Note to adults:
The following story may be a little scary for younger readers. If you think so please wait for the final chapter.
Picture by Edith Starr
MARY absently washed the saucepan as she watched the man climb the mountain. Her Grandmother walked in shaking her head, followed by Rua, Mary's Irish red setter dog.
"Who was that Grandma?"
The old woman sat slowly onto a chair and picked up a tea-towel. She started to wipe up the dishes. "I don't like that man and neither did Rua."
Mary sloshed the water. "Who is he?"
"He didn't give his name," she bent down and patted Rua on the head, "I have never known this dog to take an instant dislike to someone before. Growled at him all the time he was there." She carefully placed the dry plate on top of the other.
Mary peered out the window. The mountain was full of colour. On the lower slopes, whin bushes were producing the first cluster of yellow flowers, long coarse grass intermingled with late daffodils. Higher up, purple heather mixed with wild cotton splashed across a green mountainside.
The man was nowhere to be seen.
"Where was he going?"
Her Grandmother inspected the saucepan and put it back into the soap-suds. "He asked for the Key Gate. I didn't know what he was talking about at first, then I realised he was talking about the Rocking Stone. He had the strangest eyes, black like the night. . .. Mary! where are you going?"
"I... I just remembered. There was a sheep that was looking poorly this morning, I'd better go and check on her - come on Rua!"
He followed her until they reached the front gate then raced ahead following the strangers trail up the mountain.
Mary ran as fast as she could but soon lost sight of the dog
Exhausted she fell to the ground, rolled over and stared at the blue sky. She suddenly realised that the mountain was silent. No rabbit came out of it's burrow to investigate the noise she made running up the mountain. Not a bird chirruped or flew in the air and the wind had dropped so the grass lay still.
She suddenly felt ill. Her stomach churned and she had a bad taste in her mouth. Mary sat up and put her head between her knees. Her long red tresses tumbled over and touched the ground.
"Can ye feel it Mary?"
Parting her hair, Mary stared at the little man standing in front of her. "Michael, I feel sick."
Michael was a Leprechaun, Caretaker of the mountain and Mary's friend.
"'Tis the mountain that's sick. Stand up and ye'll feel a bit better."
Shaking, Mary stood, she felt light-headed but the sickness in her stomach eased. "What do you mean, the mountain is sick?"
Michael, even with his purple hat on did not reach the top of Mary's wellington boots. He was difficult to see with his green jacket and purple, knee high boots.
"Haven't ye heard the news? The Strange Ones have tried to break Gate nine over in the next county. The weather is terrible. That is the fourth Gate they've tried in as many days. They must be getting help from this side, they've never been this strong before."
The mention of their names sent a shiver down Mary's spine. A long time ago, the Strange Ones had tried to take over the land and destroy it. The Leprechauns, Fairies and Giants combined forces and defeated them, sending them into the bowels of the earth. The Gatekeepers sealed the nine Gates that lead to the centre stopping them from escaping.
"Why," asked Mary, "Is this mountain sick when they are so far away?"
Michael puffed on his pipe as he looked around the silent mountain.
"They're on their way up and they're bringing their poison with them. Something is calling them from up here. Have ye seen anything in the past couple of days?"
Mary's blue eyes widened in horror. "A man! Grandma said she didn't like him or his eyes." Words tumbled out. "He asked where the Key Gate was, he knew its name! Grandma thought he meant the Rocking Stone and sent him there."
"'Tis one and the same."
"I know that Michael but Grandma doesn't. Rua and I was chasing him up here when you found me. Rua - has gone ahead!"
Mary raced away in the direction of the Key Gate not looking to see if Michael was following.
The Key stood stark against the blue sky. A large black vertical rock perched on top of another of equal size. People called it the Rocking Stone because it could be moved over and back and not fall down. Now that Mary knew its true nature, it looked like a giant key pushed into a keyhole.
"Rua! - Rua! Where are you?" She walked closer to the Gate. A smell filled the air, it made her feel sick.
"Mary! Move away from the Gate, hurry!"
Michael stood on a small mound, twenty paces away.
"I can't find Rua - do you know where he is?"
Michael was silent for a moment then nodded toward the Gate. "I'm afraid he's down there."
Tears welled up in Mary's eyes. "Is he - dead?"
A soft soothing voice filled her head. 'No - he's just lost for the moment.'
Mary looked around. The voice in her head had happened once before. The small hooded figure stood beside Michael, head bowed and face hidden. The Gatekeeper!
"Thank you for coming. Can you get him out?"
'Not now Mary. We must seal the Gate, the Strange Ones have weakened it.'
"We? I'll not help you until you get Rua out!"
"Mary - child - it's no good talking to the Gatekeeper she doesn't talk to ye."
"A lot you know Michael Leprechaun! I can hear her," she tapped her head, "in here and I'm not a child!" Mary regretted her words when she saw the look on Michael's face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to shout, but the Gatekeeper said we must seal the Gate and Rua - inside."
Michael looked from Mary to the Gatekeeper. "So, ye can talk to each other? That's grand. 'Twill save me tongue an awful lot! Mary, touch the mountain, feel the sickness. 'Tis not the time to be thinking about yerself or yer dog. Feel it Mary."
She placed her hand on the ground. The same sickness came over her only this time, stronger.
'What Michael says is true Mary, we have little time, we are wanted elsewhere. Never fear, ye will see yer beloved dog again.'
Mary nodded. "What do you want me to do."
'Stand beside the Gate, hold yer hands over it, don't touch it or ye'll feel too sick to help me. Think of all the beautiful things that you love about this mountain and hold the thought 'till I say stop.'
"Breathe through yer mouth, the smell won't be so bad," Michael advised her as she approached the Gate.
Mary held her hands over the Gate and remembered the first time she had come to the mountain. Holding her Grandmother's hand she stared in wonder at all the things around her. The lush green grass that came up to her knees, cotton balls that tickled her nose before tumbling over the side into the valley far below, where the warm sweet smell of drying peat drifted up to carry the birds to the mountain top. She was four years old.
"It is said," her Grandmother told her as they sat looking down at green and gold fields stretching as far as the sea, "that Giants roamed this land a long time ago."
"And Fairies, Grandma and Lep-cauns?"
"Lep-re-chauns, Leprechauns as well, that is if you believe in them."
"I believe in them Grandma!"
"Yes, well - Come child, time to go home. We'll be very tired when we get to the bottom."
'Ye've done well Mary, we are finished.'
Mary opened her eyes. The smell had gone, once again she could hear birds singing. A rabbit appeared beside Michael, sniffed him and started to eat the grass at his feet.
Ignoring the rabbit Michael called out, "Are ye finished?"
"Tell me, Gatekeeper," Mary whispered, "can I talk to you without Michael hearing?"
Screwing her face up in concentration, Mary thought very hard.
A warm blue glow shone from the hood as the Gatekeeper nodded vigorously. 'Yes, he can get cross at times but he has a good heart.'
"I know ye two are talking about me! I've got this tingling up me back."
'Never mind Michael, Cara, (friend) we have no time to waste. Mary ye must come with me, there's work to be done.'
"But I can't go! Grandma will be worried about me."
"Ye know very well, Mary, that yer time and ours is different," Michael produced his pipe, "ye have to help the Gatekeepers, yer tied to them. Anyway ye want yer dog back don't ye?"
"Of course I do... "
"Good! I'll wait here till ye come back."
Mary felt the force of the words in her head.
'No, Michael, Cara, ye'll come with us. We might come across this friend of the Strange Ones and we'll need all the power that we have between us.'
Michael's pipe fell to the ground as his mouth opened in surprise. He looked from the Gatekeeper to Mary. "I thought that between the two of ye, ye could take care of anything."
'I think he's jealous.'
Mary smiled. "Are you afraid Michael?"
She felt a thump on her back. There was nobody behind her.
"I'm afraid of nothing, above or below this earth!"
"Did you just hit me Michael Leprechaun! For that. . .."
Mary stood still, Michael picked up his pipe and made it disappear inside his coat.
''Tis time to go. Touch my cape Mary.'
* * *
Mary felt a weight on her chest as the wind dragged at her hair. When she opened her eyes they were standing in the middle of a forest, surrounded by giant Elm and Oak trees. Branches formed a canopy, turning the area into a dark and dank place. The odour of rotting leaves mixed with that smell assailed Mary's nose.
"Feel the ground Mary."
She leaned down and touched the damp earth. "It's not as sick as the mountain was, but it's getting stronger."
'Hold yer hands out Mary and remember the first time ye went to the mountain alone.'
She was five years old and Rua was a pup. He had escaped from the front garden when the gate was left open. Mary and her Grandmother had laughed as they watched him trying to run up the mountain on his short legs. Then he disappeared from view and her Grandmother told her go and get him back.
She ran as fast as she could only to see Rua's tail drop out of sight over the next hillock. The long soft grass tickled her bare feet and legs making her laugh so much that she couldn't call the dogs name.
Then she came across the swallows nest, hidden under a tuft of grass. Inside were three baby's covered in fluff with their mouths wide open. She knew they were hungry, baby birds are always hungry, so she looked around for some worms. Just as she found the first one, the mother swallow swooped over her head and landed on the tuft of grass. It spread it's wings in a threatening manner towards Mary then, cocked her head to one side studying the worm that Mary held.
Holding it out to the bird, Mary waited. The swallow flew onto her hand and took the worm, swaggered over to the nest and fed her infants. Mary smiled as she remembered how the bird swaggered back and wiped her beak on her hand. Every year a bird would nest in the same place and greet Mary by wiping its beak on her hand.
'We're finished Mary. No wonder the mountain loves ye, yer kind to everything.'
The trees had parted to let the sun shine through. The smell had gone and when Mary looked around she noticed steam rising from the damp earth. A rabbit sat nearby washing its whiskers.
"Did you see Rua?"
"Alas Mary, There was no sign of him."
'He will be at the next one. I know yer tired Mary but we must go on."
Mary nodded and touched the cape.
* * *
She could feel the pain before she opened her eyes, The scream inside her head was real as the tree cried out for relief. They stood in the shelter of a big Ash tree as the wind and rain tried to pull it from it very roots.
"He's here!" Mary shouted above the noise, "I can feel him!"
'The man ye saw on the mountain?'
"Yes! He's - over there, near that cave. But - he doesn't look like a man."
'Break yer thought Mary, I feel him now. Leave him to Michael and meself. Stand clear of the tree, yer getting its sickness. Now, remember the only tree on the mountain. Don't let any other thing into yer mind.'
She had never been there before. They had gone to the other side of the mountain looking for mushrooms. As they walked her Grandmother made comment on how tall she was for eight years old. Rua, young and still a pup at heart ran ahead then darted back to them, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. It was a warm summers day...
THE DAY WAS WET AND THE WIND WAS BLOWING!
Mary looked around. The voice inside her head was not the Gatekeeper!
"Who - who's there."
AND YER GRANDMOTHER FELL OVER IN THE MUD!
'Mary, don't be frightened, just concentrate on the tree. Listen to no other voice but yer own thoughts. The tree.'
It stood alone, about halfway down the mountain. There was not a sign that another tree had grown there. It looked very old and tired. It was summer yet no leaf adorned its branches. The tree has been here since Giants roamed the land, her Grandmother informed her and, nobody in living memory has seen a leaf on it.
She had leaned against the trunk and listened. I can hear its heart beat, she told her Grandmother, who laughed and said it must be a very slow one.
IT FELL OVER WHEN YOU LEANED ON IT AND HIT YER GRANDMOTHER!
"Go away!" Mary shouted to the wind.
'Very good Mary, what happened to the tree.'
They picked a basket full of mushrooms and headed for home. As they passed the tree, she whispered to it that she would see it again, next summer.
Autumn passed as did Winter and Spring, then it was summer again. The warm sun was high in the clear blue sky as they crossed the mountaintop. Rua had raced ahead in his usual fashion, chasing a rabbit he could never catch. Then, he came back and grabbed Mary's dress in his mouth and tried to pull her into a run.
Her Grandmother scolded him and he let go. He jumped up, then ran ahead and turned back to them barking all the time.
'Well glory be!' Her grandmother had exclaimed. 'I wonder if that's what he's all excited about.' Just forty paces away stood the tree covered in large green leaves. It seemed to shake itself as they came closer. Two white and cream flowers broke away and floated down to the ground near their feet. It was beautiful! Mary remembered the perfume the flowers gave off. It filled the air around her.
An anguished cry brought her back from her memories.
'It's alright Mary, 'tis over'
Something warm and wet touched her hand. Two large brown eyes looked up at her. "Rua!" She flung her arms around him and cried with joy into his shoulder.
'There now Mary, he's back safe to ye. With yer help we have sealed the last of the Gates - and their helper from the outside.'
"You mean the man on the mountain - he's inside with - them?"
"Ah, he is that!" Michael stood beside the Gatekeeper smoking his pipe. "I had a bit o' trouble with him but, I got him inside!"
A blue glow came from the cape and Mary saw the Gatekeepers shoulders shaking.
'Is he telling the truth?'
'Just stretching it Mary.'
"Yer talking about me again, I can feel it!"
"Is the mountain safe now?"
"'Tis Mary, ye can go home now and take that - dog with ye."
A gentle wind blew through the tree behind Mary. She felt a warmth on her neck and gentle touch on her cheek, yet there was no-one there. She stared in surprise at Michael, he had removed his cap! Mary had never seen him without it before. He looked even smaller. The Gatekeeper's head was bowed as if listening to someone.
"But how will we fit her in - she's so big!" Michael protested to the air.
Again, Mary felt the warm air surround her. "I know there's someone here, but I can't see them!"
"Hush child, speak when yer spoken to!"
'Mary, King Liam, King of the Leprechauns wishes to meet ye, so he thank ye for yer help.'
Mary took two steps backward and bumped into the tree. "The King, wants to see me?"
"I said ye were too big for Tir -Na- 'No-og (land of the young) so ye can go home now."
A loud and long sneeze from Rua sent the little man flying across the clearing.
Mary patted the dog. "You said you could do many things, Michael, now is your chance!"
'He's teasing ye Mary. The King wishes to meet ye and he will. Just one thing, ye'll not remember any of this when ye return Sit down and cross yer legs. Now touch my cape.'
* * *
A babble of voices greeted her.
"Don't lift yer head too quick Mary."
She ignored Michael's advice and banged her head on the rock roof. She looked around her as she rubbed the bump slowly rising on the back of her head. Torchlight reflected gold off the walls of a very low but large hall. Faces, hundreds of them, Mary thought, stared up at her. All were smiling except one, Michael. He pretended to study his pipe as the other Leprechauns of all shapes and sizes, but none taller than Michael milled around her.
Some touched her dress, others her boots. Most of them were interested in her red hair. They stroked it, held it up to the light and whispered to each other, some serious, some giggling.
"Where's Rua?" Her voice boomed through the hall.
'He is asleep under the tree, quite safe. It might be best Mary, if ye just whispered in here'
"Welcome Mary of the red hair. Mary Cara, friend of the Leprechauns."
Mary looked down at a very old Leprechaun with the kindest eyes she had ever seen. He had a simple gold band resting on top of his grey hair. Across his shoulders was draped a cape that reminded Mary of all the seasons. White, green gold and burgundy.
"Ye address him as yer Majesty," Whispered Michael, who stood close by.
"Your Majesty," Mary bowed, banging her head on the floor, "Ow - I'm pleased to meet you."
"Nay, 'tis my pleasure. Mary, who can love a tree back to life. Mary, who can make a mountain sing!"
Loud applause filled the hall as the Leprechauns clapped and cheered. Mary blushed, she looked to where Michael stood, who was also cheering. He winked.
"Mary," the King continued when the noise had subsided, "who looks after visitors and makes them welcome."
Mary looked closely at the King. She remembered a cold winters night. "It was you! You were the visitor!"
The King smiled and bowed. "Mary, Cara, if ye had one wish, what would it be?"
The Gatekeepers voice filled her head. ' 'Tis the greatest gift his Majesty can offer ye. Choose well Mary.'
Mary looked from the Gatekeeper who's face was concealed by her hood, to Michael who was studying her closely. She put her hand out to the King, he didn't move. Mary touched him lightly on the face.
She cleared her throat. "Your Majesty, is it true what the Gatekeeper told me, that when I leave here I will forget everything?"
"Yes, it's true."
"You will grant me one wish, regardless of what it might be?"
"If I asked for gold, even though Michael says you look after it, not give it away, would you grant it?"
"I wish," Mary looked around the expectant faces and came to rest on Michael's. "I wish, never to forget any of you and I want to see Michael again!"
Silence filled the hall, everyone turned to the King.
"That Mary, is two wishes."
Her heart sank.
'Put it another way.'
"The Gatekeeper can't help ye." The King smiled.
She looked at Michael who shook his head.
"I need Michael to remind me about Tir-Na-No-og!"
How long Mary stayed she could not remember. They brought her food and drinks she had never tasted before. As the music played the hall seemed to get so high and wide that she could stand up and dance.
The Gatekeeper spoke in her head and she knew it was time to go home.
There was no words of farewell, just smiles.
'Touch my cape Mary.'
They were back on the mountain. Mary, Michael and Rua.
In the distance the curlew bird called to its mate. The smell of drying peat drifted up from the valley far below. Overhead, fluffy white clouds scurried across the face of the sun. Nearby, two rabbits nuzzled each other. Rua ignored them, taking more of an interest in his mistress who was sitting down, and the little man standing beside her.
"Here we are," said Michael as he looked around, "back where we started."
Mary sat and watched the rabbits as they boxed playfully. "Michael, I have this funny feeling in my stomach."
"In humans, 'tis called sadness, 'twill pass."
Mary looked at him, tears welling up in her eyes. "You came with me to say goodbye, haven't you."
Michael brought out his pipe and puffed on it. He looked at Rua, who looked back, head to one side as if waiting for an answer. Tapping his pipe on a stone, he turned to Mary his face sad.
"But," she protested, "King Liam granted me a wish and I wished for you!"
"I've not come to say goodbye to ye Mary, yer going to say goodbye to me."
She pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her jumper and wiped her eyes. "I'll never say that to you Michael."
"Young lady, and that ye are now, not a child anymore, will forget me. All humans forget us when they get older."
"That's not true! I'll never, never forget you."
"Yer Grandmother did."
"My... " She stared at him in disbelief. "My Grandmother knew you?"
"Aye. She was about yer age when we said farewell and she swore that she'd never forget. But she did."
"Why - why did she forget?"
Michael blew into the bowl of the pipe, a red glow appeared, sending a spiral of smoke into the air. "Because she stopped believing."
Side by side, one sitting the other standing looked quietly about them.
"Farewell, Mary of the red hair."
Tears ran down Mary's face. "Don't go Michael, please. . .."
A cotton ball landed in her lap. "Whenever ye see one of these, ye'll remember me. Ye have a long and happy life in front ye, that was promised to ye. I'll give ye something, from me to ye. The gift of storytelling."
With that, Michael was gone.
Rua laid his head beside the cotton ball and Mary cried into his neck.
Above, a swallow, the first of the summer swooped over the mountain, across a girl and a dog that had the same colour hair looking for the nest it had it's chicks in last year.
© John W. Kelly
This is one of a series of stories about Mary and her friend Michael the Leprechaun