On the Saturday, snow harangued the village, falling in heavy threads like thick woolen stitches. By morning, the snow had stopped, but the slaty clouds hung low, casting a pallor on all those venturing out for mass for the Epiphany. By afternoon, it grew warm, and the rains came, followed by fierce gales the like of which no one had ever seen. People would talk about it for generations, some folk setting their age by it. It would be known forevermore as Oíche na Gaoithe Móire, the Night of the Big Wind.
My family left Ireland that weekend, but the storm blew me back to shore. I scrambled up the sheer cliff, tearing my fingernails on the slick rocks to gain purchase. Collapsing onto the green grass, which gleamed as the sky shifted and turned. A flash of lightning illuminated the village, and I scrambled to my feet, pushing against the wind as it whipped my sodden hair about my face.
The first house I came to was stone-built, thatch-roofed, and small. I banged on the door with my fist. No one answered, though when I pressed my ear against the door, I heard sounds from within. No bother, I’d try the next one. The same there. By the third house, I had grown angry. Would no one help a poor, stranded lass in the storm? I saw the light of the fire through the cracks in the window doors in one, but still no answer when I called.
By the fifth, I was losing patience, soaked through and exhausted. But the door opened with a bang. The wind had blown it back when the father cracked it to see who called. A surprised look on his ruddy face, and then concern creased his brow. He pulled me inside, pushing the door closed behind us.
Huddled in the corner, near a modest fire, were his wife, I assumed, and their four children. They clung to each other like each could save the other from drowning.
“Come,” said the da, “you must be chilled to the bone.”
The mam leapt up. “We’ll get you some dry clothes, and set you by the fire. There’s some stew left from dinner. It’ll warm you.”
The children’s eyes followed me. But it was not hiding any malice, just curiosity. I must have looked a fright, my wild ginger hair, the color of a sunrise, and soaked like a dog who’s fallen in a pond.
The house consisted of one room, with a small hearth, straw mattresses on simple frames pressed against the walls, and a table in the middle of the room. Mam pressed a woven blanket about my shoulders. The others now sat around the table. Even the storm did not dampen their interest in me, a stranger, in their home.
Mam pushed a wooden bowl before me, a thin broth with a chunk of potato and a sliver of greasy meat floating in it. I devoured it as they watched me. When I sat my spoon down, the littlest one spoke. He was not more than four or five.
“Where’d’ya blow in from?”
At his question, the wind howled and banged against the door. The thatch of the roof shimmied and quaked, threatening to come away all together.
“My family fled the shores of Ireland, but before we got far, the storm came. I was washed ashore. I don’t know their fate.”
Mam crossed herself, said a small prayer, and set her hand upon mine with a consoling smile.
“You weather the storm with us, love. When it passes, we’ll help see what we can find. Perhaps they found a house to shelter in as well.”
“Was it a shipwreck?” The littlest one’s wide grew wide with the prospect of a tale of adventure. His milk teeth shone in the firelight.
“Hush now,” Da said with a warning glance.
“Shall I tell you a fairy tale?” I leaned towards the children with a conspiratorial smile.
They all replied, “Yes, please!”
“I don’t think we need any scary tales tonight,” Mam said. “The weather’s frightening enough. Maybe something to entertain. Da?”
Da opened his mouth to speak, but closed it as he read my face. He suspected I might have a tale to tell.
“Let our guest choose the story,” he said, his eyes glittering in the dim firelight.
“I’ll spin you a tale of the fairy folk, the gods of Ireland,” I said. “It won’t scare you, that I promise.”
Mam nodded and pulled her shawl tighter about her shoulders. The littlest one cuddled up to her while the elder three leaned forward, their elbows on the table. No decent Irishman will give up the chance of a good story.
“In the time before time,” I began, “lived the Tuatha de Danaan, gods and goddesses banished from heaven for their knowledge of all things. They came to Ireland in a cloud of mist.”
A sudden gust of wind blew the door open, bringing lashes of rain and debris inside. The father and the eldest, a boy nearly as tall as Da, leapt up and shoved it closed.
“Go on,” said the second youngest, with the wide-eyed innocence of youth. I guessed her age at seven or eight.
“You know of them?” I asked. The children nodded their heads in unison. “But do you know the story of the Dagda, brother of the Nuada, the king of Tuatha de Danaan? To be king, law said that one had to be perfect of body, but Nuada lost a hand in battle and then lost the kingship. A human made him a silver hand, and another human fitted the hand to his arm. He became Nuadhat the Silver Hand and took back his kingship.”
A thunderous crack shrieked as the wind wailed and howled around the house. The children shook, and Mam put her arm around the littlest one.
“Nuada had many brothers, one of whom was named the Dagda, an advisor to the king. He was a giant. Many have called him an oaf, with his unruly, wild beard and ill-fitting clothing, which often exposed his belly. But despite all of that, he was handsome and witty, with many talents. He carried a cauldron, from which he produced bountiful feasts; a staff, with which he could slay, but also revive those who had been slain unjustly; and a harp, which ordered the seasons and commanded the wills of men. He sought order and justice.”
“Did he make the weather?” The second eldest leaned forward, resting her heart-shaped face in her hands. Her almond eyes, the color of the sea in summer, narrowed, as if I could answer the question of this storm.
I could, but I would not tell her. Instead, I continued my story.
“He fathered many children, among them a goddess names Brid.”
“Our sainted Brigid,” Mam said.
I nodded. It was true the priests had turned her into a saint, but first she was a goddess.
“She had hair like a flame—“
“Like you,” said the littlest.
“And you,” I replied, smiling, for the littlest one had a crown of curls that shone like hammered copper. “Brid was the goddess of fertility, of poetry. Born at sunrise, she ruled the dawn. She leaned over every cradle to bless the children, and she blessed the hearth.”
Mam crossed herself again, and I saw a tear in her down-turned eyes. Then I noticed the empty cradle in the corner and felt the pain in the heart of this family. The fire flickered to almost nothing, but then caught an ember and grew again.
The second eldest shrieked as a stream of water came from the roof. We all looked up to see the thatch had turned inward, bowing and sinking.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Da cried, springing from his seat. “We won’t last here!” He pulled at Mam, but she had turned, flying to the cradle. “There’s no time!” Da called, gathering the children to him. “We must away!”
But Mam would not be deterred. She rifled through the things in the cradle, though there mustn’t have been much there. She raised up a tiny wooden rattle, tucked it into her dress, and took her husband’s outstretched hand.
The littlest one took my hand in his. “You’re coming as well?”
I nodded and gripped his small hand. We all huddled together as Da steadied us and opened the door, which swung open with such ferocity that it came clear off its hinges. I pulled the littlest one to the side to avoid us being flattened by it. The wind that barreled into us stamped out the small fire, and we were plunged into darkness.
Da shouted something, but we couldn’t hear him through the wind and rain. He and the eldest pushed us all out of the house. Once outside, there was a gush like a waterfall as the roof collapsed into their small home. Mam wailed—or so I guessed, for I could see the outline of her open mouth, but could hear nothing—and tried to return to the house. I took her arm with my free hand and pulled her away.
The rain and wind swirled and raged around us as we pressed along in the muddy grass. We passed the houses that had turned me away, their roofs also collapsed, some walls fallen. My skin tingled. Bodies were inside those homes, but there was no need to uncover them tonight, for their souls had already left for the Otherworld.
We found the door of the stone Norman keep closed. We pushed, but it would not budge. I pressed my ear against it and heard crying inside. But they would not let in more.
Da’s eyes flitted about, the wheels turning in his mind, thinking where else to shelter his family. The firm set of his jaw showed he had no intention of giving them up to the gods of the wind and rain.
I pulled on Da’s arm. He was too bewildered to resist, and I led the way. They followed me, maybe forgetting that I had been shipwrecked, the one thrust upon their home, a stranger. I would not yet give up my secrets, but I would see this family safe as they had sheltered me as best they could, and kept me as part of their family this night.
The way would be hard, but what way was not in this tempest? I picked up the littlest one and held him to me as we pushed our way through. We reached the craggy path that led to the beach, and Da pulled on my arm, leaning in to shout in my ear over the wind.
“It’ll be worse by the water. We’ll be washed out to sea!”
“The cave!” The second eldest smiled, her teeth glinting in the lightning. Somehow she also knew of it.
We skittered down the pathway, handing the littlest one to the next person in line as we went. We turned when we reached the sand, our feet sinking fast. I briefly closed my eyes, and my step lightened. I took the littlest one, as I now had the surest footfall.
The second eldest and I led the family into a cave, but this one was shallow, and the waves crashed into it. She pushed a rock away at the back of the cave, exposing an opening, and wriggled in. I turned, and both Mam and Da stood unmoving, other than the swaying of their bodies rocked by waves and wind. I still held their littlest one.
“There is nowhere else,” I shouted. “The storm is not yet spent!”
The eldest and second youngest crawled in after their sister, and after a moment’s hesitation, Mam and Da followed. I set the littlest one down, and he squirmed in with me at his heels. We clambered in the pitch black for several feet until the air opened over our heads and a preternatural glow filled a tremendous cavern, illuminating everyone with an otherworldly luminescence. The sound of the storm muffled, leaving a soft hum like a lullaby. The littlest one had crawled into Mam’s lap, and his eyes drooped. She leaned against the wall, wrapping her arms around him.
“What about Brid?” The second eldest’s eyes remained alert and interested.
“Time to rest, pet,” Da said with a gentleness like a purr.
The second eldest looked at me. She suspected, but she said nothing. I guessed her age at not more than twelve, but she had wisdom behind those eyes. Some are connected to the Otherworld in ways we cannot explain, the sliver between the worlds thin and silvery. A hint of a smile curved her lips, her stormy eyes calmed in the glow of the cavern. She nodded, knowing, and closed her eyes in sleep. Soon, the others followed her to dreamland, that place where remnants of the world of gods and humans intermingle.
I watched them, waiting until their breathing slowed. I shook my drenched clothing gently, quietly, until it dried, then reached into the folds of my cloak to find the silken bag sewn there. From it, I drew out a book no bigger than the tip of my finger, a ring, and a flint.
I placed the book in Da’s open palm, where it grew to the size of his hand. I guessed he could not read, but the instructions in the book were pictures, not words, and would protect his family from the coming famine.
The flint I dropped into the pocket of Mam’s apron. She would keep her hearth lit, encircle her family in warmth and health. I pressed a hand to her belly for another child to grow there.
Kneeling before the second eldest, I watched her for a time. She had the wisdom of the elders. I would give her the sun, for I felt she would know what to do with it. I pushed the ring with a ruby like a star onto her finger. She stirred, smiled, and continued to sleep.
I rested a hand on the heads of the eldest and second youngest. But for the littlest one, I kissed his brow. He would live a long life of kindness and knowledge.
A rumble from the outside, and I knew it would soon be dawn, my time. With one last look at this family who took me in without question, I left them to their sleep.
My father waited for me on the beach. The storm raged, but it did not bother us.
“Did you find what you sought?” he asked, pulling on his unruly beard and tapping his staff on the wet sand. His harp hung from his shoulder.
“I did, Father. I wish we had created a less dramatic way to signal our exit than this storm. There has been much devastation this night.”
“Less dramatic is not our way, Brid. You know that. And besides, we want the mortals to know we are leaving, if they are only wise enough to notice and say goodbye. Will they remember us? What did you learn from the strangers who sheltered you this night?”
“They will remember. They will forget and remember again. They will remember us in ways we can never imagine, for they have minds challenged by a world we have sown.”
My father held out his hand, and together we walked to the sea to join our kind in the Undying Land. I turned my head for one last look. The second eldest stood at the mouth of the cave, her outline barely visible through the storm. She raised her hand to me and waved goodbye.