Gabriel and the Fairy Ring
Mallorca and Ireland 1983
It was Thursday, the day Gabriel went to his grandmother's for lunch. Her house was just around the corner from the primary school, so he didn't need to be picked up by his mother, who was usually blowing with impatience at his lingering back in the playground. She would grab him brusquely by the arm and say:
'How come you're always the last one out?'
His grandmother Cliona never asked the kind of question he couldn't answer. And she didn't ask how he got on at school either.
He ambled along the pavements of the housing estate, counting the weeds that sprouted from the cracks and making sure not to tread on any deadly processionary caterpillars. It was March, and there was a fine layer of yellow dust on the path and on the swings in the children's playground to his right. He stopped beside a parked car and wrote his name on the rear window, and then inspected the pollen stain on his forefinger. In March his Irish grandmother never failed to complain about 'the number of fecking pine trees on this goddamn island.'
When Gabriel reached the house, he looked to see if her car was parked outside. Every week he checked the Dublin plaque on the rear window and the mess of odd sweaters, wicker baskets and English textbooks on the back seat. And there it was, a dusty old Renault parked in front of the flat-roofed house where the tiles were glinting orange in the afternoon sun. Once assured all was in order, he ran his fingers over the flaking green paint of the front gate and pushed it open. He liked the feel of the cold metal and how it screeched on the rusty hinges, and he liked the solidity of the rough-cut stone columns that supported the porch where Cliona now stood, sneezing and swearing.
'Well, there you are, my child. Come and give me a hug. Lunch is ready and we'll eat as soon as I can stop sneezing!'
Gabriel dropped his bag and observed her streaming eyes and red nose.
'And just what are you waiting for? It's my allergy. Don't you know by now?'
He embraced her comforting belly and asked what was for lunch.
She laughed. 'The same as you've been having for the last three years every Thursday.'
It was spaghetti with tomato sauce and grated cheese: his favourite, but frowned upon by his mother, a nervous health fiend who feared all non-ecological, white, refined products like they were Lucifer himself. So Thursday at Cliona's was the Eden of all forbidden foods; gorge yourself without one second of remorse.
While Cliona cleared the long kitchen table of English textbooks, notebooks, pens and everything else that pointed to her recent class, Gabriel went into the living room and looked at the picture on the wall. This was the final part of the ritual: the five-minute observation of an enlarged, framed photo which hung over the fireplace. Since he could remember, Gabriel had associated his grandmother's house with this luminous picture of a fairy ring, which gradually became so magically alive to him that it was the only real thing in the room, even more so than himself. He imagined standing in front of the hawthorn tree in the first light of the morning, a fresh breeze gently moving its white flowers; and he could touch, in awe, the stones that formed a circle around the tree, the undeniable proof that here was a fairy ring where the Little People entered their underground dwelling. For Gabriel had no doubt that they existed.
'Lunch is on the table, Gabriel!'
Cliona observed her only grandson. He was a quiet, delicate-looking child, small for his age and prone to daydreaming. On the days when he was especially silent he would stand in front of the photo for longer and seem to gather comfort from it. Today was one of those days. She didn't hurry him, and let him have his fill. Cliona remembered that the photo was one of the first objects that had entered the house thirty-five years back, when she had left Ireland and married a Mallorcan. It was the first thing that everyone looked at when they went into her airy living room. And she noted with a certain smug pleasure how the image of the wilds of Ireland had slowly permeated the whitewashed walls so that its counterparts, amateur paintings of Mallorcan seascapes, were not even given a cursory glance. The scene at Lough Brin, in County Kerry, had been captured at dawn by a renowned Irish photographer: low mists retreating to the mountains so that the first light rested without hindrance on a blooming hawthorn tree, around which was a circle of greyish white boulders. No visitor escaped the spell of that photograph.
'Would you like me to tell you the story of fairy rings again?' She piled his plate with spaghetti.
Gabriel nodded and began to devour the steaming pasta and melting cheese.
'When you're out for a walk in the Irish countryside, you must always keep your eyes wide open and be sure not to step inside a fairy ring. They are gateways to the land of the fairies, and it is said that underground there are fairy cities. Sometimes you'll see a wide circle of big toadstools; other times it'll be a circle of stones, like the one in my photo. But there must always be a hawthorn tree in the middle; otherwise it's not a true fairy ring.'
'And what would happen if you stepped inside accidentally?' asked Gabriel.
'Ah, well, that is a difficult question to answer. Inside the ring the fairies gather to sing and dance, have feasts and have their meetings. People who can hear them say they sing all night with high, silvery voices. But they don't like being disturbed by humans. If we do, they might play tricks on us, and then they split their sides laughing, for they have a wicked sense of humour and just love to be wild and free.'
Gabriel lifted his head from the plate. His black eyes stared at her from his small white face.
'You mean they make fun of people, like the kids at school do? Are they nasty, then?'
'No, no, they're not like us humans, little one. But nobody knows for sure. There are stories that tell of people who disappeared when they stepped inside the ring. They were never seen again.'
'Maybe they went to a magic place that's much nicer than here. That's why they didn't come back. Can you talk to the fairies from outside the ring?'
'Gabriel, you have to have special powers to be able to see the fairies and talk to them. I don't know of anyone, to be sure! But I've heard that they may show themselves if you are good to animals and if you care for the earth. And they are especially fond of children who have pure hearts.'
'Why are there no fairy rings in Mallorca?' solemn-eyed Gabriel asked.
'I can't give you an exact answer there, but I think the fairies don't like mosquitoes or the heat,' she said, heaping more spaghetti onto his plate.
'Remember you said you'd take me to Ireland this summer? For my birthday, will you take me to a fairy ring, Granny? Like the one in the photo? That will be my present. Just you and me, okay?'
'Of course I remember! I'll do my best to take you to the one in Kerry, and you'll get another present. Now, finish your lunch. We both need a siesta before your mam comes to collect you.' She rapidly began to clear away the evidence of their meal.
Later that evening, when Gabriel had gone home, Cliona had an inclination to watch an old Disney favourite, Darby O' Gill and the Little People. She was just sinking into the sofa in front of the television when the phone rang. It was her daughter, Rosa. She does it on purpose, thought Cliona as she braced herself for the tirade.
'Mum, for Christ's sake, will you stop putting all those stupid ideas about fairy rings into Gabriel's head. Things are bad enough at school already. The teacher says he's locked in his own little world and the other kids think he's a weirdo. If he starts going on about fairy rings, they'll make fun of him. Why can't I have a normal child?'
'Holy Mother of God, Rosa, he's nine years old. Why shouldn't he be fascinated by fairy rings? And have you ever asked yourself why he doesn't interact with the other kids? The little sods are more than likely bullying him.'
'Well, the teacher has said nothing about bullying. She says he ought to visit the school psychologist. And you're just making it worse by pandering to all his fantasies. If Dad were alive, he'd soon put a stop to all this bloody nonsense.'
'And do you think the teacher has noticed if he's being bullied or not? They won't do it in front of her, will they? If the poor child wants to believe in fairies, then let him. I did at his age and it did me no harm. He's just very sensitive and needs special attention. If you weren't always so stressed and had more time for him, you might find out what's wrong.'
'Oh, I can hardly get a word out of him and neither can his father. You're the one he communicates with most, but I'm beginning to think you're a bad influence. And if you have to give him pasta, make sure it's made from whole-wheat. The processed stuff you give him just makes him nervous.'
'You can bet it's not my pasta that's making him nervous,' said Cliona and slammed the phone down.
I'm taking Gabriel with me to Kerry this summer, she thought, and we're finding that fairy ring in Lough Brin if it's the last thing I do. She turned off the TV and pondered. How would she get to that area from Dublin, where her brother lived, and how would she find the fairy ring? It wouldn't be easy to find the exact spot. Maybe her brother would help her, but it was just her and Gabriel who would make the trip. She knew this was like a pilgrimage for the child, and she would make sure no one contaminated it with the slurries of their practical, unimaginative minds.
She closed the faded green shutters and went up the stone stairway to bed. March nights were still cold and soon she was under her patchwork quilt. It was good having the double bed to herself and she felt no guilt about not missing her husband. And she had the freedom to take her only grandson to Ireland without him controlling their every move.
Thursdays came and went, pasta was devoured and Gabriel's mother continued to complain. But nothing turned a hair on Cliona's greying red mane, nor did her round countenance lose its half-smile. She noticed how Gabriel developed a look of contentment and imagined he was feeding on the joy of their secret trip, memorising the smallest details as he stood in front of the photo of the fairy ring.
And then, quite unexpectedly, he began to draw. What he drew most were stones and trees. First, he sketched the old olive tree in Cliona's garden. He liked the flaky texture of the bark and the narrow silver-coloured leaves; how the ripe black olives dropped from the branches overhanging the pavement outside the house and were crushed by passers-by, and how his grandmother would constantly grumble as she swept them up. He liked to assemble odd-shaped stones in the garden and draw their sharp edges or polished roundness. Before he sketched, he would hold them and let his palm caress their essence. They all throbbed differently, he thought, and he marvelled that even stones have hearts. When he had finished drawing, he placed them in a circle around the olive tree and watched how the sun weaved its way through the quivering leaves and speckled the stones with pale gold.
Cliona would observe him discreetly from the kitchen. She knew best to make no comments in case he shied away like a nervous sparrow. She was surprised by the accurate delicacy of his drawings and decided she would encourage him. There's no doubting the child's got talent there, she thought, and wondered why nobody had noticed at his progressive, private school. It was one of the first trilingual schools that taught in English, Spanish and Mallorcan, and supposedly developed the budding talents of its pupils. Gabriel's parents struggled to pay the extortionate fees for an education which, in Cliona's shrewd eyes, seemed to be making her grandchild more withdrawn and less sociable.
'Look what I've bought you,' she said one Thursday in May after a large plateful of pale spaghetti stained with blood-red tomato sauce.
She placed on the table a flat oblong package with a hump in the middle.
Gabriel looked dismayed.
'But it's not my birthday yet and you know I want to go to the fairy ring in Kerry for my present! You promised.'
'And what makes you think it's a birthday present? Just open it, will you?'
Gabriel slowly removed the brown paper. It was a professional sketch pad with a black and red hard cover. The hump was a small case with six fine sketching pencils inside, all sharpened to exactly the same point.
'Is this for school?' Gabriel asked blankly.
'No, Gabriel, it's too good for that school of yours. This is for you to draw the fairy ring in Kerry and anything else that catches your eye here.'
Gabriel stared at the pad and then at his grandmother. Tears began to roll down the pale curve of his cheeks.
'No one's ever been that nice to me,' he said, 'not even Mum and Dad.'
She watched with pleasure how he ran his finger over the pages like an artist, noting their texture and thickness, then carefully closed the pad and hugged it to his narrow chest.
'Granny, can I keep it here, please?'
'It's yours, so you can do what you like with it.'
'It's just that I don't want Mum and Dad to tell me off for not doing my homework, and anyway, I don't want anyone to see my drawings.'
'Not even me?'
'Only you, Granny! And do you know what? I'm going to give you my first drawing.'
'Well, I can't wait for that, Gabriel. But tell me, hasn't your teacher seen how well you draw?'
Gabriel looked at her and the tears began to roll again.
'She doesn't let me draw because I have no coloured pencils.'
'What do you mean you haven't got any? I was with your mam when she bought them at the stationer's.'
'The other kids took them.'
'The fecking little bastards! And have you not told your teacher?'
'I can't, Granny. If I do, they gang up on me in the playground. The teacher thinks I've lost them, so she punishes me.'
'Good God almighty! Your mam told me you were always losing your school stuff. Have you not told her why?'
'No. I don't want her going to the teacher. Mum shouts a lot when she's angry. If the kids get punished because of me, they'll want to kill me. I don't want them to hate me even more, Granny. And please don't tell Mum and Dad. You won't, will you?'
The panic in Gabriel's eyes curbed her rising anger.
'Don't you worry. We'll find a way round this, child,' she said, and tapped her fingers on the pale oak table. Her heart was fluttering rapidly and she had to lean her forehead on the table.
'What's the matter, Granny? Granny? You've gone all white.' Gabriel gently removed her glasses which were lying askew on her left cheek.
'Bring me my pills from the cupboard behind you, the ones in the brown bottle, and some water,' she said in a flat, breathless voice.
Gabriel quickly did as he was bid. Cliona swallowed two pills and slowly revived.
'You're not going to die, are you?' he whispered, and clutched her hand.
'You can bet on your life I'm not going to do that for a long while,' she said, more worried about frightening her grandchild than the arrhythmia of her heart. 'I want to be around to see what you're up to! I just have to keep taking the pills.'
Later that day, Gabriel resolved that he would always remind her to take her pills, and he thought he wouldn't upset her with his stories about school; he would draw them instead. He couldn't imagine the bleak prospect of life without the haven his grandmother provided, nor the effortless understanding she showed of his inner world.
The following week Rosa rang unexpectedly; her calls usually fitted into a tight schedule -- 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays were allotted to her mother -- so Cliona felt a twinge of concern.
'Mum, there's a parents' meeting at the school tomorrow evening. Could you go for me? I've got to finish a project for work the next day and Daniel has another office meeting,' Rosa said.
Cliona smiled to herself when she detected the sheepish tone in her daughter's voice and thanked the luck of her Irish stars.
'Well, all right, but it's about time one of you two went to these meetings, useless as they are. I went to all of yours, you know.'
'Okay, Mum, don't start with your sermons. It starts at six, and don't forget to ask the teacher how Gabriel is doing. If you waste time talking to everybody after the meeting, she'll just slip out,' she said, her voice now ringing with impatience.
'You can be sure I won't,' Cliona said, and hung up gleefully.
* * *
Cliona's tired blue eyes observed the teacher and felt disheartened at the sight. She was in her late forties, wiry and desiccated. A brittle mass of greying corkscrew curls with blonde highlights bushed out over her shoulders. Frown lines were etched between her eyebrows and red lipstick sank into the creases around her thin lips. Her jaw, taut and belligerent, belied the otherwise delicate features, and no amount of hair could counteract its chiselled determination. Two unblinking brown marbles surveyed the chattering parents squashed into the children's chairs.
I bet she reads New Developments in Education in bed every night; fat lot of good it does her though, thought Cliona, and she struggled to repress an urge to rap loudly on the desk in front of her.
The teacher cleared her throat to address the parents in a loud, grating voice:
'Thank you all very much for coming. And please make sure you sign the attendance form which is being circulated. The reason for this rather impromptu meeting is to inform you that, due to recent concern about the cases of bullying that have been detected in many schools all over the country, we have invited a child psychologist to give talks to the pupils from the age of eight upwards. This is to make them aware of the devastating effects of bullying and to nip it in the bud, so to speak. The aim of the psychologist is to encourage children to speak openly about any cruelty from their classmates, and to dissuade any who are showing this tendency. Our school also offers guidance to parents who think their child may be a victim of bullying.'
Some of the parents looked at the teacher in horror whilst others began whispering to each other. Cliona raised her hand to speak but was waved down by Sra García, who continued, her voice louder still.
'And as an incentive to our pupils to increase their awareness of this most disturbing issue, we are holding an art competition for each age group. There will be a prize for the best drawing that expresses the anguish of being bullied, and the winner of each category will also take part in a regional competition on the same theme. The drawings will be carried out in the classroom to avoid any help at home! And please make sure your children bring their colouring pencils to class. The school will provide the sheets of paper.'
'Well, that's mighty generous of them,' Cliona said under her breath, and caught the eye of the woman sitting next to her, who nodded in agreement. Sra García glared at them and cleared her throat.
'I am pleased to say that in this class I have not detected any cases. They are, of course, only nine and ten years old! Nevertheless, it is always beneficial to open their eyes from an early age and discourage any signs.'
'As if she'd notice,' Cliona whispered, and repressed an urge to clear the phlegm from her throat. Sra García gave her audience a thin, tired smile.
'Due to lack of time I'm afraid that I'm unable to attend to parents' enquiries about their child's particular performance at this moment. Please do ask for an appointment if that is the case. Are there any questions?' Without even conceding five minutes of courtesy, Sra García thanked the now agitated parents for coming to the five-minute meeting, picked up her papers and proceeded to walk to the door.
'Ah, no you don't, you're not escaping me,' Cliona muttered to herself, and swiftly got up from her chair and blocked the door with her large frame.
'Sra García,' she said with a try at a sweet smile, 'I can see you're in a hurry and I don't want to inconvenience you in any way, but I have to talk to you for a moment.'
'Mrs O' Connell, if this is about Gabriel, I have just now said that an appointment has to be made. Perhaps your daughter could do that?' She looked at Cliona as if she were half-witted.
'I understood you perfectly, Sra García. It has nothing to do with Gabriel's performance, but rather with the drawing competition,' said Cliona, and taking advantage of her larger size, she propelled the teacher into the corridor. 'We can have a little more privacy here.'
'I am in a hurry. Just what is this about?' she said, shaking off Cliona's arm and turning to see if the other parents and grandparents were queuing behind. 'You had better walk with me to my car.'
'No problem, Sra García. I won't keep you two minutes.'
When they got to the teacher's black Citroën, Cliona opened her bag and took out a pack of twelve colouring pencils.
'These are for Gabriel, but I'm giving them to you so that you can keep them safely for him. Whenever you have a drawing class, and especially for the competition, I want you to make sure he has these pencils. Then he has to give them back to you. All right, Sra?'
'But this is ridiculous. At his age he has to look after his own property. He's always losing things as it is. He'll never learn this way,' she said with an air of resigned superiority.
'And have you never wondered if perhaps Gabriel doesn't lose them but has them taken from him? Have you never noticed how the other kids treat him?' Cliona said as icily as she could manage.
'Absolute nonsense. Nothing of what you're suggesting happens in my class. I should know. I spend five hours with them every day. And this would really be singling him out in front of the other children. And by the way, you really ought to control his language. The other day I actually heard him say 'fecking'. He was talking to himself in the playground, but it was loud enough for me to hear. I can't imagine who he's copied that from. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must be off. You can give the pencils to Gabriel yourself,' she said, and thrust the pack into Cliona's bag.
'Not so fast, Sra García. Your headmaster was an old colleague of my late husband's and often came to dinner at our house. I'm sure you wouldn't want him to suspect a case of overlooked bullying in your class now, would you?' she said, and firmly put the pencils on top of Sra García's pile of papers.
'Ah, and by the way, not a word of this to Gabriel's parents or to the kids in your class. I think you might be in for a surprise, Sra García.' Cliona patted her arm and then walked off, two bright pink spots in her cheeks, leaving the teacher, agape, slumped against her car and, Cliona felt acutely, boring holes of hatred into her departing back.
* * *
The following Thursday was a luminous spring day. The Mallorcan light, still without the aggressive glare of summer, distilled the purest essence from every colour it fell upon. The jacarandas lining the streets were in full bloom, and Gabriel picked up a few of the sticky bell-shaped flowers that covered the pavement. He dawdled on his way to his grandmother's and studied the rapidly withering flowers in his hand. He wondered how he could copy their shade of violet blue with the colouring pencils his grandmother had also given him.
'Well there you are, child. What took you so long to get here? The pasta will have congealed into a lump by now,' scolded Cliona with a smile on her face. 'And what was that tune you were humming? I've never heard it before!'
'Look at these flowers, Granny,' he said. 'I want to draw them but I haven't got this shade of blue. Do you think I could have my birthday present early? Could I have some paints? I won't ask for anything else, I promise.'
'Well now, let me think just how much some paints would cost,' said Cliona, frowning. 'I'll tell you what. I'll deduct the cost from your present for the day, but you must come with me to get them. I have no idea which ones to choose.'
Gabriel hugged his grandmother and buried his head in her warm breast, but not before having carefully placed the jacaranda flowers on the table.
'Do you know what, Granny? Today at school we did our drawing for the competition. We didn't have normal classes. A man came to explain what bullying was and we had to do a drawing about it. Sra García gave me some colouring pencils this time, a whole new pack just for me, but I had to give them back afterwards. Maybe she likes me more now.'
'Well, isn't that just great, Gabriel! And what did you draw?'
'I did a comic strip. It's got five parts.'
'Did you now? That must have been very difficult for such a young boy. Can you tell me what the story is?'
Gabriel was silent for a moment, and then spoke quietly.
'It's about me, Granny.'
* * *
Ten days later Cliona opened the door to Rosa, who had dropped by after picking Gabriel up from school. She walked briskly into the kitchen, her son trailing behind her. Cliona observed her daughter, who was dressed in elegant office clothes, her long black hair scraped up into a topknot which hardened her elfin features, and wondered how she could have produced someone so different to herself.
'Mum, you'll never guess what's happened,' she said, beaming at Gabriel, whose resemblance to his mother stopped at the physical.
'And what would that be, Rosa?' said her mother, annoyed at having been woken from her nap on the sofa where she had now spread herself out again.
'Gabriel's drawing has won the prize for his category and it's been entered for the regional competition! I never realised he could draw so well.'
Cliona quickly levered herself up and went into the kitchen.
'Come here, child,' she said, 'I'm going to hug you to death.'
'Have you seen the drawing, Rosa?' Cliona asked tentatively.
'Not yet. His teacher says there will be a little exhibition on Friday afternoon for the school open day. How did you know what to draw, Gabriel? I mean, it isn't easy to do a drawing about bullying, is it?'
Gabriel shrugged and looked at his grandmother.
'I want Granny to come on Friday too,' he said. 'She likes my drawings.'
'What drawings? I've never seen any at home,' said Rosa, eyeing her mother suspiciously.
'Gabriel draws with me on Thursdays, don't you, Gabriel? I've got a folder where I keep them. He's even copied my photo of Lough Brin. Do you want to have a look?'
'We must be going now. I'll have a look next time. Can't wait to tell Daniel! Come on, Gabriel, and stand up straight, will you?' she said as she clattered down the steps.
* * *
The exhibition was held in the school hall, which had a sickening smell of canteen dinners, disinfectant and musty paintwork. Flimsy wooden boards had been hastily erected, and stapled on them was the artwork produced over the year. One section was titled 'Prizewinning Drawings on the Theme of Bullying'. There were six drawings -- one for each age group -- but Gabriel's comic strip stood out dramatically from the other five. The parents contemplated it with expressions of discomfort and disbelief. They looked warily at Sra García and their own offspring, then left the hall, talking in whispers. Cliona waited until she could look at Gabriel's work by herself.
The first part of the comic strip showed a bleak school playground, reminiscent of a prison yard, with high walls and no vegetation. Outside the railings, parents were leaving in their cars or talking to each other as the children walked through the gates. The second was a corner of the playground. A dark-haired boy was being kicked and pinched by a group of five boys of the same age. But he wasn't fighting back; he was holding out his school bag to them with a look of quiet desperation. In the third, the boys had emptied his bag onto the ground. They were picking up his colouring pencils and putting them into their pockets. The fourth showed the classroom with its neat rows of tables and chairs. The children were at their desks, drawing in exercise books with colouring pencils. The teacher, a woman with stiff, curly hair, was looking angrily at the boy who had no colouring pencils on his table. He had his head down, but five boys were pointing and laughing at him. The fifth showed break-time in the playground. Some children were running, others were talking in groups, but the boy was eating his sandwich alone in the darkest corner. In the middle of the playground there were two teachers on duty standing close together, heads down, locked in conversation. The comic strip was drawn in stark strokes of black, white and grey. Only the pencils had vivid colours: the brightest red, blue, yellow, green, purple, pink and orange.
'Cliona! How nice to see you after all this time. Might I have a little word with you, away from this noise?' said a tanned, balding man in his sixties who looked like a suave entrepreneur in his immaculate lightweight suit.
Cliona turned from looking at the comic strip. She blinked back the tears and greeted Sr Marin, headmaster of her grandson's school.
'You have a very talented grandson, Cliona, and it looks as if he has exposed a case of bullying in this very school. Or is it just his imagination, I wonder?'
'Juan, I'm going to be perfectly clear,' said Cliona, who knew but didn't care if later her son-in-law called her an interfering old bag. 'This is Gabriel's story, don't you see? And if nothing is done about it, he won't be continuing in this school next year.'
Sr Marin did not lose his composure. He did have a master's in public relations, after all; but his mouth tightened and on his upper lip a few beads of sweat appeared. He looked across the hall at Sra García, who was milling with the parents and trying to look unperturbed by the sight of the headmaster talking to Cliona.
'Don't worry, Cliona. I'm going to be making a few changes in this school. But I do wish I'd been told before.' He turned and walked off briskly towards Rosa.
After the exhibition Rosa took Gabriel by the hand and led him out of the hall. Gabriel's comic strip and the headmaster's surprise at her lack of awareness of his suffering had shaken her deeply.
'I'm sorry, Gabriel. Why didn't you tell me? What can I do to put it right?'
'I want to go to Ireland with Granny to see the fairy ring. They'll put it right.'
Rosa sighed. 'Forget about the fairies, Gabriel. I'll put it right. Those kids won't bully you again. I'm going to talk to their parents personally and so will Sr Marin. And you could have asked me for the pencils and sketching paper. You never tell me anything. I am your mother, you know.'
'But you are always in a hurry and you're never pleased with me the way Granny is. Will you let me draw at home?' he asked anxiously.
'All right, all right, but homework first,' she said, and kissed the top of his head. Gabriel moved away quickly.
* * *
June arrived, and with it, the end of school. Gabriel's not very favourable school report was mitigated by the news that he had won the regional drawing competition. His parents, informed of his exceptional artistic ability, were advised to allow him to attend free drawing classes for children at the official School of Art in the city. It took a while for their practical minds to find a use for this in Gabriel's future, but they eventually accepted in the hope that it would turn him into a 'normal, sociable child', and not make him an arty freak. His grandmother championed his cause with all the passion of her absolute belief in him.
'Mother of God, Rosa, you haven't got an ordinary child there, you've got an extraordinary one. Stop wanting him to be like all the others and give him the space he needs to develop. He needs to get away from Mallorca for a while to recover. Our little trip to Ireland will do him the world of good, don't you know?'
'All right, Mother, but make sure you don't feed him more tales of fairy rings. He's nearly ten, for Christ's sake. And will you please stop swearing in front of him!'
* * *
Gabriel speared a dumpling in his stew and eyed it suspiciously.
'What's this? Don't you have spaghetti in Ireland?' he asked his great uncle Rory, who was ladling large amounts of stew into his plate.
'Now, you have to try a good Irish stew,' Rory said, beaming at him. 'None of that foreign muck in my house. You look as though you need building up, my boy. If you spent a few days with me, I'd soon put some colour in your cheeks.'
Gabriel and Cliona had arrived in Dublin on the first of July. Gabriel was impressed by two things above all: the dark grey stone of the buildings, whose cold, damp texture seeped into his fingers as he caressed the walls that turned black in the rain; and the warmth and friendliness of the people who smiled and talked to him as if he were the most fascinating child in town. He wondered how the dank buildings and the predominant grey layer of cloud could produce such cheerful inhabitants. No one must feel lonely here, he thought.
They stayed just one night in Rory's spacious architect-designed flat. Cliona's hospitable elder brother also lent them his car for the journey to County Kerry. He had mapped out their journey to Lough Brin in minute detail. She was well aware of how much he doubted her navigational abilities, which she also did, but when he offered to drive them she refused as gently as she could.
'It just has to be me and the child, Rory. I'll explain later,' she said to her large, kindly brother. She felt a pang of guilt because she knew how much this solitary man had been looking forward to their company, and she knew, too, that he was too sensitive to her needs to insist. She watched how he covered his disappointment by making stacks of sandwiches and checking the car for the journey. And she thought it was time she made more visits to Dublin.
Cliona and Gabriel rose early the next morning. The Dublin air was fresh and sharp and woke in both their hearts the magic of hope, of endless possibility. While Cliona loaded the car with food and rucksacks she felt her heart expand with a rush of euphoria, just as when she was a child filled with some marvellous expectation. She, too, was about to discover the magical land which lay behind the photograph that had captivated her decades ago. The framed image in her living room was the wild heart of Ireland, which over the years was fading in her memory. Her grandson was leading her back, back to the dark pool of her beginnings, to the rediscovery of who she was before life in Mallorca blurred the edges of her Irish soul.
'Be careful with my rucksack, Granny. I've got a special box in it,' Gabriel said, his face white with excitement, 'and don't forget your pills.'
'Don't you worry about that. Nothing will happen to your box. Now sit back and just enjoy the scenery. We're on our way to Killarney, where we'll spend the night, and then next day off to Lough Brin. And have no fear; your grandmother will be guided by the travelling fairies!'
'Have you ever seen a fairy, Granny?'
'Well, I thought I saw one when I was a girl. It had lovely translucent wings and a cheeky face. But it might have been my imagination.' She watched Gabriel open his mouth in astonishment. Then she began to chant:
'Come away, O human child!
To the woods and waters wild,
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than
You can understand.'
Gabriel sat on the edge of his seat. 'Go on, Granny, I like it! What is it?'
'It's from a poem called "The Stolen Child" by a famous Irish poet called Yeats. I can't remember any more. I'll find it for you when we get home. Now, settle back. We'll have to stop and look at the map sometimes. You'll have to help me with that, Gabriel. Your uncle Rory thinks we may get lost, but we'll show him, won't we!
They eventually arrived in the town of Killarney in the evening after a few wrong turns and much poring over the map. They ambled along the narrow streets looking for the hostel Rory had booked them into. It was near St Mary's Cathedral. Gabriel looked in awe at its structure. Built of brown and grey stone, its stark beauty was enhanced by a background of lakes and mountains which beckoned him to wander in fearless freedom. He thought of the gothic cathedral of Mallorca, hemmed in by the sea and the ancient walls of the city, magnificent but static. But this windswept cathedral somehow invited him to movement, to exploration, to discovery of what lay beyond.
He observed the buildings in the small town centre as they walked along the narrow streets, and thought he could easily live there. There was nothing grand about them with their red, cream and brown façades; they were homely, welcoming edifices, unlike the towering blocks that intimidated him in Palma. His grandmother told him that many of them were guest houses offering rest and grounding to travellers overwhelmed from exploring the wild beauty of the surrounding countryside. He, too, was beginning to feel overwhelmed, so when Cliona asked him if he wanted to explore further before settling in the hostel, Gabriel, now locked tightly inside himself, said he preferred to do that on the way back. First he had to see the fairy ring. At that moment he just wanted to have supper and go to bed so that morning would come quickly.
By nine o'clock he and his grandmother were lying in the creaking double bed that was wedged into their minute room. Gabriel counted the cracks in the flaking white paint of the ceiling for a while and imagined what lay before him the next day. He waited for Cliona to fall asleep, and when he was certain she had, he got up and opened his box. He fingered the contents and when satisfied, put it carefully back into his backpack. Then he curled up beside his grandmother and was eventually lulled into sleep by the rhythm of her gentle snores.
Gabriel was woken by the dawn chorus and the first trickle of light coming through the threadbare curtains.
'Granny, Granny, are you awake?' he whispered and gave her a prod.
'Well, by Jesus, I am now,' she moaned.
'Let's go then, Granny. I can't wait any longer. Please!'
'All right, all right, hold your horses, Gabriel. We'll have to take a packed breakfast. No one is up at this unholy hour, that's for sure.'
Dawn was just breaking as they got into the car with their rucksacks. A few wisps of rose-gold cloud softened the emerging sun that picked out the heavy dew on tightly packed rooftops and ghost-tale lamp posts.
'We're going to have good weather, Gabriel. It's only an hour's drive; we'll soon be there,' she said, and hoped it wouldn't be too much for her frail-looking grandson who was pale with overexcitement.
They drove out through the town, silent except for the occasional dog barking or the chirruping birds. They travelled through the rugged countryside, the long grass tossing and glistening with damp, and soon they were nearing Lough Brin. The lake sat in an austere valley at the foothills of the green, almost bare slopes of low mountains: the McGillycuddy Reeks, Cliona told Gabriel. As they approached, they could see Lough Brin to the left, a tranquil lake lit in places by the hazy sun. And in the centre of their view, on a grassy mound, stood a solitary hawthorn in full white flower, framed on either side by the mountains. There were no other trees in sight, just shrubs and mossy boulders dotted randomly.
'Look!' Gabriel said, pointing at the hawthorn encircled by a halo of light as it momentarily shaded the sun. 'Just like in your photo!'
'Holy Mother of God, if it isn't just the same!' exclaimed Cliona. 'We chose the right day, didn't we?'
Cliona parked the car on a bridle path at the foot of the hill and they began their ascent, Cliona's backpack filled with breakfast, Gabriel's with his little plywood box and sketch pad. Cliona puffed up the slope, but Gabriel ran on until he reached the hawthorn.
'Will you not wait a while, Gabriel?' Cliona called. 'I'm sixty not ten, you know. The pills can't change that.'
Gabriel, transfixed, didn't answer, but he kept a respectful distance from the tree. He had taken the box from his backpack and was holding it like an offering.
'Now isn't that the most precious sight,' said Cliona when she finally stood panting next to her grandson. 'And I have to thank you, Gabriel, for bringing me here. This is a gift for both of us, you know. But now let's sit down and have a drink. My heart is nearly coming out of my mouth!'
'Wait a moment, Granny. I have to do something first.'
Gabriel walked slowly up to the ring of boulders, knelt down and opened the box. From it he took out some olives, some white stones and a sheet of paper.
'What have you got there?' said Cliona, coming up behind him.
It was a drawing of her olive tree with a circle of small, irregular-shaped stones around the base of the trunk.
'This is a gift from Mallorca for the fairies,' Gabriel said with solemnity, and he placed the olives, stones and drawing inside the ring of boulders. Then he closed his eyes and whispered, 'Hello fairies. We have no fairy rings in Mallorca so I made a pretend one in my granny's garden, like the one in my drawing. Would any of you like to go there to make real ones? I would make sure no one hurt you, and you could sing and dance forever under the pines and olive trees.'
Cliona took Gabriel's hand and they both knelt on the rough grass, a fresh breeze rustling the branches of the hawthorn and only the faint sounds of humming insects and distant bird cries over the lake breaking the silence.
After a while Gabriel said in a low voice, 'Granny, Granny, the fairies spoke to me. They said they would prefer to stay in Ireland because this is their home, but that if I concentrated very hard, I'd be sure to see a Mallorcan fairy in the woods there. And they said if I ever needed help, I only had to call them and they would protect me. And do you know, Granny, they told me I should keep drawing, because one day I would be a great painter and no one would ever laugh at me again.'
Cliona embraced Gabriel. 'And they are right, my child. They will be your protectors all your life because you have a pure heart and can see and draw what others can't.'
Gabriel gently slipped out of his grandmother's hug and went up to the fairy ring. Then, without warning, he stepped inside. He walked around counting the paces: one, two, three, four ... Then he sat on a boulder and ran his fingers with great tenderness along the curves and edges of the stone. After a while he stepped out the circle and went to sit by Cliona, who was spreading a cloth for their breakfast.
'Mother of Divine Grace, I was wondering if you'd disappeared with the Little People!' she exclaimed and handed him a chocolate spread sandwich.
Satiated with pure air and quiet joy, they ate their sandwiches in silence under the pale canopy of early morning. Both would return to that sacred hour in the coming years; it never dimmed in their memory.
When Cliona was packing away the remains, Gabriel said, 'Don't let's go yet, Granny. I want to draw the fairy ring. I've brought my sketching pad.'
Cliona lay on her back and watched a beetle run up an open blade of grass, while Gabriel sketched and rubbed out until he was satisfied with a final rendering of the fairy ring. She was in a deep state of reverie, her body moulding to the soil and roots beneath, when Gabriel's voice pulled her out of her daydreams.
'Look, I've finished!'
Inside the ring he had drawn a circle of smiling fairies in colourful suits and dresses; no wings, just Little People, and in the middle of the circle was himself, no taller than them, drawing pad in his hand.
'Granny, the fairies are my friends, the only friends I have apart from you. When I'm grown up, I'm going to build a house here and I'll spend all day painting and looking. Will you come with me?'
'Don't you know I'll always be with you, Gabriel,' she said, and lay back on the grass.
Article © Heather Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-09-14
Image(s) are public domain.