About four years ago, I put together a proposal for a book called 'Lost Irish Faerie Tales,' or something along those lines. It was basically a collection of my own stories, designed to be a book that had been miraculously discovered that was full of all of these lost tales of Irish faeries. Pretty cool idea, right?
I really thought so at the time. I worked hard on it for quite a while, creating stories and illustrations that I was rather proud of. Ultimately, and with hindsight, correctly, the publisher passed on it. It was a classic case of being far too close to the work I was creating and not keeping the target audience in mind.
As a result, the stories were perhaps a little more adult and bleak than what I should have been going for. Granted, many of the classic Irish tales lean toward the dark side, but I think the publisher was right to pass on my project.
So, what happened to all of that work I put in? Well, a few of the images I produced have appeared on my social spots, but I don't think I've ever shown the actual stories before. But what better place is there than this very blog to share them!
So, here it is, the first Lost Irish Faerie Tale for your reading pleasure -
The Girl of a hundred Birds
There was a village tucked far away in a corner of the country where the outside world had little to do with it. It was a dull and dreary place, where people frowned more often than they smiled and clouds were always eager to empty their rains upon it. People had turf burning in their homes all the year round, though the heat never quite seemed to reach their hearts. All except for one little girl, that is. Her name was Einin.
Einin lived alone with her farming father in a cottage that could barely stand. Next to the cottage, a line of tall and swaying Ash trees formed a procession down to an ancient circle of woods that the locals considered haunted, sacred and generally best left be.
Einin’s mother, it was rumoured, walked out of that wood and along those trees one day, a dozen years before, and her feet stopped at the farmer’s door. There she stayed, for a year and a day, until two strange and silent men came and brought her back to the wood, leaving her husband and their young daughter behind. It is said that soft keening of the mother can still be heard from that wood when the wind is right and the time rests between day and night.
But Einin’s father would not speak of it, nor anything to do with that wood or his lost wife. Every day he bent his back to his soil, stopping only to eat and to rest, but even his sleep was no refuge from the bittersweet memories of his beloved wife. Though he would not speak of that wood, he knew exactly what it was and he found himself looking its way more often than he cared to. It was a source of grief for him, as deep as the sea and often as dark.
His daughter looked more and more like her mother every day, and it both filled him with love and fed his grief all the more. Some days he could not bear it and bade her fetch an errand from the village, so that he could be alone with his sorrow and loss. Einin, though only eleven, was wise enough to sense her father’s sadness and know that, through no fault of her own, she was aiding it.
Einin grew wise in reading her father, and knew when his sorrow would visit, even before he did. She was skillful in finding ways to slip away from his sight at those times.
On these days, she would take to the fields and call upon her friends, the birds.
At first there was just one sparrow, who would flitter to the ground and wait for Einin to toss a crumb or two of bread its way. Then a few Wagtails got up the courage, then several Robins. Soon, Einin couldn’t count how many Sparrows, Jackdaws, Rooks, Tits, Robins, Starlings, Wrens and other birds would flock to her, but she guessed they must have counted one hundred.
Einin would walk along the outskirts of her father’s farm, skipping and hopping and singing little songs that only she knew the words to. The birds would fly from tree to tree close behind her, not making a sound other than the beating of their tiny wings. To them she was a being of magic and joy in this drab and miserable place.
After a while, the birds would even follow her when she went to the village. They swapped trees for rooftops to perch upon, and never let her out of their sight, not even for a moment.
There was a boy in town, not more than a year older than the girl, who also didn’t want to keep her out of his sight. He looked at her with feelings that made him blush whenever she passed by. His name was Domhnall and he was the son of a builder. His hair was the colour of fire and for no matter how long he combed it, it always looked a mess.
Einin always knew when Domhnall was looking at her. She always had the urge to look at her shoes when he did and her cheeks would suddenly get hot. He seemed a strange boy to her, quiet and hidden. Not that he had anything to hide, just that he felt more comfortable being out of sight. She could understand that sometimes.
The years passed and Einin’s father’s grief only grew. He could be found standing at the edge of the wood more and more, unmoving. Einin had to pull him away from it sometimes, as the evening set and the night sounds began. She knew, somehow, that those trees had no answers for him and only more loss would be found there.
Einin had become a dainty and delightful young woman. She had the attention of any man that saw her, but she never showed the slightest interest in any of them. Except for Domhnall. Domhnall had grown up to love Einin with all of his heart, and knew that her heart was his too, despite what the men bragged about when taking in drink at the pub.
Sometimes the two of them would go for long walks together, neither saying many words, nor particularly feeling the need. She stared at her feet and so did he at hers. The Birds followed them wherever they went, keeping their silent company. Their hearts were happy and they talked of the life they wished to spend together. Domhnall had followed in his father’s footprints and could build anything he set his hands to. He promised Einin that he would build them a house one day, out from town, where they could be together and content.
But there was one dark cloud in Einin’s sky. Her father. The years apart from her mother weighed heavily upon him and he was sinking in grief. It was as if a spell was cast on him, that being apart from his wife was making him ill. His sorrow was turning to bitterness, with more frequent harsh words and a resentment toward Einin.
One day, Einin woke to the sound of gunshot. She felt a pain in her chest as if it were her that had been shot. Another shot and her chest heaved again as she cried out. She heard her father outside, yelling foul words as he loaded his rifle again.
Einin ran from her little room and out into the chill morning air. Her father was pointing his gun at the trees by the house and as he fired once more, she saw one of her precious birds hurtle to the ground and land with a thud next to two others on the ground.
Einin screamed with pain and sorrow, but her father took no notice. There was a wildness in his eyes that there was no coming back from. Again and again the shots rang out, echoing in the distance. Pain wracked her body as she felt each bullet and each death of a bird inside her. She looked at her shaking hand through a haze of agony and she swore she could see through it, as though it were no more than water.
With each shot, Einin faded a little more. The birds kept falling and her father laughed at each one, tears streaming down his face. He cursed each bird, claiming they had taken away his wife and that they would all pay for his loss.
But what he didn’t know was that the birds were his wife, at least in part. The birds were the side of his wife that lived in his daughter. It was her fey side, her magic. And he was killing it, and her, with each shot.
It wasn’t until a solitary Rook remained, perched on the highest branch and looking down at the farmer with unblinking eyes, that he saw what he had done. Einin was almost entirely gone, no more than just a hint of a shape on the ground. The farmer dropped his gun and ran to where he could just see her. His legs gave way beneath him and he stumbled to the ground, sobbing and pleading.
Dimly Einin felt herself being lifted up gently by slender hands. She looked out through eyes that weren’t there and saw two figures through a haze, they were beautiful and stern. She heard her father’s muffled voice, begging them not to take her too. But they did. They walked down along the procession of trees and in their wake, the birds came back to life, one by one.
With each step, Einin felt life seep back into her hollow body. Her vision cleared and she felt strength in her limbs once more. As they reached the edge of the circle wood, they placed her on her feet and she turned to look back at her father, crying in the distance. She waved at him once as she turned back to the wood, her birds with her again.
As his daughter turned from him and went into the woods, the farmer felt his grief lift from him for the first time since his wife had left. Fresh tears came, but they were filled with acceptance and love.
A few days later, a knock came to the farmer’s door. As soon as the door opened and the farmer looked out, Domhnall knew something was amiss. By the fireside the farmer told him all that happened and he left that house with a longing that would never fully leave him.
But as he walked back to his home, he saw that a single Sparrow was accompanying him. He didn’t know why, or how, but this made his loss that bit less.