This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

December 15, 2010

The Rain Maiden.

This story is based on an actual – though some would claim imagined – encounter I had with an other-worldly entity in Ireland. I declined to believe she was real, and subsequently suffered a range of water-related problems that are greatly abbreviated in the fictional tale presented here. I’ve also ‘cleaned it up’ a little for the sake of propriety.

It was first published by Misanthrope Press in an issue of Title-Goes-Here in January 2010.

Approximate reading time: 40-45 minutes.

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Straddling much of the border between England and Scotland, the Cheviot Hills stand in wild isolation from the main thoroughfares of man. The politicians have long since drawn their arbitrary line across the map to delineate the boundary, but nature and the local populace have no interest in politicians or their marker pens. It is, in the most realistic sense of the expression, a no-man’s land. The Northumbrian Tourist Board calls this lonely frontier “the land of far horizons” and the phrase is well chosen

By any standard appropriate to the British Isles, this is big country - big, yet gentle at the same time. It has no towering crags, no sullen heather, no stone stacks or limestone pavements. Its slopes are not steep, but they are unremitting. They climb and climb; and from them you can see for many miles in many directions. The view is one of a light green, grassy upland, massive in its sense of scale and exhilarating in its seemingly endless vista.

The grass ripples constantly here, for it is always windy; and the sun shines only occasionally from a sky that seems, to the occasional visitor at least, to be forever slate grey. It is a quiet land, where the only sounds are light and airy: the shrill cries of the upland birds, the incessant whispering of the wind in the grass, and the occasional bleating of a sheep somewhere in the distance.

It is a watery land too. It rains frequently and myriad streams, or ‘burns’ as they are called in the North British dialect, rush down the slopes to join one of the many river valleys that flow north and west into Scotland or south and east into England. It instils a strong sense of being well removed from the high-speed mundanity of the modern world, and of being a place where you might reasonably expect the unexpected.

When I lived in Northumberland I was a frequent visitor to The Cheviots, usually accessing its wild and quiet charm via the valley of my favourite river, the Coquet. It rises near the summit of the aptly named Windy Gyle, and quite close to a narrow road that winds its way around Bell Hill and then stops; for only one road has the temerity to cross the Cheviots, and that is some miles further to the south.

I was a keen amateur painter working in watercolours, and I never ceased to be surprised by the glassy clarity of the Northumbrian light. More often than not the features of the landscape stood sharply defined as far as the eye could see. Sometimes I was afforded a visual treat when a reluctant shaft of sunlight modelled the rounded forms of the upland massif, or cast long shadows in the autumn across the moss-green grass and the rust-brown bracken.

Despite being a frequent visitor to the airy vastness of the high country, however, I had usually gone as a hill walker and had done little painting up there. One summer I decided to put that right by spending most of my holiday period exploring the views in earnest and building up a comprehensive body of work.

It was about ten o’clock on a cool day in mid August when I turned off the main road to drive through the village of Rothbury, and then took a right fork to follow the river valley through Harbottle and Alwinton. I parked up near the group of scattered farmsteads that make up the hamlet of Shillmoor.

There was a light rain falling as I continued on foot up a track that led to a derelict farmhouse and barn higher up the slope. The track kept close to one of the burns that fed the fledgling Coquet and I settled at a spot close to the edge of the fast running water, meaning to use it to fill the foreground and lead the eye into the expansive landscape beyond. I put up my adapted fisherman’s umbrella to protect the paints and paper from the drizzly rain, and then erected my easel and began the first sketch.

The day was quieter than usual. There was no birdsong and, for once, the breeze was light and the grass silent. The gentle pattering of the rain on the umbrella canopy and the babbling of the brook were the only sounds to disturb the spartan tranquillity of the scene. I added a third myself with the soft scratching of my 4B pencil. It skipped easily across the white paper as I warmed to the near-impossible challenge of rendering at least some of the beauty into two dimensional form.

For an hour or more the pattering, the babbling and the scratching melded in soft, soothing harmony. And then a fourth, more strident, sound cut across the chord and startled me. It was brief and high pitched, and sounded like the voice of a child. I turned around and saw, at a distance of a hundred yards or so, what appeared to be a young girl walking lazily up the slope by the water’s edge. Even at that distance it was easy to see that she was small and I judged that she must have been very young. Her long, light-coloured hair failed to conceal one very surprising fact: she was wearing no clothes.

When I was growing up it was not unusual to see young children playing naked, especially at the more basic levels of society where the pragmatic nature of the inhabitants was more concerned with natural laws than with Victorian models of proper behaviour. But in these difficult and arguably more decadent times, it has become rare. We err on the side of caution now, and behaviour that used to be considered innocent and harmless has, to the majority at least, become risky.

And so I was surprised at the unfamiliar sight of a naked child walking, apparently unselfconsciously, out in the open and under the scrutiny of a stranger’s gaze. I reasoned that the people of these remote parts were probably not as attuned to the more sophisticated attitudes of the urban dwellers who make up the bulk of the population. I assumed they were just more old fashioned.

But then it struck me that there was still something odd about her being there. The day was cool by late summer standards, and it was raining. Why would even a free spirited, old fashioned child want to remove all her clothes and go out walking on such a day? And something else about the figure was strange. By comparison with everything around it, there was an indistinctness about the form, as though I were seeing it through a light mist. The day was damp but the atmosphere was clear. Other textures and outlines were well defined. The figure had the appearance of a badly focussed, moving image being projected onto a sharp backdrop.

The impression changed as she walked slowly up the hill and approached a small grassy knoll, around which the burn curved towards the many springs that form its source. When she reached it she stopped momentarily and turned her head in my direction. I felt embarrassed and wanted to look away. Yet something held my gaze in her direction. It was as though she were willing me to watch her. And then she walked around the knoll and disappeared from view.

Briefly, I wondered which of the nearby farmsteads she came from and whether her parents knew what she was up to. I decided that it was none of my business, so I put her out of my mind and continued with the sketch.

Unfortunately, this sudden and intriguing break had affected my concentration and the drawing began to go badly. I found myself rubbing out and restarting section after section and, by mid afternoon, it was still some way short of complete. I decided I was no longer in the right frame of mind and that there would be little point in continuing. I packed up my things and drove home, intending to return the following day to finish the sketch and begin the painting.

It was dry and bright when I arrived the next morning. The weather front that had brought the dull sky and incessant rain the day before had moved on. The breeze was fresher and the cloud cover higher and lighter. There were even a few breaks in them, allowing small patches of pale blue to break up the whites and light greys. I knew from the weather forecast, however, that there were more fronts following behind and I had come prepared for a change to wet weather later.

I set up my easel in the same spot and continued with the sketch. It went better than on the previous day and, by lunchtime, I was ready to start painting. I decided to have a break and unwrapped the packed lunch that I’d brought with me.

As I sat eating it I looked around and thought of the child. It struck me that the day was much more suited to her unfettered perambulations than the previous one had been, being both dry and noticeably warmer. I neither saw nor heard anything of her and continued with my lunch. By the time I finished I was conscious of a definite drop in the level of light and realised that the next weather front was about to make its presence felt. Cursing the capricious nature of the upland climate and the vacillations of mobile weather systems, I erected the umbrella in readiness for the rain that I knew would not be far away.

Within minutes the first spots began to tap on its green canopy. They were merely the preliminary expressions of what was soon to become a petulant upland squall that made my work impossible. The umbrella was no defence against the rain being driven under it by the gusting wind and threatening to ruin the sketch that had taken so long to get right. I packed up my things and made my way back to the car, hoping that the blustery shower might clear quickly and allow me to continue.

As I made my way down the track I heard the same high-pitched sound that had startled me the day before. I turned and saw her, close to the spot that I had recently vacated, not walking this time but sitting on a rock in the middle of the burn. She was still naked and her form had the same misty quality about it. I stood incredulous at the sheer strangeness of the sight.

She was sitting sideways to me, with the bottom half of her legs tucked under her thighs. Her hands were resting on her knees so that her torso leaned forward slightly and her face was turned towards me. She reminded me of the many pictures I had seen of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, and appeared fully relaxed in a situation that would have had most of us donning raincoats and running for shelter.

I had heard stories of incestuous relationships in more remote areas, inbreeding that leads to mental abnormalities and strange behaviour. I wondered if she might be a product of such a union. I suddenly felt uneasy at the prospect of being close to her and continued my walk back to the car.

I sat there for something like and hour, idly watching the patchy greyness scurry along above me, and occasionally turning on the windscreen wipers to enable a better view of the road and the hills in front of the car. I thought often of the child and hoped that she wouldn’t approach me. Her position in the stream was hidden from view, but I kept a frequent watch in that direction and considered whether I should drive away if she appeared and walked towards the car.

I saw nothing and gradually relaxed as I came to assume that she would have moved on or gone home. I did glance in my rear view mirror at one point, when I thought I saw a movement beyond the rain-spattered rear window. For a moment I thought it looked like a small face peering in at me. A quick flick of the wiper revealed only empty road and I put it down to a trick of the light.

Eventually the rain stopped, the wind relented and the sky became bright again. I climbed out of the car and carried my equipment back up the sodden track. There was no sign of the child and the extensive view in all directions made me feel safely alone. Within two hours I had put down enough colour to feel able to finish the work at home. I packed up and left.

I spent the following day in my small studio over the garage, working on the painting until I felt confident that it was a fitting start to the creation of my Cheviot collection. The image of the child came into my mind frequently and the possibility of encountering her on future visits made me nervous. I decided that I was being unreasonably sensitive. Although I had only seen her at a distance, I judged that she could have been no more than about eight or nine, and even the genetically challenged daughter of an inbred family from the backwoods could surely offer little physical threat at that age. I decided that I would use my present holiday to visit Shillmoor often, making it the base for my project.

Two days later I went up there again. The weather near the coast where I lived was fine and dry, and I set off with high hopes of an untroubled day’s sketching. As I drove up the valley, however, the sky became progressively darker. This was no surprise; it had happened many times before and, by the time I reached my destination, there was a definite threat of rain in the air again. I had no intention of letting a thirty mile drive go to waste and set off up the track with my equipment.

I walked beyond my previous viewpoint and continued to the knoll where I had originally seen the girl. The first picture had been a view to the south, taking in the sweep of the burn down towards the valley. I planned that the next one would be to the west, placing the burn across the foreground with a view to the high hills beyond. I stepped across the stones in the stream and set up my easel on top of the knoll.

A light rain started to fall almost as soon as I began sketching, and I wondered how long I would be able to work before the weather defeated me again. Fortunately there was little wind that day, and the umbrella afforded enough protection to allow me to work on. I remembered that the child had always appeared when the rain began – that had been one of the oddest things about it – and I turned around to quash the uneasy feeling that she might be creeping up on me from behind. I scanned the ground across a wide sweep and saw only grass, the stream, the rutted track and the old barn standing near to it. There was no sign of the child.

I turned back to continue my sketch and was severely shaken to see her standing up to her ankles in the burn only a few yards in front of me. Her body was turned fully in my direction and her eyes looked searchingly into mine. My sudden shock failed to mask one very obvious fact: she was not a child. Neither, I felt certain, was she of this world - at least, not the materialistic world of mere mortals. There was magic about her, Nature’s magic.

It shone from the slight silver tinge of her pale skin, unblemished and hairless apart from the long, grey-blonde tresses that fell behind her shoulders. It spoke from the perfection of her form which, although much smaller than a human adult, was that of a fully grown young woman at the peak of physical development, slim and slight but exquisitely formed. And it found its greatest expression in her gaze. Her face was small but captivatingly beautiful, and her pale, blue-grey eyes were both soft and piercing at the same time. I felt hypnotized as they held me in their silken grip. I was quite incapable of speech.

As I watched her she sat down in the cold waters of the burn, apparently untroubled by the rushing torrent or the rain falling around her. She put her legs together and pulled both knees up to her chest, drawing her feet back as far as they would go. Then, with remarkable dexterity, she laid one leg over at right angles so that the water flowed over it. She steadied herself with one hand resting by her side, and laid her free arm across her recumbent thigh to cover her genitals with the other one. And there she sat, perfectly still and with a serenity that was breathtaking.

I had seen this sight before. A small figurine I had come across in a shop in Ireland once had depicted such a maiden, but I had never known who it was supposed to represent. Subsequent enquiries have led me to suppose that she was, perhaps, some emanation of the Water Deva. Ancient legends are full of such variations on the supreme spirits of the elements.

As I watched her in disbelief, she smiled in a way that defies adequate description, for magic has a language of its own that warrants no attempt at spoken expression. I can only say that the combination of gentleness and intensity was subtle yet supremely powerful, and seemed to convey a note of expectation. She appeared to be demanding something of me, but she remained silent and I had no idea what it could be.

I don’t know how long I stood looking at her. Time stopped along with my normal perception of reality. What I do remember is that my physical senses became heightened. The rain felt stronger, the sound of the rushing burn became louder, and the sweet, earthy smell of the land filled me with a sense of being attuned to another realm of existence far richer than that to which I was accustomed. I must have entered some state of reverie, for I suddenly realised that she was gone. I hadn’t seen her move or watched her disappear, but the burn was empty.

Everything returned to normal and I felt weary and confused. I also began to have doubts about my mental state. The picture on the easel in front of me was in an advanced state of completion but I had no interest in continuing. I packed up my equipment, made one last visual sweep of the empty landscape and went home.

Over the next few days the image of the maiden was never far from my thoughts. I had initially felt shaken by the experience, but that settled quickly and was replaced by a feeling of mild euphoria. I had no doubt that my mental state was perfectly healthy and concluded that I had been privileged to be given a rare glimpse of something normally hidden to the eyes of humankind.

I felt honoured, and began to want to see her again. The desire soon became a longing, and the longing grew to a level approaching obsession. My interest in the painting was also refreshed. I came to see it as being intimately connected with my experience and I worked quickly to finish it.

By then it was the start of the second week of my holiday and I decided to spend all my remaining free days painting at Shillmoor. I was desperate to see the maiden again and felt that her appearance was somehow linked to my art. No matter what the weather, I would drive into the hills with my easel, pencils and paints and attempt whatever I could manage.

I considered staying there the whole week, sleeping in the car and making brief journeys down the valley for supplies. My cautious side rebelled at the idea. The prospect of being confined within a car, surrounded by the blackness of a Cheviot night and in a place with a proven record of magical happenings was going too far. I had visions of being woken by mysterious noises, or seeing strange faces peering in at me. I decided that my otherworldly visitor was a lady of the day and the open moor, and I preferred to keep it that way.

I went on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, choosing different viewpoints each time and making valiant attempts to concentrate on the work. That was difficult as I spent so much of my time scanning the landscape in every direction for a sight of the maiden. I saw nothing, nor heard anything other than the familiar sounds of nature.

My disappointment was acute, and I realised that the reason for her absence probably lay with the weather. High pressure had settled over the country and the days were dry. There was still plenty of cloud and a cool breeze up in the hills, but no rain. She had always appeared in the rain, and I came to assume that it must be her natural environment and probably a prerequisite to her appearance.

Thursday was different. A glorious weather front was bringing a band of rain to all parts and I felt a thrill of optimism tinged with trepidation as I set up my equipment. I had chosen a spot close to the old barn by the track. It afforded some shelter from the westerly wind and I intended to use the side of it as a block of foreground detail. I was soon sketching with renewed enthusiasm and glancing around frequently for the object of my quest.

The morning passed quickly and, by midday, the sketch was complete. There had been no sight or sound of the maiden, but the rain showed no sign of abating and I was still optimistic. I put down my pencil and reached towards the bag containing my flask of coffee.

As I did so, a gust of air struck the back of my neck. It was no rogue offspring of the gentle westerly breeze coming from beyond the barn. This was harsher - cold and wet, like a spray of sharp, ice-cold vapour that stung my skin and startled my senses. And it was accompanied by the sound of a long and steady exhale of breath.

I swung around but saw nothing; and then I heard a clattering sound and turned back to see that the easel had fallen forward and was lying on the ground. The picture had been dislodged from its clips and was being blown across the track towards the burn. It stopped before it reached the water and lay flapping in the breeze. I hurried over and picked it up, hoping to rescue it before the rain made it sodden and useless.

As I turned to carry it back, my eye was caught by a movement to my right. I looked up towards the knoll where I had been positioned on the day the maiden had sat in the water. She was standing just where I had been sitting that day, and was pointing at the hilltops to the west. She turned her face towards me and then made two movements with her arms, swinging them out and then drawing them back to her chest, as though she were trying to gather in the rain that was falling about her body. Then she turned and walked down the back of the knoll and out of sight.

I ran up the slope to where she had been standing. The view was extensive in all directions, but she was nowhere to be seen. My eye searched the landscape for some small cave or crevice where she might be hiding, but there was none. She had simply disappeared. I went back to the shelter of my umbrella and sat thinking for a while.

It seemed obvious that the pointing and the arm movements were meant to express a wish. Clearly she wanted something. But what? I soon realised that she had been pointing to the view that I had drawn that day, and I assumed that the arm movements conveyed a desire to see the picture, or even have it for herself.

That led me to wonder whether beings such as her are capable of possessing material objects. I decided that it would be interesting to find out and resolved upon a simple course of action. I would frame it under protective glass in one of the ready-made frames that I kept in stock, bring it up to the burn, lay it on the ground and see what happened. Hopefully, she would appear and look at it. What happened next would be the interesting part. Would she pick it up and carry it away, or leave it there? The experiment excited my curiosity and I was impatient to conduct it.

The following day I returned to Shillmoor with the framed painting. The weather was dry and bright, and I thought it unlikely that the maiden would appear. By then I had developed a theory concerning her visible form.

The previous evening I had been thinking again about the day when she had sat in the burn. In the excitement of the moment and my subsequent euphoria, I had failed to give due consideration to one remarkable fact. As she sat there, the rain had been falling around her but there had been no water standing on her skin or running down her body. Clearly she was not physical in the normal sense, and I had come to theorise that the reason she only appeared when it rained was that the water somehow coalesced to form the substance of her visible being.

Nevertheless, I placed the painting on the top of the knoll and retired to a respectful distance to watch. I waited all day and saw nothing. By six o’clock I was bored and hungry. I decided that there was no point in repeating the exercise until the rain returned, and so I retrieved the painting and took it home. Frustrating as it was, I knew that there was nothing I could do but keep an eye on the weather forecasts and return at a more propitious time. The high pressure lasted throughout the weekend and I dragged myself reluctantly back to work on the Monday morning.

As the week progressed, my holiday excursions to Shillmoor began to seem like a distant memory. I watched the forecast every night and felt increasingly irritated as smiling presenters kept on telling me how lucky we were that the next day would be fine and warm again. My groans of disappointment grew louder as each night brought the same bad news. It continued like that for two weeks.

And then, one Sunday night, the man in the smart suit standing in front of the weather map wore an apologetic frown. He announced that a front was rushing in from the Atlantic and that we should all be prepared for some wet weather around the middle of the week. I silently thanked the gods and made a cup of coffee with a lighter heart.

It arrived on the Tuesday night and the following morning I did something that was strictly against my principles: I rang in sick. I had only one place to visit that day and it certainly wasn’t my workplace.

The drive up the Coquet valley was wet and wonderful. The rain was just heavy enough to keep the windscreen wipers going constantly and I thought the conditions perfect for the exercise. My feelings of optimism and excitement were exhilarating after two weeks of frustration.

I arrived at Shillmoor earlier than usual and took the painting, wrapped in a bin liner, off the back seat. I hurried up the track without bothering to lock the car and looked about me in all directions, hoping to catch sight of the maiden. I reached the top of the knoll and looked around again. The landscape was empty of all human form except mine.

I took the picture out of its container and pushed the bag clumsily into my coat pocket. Then I knelt on the wet earth and placed the frame on the ground, with the top resting on a protruding stone so that the picture tilted upwards slightly. I was careful to align it with the view that it represented and sat back on my haunches to satisfy myself that it was in the right position.

I was suddenly pushed forward again and felt a heavy weight land on my back. I caught a quick glimpse of two legs, one on each side, pinning my arms to my ribcage. Almost immediately, my vision went blurred as something settled over my eyes. It felt like two hands, but they were so wet that my eyes stung, as though they were under intensely cold water. I blinked rapidly in a fruitless attempt to restore my vision. I was held in a cold vice, unable to move my body, turn my head or stand up. I felt that my back and upper arms would freeze solid under the icy coldness that surged quickly through my coat. I knelt there helplessly, feeling a sense of being in the grip of something so powerful that there was no point in struggling.

My ordeal lasted only a few seconds before a piercing shriek tore at my eardrums. The grip was suddenly released and the weight lifted off my back. I gasped in relief, sat upright and turned around. My vision returned and I saw what I expected to see. The slight form of the maiden stood only a pace away, her eyes level with mine. They were fierce, powerful eyes, angry and spiteful.

I felt a mixture of apprehension and disappointment. It was obvious that my picture had not pleased her, and her look carried a message of intended retribution. She moved to her left a little and bent her head towards the picture, making a movement with her mouth as if to blow on it. Instead of air, a powerful jet of water coursed out, catching the picture on its bottom edge and flinging it into the burn beyond. She turned and looked at me again, before lifting one arm and pointing at me. She uttered no sound, but her menacing stare spoke volumes. Her body grew suddenly indistinct and melted into thick vapour which drifted away and dissipated over the nearest hill.

I sat on the knoll for several minutes feeling shocked and wretched. After all the effort, euphoria and child-like optimism, her rejection of me and my painting cut deep into my self-esteem. I felt like some abandoned pet that has been rescued and then thrown away again. My body was chilled to the core, and the cold rain ran cruelly down the inside of my collar. I felt empty and alone. Eventually I got up and went to retrieve the picture. I found it lying face down in the burn with the glass smashed and the painting ruined. I had lost all interest in it anyway and left it where it lay.

As I trudged back to the car I began to feel angry. It is the natural defence against the pain of rejection and the feeling grew rapidly. I came quickly to the view that the maiden was a petulant and ungrateful little minx who was not worthy of my effort or my attention. I no longer craved her approbation, nor cared for her wishes. I drove home with gritted teeth and a self-satisfied determination never to go to Shillmoor again.

All that evening I went about the few jobs that needed to be done with a continuing sense of anger, banging things about and slamming doors. By midnight I was exhausted and fell asleep quickly when I went to bed.

The next morning I felt unusually tired and decided to extend my sick leave into a second day. Mercifully, however, the previous day’s lapse into self-pity had gone and I was able to view my recent experience more calmly and philosophically.

The fact was not lost upon me that I had been privileged to have direct contact with some other-dimensional being, and that such contact is extremely rare in these super-rational times. Our relationship might have been short-lived and ended acrimoniously, but the memory of it would remain special and I was content with that. I was not to know that our relationship was far from over, even when the first piece of evidence presented itself later that day.

I went into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee and saw a patch of water close to the bottom of the sink unit. I opened the doors to discover a constant drip falling from somewhere behind the basin. A quick inspection revealed that it was coming from the base of one of the taps, and I had to pay a plumber to fix it. It was the first of an unbelievable run of domestic difficulties that plagued my life for the next two or three months.

I had water running in over a bedroom window due to a broken gutter, water coming out of the back of the toilet caused by a loose floor bolt, water running down the outside wall due to a burst overflow washer; I even had to replace my VCR machine because water had run down the aerial cable and corroded the socket. These are just a few examples; there were many more.

I don’t recall at what point I made the obvious connection. The incredible catalogue of water-related problems that were dogging my life, so soon after I had aroused the ire of the maiden at Shillmoor, had to be more than coincidence. I remembered the menacing pointing of her finger and the vengeful look in her eyes, and had no doubt that she was in some way responsible for them.

They were becoming a serious drain on both my patience and my pocket and I realised that I needed to placate her. But how, since I had no idea what had caused such an extreme reaction? What deficiency in my work had warranted such a violent and vindictive response?

I thought back to the events of that unpleasant day and realised that I had been a little hasty in my reaction. I had been hurt and angry, and had given no consideration as to why she had acted that way. No doubt she’d had a reason and I needed to identify it. I thought about the painting. I was no professional artist, but the view had been faithfully represented. It was a perfectly competent picture containing all the essential elements of the scene.

Realisation dawned. It contained all the essential elements except one. When the maiden had sat in the burn, she had been posing; she had wanted to be in the picture. It is a fact of human nature that hurt and anger make us blind to what should be obvious, and I had been no exception. It was obvious enough now, and I knew that I would have to return to Shillmoor and reconstruct the work with the maiden given pride of place.

I worried that my natural aptitude and experience lay wholly in the fields of landscape and architecture. Faces and figures were not my forte. I could only hope that she would forgive me that failing as long as I made my best effort.

It was early December but the weather was mild. There had been a few frosts but no snow, and there was no reason why I should not undertake the task during the coming weekend. I decided not to wait that long. I had no idea how far she might go in exacting revenge or how much she was capable of achieving, and water can be a dangerous medium. The following morning I rang in sick again and set off for Shillmoor with my equipment.

It felt strange being back there after the trauma of my previous visit three months earlier. It felt like a homecoming, but I was also nervous. It occurred to me that she might still be angry and resent my presence. It was easy to imagine various ways in which I could be caused inconvenience, or even danger, by problems connected with water, and I tried to ignore them. I felt that she might even engage in a direct physical assault; she had already demonstrated her considerable power in that respect.

I noticed on the walk up the track that the frame that had held the offending work was still lying in the burn and, for once, I was grateful that the day was dry. I set up my easel on the knoll and looked at the view before me.

Being a predominantly grassy landscape, the scene hadn’t changed much since August. I decided that such detail mattered little anyway. What was important was to depict the view accurately and place the figure of the maiden prominently.

That was where I had a problem. When I came to start sketching, I realised that a faithful representation of the original scene wouldn’t do. Her figure would be too small and placed well below the eye line. She would be virtually lost, overwhelmed by the grandness of the landscape.

I made the risky decision to use artistic licence. I would place the knoll in the foreground and have her sitting, centre stage, upon it. I spoke my reasons aloud, just in case she could hear me. Then I began the drawing and worked quickly. I sketched the landscape part of the scene easily. I had done it before and had already worked out the problems of angles and perspective. Drawing the figure was more difficult and I rubbed it out and redrew it many times until I accepted that it was as accurate as my limited talent would allow.

It was only then that a second problem occurred to me and I cursed my impatience and lack of planning. Although the burn was still in the picture, the fact that I had taken her out of it and placed her on the ground meant that her essential connection with the water had been lost. Water was the substance of her material existence; without it she could be anybody. The magic was missing. I thought for a while and decided that I would have to work a little magic of my own into the picture.

Firstly, I would have to show the rain with some fine lines and slightly blurred colour edges. I had done that before and felt reasonably confident of a decent result. The figure was the problem. It would have to be clear and sharp, with just the hint of an aura to suggest that she was untouched by the rain because she was made of it. I worried that others would not see it that way, but then decided that there was only one opinion with which I needed to be concerned. This picture was not for public consumption. If she liked it, the job would be well done.

I knew that I would need to practice before committing paint to paper. When the sketch was finished I packed up and went home. I spent the evening thumbing through my art books in search of clues to the technique of putting auras around figures. I found a few and decided to start work the following day. No doubt my office would survive without me for another couple of days.

I painted several rough figures against backgrounds approximating to the colours of the Cheviot landscape. I tried several approaches and eventually settled on a technique of manipulating the background colours in a narrow band adjacent to the figure. By making them slightly brighter and richer, and grading them into a hint of yellow wash, I achieved a result that I felt produced the desired effect, or at least one that was as close as I was going to get.

I started work on the main painting immediately, stopping briefly for a sandwich and then working until it was finished in the early hours of the morning. I stood back and examined it through tired eyes. It looked genuinely magical, and I was amazed that my limited talent had successfully achieved something I had never even attempted before.

I declared myself well pleased and crawled to bed with mixed feelings. As happy as I was with the finished picture, I knew that it was not me who needed to be pleased. Tomorrow would be the beginning of the test. I would take it to Shillmoor and await the reaction.

It was dry again the next morning and there was no sign of any change as I drove up the valley. The lack of rain made it unlikely that I would get a response that day, and I had come prepared for the possibility that I would have to leave the picture somewhere in the vicinity of the burn. I had framed it and then sealed it inside a clear polythene bag to protect it from the elements.

I spent an hour or more tramping the land around the burn, looking for a suitable spot where it might lie undisturbed. Eventually, I found a shallow depression about a hundred yards from the knoll and well away from the walkers’ track. I laid it face up and walked around it to check for visibility. Being on a slight rise, it was hidden from all viewpoints beyond a distance of a few yards and it seemed unlikely that anyone would come across it by accident. I was satisfied that it was as good a place as any and went home.

The weather remained dry for over a week. Then, on the following Sunday, it rained heavily and I considered driving up to Shillmoor to see if the maiden would grace me with her presence and indicate her opinion of the picture. It was a tantalizing prospect but risky, and I wavered all morning over whether to make the journey. As anxious as I was to know the result of my examination, the possibility of a second rejection made me wary.

It was the middle of December and the days were short. By early afternoon I decided that it was getting too late and that I would leave it until another day. I was immediately annoyed at my timidity. There was no telling when it might rain again and there would be no point in going to Shillmoor until it did. It never occurred to me that the maiden might want to give me her answer as much as I wanted to receive it.

At around four o’clock, with the daylight beginning to fade, I walked into my living room to be met by a startling sight. At one end of the room a French window opened onto a small patio, and on the patio stood a circular garden table. Sitting in the middle of it was the maiden of Shillmoor.

Her pose was the one that she had struck in the burn and I had used in the picture. Her pale skin radiated a gentle aura of light gold, just as I had painted it, and she was smiling. She lifted her hands to the level of her chin and placed the palms together, lowering her face slightly towards them at the same time. In Christian countries, such a gesture is used in prayer or to indicate supplication. In Vedic cultures it is used as a general greeting and means “my soul and yours are one.”

What it means in the world of the rain maiden I shall never know, but the warmth of her smile told me it was something positive. She lifted her head again and then dissolved into vapour and drifted slowly away. I stood gazing at the spot on the table for some minutes. I dissolved too - into a state of mild euphoria that lasted well beyond my usual bedtime.

My sense of elation continued for days afterwards, but there was still one practical aspect that I was curious about. I wanted to know whether the picture was still where I had left it. I decided to return to Shillmoor to find out, even though I knew that the absence of the work would not necessarily mean that she had taken it - any passing farmer or walker could have done that. But, if it were still there, it would probably mean that she had been unable to remove it to her own world and an interesting question would have been answered.

The next weekend I drove up the valley and saw from some miles away that there was snow lying on the ground at the higher levels. It was a cold, clear day with a cloudless sky and brilliant sunshine. Fortunately, the track had only a light covering and I climbed it without difficulty.

I was able to locate the hollow quickly and found it full of snow, which I soon cleared. The picture was still there, protected from the elements in its polythene covering. But it was startlingly different. The frame and glass were intact and the pencil drawing was the one that I had sketched on the knoll; but the colour was missing. There was no paint on the paper at all.

I searched for a practical explanation but could think of none. The winter sunshine would have been too weak to bleach out the colour in such a short time, and the paper was quite free of any invasion by the elements. I could only surmise that the maiden had somehow been able to lift the painted image from the page. I wondered whether it had been made possible by the fact that the original pigment had been formed with water. Perhaps she had been able to reconstitute it and take possession. If so, how had she been able to remove it from the frame?

I would never know the answer, but the paint had gone and it was a thrilling thought that my work might be on display in another world somewhere. I considered it prudent to leave the sketch as a permanent gift and went away happy.

* * *

All that happened a year ago. It is now approaching Christmas again and, despite many trips to the upper Coquet valley to continue my project, I have never seen the maiden since. Neither, I am happy to report, have I experienced any further distressing problems with water. It seems that she is content too.

To say that I have had no connection at all with her, however, might not be entirely correct. One curious encounter with water during my summer holiday might or might not form a postscript to the story.

I went up to Scotland on a walking trip and had an accident - nothing serious as it turned out, but it could have been. I slipped on a rock overhanging a pool beneath a waterfall and fell in. I felt clumsy and embarrassed but in no danger. I thought it would be easy to swim to a lower part of the bank and climb out. It wasn’t. I found myself caught in a strong current and soon realised that I was being carried towards some disturbingly large rocks at the far end of the pool.

I was saved by a heavy branch that was growing laterally across the water and only a couple of feet above the surface. I was able to grab hold of it, haul myself onto its sturdy form and await a simple rescue by two young climbers who had witnessed the event. They had ropes among their gear and got me back onto dry land quite easily. The other walkers in the vicinity had become aware of the developing drama and were waiting on the bank. They were all concerned for my welfare, and I was quick to assure them that the only injury I had suffered was to my pride.

One of them looked puzzled and asked me how I had managed to grab hold of the branch in the first place. I didn’t understand the question and queried it. He asked me how, without my weight on it, the branch had been close enough to the water for me to reach it. I turned and looked at my erstwhile perch. It was, indeed, more like six to eight feet above the water, not the two or so that it had been when it had saved me from the rapids.

I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. It seemed that either I had good friends among a considerate and mobile tree population, or someone had bent the branch down to give me a lifeline. I like to think that I had been lifted from the jaws of disaster by an otherworldly friend of slight form and superhuman strength. Perhaps she felt sorry for the problems she had caused me and wanted to redress the balance; or perhaps it was simply a gesture of thanks for the picture.

Since all that happened I have become fond of the rain and walk in it often. I also love to sit by the open door when there is a shower late at night in the summer. The pattering of the rain in the stillness of the early hours, combined with the sweet smell of the earth, take me back to those magical days at Shillmoor.

I look for the maiden every time, but she has never graced my eyes with the sight of her exquisite form again. Sometimes I hope that I might have a lifelong protector against the perils of water, but I suppose that is being unduly optimistic. I live in my version of reality and she in hers. Why would she waste her time guarding my human steps? No doubt our account is in balance and the matter concluded. I am happy enough with that.

December 01, 2010

When the Waves Call.

This was the last short story I wrote, a little over a year ago. It was inspired by three tracks from Maire Breatnach’s album Angels’ Candles which I used to have on tape. The tape broke shortly after I finished the story. Maybe I wasn’t meant to keep it.

It was published in an anthology called Sea Gifts by Drollerie Press in February this year.

Approximate reading time: 20-25 minutes.

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The coast of Connemara was being battered mercilessly that night as an Atlantic storm of unusual savagery mounted an assault on the whole western seaboard of Ireland. Giant deep ocean breakers thundered angrily against the ancient cliffs, their primal power finally relenting with a cacophonous and continual roar of defiance. It was only September, but the autumn gales had arrived early. The harvest moon that should have been full and bright was lost behind a swift procession of dark, unbroken cloud.

The village pub, nestled safely on a lane thirty feet above the foreshore of a small bay, was a welcome haven on such a woeful night. It was rough and simple, and wasn’t really a pub at all - at least not as the English understand the term. It was just a bar. One room, one wooden counter, one glowing fire in the middle of one wall, one heart that beat silent and in harmony between the twenty or so people sitting on the simple wooden chairs.

One Englishman - a late tourist - sat alone, sipping his double Jameson. The roaring wind and growling breakers occasionally intruded their relentless presence upon the peace within, but his attention was held by the band that was giving an impromptu concert for the village folk. It consisted of a fiddler, a guitarist, an accordion player and a fat little man with sharp features and backswept hair. He looked like an inflated leprechaun and played the bodhran with great expression and gusto when the occasion demanded it.

Jig, reel, hornpipe and highland slipped easily from their fingers, and the sparse audience, which spanned the age range from eight to eighty, clapped and called enthusiastically. Several of the young men took the floor in turn to present their best effort at a dance appropriate to the livelier renditions. The womenfolk looked on and applauded. Liam Jackson, for that was the Englishman’s name, applauded too.

The intervals between the tunes were filled with activity as drinking vessels were refreshed and words of appreciation exchanged. Everyone offered some words of greeting to Liam. He had felt a sense of unease upon first entering the place, since the history of relations between their two countries had been difficult and he’d wondered whether he might meet some hostility. But no; the instinct to welcome the stranger was, it appeared, natural to these people. It shone easily out of every pair of Gaelic eyes and Liam felt at home.

He refreshed his own drink several times during the evening, talking easily with Sean, the licensee. It felt as though they had known each other for ever. It felt as though he had known everybody in the bar for ever. At other intervals he sat and contemplated the surroundings.

Half a dozen meagre lamps were spaced at intervals around the distempered, shadow-painted walls. The floor was laid with rough stone tiles, covered here and there by threadbare rugs. The air was hazy and smelt of whiskey, burning peat and tobacco smoke. He was sitting close to the fire and heard it crackle now and then. At other times it hissed gently. A young couple held hands; a mother ruffled the hair of her daughter who was leaning across the table and giggling at some paltry joke; two old men were buried in reminiscence and lost to the outside world. The sense of peace and togetherness was complete. Twenty people sharing one consciousness, it seemed.

The band took a break at nine thirty and occupied four of the bar stools until the old clock in the corner struck ten, and then they resumed their places, gathering their instruments for a final set. That was the moment at which life changed for Liam Jackson.

The outer door burst open with a violence that shattered the peace within. It seemed to halt the flow of time itself. A startling rush of noise and wind filled the room, flinging the curtains sideways. The fire moaned for a second as if in protest. A woman walked through the opening and forced the door shut again.

No one spoke, but all eyes were turned towards the newcomer. Liam looked at her too, and then he looked at the people in the bar - some standing, some sitting, all still as statues and rapt with concentration at the vision which stood looking back at them.

She was young, maybe twenty or so, and very pretty. Her simple cotton dress was soaked and clung in places to her slim figure. Dark braided hair hung over her shoulders and dripped water, but it was her eyes that drew Liam into another world. They were large and luminous, and even at that distance he could see that they were chestnut. They looked briefly at every man, woman and child in the room, but they rested on Liam for longer than most. The moment of silent spectacle seemed to last an age, and then it snapped in an instant as the people returned to their drinking and their conversation. The band arranged their instruments and began a sprightly reel. The young woman walked over to the fire. She was barefoot.

Being only a couple of yards away, Liam could smell the dampness rising from her drying dress. She faced the fire for a while and then turned around. The smell became stronger again and there was a hint of salt about it, but that wasn’t surprising since the wild air outside was full of spray as well as rain. He avoided looking at her directly; it seemed impolite. But he could see out of the corner of his eye that she appeared to have no such qualms. She was regarding him steadily and he felt a thrill of nervousness, or was it expectation?

He sipped his drink and tapped the table in time with the music. He was pretending to be unconcerned, but in truth he was consumed with a longing to move up close and talk to the mysterious young woman. He thought he sensed a power cross the space between them; it seemed to be pulling him towards her. He glanced at her once and smiled nervously while she stared back at him, and then she moved away and walked over to the band when the music stopped. He sighed, but what that meant he didn’t know. Was it a sigh of relief or disappointment?

She approached the fiddler, leaned forward and spoke a few quiet words to him. He stood up, handed her the fiddle and bow, and retired to the bar stool which he had recently vacated. The young woman spoke a few more words to the band. All three heads nodded.

The room was silent with anticipation as the accordion player set up a quiet drone, and then the woman began to play. A slow air filled the room, a tune of such intensely melancholic beauty that Liam held his breath at times. It seemed the whole of creation was holding its breath. The woman’s arm and fingers moved easily and surely as the strings sang out with the clarity of fine crystal. The guitarist joined in occasionally with some well placed, expressive cadences. Only the percussionist remained silent, his eyes closed in apparent reverie. The melody rose and fell in pitch and intensity, sometimes crying passionately and sometimes moaning mournfully. A final long note, and it was finished. Silence.

The woman handed the instrument back to its owner and nodded in acknowledgment. The audience remained quiet, but they watched her as she walked to Liam’s table. The band began a merry hornpipe.

“Can I sit with you?” she asked.

Liam stood up, enthralled but confused by the unfamiliar sensations that were clutching at his very core.

“Of course.”

“Old fashioned courtesy. I like that,” she said as she took the seat opposite.

Her voice was low in pitch and carried the gentle brogue of the western Irish. The jet black braids that fell around her face still gleamed with a hint of wetness.

“You’re English, aren’t you?” she continued.

“Does it show?”

“Yes. You have English eyes. They’re colder than Irish ones.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Not necessarily. Sometimes they’re just defending a warm heart. I knew an Englishman once. He had a warm heart.”

Once? It seemed a strange word to come from one so young.

“What happened to him?” asked Liam.

“He went home. It’s what the English do.”

“Isn’t that what everybody does?”

She offered no reply. Instead, her big brown eyes regarded him with a calm intensity. They held him in a firm grip and refused to let him go. There was a quality of deep knowing about them, a knowing that went beyond the limitations of mere knowledge, and it seemed they spoke a language too subtle for the tongue and infinitely more expressive. Liam began to feel light headed.

“What’s your name?” she asked eventually.

“Liam.”

“An Irish name.”

“I had an Irish grandfather.”

She inclined her head slightly. Liam was drawn to the beauty of every physical feature of her form, but it was her eyes that spoke to him again. Waves of some deep understanding began to wash around his consciousness. It was hopelessly vague - fleeting impressions of the sea and its primeval call, of a solitary rock in the middle of a wide ocean, of timelessness, and of a deep, impassioned longing. He felt smothered and in need of air. He pulled himself away from her grip and asked a simple question.

“Do you live near here?”

“Yes.”

“In the village?”

“No.”

“You can’t have come far in this weather and dressed like that.”

“I have no fear of water, especially cold water.”

“But you’re wearing no shoes.”

“No.”

She seemed disinclined to expand on her brief answers. Liam tried another one.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I fish.”

“What, commercially?”

“I get by.”

Liam felt his heart pounding. As the woman’s enigmatic air deepened, her attraction continued to increase. It felt palpable. He could feel her arms wrapped around his back, pulling him closer, even though he could see her hands folded demurely on her lap. A sudden thought intruded.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m forgetting my manners. Can I get you a drink?”

“No thanks. I never drink.”

“Something soft, perhaps?”

“Nothing thanks.”

He felt a curious sense of emptiness begin to take hold. It was as though some part of his essence was being pulled from him, seeping into the gap between their two bodies and becoming subsumed in the aura of powerful energy that enwrapped his companion. He struggled to find another question.

“Do you mind me asking your name?”

“You can call me Maire if you like, if you feel I need to have a name.”

“Maire. That’s a lovely name.”

“Good. I chose it myself.”

Liam didn’t understand, but he nodded anyway. Maire continued to look steadily into his eyes. He looked back, and yet he knew that his stare was not born of either interest or challenge. It was an act of submission. He couldn’t avert his eyes because Maire wouldn’t allow it. The enervating effect of her close presence continued to grow and he struggled to hold onto a part of his inner being that was trying to desert him for the seductive charms of a most alluring opponent. He fought back the urge to collapse into an unknown oblivion, and tried to bring the conversation to a more mundane level.

“It’s quite a storm we’re having tonight.”

“I’ve known worse.”

“Not a good night to be out on the sea, though.”

“Does the sea frighten you, then?”

Maire’s interest seemed to be aroused in anticipation of his answer. She rested her arms on the table and leaned towards him. The two chestnut orbs of paradise flooded him with a sensation that all but arrested his breathing. The external world paled into insignificance: the room, the people, the music – all transparent wraiths that might be swept away by a blink of Maire’s eyes. He felt himself trembling. Part of his consciousness still held on by a flimsy thread, but most of it was desperate to capitulate. He stuttered the best response he could manage.

“I don’t think so. I think I respect it.”

“That’s good. Respect without fear. Hold onto that and the sea can be your friend, your protector even. It’s how I survive. Do you understand?”

Liam was in no condition to understand. At that moment he understood nothing other than the fact that his sense of emptiness was almost complete. He felt like some helpless child, devoid of point, purpose and presence, curled foetus-like within the womb of Maire’s overwhelming energy. He was attached to her, dependant on her, in need of her; and he didn’t have the wit to question the absurdity of such a notion.

Maire seemed to read the situation in an instant. Her eyes widened even further and Liam looked expectantly into them. He was too confused to know whether he wanted release or acceptance, but what he saw there brought a glimmer of strength back to him. There was no sense of triumph. Instead, he saw the unmistakeable look of deep desolation and painful longing. For the first time that night she looked defensive. She had eased her hold on him and he relaxed a little. But then she sent a physical wave of shock coursing through his body by placing one hand on his arm.

“Now that you know everything about me that is worth knowing,” she said pointedly, “tell me about yourself.”

“What do you want to know?”

“What are your favourite smells?”

The question unsettled him further. He thought it a strange one, and said as much.

“Not really,” said Maire. “A person’s favourite smells say a lot about them.”

“Do they? Oh. I’d have to think about that one.”

“So think.”

“Right. Er... I suppose I like the smells of nature best. Salt sea air, new-mown hay, wild honeysuckle, autumn leaf mould.

Maire’s eyes closed briefly as she drew in the scents that Liam described. They flashed open again and she asked:

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Is there anybody close to you?”

“A few family members, a couple of good friends.”

”But no woman?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I suppose I’m too fussy. I’m cursed with the need to seek perfection and accept nothing less. That’s why I came to Ireland. It has a romantic and mystical reputation. I felt drawn here. I thought I might find something I couldn’t find anywhere else.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.”

“And have you?”

“No, of course not. At least...”

He fell silent and looked down at the table. He took a sip of his drink before gathering the courage to look into Maire’s eyes again. And now the look of triumph was there, but only briefly. The sadness soon returned, deeper than before. Her own head dropped for a second, and then she rose, pulled her chair next to his and sat down again. She took his hand in hers and held it firmly on her lap.

“Hold my hand,” she said, “for what time there is left.”

And so they sat in silence as the band continued to play at the far end of the room. The pieces were more restrained now, befitting the lateness of the hour. Liam felt captured and helpless again, but he looked around the small gathering and noticed the odd head turned furtively in their direction. The only person looking at him steadily was an old woman sitting with her family.

Eventually, the fiddler announced that the next tune would be the last. As they began to play, Maire turned to Liam and said:

“It’s approaching midnight. I have to go soon. Take my meaning.”

She rose, walked to the far end of the room and sat next to the band. Liam knew that protest would be pointless. He felt lost and lacking any meaningful reason to exist. When the tune ended, Maire spoke to the fiddler who nodded and repeated her instruction to the others. She took a pace forward and faced the audience. Silence held sway again as the band began a slow, melancholy introduction. Maire began to sing.

A block of ice settled in Liam’s chest as he recognised the song. It was an old favourite: Ae Fond Kiss. He had heard it many times and had never failed to be moved by its poignancy. Maire was singing a Gaelic translation, but he knew the Scots original.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever
Ae fareweel, alas, forever

She sang beautifully. Such purity of tone, such flawless intonation, such an aura of intense but understated emotion. Liam sat paralysed by the moment, but his head began to clear. He looked around at the audience and had no doubt that every last one of them was weeping dry-eyed and silently. He felt his strength returning. Somehow he knew that this was not a time for tears; it was a time to seek the message. And so he searched Maire’s eyes as she sang. She turned them full upon his and he saw what he expected. The pain and sadness were still apparent, but there was something else. There was hope. He was taking her meaning.

When the song finished, Maire stood quietly for a few seconds with her eyes closed. And then she walked to the door and flung it open. She turned to look at Liam one last time. He nodded to her. She smiled a sad, hopeful smile, and then walked out into the night. Liam detected a ripple of relief pass around the room as Sean hurried to shut the door. The old woman walked over to his table.

“You must forget about her,” she said.

Liam was in a daze, but he managed the obvious question.

“Do you know her, then?”

“We do, and you should not. Forget her and go home.”

There was kindness in her voice, but her tone was firm and allowed no room for discussion. She turned and went back to her family who were preparing to leave. Everybody was preparing to leave. Liam drained his glass and pulled his coat on. He fastened it securely before walking to the door on unsteady legs. He glanced at Sean, who returned it with a nod.

The walk back to his lodgings was difficult. The rain had stopped, but the wind still blew strongly. It was at his back, pushing him away from the sea, and his weak legs struggled to keep him from being blown forward. The act of stopping took some effort, but stop he did when he heard the wail. It was shrill, almost a scream. It came from the waves, mingling with their groans and the roar of the wind. It was a frightful sound – wild, desperate, unearthly. It went on for a long time, and then descended into what sounded like a brief sob before ceasing altogether.

Liam knew something of the mythology of the Celtic fringes and understanding had already dawned on him. He turned and tried to make his way to the foreshore, but the mixture of alcohol and intense emotion had left him physically weak. He abandoned the attempt and struggled back to the boarding house. He fell into a deep sleep within seconds of going to bed.

* * *

The storm had abated by the morning. The wind was merely fresh and there were patches of blue sky showing between the scudding, white clouds. Liam went down to breakfast where he was served by the landlady. As he was drinking his coffee, Mrs O’Gara approached and made a pretence at clearing the dishes. And then she revealed her true purpose.

“May I talk to you for a moment?” she asked.

Liam had been expecting something like this. His strength and vigour were back to full pitch and he felt determined.

“Of course,” he said, omitting to stand.

“I hear you met our visitor last night.”

“Is that what you call her? Who is she?”

Mrs O’Gara seemed to read the knowing look in Liam’s eyes.

“I think you know who she is. Or rather, what she is. The bus to Galway leaves at ten thirty. I think it would be better for you if you were on it.” She read his reaction with a resigned certainty. “You’re not convinced, are you?” she continued. “I’ve seen that look before. The English have to have their way. They have such cold eyes.”

“So I’m told,” replied Liam. “Tell me, how long has she been coming here?”

He detected a droop of dismay in the landlady’s shoulders.

“For longer than any of us have been alive. My own grandmother told me about her before I was even old enough to understand such things. She will do you no good. She has tried to seduce many men. It is her way.”

“Maybe it has a purpose. What do you know of her?”

“What can I know of her? It is said that she is different from the rest of her breed. They say she belongs on the land and is trying to get back somehow. Maybe she needs a mortal man to help her. I wouldn’t know. No mortal man has ever returned.”

“Returned from where? Are the men of Connacht not up to the task?”

“The men of Connacht have their own God-fearing lives to lead. She never approaches local men, only strangers. Maybe she doesn’t want to stay in Connacht. We are a good Catholic community and such a creature would not be welcome here.”

“Forgive me, I meant no offence. But do you not pity her?”

Mrs O’Gara looked uncertain for a second.

“There is a line beyond which charity cannot go,” she said. “When it would be offensive to God.”

Liam scoffed internally, but held his reaction in check.

“So why do you tolerate her visits?”

“Even good Christians are not immune to fear, Mr Jackson. Fear of unknown consequences. She has a power about her, a power that is a mystery to us. As long as she confines herself to brief visits, and as long as she does not interfere with the local men, we tolerate her.”

“I see,” said Liam, turning to look out of the window. “How long?” He turned back again and regarded his host steadily.

“I’m sorry?”

“How long before she visits again?”

“We never know. She always comes at the time of the harvest moon, but not every year. She has a knack of appearing when there are strangers in the village. She seems to know the scent of strange men.”

The last sentence was uttered with barely disguised contempt. Liam turned back from the window and smiled. Mrs O’Gara continued.

“Will you be catching the bus?”

“Not today, Mrs O’Gara. There’ll be another one tomorrow, no doubt. Today I would like to enjoy the beauty of your lovely countryside. Might I avail myself of your hospitality for another night?”

His tone was bright and amicable. The landlady shrugged.

“I suppose so. I’m not exactly busy.”

“Thank you, dear lady. And could I request a packed lunch to sustain me on my rambles?”

Mrs O’Gara’s eyes carried a hint of suspicion.

“You will leave tomorrow?” she asked.

“I promise.”

“Very well, then.”

She rose and returned to the kitchen. Liam went to his room, donned an extra sweater, and pulled on his coat. He waited by the kitchen door for his lunch to be provided, and then walked out into the chill air of the Connemara morning. The sweet and salty smell brought the sense of Maire’s presence flooding back.

His strength and equilibrium had returned in full measure, but he had changed. The world had changed. The memory of Maire was more than just a romantic recollection. It was a connection, a deep connection that bade him only welcome. She offered no threat and made no demands; they had simply found what they had both been seeking. He knew he had to talk to her and could think of only one way.

He walked down to the shore and paced back and forth on the beach for a while, scanning the foam flecked waves in a state of nervous anticipation. He climbed as far as he could up some rocks at one end of the bay. He returned and repeated the exercise at the other end, seeking the best vantage point for a clear view of the sea. He made his way to the bottom of the lane that ran past the bar. He walked up it until it came to an abrupt end at a rock face. And then he sat on a nearby boulder and watched the mesmerising movement of the choppy waves. The grumble of a heavy engine disturbed the peace. The Galway bus pulled up near the bottom of the lane, and then drove away again.

A sudden realisation came to him. He didn’t need to find the best vantage point, only a spot close to the sea. Maire would find him. He could feel her presence strongly. She must be nearby. He was sure it was more than just imagination. He sat for two hours and saw only the restless sea rising higher up the rocks as the tide flowed. He decided he might as well eat.

And then his wait was rewarded. Something appeared above the surface of the water immediately beneath him. The seemingly disembodied head of a grey seal rose and fell with the movement of the dark swell. It watched him intensely as he stood up. There was no chestnut to be seen, only big, black orbs that reflected the pale sky, but the look of longing was as potent as ever. Man and seal regarded one another for a span of time impossible to guess. Liam spoke.

“I will be back,” he said quietly. “You have my promise. Be prepared to tell me everything. What must be done will be done. Until the next harvest moon.”

A fanciful man might have claimed that the seal’s eyes smiled. Liam certainly thought so. The creature upended and slipped silently beneath the waves, the swift elegance of its movement seeming to express a wordless song of joy. He resumed his seat and ate his lunch absentmindedly, musing on the uncertainty of his future with a heaving heart.

Tomorrow he would begin his return to England. The contemplation of a long, empty year brought an agonising sense of impatience to the mortal mind of Liam Jackson. The wild, western waves had entered his blood, and their call would mock without mercy until delirium or some darker denouement brought him to one destiny or another.

About Me

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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