The clue to the origin of the people is in the origin of the word.
Old English aelf. Ultimately from the Indo-European root albho- (white), which is also the source of oaf, albino, album, albumen, and albedo.
I see them furtively peering out from the bushes, changing shape and freezing motionless when I look their way. I see them watching me. Perhaps I am becoming more observant. My interest in the local fauna makes me so. In any case, it seems some of them don’t even make a great effort to hide any more. As if they know I know they are there. They just slide back into obscurity in some unexplainable way but I see their smiles reluctantly follow them.
Something is going to happen. I can feel it. Something always happens when theyincrease their surveillance. Something always happens if I notice them. What will it be this time?
I have remembered something. I have something I must remember. There is always something I must remember. But I can’t remember what. Yet.
Why did I say “always”?
When I was very young, my invisible friend told me something important. Then he told me to forget it until I needed to remember it. I remember asking how I could remember something I had forgotten. He said it was like feeling a marble in your pocket. You will know exactly what it is, and what to do with it. ”How will I know when to feel for it in the pocket of my mind?” I asked. How do I remember that now after all these years?
He gave me a strange smile and said I would know the time was right when I recalled who he was. And that was when I forgot his name. I even forgot about him entirely until I heard my mum telling someone about my imagination, and how I held up a bus once until my invisible friend got on. I had made the conductor hold up the bus until he joined us. People thought it was just a cute story about a little boy with a big imagination. I have a vague feeling it was actually something quite serious. If he had not got on the bus, something would have happened. Like something is going to happen soon.
Later, when I was older, I used to ask my mother “What was the name of the invisible friend I had when I was small?” She would tell me, and I would immediately forget it again.
Now it comes to me.
It was Wayland. I called him Mr Wayland. And there is something else. Something he only told me before he went away. He said he was my great-grandfather. But how could that be?
I am pretty sure he was one of them.
I had a flashback the other night. Back to when I was commuting by train to the Ministry, just before I bought the Honda. One morning right on time, at about 7.25, the Hutt Valley train pulled in to the platform just as the Paraparaumu train pulled in on the other side. Both disgorged their passengers and the entire platform was filled with shoulder to shoulder commuters, shuffling slowly toward the bottleneck of the station gates. As a group around me fell unconsciously in step with each other, I had a sudden image of the scene from Metropolis in which the trudging workers march to their posts at the change of shift.
I worked my way through the station and down to the underpass that goes to Molesworth Street. Ahead I could hear a busker playing a haunting Irish tune on a tin whistle. He was very good. I have a set of whistles that I try to play, and I do not play them well. I never cease to wonder how some people can coax such beautiful sounds from the instrument. I just can’t.
The music echoed up the underpass and it seemed to me impossible not to follow. I wondered why no one else was as joyously affected as I. As I came up to the player I saw he had positioned himself strategically in front of a tourism poster showing a wild rocky view with a strange – looking erection of stone slabs. ”A dolmen”, I thought “And something more”…
“Visit Ireland and the Burren” said the poster. At the very bottom, it said “Poule na Brone, Co. Clare, Ireland” and “Irish Tourism Board”.
Such music was worth being a little late for, and I stood to listen. The crowds shuffled on, pushing past me impatiently. I wanted to tell them to stop and listen because you don’ t hear this kind of music every day. It was full of sorrow and joy like old memories. Their faces were blank and their eyes empty. This music meant nothing to them. Zombies.
Soon I found myself standing alone listening to this young man play. He seemed lost in the music and indeed I felt as if it was carrying me away to some old time in the old country depicted in the poster before me. It reminded me of something I could not quite grasp with my mind. Something like the dreams that fade even as you strive to recall them.
There was a hat on the ground in front of him. I reached into my pocket and felt the handful of change I always carry. Coffee money. Normally I would feel for a one dollar coin (or a two if the busker was really good) but this morning, on impulse I took out the entire pocketful and dropped it into the hat. I immediately felt a slight pang of regret as I saw I had given him nine or ten dollars and a few odd bits of silver.
No coffee today, except the free stuff at work.
The flautist stopped playing with a final flourish and gave a little bow, and very quietly said “Thank ye sir” in a fine Irish brogue.
“You are from the old Country” I said. “Which part?”
He grinned and pointed at the poster. “There” he said. “County Clare”
“Really?” Said I, “Sure , my own Grandmother is from County Clare”. I realised I was putting on a bit of an accent myself.
He gave me a sly smile, and asked ” And do ye still have the small pouch she gave you?”
I was startled and hesitated for a second. He stared straight at me. His eyes were hazel, like my own. His eyes seemed much older than he appeared to be. Maybe he was older than I had thought.
“D’ye have it still?”
I remembered the tiny leather sovereign purse my grandmother gave me when we left England to emigrate to New Zealand in 1957.
He waited expectantly. It did not seem at all strange that he knew about it.
” I do” I said. I had a notion that this was all very important, for some reason that was beyond my grasp.
“And the contents?”
The Gold watch fob ornament I had engraved and gave to my wife”. I said.
A look of concern. “Does she wear it still?”
“She gave it to my daughters. They share it”.
I could swear it was a pitying look he gave me then. “And the other contents”?
“There was a piece of paper with some writing on it but it disintegrated years ago and I lost it. I don’t know what it said, I could never read it.”
“That was your Grandma’s blessing, and ye have it still” he said quietly. Then, as if reciting:
“Duine éigin a ghrá,
obair a dhéanamh,
Agus na caomhnóirí in aice i gcónaí.
It means “ Someone to love, work to do, sunlight, joy, and guardians ever near“.
He looked at me expectantly. “And?”
“There was a sixpenny bit. A silver one, worn so smooth it was just a thin disc of silver. I have it still, in the pouch”.
He seemed pleased at that. ”Good.” he said. “Keep it. Keep it safe. So long as you have it, t’is not for long you’ll be short of money.”
“That’s what she told me”.
He touched me lightly on the shoulder. ”And won’t I be seein ye again soon” he said.
I stood there thinking of my Grandmother. I could smell stewed apple and cloves.
Then I looked around, wondering where everyone had gone. I was standing in the underpass at the railway station, in front of a poster of Ireland, daydreaming about my Grandmother. Why? Ah! because the poster mentions County Clare, where she was from.
I felt as if something unusual had happened. I had music running through my head. What was I doing here? I looked at my watch. I should be half way up the hill by now. What had I been daydreaming about? I looked again at the poster. Something about it seemed odd. I had no idea what a Burren was. The Dolmen held my attention for a moment, and I felt a shiver run down my spine. ”The Hole of Sorrows” said a soft voice nearby. I looked around. But I was alone. There was a figure in the poster I had not noticed before; a man carrying something small. The words across the bottom of the poster almost obscured him as he walked behind them. ”Visit Ireland and the Burren” he seemed to be saying.
“Someday I shall” said I, and marched off to work.
Later I wondered what the hell I had done with my coffee money.
I never thought of the incident again, until long after.
Some time later I was sent by the Ministry to the International Water Association conference in Vienna . Since a paid trip to Europe was not something that came my way often, I took the opportunity to enjoy some leave and have a look around Ireland before I returned to New Zealand. My plan was to visit the old stone cottage near Quinn, close to Ennis, in County Clare, where my Grandmother was raised, after she was born back in 1902. For some reason I could not quite place at the time I also felt an inexplicable urge to visit the Burren, a landmark further to the north. It was a place I knew little about, but had heard of once.
In Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, I discovered a Faery Path. It quite was easy to find, or perhaps the term recognise is more appropriate, because it was not lost or hidden. That which the Faerie hide is not easily found. Local belief is that it will not do at all to block the paths that the Faerie have walked for millenia. Bad things tend to happen to those who do. So when one spots a seemingly random gap in a wall, ten to one says it is there so as not to obstruct a path that is used by the Little People.
In some situations it seems they will be satisfied with a style and I am not sure how one determines this. One thing is for sure. No one, at least no one of my generation or older, would dare obstruct the Faerie, and would never build a structure such as a house or barn in their way.
It took a while for me to work out where the path led. It seems the objection to obstruction does not extend to vegetation and at first it appeared that there was nowhere that anyone using this path through the wall could come from or go to.
But they are not called the little people for nothing, even though it is indeed a misnomer. They are not much smaller than you or I. Well. That is to say, they are quite a bit smaller than I am but not much shorter. I think they are called little people because they can vanish very easily. Assuming of course that you ever see them in the first place. I have already mentioned that I have seen them, so I speak with some authority on the subject.
As I explored, I discovered almost invisible gaps in the hedges in positions that aligned with the wall. They were narrow and suited to someone much slimmer and more lithe, but not impassable even for a tubby chap such I. Having passed through a few such gaps, and another hole in a wall I began to get a good idea of the general direction in which the path was heading.
After a twenty minute walk I came through a hedge into a small rock strewn field. Directly opposite was a dry stone wall constructed of the same rocks scattered around the paddock. Sitting on the style was a young man. As I approached he stood, a broad smile on his nut -brown face.
“Did I not tell ye we’d be meetin’ again?” he said, taking my hand and clasping it warmly.
I remembered a flute playing a stirring tune, and suddenly I recognised this young man. Not so young he was either, now I looked closer. His hazel eyes twinkled.
I stared… ”Mr Wayland?”
“Did yer bring the sixpence lad?”
Around my neck was a black string. On the string was a small leather sovereign pouch that contained my wedding ring, which no longer fitted my chubby fingers, and a small disc of smooth polished silver that was an ancient worn sixpenny bit.
“Sure and would I come to the Old Country without it?” I asked in my best imitation of my Grandmother’s brogue. I took it out and showed him.
“Silver and Gold” he breathed. He sounded very relieved. ”Sure and ye have silver and gold! When you told me you gave away the token I was worried about how we could rectify that. What is given cannot be taken back, and must be offered unasked for. But ye solved the problem ye’self! And with the right kind of gold. Gold that is given. Well done lad!”
Wayland touched me on the elbow in a gesture that I knew meant I should follow him. He led me through a yet more stony fields until we came to a rocky hill. It seemed to be a circular outcrop perhaps a couple of hundred metres in diameter, surrounded by a stone wall about waist high. There was a small gap in the wall just like the one that had started me on this strange journey. Once through, we picked our way through a boulder strewn field overgrown with bushes and briars. Urging me to stay near, Wayland wound his way through the boulders. I followed close behind. At last, as we stood at the very base of the cliff, we turned to walk towards the setting sun, with the cliff at our left, and the fields to the right, still clambering over and around boulders and brambles.
We walked for what seemed like miles until I was quite sure we had walked all the way around the hill. In fact I could tell we must have done so by the way the shadows fell. Yet still we carried on, making what seemed to be another complete circuit, and yet another. Each time I became certain we had returned to our starting point I looked around carefully for some landmark or sign but could not recognise a single feature to prove we had already passed that way. I could not even see the gap in the wall by which we had entered the field. Finally, on what I was sure by the now lengthening shadows must be our third circuit, Wayland stopped and pointed back to a cave entrance that we just passed. It looked like a tall door in the rocks. I was absolutely certain we had not passed it before. I would have seen it. It was puzzling.
“We go through there. ” he said. “Through the… thairseach, what do you call it? Portal.”
“Portal? To Where?”
He looked at me as if I was a bit slow. A half smile crinkled his eyes. One eyebrow lifted.
“You are kidding.” I said. ”You are taking me to faeryland?”
“We don’t use that term, Alan. It is too… Disney. We prefer to call it talamh síochánta – the Peaceful Land.” And yes, that is where you and I must go this day…”