The Smailholm Faerie
For a long time now, I have been watching you. Every day you make the journey up Lady Hill, your heavy footsteps leaving their mark in the thick snow, the mud, the dew-soaked grasses as the seasons come and go. Every day you find your way onto the crag, the gathering of grey rock dominated by the imposing walls of Smailholm tower house, and you sit down, breathless. Every day you perch, like a bird contemplating flight, resting your chin on clenched fists as your gaze loses itself in the horizon. Every day you do this, and every day I watch. I watch you, and I wait.
I have been watching since the beginning of time. Time is not problematic for the first people like it is for humanity; it is not a pressure, nor a curse, nor even a luxury. Time for us is barely noticeable, hardly acknowledged; it stretches infinitely before us, the centuries woven together seamlessly like the strongest thread, unbreakable and uncompromising. Time is hard on humans; it traps you, it runs away from you, it forces you to face your own mortality at every turn. It is not like this for us. The first people are immune to time.
“Humans are so fleeting and so vulnerable, Ishbel,” my mother said to me once. “They’re hardly worth the effort.”
It is true, of course: you are here so briefly that you are barely here at all. Nonetheless, watching you is fascinating. It is like watching a lit candle and appreciating how brightly it burns, despite knowing that one day the flame will fade away to nothing. For century after century I have lived on Lady Hill, watching your triumphs and your struggles. The determined look on a man’s face as he took his family into the safety of their new tower to hide from the border reivers. The cry of anguish from a woman’s lips upon learning that her husband and sons had all perished fighting for the King. The delighted laughter of a boy as he began to walk again after being stricken by disease. Time has filled this place with people and with stories. Now I sit here and I watch you and I wait. I wait to learn your story.
I hear you speak for the first time, your voice soft, flowing like honey down the hillside. I know that you sense I am here, that someone is here, that someone is listening.
“I just wish I could see you,” I hear you say. “I wish I could know that you are still here.” I watch as your tears fall like raindrops on the ground and I wonder if I should reply.
It has been a long time since I have spoken to one of you. Years ago I whispered in the ear of that sickly boy, telling him tales of the old world, singing ancient ballads as though they might be lullabies. I remember his enchanted little face, his excitable squeals as he limped back home to tell his aunt what he had heard straight from the lips of a creature not of the human world.
“You must have fallen asleep up there, Walter,” his aunt said. “No more stories late at night for you.”
I look at you and I wonder if you want to hear me like that little boy did. Most people now do not want to hear: they do not know the stories, they do not believe in the first people. If they hear us whisper they respond with fear, with denial, with fierce rationality. I gaze at you, studying the redness of your hair, the green of your eyes, the paleness of your skin and I wonder, if I spoke to you, what your reaction would be.
I watch as you stand up, preparing to leave your sombre spot. You wring your hands together, your lips shaking with the effort of suppressed sobs. I have watched you cry like this so many times. You are so fragile, so broken, so beautiful, and still I do not know why. I am tired of waiting. I am tired of not knowing.
“I just wish I was with you,” you say. “I don’t think I can go on without you.”
“You don’t have to.” I give my reply without thinking, my voice blowing towards you on the breeze. “You can stay with me.”
You glance around you, your eyes growing wide. “Michelle? Michelle, is that you?” you cry out. My heart lurches at the desperation in your voice.
“No,” I whisper back, feeling suddenly ashamed of my intrusion. “I’m not Michelle. I’m Ishbel.”
You frown, wiping your eyes as you look around you. “Who’s there? I can’t see you. Where are you?”
“I’m – I’m here,” I stammer.
To my surprise, you laugh; a hard, bitter sound which makes me flinch. “I’ve finally lost my mind, haven’t I? I’ve driven myself mad and now I am hearing voices in my head.”
“No!” I insist. “I am really here. You can’t see me, but I am here.”
“Why can’t I see you?” you ask, sitting back down on your rugged, grey seat, a heavy sigh escaping from your lips.
I hesitate. I always hate this question. “Because…because it would frighten you. I am not part of your world.”
“I see,” you reply in that endearing way that humans do when they do not really understand. “Who are you, then? What are you?”
“My name is Ishbel. What I am is more complicated…” I hesitate, unsure how to explain. Centuries ago, the humans called us faeries; a name which over time has raised us mysterious creatures to mythical status, with wings and faces and stories of our own – stories we cling to, stories we tell. I am reluctant to use the name, especially now. Today’s humans are sceptical enough. “What is your name?” I ask, deciding to change the subject.
“Callum,” you say. “My name’s Callum.”
“Callum.” I repeat your name slowly, letting the syllables roll deliciously over my tongue. “Why do you come here every day, Callum? Why are you always so sad?”
You wipe a weary hand across your brow. “How do you know I’m here every day?”
“I watch you.”
You let out another brief, pained chuckle and shake your head. “All this time, I thought it was her. I thought she was watching me.”
I sense the first threads of your story hanging before me. “Who?” I ask, trying to conceal my eagerness as I grasp those threads, pulling them, loosening them with my hands.
“Michelle - my wife. At least, she was my wife. She’s dead now. She’s dead and I don’t know how to carry on without her.”
“How did she die?”
“A car accident. Does it matter?” you ask, gesturing angrily at the cold, grey air, the nothingness before you. “Does it matter how she died? She’s gone, okay? She’s gone.”
You put your head in your hands, hiding your face from me. I can’t see you, but I know that you are crying; the sound of your muffled sobs makes my heart ache. I lean forward and put my hand on your head, feeling the softness of your hair falling through my ethereal fingers, wishing that I could take your sadness away.
“I can feel that,” you say, rubbing your scalp, your warm hand momentarily capturing my invisible touch. “How can I feel that?”
“Are you sure?” I ask, taken aback. “You don’t usually feel us. We live beside you, but not with you. We watch, but we don’t interfere.”
“Like ghosts,” you say, your voice ponderous and I sense that this is not a question.
“Perhaps,” I reply. “But ghosts were human, once. I was never human.”
“You should be glad,” you quip, your voice tinged with bitterness. “Right now, I wish I had never been born.”
“Oh, don’t say that! Life is a gift.” Before I can stop myself I have thrown my arms around you, enveloping you in an embrace which is lighter than air. I bury my nose against your neck, breathing you in. You smell like energy, like vitality, like sweat, but also sorrow and regret. You smell of so many complex, wonderful things. I wish we smelled like you do.
“I don’t want to be alone,” you whisper.
“You’re not alone,” I reply, my voice soft. “I will always be with you.”
I hold you in my arms as the wind blows in angry gusts across the hillside. I stay there, embracing you, even as the sky darkens and rain threatens to fall, and the landscape grows gloomy and forbidding. I stay with you even as the first rumble of thunder booms at us, and the first bolt of lightning flashes overhead.
Then I remember that the Gods will be angry, and a tear rolls down my cheek at the thought of what can never be.
We talk every day, you and I, for weeks, for months. You talk about Michelle, about how much you miss her, how lost you are without her. You talk about your life together; the holidays to far-flung places, the dreams of starting a business together, the idyllic cottage in the village which you had both hoped to fill with children. You talk about the day she died; the uneasy feeling you had in your gut as she left that day, the knock at door, the way you knew what the policeman would say before he even opened his mouth to speak. You talk about how you cannot move on; how everyone around you expects you to come to terms with your grief but no matter how hard you try, you can’t. In return I try my best to soothe you with old fables, with ancient tales and lullabies sung softly on the breeze. You listen attentively, momentarily distracted from your troubles but unhealed, and I realise after a time that I cannot help you in the way I had hoped.
“I think I’ve stopped feeling sad now,” you say to me one fine spring day as you sit on your rock, playing with a dandelion you plucked from the hillside. “Now I just feel nothing, like I’m completely empty. Do you think that’s worse – to feel nothing at all?”
I consider your question. “I’m not sure. We do not feel as you do.”
You frown. “What do you mean?”
“We don’t experience emotions the way that humans do.”
“So you never feel sad, or tired or despairing?” You pause, apparently considering the gravity of what I have told you. “You never feel happy?”
I hesitate. “I have felt these things…but only when I am near the human realm.” Only when I am near you, I think, but I don’t dare to say it. “These feelings, these experiences don’t exist where we are.”
“I don’t know,” I reply. “It is so hard to explain.”
“You always say that,” you retort, sounding impatient. Humanity is always impatient – is it because you know you only have a limited time in which to learn, to experience, to fulfil your wishes and desires? “I still don’t know anything about you – what you are, or where you come from.”
“I can tell you more of the old tales…” I begin.
“I don’t want more stories,” you reply. “I want the truth.”
“Truth is subjective,” I reply. “If you wish, I will tell you mine, but you must never tell another soul.”
“There’s no danger of that,” you scoff. “If anyone knew that I sat up here every day, talking to thin air, they’d lock me up and throw away the key.”
“That is because humans do not cope well with things they do not understand,” I tell you. “Even those who believe in one or several Gods will often deny the existence of ghosts, of demons, of faeries, imps, goblins or any other manner of creature found in the old stories. You rise from dust, and to dust you all return. While you live you experience a solid, earthly realm. You are comfortable with what is tangible; you like the things you can place in your palm and know all about. Notions of what exists beyond this are mysterious, frightening even.”
“Yes, we’re so imperfect and yet you spend all of your time watching us!” you retort. Your words are teasing, but your tone bites angrily at me.
An awkward silence descends over us. I turn away from you, watching instead as the wind plays with the lush, green grass. For the first time since I met you, I am lost for words.
“So what is your world like?” you ask, offering a question where an apology should be. I forgive you, of course. I would forgive you for anything.
“Lighter than air,” I say. “The first people live where there is no dust, no flesh, no corporeal forms to trap us, no fear of death to limit us. There is no fear of anything in fact; there is no hunger, no pain, no sorrow. There is just…” I pause, struggling to find the words. “There is just air.”
“That sounds perfect,” you reply, your words sailing morosely on a heavy sigh. “It sounds like you have everything.”
“We have everything, and nothing at all.”
You frown. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Our world lacks substance,” I reply. “This material, earthen place you inhabit gives you such gifts, such experiences, such feelings. There is sadness, yes, but also joy. You cannot know one without the other and if you have neither, you have nothing.”
You shake your head. “It still sounds like paradise to me. I wish I could go there with you.”
I do not reply. Instead I study you; your pale face, your eyes dark and heavy from months of disturbed sleep, your mouth which is twisted into a permanent expression of grief. I look at you and I realise that I cannot make you understand. I cannot tell you how simply becoming the air is not the remedy to ease your suffering, that only your great enemy, time, can do that. I cannot tell you how much I wish I could be made flesh, how much I wish I could walk with you on your green, solid terrain. I cannot tell you how much better it would be if I could join you.
Above all, I cannot tell you that I love you, because the Gods would be angry, and because it would do more harm than good.
The next time I see you, it is the middle of the night. My spirits lift as I hear you coming up the hillside, groaning and swearing as you stumble in the dark, your dim torch completely insufficient for the task of lighting your way. The night is so black on Lady Hill. The darkness makes the hillside treacherous, danger lurking at every turn, from the towering rocks to the marsh and lochan below. No one comes up here at night, including you. Yet, here you are. My excitement dissolves into trepidation and I begin to wonder what you’re doing here.
“Callum,” I cry out, my voice at once turning an urgent breeze into the still night. “Callum, are you alright?”
“Ishbel!” you call back. For once there is laughter in your voice. “You’re always here, aren’t you? You’re always waiting for me.”
“Of course,” I reply. “I told you that I will always be with you.”
“But that’s not true, is it?” you ask, drawing nearer to the rocks, nearer to me. “You’re always here – I can talk to you here. But when I go, I leave you, and you do not follow me. Why don’t you try to follow me?” Your voice is uneven and your breath is potent. I realise that you have been drinking.
“I cannot…” I begin, my words faltering. “There are rules, boundaries to my presence here. Too much involvement with the human world comes with consequences. I have already…I am already too involved,” I add, regretting the note of fear which pollutes my gentle voice.
“Then I will join you,” you declare, a childish petulance in your tone.
“You can’t! There is no way…”
“I will find a way, Ishbel,” you reply. “I don’t want to stay in this world. I don’t want to bear the pain anymore.”
But you don’t wait. You walk away, the devastating sound of your sobs echoing across the night. I stand there, feeling helpless. If only I had arms and legs made of flesh, I would go after you; I would run and grab hold of you and never let go. But I cannot, for I am made only of air; I am nothingness contained by the Gods in this beautiful, lonely place.
The last time I see you, you have gone.
The dawn brings visitors to Lady Hill, swathes of them with uniforms, bags, notepads and radios. I watch in horror as your limp, pale body is pulled from the cold waters of the lochan; I watch as a uniformed man shakes his head whilst another places you in a black, zipped bag. I watch for hour after hour as men and women survey the scene, looking for clues, trying to find the truth of what happened here. I could tell them, I think. I could tell your story. Except that, after the loss of you, I don’t think I can bear to speak to another human ever again.
“Poor soul,” I overhear one man say. “Lost his wife in a car accident just over a year ago. Locals say he was struggling to come to terms with it.”
“Yes, he spent a lot of time up here, apparently,” says another. “One neighbour told me that they’d started to think he’d lost his mind, that he’d been spending almost every day sitting on the crag, talking to himself. Mad with grief, I’d say.”
The first man shakes his head. “A real shame,” he says, his voice ringing with pity. “Well, looks like a suicide, too. I just hope that wherever he is now, he is at peace.”
So do I. I hope you’ve found peace, too. I hope that the Gods have embraced you, that they have taken you to safety, to that place which even creatures such as I cannot visit, the one where the Gods keep the dead souls. Sometimes I like to imagine you, happy again with your wife, living as I do, like air, but in another realm. I find that such thoughts comfort me in the long and silent hours. Perhaps the first people are more susceptible to time than I realised. Or at least, those of us who have been touched by humanity as you touched me.
“I told you that humans are too fleeting and vulnerable.” I hear my mother’s voice on the cool, spring breeze. “Time for you to come home, I think.”
Yes, home. I feel my mother’s hand on my shoulder as she guides me away from this place; a place of beauty, a place of stories. A place which has been my chosen exile for centuries. I close my eyes, dwelling on one final sorrowful, warm tear as it trickles down my cheek. I am ready to go home. I am ready for serenity. I am ready to forget all about you. My only wish is that the Gods are not too hard on me. Loving and then losing you has made me suffer enough.
“It sounds like you have everything,” you once told me.
I let out a heavy sigh as I prepare to leave, as I prepare to suppress my sadness under that blanket of calm which only my world can offer. Perhaps you were right, I think. Perhaps I do come from paradise, after all.