The moment I saw the barrows, I knew I was going to be buried in one of them. If dread was an illness, it would have been the thing to kill me. If dread were stone, it would have been the carved piece that marked the barren ground my body would lay in. If dread were infectious, it would have made the faeries of Skellig Cathal stop their nightly dancing on the barrows.
“Why do you worry?” Niamh asked me. “Did I not save your life once already? This is your life.” She showed me again the heavy gold ball she kept in her pocket, cupping it in the palm of her fine-boned hand. It glinted dully before she dropped it back in the pocket of her green dress. “It stays with me. The others will not play with it.” And she laughed and pulled my hair before diving into the drying August grasses as if they were the sea.
Niamh was fair-haired and fragile-looking like the rest of her kin at the base of Skellig Cathal, but her white-blonde hair was cropped short and erratic around her face, making her look like a child. Every month, when the moon was gone, the others chopped any new growth off in a ritual on the barrows. I didn’t know what the purpose of the ritual was; only that she was the only one to undertake it. It was impossible to follow the faeries’ fast, sibilant language, and Niamh was the only one who bothered to speak English to me with her hissy, sing-song accent.
I knew the rest of the faeries did not want me. I had seen the other changelings, beautiful blonde children stolen from cradles and sheep pastures and roadsides. With my coal-black hair and brown eyes, my hands rough from leather work and my no longer adolescent face, I knew I was hideous to them. I saw how they turned away when Niamh tugged her fingers through my dark curls or teased a finger across one of my eyelids or across the crooked bridge of my nose. She was always touching me, her pet, and they were always looking away.
“Can’t you put a glamour on me?” I begged her one night. I was no stranger to enchantment. “Give me golden curls and sapphire eyes?”
“Little rí,” Niamh laughed, “Do you not think that you are already much improved in handsomeness?”
It had been Niamh’s kiss that returned me to my human form. At first, I had wondered how she had seen through the curse put on me by my step-brother. How she had known to kiss me. I had learned since then that Niamh kissed every frog she met — not just me.
“But I repulse them,” I pressed. I knew that she could easily tangle me in a glamour, hide me behind strings of a false reality. I had seen her make straw into bluebells and rocks into river jewels. “They cannot even look at me.”
Niamh’s smile vanished, only for a moment. “What makes you think it is you?”
The next night, the moon invisible above us, the others chopped off her hair again, with a knife made of bone. While she braced her head against the jerk of the knife on her hair, I saw her hand in her pocket, the shape of her fingers holding the gold ball pressed against the fabric.
Then the faeries danced on the feral silhouettes of the terrible barrows, the faerie music wild enough to warm the cool darkness. I watched them dance, beautiful and joyful and strange, and imagined breathing dirt.
When Niamh ceased dancing and found me, she was out of breath and glowing with the fearful magic that illuminated the faeries and the barrows at night. I looked past her and past the dancers to the few faeries who dug a hole beside the old burial mounds.
I wanted to ask her, “Who is that for?” but instead, I asked, “Why do you dance?”
She stroked my collarbone as if I were as perfect as the golden changelings. “We dance on the dead to keep them dead. Would you like to dance with us?”
“I cannot bring myself to come closer to the barrows,” I said. I looked again at the faeries who dug into the wet ground. “They will kill me. I feel it. I can feel the dirt on my face.”
Once again, Niamh withdrew the golden ball from her pocket. Rolling it from hand to hand, she said, “I keep your life in my hand. No harm will come to you by their hand.”
And then she laughed and returned to the dance, leaving me crouched beyond the reach of the barrows. I plaited grasses to pass the time and watching them dig the hole. I was certain it was a grave, but there was no one dead to put in it.
I dreamt of choking on dirt. I dreamt of earth pouring into the hole I lay in, dusting my vision with darkness. Every night I dreamt of that hole and me in it and the faeries still turned away from me and Niamh. The morning the horsemen came, I had just dreamt that the hole was already filled and my nails were coated in dirt; a dream so vivid it woke me. I lifted my head from the long grass and whispered to Niamh, “I am awake.”
Niamh, who never slept, was nonetheless curled against my body. She sat up and stretched her hands above her; as she did, small birds swept down to land in her palms. She kissed their beaks and tossed them back into the air. Then she regarded me thoughtfully as she sucked rainwater out of grass stems. She said, “If I let you play with this –” she gestured to her pocket “– will you give me a gift?”
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to take the ball, but I said, “I already have a gift for you.” And I offered her a silly plaited headdress I had made while the faeries danced. I had woven together grasses like straps of leather, and knitted a shag of soft timothy onto the headband, so that when she put it on, the grass framed her face like the golden lengths of hair she didn’t have.
Niamh brushed her fingers across the seed-ends of the grass, and her smile was huge. “I see you can make glamour as well,” she said. “Will they not envy my golden hair and sapphire eyes now?”
I leaned forward and kissed the tease in her lips, a tremor in my muscles at the newness of it.
Her smile stayed the same. “I am not a girl, little frog,” she said, “you cannot bed me and wed me and return with me to claim your stolen kingdom. If you took me away from the barrows, you would see that I am not a girl.”
“Maybe I am not a man anymore,” I replied, and kissed her again. “And perhaps I was a frog too long to give a care about what happens to my kingdom.”
“You humans lie so well,” Niamh said, her lips still curled up, but she pulled me down into the grass anyway.
Later, it was the sound of hoofbeats that woke us. I whispered to her, “Someone’s coming.”
Niamh said, “I know. It is your step-brother.”
She didn’t stop me as I sat up, rolling my body into a crouch, watching the horsemen approach across the afternoon fields. I recognized the tall, hunched figure of my step-brother as he dismounted next to the barrows. He kicked at the bases of them, crawled on top of them, found the fresh hole beside them and said, voice carrying to me, “It seems they have begun to come out before we call them.”
His companions laughed, sounding like crows in the distance, and then they turned their mounts and rode back the way they came.
Niamh stood up and put on the headdress I had made. “I will wear this for the rest of my life,” she told me.
“Why did they come?” I asked.
“They want to undo our dancing,” she said. “But they won’t. They never do.”
That night, the barrows were quiet. Instead of dancing, I saw faeries tossing clumps of feathery seeds on top of the barrows. There was no music. There was no digging. There was only a keening coming from somewhere far over the fields, in the direction of the lough. I did not know the words of the lament, but I knew what it was.
Niamh pressed her palms to mine between us — her thin, long fingers spread wider than my stocky, square hand could reach — and said to me, “It’s time to stop being a frog now, little rí.”
That night, on the barrows, they took the bone knife, and they cut her throat, before I had time to even say her name. As I rushed to the grave, they pushed her into the hole that I had dreamt of and dreaded for months. I saw her eyes open and looking at me as I scrambled to the edge of the hole, and she blinked as the first handful of dirt covered the pocket that held my life.
As I stood there, stricken with horror, struggling to find the courage to leap into the grave with her, the faerie next to me touched my elbow.
“Let him try to raise the dead now,” he said to me, in English.
Niamh closed her eyes.
“Do not mourn,” the faerie said. “Go kill your step-brother.”
Author’s Note: I swear I will write something cheery next week. People will laugh! LAUGH! Like so: HA HA.
Until then, image is a detail of "Una and the Lion" by William Bell Scott.