A silver sickle of moon rocked itself to sleep on the slumped shoulders of Nowen Hill in the west. To the east, the golden-veiled sun rose beyond the hills, shining down upon the blue-white mists undulating through the valley. Through the incandescent light of early morning came the clear piping of an unseen blackbird, stirring other less eager creatures to their awakening.
There was one who did not need the call to another day. Deep in the heart of the valley, not far from the lichen-scarred granite walls of the somber ruin known as Liscarrol Castle at the edge of the river Bandon, a girl squatted in the tall grass and waited until the cow herder had passed beyond the bridge.
“I can so, if I wish it!” she whispered and stood up
Ye cannae, ye foolish lass, came the reply in a boy’s rude country accents.
Twelve-year-old Aisleen Meghan Deirdre Fitzgerald jutted out her chin and balanced a fist on each narrow hip. “I can, and I will!”
Quick and agile as the mountain hare she startled from its hiding in the dew-cooled grass, Aisleen raced up the short embankment of the river. She wore no shoes, and her gown was too small and worn to offer much protection against the chill kiss of the mist. Yet she did not heed the damp nor the cold as she ran toward the distant slope of the hill beyond the river. Gorse bushes, their tough branches sprouted with golden buds, tugged at her sodden skirts. Rocks lying half-hidden in the boggy ground bruised her feet.
She did not think of these things. She had made a bet that she could climb Slieve Host, the hill that had gained its name more than a century earlier when a priest had hidden there and had whispered Mass on the isolated slope of this western Cork hillside. Without pausing to catch her breath, she hurried on, allowing nothing to induce her to pause before she had accomplished the task.
Not until she reached the very top did she stop. “I’ve done it! Did I not say I would?” she cried in breathless joy “I’ve conquered the mountain!”
Aye, ye did, lass, came the answer as clearly as the blackbird’s song.
Aisleen turned her face to the east and breathed deeply. There was so much to see and smell and feel. The spring morning…the odor of fresh drying grass…the rippling movement of the breeze…the startling warmth of the sun…the deep, cool shadows slinking down toward the valley to disappear until dusk brought them creeping back Below, in the valley, sunlight turned the surface of the Bandon into a thousand dark-gold mirrors. Above her head, the air and clouds streamed in an endless fascinating flow.
This day is like no other, Aisleen thought. It is special, just as I am special.
In her life, each day was different, unconnected to past or present, holding only a brimming magic of its own. The grass was greener, the stones sharper and grayer, the morning air sweeter and clearer than ever before. And if she missed it, the day would be gone, gone forever. That was why she could not sleep. Why could no one else see things as she did?
Would ye be forgetting me, then?
Aisleen smiled. “No, bouchal, I would not forget you. You are my very best friend.”
Small praise that is, came the retort. Best friend, only friend. Could it be that ye’re feeling a wee bit sad, then, colleen?
Aisleen shook her head. No, she must not be sad. How could she be sad on the best morning that ever was? There was in the air an excitement, a tremulous anticipation of momentous proportions. Something very important was about to happen; she could feel it tingling just under her skin.
That was why she had called on bouchal to share the anticipation with her. He was the best friend one could have, and nothing and no one could keep them apart, not even her father.
Aisleen frowned as she thought of her father. He would not allow her to play with the children of the cottagers. He said the Fitzgeralds were too good to mix with commoners, but she suspected that he forbade her to have friends as a punishment. From a very early age, she had known that her father disliked her and that she could do nothing to please him. But he could not stop her from seeing bouchal, who had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember. No one else knew of or saw or heard him. That was because he was not real.
“Race you to the altar stone!” she cried suddenly and, muddy heels flying, ran up over the shoulder of the hill to the place where a wide, flat-topped boulder lay on its side.
“I won! I won!” she crowed, jumping up and down until she was tired.
Ye’ve a sad lack of sportsmanship, bouchal taunted. But then, ’tis to be expected, ye being but a poor wee bit of a lass.
“I’m not a poor wee lass! I’m the last of a proud and ancient line. Me ancestors were kings!” Aisleen replied.
So ye’ve said. And so much the worse ye are for that, came his sour retort.
“Go away!” she snapped and turned her back on the place where she imagined he stood.
And leave a deeshy lass the likes of ye muttering to herself?
Aisleen swirled about. She could see him clearly in her mind’s eye: his patched knee britches and knotted rope belt, his long legs and arms streaked with grass stains and mud, and his thatch of black hair half-hidden beneath his wool cap. He was older and a head taller than she was—at least be would be if he were real—with a ready grin and clever hands that fashioned for her toys from twigs and bracelets from wild flowers.
She had named him bouchal, the Gaelic word for “boy.” He was always full of adventures and escapades. One of the things she liked best about him was that he never seemed sad, or lonely, or afraid. They did not talk about her da nor her ma. In fact, many times her parents seemed far less real than bouchal as she lived and played in a world all her own.
She turned and climbed up on the altar stone and flung herself back until she lay flat gazing up at the sky.
“Today I will be Queen of Beltane. Make a crown of May Day flowers for me, bouchal!” Even as she said it, she closed her eyes to wait.
Insects hummed in the grass beneath her, too faint to be heard until every other sound was hushed. With each breath and heartbeat, the sounds quickened until she was no longer attached to the earth but floated softly, lazily above her own flesh.
She became a cloud…shining as sunlight…rippling with the breeze…smooth as the amber river…rich with fragrances of earth and grasses…within the moment of the morning…pierced with the aching, sweet sadness on the cusps of the fading moon.
Ye’ve mud on yer face. The jeer struck the moment as clean and deadly a blow as a sword’s edge.
Aisleen sat up, a frown riding her brow as she scrubbed at the dried spot on her cheek. “You’re a beast! All men are beasts!”
A beast am I, and me thinking that ye cared for me!
Laughter trembled about her: goading, taunting boyish laughter. She looked about for something to throw at her imaginary jester, but when she looked down the impulse was forgotten. Laced about her wrist was a delicate bracelet of fairy foxglove. She did not remember picking them nor fashioning them into a rope. A special day, indeed.
Well, will ye nae say thank ye?
Aisleen touched one of the deep pink flowers. “I wish you were real!” she said suddenly.
He was silent for a moment, the air vibrating about her as shimmers of his ethereal presence. But I am real, he answered at last. As real as ye want.
Aisleen bit her lip. No, she would not think about what she wanted. In moments of solitude like this, she could pretend that she had all she needed. “You’re real to me, bouchal, as real as can be.”
She reached into the pocket of the apron she wore. “I brought buttered bread. Come and share with me.” Soon the milking of the cows would be finished, and the cow herder would be leading his cattle back to the fields, and she would be expected in the kitchen for her porridge. She made a face. “I hate porridge!”
So do I.
“One day we will be grown and rich and we shall have cream and strawberries, and oatcakes and rhubarb and ginger jam—”
“And ham, every morning for breakfast.”
“And cocoa,” Aisleen amended. One day she would have everything she wanted.
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