Bilberries in January

A tale from the Republic of Wexford

It started as a normal Saturday morning. I was supposed to be minding my little sister while I did the homework set by Miss O’Hanlon: an essay, ‘Imagine you are invisible’. I stared at the page. The only thing that was invisible was the essay. The TV was blaring in the lounge with Grace’s cartoons.

Our Alsatian, Java, started barking. I looked out of my bedroom window. There was Grace pedaling out of the drive on her little pink bike. I saw which way she went. There was a place up the lane: the ruined house.

‘Why do Mammy and Daddy always call that place a ruin?’ she’d asked me, as though she didn’t know the meaning. It wasn’t the first time.

‘Well a ruin’s like… an old house where no-one lives any more, and all broken down, the roof has gone, and…’

She’d looked scared. ‘But my friend lives there. You mustn’t say that, Mikey.’

‘Whatever.’ You can’t reason with an eight-year-old about her imaginary friend, I’d told myself.

Only now I wasn’t so sure. Why had she snuck out again? Why was she always on about it? Maybe there was someone there. I got my runners on and went after her, Java loping ahead of me.

The ruin was a way up the hill, where the lane was narrow and few cars went; the last house before the crags. Grass and moss and pine needles made a line in the middle of the broken tarmac, and up here there was always mist, even on sunny days. A tree grew up where the roof had fallen in; the windows and doorway were empty. The pink bike was leaning against planks that were nailed across the gateposts. The breeze blew a fine drizzle in my face and I shivered in the cold air.

Java barked, wagging her tail in a greeting. Grace was on the rough grass, walking towards the ruin. She should have turned around and called Java over. But she ignored us, talking, gesturing, into thin air, at nothing, at a nothing that was walking beside her. She giggled. This wasn’t normal. I had a weird feeling, like a ripple of icy water from the top of my head right down to my feet. My chest filled up with fear. Java scrabbled herself underneath the bottom plank and into the field.

‘Grace!’ At first her name wouldn’t leave my throat. ‘Grace! Grace!’ The sound faded out across the field, lost in the air. Java was at Grace’s side now and barking up at her. As I squeezed between the planks and started across the grass, Grace stopped and glanced down at Java, turned away, said something, and then came dragging her feet towards me with Java nudging at her and barking as if at a strayed sheep. She peered up at me, frowning as though I was out of focus.

‘What…’ I reached down to pat Java, who was panting beside my leg. ‘What were you doing?’

‘Playing with Edel.’

‘But Grace, there’s nothing there.’ She opened her mouth to protest. It was stained dark red. I asked her if she’d been eating sweets.

‘No, Mikey. I had bilberries.’ Her fingers were the same colour.

‘You can’t get bilberries in January,’ I said.

‘Sure, I was picking them with Edel.’ She pointed across the field. The old stone wall sure enough was overgrown with bushes; there were no berries. ‘We went over the fields as well, up by the other houses, and there were loads of them.’

‘G’way!’ I said, reminding myself I was the sensible older brother. She had to be making it up. Beyond the wall were no fields or houses, just forestry, greyed out by mist. It went all the way to the top of the hill. There were more ruins in the silent forest, rough lines of broken walls crossing the rows of pine trees, boundaries that had been forgotten years ago. ‘G’way, Grace. You’re only gone a minute. I saw you. Now, it’s time you came home, so say bye to ‘Edel’. Mam and Dad’ll be back from the shops soon.’

‘Farewell!’ Grace waved back across the field, her eyes so focused that I looked myself to see what was there: nothing. ‘I’ll come back tomorrow. I promise!’ Then she squeezed herself between the planks. We walked back down the lane, Grace pushing her bike, Java trotting on a short distance ahead. I still had the icy feeling. The click-click-click of the chain was the only sound but I kept looking to see if there was anyone behind us. I wished Grace could walk faster.

‘Sure, look, you won’t be coming up here tomorrow. It’s cousin Sylvie’s christening and we’ve all got to go.’

Grace started giving out.

‘I don’t want to go either,’ I said, ‘I’ve got my essay to do for Monday. I don’t want to be up here chasing after you as well, so.’

‘It’s not fair. I don’t have any friends. Why can’t I have Edel to be my friend?’ As she sulked, her little mouth setting in a down-turned arc, I gave her the arguments: the ruin was dangerous, bad people might hang around there, Edel was an imaginary friend and not real.

‘She is real,’ Grace kept saying. At tea-time we had to have an extra plate for the imaginary friend. Mam and Dad thought it was cute, and I said nothing. I supposed that Java ate the food.

On the Sunday, when it was time to leave for the christening, Java started barking and Grace, who a minute before had been in the lounge in her party dress, was gone. Mam, messing with her outfit and her hair, didn’t want to go out in the wet.

‘Please, Michael, go and find her. She’s surely in the garden. We’ve to go in five minutes or we’ll be late.’

‘Come on, Java.’ I ran up the lane. It was a damp, dripping day and as we went uphill the mist grew denser and blotted out the world. I was glad to have Java there with me. So, sure enough, Grace’s bike was leaning against the gatepost, but where was she? Java whined and wriggled herself under the bottom plank into the empty field.

I shouted for Grace – no reply.

I got between the planks and into the field. Java was already sniffing at the driveway up to the house, which was deep in wet grass, crushed down in places by Grace’s feet.

‘Grace!’ I yelled, feeling the damp soaking into my shoes. My heart was pounding. ‘We’re gonna be late!’ I started to pick my way through grass and weeds, following Java towards the ruin. Grace must be inside. I hesitated outside the empty doorway, steadying myself with a hand on the damp stonework. Just under my fingers a spider scuttled away. The icy cold feeling went through me again. I shivered and my throat felt tight. I didn’t want to go in. But Java was already ahead of me.

What with the gaping roof and the tree growing through it, I’d thought it would be daylight and raining inside. But it was dark. I never opened a door, but a door clapped shut behind me.

‘Grace, are you there?’ I called out, my eyes adjusting to the gloom. A child laughed. I jumped. Java whined. The sound had come from another room. Ahead I made out the dim outline of another doorway. I crept towards it trying not to trip over Java, who was almost under my feet. I heard Grace’s voice and pushed the door open.

They were side by side on a low bench, leaning against the wall behind them, with the glow from the fire turning their faces orange. An iron kettle hung in the hearth, steam rising from its spout. Grace was in her red velvet dress and the other girl, Edel, I guessed, wore a shawl and long skirts as if she’d been dressing up. I knew all the kids along our road but I’d never seen her before. Java whimpered. She was a friendly dog and normally would have been all over a stranger, wanting to be made a fuss of, trying to lick them. But she didn’t even go to Grace, and hesitated, leaning her shoulder into my leg. I felt her shivering, as if she had the cold feeling too. I swallowed. My mouth was dry.

‘Grace,’ I said, but she didn’t answer, paying attention to her friend, dipping into a small basket of berries that was on the girl’s lap. ‘Grace!’ I walked across the kitchen and stood in front of her, still feeling cold despite the brightness of the fire. Java still hung back. ‘Grace!’

Nothing. Grace was asking the girl about her family. Edel frowned in my direction for a moment and then looked back down at the basket, as though she couldn’t really see me. When she spoke I couldn’t understand her. Even Grace seemed to have trouble.

‘Ichaave twye brovers and een zister,’ Edel said. And seeing Grace’s puzzlement she thought for a moment and then said slowly: ‘I have two brovers and a sister.’

This was crazy. There was no way that four kids lived here, in this ruin, without us knowing. But was it a ruin? The room had the fresh smell of the forest but there was no hole in the roof, no tree growing from the floor. Dark beams supported a low ceiling of wooden planks and a narrow shaft of light came from a tiny window. There was a table and some stools, a barrel, a floor of hard clay. Then as I looked more carefully, I noticed that through Edel, and the table, and the fire, I could see daylight on mossy stones. It was an illusion. I shivered again.

‘So, where is your family?’ asked Grace.

‘Me brovers and me vaather are goan to fight. Me moother and Malcheen mosth pick the peas, and I be the smallest so I mosth brang the waater and mind the vyre.’

‘Fight what?’ asked Grace.

‘I moan’t tell.’ Edel lowered her voice so I could hardly hear her over the hiss of the kettle.

‘I’ll keep it secret,’ Grace pleaded. ‘I’m your best friend, aren’t I? I won’t tell anyone.’

Edel hesitated. When she finally replied to Grace’s pleadings I wished she hadn’t.

‘A-goan to fight fer the United Irishmen.’ I looked at the thick folds of Edel’s skirt, the worn fringe of her shawl, the tight braids of her hair. Miss O’Hanlon had run a school trip to the museum in Enniscorthy, and I knew about the United Irishmen, the 1798 rebellion, and the Republic of Wexford. Thirty thousand were killed and we’d been defeated by the English redcoats. Edel might have stepped out of an exhibit. She was an antique, speaking an ancient dialect. She was over two hundred years old.

I had to get Grace back. I did not want my sister sitting with a ghost in a see-through kitchen and eating ghostly berries. I’d read the folk-tales of people who ate the food of the other world, and lost their souls, and never returned to life. And we were supposed to be going to a christening with Mam and Dad. Five minutes, Mam had said.

But when I tried to get Grace’s attention she carried on talking to Edel, as if I wasn’t there. I stood right in front of her and she didn’t notice. And she too, I realised, was transparent. Her red velvet dress was criss-crossed with the outlines of the stones in the wall behind her. I reached over to touch her and as my hand met her shoulder it went through her. It felt like freezing cold water, and a shock ran up my arm and into my shoulder. Grace shivered, but there was no other reaction. She was still wrapped up in Edel.

Was Grace already dead? Had I lost her to the world of 1798 when I was meant to be minding her? What would I say to Mam and Dad? I had to get her back, back to the living world, but however much I pleaded and shouted she didn’t hear me.

Then Edel shushed her. She put the berry basket on the floor and looked over at the little window. A shadow had fallen across it, the head of a man, peering in. Edel pulled Grace to her and put her shawl over them both, covering their faces. As I went closer to the window the head ducked away. Java’s ears were up and her tail was down. She turned back towards the other room, listening.

Outside, the birds stopped singing. There were voices. Men’s voices. A knock on the door made Edel startle and her arm tightened around Grace. I grabbed Java’s collar and she gave out a long, rumbling growl. The knocking went on, and there were shouts which I couldn’t make out. The girls couldn’t pretend there was no-one in. The fire was still going and the smoke from the chimney would give them away. Something heavy battered the front door. I held Java back.

‘James Doyle!’ a man yelled. ‘James Doyle, give yerself up!’

‘We shall burn you out like rats!’ called another. Java broke away from me and rushed forward, barking. As I followed her the front door burst open. Three men, four, five, red coats, black hats, the leader levelling his bayonetted rifle at my dog, whose barking reached a frenzy.

She charged at him.

‘Java!’ I shouted, but she had leapt up. There was an explosion. The man’s hands were tight around the rifle. His arms jerked and stiffened against the blast. A cloud of smoke puffed up at his shoulder. Something clattered at my feet.

‘You fecker!’ I screamed. He’d shot my dog at point-blank range. The bullet was after passing straight through her head and landing on the floor.

Yet Java, still barking at the top of her voice, tried to jump up at the soldier. Her jaws were at his red sleeve, her claws at the broad white belts that crossed his chest. She made no marks, and where the bullet had gone through her there was no blood. She barked in his face. He tried to beat her off with his rifle but it did nothing. With a cry of fear he backed up against his followers, swearing and cursing, still lunging his rifle butt at Java and almost overbalancing as it sank without any impact into her chest.

These red-coats were hunting for rebels hiding in the wilds, likely for the men of Edel’s family. They weren’t ready for a fight with a supernatural devil-wolf, as they saw her.

‘Back out, men! Back out,’ yelled the leader. ‘There’s nowt ’ere. I said it was empty.’

‘I saw smoke,’ someone said, but they were outside by then, with his captain telling him to shut up. Java stood at the door, her barks following them as they retreated down the hill.

I returned to Edel and Grace. They were still wrapped in the shawl, arms around each others’ shoulders, Edel with her face turned aside, Grace peering out and turning wary eyes towards me. Java went up to them and whined, nuzzling her head into Grace’s side. As Grace looked down at her, the red velvet dress seemed to solidify and the lines of the wall behind her faded out. She put her arms around our dog.

Java, wagging her tail like mad, licked Grace’s face.

‘Java?’ Grace hugged her tight.

‘Java, you saved Edel!’ I remembered that we were going to a christening with Mam and Dad and Grace was not meant to be in 1798. I had to get her home. I went and grasped her arm. Thank heaven, it was warm and solid. ‘Ow!’ She stared up at me. ‘What are you doing here, Mikey?’

‘Grace,’ I said, ‘you have to come home. Please. Please, Grace.’

She turned to Edel and gave her a hug.

‘I’ll bring some more food tomorrow,’ she said. The ceiling above started to shimmer and fade, and light flooded over us. Above me were bare branches and the grey sky. Rain started to drip on us. I had to guide Grace through the ruin that she still saw as a house. Then I got her down the garden and through the gap in the planks into the lane. Her mind was still running on Edel, but I told her to shut up and hurry up because we were going to be late for Mam and Dad.

It seemed we had been ages but when we got home, although Dad was in the car with the motor running, Mam was just coming out of the house. We got in the back, and as Mam was annoyed with Dad for rushing her and Dad was annoyed with waiting for her, they said nothing about us.

That evening, after the christening, and a tea party where Grace hoarded sausage rolls that she said were for Java, I got out my essay. ‘Imagine you’re invisible. What do you feel, what happens, what can you do?’ I wrote about my sister and the girl from 1798 and gave it in on the Monday morning.

On Thursday when Miss O’Hanlon gave it back she said ‘well done Michael’, and asked me to read it out in class. She said I had obviously researched my local history, as that ruin had once been occupied by a family whose father and sons were killed in the 1798 rebellion. She told us the women of that family were also put to death by the English. Somehow the youngest daughter had survived.

‘I don’t know how she didn’t starve,’ said Miss O’Hanlon, ‘but in the end she married and emigrated to America.’

©ChateauxEnEspagne 2019