Dark thunder clouds had gathered in the sky all afternoon. The summer storms in this part of Ireland always grew quickly as the warm air began to wrestle with the cold sea air that blew in from the coast. The low rumble threatened a storm; all day the clouds gathered over the sea, moving closer and closer to the rocky coast. The sky grew darker as the sun began its descent. Rain drops began to drip here and there as another low, distant rumble echoed over the moors. Gran tapped her cane on the packed dirt and stared at the rolling clouds with pursed lips. Grey hair fluttered about her face, some strands coming loose from the bun she had tied earlier. Her wrinkled hands gripped the polished driftwood as she turned towards the house.
“Come inside, Aisling. The storm will be here soon.”
Aisling looked up from her play and grinned. Her wild red hair poked out from beneath her cap as she bounced after Gran. The wind had begun to blow through the trees nearby, their branches creaking against the force of the coming storm. Aisling’s mother waited for them inside, the savory smell of rabbit stew filled the entire cottage, and she turned to greet them.
“Aisling dear, where have you been? I’ve been waitin’ all day for you to come back.”
“Mam, I found a fairy ring on the moor! The fairies are here!” Aisling said as her mother stood by the fire, tending to their dinner. Her mother’s fiery red hair was pulled back in a perfect plait, not a single hair out of place. It was always perfect. She tasted the broth and pursed her lips. It needed more salt. Gran sat quietly at the table with Aisling.
“Fairies are here, Gran! I saw the ring m’self! I saw with my own eyes!” Her small hands gripped the old, wrinkled ones as she spoke. Gran patted her head and smiled.
“The fae celebrate tonight. The storm tells us so.”
“I want to see a fairy!” the small girl shouted. Her mother turned around quickly.
“And be snatched away by the fairy queen’s court? I don’t think so,” Mam snapped.
Aisling sighed, and Gran continued, “You know the fae take children that stray durin’ storms.”
A loud crack of thunder shook the small house and the three jumped as the rumble echoed through the room.
“Best you not go wanderin’,” Gran said softly. Mam turned and shook her spoon once more at Aisling before turning back to dinner.
Aisling was drawn to the foggy window as the sky broke open above the small cottage. The torrent of rain pelted the thatch roof, the wind howled through the cracks beneath the door. With wide, blue eyes, she watched the storm begin to rage.
“Gran!” she gasped. “The fairies have come! Look at the storm!” Gran stood and shuffled to the window and patted the wild curls on the girl’s head.
“Yes, child. They celebrate for sure. Keep your hair tucked up or they’ll take you by your curls,” she said as she tugged one of the locks around the young girl’s ear. Gran moved her own curls back behind her ear with a quick motion of her hand. Aisling giggled, and Gran returned to her place at the well-worn table. Mam called Aisling back to the table a moment later and placed a bowl of rabbit stew on the table in front of her. The steam curled around her face as Mam lead the prayer.
She ate slowly, always glancing towards the window. Mam watched her and turned to silently chide Gran. She was always talking of the fae as if they were kind spirits, nothing to mind. But Mam knew better. She always set out bowls of cream and the first piece of bread from every loaf she baked. She didn’t have real silver bells above the doorway to keep away evil spirits, but the tin ones worked well enough. Gran only smiled at Mam and when Aisling looked around the silent table, she met Gran’s gaze. Gran winked, Mam sighed, and Aisling slurped her rabbit stew all the faster. There was too much salt.
Darkness consumed the moors as the last bit of sun disappeared, and the storm seemed to envelope the entire world. Mam placed her nightly bowl of cream and the slice of bread on the window sill. She led their evening prayer, thanking God for the blessings and lessons in their lives and reminding him that her husband was out in the storm braving the waves for his livelihood, and to please bring him home safely. She tucked Aisling into bed and kissed her forehead.
“You got your cross, love?” Mam asked softly. Aisling nodded and pulled it out of her dressing gown. The iron cross always hung about her neck, to keep her safe, Mam always said.
“Good lass. Off to sleep with you now.” One more kiss to chase away the shadows and one more just because, Aisling settled into her covers as Mam lay down in her own bed after replaiting her hair. Gran came to kiss her as well, and with an excited whisper, Aisling asked again about the fairies.
“You’re a curious child,” Gran said.
“The fae are always about us. Playin’ tricks on some, grantin’ favor on others. There’s somethin’ grand brewin’ tonight. The storm rages on as if there would be no end.” Gran looked toward the window at the raging storm and sighed.
“When your da was young, he used to get just as excited as you do about the storms. He would always try to stay awake and see a fairy pass by his window.” Gran turned back to her granddaughter, wild curls falling against the pillow.
“It’s time for your story, child. Did I ever tell you I found ma hag stone durin’ a storm? Right on the ground it was, and when I picked it up, it was warm as if someone had just dropped it.”
Aisling stifled a giggle and tugged on her grandmother’s nightgown. “You’ve told me that story so many times! Please tell me the story of Tír na nÓg again! I want to hear about the fairy world and dream of fairies!”
Gran smiled her soft smile and began the long fairy tale.
After Gran finished her story, making sure the good triumphed over the wicked and the fairies returned to their world by the time she said, “The end.” Aisling yawned and rubbed her eyes as Gran stood.
“Off to sleep. The sooner you sleep, the sooner Mab will bring your dream.” She tucked her graying hair into her nightcap and went to her own bed. Aisling laid awake, listening to both the storm and the older women’s breathing. As soon as their soft breaths became slower and more even, Aisling crept out from beneath her covers. Lightning flashed through the window. The storm hadn’t relented any of its fury. She crept across the wooden floor in bare feet, careful to avoid the creaky spots that Da would have to fix when he came home again. Up to the window she crept and looked outside. She could see nothing but her own reflection in the window glass and the red embers in the hearth behind her.
The moor was pitch black in the storm. Mam’s tin bells were flying in the wind, adding the cacophony of the storm outside her door. Lightning flashed again, and Aisling looked away from the door in time to see a white figure darting across the moor. She gasped and gripped the sill tightly. Maybe it was just a shadow. There’s nothing out there, Da had never seen a fairy. They’re too quick. Gran said so. Another roll of thunder, and this time she heard laughter following the violent roll of sound. Light as the wind but sharp as a knife. The sound made her ears itch. Another flash of lightning, and another. This time, Aisling was ready for the light spill across the drenched moors. There, running over the farthest hill down towards the glen, was a fairy. It just went out of sight as the light disappeared and the thunder shattered the sky. Aisling had to remember to breathe for a moment. Her heart felt as if it had stopped in her chest. She did it! She saw a fairy! And they’re so close by—she never thought fairies would ever be so close. They only existed in Gran’s stories and Mam’s warnings. She wanted to wake Gran, but then she’d get a lashing for being out of bed. Aisling stood for just a moment before she started tiptoeing to Gran’s chest.
The old oak chest opened silently for her, for which she sent a silent prayer. She moved aside the dresses and precious things she had gathered over the years. Her grandda’s gold ring, the first seashell that Aisling had picked up when she was a babe, and a string of pearls that she kept hidden away for Aisling when she was older. She always knew it was there, but she never told Gran she knew. That would spoil the surprise one day. Down at the bottom wrapped in white cloth was Gran’s hag stone. The smooth black surface had almost a perfect circle worn through the center. White speckles dotted the stone as if it was flecked with paint. Gran said it can stop fairy magic, and you can see through their glamour. You just had to be looking through the center at the right place at the right time. She tucked the other items back into their places and shut the oak chest. She would be back soon.
The storm raged outside as Aisling shut the door behind her, immediately getting soaked by the rain. She had a woven shawl wrapped around her small shoulders and that was all. The summer storm raged about her, and for a moment she almost turned back inside. Again, she heard the airy laughter of the fairies following behind the thunder. Before she could change her mind, the girl ran across the moor in the direction she saw the fairy.
She ran as hard as she could, the rain blinding her and the wind whipping her hair around her face. Mam always said to keep her hair back in her cap. If a witch got your hair, they could cast a spell on you. But if a fairy got your hair, they’d switch you with a changeling. Mam was terrified of changelings. Mam was terrified of everything. But not Aisling. She laughed and yelled as the thunder broke around her and the wind swelled to meet her cries. Her hair streaked behind her as she cut through the storm. The rain came down in sheets, soaking her to the bone. Her heart pounded in her chest as she raced across the moor in her dressing gown, her bare feet hardly touching the ground as she ran. Aisling had never run so fast or felt so excited.
Even in the dark she knew the moors’ rises and falls. She played here every day and knew every rock and turn. She dashed towards the glen where she saw the fairy ring earlier that day. The delicate circle of white mushrooms had appeared that morning in the grass where nothing had been before. Another wild yell escaped her as the thunder cracked like a whip above her. She could feel the storm growing, even after all the power it had already spent. But still she ran. She had to. She was going to see a fairy.
Aisling ran to the glen where the fairy ring grew and slowed only so she could find it again. If she could find the fairy ring, she’d be able to find the fairies. She would be able to see the fairies! She danced now across the grass on her toes, stepping lightly so she didn’t accidentally break the ring. Around and around she looked, waiting for the lightning to illuminate her search. Another flash brightened the sky, and there in the corner of her eye, another darting figure. She whipped her head only to be met with her hair and more rain in her face. The thunder cracked above her, and she felt a pinch on the back of her head. She turned around again scratching the spot on her head. She must have pulled her hair when she turned. It was always tangled up in something. Again, she felt a pinch on her head, but this time there was also a tug at her gown. She shrieked and jumped, pawing at the hem of her dressing gown.
Aisling stood rooted to the ground as the rain continued to cascade from the heavens. There, the fairy ring stood just steps in front of her. For a moment, everything around her stood still. The moor was quiet in that moment except for the wind and the laughter that she had been chasing. Her heart pounded as she gasped for breath and another boom of thunder shook the ground. She shrieked and dropped the hag stone in the wet grass. She stooped and searched with shaking hands until she found the stone. It was warm in her hands and she was sure she could feel it pulsing. She took a deep breath and said a silent prayer.
She stepped forward, closer to the fairy ring trying to hear the laughter again. The hag stone felt like a tiny heart in her palm, beating quickly against her skin. Her chest started to burn, faintly at first, but as she got closer and closer to the fairy ring, she couldn’t ignore it anymore. It was her cross. Aisling pulled the iron cross out of her dressing gown to find that it was glowing red. She threw the cross behind her and let the cool rain sooth the burn for just a moment before continuing. She could hear the laughter all around her now, but all she could see was the glen and the fairy ring. Aisling took another deep breath. With shaking hands, she slowly raised the stone to her right eye and peered through the center at the fairy ring.
Inside, the ring fairies gathered. Not the small pixie fairies she had always dreamed about, but huge imposing fairies of the fairy queen’s court. The ones Mam was afraid of. The fairies were dancing all over the moor, but in the fairy ring the biggest gathering of fairies danced. In the glen, musicians with beautifully carved instruments played. She could hear the music now; flutes and lyres and the drums matched the thundering across the drenched land. She turned around her to see the other fairies. Some danced alone with wine spilling from golden and bejeweled goblets. Some danced in large groups, their delicate limbs entwined and their voices lilting as they laughed. The scene looked so haphazard but not a single fairy bumped or crashed into another. Every fairy had gossamer wings that glittered with stars, their hair all as red as her own and wild as they danced soaked in the rain. Not a single fairy paid her any mind. She danced with them twirling in and out of the groups of fairies, always being sure to avoid the fairy ring.
Another swell of the storm brought forth even more fairies. These ones brought out huge golden platters of the most delicious smelling food Aisling had ever seen. They laid the platters along a huge row of tables and the wine never stopped flowing in and out of the goblets. Aisling crept to one of the tables and stole a pastry from a silver plate. Mam always said to never eat food offered by a fairy. But she wasn’t offered it, so it was fine. It looked like a berry tart, but it tasted like sunshine, if that has a taste, and felt warm in her mouth as she ate it. The crust of the pastry crumbled as she bit into it, and the last bits of flavor lingered on her tongue when the small tart was gone. She didn’t realize how cold she was before now, but by the tables it was warm. She stood hiding for just a moment, switching the hag stone between her left and right eyes as she watched the fairies celebrate.
The fairies were beautiful but terrifying creatures. They stood taller than her Da, and slender as a willow switch. They moved with the grace of any dancer, but their movements were deliberate, calculated. They moved like they were hunting something. Their skin shone like Gran’s pearls, and their eyes glowed green. They seemed to have cat’s eyes, but they didn’t look quite right. Something was off. These had something more sinister hiding behind their smiles. Aisling shuddered when she saw the pointed fangs of a fairy as he smiled. She gripped the hag stone in her hand and looked away, letting the fairies fall away for just a moment. Aisling rubbed her eyes before looking through the stone again. Once again, the celebration appeared, she stood right where she was before, and she snuck away from the table and turned to leave.
The musicians changed their chords and the whole storm changed. It had been raging this whole time, but now the thunder rumbled from the ground instead of the sky. All the fairies, even those dancing by themselves, began to dance in unison. The melodic laughter turned to singing and the sharpness of their voices made Aisling ears itch again. She turned to watch for just a moment more when she caught a glimpse of the fairy ring again. She saw a figure that didn’t match the rest. It wasn’t a fairy at all. It couldn’t be.
Closer and closer she crept, darting between the swirling skirts of the courtly fairies, always keep the hag stone to one eye or the other. Still she went unnoticed. She came once again to the fairy ring and she saw the most beautiful fairies dancing here. These fairies were more beautifully intimidating than any of the others, and their clothes were made from the rain and moonlight. The dark cloth swirled like the storm clouds above and glittered with silver specks as if they had woven moonlight into the fabric. There! She saw it again. There was something else dancing with the fairies.
Around she ran to get a better look. This thing she saw didn’t move like a fairy. It wasn’t the same color as a fairy, either. And it wasn’t wearing the same clothes as a fairy. Aisling ran to the fair side of the ring and in the opening of the dancing, she saw a human! Her red hair wasn’t quite as vibrant as theirs, but it was just as wild. Her eyes were blue too, and she was wearing a wine-colored cotton dress. She was smiling and laughing and dancing with the fairies! Aisling laughed out and jumped. Mam was wrong! She knew it! The fairies do let humans see them! She watched the human woman dance and noticed something familiar about her. The way she moved her hair out of her face was familiar. And her laugh. She recognized the woman now. That was Gran! But she was so young!
Aisling took the hag stone away from her eye and the figures disappeared. She looked around and could no longer hear the music of the fairies. She rubbed them both for good measure with her fingers before looking again. There! That had to be Gran dancing! The hag stone removes all glamour, so it couldn’t be a spell here! Aisling tip toed around the ring, keeping Gran in her sight. Gran danced and sang with the fairies, her voice carrying over the music that the fairies played. She watched and smiled and danced closer and closer to the ring. She stopped once again, her toes right next to the closest mushroom.
“Alright,” she said to herself. “Here I go.” Aisling held her breath and jumped into the fairy ring.
All at once, the world went silent. Aisling felt the world crash into her and she dropped the hag stone. This time, nothing disappeared. The rain continued to fall, but for a moment, all she heard was the wind hurdle around her. The fairies stayed, and they were all looking at her. They began to whisper in a language that sounded like a mix of glass tinkling and a snake’s hiss. Aisling’s ears itched, but she was too afraid to move to cover her ears. The fairies stepped around her, watching her with glowing green eyes. She felt like a mouse cornered by a hundred starving cats. Gran turned to her and shook her head. The curls that used to be limp and grey were now full of life.
“I told you not to go wanderin’, child.”
Aisling felt her blood run cold.
The drums began to pound again, more fervently than ever before. The wind howled, and the fairies began a frenzied waltz. The crowd swirled and converged on Aisling. She screamed and ran to Gran. She buried her face in the wet skirt, and Gran patted her head softly. She heard a new sound as the wind swirled around her and peaked from the safety of Gran’s skirt. There on the outskirts of the throng was a carriage. It looked like an overturned hazelnut, with ethereal spider-silk lace about the windows. It was being pulled by four fantastic creatures that glowed with an inner blue light. As they pranced in their traces, she thought they looked like horses one moment, and birds the next, then dogs, and then foxes. Their forms continued to swirl about, always changing after a few moments. These creatures were so much smaller than the carriage. She couldn’t see how they were able to pull something so heavy. The spokes on the wheels looked like spider’s legs and the coachmen stepped down to open the door.
The door opened to the most magnificent and frightening fairy she had seen yet. Her gown flowed like water about her, and a jeweled crown sat on her straight golden hair. The fairies all halted, the musicians stopped, and the crowd bowed to her. Not a single fairy dared to move in the presence of their queen. She glided across the wet ground. Not a drop of the falling rain thought it polite to land on her person. She approached the girl and her grandmother and stood imposing as the girl shuddered in her soaked dressing gown.
Gran bowed her head to the fairy queen and said softly, “Queen Mab, she has come.”
Aisling couldn’t look away from the new figure in front of her. Her features looked like a fox, but the cream-colored skin and blue eyes seemed so inviting and warm. But even Queen Mab had teeth as pointed as any other that surrounded her. She held her breath as she felt the queen’s gaze sweep over her. The fairy queen extended a graceful hand, and Aisling saw the most beautiful stones in her rings. Rubies and emeralds and sapphires all seemed to glow with an inner fire. These stones did not come from her world. The queen smiled and stroked Aisling’s cheek softly, only to scratch her with a trailing finger. A single drop of blood swelled and came away with her finger. Queen Mab touched her finger to her tongue and smiled slowly.
“Of fae blood she is.” She raised her hands as if to signal the crescendo of the storm, and the world was suddenly in motion.
The voices of the fairies rose to a shriek like a banshee screaming in the night. The piercing voices forced Aisling to cover her ears as she screamed in terror. She looked around for Gran, but she had disappeared. She was alone, and the fairies had danced in the ring closer and closer to her. The drums echoed in her mind louder than the singing of the fairies. Lightning flashed across the moor as thunder ripped apart the sky once again. The storm closed in around her.
Summer storms rage and seem as if they never end. They buffet the trees in the glens and dredge up monsters from the deepest depths of the sea to wash them ashore. Ireland is a place of unearthly beauty if you know where to look. The morning had brought the sun to dry out the soaked land. The watery light spilled over the moor, the golden rays shining through the few remaining clouds that floated gently above the ground. On the moor, near the glen, stood an empty fairy ring.