Read an Extract from The Faerie Thorn
The title story from debut author Jane Talbot's collection of dark fairy tales is the perfect mood setter for Halloween
Born in Wiltshire but now based in Ballymoney, writer and storyteller Jane Talbot's debut collecton of short stories is the perfect book to curl up with as the leaves turn brown and the scent of pumpkin spice fills the crisp air across Northern Ireland this autumn.
With the nights drawing in ever more early, its blend of frightening folklore and fiction rooted in the North Antrim coast has made it one of the season's must-reads and seen her hailed as an 'exciting and original new voice in Irish writing'.
In her introduction, Talbot tells of how she began the book's title story after taking an interest in tree lore, the ancient Celtic belief in certain trees holding a sacred symbolism. 'When I read about the lore of the hawthorn,' she says, 'I was fascinated by its association with faeries and asked my husband if there was a lone hawthorn (known as a faerie thorn) on our farm.'
'To my delight, he said there was, so I decided to go on a faerie-hunting expedition. I wasn’t a believer, of course. I was just curious.
'On the night of July 5, I camped out near the faerie thorn. I followed standard faerie-sighting protocols, visiting the tree at evening and morning twilight, but I didn’t see any faeries.
'The morning visit to the tree was at around 4.00am, so I decided to go back to sleep afterwards. When I woke up, I was astonished – and, if I’m completely honest, a little bit spooked – to find that a fully formed story about the faerie thorn was in my head!
'A few days later I started writing 'The Faerie Thorn', a story which features many real places. When I finished it, I followed standard faerie-thanking protocols, returning to the thorn and leaving gifts of cream and whiskey.
'I wanted to offer thanks not only for the story that had magically grown in my head, but also for the more valuable gift that the story had given to me: a deeper connection to the place where I live.
Talbot goes on to tell of how writing 'The Faerie Thorn' transformed her relationship with her adopted home and inspired her to explore more of it in search of further inspiration.
The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories is the result and one year on she feels at home 'in a place that is full of stories waiting to be told'. So enjoy a sample below of the one that started it all...
The First Bit
A silvery cartwheel of plump harvest moons ago, in the large mossy space between a tick and a tock, there lived a farmer called Man Donaghy. He was one of the Big People, all black-haired and broad and handsome-strong, with the dark, urgent eyes of a hungry dog.
His sparkling white cottage was nestled in a blanket of golden barleycorn all through the summer. His herd of straight-backed cattle thrived even during tough winters sent by the northern winds. The lacy ash trees made a canopy over his lush vegetable garden, letting in the perfect amount of sun and creating the perfect amount of shade.
And in a field, a potato’s throw from Man Donaghy’s cottage, stood a single faerie thorn.
Now, if you don’t know about faerie thorns, you should. The Big People call these trees hawthorns, and in May you can see them scattering snow-blossoms in every direction. The Big People know that the Little People live in the roots of these trees, so the wisest Big People make sure that the faerie thorns are left well alone.
If a farmer has a faerie thorn on his land, he is the most lucky-unlucky man. He is lucky because the Little People play their music to the Tree Spirits, dance with the Earth Spirits and make the Air Spirits giggle. The Little People weave tumbling currents for the Water Spirits and squeeze faerie bellows for the Fire Spirits. It is the Little People who work in this way to keep all of Nature in balance. It is the Little People who make sure that the land gives her bounty to the farmer.
If a farmer has a faerie thorn on his land, he is also unlucky because it is very easy to upset the Little People. And if they get upset, they upset everything else. They can blight a crop, sour the milk of a fine dairy cow, render a horse lame and even make Big People disappear.
Man Donaghy had grown up on this farm and was well aware of the power of the tree. He always kept the field where it stood tidy, and never went close enough to get caught in an enchantment or embroiled in a faerie bargain.
When the stars were in the right place, Man Donaghy took himself a wife. Wife Donaghy had summer in her cheeks all year round and no ache in her eyes at all.
Her soft hands became worn with the hard work of a farmer’s wife, but she never complained. She churned butter that sweetened everything on to which it was spread, baked bread that was lighter than air, and cooked stews that tendered even the toughest meat. Wife Donaghy knew about the faerie thorn, but she was not afraid of it. To her, it was the most beautiful tree on the farm. Every morning twilight, when Man Donaghy went out to the fields, Wife Donaghy went down to the faerie thorn. She left a thimbleful of her husband’s best poteen and a teaspoon of her smoothest cream by the roots of the thorn for the Little People, and then she sang to them as she tidied around the tree. Bundles of kindness rode the soft waves of her voice all the way down into the roots of the tree, and, after a while, the Little People came up from the Otherworld to hear her more clearly.
As she sang and moved around the tree, the Little People sprang into the curls in her red hair. They hung out of the curls like chicks from a nest, warming themselves by the good feelings in Wife Donaghy’s voice.
Man and Wife Donaghy ached for a child, but ten years passed with no child gifted to them. Man Donaghy became angry with his wife. He wanted sons to help him with the farm. He wanted to hand his farm over to his sons when the stars were in the right place.
Man Donaghy began to think that Wife Donaghy would never bear him a child. He became cold and cruel to Wife Donaghy.
Man Donaghy went looking for a new wife. He went looking for a young wife. Man Donaghy knew it would be easy to find a new wife. He had plenty of land, plenty of money, and he was double-very handsome. And soon enough, he found one in a place where no one knew him, a handful of counties away.
The woman he found in the distant county was as fresh as the dew, as sly as a fox, hungry for gold and eager to marry. All Man Donaghy needed to do now was get rid of Wife Donaghy.
As Man Donaghy rode his horse back from the distant county, the Bad Talkers in his head started whispering to him, and by the time he arrived at the farm, he had hit upon a way to get rid of Wife Donaghy.
Arriving in the darkest part of the night at the gates of his farm, Man Donaghy got off his horse and tethered it to the gatepost. He crept silently around the back of the farmhouse and over the field to the faerie thorn.
The thorn was shimmering as he knelt before it. Whispering directly to the roots of the tree, Man Donaghy said, ‘I want you to take Wife Donaghy.’
Before he had even finished the sentence, Man Donaghy found himself face to face with one of the Little People. In all his forty years, he had never seen one before. The creature in front of him was big-small and mighty man-powerful. Sparks sizzled in the air around him, and, as he spoke, a hundred more Little People crowded around the roots of the tree.
‘I will willingly take Wife Donaghy from you, Man Donaghy. And what will you give to me in return for my help?’
‘I will give you a small sack of my gold if you take her from me.’
‘Bring the gold to the tree now, and Wife Donaghy will be gone by the time that the sun has fully risen.’
Man Donaghy could hardly believe his good fortune. He rushed into the barn where his gold was hidden, brought out one small sack and left it at the roots of the faerie thorn. Then he climbed into bed with Wife Donaghy and waited.
Wife Donaghy was woken by a strange and beautiful sound. It was a kind of singing, but she’d never heard anything like it before. It was like the sound that stars make when they are sliding across the night sky. It was like the sound of sap rising in young trees, of flowers blossoming and of seeds beginning to sprout. It was like the sound of mauve twilight.
Wife Donaghy got up, threw a shawl over her nightgown and moved swiftly through the cottage and out into the garden, following the strains of the Otherworld song.
At the edge of the faerie thorn field she stopped to listen, and she began to recognise the song. It was the song that she had sung to the faerie thorn every morning for the last ten years.
Wife Donaghy ran to the tree, and, as soon as she was within a hare’s ear of its roots, she disappeared.
The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories by Jane Talbot is available to buy now from Blackstaff Press.