THE WEE FOLK

 

By Una Montgomery

 

One fine, harvest day early in the century, Lord O'Ronald was taking his customary afternoon stroll around his estate. The sound of the reaper in the cornfield was music to his ears. The hum of industry always gave him a fine sense of satisfaction, as did the sight, presently revealed, of a long, orderly row of workers bending to lift the corn.

The estate lay in one of the more remote parts of Ireland; it bordered on marginal land which always seemed to present a challenge. Lord O'Ronald felt like a general commanding an outpost regiment. Across the frontier lay the threat of invasion by wild forces. He believed his best defence lay in untiring vigilance, order and industry. His well tilled acres, his tall trees with their singing birds, his neatly planted borders had a peculiar significance in contrast with the outer wild.

Lord O'Ronald had no patience with idlers. As he strolled around his field, was pleased to see that everyone was working hard. The clear sky which foretold a stretch of fine weather, seemed to be on his side. If everyone kept at it, another rich harvest would be won. He halted in his rambling and rested his elbows on a five-barred gate to enjoy a pipe. The aroma of tobacco mingled with the heavy smell of meadowsweet and new-mown oats. The steady rhythm of the reaper provided a background to the short, sudden rushes of birdsong from the hedges.

At first he scarcely noticed that a new stave had crept into the orchestra. Was it a thrush trying out a new melody? No, it was sweeter and wilder than the song of any thrush. It rose and trembled on the warm air for a moment, long enough for him to locate its origin in the open ground beyond his own tidy fence. A tumbledown stone wall ran across the barren slope of the hill. It was from behind that wall the music came. A frown of annoyance crossed Lord O'Ronald's face. Seamus again! He swung himself over the boundary fence and strode towards the wall. Sure enough, Seamus was crouched behind the wall. In his hand was the flute he had carved so cunningly from a length of boortree. Lord O'Ronald was in a fine tantrum.

"What are you doing?Ē he roared. "Don't you know that every pair of hands is needed in the field on a day like this?"

Seamus jumped to his feet, tucking his flute away in his ragged shirt. Though he came obediently, his face betrayed no alarm nor cowering humility. The cool, detached expression in his eyes maddened Lord O'Ronald.

"I'm getting sick of you," he roared, "you do nothing but idle around, dreaming and playing that infernal whistle. It's bad enough on an ordinary day. But in the middle of the harvest, itís ..... it's ..... itís intolerable! Just let me catch you once more ..... and ....."

Seamus did not wait to hear more. He was off like the wind to join the harvest. O'Ronald sighed as he watched him leap nimbly over the fence and sprint across the stubble. Seventeen years old he was ..... all wiry strength and as fleet as a mountain goat. He could do the work of two heavy-limbed labourers, if he wanted to. It was a sore disappointment that he could not he induced to want to.

No one ever rightly knew who Seamus was, or where he had come from. He had been found one day seventeen years before, laughing and cooing to himself in a wicker basket, under the weeping willow on Lord O'Ronald's lawn. Since his parents could not be traced, O'Ronald had taken charge of him and placed him in the care of one of his cottiers, a kindly little woman who had lost her own son in infancy. She doted on the strange child, but her husband watched him grow with a jealous eye and, when she died, it was not long till he threw Seamus out of the cottage. Aged fourteen, he should have been able to a earn his keep, but since he worked only in fits and starts, he was tolerated rather than employed on the estate and had to do with a bed in the stables and a bite when and where he could find it.

He was a strange looking lad, with a pale face, melancholy eyes and tousled fair hair. He drifted about on his own, rarely speaking to anyone. He never seemed to belong to any company and the workers on the estate regarded him with a mixture of amazement and distrust. They liked to fool themselves that he was half-witted and, when they were all together and feeling brave, they would make him the butt of their jokes and derogatory remarks. Secretly, they were afraid of his strange silences and his melancholy eyes that could flash with sudden, disturbing intelligence. One day he had turned his fire on them:

"You think me a fool ..... but it is you who are the fools. You think that it is a wise thing to work from dawn to dusk, sweating your guts out to keep Lord O'Ronald living in luxury in his mansion. You pay in toil and sweat ten times over for your miserable little cottages and the poor bite you eat. You get pains from working out in all weathers. Hardly one of you has a warm coat or a pair of good boots to his feet."

This speech was greeted by a loud burst of laughter which maddened him. He fixed his compelling eyes on them and spoke in an even voice:

"There is more to life than work and sleep. You are so blind you do not see the beauty that is in the world for your enjoyment. It's not for the likes of you, you think. You are so deaf you do not hear the music. It has nothing to say to you. You are not people. You're just human spades and pitchforks. When you are done, you will be left out in the rain to rot and rust. As you lie under the hedge you will see nothing and hear nothing. You will only feel the damp rising in your bones."

He was silent after that. They did not attempt to tease him any more, but left him to his whittling of boortree flutes and to his strange, wild music. The music made them uneasy. There was something not right about it. Even on this hot afternoon, it sent a chill up the spine. They were relieved when the master had spotted him and put an end to it. As he joined them he could sense their thick, dumb satisfaction. He bent to work, a secret smile playing about his mouth.

Seamus did more work than two men that afternoon, yet not once did they see a drop of sweat on his brow, nor did his eyes lose their cool serenity. Come dusk, he walked from the field as a young man might to his work in the morning. As the others stumbled wearily home to their cottages, the night air was sweet with the sound of the strangest music they had yet heard. They heard it in their dreams, and Lord O'Ronald heard it, and turned and twisted uneasily in his fine feather bed.

Very early the next morning, Seamus rose and walked out of the stable yard and across the dewy lawn past the weeping willow, and down the long avenue where the trees stood rigid as sentries. At the bend he turned for a glance at the big, sleeping house and the warm stables where he had bedded down with his dear friends, the horses. His eyes were deep pools of sadness. As he turned and lifted them to the mountains they kindled with a new light. He strode forward into the morning haze and by the time the sun showed itself to the world, he was nothing but a tiny speck in the distance. By the time it was noon he was gone from them ..... for ever.

He walked and walked, maybe for hours, or days, or even weeks. Or was it for some measure of time not reckoned by clocks and calendars? The landscape grew wilder and lonelier. Every mile widened the gulf between him and his first seventeen years. It felt like the slow tearing of roots out of familiar soil. With every pang he experienced a mingled sense of loneliness and liberation. But there was no going back.

The narrow track rose into the mountains. When the last habitation dipped from sight, Seamus found himself alone in a vast wilderness. Night was coming and already the valleys and plains were blotted out by dense shadows. A sudden wind whipped up, cold rain began to fall. Horrible screeching sounds filled the air and fierce hands seemed to pluck at him. He clung to the rocks, trembling.

The wind dropped and dawn broke, silent and serene. He found himself on top of a high mountain. The sun rose in a clear, blue sky to disclose the most immense and beautiful panorama of hill and valley, field and forest that he had ever seen. His heart rose with a vast sense of freedom and lordship. He took out his flute and began to play and the joy of his music through the hills.

Seamus gradually accommodated himself to his isolation. His needs were simple. He discovered where the water sprang from the rock and where to find roots and berries to eat. He built himself a shelter to sleep. By day he would wander among the hills, playing his flute and listening for the echoes. At first he was very happy but, as time passed, he grew lonely. A deep depression settled on him. The tunes he played were sad and despairing.

He had found one hardy tree springing from a cleft in the rock. One day he sat under this tree playing a melancholy tune. A slight breeze stirred the branches above him. Suddenly something fell at his feet. He started. It seemed like a living thing ..... a small snake perhaps. He picked it up to throw it from him. It was only a dry piece of wood ..... a strangely shaped piece ..... just like a little wooden man. He studied it thoughtfully.

Over the next few months he was too busy to feel lonely or sad. He spent all the spare hours of daylight fashioning little figures from scraps of wood. He would take a day off now and then, and scour the mountainsides for more materials for he did not want to use the wood of his own tree. He had acquired skill in whittling flute. Now he developed his skill to a fine art.

Each little figure was more lifelike than the previous one. He learnt how to make figures with moveable arms and legs and quite striking, facial features. He experimented with herbal dyes to colour their skin and their tufts of woolly hair gleaned from thorn hedges around the lower pasture. Occasionally he found scraps of rag which he dyed and fashioned into clothing. It was not long till he had a numerous family of wee folk to keep him company.

Seamus played merry tunes again. He longed to see his wee folk dancing. He collected delicate fibres and wove them into strings. With these he suspended the little figures from a low branch of his tree. He would sit up among the leaves and play his flute and work the strings with his bare feet so that the whole company danced on the ground below. Every evening there would be a dance and, on moonlight nights, the dance would go on till past midnight. Neither he nor the wee folk wearied of this amusement.

One summer night two young cross-country hikers lost their way among the hills. Moonlight on strange rock formations cast eerie shadows. The stillness seemed to breathe. As in a dream, they stumbled on up the mountain track. Perhaps the view from the top would help them to fix their position, help them to locate the read to the hostel. It was a long, long trudge up the kill. They had not much breath for talking. They imagined they heard music. Then they were sure. Someone was playing a flute. Maybe somebody lived in this isolated place. Maybe they could rest till morning.

As they neared the mountain top, they saw the tree shimmering in the moonlight and casting its restless shadows across the stony space. It seemed to beckon them to come and rest. As they moved towards it, the tree broke into music. It was the strangest thing to hear that wild, sweet air coming from a lone tree. At close on midnight! The thought of fairies crossed both their minds. Without speaking, they dropped on their knees and began to crawl cautiously nearer. The whole air about them vibrated with the merry tune. With fast-beating hearts they moved slowly forward, their eyes riveted on the tree.

A strange sight rose before their tired eyes ..... a whole company of tiny people were dancing round a little fire of twigs in time to the music. Where the music came from was a mystery. It seemed to come from the tree itself, or from the ground at its roots. They crouched where they had halted, and stared. The dancers stopped in their tracks and turned to stare them back. Then the music changed to an angry screech and the dancers began to stamp and gesticulate. They began to advance on the two young men. In the shadow of the tree, their faces appeared contorted with rage. They were a fearsome sight. The young men rose and hurried down the mountainside as though pursued by devils. The music changed to a malicious laugh.

None of their fellow-lodgers believed the young men's story. They tried it on the local people who shook their heads and were non-committal. Lord O'Ronald was a very old man by now. When the tale reached his ears, he sent for the two travellers and questioned them closely. He followed their answers very seriously as though he really believed every word.

The story was not forgotten after the strangers left. It grew with repetition. They joked about it, but were secretly terrified of the mountain. Eventually, it became a test of courage for a young man to climb alone on a moonlight night as far as the tree. Many young men made this pilgrimage over the years. None ever again heard the music of the flute, nor saw the wee folk dancing. Seamus and they had vanished whence he came.

 

 

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