Blowin’ In: The Wee Woman: A Tale for Samhain
By Susan Mangan
Autumn finds clusters of deep purple blackberries ready to burst along the brambles that line the path from St. Patrick’s Primary School to the rolling hills above the village of Rock Strand. Petey and Paddy Corrigan know the route well as it winds through town and past all their favorite shops.
“Paddy, this time of year is surely heaven on earth. Just look, we have all the blackberries in the world ready to stuff into our mouths on one side of the lane and Big Tom’s Emporium of Sweeties on the other. Sure, life doesn’t get better than this.”
Now, the twins were known among the villagers for their mischievous charms, but also for their talents. Petey could sing like heaven’s own cherub and Paddy was the county’s five-year running spelling bee champ.
On this day, Bridie McCracken decided to allow Petey and Paddy to accompany her home from school. Bridie was as sharp as a nettle in June. She nearly beat Paddy in the spring academic challenge, but he could recite two of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and she only one. Bridie and Paddy may have been rivals, but Petey’s brotherly loyalty came to a halt when he thought of the grand freckles that dotted her nose. Petey reckoned those wee spots were as sweet as a pack of chocolate buttons.
“Boys, Big Tom won’t like it if you smear up his window with your greedy faces pressed against that glass. Sure, ye both are slobberin’ more than my collie Poppy!”
Samhain Harvest Fête
The Samhain Harvest Fête was a mere three weeks away and Big Tom had all his sweets displayed in true celebratory fashion. Every year, Tom hosted a homemade sweetie competition. Talented confectioners across Rock Strand vied for the win. Big Tom would give the winning sweet a proud display in the storefront window.
A miraculous confection in itself, the window was lined with carved turnip men, strange creatures with bulbous heads and hooked noses who peered into black vats teeming with wrapped candies. In another scene, branches of bog oak held willow baskets bursting with Licorice Allsorts and orange Wine gums shaped like tabby cats.
The bowed windows were draped with tattered muslin curtains. Long branches of elderflower and prickly blackberries from the wood on the Stoney Bank Road draped the borders.
“By the Banshee’s howl, Bridie,” whistled Paddy. “This here window is as eerie as those tales Mr. Yeats tells in his Celtic Twilight.”
Bridie began to recite, “In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart. I have heard of a ghost that was many years in a tree . . .”
“Aw, sure as the saints are in heaven would ye two stop recitin’ poetry or prose, or whatever tis’. Ye are both helpin’ to diminish my appetite for the sweeties in yon turnip man’s cauldron.”
Big Tom finally took note of the three children outside his shop. “Will ye three stop droolin’ on my prize window and come in to say a proper hello?” laughed Big Tom McIntyre.
“Do forgive me Mr. Tom, but I never slobber. That poorly habit is reserved for wee dogs and hungry lambs, like my companions here,” chastised Bridie, with a nod toward the boys.
“Come in children,” welcomed Tom. Perhaps young Petey would trade a song for a pack of sweets, the jovial shopkeeper suggested.
After three rousing choruses of the Rattlin’ Bog, the children were rewarded with a bag of penny candy each.
As the children turned outside the Emporium and toward the bog road out of town, the sun was nearly tucked into the horizon for the day. Autumn nights were long in Rock Strand and the wind seemed to raise as the three children huddled closely together, hugging the heavy books to their worn woolen cardigans.
The Corrigan Cottage lies just above McCracken’s Field. A fine baker, Mrs. McCracken usually had a currant bun waiting for the boys to see their hunger through as they made the short trek across the field home to their own whitewashed cottage.
Sensing the change in weather, Bridie’s da had already brought the cow in the shed for the night. Mr. McCracken would always say when the wind shifts north and the autumn wind whistles like a fairy’s pipe through the furze, tis’ a night for the Sidhe, the fairy folk, to arise on yon wind and traipse through the fields of Rock Strand.
The Arrival of the Sidhe
As the children carefully closed the sturdy gate made from ocean reeds and field stone, they heard the shrill tune of the fairy’s pipe. Shree, shree, no more shall ye traipse through the field that belong to the Sidhe
Startled, Bridie grabbed ahold of Petey’s hand. On a fine day, Petey would be pleased as punch with this endearment, but on this windswept night, he was as frightened as Bridie, and grabbed tight to Paddy’s arm.
The children were almost at Bridie’s red half-door when a cloaked, bulky figure seemed to creep out the cottage’s side door. In the spare light of the new moon, the creature appeared hunched over and draped in dark linen.
“Bridie, I do hope that is your neighbor who lives up the road down below. Sure, its knickers must be near as big as your Auntie Nor’s. I’ll be railed if that t’weren’t a giant from the land of the Sidhe,” croaked Paddy.
“Paddy, stop your squawkin’ and let’s get Bridie safe to the door and the warmth of her Mammy’s kitchen.”
Petey took Bridie firmly by the hand with her book satchel safely tucked under his arm. Feigning courage, he was nearly faint with fear at the thought of the Sidhe creature.
“Mammy,” shouted Bridie to her mother who was standing at the hearth stirring a great vat filled with a brown concoction.
Mrs. McCracken jumped and turned to look at the children with a gasp, “By Saint Anthony’s donkey, ye three near gave me an early death.”
Surely the look in Mrs. McCracken’s eyes and stutter in her greeting was as queer as a fox cub howling at the summer sun, thought Paddy and Petey.
“Lads, I have your currant buns at the ready, but ye must be runnin’ along straight away. The wind is calling for a fairy night.”
When the Wee Woman Goes to Work
Sure enough, the rowan trees sang to their fairies all through the eve. Unsettled, Paddy and Petey huddled beneath their down blankets comforted by the dim glow of their flashlight. To pass the dark hours, they read from Mr. Yeats’ Celtic Twilight and discovered the tale of the Wee Woman.
Early the next day, the lads met Bridie out in the field where she was helping her da with the cow.
“Bridie, we think t’was the Wee Woman who came to call on yer ma last night.”
“Sure, she didn’t appear wee too me,” questioned Bridie.
“By the Baby Jaysus, the Wee Woman t’weren’t really wee. She tends the Little People, yon fairies. In truth, the Wee Woman is bigger than yer’ Auntie Nor,” whispered Petey.
“So, ye lads reckon that humped crayture we saw was the Wee Woman payin’ a visit to me ma?”
“Aye, trouble she is. She’ll make yer ma work twice as hard. Mr. Yeats says that the Wee Woman slips into the family life and on Hallow’s Eve will pass the night with yer ma by the hearth,” explained Paddy.
“Sure, the next day, there won’t be any saints at your table, only the Wee Woman who will have taken yer mammy’s place,” uttered Petey.
The October night was dark by the time the children finished play practice for the upcoming Harvest Fête. Mrs. Honor Jack, the music teacher, was directing a brilliant play, called, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Petey was to sing the part of the baying hounds, while clever Paddy and Bridie were Sherlock Holmes and Watson.
Pockets loaded with treacle toffees from Big Tom, the children once again found their way through McCracken’s darkened field. The kitchen light glowed, but a rare scent of sea salt and golden syrup rose up from the chimney.
Feeling like Hansel and Gretel approaching the gingerbread house, the children walked entranced toward the cottage. The cow was in the shed, and the night air was unnaturally still. Suddenly, a faint creak rose from the back of the cottage.
The eerie silence turned into a loud uproar when Bridie’s collie Poppy and the twins’ own spaniel Blarney careened around the cottage corner, with a torn willow basket and a brown tattered shawl.
“The hounds, the hounds have taken down the Wee Woman,” cried Petey.
The three children almost fainted with the terror of it all, as the humped crayture, larger than any human, made its way toward the excited dogs.
“Holy Mary, what is the racket in yon field,” scolded Mrs. McCracken.
“Mammy, Mammy, watch yerself. Tis’ the Wee Woman comin’ to take yer place at our table,” cried Bridie.
“Well, I’ll be donkeyed,” laughed the shawled figure. “Wee, I ne’er been called!”
The three children turned a scarlet brighter than the dawn before a storm.
“Missus, uh Auntie Nor,” stuttered Petey. “We thought you was the mother of the fairies stealin’ yer way into the McCracken home, and we aimed to stop ye,” said Paddy.
“The only thing you children are preventin’ is my winnin’ the homemade sweetie competition at the Harvest Fete,” laughed Mrs. McCracken. “Nor here was visitin’ me as of late to share her secret recipe for treacle sweeties. Ah, with the bayin’ of the hounds and children, sure the whole of Rock Strand will know that I have a conspiracy in me apron strings!”
“We beg yer pardon, but would ye mind if the hounds and us starvin’ children could avail ourselves of these sweeties in the basket?”
With the full moon bright over Rock Strand, Paddy and Petey spent an hour tasting the finest sweets in the county. “Ach, surely if thon Wee Woman were to come to your hearth, Mrs. McCracken, she would never leave,” exclaimed Petey with a wink at Bridie and her grand freckles.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected]