them was thinking and the comforts they were seeking. With that my own heart was moved to pity and like Fearghail before me I was moved to more than pity but felt called to action. Our choices were different but we each followed the stars guiding us and that is how the end came about. I’m happy to say we both still watch over that stolen child.
The social workers were astonished to find a perfectly healthy, well fed, well wrapped, smiling and gurgling baby on their doorstep when they arrived for work the next day. We were watching and enjoyed that moment. The Big People took their own course after that, they keep to their own way of caring for the life of that baby. The young couple split up, the Grandmother keeps a watchful eye, the older man in blue often strolls by.
Anytime we also keep watch beside them I know they feel us and they look around, they wonder what really happened and they never question too much. After all, they cannot know and the stolen child, returned, is better now than before.
Isn’t that all that matters?