"The Brídeog" (short story)
"The Brídeog " by Casey June Wolf. Escape Clause: A Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Clelie Rich (2009). Reprinted by permission.
by Casey June Wolf
The end of February rolling round brought its sleety rain and slapping winds and Ev sat peeling the tips off her toenails with a knife, glad to be inside and all. She had a hot toddy sitting next to her and held three of her toes splayed in one hand while the other, careful with the knife, reached round and grabbed the handle of the mug for a sip. God and Mary, that was good, but. She might be stuck here in the bog with her mam clingin’ to the past, might have to fall out of bed every day and go to the barn to slog around ankle-deep in mud and shite, but when she was done she got to wash the country off and kick back.
As her gaze lifted from the soft steam rising off the cup she saw through the uncurtained window a fey light coming over the hill and she stopped moving, swallowed the mouthful of whiskey, and thought, “What the feck?”
Then her mam, in the next room, started blithering it was time to up and ready themselves for the Brídeog.
“Ah, well, she got here at last, did she?” Ev muttered to herself. She let her splayed foot drop and took a good snog off the toddy before picking herself up.
Meanwhile she leaned forward for a better look because whatever her personal feelings about the blessings of the house she did welcome the distraction. Masked, straw-clothed bogtrotters in old-fashioned dress, climbing over the hill with a great scanger of a saint stuck on the spindle of a butter churn, stuffed arms flopping as her bearers stumped along. And the night was up to ninety, anyway. Maybe she’d get to see one of them blown over the hill or something. But how in Jayzus did they keep the damn light going in that wind?
It was a long haul for Brigit, three plus weeks carried across the countryside in the company of these fine folk. They were a serious and steady sort, and she blessed each hearth and barn as much for the goodness in this lot’s heart as for the earnestness of the elderly who still remembered and welcomed her. But she was tired. Three long weeks since leaving the Sidhe, the Land of Youth where hunts and feasts and dances and love were endless and always new.
Every year she left the Sidhe to sanctify the land. She was carried in effigy to her people’s homes, where she blessed them and their livelihoods. She woke the seed of spring with her presence, bringing the people from the grasp of winter into a time of vivid life. Snowdrops nodded and leaftips pierced the stiff earth; milk let down in the kine’s udder, lambs strained for release from their mothers’ wombs.
Brigit looked out at this last stern and forbidding community at the bottom of this last hill, and breathed deeply to bear up under the weight of their misery. It was a hard thing being a poor farmer, that she knew, and she had pity for them. But it was a hard thing being their goddess, too—or to modern minds, their saint.
She hung on the spindle of a churn, occupying, spirit without flesh, the carefully manufactured Brídeog of straw and rags and handsewn cloth, her blue mantle whipping round her face and blanking out her view from time to time. There was nothing to be done about it. Enough to come with these people and bless their homes and crops. If she lifted a hand to brush the mantle from her eyes they’d all drop dead of fright. She held back and blinked through the thrashing cloth.
And what was that? Narrowing her gaze, she saw there the stare of a young townie leaning forward and peering out the window at her. Was that a smirk on the young woman’s face? Was it indeed?
Brigit was tired. And she was grumpy. And she didn’t like to be disbelieved out of a job. She ground her teeth.
A knock came on the door. Pegeen straightened as best she could and hobbled to lift the latch. Where was that bold girl, hiding in her room, putting on and taking off her paint, blathering away with her lushin friends in Belfast City, no doubt. As if she hadn’t been told for weeks what to do when the Brídeog came—as if she hadn’t known for years. Well, there was nothing to be done about it. Pegeen opened the door.
Standing without, a dozen women, children, and men. Or so it would appear, for they all wore masks so cunning she could not tell who they were. Some of the masks were made of bits of cloth, white and blue and yellow, but the best were fashioned from straw into fanciful cones that obscured the entire face. The man with the Brídeog was covered head to feet in thatch and woven straw. Even if Pegeen could see their faces, it wouldn’t matter; this Brídeog procession came from a long way off; she mayn’t know 'em at'all.
The straw-covered man held forth the churn spindle they had wrapped with the stuffing and clothes. It was hung with seashells and smooth stones and early flowers, her blue mantle dangling wet and long—the Brídeog.
“Fall to your knees and open your eyes!” cried the man from behind his mask. Pegeen fell to her knees and clasped her hands together, not taking her eyes from the Brídeog. Already her prayers were battering her heart with their intensity. It was a harsh world for an old woman on a crumbling farm, with no one but Eibhlín, her youngest, to keep her. In clasping her hands she clasped her daughter, her farm, her withering health all to her breast and begged Brigit in her mercy to care for them. The voice of the Brídeog-bearer continued, “Let Brigit into your house!”
“Ah, she is welcome, welcome! Failte romhat!” she cried. From the corner of her eye she saw a motion at the inside door and added to her prayer a hope that Eibhlín would not interfere, that she would go to her knees as Pegeen had pleaded with her to do, or stay in her room, please Brigit, please!
In they crowded. The bearer and the Brídeog, the short ones and the tall, their old-fashioned clothes reeking and wet and their hands red with cold. Her heart went out to them and she bade them sit, sit, for few today still kept these customs, with all the world pressuring in, laughing and making mockery of them. She wanted to tug their fingers and kiss them, each and every one, for bringing the blessings on one more year.
Ev just gawped at them. What a bunch of bloody bollocks! Parading around like they had God his self sitting on their pole, and they the mighty reverent bearers of his holyhood. Feck!
Worst of all was Pegeen on the floor, simpering like a beggar, tapping them with all her might for some kind of good to come to her mean pathetic life. Ev wanted to hurl.
“Mam!” she yelled, striding forward and yanking her by the arm. “Pull your socks up. Are you off your nut? These wankers aren’t going to help you. They’ll take a penny off ya and shake around your house and this year’ll be just as feckin’ awful as the rest. Have you no self-respect, woman? Get up!”
Pegeen, speechless in shock, allowed herself to be dragged to her feet. A blaze of red struck her skin and her eyes turned black. “You’ve cursed us, you bloody fool! She’ll never bless us now! Why don’t you just kill me, you mad thing? What are you doing here at all?” And she whaled at Ev with both fists as hard as she could, head, hands, and back. Ev covered herself with her arms and tried to get out of the way of the blows. She stumbled backward and nearly fell. By Jayzus that woman could hit!
The masked and sodden people backed a step away from the handlin. Their sombre, prayerful silence shifted into distress. Ev saw one put a hand on the door as if to back out.
“Naw!” Pegeen howled. “Naw! We need her blessings, please!”
“Mam, for Chrissake lemme go, you aul eejit!”
“All right, aul wan, all right,” said the straw-covered man with the Brídeog. He put a calming hand on Pegeen’s sleeve, and gently peeled her off of Ev. “It’s all right. You think Brigit hasn’t ever seen upsets before? She’s been watching after the likes of us for a pure long time.”
Pegeen turned away from Ev like it would kill her to take in the sight of her daughter again, and a sharp knife slit into Ev’s heart. She took a step away and said nothing. Pegeen got back onto her knees. The man with the Brídeog stood in front of her. It all seemed less clear, of a sudden, with her mother so earnest and so upset, and Ev quieted down inside enough to ask herself what she should do.
She wavered, then made up her mind. Ev hurried across the room and poured a small glass of milk. She took it to the bearer. He grasped it solemnly and held it to the Brídeog’s tight-stitched slash of a mouth. He poured it in. Ev blinked. The milk did not leak through.
Must be a plastic bag inside.
The room shifted. She couldn’t explain it any other way. It just slipped from side to side, unnoticed by anyone else, just her.
The Brídeog blinked. She turned her neck this way and that as if to loosen stiffness. She stretched out her long, rag arms. She looked at Ev. “I’m fair done, girl,” she said. “And you aren’t making my job any easier. How do you expect blessings on a house you continue to curse? What about your poor Mam?”
Her mam knelt there unmoving. The Brídeog processional stood motionless around the room. Brigit climbed down out of the straw doll on the churn spindle, incarnating as she went, and stretched legs, spine, hands. She walked over to Ev. She was a tall and muscular woman. Someone familiar with a churn, a sword, an anvil.
“So spit it out,” she said. “Why are you torturing her?”
Ev sat heavily. She held one hand with the other. She opened her mouth and closed it again.
“Right. It’s as I thought. Look, girl. You’re not a townie, much as you’d like to be, and much as your mam thinks you are. You know how to work and you’d better do it. There’ll soon be no one like your mam, and the likes of me will be hidden in the Sidhe forever, drinking beer and eating swine. Not worrying about you and your sort. Don’t call me, I won’t call you. But what about her? Is this the way you want her to live? Feeling abandoned by you? Being abandoned by you?”
Eibhlín gaped up at Brigit. Not because she was a stupid girl who didn’t know how to close her mouth, or because she’d never had her bad behaviour pointed out before, or even because she felt bad, although she did, she always did. She just felt desperate, too, like her own life was going the same shagged way as Pegeen’s and she’d rather die, or preferably, escape.
She gaped because she was talking to a doll, and the doll was talking back.
“Well, it’s up to you,” Brigit said, shrugging. “I have my work to do. Eight last homes to bless and then I’m back to the Sidhe. Just think about it, would you, Eibhlín?”
A doll that knew her name.
Brigit walked back to the Brídeog and vanished inside, like steam curling down into the marshwiggle’s pipe. Ev blinked again.
The Brídeog bearer was speaking. “May your cows’ milk flow throughout the whole year,” he said to Pegeen, ceremoniously, but in a kind voice, too.
Pegeen dug into her apron pocket and pulled out an egg with the muck of the nest still sticking to it. She handed it to the bearer, who took it with dignity and gave it to the pocket of the Brídeog.
“If you ever have need,” said the bearer, “Brigit will give to you.” A smile of such radiance lit Pegeen’s haggard face.
Ev walked to the door. She opened it silently and the people processed outward, picking up the torch they had left outside and carrying both Brídeog and light to the nearest of the neighbours’ houses. She watched them go, the fey light swinging softly in the diminished wind. She turned to her mother.
Pegeen was coming up off the floor. Her knees were not up to work like that. They stiffened and hurt, and getting up was murder. Ev hurried over to her and took her by the arm.
“Up you go then, Mam,” she said. She could think of nothing else to add.
Pegeen looked at her with unreadable eyes. She looked like she wanted to shove Ev’s hands away.
Ev should go back to her room. Call Maire or Blaithí. Finish her toenail hacking. Make another toddy or ten.
She started walking. Pegeen lowered herself into a heavily doilied chair, looking wrecked. Ev hesitated. “A nice hot cuppa Rosie Lee, Mam?” she asked.
Pegeen smiled. “That’d be deadly,” she said, in her best townie slang. Ev laughed, and went to wet the tea.
The Brídeog by Casey Wolf is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
The hearth drawing used with the story is by E.E. Evans, and appeared on the cover of his book Irish Folk Ways (1957). The swans are by Maud Gonne (from Celtic Wonder Tales).