This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Child That Went with the Fairies”, Sheridan Le Fanu, 1870.
I seem to recall seeing this story mentioned in Fortean Times as a good literary representation of fairy beliefs among the Irish.
The story is fairly simple.
It starts out with a description of the Slieveelim hills and a solitary road between Limerick and Dublin.
In that area, lives the widow Mary Ryan with her four children. The magical protections around her simple cottage are several: mountain ash trees believed to be “inimical to witches”, two horseshoes above the door, bits of house-leeks along the thatch roof. Inside, Mary has her rosaries and holy water.
The story takes place in the autumn and, in this area, out of fear of fairies, the so-called “Good people”, the locals get inside at twilight.
After coming home carrying some turf, Mary asks her elder daughter Nell where the other three children are. She didn’t see them outsides. (This part of the story renders the conversation dialectically in, for me, an often times incomprehensible fashion.) Nell goes outside to look for her two brothers Con and Bill and sister Peg. She can’t find them by the nearby bog, and she casts an apprehensive eye towards the rocks of Lisnavoura, reputed home of the fairies. She remembers the stories she’s heard of children stolen by the fairies at nightfall.
Nell comes back to the cottage to tell her mother she can’t find the children. Nell thinks they’ve just ran down the road, but Mary is sure “they’re took”. The nearest help is Father Tom, three miles away.
Just then, mother and daughter see the rest of the children approach up the road. Except there are only two of them. When asked where Bill is, Con says “they took him away”. “He’s gone away with the grand ladies”, says Peg.
Mary goes outside and heads toward the hills of Lisnavoura leaving the crying children behind. She returns and sits by the fire, crying. She tells Nell to be sure to bar the door and to sprinkle herself and the rest of the children with holy water.
The children then recount what happened (related “in my own language” says the storyteller). They were playing on the road in the sunset when “a startling voice with a screech called to them”. They saw an antique coach appointed with gorgeous fittings and with four horses.
The harness and trappings were scarlet, and blazing with gold. The horses were huge, and snow white, with great manes, that as they tossed and shook them in the air, seemed to stream and float sometimes longer and sometimes shorter, like so much smoke — their tails were long, and tied up in bows of broad scarlet and gold ribbon. The coach itself was glowing with colours, gilded and emblazoned. There were footmen in gay liveries, and three-cocked hats, like the coachman’s; but he had a great wig, like a judge’s, and their hair was frizzed out and powdered, and a long thick ‘pigtail,’ with a bow to it, hung down the back of each.
All these servants were diminutive, and ludicrously out of proportion with the enormous horses of the equipage, and had sharp, sallow features, and small, restless fiery eyes, and faces of cunning and malice that chilled the children. The little coachman was scowling and showing his white fangs under his cocked hat, and his little blazing beads of eyes were quivering with fury in their sockets as he whirled his whip round and round over their heads, till the lash of it looked like a streak of fire in the evening sun, and sounded like the cry of a legion of ‘fillapoueeks’ in the air.‘Stop the princess on the highway!’ cried the coachman, in a piercing treble.
A very beautiful woman leaned out of the carriage, smiling. “The boy with the golden hair, I think”, she said eyeing Bill. Through the glass windows of the carriage, the children see another woman.
This was a black woman, with a wonderfully long neck, hung round with many strings of large variously-coloured beads, and on her head was a sort of turban of silk striped with all the colours of the rainbow, and fixed in it was a golden star.
This black woman had a face as thin almost as a death’s-head, with high cheekbones, and great goggle eyes, the whites of which, as well as her wide range of teeth, showed in brilliant contrast with her skin, as she looked over the beautiful lady’s shoulder, and whispered something in her ear.
The beautiful woman again said she wanted the blonde boy. Her voice is “sweet as a silver bell”, and she looks on Bill with “ineffable fondness”. She stretched her arms towards him and asked for a kiss and invited him to sit on her knee.
Seeing him on the knee of the beautiful woman, the rest of the children would like to have traded places with Bill, the center of attention, but they were uneasy with the black woman who stuffed a large handkerchief in her month seemingly to stop from laughing. Her eyes, though, looked very angry.
The beautiful woman kissed and caressed Bill. She pulled out an apple and showed it to the other children and invited them to have it then she dropped it, and it rolled away into the road. And she produced several more, also dropped them, and they rolled down the road and into holes or the ditch; the children pursued them.
And then they began to see the coach, now far away from them, begin to roll away.
It seemed that there the horses’ hoofs and carriage wheels rolled up a wonderful dust, which being caught in one of those eddies that whirl the dust up into a column, on the calmest day, enveloped the children for a moment, and passed whirling on towards Lisnavoura, the carriage, as they fancied, driving in the centre of it; but suddenly it subsided, the straws and leaves floated to the ground, the dust dissipated itself, but the white horses and the lackeys, the gilded carriage, the lady and their little golden-haired brother were gone.
Mary never sees her son again, but his siblings do. Sometimes, when Mary is away, they see Bill outside of the doorway, “smiling archly”, but he runs away when they approach him. Sometimes his hand enters the cottage, his finger beckoning them. But these visions of Bill happen less and less, and, in eight months, cease altogether.
About a year and a half after his disappearance, Nell is sleeping, and Bill appears again. Peg tries to wake her, but can’t. Bill is “barefoot and ragged, and looked pale and famished”. He warms himself silently by the fire, and, after a while, tiptoes out the cottage with Nell still asleep.
It is the last sight of Bill his family will have. Neither “fairy doctors” or clergyman bring Bill back.
And the last paragraph expresses the grief of Bill’s family and the pain of not knowing his fate:
So little Billy was dead to mother, brother, and sisters; but no grave received him. Others whom affection cherished, lay in holy ground, in the old churchyard of Abington, with headstone to mark the spot over which the survivor might kneel and say a kind prayer for the peace of the departed soul. But there was no landmark to show where little Billy was hidden from their loving eyes, unless it was in the old hill of Lisnavoura, that cast its long shadow at sunset before the cabin-door; or that, white and filmy in the moonlight, in later years, would occupy his brother’s gaze as he returned from fair or market, and draw from him a sigh and a prayer for the little brother he had lost so long ago, and was never to see again.
Holy smokes, that’s wicked melancholy!
I’ve always found this story to be particularly haunting, frightening and atmospheric.
Le Fanu was a very, very good author and also quite prolific.