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The Fairy Bridge
By Kate Noble
It was a balmy evening, towards the end of a very hot, humid mid-summer’s day. The sun remained high enough to hazily influence all it fell upon, but its power was fading now along with the length of the day. There was an early evening heat-haze across the woodland, and branches bowed under its secret weight as air tried jostling itself to escape the pressing heat for a moment. A weary Jack made his way down the twisting rocky narrow path homeward, humming happily under his breath to himself and deftly avoiding each frond of bracken which lay across his way. He had labored the blistering day-light hours away, cutting wood in the shade of the trees, but was tired out from the heavy heat and anxious to be back in his own neighborhood; to quench his thirst, down a few ales, and chat away merry nothings amongst friends.
As Jack carried himself happily along he could hear the trickle of a hidden water course becoming closer. He turned a corner in the woodland track and came across a small stone bridge in front of him. He was suddenly aware of the strangest notion half-tickling his mind—he had never noticed this bridge before—but as he took the slightest of steps needed to reach its centre he felt the cooling air rising from the water and simply put his forgetfulness down to the intense heat of the day. He leant over the low edge of the bridge to briefly drink up the water coolness across his face—just for a short while—before pressing on homeward to his well-deserved rest. For those few precious seconds, he allowed himself to close his eyes to enjoy the soothing sensations of this reverie.
On opening his eyes he prepared to set off again, but found his attention suddenly taken by something glistening under the silt beneath the stiller edges of the clear running brook. He took a second look and noticed the edge of what looked like a shiny silver coin. Someone must have dropped it, he thought to himself, and whilst its worth was of little consequence, his instinct was undoubtedly to investigate a little further and pocket any easy proceeds whilst passing. Waste not want not was the adage he most often worked to, especially when it came to coins and the like.
So Jack jumped over the insignificant side of the bridge and launched himself the short way into the clear water with a splash; the force of the drops reaching up to his face and providing a second momentary coolant. His feet and ankles were now soaked with water and he gave no thought to needing to dry out his shoes before tomorrow, so anxious was he to explore the silvery gleam he had spotted. The water and silt were disturbed around him and Jack needed to stand still to let everything settle back down and the scene below the water surface clear so that he could see again properly. As he waited with his feet and legs stock still, he swung his upper body from his waist to look around him, just to make sure that no-one was setting him up here (you know, having a joke at his expense) as that would have spoilt it all, and could even have irritated him, if he hadn’t been in such a fine mood to start with. There seemed no-one about.
As the opaque scene around his ankles below water cleared, he peered toward the stream bed where he thought he had seen the shiny coin, and in a moment his eyes had found it again. He leaned over further to touch its edges, unbelieving, and pulled the coin steadily away from its sandy bed. It came away so easily, and as he pulled it seemed that he had loosened some other small hard things further under the silt and sand bed from the way that the loosened grit-bed juddered slightly and re-settled itself. Not content with the coin he already had in his hand, his hands dived readily back into the waters and his fingers moved through the sandy loam, now searching for more of the same. And indeed there they were. The more he seemed to dig and churn up the sand bottom the more coins seemed to become available to him to take; so take them he did, placing them upon the brook side closest to him.
By now, Jack was oblivious to anything else around him, working almost blindly and not waiting for the silted dust screen to clear before he dived his hands in time and again. Such was his frantic fervor to gather as many coins—they seemed silver, bronze, gold—for himself as possible now, that he did not notice an exceptionally small man appearing behind him, and watching his actions incredulously.
‘And what in our God’s name do you think you’re doing?’ asked a small voice sharply.
Jack, believing himself to be alone, and distracted in his own world anyway, fairly jumped out of his skin, turning shocked in the direction of the question put to him. There, to the side of him stood the smallest man he had ever seen, neatly dressed in a dark suit, with tie, and a top hat on his head. For a moment Jack was lost for words and continued to stare at this man as if frozen in time. Finding this rather insulting, on top of the destruction that Jack was clearly wreaking to the stream, the Ferrish was losing patience and to break Jack out of his daydream re-questioned him at a slightly higher pitch
‘And so then, what is it do you think you are doing?’
Jack looked over and down at the really small, but perfectly formed, man in front of him and found it hard at first to find words. He then looked back at the pile of coins on the stream bank which he had been harvesting. Was he in some kind of dream he wondered? But then he remembered some words of his mother’s about not staring at people just because they looked different. He turned his gaze away, embarrassed, realizing how rude he must seem, and shocked somewhat back to his senses.
‘Naw. It's you I’m talking to. No good looking over there’ said the Ferrish, following Jack’s gaze, and clearly getting increasingly annoyed.
‘I...I...’ stuttered Jack.
‘Yes. You. ’
‘Let me help you a little...’ the Ferrish lifted his eyebrows with a vague hint of sarcasm. ‘You seem to be stealing the wishes is what you seem to be doing.’
Jack found his voice finally, feeling a little relief. He looked over at his stash of coins. ‘Ah now, that is something I’m not doing. As you see...’ He indicated coyly over to his stash of coins and thought it wise to add ’would you like some of these though?’
This simply appeared to anger the Ferrish further, and his face turned a shade of pink which Jack thought looked distinctly unhealthy.
‘What? You’re offering the wishes back to me now, are you?’
Jack was getting somewhat confused with all this.
‘No, no, the coins. What wishes, where?’ he spun round both ways and shrugged to indicate he meant no harm really. The Ferrish became distinctly upright in his annoyance at this, having decided it was an evasion of the facts in the matter.
‘This, young man, is a wishing bridge, and the hopes and dreams of many people have been offered here, over more years than you would ever be able to imagine. Each coin offered into the water is a heartfelt wish or hope owned by someone. By removing their coins you take any possibility of their wish being fulfilled away.’
Jack smirked to himself privately at this faith in superstition. His mother was just the same, he chuckled to himself.
‘I didn’t know...real... but its not such a big thing surely...’ exclaimed Jack in an attempt to lighten the shade of this man’s face and to maneuver himself out of this heated and—after all—most bizarre spot. After all, he had only a while ago himself made a wish to be home and drinking with friends. That wouldn’t take wasting money in fountains to bring about. He chuckled quietly to himself, not wanting to annoy the little man any further. The Ferrish looked as if he was heading to do himself a mischief as it was.
‘No? Not a big thing!’ the Ferrish pointedly repeated Jack’s words, ‘...that you have taken away goodness knows how many chances for children to recover from illness, or homes to remain secure, or people to pass important exams, or babies to be delivered safely, or job interviews to be successful, or weddings to be successful, or expeditions to be completed, or medical research to find...or...’
‘Okay. Okay.’ said Jack beginning to weary beyond what the heat had accomplished. ‘I think I see now. So, if I just put all of these back...’ But before he could move to gather back up his horde the Ferrish seemed to read his mind and interjected.
‘Oh no no no! Not possible now. That would really be an ultimate offense to nature. You’ve broken the wishes by lifting them out.’
Jack looked away from the Ferrish’s gaze and raised his eyebrows to himself. What had he got himself into here? He leaned over to his collected coins, still tempted to sweep them back over the edge into the water anyway, and keen to be back on his way home with the minimum of hassle. Plan B would have to be; get this weird little guy off his back, lie low a few days and pick them up again, perhaps next week, he thought. But before he could move the little man was jumping and hopping about in front of his coins, his face an even brighter shade of pink than he had been a few moments ago. As he jigged around he muttered various phrases to himself and seemed to be working himself up into some kind of frenzy.
‘My goodness...never did I think I’d see...my word...not on my life...what disregard...oh goodness...what thoughtless...I was told it’d come to this...I didn’t believe them...wishes too precious...what’s to do?....how to let people know?’
Despite how minor Jack felt his error had been, it was clearly of great consequence to this small man, and Jack certainly did not wish to cause any more offense than he already seemed to have done. He was feeling distinctly out of his depth here. Perhaps he could salvage some of the situation if he acted swiftly. It was distressing watching this man tizzy himself into such a rose-hued fury.
‘Look,’ said Jack forcefully, trying to halt the stream of agitation emanating from this small man, as it was just still too warm to be going on in this way. ‘Look there. Is there anything I can do...er...well to make amends? Put things right? I have no money on me...’ he patted his pockets and laughed at this irony in this ‘...but there must be some way I can put things back, you know, as they were.’
This sentence seemed to grab the Ferrish’s attention, and he stopped hopping and moving and stood still for a moment. A look of deep thought came over his face as he stood. After a while he turned his head to look at Jack and spoke.
‘There is perhaps just one thing left you could do, or try at least.’
‘Okay. Fine. Just ask away.’ Jack breathed a sigh of relief internally to himself.
‘Well there may be the slightest of chances that the wish-setter could turn the coins back into wishes again. It happened once before I think I remember,' the Ferrish mused, 'but there are never any guarantees. It would mean delivering the coins to her, but she’s not always that easy to find.’
‘So where is she?’ Get these coins delivered, wash my hands of the whole affair, and be back on my way thought Jack.
‘In the village of Aisling Briste.’
‘Where?’ Jack was quizzical at this. All his life he had lived in these parts and he had never heard of this place. He suddenly feared being taken on an extraordinarily long journey, when really he just wanted to be getting home.
‘Oh, yes, it's some way’ said the Ferrish, as though reading his thoughts, 'but it seems just a moment’s travel once you get there, starting from here that is...and on an evening such as this...’
And with that the Ferrish, turned his arm to reveal behind him a pathway through the trees. Once again, this evening, Jack sensed that he had never noticed this path before, despite having used this route year after year. He shook his head to himself and thought: a bit like the bridge!
‘If you deliver the coins to her, that may put things right, so we can say no more about what you’ve done if so. If it works that is.’
The Ferrish seemed mainly pleased with this suggestion, and his face had calmed down to a reasonable color, Jack thought, so the least he could do, he realized, was to carry out the wishes of this man.
‘So, just to check’ Jack said ‘I’m to deliver these coins to the wish-setter at Aisling Briste—is it?—and then we’re quits with everything.’
‘Seems that way. Hope it works.’ The small Ferrish started rubbing his hands together with some cautious glee.
Jack started to pick up the coins and store them in his palms, but soon realized that there were too many to hold in his hands alone. He had no pockets in his jacket, so he was forced to remove his shirt and use it to bundle up the coins. It was clumsy, and awkward to hold, but it would have to do. He turned to gain final approval for his journey from the Ferrish, but the small man was no longer anywhere to be seen.
So, thought Jack relieved, no doubt I can drop these off fairly quickly and get back home, not too much later than I’d planned after all. At least the little guy’s gone away. He stresses a lot doesn’t he? And he set off down the pathway through the trees indicated by the Ferrish.
Not long had Jack travelled—swapping his awkward bundle from arm to arm to spread the weight—when he found that it was becoming almost impossible to carry the coins. They were simply becoming heavier and heavier. Really he needed something to help him carry them if he was going to continue. As he turned a corner he came across a rough hessian bag lying across a briar bush as if ready and waiting for him. He couldn’t believe his luck and looked around him to check that it didn’t belong to anyone else. He could make good use of this just now.
He lifted the bag off the thorned branches carefully, and was about to gratefully decant the coins into it when he heard a small voice behind him say
‘...and that will be one-pence thank you...’
Jack swung round and saw yet another small male Ferrish, very similar to the one he’d met at the bridge.
Oh gracious, he thought, not another one. Perhaps this one’ll be more helpful, and less prone to getting himself quite so upset. Anxious to be on his way and finished with all of this nonsense, Jack no longer hugely surprised by small characters appearing on his path, said
‘Okay then. No problem. One moment.’ And with that he reached into his bundle to find the coin required.
‘Now you wouldn’t want to be using them there coins, would you?’ asked this Ferrish. Here we go, thought Jack.
‘Why ever not? It's all I’ve got anyway.’
‘Well if you’re sure. I wouldn’t though...’
Jack shrugged and handed over the penny required and the bag was now his. He quickly moved all the coins into the bag and tied his shirt round his waist. The Ferrish stood with his hands on his hips, watching but grim faced and shaking his head softly.
‘Thank you, that’ll do just great.’ Jack said as he swung the bag up onto his shoulders and made to move on. He looked around, but this Ferrish had already disappeared.
What Jack didn’t know, however, was that the moment he had passed over the already broken wish, in the shape of that penny coin, that it was totally lost forever, having slipped off the edge of the world and shattered on the rocks somewhere far out in space. At the same time a small anguished sigh was heard, but only by anyone within the orbit of those rocks. So usually no-one was there to hear a wish’s final destruction. There was absolutely no hope of that wish, whatever it had been, ever being reinstated now. The Ferrishin would simply leave it where it fell on the rough ground, under the bracken, hidden from view.
So Jack carried on down the clearly marked track, with the bag certainly making it easier to carry the coins. They were so heavy though, and seemingly getting heavier again. Perhaps he was tired, Jack wondered, due to the heat and strangeness of the day. Soon though, it became impossible to even carry the bag, and Jack knew he would need extra help; something like a small trolley to help draw the coins along behind him, would be really useful he mused. And sure enough as he rounded the next corner propped up against a tree was just such a small trolley perfect for the job. Jack expected a Ferrish to turn up again, even though he was quite deep into the woods by now, and turned looking around himself, prepared, but no-one appeared. So he leaned over to pick the trolley up by its towing arm, and the moment he touched it it seemed to say to him.
‘Its twopence to use me.’
Now this was a new one on Jack, and he did double-take for a moment, despite all the other almost believable events that had befallen him this evening.
‘You’re talking to me,’ said Jack to the trolley, deciding to face this one head on.
‘And so?’ said the trolley, who clearly had just as much attitude as the Ferrishin he had met so far. ‘As I said, its twopence‘.
‘Okay, where do I leave the money?’
‘Are you using the broken wishes?’ asked the trolley knowingly.
Jack had to try and remember what he meant for a moment.
‘Oh, these coins here, er, yeah.’
The trolley made a sound as though it was breathing in through its teeth, although it was hard to tell with it being a trolley, and not having teeth, or even a mouth come to think of it. After a short gap it said ‘Just leave it on the ground next to the tree.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, yes. It's worthless now.’
Jack shrugged. In his mind he simply didn’t have time to argue today. He was getting thirstier and hungrier and this trip home from work had become incredibly, and in his opinion unnecessarily, elongated. He was beginning to lose his cool himself now. What he didn’t, of course, know is that off the edge of the world a couple more dreams and hopes, like the last one, were forever dashed on rocks in that moment, never able to be fulfilled.
Jack moved the bag of coins onto the trolley and it felt much easier for a while pulling his load along, but quite soon it again started to feel almost impossible to wheel along behind him. As though an extra weight had been added. He checked to see if anything was blocking the wheels. He tried it in front of him to see if that would make it easier. It didn’t seem to. Nothing seemed to help.
‘Can you help at all?’ Jack decided to ask the trolley as a bit of a long shot, but it remained silent, and Jack began to doubt that he had ever had a conversation with it in the first place. After all, it was a trolley! Jack sniggered uncomfortably to himself, feeling a little uneasy for the first time. He checked around him to make sure that no-one had seen him talking to an inanimate object, and shook himself to bring him to his proper senses. The coast was clear anyhow.
He reached a raised mossy clump and thought he would rest for a while. It couldn’t be too much further now, could it? As he’d clearly been mistaken about the talking trolley he decided to decant a number of the coins in the bushes hereabouts before he set off again, to lessen the load. It shouldn’t matter, and it should speed him up he reckoned, especially as no-one knew how many coins to expect being delivered anyway. Before he set off he put his hand into the bag on the trolley and took a handful or two of coins and discarded them like seed across the shrub around and about him. He wheeled the trolley around a little to check his actions had had the desired effect. Before he set off, he half wondered whether he could heard a low level ‘tut-tutting’ coming from somewhere nearby, but decided that fatigue was really cutting in on him now. What Jack could never know was the gasps and wails that accompanied his actions, off the edge of the world and out in orbit, as the broken-wish coins were lost forever; dreams and hopes smashed to pieces by the rocks.
As he set off on his pathway again he said jokingly to the trolley, ‘Well I hope that’s not you disapproving or something. If you were really helpful you could get me a drink as I’m parched right now. This load doesn’t get any lighter does it?’
And round the next corner he found himself face to face with a large can of chilled beer perched on the top of a flat-topped stone. It was as if it was just waiting there for him. He dropped his grip on the trolley and moved swiftly toward the drink, managing to quaff a good third of it before a voice behind him said
‘That will need paying for you know’
It was the voice of another small male Ferrish, who was standing on a nearby branch, with arms crossed watching Jack carefully.
‘No bother’ said Jack by now used to the routine. ‘Three pence I guess, eh?’
‘Now you’re right there.’ said the Ferrish, unmoved, except for observing the flight of the ring pull from can, via Jack, into undergrowth.
‘I needed that’ said Jack drinking down another swig at the can. ‘I’d begun hallucinating back there I think. Thought this trolley was talking to me.’ He nodded his head towards the trolley and chuckled.
The small Ferrish shrugged, raised his eyebrows, and looked over at the trolley, and smiled with a slight nod of his head, as though the trolley was doing the same in reply, but by the time Jack turned round to check what was happening, the trolley simply looked just as it always had done. How would a trolley smile anyhow, pondered Jack. No weirder than its been all along, he thought to himself.
‘And you want the three-pence leaving on the ground, like before?’ asked Jack, really getting into the swing of things by now he felt.
‘If you’re paying using the broken wishes, they can’t ever be used again, so yes.’
‘Are you going to disappear in a moment as well?’ asked Jack in full confident flow now, but as he turned toward the branch where the Ferrish had been, it was already empty, and no-one to be seen.
Jack shrugged, feeling refreshed and in a more reasonable mood to continue. He placed the remainder of the beer can in a corner of the trolley to sup on later. He must nearly be there by now. The Ferrish at the outset had been right. It certainly was some way to travel to find this Aisling Briste place, but he must surely be nearly there by now. He lifted the trolley handle again and felt its resistance with the growing weight of the load again. Jack was beginning to feel uneasy about how the trolley was getting so heavy again so soon, and quickly checked in the bag to see whether anything extra had been put in, perhaps by the last Ferrish, as some kind of test, or joke. But, no there was nothing there that shouldn’t be there. Jack took in a deep breath and started off again, hopefully, he thought, on the final stretch of this seemingly endless journey.
And before long on this path, to his dismay, he spotted ahead of him a sign post. As he got nearer he noticed that there were a number of arrows leading off to paths in various directions, but none of the arrows had any place names attached to them. How on earth was he meant to know which way he had to go now? This was the final straw. No coins would help him now. Jack felt truly irritated this time, wishing that someone would turn up just now who could help him. And at that instant the original Ferrish turned up at his right elbow, and tapped his arm to get his attention.
‘Oh, good job, thank goodness’ said Jack ‘I was beginning to wonder what to do next. I bet you can tell me which path to follow.’ He started to rummage around in the bag for fourpence.
‘Not anymore, I can’t’ The Ferrish sounded annoyed—again—Jack thought. Well, that matched him with how he was feeling just now.
‘Oh? But you wanted me to get to Aisling Briste with all the coins.’
‘There’s no such place.’
Well, that really was it for Jack. He became very agitated and with a raised voice exclaimed, ‘Why ask me to come all this way. You haven’t kept to your part of the bargain, and incidentally I’m not sure what these coins are made of but they seem to get heavier and heavier as you get further with them.’
‘Well you’re carrying the weight of everyone’s hopes, and its quite a heavy duty, as you now may realize, but as you have discarded each of them did you not think to take it upon yourself to see those hopes and wishes through personally...’
‘Okay, okay...’ said Jack, only half listening, as rather than an explanation what he had really wanted was to be out of here and on his real way again.
‘Well I’ve tried to fulfill my part of the bargain..’ he exclaimed, ‘ Its not really my fault if the place I’m meant to be getting to has disappeared.’
‘But it only went away because you couldn’t even manage to fulfill my wish to carry all the broken wishes there.’
‘What do you mean? Not so!’ exclaimed Jack indignantly. ‘I did everything as requested.’
‘Well, where are all the coins?’
How did he know, wondered Jack, that some had been, well kind of, lost, even traded, on route. As some kind of answer to his thoughts the Ferrish said ‘My wish was that you carry everyone’s broken dreams to the wish-setter, to see whether they could be mended.’ He was getting that irritated tone again, Jack thought, and I can match him this time!
‘Once you had got rid of any one of them then you simply could not see the wish through even if you had wanted to. Not only have you carried out an offense against everyone who threw in a coin originally by taking the coins out of the stream bed, but you then could not manage to make amends either. You have offended the fairy world twice-over. ‘
The Ferrish sounded supremely serious and, through his annoyance, Jack started to get a little worried at this point. He wanted simply to be home supping ale with friends, and this was all getting quite intense, and what’s more he couldn’t easily see a way out. He thought he would try the easiest option in his view.
‘So, anyhow. That’s all well and good, but I really need to be getting off home now’ he said ‘I’m expected there, and I did do my best with my part of the bargain.’
‘Oh no. You quite misunderstand.’ said the Ferrish. ‘Your offense is now so great—to so many—that you must forfeit the life you knew before...’
‘What are you talking about?’ asked Jack, nervously chuckling, but semi-worried, as he wasn’t sure quite where he was, and when he turned around the path he had been traveling down had in fact disappeared behind him.
‘Really, you should spend the rest of your days trying to fulfill all the dreams and hopes that you so carelessly...’ (and that word was particularly strongly stressed) ‘discarded. But, we are willing to be lenient, as you seemed to have been careless rather than deliberately unkind.’
Jack gave a weak smile, as his eyes almost popped out. Incredulous.
The Ferrish continued ‘We have agreed among us—us fairies that is—that your penance shall be to forever spend your time, ensuring that people have enough coins at the ready to use in fairy bridges and wells. Your job will be to plant coins down the back of sofas, and in trousers pockets, in pocket money purses and at the bottom of dusty bags, so that there is always plentiful supply.’
'Okay and so when do I get to go home,’ asked Jack.
‘Never, to the home you knew before...’ said the Ferrish, you have a new home with us now.
Jack looked around him. He needed time to think for a moment. This was really getting beyond a joke now. He did not know where he was. He ran his fingers through his hair. He reached for his can to drink from, and slumped his body down where he was. Admittedly flummoxed, this was something like a waking nightmare he concluded.
As he put the can up towards his mouth its opening seemed to increase to the size of a bucket and as he drank he felt liquid beginning to cover his cheeks and run down his neck, as though he could no longer keep the flow back. This felt comforting, somehow cushioning and refreshing so he simply shut his eyes to try take away everything that was happening around him.
When he opened his eyes again, what he thought a few minutes later, he found the side of his face pressed into a sandbank of a stream, at the waters-edge with the cool water gently trickling over his face, cheeks and mouth. Jack shut and opened his eyes again just to check he was here and not going back to the other places he had been today. Yes, it was still a stream in front of him. He raised himself up cautiously and looked around him. It looked vaguely familiar to him, and as he stood he realized that he was back at the original stream he had come across earlier that evening. He shut and opened his eyes a few more times in disbelief just to check. He realized that he must have been asleep the whole time. His clothes were soaked through from lying in the water, he wondered for how long.
He stood up and pulled himself out of the shallow water, looking around him all the while, expecting to see another Ferrishin or talking trolley (I ask you!). Nothing. He chuckled to himself with relief. Just the woods and path around him that he always thought he had known so well. Yes, nothing in his way; no small men, no bags, no cans and certainly no coins anywhere hereabouts, although he decided not to look too closely in the water. The light through the tress was truly fading by now and a beautiful orange-pink glow was emanating from the setting sun. The light winds across his wet clothes made him shiver for an instant.
He checked around him once more, not quite believing he was back where it all began, and that he was free to set off back home again. As soon as a realized it was safe to leave he made off in the direction of home, probably quicker than he ever had in his life before. He brushed past the undergrowth uncaring if it scratched his legs, he was just so happy to be back on his known way. For just an instant he noticed something gleaming under the bushes—was it a ring pull—but he didn’t stop to check—carrying forward at some pace. As he plummeted homeward he realized, quite uneasily, that he was unsure whether he would be able to share his experiences of the evening with friends later. He could wish for them to believe him, but overriding it, for now, he felt relieved, cooled and free.