One Sunday morn many years ago, in a small church well outside of Dublin town, Father Ryan stood in the pulpit and railed against belief in the Little People. The priest scolded his straying flock for fearing fairies more than they feared God. He praised the wearing of the Cross as a sign of faith, but criticized the display of holy items as talismans to ward off imaginary sprites. He encouraged the baptism of new born babes, but scoffed at the thought that this must be done to prevent their replacement with fairy changelings. He applauded those who prayed for divine healing, but denounced those who claimed to receive healing knowledge from eldritch entities.
"Individuals who retain faith in the fairies risk damning their eternal souls," Father Ryan declared to a parish irritated by his attack upon time-honoured traditions.
Cross scowls and sour glares met the priest's gaze when he looked up from his notes. A farmer who never tilled the earth near the local fairy mound frowned contemptuously. An herbalist suspected of having frequent liaisons with the fay snorted angrily. Some parishioners glanced anxiously toward the door, but only the drinkers who regularly slipped out to the pub before services ended actually got up and left. The sermon's subject matter had roused their thirst more than usual that day.
The scholarly product of a seminary education, Father Ryan adhered firmly to his modern mindset. He finished his homily unperturbed by the intemperate defectors and glowering discontents.
"This world of rationality has no room for outdated beliefs," Father Ryan concluded. "There is no space for fairies in the hearts and minds of true Christians. There is no place for them in this parish."
A disgruntled crowd grudgingly remained to receive the Holy Communion and final blessing. Once Father Ryan recited the parting prayer, the pews emptied quicker than usual. Disconcerted by their priest's condemnation of belief in the Wee Folk, many people hurried back to their homes. A few of the bolder souls loitered about the front steps and discussed their displeasure with Father Ryan's extreme scepticism regarding the reality of the fay.
"'Tisn't right to talk about the Gentry in that fashion," grumbled one parishioner.
"Mark my words, no good will come o' it," suggested another.
"They know when one talks poorly o' 'em," voiced a third. "'Tis truly a dangerous thing t'do."
"What utter nonsense!" Father Ryan retorted as he joined the small throng congregated around the church stairs. His priestly vestments flopped wildly as he shook his finger at those who suggested he might suffer retribution for his avowed disbelief in beings of lore. "Invisible elves wreaking supernatural vengeance are the stuff of children's bedtime stories, nothing more. You should be ashamed of yourselves for suggesting otherwise!"
"One o' these days, you'll rue your words," an especially vocal elder averred.
"I seriously doubt it," Father Ryan stated. "I don't fear things that don't exist. Now, be off with you!"
The lingering crowd dispersed. Father Ryan shook his head as he watched them go their separate ways. He never understood why sensible persons clung to silly fantasies. He muttered something about foolish rustics and then marched back to the vestry to get out of his uncomfortably warm robes and pour himself a pleasantly hot cup of tea.
Nightfall of the following Tuesday, Tommy Byrne, eldest son of the farmer who never ploughed the ancient earthwork located upon his land, came knocking at the rectory door. Old Mary, matriarch of the Byrne clan, had taken seriously ill. Tom's father had sent Tom along with his best horse harnessed to the trap in the hope that Father Ryan would ride right out to the house and anoint Old Mary with holy oil. Paddy Byrne felt as strongly about the power of priests to heal as he did about the dangers of disturbing fairy mounds.
Always willing to administer to those in need, Father Ryan rushed back inside to pack his bag. Once chrism, candles, bible, and other necessities were tucked away, the priest shouldered his satchel, grabbed his hat, and joined Tommy on the seat of the trap. The lad gave the stallion a light slap of the reins and off they went as the horse-drawn carriage rolled out of the village and into the darkening hills.
The full moon had not quite risen over the eastern hills, but the stars shone brightly in a cloudless sky as horse and trap approached the Byrne farmstead. The road wound around a broad furrowed ridge and then descended down a gentle grade. Gnarled blackthorns lined the lane on either side. Ahead and to the right, a well-worn path led through a break in the hedge and up to the doorstep of a rambling grange. Candles flickered in every one of the farmhouse's front windows. Across a pasture opposite the farmstead stood the fairy mound. Evening's deepening gloom blackened its swarded slopes.
A yellow gleam, like that cast by a distant bonfire, drew Father Ryan's attention toward the small hill. As the carriage rattled past the rise, he thought he spied small figures capering before the flames that danced upon the mound's crown.
"Who would be cavorting atop that hill after dark?" Father Ryan inquired.
"What do you mean?" Tommy asked with a puzzled expression on his youthful face.
"I see people making merry around an open fire, on that hill," Father Ryan pointed toward the mound.
A chill coursed down Tommy's spine, but he turned to look. He saw naught but the hilltop silhouetted against a starry sky.
"Ha, I don't see anyone!" Tommy exclaimed with a nervous laugh. He knew the risks mortals took prying into Fair Folk affairs, and he was glad he saw nothing.
Father Ryan was about to reproach the lad for ignoring the obvious, when he glanced back at the mound. All was dark and still. The figures and flames had vanished.
Not knowing what to make of it, the priest assumed he had let his imagination get the better of him. He wrote off the sighting as a case of his eyes playing tricks on him. He forgot all about the strange vision once they arrived at Paddy's front door.
The farmer greeted Father Ryan with a nod and muttered thanks and then ushered the priest right into his mother's room. Old Mary lay in her bed, pale and barely breathing. Not liking what he saw, Father Ryan administered extreme unction. After he read the appropriate scripture, recited the proper prayers, and anointed Mary's eyes, ears, nose, lips, and hands with holy oil, he motioned for Paddy to follow him into the adjoining room.
"I think your mother may be at death's door," Father Ryan said solemnly. "You did well sending for me, but has she been examined by Doctor Kelly?"
"Naught doctors can do for her now," the farmer said. "Struck down by a fairy stroke, I imagine."
Father Ryan rolled his eyes.
"Struck down by old age, more like it," the priest countered.
"Either 'cause o' ol' age or elf-shot, Mam may pass on soon enough," Paddy stated gravely. "That is, unless your anointing hands have some healing power in 'em. I've seen it before. I've seen the dying get daubed with holy oil and go on living for months."
"She may recover, if that is God's will!" Father Ryan declared. "It's in His hands now."
"All be in His hands, or so you priests preach," Paddy said. "Anyway, you've done all you can for the time being, but Mam may be needing more of your prayers again before the night's over. Besides, 'tis getting late. Won't you stay here tonight? The missus can fix up the spare room, and even a cup o' tea, unless you want something stronger. I have some poteen stashed away, for wakes and weddings and curing sick calves."
"Just tea," Father Ryan sighed. Although not a complete teetotaller, he rarely drank anything more potent than sherry. He never touched the unlawful homemade brew, and disapproved of its continued production by country folk. However, he eagerly welcomed the invitation to stay overnight in the Byrne house. He did not relish the thought of a second night-time trip past that eerie earthwork.
"Well, you can't have tea without something to nibble on," Paddy said. "I imagine you're hungry after coming all this way. I'll make sure the missus serves up some of her tasty dainties."
"That would be lovely," the priest grinned.
After Father Ryan finished a late snack of tea and Maeve Byrne's delectable cakes, he was shown to a small chamber in the back corner of the house. The light of the rising full moon flooded through the room's large window and cast a silvery sheen over bed, dresser, and washing stand. Paddy lit a candle and then opened the casement.
"'Tis a warm night, and you may be more comfortable with the window left open," the farmer explained.
"That's fine," Father Ryan said. "I don't mind the night air."
"Then, g'night," Paddy grunted as he took his leave of the priest.
Father Ryan closed the curtains but left the window open. He knelt down to say his evening prayers and then prepared for bed. He snuffed out the candle, lay down on the slightly lumpy but serviceable mattress, and tried his best to fall asleep.
Just as Father Ryan started to drift off to sleep, a peculiar sound interrupted his rest. He heard the rustling of cloth, as if a sudden gust had agitated the curtains. He sat up and looked toward the window.
Not a breath blew through the open casement. The curtains remained motionless. Perplexed, Father Ryan got out of bed, parted the unmoving window dressing a crack, and peeked out.
The moon hung over the nearby fairy mound and bathed its crown in an argent glow. A deep darkness clung to the hillock's base. Closer to the house, dusky shadows lurked beneath the blackthorn hedge. Although no breeze stirred leaf or twig, the ebon shapes that gathered amongst the prickly branches seemed to dance and sway.
"I'm too tired; I'm seeing things!" Father Ryan proclaimed as he rubbed his eyes. He got back into bed and tried once more to fall asleep. However, as tired as he was, sleep refused to come. The night's strange events had begun to trouble his mind. He disliked things that challenged his black-and-white, angels-or-demons view of the spirit world. The in-between realm of fairy did just that.
A definite movement of the curtains made Father Ryan sit up with a start and stare toward the window. He gaped in numb fear as clawed hands drew the curtains apart. Three sinisterly twisted faces then peered in. Each hideous visage bore a wicked leer. Red eyes glimmered like smouldering embers as the dreadful creatures glared at the priest. A cloven hoof stepped onto the sill.
"Devils!" Father Ryan cried. Forgetting his duty as a man of the cloth to combat fiendish spirits, he leapt out of bed and bolted out of the room. Leaving his hat and satchel behind, he dashed out of the farmhouse door and through the gap in the hedge. Fearing that he might spy additional horrors, the priest refused to look back as he sprinted up the road. He never stopped running until he arrived at the relative safety of the church vestibule. As he ran, he decided that he would ask the bishop for a transfer to a parish sited in a more urban district. Father Ryan had had enough with the strangeness of country living.
After the priest fled in terror, the room erupted in laughter. The three mischief-makers doffed their terrible guises and revealed their true fairy natures. They stepped back outside and mounted ragwort stems magically transformed into flying mounts.
The hilltop rose up on crimson pillars to expose a grand fete lit by shining silver lanterns. The gleeful pranksters soared thrice around the hill and then joined their carousing brethren within the hollow mound. Riotous guffaws echoed across the countryside as the puckish trio told of the trick they had played. Then the hilltop closed, once more hiding the fairies' eternal revelries from prying mortal eyes.
Copyright © 2013 Richard H. Fay
Story originally published in Anotherealm, November 2013.