They were reaching that part of the forest path where granny would normally pick up the pace and keep her head low. But not today. Today, she did something quite unexpected. She stopped and pointed through the trees. ‘I don’t want to see you anywhere near that place over there,’ she said, her voice low and hoarse.
Mary came to a stop beside her and looked over to where she was pointing. All she could see was a peaceful looking clearing with a weird looking knobbly mound in the centre.
‘They say the fairy folk live under that mound,’ said Granny squeezing Mary’s hand. ‘Ungodly things they are those creatures. T’was them that stole your voice away when you were just a baby.’ She spat on the ground and blessed herself, mumbling prayers to the Virgin under her breath.
Mary had never seen granny in such a state before. Was that fear in her eyes? Her mind raced with questions. Not that she would have gotten answers anyway, even if she could speak. The only times granny seemed to speak these days was for prayer and nonsensical mutterings as she roamed the house.
Mary peered longingly through the trees, hoping to see something but also terrified of what she might see if she did. She had heard talk of fairies before. Hushed whispers in the night when the whiskey was flowing and the others thought she was not around to hear. Mary had to be protected they would say. It won’t be long now.
‘Shush child,’ granny said as if she could hear the torrent of noise inside Mary’s head. The wind was picking up now, gathering its strength, letting its presence be known. The forest groaned in response, leaves and branches twisting and straining, desperate to stay tethered. The wind whipped against Mary’s face, blowing off her shawl and teasing her hair. She closed her eyes, letting the breeze wash over her, and for a brief moment she wished it would pick her up and blow her away.
Granny grabbed her shoulder pulling her back down. ‘Listen to me now and listen well. Don’t ever stray off the path. They’ll take you away to the dark place and that will be the end of you.’ She removed her crucifix and placed it around Mary’s neck. ‘This will keep you in good grace. As long as you wear this, you will always remain in the light.’
She kissed Mary’s forehead as she bent in to receive the gift. ‘C’mon now, ‘tis no place for the likes of you to be lingering.’ She shuffled ahead, spitting again on the ground as she left. Mary followed dutifully behind, fidgeting with the cross as she went, tides of questions rising and falling with each step.
* * *
Mary was on spuds duty again. She hauled the heavy sack onto the chair and set about selecting the biggest of the bunch before slowly making her way to the grainy little ones. Besides the odd creak and groan, the house was unusually quiet. This was the way Mary liked it. No weird glances cast in her direction; no uncomfortable silences in her presence.
A sudden peal of thunder made her jump causing the knife to slip. She brought the wound to her mouth but pulled away at the last moment. Her hands were blackened, her fingernails caked and cracked from her daily chores. More thunder now, followed by the pattering of rain against the shutters; darkness settling in. Mary bound her finger with an old rag, pressing down hard to stop the bleeding. This made her think of granny. Mary imagined her reaching out her own blackened hands to kiss Mary’s wound, potato muck and all. Afterwards, she would have probably wrapped it up with cobwebs plucked from a nearby rafter. Not once had Mary ever thought to question this, but now stranded in the diming light of the kitchen, it seemed to her a silly thing to do.
The storm was in full swing now, pounding and raging against the house, threatening to lift it up and carry it away. Mary listened to the fury, a lonely shadow in a crumbling room of spindly webs, yellowing pictures, and crooked walls. Everything looked old and worn, and in that moment, it seemed to her that she was becoming old and worn too. Hands against the apron now, wiping, wiping, but no use. Two blackened things in a house of darkness. The dirt had staked its claim. It was part of her now.
The room began to spin, forcing her to grip the counter. She wanted to scream, but if even she could, what would be the use? Nobody had heard Mary in a very long time. She was alone. All alone in her herself.
Struggling to keep her balance, she pulled herself along the counter towards the back door, clawing and grabbing at the handle before finally twisting it the right way. She collapsed onto the wet grass, swallowing mouthfuls of crisp air, letting the rain wash over her. When she opened her eyes, she saw that the house was still there, and the storm was passing over. She laughed. She laughed at her stupidity, at the thought of granny and her cobwebs, at every odd thing that ever existed. She looked at her hands again and was relieved to see her own hands, not granny’s, waving back at her. A new feeling was welling up inside her. She kicked off her shoes and tore open her blouse and let the rain wash over her. She had been quiet for too long. Now it was time to just be.
She began to run, to dance, and to sing. She could hear the music of the world around her. ‘Quickly now,’ it hummed, ‘hurry, don’t wait. This is your moment. Don’t waste it.’
She closed her eyes and let her feet carry her away down the forest path, each step filling her with new courage. She came to the stop on the pathway that separated the old from new. From where she was standing she could just about see the fairy mound ahead. The wind picked up behind her, embracing her, pushing her forwards. All around her the branches swayed and the leaves rustled. ‘What are you waiting for?’ they laughed. ‘You are so close, just a little further.’
She spread her arms wide, thrilling at the feeling of the rain against her face. She felt as though she was standing at the precipice of the world. Everything she once knew was behind her, everything else lay in front. She screamed her name to the heavens. No sound escaped her lips but inside her mind, she was roaring. And soon, very soon, she would be free.
* * *
Granny appeared next to her on the mud path. She said nothing, just stood there, observing Mary.
Mary felt a surge of pity flow through her. She wanted nothing more than for granny to hear what she was hearing. To see what she was seeing. Mary held out her hand beckoning her to come close, but instead granny flinched, taking a step backwards.
‘‘Tis no place for the likes of you,’ she said.
Mary kept her hand out but granny backed further away.
‘Time to return now child,’ she said, her voice cold and distant. ‘The others are here. We’ll take you back.’
Mary looked around and saw the forest filling with dark shapes; silhouettes of men propped up against the trees. She turned to granny and shook her head. The shapes moved forward but granny stopped them with a wave of her hand. Mary would not be taken by force. This was a decision that she needed to make for herself. With trembling hands, Mary removed the crucifix from around her neck and laid it gently on the path. She wasn’t going back because she could never go back. Not now, not ever.
Mary looked at granny for the longest time. With her dark shawl and blackened skin, she was barely visible now in the dim light. Soon she would just disappear. Like a memory in the night.
The music was returning now, picking up speed and gathering strength. Mary turned to face the fairy mound, her foot hovering over the edge.
A voice in the background, distant and faint. ‘They’ll take you away. You’ll never be seen again!’
I hope so, thought Mary, I really do.
And with that, she stepped off the path.
Story written by Shane O’Halloran. The Dark Place was originally published by époque press, 2019. View published version here.5