The scent of the apple blossom was carried down through ravines of the orchard upon the light breeze which tickled the branches as she passed.
Seán stood and smiled about him as he gazed upon his livelihood; his past and his future.
This would be a good year, he hoped.
A knot tightened deep within his stomach as his memory recalled the previous harvest, though he would scarcely have called it a harvest given how little it returned.
But there had been no late cruel frost this year, the weather had been kind and gentle, and if it continued he might be able to limit the financial hit from last year. That would be good. Not great, but good enough.
He pulled the nearest branch to him and inhaled the sweet aroma again. It smelt like hope. Hope of income. Hope of being able to provide.
He released the branch as a chill gripped him, one which the warmth of the sun could not prevent.
He couldn’t bare the thought of another poor harvest. The family had barely scraped by last year. Tears threatened him as the voice of his children echoed in his mind, their pitiful voices telling of the mocking and laugher keenly aimed at the state of their clothes, at the hand-me-down shoes, at their whole way of life. Another blade of shame and sorrow pierced him as the face of his wife passed across his inner eye, her brow knitted with worry, her lips silent but concerned.
He shook his head to dispel the re-lived horror and raised his eyes to the sky, which held pillows of white amongst the blue.
As he walked amidst the trees, dipping low to avoid the branches that reached for him, his footfall fell quietly, barely rustling the grass, only on occasion snapping a twig that had freed itself from the family above.
He hummed a tune to himself, whilst the unseen birds attempted an unmatched harmony.
He smiled as he looked about. The dread of the past couldn’t get him here. This year would be better.
A loud crack overhead broke his bliss and before he had time to find its source a sharp blow rained down on him from above, knocking him to the ground.
He lay dazed, the sunlight fighting its way through the trees to get a look at him. He blinked dazedly and lifting a hand found his hair dampened. A sticky red ooze matted his fingers as he withdrew them and he groaned as his eyes found the assailant; a large branch has cleaved itself free and was now resting beside him guiltily.
He eased himself up to sit on the grass, deep breaths filling him to bring his senses back to him.
His eyes fell upon a vibrant red flower resting at the foot of one of the trees a little way down.
He ambled his way to his feet.
How odd and unusual it was to see such a flower upon the orchard floor, which was strewn with grass and thistle, with only the occasional nettle decorating the roots. But never a flower, never anything so bright and alive. The throb atop his head eased with his distraction.
His curiosity drew him closer, his silent movements dancing over the branch-shadowed floor.
His breath stopped short when he saw what he had seen.
It wasn’t a flower. It was a little tiny person, hardly bigger than the span of his thumb. The little man, deck in a clean red coat and green britches, was laying back upon a docken leaf, his little arms cross, his little eyes closed, his little wings resting like a pillow.
Seán’s mind raced, flittering between disbelief and wonder. He dared not breathe. He dared not even think too much for fear it would waken the sleeping fairy.
A dream hovered above his consciousness, like one of those white clouds passing before the sun; this could make him rich!
He had long heard the rumours of the promise of gold that the fairies would give... or was that leprechauns? Was there a difference? His mind questioned itself needlessly.
It hardly matters, he thought, anyone would pay a clean fortune for this little man.
With that and the thought of his family he pounced, sweeping the little man into his cupped hands before he could stir.
The startled cries escaped from the calloused prison of his hands and tiny fists tickled his palms.
“Ah! Let me go! Get off me!” cried the little fellow.
Seán ignored the demands and kept the hands cupped. The scuff of hard leather boots patted around the inside. Wings fluttered angrily but to no avail.
“I’m warning you!” came the little muffled voice from between the fingers.
Seán remained deaf to the cries, his heart beat drumming in his ear to the point where he could scarcely hear the voice, his head light and dizzy with excitement. The anticipation drying his mouth.
His feet almost failed him as he scrambled his way from between the trees, down the hill, towards where the gate lay. The cries and threats continued.
“Seán,” the voice came, startling him at the sound of his own name, “Let. Me. Out.”
His feet stammered to a stop and he lifted his hands close to his lips and whispered his reply.
“How do you know my name?”
A surprising laugh of disbelief escape from the hands. Despite the entrapment the little laugh was bright and mirthful, no sneering glee rang amongst its tone.
“Sure how could I not? I’ve been watching you this years! We all have!”.
Seán’s heart skipped faster.
“We? Watching?” Seán trailed off, his eyes darting from tree to tree, from gap to gap, for other eyes watching, for other fairies approaching. But nothing stirred, not even the breeze amongst the branches.
“This is our land after all, we were here long before you and we’ll be here long after you’re gone!”
Ideas ran through Seán’s mind quicker than he could keep up with. Flashes of half formed images were here and then gone, barely begotten thoughts were birthed and buried amongst each other.
“Well... then you’ll know,” he started with staggered breath, “how much we’re struggling and why... why I need to do this... now...I’m sorry”.
And he started his descent of the orchard once again.
The faint hint of a sigh breathed out but the little man stayed quiet within his fingers.
As the two approached the final rows of trees, the blossom still scenting the air around them, the hedge appeared before them.
One they had broke the final tree Seán scanned left and right. He was certain he should have been standing right before the gateway but all that was before him was the hedge, tall and thick. In fact, it seemed taller and thicker than ever he could remember it.
He started to the right, trampling the grass beneath him. No gate appeared.
He retreated on himself and tried the other way. Nothing but hedge before him.
The little voice broke once again.
“Let me out and I’ll let you out!”
“What?” cried Seán in reply, raising his clasped hands before him, “What do you mean?!”
But the little voice said no more.
Panic began to creep across him, beginning on the backs of his shoulders and spreading her hands all along him.
The sun charmed cruelly from the sky. The blue expanse seemed wider than ever. The orchard had become an endless limbo of tree and scrub, fenced by that stubborn, unrelenting hedge.
He tried to pick a way through the tangled and woven wall of bush and brier but to no avail, there was no sight of the other side even.
His shoulders and arms began to ache with the unnatural pose, his hands still clasped before him, the little man waiting patiently and quietly.
Swallowing his fear, as much as he could stomach, Seán made his way along the hedge, hoping for some gap or glimpse of the other side.
On and on he walked, rising with the hillside, caught in an abyss between the orchard and the hedge. With every step he took, his hope diminished. Foot after foot, hedge after hedge. How long passed before he returned to that familiar spot where the gate should have been, he could not say.
Sweat soaked his brow and body. His chest panted for air. His arms ached. His hands trembled but still held tight.
No gap was to be found. No hope of escape.
“Let me go and I’ll let you go!” came the little voice again, calmly and authoritatively.
Defeat and despair filtered its way into Seán’s heart and quelled the last glowing ember of hope that remained, its smoke escaping with his sigh.
“Ok,” he muttered quietly, “you win”.
And with that he released the prisoner.
There on his palms, exposed to the light, sat a beautiful red butterfly. It sat calmly before him for a moment or two before a brief flutter of its wings brought it up into the air, sitting plush against the blue, and over Seán’s head.
He turned to follow it and found himself standing before the gate, the black river of tarmac flowing past.
He sighed as he passed through the gate, glancing back one at his orchard, his heart heavy and wearisome, the butterfly long gone.
His feet carried him numbly across the road, through the yard and beyond the backdoor.
He spoke little to his wife as he sat down for tea, pushing his food around. It’s taste did little to interest him.
His wife fretted and fussed around him, with words of worry that lingered before him before being forgotten. She tenderly dabbed at his head, washing the black congealed mess from amongst his hairs.
“Sure look at you,” she said motheringly, “you’re half concussed and you don’t even know it!”
He nodded a reply.
Even his evening pipe seemed extinguished as he puffed away by the stove.
Worries stalked the edges of his mind all evening, following him down the hallway into bed. They whispered to him in the dark, their voices low and threatening.
Prayers were said mechanically without thought or intent. A goodnight was bid and a fitful, sleepless night ensued.
The first rays of the sun were just breaking when Seán gave up the pursuit of that elusive sleep and, upon rising, dressed for the day and made his way back to the kitchen.
He found his seat next to the stove and lit up the pipe once again.
He scanned the small, scant kitchen. It’s cupboards beaten and broken, it’s floor cracked and abused.
He sighed with another puff.
A stirring at the window by the door aroused him from his wallow, a flash of red in the early morning sun.
His heart trickled.
Rising to his feet and crossing the broken floor he saw a red butterfly fluttering by the door, it’s crimson colours bringing warmth to the morning. The wings beat a quick time before it raised itself up and beyond his view.
Throwing open the door with a grin he peered out but it was to no avail, the little fellow was gone to the day, no trace of him remained.
His heart sank with the fall of his face.
He turned to close the door on the morning when the glint of the sun startled him from the doorstep.
There before him, winking in the sunlight, lay a little black pot, it’s edges brimming with coins of gold.
A torrent ran through Seán’s chest, his body quivered and he gripped the door frame for support.
Scarcely able to move, he stooped on the spot and lifted the little black pot, it’s weight mischievously heavy. The gold coins rustled gleefully together as they journeyed.
Seán, resting the pot between the crook of his arm and his body, lifted the upper most coins and allowed them to drop through his fingers like grains of sand. The sun danced on the as they fell, and each coin rang out a chorus as they returned to their bed.
A little note was pinned to its belly and Seán’s face broke to a grin once more as he read it under his breath:
“You look after us, and we’ll look after you! Your friends, the Little People”.