On Tara Hill in the Well of the Storyteller

The Storyteller continues her tale. We wonder whether Elspeth’s heart which speaks of dread, of grief, tells true.

As soon as the morning light awakens them both, the younger woman cries out in longing and despair. “My bairn! My bairn! Are the men returned yet? Have they found him?”

Before Elspeth can answer, Michael comes in the door. His expression of defeat, of sorrow, is all the answer she needs. “We looked everywhere. Along the cliff path and in the fields to either side all the way to where the high hills rise. We questioned every passer-by and stopped at each croft to ask. But none has seen a bairn or heard of one being found.” Slowly he raises his head, looks directly into the eyes of the young woman as he gathers courage. His voice is as gentle now as if he were speaking to a tiny child. “You’ve had a bad fall and a shock. Are you certain you didn’t just dream of a bairn?”

Her look at him holds strength like steel. “My bairn lives. I shall go now to find him.”
She has gained strength with her night’s sleep, and once she has eaten the bowl of porridge Elspeth prepares for her, nothing can prevent her leaving.

Still, Elspeth begs, “Please. Stay here with us. You have no one. We will be your family.”

But the young woman looks at her and at Michael. “Thank you both for your kindness. I must find my child. When I have him once more in my arms, I shall return to you.”

What shall I tell you of the days and nights that followed? She walks the dusty roads until darkness and exhaustion draw her to a hayrick or beneath a tree to sleep a few hours. Asking. Asking. Everyone she meets. Knocking on the door of every croft. “Have you seen a bairn? A baby boy? Close on a year old? Eyes the blue of night skies, hair like the flame of the setting sun?”

On the evening of the seventh day, weary beyond telling, she comes upon a small band of gypsies cooking their evening meal of rabbit stew over an open fire.

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The sadness in the eyes of the young woman touches their hearts. She is soon seated among them, offered a bowl of stew while one of the young gypsy girls bathes her swollen bleeding feet in a basin of cool spring water.

When the woman has recovered herself, she tells them her story, asks her question, “Have you seen a bairn…?”

The gypsies assure her they have only their own dark-eyed babies.
“But do not despair,” says the oldest man. “In seven days’ time, we leave for a great encampment of our people high in the hills. At that gathering will be an ancient crone, blessed with the sight. If anyone can know where your bairn is to be found, it will be she herself. Stay here for the week to rest; travel with us to speak with her.”

This morsel of hope brings back the colour to her cheeks. As the gypsy men take out their violins to play the sweet sad songs of their race, her heart begins to warm, to beat in rhythm to their music.

At the end of the seven days, made strong with music and rest, with fire and friendship and plentiful food, she sets off with the gypsies. On the third day, they reach the great encampment. As soon as her new friends have set up their camp, one of the young lads is instructed to lead her to where the ancient one always makes her fire.

An old old woman is sitting very still on a bench beside an open fire. The young woman sees her milky eyes and realizes with a shock that the crone is blind. But, sensing her presence, the ancient one, in a voice of surprising youth and sweetness, invites the younger woman to sit by her side on the bench. She lifts the young woman’s nearest hand into her own gnarled ones and holds it in silence. Then she asks, “What great sorrow brings you here?”

The young woman’s story pours forth like a rain-fed spring as the old one listens. The crone rises, feels for a clay pot that stands near the bench, withdraws from it a handful of herbs. These she tosses on the fire and the young woman sees that the cailleach is not completely blind, for she is peering intently now at shapes in the rising smoke. After a time, she returns to the younger one’s side, takes her hand once more in her own, breathes deeply and says, “Prepare yourself for great sorrow. Your bairn has been taken by the Sidh folk. They have taken him into their gathering, the Sidhean, where they are electing the new king to rule them for the next hundred years. What goes into the Sidhean does not come out.”

The young woman feels the blood leave her heart. “But the gypsies who brought me here promised me that you had great powers. Surely you can recover my child.”

“Yes. I have great powers. But my powers go back only as far as the dawn of humankind. The power of the Sidh folk is far more ancient than mine. I cannot undo what they have done.”

“Then give me some of your herbs that I may die, for I have nothing left to live for.”

At these words, the old one grasps her hand more firmly. “There may yet be a way. Allow me to think on this while the encampment lasts. Come to me in seven days’ time and I may have thought of something.”

All week, the young woman waits. Hope plays upon the strings of her heart as the gypsies’ bows play upon their violins. But between the notes and beneath the strings, grief and terror clutch at her.

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