The Lost Child of Ben Madigan

I wrote this in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the early 1990s.  Fairy stories and fairy literature--particularly Yeats's "The Stolen Child" were on my mind, and I was exploring the idea of a child's view of immediate experience in contrast with the adult experience and how adults sometimes choose language to mask dark truths from children.  Ben Madigan is the Anglicized Irish (Beann Mhadagain) for Madigan's Peak.  Named for a 9th century king of Ulster, the hill has three caves that have been used to hide prisoners and treasure and to hide from enemies.

Stephen’s golden brown, deep sleeps were always warm against the black starry nights that stood outside his cottage tucked in the foothills of Ben Madigan.  His nights were filled with the heroic dreams that floated among the smoking incense of the peat fire crackling and sparking against the hearth beside his bed.  His setter, the trusted sentinel, lay beside him with a dignified disinterest in what happened on the side of the half-doors.  He would let the world be until it brought trouble to the threshold of this home.  No harm would come to the child.

And no harm ever came.  The boy slept alone with his dog, for his mother went down into the town at night.  Where and why she went away, Stephen never knew.  His mother’s spirit-drenched, humming return to him at sunrise never concerned him, for he never doubted his mother was a good woman who loved him thoroughly.  She always returned with milk, bread, and sugar for her boy.

She would kiss him good morning after she sugared his bread and milk and set it on the table beneath the window for him.  He liked the way the granules of sugar glistened in the gentle morning sunlight as he sat under the window and contemplated the day’s adventures on Bed Madigan.  The sugar was like frost or snow or fairy dust, he thought.  Fairy dust from the caves inside the volcanic hills of the Black Mountains--especially the caves that dimpled the face of his own mountain.  Perhaps today would be the day to go find that dust and show his mother he understood the magic of their world.  The journey would have to be his secret; his mother would never grant permission to climb into the hills’ caves for fear of losing him.  

“Is this fairy dust on my bread, Mommy?”  Stephen asked as his mother, wearing an old brown dress as she emerged from behind the curtain that separated her bed from the rest of the room and threw down beside the table the clothing she had worn the night before.  The odors of cigarette smoke and stale beer commingled and rose to irritate the boy’s nose, and he rubbed it with the palm of his hand as he spoke.

“Fairy dust, Stephen?”  His mother smiled gently as she rubbed some strange, powdery redness from her face, and the effort transformed her visage to that of a tired ghost.

“Yes, Mommy.  Fairy dust.  See?”  The child angled the bread so the sugar caught the sun’s rays and glistened.

“I see, child.  That is indeed fairy dust.”  She pat her strangely old face with a rough towel as she spoke, and color returned.

“Do you find it in the caves when you go out at night, Mommy?  Is that where you go?”

His mother paused from brushing the tangles from her thick red hair.  “What?”

“Do you get the fairy dust from the fairies in the Cave Hill at night?  That’s where they keep it, you know. It’s magical.”

“Yes, Stephen.  That’s right.”  His mother brushed her hair slowly as she studied some distant figure deep in the silver glass on the wall before her.

“Why won’t you take me to see the fairies?”

“Because fairies steal little boys, love,” the mother said as she twisted her hair into a tight knot.  “They take little boys and make them like themselves so that their mommies will never know them again.  And they leave behind lumps of wood to try to fool the mommies.  If the fairies took you away, there would be no more playing with our hound or drinking milk in the morning.  No more bread and sugar or chasing rabbits around Ben Madigan.  No more stories, either.  Stories about fairies are grand, but life with them is something else.  You mustn’t go looking for them.”

“Are fairies bad, mommy?  The boy dropped his bread crusts on the chipped delft plate, and his mouth and eyes hung open wide as he tried to understand.

“They’re different from us, just.  They wouldn’t look after you, Stephen.”

“But, can I go with you at night, Mommy?  They don’t hurt you.”

“It isn’t safe, Stephen.”  She turned to face her fair child.  “And the world of the fairies is no place for nice little boys.  Things can go terribly wrong if you go there when you shouldn’t.”  Stephen studied his bread and drank his milk.  He didn’t know what it meant to be safe, but the talk seemed to make her sad, so he stopped.  

He promised himself he would go find the fairy dust and bring it back to his mother.  In fact, he would go today to the caves and try to find the fairies and their dust.  Then, his mother could stay home at night and not be so sad.  

When she sent him out to play, she had told him to take the whole day because she had important work to do in the house.  Here was his chance.

After breakfast, Stephen and his setter ran through the evergreen forest that grew like a beard around the face of the Cave Hill.  The fragrant brown pine needles beneath his small feet were cold and wet with the morning damp that floated in on the winds from Scotland, the North Sea, the North Pole, beyond--air that carried with it the secret conjurings of distant gods who oversaw the workings of nature.  

At the top of the forest, Stephen looked up at the caves, marveling at their height and wondering how he would scale the rock face to enter them.  He stomped his feet against the hollow ground beneath him, the sound muted by the thick mat of heather upholstering the rock, to alert the fairies to his presence.  His footfall would alert them to his intention to enter their cave and gain access to their powerful dust. Stephen stopped on his way and put his ear to the ground to try to detect movement.  He encountered silence and decided the fairies slept by day; it did not occur to him they might be away on a different message.  He carried on, moving closer and closer, and his heart grew buoyant with the thought that he and his mother would stay home at night to share their fairy stories, that she need not leave him ever again.

As Stephen climbed the rocky face formed from lava spewed from the center of a newly forming earth so many millennia ago, he did not look back at his hound, who yelped and circled and wagged his tale as he watched the child from the soft, purple space at the base of the hill.  The child was too intent on making it inside the cave to look down as his tiny hands clung to the rock and he raised his tiny body little by little until, at last, he was inside the mouth of the first cave.

The last time he clutched the rock before he entered the cave, Stephen felt a sharpness that frightened him as he imagined fairy teeth opening his skin.  As his eyes adjusted to the light of the cave, though, he saw that he had latched onto a sharp green jewel and cut himself.  Blood was running into the lines that creased the palm of his little left hand.  How it stung!  He thrust his hand into his right armpit and cried.  He turned his wide, wet brown eyes away from his faithful friend below, still yapping and circling and waiting, and glanced around the cave.  The recess stretched deeper and deeper into Ben Madigan.  Green and amber and white jewels, faceted and smooth and sharp around the edges, were scattered around the floor of the cave.  They captured the morning light as it rose in the sky above the Irish Sea.  Stephen thought the fairies must be very rich to treat such jewels so carelessly.  He thought how his mother would love to have such jewels and how she would treat them well.    

As the boy’s eyes adjusted to the light, he noticed old blankets like the ones on his own soft bed were strewn across the floor.  The walls and ceiling of the cave were covered with drawings and strange characters he never saw before.  He could make no sense of these things, but he thought this place must be very busy at night, when the moon and stars glisten like the fairy dust, and the fairies come out to share the magic with his mother.

Stephen crouched down and looked at the round, smooth jewels.  Then he looked at his own stiffening hand.  A faint, pungent aroma arose from the ground.  The smell reminded him of his mother’s clothing from the night before, and he wondered why she never brought any jewels home with her if she had been so near them.

The child stood and shouted, “Hello, hello, hello! Is anybody home?  Come out, fairies, and see me!”  But the fairies did not come.  Stephen was sure, then, that they must only come out at night.  Why else would his mother leave only after dark, when he was snug in his bed?  The child sat on the edge of the cave and waited.   He would wait until dusk, and then the fairies would come out and he would play with them and get some magic dust for his mother.  By now, the hound had settled down, resigned to waiting for the child.  

As time wore on, Stephen wondered why the fairies would want to steal little boys.  What did they do with them once they had them?  Why were they never allowed to go home again?  Stephen began to feel itchy and sore all over, as if he had come through a brier patch on his way to the cave. He turned his attention to his wounded hand.   It was very sore and swollen where the blood was drying.  He did not know how to be as gentle as his mother was with his injuries, and his tentative investigation of the wound caused it to open and bleed again.  The pain was greater now, for the cold and damp air of the encroaching evening nipped at it, and the hunger that grew with a day’s waiting intensified his discomfort.  He grew frightened, for he thought that, perhaps, the fairies were invisible and were biting him.  His mother never said she could see them, after all, or that he would be able to see them when they came.  The more Stephen retold himself his adventure in the cave, the more he believed that he had angered the fairies by coming into the cave while they slept and that they were hurting him in revenge.

Stephen thought about running home to his mother, for he wanted her to nurse his hand before she went out--but then, she would be coming to the cave soon, too.  But would she come if he were not yet home, safe and sound?  Stephen cried in the face of uncertainty.

The boy was confused and afraid the fairies would punish his mother, too, for his disturbing them.  He looked down to his hound, who shifted and yelped with impatience and hunger.  Maybe the dog could see the fairies behind him and coming to get him?  He should jump, he thought, but he could not see the ground any longer, and his hand hurt so much.  The child cried in fear and frustration as he curled himself up and leaned against the wall of the cave.

The setter began barking and jumping.  Come away, come away, he seemed to be begging Stephen.  Stephen’s heart broke with fear as he inched himself to the edge of the cave and worked his way down the side despite the pain in his hand.  On the way down, he banged his head against the unforgiving dark den.  The knife-sharp pain of the blow shot down his neck and back up with the same sharp sting of the fairy jewel.  He knew, then, that the fairies were very angry with him, and he must get away before they kidnapped him from his mother forever.  He must get home to warn his mother to stay at home tonight. The dog licked him with joy and anxiety when the boy landed on the bed of heather.  Come away home, the dog panted.

Sluggish waves of darkness enveloped Stephen’s head as he tottered to his feet.  Come away.  Stephen lay the back of his wounded hand against the dog’s gentle neck, and he let his wise friend lead him home back through the soft, fragrant forest.  Stephen knew Ben Madigan well, and his tired memory guided his steps despite the fog encroaching on his mind.
When the boy and dog finally reached home, the dog began to whine and bark terrifically.  The hound lowered his head when they reached the half-doors, and he growled lowly.

Stephen, anxious for his mother’s hug, pushed open the door with his whole hand and ran into the little room.  There he saw a horror far greater than the dread he imagined in the cold, black cave.  His mother lay twisted and bound on his bed, and her blood flowed from a deep wound across her neck like the deep cut in his sore hand.   He looked away from her open, frozen blue eyes in horror and saw the fairy dust spilled on the floor beside the little bedside table.  The room stank with that foul smell that had arisen from his mother’s dress earlier that day.  The peat fire had smothered itself under its own light gray ash, and only a few brave embers poorly lit the small room.

Stephen cried for his mother.  She did not move.  He touched her naked arm and found it to be lifeless as a block of wood.  This was not his mother, he knew, or she would respond to him.  The hound howled.  The cold air stung suddenly and drew Stephen’s attention to his wounded hand.  He sat on the bed beside his stolen mother, desperately hungry for her gentle love.  But she was gone.  The child wept and screamed against the horror of the night for fear of the fairies, who had taken his mother to punish him for disturbing their peace, would take him, too.

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