One morning I went alone on foot through the fields from the little village of Cogn to a cave in the county of Mayo to see the natural beauty of an underground river there. The pastures in this area are so rich that cattle are fattened on them in a much shorter time than on ordinary meadows.
There are deep clefts in the area too. One of the chasms is larger than others, and forms the entrance to a cave.
I soon got down to the quiet beauty at the bottom of the cave. There I saw an enlightened area of some ten or twelve metres. Further inside a naturally vaulted, deep, dark passage opened. The cave at the bottom might be twelve metres too. Clusters of ivy and other plants hang and clung around the mouth of the cave. It was a marvellous little spot in its way - unlike anything else I had ever come across.
As I arrived at the bottom, an elderly and decent-looking woman had just filled her pitcher with the deliciously cold and clear water of the subterranean river that flowed along its bed of small, smooth, and many-coloured pebbles. She noticed at once that I was a stranger and paused to be my guide of the cave for a little while. She said she was the great-grandmother of very handsome and active boy. who was with her there..
"Great-grandmother!" I was surprised.
"Yes," she said, with pleasure sparkling in bright eyes.
"You are the youngest woman I have ever seen," said I, "to be a great-grandmother. She said she had started early, and so had her daugher and granddaughter. I added, "I have noticed there is a great number of persons about here of extreme age. How long do the people in this country usually live?"
"As long as we like, sir. - Now, here comes my darling Paudeen great-grandson with what I sent him for."
The little fellow got down into the cave. He was carrying some faggot of bogwood, a wisp of straw, and a lighted sod of turf.
"Now you shall see the pigeon-hole to advantage."
"What pigeon-hole!" said I.
"Here where we are," she replied. "The wild pigeons often build in the bushes and the ivy that is round the mouth of the cave, and in here too," said she, pointing into the gloomy depth of the interior. She said to the boy: "Blow that turf, Paudeen; "and Paudeen, with distended cheeks and compressed lips, poured a few vigorous blasts on the sod of turf. Soon it flickered and blazed while the kind old woman lighted her faggots of bogwood at the flame.
"Now, sir, follow me," she said to me and went into the cave. I followed, carefully choosing my steps by the help of her torch-light along the slippery path of rock that overhung the river. She held up her lighted pine branches, and waving them to and fro, asked me if I could see the top of the cave.
She shouted aloud, and the cavern-echoes answered to her summons. "Look!" she said – and she lighted the wisp of straw and flung it on the stream. It floated rapidly away, blazing over the perturbed surface of the river, and then suddenly disappeared altogether. The effect was interesting.
Her light was nearly expired then, so we went back from the gloom and stood beside the river in the enlightened area.
"Now we must try and see the white trout;. You never saw a trout of that colour yet, I warrant."
I had not.
"They say it is a fairy trout and tell very queer stories about it. Strive and see it before you go, sir, for there are those who says it isn't lucky to come to the cave and leave it without seeing the white trout. And if you are a bachelor, sir, and didn't get a peep at it, you would never be married, and sure that would be a murther."
"Oh," said I, "I hope the fairies would not be so spiteful – "
At that she knit her brows and put her finger on her lip in token of silence, and then came close and whispered, "Never speak ill of the good people – above all in such places as this – for it is in such places they always stay. One doesn't know who may be listening. But look, sir, look!" She pointed to the stream: "There is the trout, sir."
I at once saw the creamy white trout. It was heading up the stream, and seeming to keep constantly within the region of the enlightened part of it.
"There it is, in that very spot evermore," continued my guide, "and never anywhere else."
"The poor fish, I suppose, likes to swim in the light," said I.
"Oh, no, it's not that. Sit down a minute," said she, throwing her apron on the rock, and pointing to the seat, "and I will tell you about the trout to the best of my knowledge."
Seating herself on another green patch, she began:
There was once on a time and long ago a beautiful young lady who lived in a castle up by the lake above here. She was promised to a king's son, and they were to be married. Then, all of a sudden, he was murdered and thrown into the lake above. Thus he couldn't keep his promise to the fair lady.
She went out of her mind because of losing the king's son; for she was tender-hearted and pined away after him, till at last no one about saw her. It was said that the fairies had taken her away.
In course of time the white trout was seen in the stream over there. People didn't know what to think of it, for a white trout was never heard of before. Years on years the trout was there, just where you saw it just now. There it has been as long as the oldest in the village can remember.
At last the people began to think it must be a fairy. No hurt nor harm was ever put on the white trout until some nasty soldiers came to these parts. One of them swore he'd catch the trout and eat it for his dinner.
The soldier caught the trout. When he came home, he put on the frying-pan and put the squeeling trout into it. When he thought one side was done, he turned it over to fry the other. Then he found that nothing was fried at all.
"I will have to give it another turn, "said the soldier.
When he thought that side was done, he turned it again. Nothing was fried. He tried again, and turned it over and over; but the trout remained white and unburnt for all that.
"Well, appearances can be deceptive," said the soldier. With that he took his his knife and fork to taste a piece of the trout – but the moment he put his knife into the fish, there was a screech, and the trout jumped out of the frying-pan and into the middle of the floor. On the spot where it fell, up rose a lovely, young lady. She was dressed in white with a band of gold in her hair, and a stream of blood running down her arm.
"Look where you cut me, you villian," said she, and she held out her arm to him. "Couldn't you leave me cool and comfortable in the river where you snared me, and not disturb me?" said she.
Well, he trembled and stammered out something, asking for pardon.
"I was watching for my true love. He is coming by water to me," she said; "and if he comes while I am away and I miss him, I will hunt you up and down as long as grass grows and water runs."
The soldier begged for mercy again. At that the lady said:
"Take me back. Put me into the river again where you found me."
With that the lady vanished, and there he saw the little trout on the ground. He put it on a clean plate and ran to the cave again. There he put the trout gently into the river. The minute he did, the water became tinged with red for a little while. And to this day there is a little red mark on the trout's side where he had cut it with his knife.
From that day on the soldier fasted three times a week, but never on fish. In course of time he left the army, and that is what all soldiers do, one way or the other.
Daniel O'Rourke who lived at the bottom of Hungry Hill, once slept under the walls of the phooka's tower. I heard it from his own lips on a fine evening.
I went to a grand party at the great mansion on the hill. There I stuffed myself with green cheese and goose liver and danced till I could dance no longer. On the way home, I paused to rest by the phooka's wall. Afterwards the first thing I remember is that I was crossing the stepping-stones of a ford and was looking up at the stars when I slipped and fell into the water.
I began swimming, swimming, swimming till at last I got ashore on an island. I wandered about there, without knowing where I wandered until I found myself in a big bog and did not find a way out. I sat down on a stone in the bright moonlight when all of a sudden the moonlight was gone. I looked up, and saw an eagle coming down. It looked me in the face and said to me,
"Daniel O'Rourke, how do you do?"
"Very well, thank you," I said, wondering how an eagle came to speak.
"What brings you here, Dan?" said the eagle.
"Nothing. I only wish I was safe home again." Then I told the eagle how I had fallen into the water, swam to the island, got lost in the bog there, and now was at a loss to get out of it.
The eagle offered to fly me out of the bog. "Get up on my back, and grip me well," he said.
Daniel thanked for the offer, mounted on the back of the eagle, and they flew off, high, high up. After some time the eagle got tired and said:
"Dan, I am tired with this long flight; I had no notion it was so far. You must get off, and sit down on the moon while I rest myself. If you will not, I shall just give you a shake and one slap of my wing, and send you down to the ground."
Daniel never saw the eagle from that day, and understood soon enough it had tricked him. On the moon he kept roaring out for grief of being landed and stranded so far away from home. Then all at once a door opened right in the middle of the moon. The man in the moon came out.
"Good morning to you, Daniel O'Rourke," said he: "How do you do?"
"Very well, thank you," said I. "I hope you are well too."
"What brought you here, Dan?" said he.
So Daniel told him the story and how an eagle had flown him up to the moon.
"Dan," said the man in the moon, "you cannot stay here; you must be off at once."
"Indeed. How am I to go back?"
"That is your business," said he and went back inside, slamming the door after him.
Dan lost his grip up there and started to fall. On his way toward the Earth he passed a flock of wild geese. An old gander who led the flock, turned his head to him and cried out, "Is that you, Dan?"
Yes, it was, said Dan.
After they had greeted one another much politely, the goose said,
"I think you are falling, Daniel."
"You may say that," said Daniel.
"And where are you going so fast?" said the old gander.
Daniel told him how he had been at a party and how he came on the island, and how he lost his way in the bog, and how the eagle had flown him up to the moon and left him there, and how the man in the moon had refused to let him in.
"Dan," said the gander, "I may save you. Put out your hand and catch me by the leg, and I may fly you home. Maybe I will, and maybe not."
Daniel did not trust it fully, but there was no help, so he caught the gander by the leg, and away they flew with the other geese after them in a large V-shape.
They flew and flew till they came right over the wide ocean. Then Daniel said,
"Please fly to land."
"That is impossible for now, for we are heading for Arabia. It is a very decent sort of sandy place."
A ship came in sight. When it was beneath them, Daniel said he would let go his grip so that he could land on deck.
"If you must, you must," said the gander.
Daniel let go, but missed the boat. Down he went to the very bottom of the salt sea and thought all was lost when a whale came close to him, looked him in the face and lifted up his tail - he splashed Daniel all over again with cold water until Daniel heard a voice he knew:
"Get up, you drunken brute," and there was his wife Judy with a tub full of water that she was splashing all over him. She could never bear to see him drunk.
"Get up," she repeated, "and of all places in the parish, the old walls of Carrigaphooka are not safe to sleep beneath."
(Abridged. The story contains elements with some similarity to Münchausen tales, such as a trip to the moon and being flown by ducks.)
In a pleasant valley lived Larry Dodd and his wife Nancy. They rented a cabin and cultivated a few acres with great care, and the crops rewarded their work. They were independent and respected by their neighbours, they loved each other and led a comfortable life together.
Larry used to work hard, and at times he drank hard too, and was a man of mixed habits. He felt well pleased with himself one day he returned home from town, riding on a rouch-coated, well-built horse he had bought there. He trotted easy along in the delicious and lingering twilight of a lovely June evening, thinking of nothing, only whistling.
Just then his attention was roused by a woman who was pacing quickly by the side of his horse. She was hurrying as if she tried to get somewhere before the night closed in. Larry could not see if the woman was old or young, ugly or fair because of the large cloak she was wearing and a hood that was turned up and hid every feature.
The strange woman kept up with Larry's steed for some time. Then Larry very civilly offered her a lift behind him, since he was going her way. But the woman did not answer him. Larry thought she was silent out of bashfulness, so he pulled up and said, "Just jump up behind me. I will take you safe and sound through the lonesome bit of road that is before us."
She jumped at the offer, and in an instant she was seated up behind Larry, with her hand and arm blucked round his waist, holding on.
"I hope you are comfortable there, my dear," said Larry in a good-humoured way, and on they went along the road - trot, trot, trot. Soon Larry, who had a keen ear, detected a click of one of the horse-shoes.
"The horse-shoe is loose. I have to fix it," he said just as they were entering on the lonesome bit of road he had spoken of before. Around were trees with large trunks, and branches festoned with ivy grew over a dark pool of water that formerly had been a drinking-place for cattle. Here the horse made a dead halt, and Larry very quickly jumped off it, thinking to lead the horse quitely by the pool. He said,
"As luck will have it, I have a a nail in my pocket. It is not the first time I have put on a shoe, and I can use one of the stones here for a hammer."
At this the woman jumped down from the horse too. But she did not wait for him to shoe the horse, but bounded off without saying good-bye and anything else. She made her way across a field up towards the old ivy-covered walls of a little church nearby.
"Not so fast, young woman, not so fast!" hollered Larry, but away she ran as he went on, "Where is my wages? Sure, I have earned a kiss?"
The woman galloped on till she came to the churchyard wall and jumped over it in an instant. Larry soon followed, admiring her dexterity. In the old graveyard he stumbled over old and new graves, pieces of coffins and the skulls of dead persons. After a little he entangled his feet in the long prickly fangs of brambles who were growing there. They seemed to hold him back with a fearful grasp. At that moment he noticed that the woman went round and round the walls of the old church.
"Here is my chance," thought Larry, "to get my kiss. I'll just wait around a corner and when she comes round again, I'll see what I can do."
In a few moments he was in place and heard her coming. He sprang forward with open arms and clasped a headless woman in them. There were no lips to kiss.
"Well, that accounts for her not speaking," said Larry, and then he fainted. When he woke up and slowly opened his eyes, he heard strange sounds, and the little bells clattered ding, ding, ding.
A strange music was heard, and Larry did not know what to think of it, so he dozed off again. When he woke up the second time it was broad daylight, and to his great joy he found nothing about him was missing. He got up slowly and said to himself, "I must go to the pool of water to see if I find the horse."
But no horse was there, and so he made up his mind to go home. There he found his wife looking as black as a thundercloud at him for being out all night. She listened to him when he told about the horse he had bought and lost.
"But what took you up to the old church at all, out of the road, and at that time of the night, Larry?" she asked.
Larry scratched his head and saw he had better tell the truth. "Nancy, I confess. I followed a young, headless woman -"
His wife heard no more, "I knew it was a woman, but a woman without a head, Larry! Larry, going after such - oh - oh -". For a while she did not know what to say. Only later she did.
A headless woman fairy, or banshee, belongs to Celtic mythology. - T. K.