Leanan Sidhe by Lucy Stone

The most famous victim of the fairies in my village was Jamie Freel. Everyone knew his story, and how it ended. My mother called it a parable—a dire and dreadful warning—but if it was, I couldn’t take it to heart. A warning implies a choice, and I don’t think I ever had one of those.

Jamie had stayed out too long at the fair, they say—had done too much dancing—and come home to find that his parents had locked the doors and gone to bed already. Since it was a warm night, and since he had reason to suspect he’d be given a good hiding if he knocked and woke everyone up, he decided to sleep outdoors by the moat at Knockgrafton, where the good folk play their ravishing music in the night.

He had strange dreams—of shifting lights, underwater dance halls, pearl-eyed beauties singing bubbles into his ears. And when he woke in the morning, there was fairy music going round and round his head like a mad carousel. He couldn’t stop humming. He pined and wasted away until someone thought to buy him a fiddle, and then he sprang to his feet, his toes already tapping, and played music like no-one had ever heard before.

But he was short-tempered when he stopped—took to humming and pacing and chewing his nails. He said, when he was playing, it was the only time he couldn’t hear the fairy music. When he was in the music—when he was the music—it opened up a space inside his head where he could be himself, just for the length of a canto. But then, time works differently for the fairies. Who’s to say he wasn’t living a whole life during those songs?

That’s what I want to think. I want to believe there’s some kind of escape for the likes of Jamie Freel and myself. If it can’t come with death—because death is no escape from the fairies—perhaps it could come in those living moments where time loses its meaning.

My own fairy possessor is very similar—it may even be the same one. And, in a sense, Jamie introduced us. It all started with him, anyway—and ended with him too, if you want to know the truth—with him running off to Dublin to play in the dance halls and assembly rooms there. My best friend Isleen had decided he was her sweetheart, so we followed him to the city, where we were always in danger of being crushed under carriage wheels because we couldn’t stop gawping at the spires, the quays and the bridges, the parks and squares and colleges and cathedrals.

One of my aunts is a linen draper in Paradise Square, and she let us stay in the garret above her shop while we searched for Jamie Freel. In truth, he wasn’t that hard to find. He was a sensation. You couldn’t walk five strides without seeing a poster or a playbill advertising his concerts. And, at night, you only had to follow the music: squeaky and lightning-fast, and always accompanied by the vast, rhythmic beating of feet on flagstones.

We found him playing in the ballroom of one of the fine houses in Stephen’s Green, but there was no decorum there, no stately dancing—no security at the doors, either, or we wouldn’t have been able to just wander in off the streets, drawn by the feverish fiddling.

He turned every place he played into a melee—Pandemonium, my mother would have said, with a significant nod—but there was nothing demonic about the jigs and reels and quadrilles, the clapping of hands and the jingling of boot-buckles. Perhaps there was something demonic in his bright eyes and pale, sweat-streaked face, but it wasn’t enough to deter Isleen when she wanted something.

So we pushed our way to the front of the crowd—I’m bigger and less delicate than Isleen, so I did most of the shoving—and his eyes met hers. They disappeared into a back room together, and I thought that was that. But she came back to the garret above my aunt’s shop in half an hour, red-faced and gasping, as if she’d run the whole way.

With a horrible writhing in my stomach, I went over her appearance—checked for the torn clothes and dishevelled hair that would indicate he’d done something she hadn’t wanted him to—though what that could be, I couldn’t imagine.

But there was nothing. Apart from the red face—-and even that was fading as she got her breath back—she looked just as tidy as when I’d left her.

“What happened?” I said, as she closed the door and leaned against it.

“He told me to go.”

“He didn’t-?” I stopped, because I wasn’t exactly sure what I was asking. “He didn’t hurt you?”

She shook her head, but I wasn’t relieved. From the look on her face, she was caught somewhere between horror and blank puzzlement.

“When we were alone together, he—uh—he kissed me.” She said it rather doubtfully, as if she wasn’t sure it had really happened.

“What was it like?” I said. I didn’t really care what it was like, but you have to ask these things.

“It was—” she faltered. “It was fierce. And I thought that was because he’d missed me, but—”

“But what?”

She put a hand to her upper arm and squeezed it in, as if she were trying to make herself smaller. “It felt more like a protest. As if he was trying to prove something to himself, or—or to anyone who might be watching.”

We both crossed ourselves. We knew who might be watching.

“Then what happened?” I said, when she was silent.

“Well, he kissed me again. But by that time, he was humming—I could feel it in the back of his throat. Then one of his arms curled around my waist, but the other one reached out for his fiddle. I don’t think he even knew he was doing it, because he twanged one of the strings and he looked up as though the sound had startled him.”

I nodded sympathetically. He certainly sounded bewitched to me, though I had little enough experience of the way men behaved when they were kissing young women.

“Then he started muttering to himself,” she went on, “and saying that it wasn’t right.”

What wasn’t right?”

“Oh, something about the chord progression. I couldn’t make it out. I put my hand on his shoulder, but he jerked away from me and scribbled something on a piece of paper.”

“What was it?” I said, thinking of desperate pleas or coded messages. Maybe his hands could ask for help when his lips couldn’t.

Isleen shrugged helplessly. “It was…notes. Lots of musical notes wriggling across the page like tadpoles.”

I hadn’t quite given up on the idea of a coded message. “What did they say?”

“I don’t know, I couldn’t read them! Not everyone takes reading to the absurd lengths you do. And then he snapped at me to get out and leave him in peace, and I—”

“You came here,” I finished for her, because I had heard the wobble in her voice. Her eyes were reddening, filming over with tears. Then she frowned, and the motion jarred them out, and they ran in shiny tracks down her face.

She’s so beautiful, Isleen. She has red hair and dimples in her cheeks when she smiles. I’ve often wondered whether I could be delicate enough to plant little kisses in each of those hollows, or whether I’d just end up getting her cheeks wet.

I took her hand and squeezed it, but it only wrung more tears out of her.

“I know I could make him forget about the fairy-music,” she spluttered, “if he’d just give me a chance.”

I smiled feebly. “And then he’d say, ‘Isleen, the only music I hear when you’re near me is the frantic rhythm of my own heart.’”

She giggled, pleased and embarrassed, and interlaced her fingers with mine. She probably didn’t even know she was doing it, but it made my skin tingle.

“And he’d say ‘Isleen, you’re my salvation, my life,’” she went on.

I took up the theme with gusto. “‘Your kisses are like cool summer rain to someone sweltering in the heat of a fever. I can’t tell you how dear you are to me, how beautiful—”’

I leaned in closer. I think my lips touched hers for a moment. I think there was a brief, teetering second where she didn’t pull away. And then she squealed and wrenched her hand free, and stomped over to the other end of the room.

“What are you—?” she spluttered. “I’m not—why do you always have to take things too far?”

Her hands were clenched on her skirts, as if she was trying to pull them away from me—as if I were some spreading mess on the floor.

I tried to smile—I did smile, I think.

“Isleen, I was only—”

“It’s not right, what you just did!” she snapped. “You’re not a man.”

“I was just playing!”

But she shook her head and lurched for the door. I heard her heavy footsteps on the landing, then the stairs. I heard the bell tinkle over the front door as she dashed out into the street, and I hunched my shoulders against the sound. It wasn’t safe for her to be out there on her own, but she would only run faster if I went after her. She had decided I was worse than anything she might encounter on a Dublin street at night.

Then, with my shoulders tight and my eyes half-closed against the pain, I saw the figure in the other doorway.

It led to the storeroom. It wasn’t the door Isleen had left by. But there Isleen stood–in almost the same attitude in which she’d screamed at me a moment before, only she had unclenched her hands and spread them against her skirts, as if savouring the feel of the fabric under her skin.

I turned and looked out of the window, where the other Isleen—my Isleen—was sprinting across the road. She had found some drovers with a cart and was frantically pressing money into their hands, stammering some kind of explanation. I had frightened her much more than Jamie Freel. I was stranger than a man possessed by fairy music.

“Heartbreak is an odd feeling, isn’t it?” said the Isleen standing in the doorway. “Like when a mirror shatters, but the shards of glass don’t fall out of the frame. There’s a whole gruesome spiderweb of cracks—it’s quite unfit for its original purpose—but the mess is so slight that, from a distance, you might almost think nothing had happened at all.”

I didn’t look again at the real Isleen—I never did, as it happens. I gave the stranger a respectful curtsy, because fairies are touchy creatures, and said, “If it pleases you, Ma’am, are you one of the good folk?”

But she didn’t answer. I don’t think she has a taste for all the flattery and euphemisms that festoon fairy-lore.

“Is this where you’re going to live?” she said, wrinkling her nose at the damp-stained walls, the old, straw-stuffed mattress. She sounded so much like Isleen in that moment that I had a wild impulse to argue with her.

“What’s wrong with it?” I said.

Her lips twitched into a smile, though the look of distaste didn’t leave her.

“Well,” she said. “We’ll need a writing desk, at least.”

I don’t know what I could have done to save myself. Perhaps I didn’t want to save myself. She’d happened upon me at a bad time. It was starting to dawn on me that I couldn’t go home again. Isleen would tell everyone what I’d done and—and then they’d know.

It had been gnawing at me for so long—I’d done so much to conceal it—and not just my love for Isleen, but my indifference to men, the fluttering I felt in my stomach when a pretty woman smiled at me. It had been that way since childhood—though I hadn’t known then what the fluttering was.

It would all be out. I’d be as monstrous as Jamie Freel, but without the bewitching music to ameliorate it.

In front of me, the fairy gave a little cough. I suppose I’d been ignoring her. She looked at me with Isleen’s face—only curiously sharpened, and with lips redder than Isleen’s had ever been. And as she looked at me, I felt—well, not soothed, and certainly not inspired. ‘Incited’ is the closest word I can find that fits.

I felt as though it wasn’t fair, and that I hadn’t done anything wrong, and that there might be worlds—real or imaginary—in which I would be treated differently.

And then I was aching to hold a pen in my hand. It was almost unbearable. When I saw her holding one out to me—and an inkwell, ready filled—I didn’t even think to be suspicious. I just sat down on the bed, with a sheaf of paper laid awkwardly across my knees, and scribbled.

When I next looked up at her, dawn-light was spilling over the windowsill, and she looked replete—rosy—purring with satisfaction, in a way that half-embarrassed and half-delighted me.

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Call me Leanan,” she said, and her bright red lips beamed at me.

That was when I understood what she was, and what I’d done. She was the Leanan Sidhe, the fairy mistress, who brings inspiration to bards and poets and ballad-singers all over the country. And, in return, she drinks their life.

I’ve heard about those who refuse her love. They say ‘Not tonight, Leanan,’ and shut their windows. ‘I’ll call you when I’m in need of a rhyme.’ She has to be their slave then. She really does come when they call her. They can sit down at any hour of the day, crack their knuckles, and take up a pen. They have an idea first, and then the words come and shape themselves around it like a well-cut jacket. And the fit is so exact that you’d think the jacket grew there all by itself, rather than being tailored to perfection.

Me, I sit grovelingly at my table and wait, sometimes for hours. I then heave up a puddle of ink all over the page, and try to tease it into artful loops and swirls. I have to make an ungodly mess look like something I designed to be that way.

She takes her true form with me now—or a different form, anyway. Who can say what a fairy really looks like? But, for me, she’s a beautiful woman with ink-black hair that curls and twists on the pillow beside me and almost forms the shape of letters.

They’re so tantalisingly close to being readable, those shapes—like when you see Russian written down, and you try to make those achingly-familiar letters behave like the ones you know. Nonsense is almost always the result. With Leanan’s hair, that’s a best-case scenario. You might just as easily go insane as make a fool of yourself.

At first, I earned a little money keeping the books for my aunt, but it didn’t leave me enough time for writing. Sometimes even sleep doesn’t leave me enough time for writing. Leanan prods me awake in the middle of the night, and I find that I have an idea—I never know whether it’s my idea or hers—and I drag myself to the writing desk while she stands over me, growing rosier and happier as I scratch my pen across the page.

It is enslavement, I suppose, but I can’t help delighting in the words. They even sell a little. I published my first book under a man’s name, but I afterward learned it was an unnecessary precaution. Everyone assumed I was a man as a matter of course. Even my publisher seems to think I’m the female courier for a dark and reclusive male. When he gave me my advance for the second book—which was little enough—he said, “Something happier next time, if he—uh, you are amenable.”

My parents still write to me—wary, polite, businesslike letters that touch on matters of common interest but don’t really say anything much. Perhaps Isleen has told them why she ran away from me that night. Perhaps they think I’m something unnatural and embarrassing. But they still love me, so they send money. Or maybe the money is intended to prevent me from coming home.

***

Jamie Freel died on Sunday last. I read in the papers that it was going to be a silent funeral—no singing or dancing at the wake, no hymns at the service. There would be the droning of the priest’s voice, I supposed, but that was as unmusical as an avalanche of pots and pans to anyone who’d heard Jamie playing.

I couldn’t decide whether or not he’d be pleased by the silence. Perhaps it wouldn’t be silent for him anyway. But at least there would be no distractions. He’d be able to give his whole attention to the music that had been driving him mad, the music he could never quite get right. Perhaps it would be easier, without a body to encumber him.

I watched the funeral cortege pass under my window this morning—a dumb show except for the squeaking of the carriage wheels and the nervous whinnies of the horses.

Leanan watched it with me. She was sitting on the ledge of the next window, swinging her legs over the black silence below us. I’m not normally angry with her, but for some reason I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice that morning.

“Are you happy now?” I said. “Now you’ve got him all to yourself?”

She didn’t answer. She just gave a haughty frown and raised a finger to her lips, as if to say, ‘Don’t you know it’s a silent funeral? Try to show some respect.’

I’d only seen him once since the night Isleen and I went searching for him—at one of his mad ceilidhs. I think he recognized me in the crowd, because he broke off, signalled for some other fiddler to take his place, and tried to follow me through the press of bodies. But I didn’t want to be found—I didn’t want him to ask me about Isleen—and, anyway, he was soon waylaid by adoring women. I wondered how many of them he’d disappointed in the way he had disappointed Isleen. I wondered if he’d ever managed to fix that chord progression.

The streets were crowded as the funeral procession passed by. All along the route, there were men holding musical instruments—horns raised to their lips or fiddles clamped under their chins, bows poised but not moving. They seemed tense—I even thought I could see beads of sweat glistening on one man’s forehead, as if it was more exhausting not to play his instrument than it was to play it. I thought perhaps Leanan had him by the throat too.

One of the hardest things about giving yourself up to the muse is realizing how many other good people have done the same. The popular myth about the Leanan Sidhe is that you can free yourself from her by finding another to take your place, as if she were a faithful creature at heart and could only take one lover at a time.

It’s nonsense. She’s insatiable. And everyone she has in her clutches is good. And everyone she has in her clutches is dying—some more quickly than others. You tell yourself that you’re dying romantically—you’re doing something unique—when there are millions of others dying just the same way and telling themselves the same fictions.

I’m free of the fictions at, least. Some of them. I know I’m dying, but I don’t mind it—that is, any more or less than a normal woman minds the thought of dying young. I don’t even hate Leanan. As my strength fails, I see her lips getting redder, and I’m glad of it—partly because it will be a nice image to take me out of this world, and partly because of all the things she’s given me: an occupation, a few molecules of self-respect, and best of all, worlds that I can be myself in.

Lady Wilde says that the Leanan Sidhe is the spirit of life, just as the banshee is the spirit of death, and I can half-way see that, because of all the worlds—and all the possibilities—she opened up to me.

I could never have led what they call a normal life anyway. The way I am—the unnaturalness Isleen seemed to fear so much—made sure of that. But I don’t want a cure. I want to be me. I want being me to be allowed. Leanan helped me envision worlds where that might be possible. And a short life in a world where you belong is better than a long life in a world that hates you.