The baby is crying. Downstairs there is music – Freddie and the Dreamers’ You Belong to Me. Moira straightens from scrubbing the kitchen floor. She rubs her back, then holds the edge of the sink and looks out of the window. The view opposite is another kitchen. The face looking back at her is that of a West Indian woman of about her own age. Moira thinks the black woman has probably also been washing the floor. She almost waves at the woman but doesn’t. Neither of them catches the other’s eye. They look away on purpose.

It is 1965; three floors up in a sharp new council block. Lucky to get it, Desmond often says. He works for the gas board, digging up the roads at night.

A year ago and newly married they stepped ashore at Liverpool. They had a newly laundered look about them, like two fresh sheets pegged out on a line. They caught the train to Paddington.

London was swinging. A clatter of Mods on red and blue burnished scooters snarled in a phalanx down Regent Street. On the back girls in shiny black raincoats clung to their boyfriends. Moira and Desmond were scarcely twenty, but among the London youth you would have thought they came from a different generation. Desmond’s suit had a loose country-cut look about it. Moira wore a green tweed jacket with a brooch in the lapel. Her mother had pinned it there at the bus station in Tralee; a tiny wrought figure of the Blessed Virgin. It was a Saturday in May. Around Piccadilly girls in white patent boots ran to meet boys in Paisley shirts. Desmond and Moira passed through the immaculate crowd, shy and invisible.

The baby is crying. Once, when she was a girl, a fox had caught its foot in the wire of the chicken coop. It screeched all night. The baby is building itself up to the same tawny wail. It puts Moira at the end of a dark tunnel of misery. The person downstairs turns the radio up. The Hollies’ I’m Alive beats through the spaces each time the baby pauses for breath. Yet the shrieking continues and Moira fills the kettle with trembling fingers, her back turned to the door that leads to the hallway and the baby’s room.

He was born on the exact chime of nine months after their wedding day. That midsummer night, when the guests had all gone, the two of them left her mother’s house as quiet as two towels slipping from a rail. Their shadows loped ahead of them down the boreen, as long as a pair of coupled greyhounds.

There was a ráth in a field where the bachelor Ahern kept three piebald ponies.

‘Let’s go up there’ Desmond said, leading his new wife by the hand. ‘We can watch the last of the sun go down behind Carrantuohill.’

Moira said nothing, but her eyes in the strange late light of Beltain were like two smudging, dark anemones. They lay down among a flock of daisies and tall cow parsley.

Afterwards, when they were breathless and sweat shrouded, the night was as still as ashes in a grate. The only sound was the champ and velvet shudder of the sleeping ponies. And for just one inkling Moira thought she heard the clinking of a tiny bell – a silver one, like a Sanctus that is rung in the mass. But the ring of this bell sounded very far away, faraway.

The baby is wailing. A pulsing and tearing cry it gives, red throated, to the morning – all anger and agony.

Such green eyes her baby has, such dark curls; eyes the colour of fresh weed in a stream, such white skin. When the nurse gave him to her she was faint from the birth, but his little hand reached for her cheek and she nearly swooned into her pillow with love for her new boy. The nurse smiled at her, looking a little puzzled as the baby felt for Moira’s face. Then Desmond came in and they stared into the green eyes. The green eyes stared back. They had already decided that if it was a boy he would be given the name of Desmond’s little brother Thomas, who had died when he was barely a day old.

The first time they had taken the baby to church he had given up such a caterwaul that they now took turns going to Mass without him. Moira

took to stealing in at the back and when she went up to receive she was too nervous to look Father Toban in the eye. She left right away at the end of each service, embarrassed, in case the Priest asked her about dates for the Christening.


The air is blue with diesel fumes. She has wound her baby three times around in a pale blue knitted blanket. He is silent, even amidst the clatter and revving of Victoria Coach Station. Whole families are stowing themselves onboard for the journey. Home bound navvies are everywhere: white shirt, black trousers, donkey jacket. Bottles of stout, a pair in each pocket, swing like six guns as they heave themselves up the throbbing steps.

The baby sleeps on the coach. She holds him, face pressed to her breast. A woman from Roscommon sits next to her all the way to Fishguard. She chitters like a sparrow. They pass through Luton, Birmingham and Cardiff, picking up more passengers. The woman asks about the baby. She is going home for the funeral of her brother.

‘Terrible prices for coal this winter. Desperate weather. But isn’t a baby a wonderful miracle? Will I hold him for you? No? Oh he’s still sleeping. He’s a great one for sleeping. Must be wonderful for you, with him such a quiet baby.’


Mrs Cooper the greengrocer’s wife made a fuss of Thomas. She did her best to sieve most of the earth from the potatoes before she tumbled them into Moira’s bag. Her glasses had spiky angles. Her wrinkled lips were thick with crimson lipstick. Ordinarily, she did not speak much to customers. She could hardly get a word in under Mr. Cooper shouting about carrots and cabbages at four pence so and so. One thing Mrs Cooper loved was children.

That Monday morning Moira was at the back of the shop with big, bald Mr. Cooper. She had asked him for some beetroot, but when he put them in the brown paper bag it split, spilling them on the floor.

‘Sorry Love. I only just got them out of the kettle and they’re still too warm see.’

Mr. Cooper scrambled for the beetroot and held them steaming over Moira’s bag, his hands stained, as if with wine and blood.

Mrs Cooper’s one regret about the shop was that her hands ‘is always too dirty from grubbing in the bins all day to hold the little ones what come into the shop. And your little Thomas, look at him in his nice clean rompers. He’s as fresh as a June picnic and you’re a credit to him love.’

Lately Mrs Cooper had taken to standing with the pram while Moira went in to get what she wanted. If the baby was asleep she rocked the pram gently and chatted to the other women who stood by the fruit. If he was awake she selected the yellowest of bananas and held it up for him, saying, ‘This is for your mummy to mash up for your tea. Yes it is. Yes it is. Coo.’

However, that Monday, as Moira returned to the pram, she was struck by Mrs Cooper’s expression. She was white in the face and her lipsticked mouth was as tight as the red seam along a postman’s trousers. Thomas was awake, flexing his little fingers and laughing in the wordless joy of babies when they think something is absolutely hilarious.

‘Well,’ huffed Mrs Cooper, standing with her hands on her hips, her chest thrust up like the front of a London bus. ‘I don’t know how you did it, him being so young and all, but you never ought to have done it. Teaching him disgusting words like that? It’s a crime. That’s what I say. And what’s more he screwed his little face up so ugly too. I should take him straight home right now my girl and think about what you’ve done. Disgusting. Worse than the meat porters outside the Fletcher’s arms. And he such a tiny thing.’

Moira opened her mouth but no reply came.

She tried again, ‘I … I don’t … Mrs Cooper …’ she stammered, but white shock wiped away the words from her tongue. She shifted her bag into the crook of her arm and pushed the pram. There were three women on the pavement and they parted as she went off down to the corner.

‘Bloody Irish’ one of them said as she passed. Tears needled the corners of her eyes. She felt as if she had been slapped in the mouth. Thomas laughed all the way home.


On the ferry many people sleep but some passengers drink through the night voyage in little groups. A man with a red quiff is singing The Star of the County Down

like a foolish elf, sure I shook meself Just to make sure I was all there

It is a calm crossing. The baby does not stir. His breathing is the shush of a distant wind. The boat rocks gently and five fingers of spilt beer run across the deck towards Moira’s feet.

Dawn over Rosslare is as bright as a knife grinder’s smile. The streets are wet and Moira is on another bus, pulling away from the coast. It is a day of many stops and rain is coming in rags across tattered fields. Moira feels the tiredness fumble at her eyes so she begins to suck sherbet drops hoping that the sharp lemon tang will keep her awake. The roads are rough but Moira welcomes each jolt and tip because that also keeps her from dozing. All the while the baby’s breathing is as quiet as a rabbit’s sigh in a warm hutch.


At the national school Miss Curran had taught Moira history. Those were long hours, when names and dates hummed over her. She often found herself becoming lost in the green glass of the teacher’s necklace. Twenty- six small beads and one large one cut with angles, so that it flashed, even in the dreary days. This was the way of it with her baby’s eyes. He was either crowling with rage, or as silent and watchful as a heron in a pond.

There were many such hours in the flat. Moira would approach Thomas and look into his green deeps. She would feel the colour draining from her body. After a while she became nothing more than an echo in the white room. The baby still and keen; the mother struck in the fixed hold of the small child. Then suddenly he would jolt in his cot and jerk into a fury. Each time this happened Moira shuddered, drew back and went to weep in the kitchen.


On Wednesday morning, as Desmond lay sleeping, Moira walked the baby around the park after the rain. On returning she opened the door quietly. She left the pram in the corridor for a moment while she fetched an old towel so that the wet wheels would not sully the newly scrubbed floor. She pulled the pram inside but as soon as the door was closed three sharp knocks called her back to open it.

Mr. Baczowski stood there in his RAF blazer. His accent was like the clatter of a machine gun. He had a bright red burn scar all across his left cheek and down his neck. He was one of the few tenants who ever spoke to her.

Mr. Baczowski once told her how he had shot down six Nazi planes and how he came to get his scar.

Vrooom. Tacka, tacka, tacka! Bullets in the fuel tank. I baled out, half my face gone. Ha!’ He then spread his wings and vroomed off towards his own door.

But this morning Mr. Baczowski was clearly agitated.

‘Terrible,’ he said. Moira felt a hot rush in her chest.

‘Your child whisper me bad words. Just now he whisper me.’

‘He can’t speak, Mr. Baczowski. He’s too young.’

‘Never I hear words from a child like this,’ he stammered. ‘Whisper, whisper. I saw many things in my life, but this? No. Diabla!’

‘Mr. Baczowski, I …’ But he was already walking away, stiff and straight, his umbrella tap tapping.

The commotion woke Desmond. He came with dazed corkscrewed hair

into the sitting room where Moira sat holding Thomas up in front of her. Tears blotted her mascara. The baby was laughing away like a chuckling spring.

She told Desmond. She told him about Mrs Cooper at the greengrocers. Desmond, in his quiet country way, explained to her that people in London had it against the Irish and would say anything. Sure, didn’t he have to put up with jibes from the other men on the night shifts? Moira said that Mr. Baczowski was Polish and went to mass the same as them, so why would he say anything bad that wasn’t true?

Desmond couldn’t say, but he added with a directness he had never shown before, ‘Moira I’m tired and should be sleeping for I have to be bright for work tonight. And it’s you who should be keeping the baby quiet. He’s always crying. Take him to the doctor or something’. Moira felt the lash of this, their first quarrel. She said nothing but placed Thomas back into his cot.

Dr. Bailey had very large hands and smoked a pipe.

‘He’s a little tinker right enough. He’ll have you running up the walls by the time he’s three, Mrs Cantillon. I wouldn’t worry about his fits of temper and the crying. He’s just a scamp demanding your attention. I can’t find anything wrong with him.’

Moira held a tissue crushed in her two hands. Dr. Bailey was bouncing Thomas on his knee and he laughed when the baby made a grab for his pipe.

‘It’s your first child and you’re far from home. And you’re young yourself. He’s probably picking up your anxiety. Just relax, Mrs Cantillon, and I’m sure he’ll calm down too. Nothing to worry about.’

Dr. Bailey handed Thomas to her and opened the door. Moira stopped half way out.

‘But, Doctor, some people say he’s …’

‘Nothing to worry about, Mrs Cantillon.’ Dr. Bailey was bluff in his tweeds. ‘Go home now and enjoy him.’

On the bus Thomas was quiet and observant. His dark hair was growing into fine curls. Moira calmed herself with the doctor’s kind, brusque authority. He must be right, she thought. She had been worrying about nothing.

In the flat the afternoon light was lemony across the sitting room wall. She fed the baby his rusks as the Beatles chorused Twist and Shout from the radio. Thomas was as good as gold. Moira sneezed and then discovered she had something in her eye. She left the boy in his high chair and went to the mirror over the fireplace. She held her eyelid up and tried in vain to spot the grit or whatever it was that was scratching her.

For the tiniest second she stopped and looked at the reflection of the baby over her shoulder. For the tiniest second what she saw there was not a baby at all but a leering, wizened creature. It was kicking against the seat and tray of the chair and making the most crudely obscene gestures with its little claws. A voice like a rusty hinge crept up the skin of her neck words of filth and blasphemy.

Moira turned in dread but now as she looked all she saw was the baby Thomas laughing at her with his green eyes as merry as flaming holly leaves.


At two in the afternoon the bus comes through the little town. Hurling pennants have been strung across the streets in the Kerry colours. Moira recognises two of the young men standing outside Casey’s pub. She huddles down and looks away. In a moment they are out of the town and then driving the last stretch of country before the crossroads. Beyond the fields the mountains glint with eyries of light.

A half mile walk along a lane coiled with brambles. Moira climbs up into a field on a path that takes her away from her mother’s home. The baby began to stir half an hour ago. His tiny fists screwed at his eyes. By the time she climbed down from the bus he was screeching, his green eyes baleful, his face red as if with a fever. As Moira walks away he reaches his hand over her shoulder towards the bus.

Her mother must not know she is back. Beyond the field where the bachelor

Ahern keeps three ponies and where the ráth is grown over with cow parsley is a small hollow, little bigger than a steep ditch. In the daylight only the pale grey waft of turf smoke shows that a house is there. At night you might see the flicker of a yellow glow down there as if a giant is trying to light his pipe.

This is the house of Ellen Grey. She is past her ninetieth year but she has forgotten her exact age and there is none left alive who can tell her. Ellen lives on nettle stews and bread she bakes each day on a griddle over the fire. She has one tooth in her mouth. Her coat is sown over with many patches. Shakespeare would recognise this old biddy. He knew three of her sisters.

The three piebald ponies stand staring into nothing as Moira walks across the field in her zipped-up London boots. Thomas wriggles and bucks and makes clumsy little slaps at her face.

Back in London Desmond will have found Moira’s letter:

‘I am using the money we were saving for Christmas. I don’t know what else to do other than take him …’

Desmond will also have found the sleeping tablets that Dr. Bailey had given him when he had had trouble adapting to the night shift. On the kitchen table one of them lies chipped into small fragments. Desmond sits with the letter and looks at the tablets with a wrinkled brow.

He does not know that Moira has drugged her baby’s milk or how sorely she has wept for it. He does not know her gnawing doubts, her clenched stomach, her heart yammering with guilt that she might kill the child with the tablets that what she has seen might be no more than her own madness.

Ellen Grey stands in her doorway feeding her chickens. They scatter when Moira walks down the bank. Ellen Grey can give you a poultice for the toothache or for your nightmares. She knows the herb that will twine an unwanted baby from your belly. She uses a stick because she is so bent with arthritis. She peers at the visitor through a pair of murky spectacles.

‘Is it you, Moira MacFineen?’ she asks, using the girl’s maiden name. Moira replies with country courtesy, ‘It is, Ellen, and God save you’. *******

The tea from Ellen Grey’s pot is a sharp liquor brewed from brown bog water and rusty leaves. Moira tells her story with Thomas ranting at her feet. Ellen collects firewood in a woven willow basket and it is into this she has placed the boy amongst the folds of his mother’s tweed jacket. The basket creaks and shakes but after a while, and especially when Ellen looks into his eyes, the watchful quietness comes over him. The old woman’s voice is itself like creaking wicker and she has a way of talking that is more like pronouncement than conversation.

‘I have not seen this before in all my long years but I know what it is from what you do be telling me and from the stories told to me by my own mother, who lived in this house all her days, God rest her.’

Here Ellen Grey pauses and blows her nose upon her fingers. She flicks the snot into the embers of her fire.

‘I have come across the sea in terrible desperation,’ says Moira, the tears coming to her eyes again.

Ellen holds her hand up.

‘Hush, girl, and listen while I give you the way of it.’

The old woman stands slowly, her stick tapping towards the baby.

‘Now then, it is almost always vexed. It cannot abide the Holy Church.’

She seems almost to be speaking to herself as she reaches to the mantle shelf high above the fire.

‘And I can see with my own two eyes how oddly watchful it is.’

With sudden deft agility Ellen bends and lays something black against the baby’s cheek. The effect is mighty. A cry like a scorched cat breaks from the boy. Moira reaches for him, only to be poked back into her chair by the point of the stick.

‘Leave him!’ the old woman wheezes. ‘First hold your hand out and then look at his face.’

Moira does as she is told. Ellen drops a sharp and cold metal object into her palm. It is an arrowhead and a welt in the exact shape of it is now rising on the cheek of her son.

‘What have you done?’ cries Moira with a breaking alarm in her voice. She pushes the stick away and scoops the boy up. He is livid. Froth gathers in the corners of his mouth. The arrow shape is like a brand on him.

‘It is not your son!’

Ellen brings her stick down hard on the flagstones.

‘This is old iron. I found it in the field beyond. An arrow used by Finn mac Cumhall, I shouldn’t wonder, that was in Ireland before the English came. The Dioine Maithe cannot abide iron. They cannot bear the Holy Water, but I have none. Anyway, there is the proof now. It is not your son.’

‘What do you mean?’

Thomas is hot and writhes in her arms. Once, her father had taken her out to the river and they had caught eels. It was a hot day and they put the eels in a sack. For a joke he had made her hold the sack and it had twisted in just such a way as Moira’s baby moved against her now.

‘I gave birth to him. I have never been parted from him for an instant.’

They are cunning. Who is it can explain their devilment? Sit back now and let him quieten. This is a thing that is very difficult to tell a mother, let alone have her act upon the knowledge of it. However, and only if you wish it, I will tell you, Moira MacFineen, what is in my mind regarding the child. And never mind the little thing lying there and all its caioneadh.’

‘Tell me.’

‘It is my certainty that the Good People have taken your son. Now, I know there are few people in these times who would support my thinking but it is the World that do be wrong in their forgetfulness of the ways of the Sidh. They have not forgotten. Nor have they given up their antics …’

And in the little thatched house at the back of the fields in 1965 Ellen Grey tells the pale young mother about how the Good People of the hidden kingdom have reached out from their ráth to lay an enchantment. The chickens pick in at the kitchen door and the baby kicks and wracks in the basket. She tells Moira how the people of the ráths will sometimes take a child and leave a creature in its place which they cover with a glamour so that it is almost impossible to see the truth of their mischief.

‘It is nothing, Moira, but a broken thing of their own they have given to you. The longer it stays with you the more it will sour your life for it needs the sap of your vitality.’

Ellen takes down a jagged piece of mirrored glass, spits on it and then rubs it with her elbow.

‘Here, see it again for what it is, just as you saw it in your houseen in London.’

She holds the mirror over the baby and they both look to see a queer, yellow thing like an ancient naked man cast tiny in the basket.

‘Listen,’ said Ellen. The little limbs flex and the cracked mouth opens.

An old, dry, cold voice comes to their ears, saying ‘Mammy, mammy! Feed me mammy’.

Then the creature shrugs, laughs its rusty laugh and leers at them. *******

It is near to midnight on a ráth in Kerry in 1965. The cow parsley is damp and trodden down. An old woman stoops in front of the moon stoking a small fire of kindling and turfs. In the fire is an iron poker, dull red in the darkness like a dragon’s tongue. To the side of the fire a baby frets.

‘We could have boiled water to scald it in the kitchen. Or we could have tricked the thing to reveal itself further. But, by the Holy Powers, I am thinking it is better up here where they cannot mistake our intentions.’

Ellen takes up the poker by its cold end. ‘Not ready,’ she says. ‘Not yet.’

Moira is numbed. She is sure that Desmond will have telephoned the presbytery at the crossroads. Right now Father Cleary’s housekeeper might be cycling down to her mother’s house just a few fields away. She imagines Desmond in a London phone box with buses and motorbikes rushing past, and him not having the least idea of the madness she is entering here on the ráth. Fairies? No, not fairies the Good People of the hills. Children stolen and taken into the hollow lands?

Moira shivers and watches as Ellen reaches for the poker again.

‘Now, girl, it comes towards the right colour, look.’

The old woman brandishes the metal. It is a red wand. A piece of grass clings to it for a second before bursting to flame. Ellen smiles and Moira thinks that the old biddy is enjoying herself.

‘Stop!’ Moira kneels and clutches at the side of the basket.

‘We will not do this. There must be something else. Another doctor or something.’

The baby is crying again, just like an injured fox, but his pudgy arms are reaching for his mother.

‘There is no other way,’ hisses Ellen. ‘No. I will not believe in those old pishogues you speak of.’

Moira goes to scoop up the basket but the old woman knocks her backwards into the grass.

‘Enough of that! You have seen. And was it not you who heard a bell rung while you were at your play with Desmond Cantillon here on the hill? Ah, the ways of the young.’

The poker is so close to Moira’s face she can hear it fizzing in the evening breeze.

‘Now. On my life, I will plunge this red iron down the throat of the brazen interloper and send it back to them.’


Things happen very slowly. Ellen grimaces, then cries out as her hand is prised open and the poker is flung away over Moira’s head. The old woman feels for her spangled arm, which now hangs limp. Moira is half up off the grass. A flaring wind hoists among the branches and thistles. She sees the rising shapes of people, silver and tall. Three, no, five, in number. They step from the grass in a confusion of colours and outlines, like a stained- glass window brought to life in the moment of its breaking. Here a head, here an arm. Here a body whose head is lost. Voices come. Their words are all pitched together and laid over each other like beech leaves falling into a flooded gutter. Or glass smashing on flagstones. Or silver forks dropped into a sink.

One among them, a woman, comes, making herself whole as she treads the night grass. Her white arms are long in the moonlight. Her hair sweeps away the stars. Her mouth is as cold as a frosted rowan berry. She looks down at Moira. Her hand unfolds and her dark eyes roll into her head. She speaks. The words are like the gossip of branches in a deep wood. Distant, unintelligible; yet there is a haughty command in them.

Moira flinches. She gropes for the baby but a rush of air and the sound of gulls kying around her in a flock of worry bewilder her, so she draws back her hand. She looks at the basket and there, in the flourish of light, is the little yellow creature revealed. It is flinching and laughing in silent derision. There comes a sound like two great lozenges of stone crashing together. Then nothing.

Moira realises that she is shivering; trembling and shivering as if she has awoken to a room in which the fire has died. She sees Ellen Grey standing above her but the glittering people have gone. Moira crawls to the basket and what does she see? Not the old, twisted thing but Thomas, her Thomas, her pure baby boy, sleeping peacefully in the moonlight.

Moira carried Thomas back to London. He never screeched again. Ellen Grey’s arm hung useless at her side for the rest of her days.

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