The very talented Emma Darcy surprised me with a ‘Write Me In Your Style’ rendition of my story ‘Birch’. It was both an honour and a thrill to read it – not only had someone engaged with the work at such a level that they were inclined to explore it in their own form, but they revealed aspects of the world in a way I hadn’t before considered. You can find the piece on Emma’s excellent blog here.
As writers, we diverge – Emma has a masterful command of casts of characters, painting scenes full of life and variety, she is skilled with dialogue and a half-dark humour which renders her stories all the more poignant. My style is, I think, more brooding and isolated, with tight focus and perhaps claustrophobic detail. If you’re reading this, I hope you enjoy ‘Rye Blood’ – a small piece based on Emma Darcy’s work, ‘Rye’, about a girl who is not just ‘girl’, but a changeling. I hope it does the original justice.
She remembered it now with a rushing flutter of shame. Her shame welled – from stomach, throat, eyes – until tears threatened. Brigid tried to press the memory away, to fold it how her mother might fold a sheet.
Ailbe looking up from her position, bent in foraging. Hearing Brigid, then maybe four or five years old, squealing with something like delight and something like terror both in her voice.
Brigid, gazing down at her hands, seeing the red well on her palm. Almost joyous as she pronounced: “Mama, I am bleeding – see!”
She cut her palm, maybe on the spiky bushes, the same catching her skirt now. She had ducked away from the other children, who were sometimes cruel, for children did not understand or fully trust the rye child. The game they played: all hiding, one finding. Often Brigid was the finder, but she did not know, except that the others scattered, and never came to look for her.
Tiny, hooked thorns leering on the blackberry brambles, in some places light and faint as the hair on her father’s arms, in others red and crooked. Those more vicious. The coiled fronds of blackberry suckers teased and caught on the coarse cloth of her skirt, which Ailbe would have to mend come nightfall. Brigid’s mother did not seem to mind too much, humming before the fire, which popped and rumbled as Dermott prodded at it. Brigid staring at the flames devouring the logs. Thinking the same thing every child, rye or human, might – what if my small body might become trapped in the fire? By witch or accident?
Collecting blackberries, the other children’s voices soared in laughter. Sill, Caldwell and Hearth raced around, popping the berries on the end of their fingers and biting back the juices. Brigid, watching from a distance, did the same. Mimicking them. Seeing then, the sore red fluid seeping on her hand – so she called for Ailbe.
The shock of the cut, same as a fall for a small child, causing wonderment before the pain.
But there was no pain, none at least, as the same Brigid had seen in the other children when they tripped on the stone path in town, or played too rough, quickly summoning a commiserating adult with their fevered cries.
Ailbe smoothed her apron, it too, blooming with blackberry juices. She sat down her basket and gathered Brigid beside her. “It’s all right, my love – see, it’s only the berries. You’ve found a ripe bunch.”
Brigid, breathing heavily. “I thought… I thought.”
Her mother stroking the space between Brigid’s shoulders with her palm. “I know, love.” Kissing her hand, which made Brigid’s face redden. Tears burst their wells. A big feeling, a child’s embarrassment. The humiliation of realising she did not bleed like the other children did. Across the clearing, they stared in silence at her. Worse than when they called her ‘Wooden Brigid’.
All these years later, it was not even her worst memory, but one that grieved her more than most. The moment she realised, even at that age, that she would never bleed, that her humanity – the person she thought herself to be, when reflected back at her in the form of her mother, her father, or all those around her – was an illusion. That moment was the splash in the illusionary stillness of a glass-reflective lake. The perfect reflection disrupted and the fantasy spoiled.
Perhaps as punishment, she came often to the place at the edge of the Iron Ring. If she did not feel pain as others did, this was the nearest feeling. The thrumming discomfort warning her to come no closer, the same magick would trap her on the side of the fairy folk, where she rightly belonged.
Ailbe, learning once that Brigid came to the edge of the woods where the ring was set, joked to Dermott that their sweet Brigid was becoming taciturn, a moody young woman – remember how she was herself at that age? But Brigid saw through the jest, saw alarm widen Ailbe’s eyes.
The forest all choked and twisted inside the Iron Ring, more tangled than blackberry bushes. All thorns, it seemed. If she waited long enough, might she glimpse the one who must hate her most: True Brigid. How long could a human child survive in the twisted domain of the fairy folk? What monstrous things might one do to eke out that survival? How would this other Brigid – the real Brigid – appear? Were they the same in form, the same hair, hands, eyes, and all that it would take was a stone dropped into the reflection to reveal that their likeness, like the glassy surface of the lake, was lie.
Calls of creatures no names existed for in a human tongue ribboned through the air the longer Brigid waited by the ring. She wondered if they too felt the same discomfort as she, edging the iron of their prison.
Old Mr. MacDarmaida read a poem to Brigid once, about a strange cat called ‘Tyger’.
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Brigid questioned the old man about that line. Who made the lamb, and who made the ‘tyger’ – and how was the person in the person in the poem ever to know? What she really wanted to ask was: who made Wooden Brigid?
True Brigid was conceived by Ailbe and Dermott Bhaird. She knew this. Was not even embarrassed by the idea – this was not a theme to cause her the same squirmy discomfort she knew Sill to feel about her own parents. No, rather it was her maker she wondered about. Fairy folk, magicking a log to make a rye child, and thieve away a human baby from her cot. When Brigid was younger, Caldwell teased her, mocking her as the product of monsters who mated to make her – and also confusing the image with some stupid remarks about an oak tree in coitus with an elm. MacDarmaida whapped him behind the ear with a tome at the time.
Did he smile his work to see?
The fairy who crafted Wooden Brigid, had they taken pride in their creation, their skillful mimicry of a human child? Baby Rye-Brigid pitched a cry to rival the wailing lungs of a human baby. She even wept. She laughed, she felt sorrow, anger, indignation. Her hair grew. So, too, her fingernails. Ailbe helped clip them, but tossed them into the fire too fast for Brigid to see if the crescents cut were splinters.
MacDarmaida told her the poem spoke of god, creating both predator and prey, but when Brigid pressed with her questions, he seemed to sense her underlying meaning. He would not answer on who made the fairy folk, and which came first – the folk or people, good, god-fearing men and women, or monsters.
“It’s only a poem, Brigid. A beautiful one at that, but only one man’s way of making sense of the world.”
When she looked for answers beyond the ring, as closed as she dared, she imagined tygers within, made by someone who did not make lambs. Made by those who crafted rye children from oak and elm, carving fingers from twigs, more masterful than any human. A whorl of ear, a slope of nose, all from chiselled wood.
“Going home, rye cousin?” Caldwell’s voice behind her…