Hannah McNiven

The Tales We Tell

There were faeries in the woods. Granny said so. But Isa did not believe her because she was eight-and-three-quarters and from the city of London. Isa was far too grow-up to believe in such country tales. The city taught you to be wary of anything that was not tangible; knowable. London was solid and reliable. Or so she thought. Planes and bombs had destroyed her home while Mummy took shelter in the Underground. Isa worried she would never see London again. She hoped she would. She was unsure how long she could stay with Granny. And her faeries.

Granny was silly like that. Always telling fibs and wild stories. Isa could only take so much before she had to escape. She roamed the farmyard, fields…and the woods. They were always empty. She made sure of it by yelling to frighten anyone else away. If there were faeries – even though there was no such thing – she did not want to meet them. However, she always felt she was being watched when she ventured under the green canopy. Yet it did not stop her. There was something comforting about the ancient trees that curled over her head, wrapping her in their verdant embrace; their twisted limbs bastions solidity and untapped knowledge.

She was more at home in the half-light of the forest than the bright glare of the whitewashed farmhouse. Sometimes she wanted to be alone. Isa liked to find a quiet spot where she could sit and sob her heart out; especially when she was homesick or missing Mummy. But even then, acutely wrapped up in her own unhappiness, she felt watched. And yet, still they never showed themselves to her. Until the day they did.

One moment she was alone and the next there were two creatures standing in front of her, dressed in dull green, hair tousled, woven with leaves and flowers. Small bows hung over their shoulders. They did not speak. They simply divested themselves of their weapons and sat beside her. The faeries knew grief. They knew loneliness too, living as they did in isolation. But the fae also understood the comfort derived from kinship. These fae were not the vengeful sprites or cruel tricksters of legend. They were kindness personified. And Isa needed kindness.

It was not that her grandmother was unkind. She was simply old and feeble; housebound when all Isa wanted was to escape her confines. The faeries helped her do that. They held her hands and ran the twisting pathways with her, scrambling under and jumping over fallen tree trunks, guiding her feet until hers were as swift as their own. She learnt to clear paths through the undergrowth with whippy switches, climb trees, how to suck bramble thorns from her fingers then pull them out with her teeth. Together, they constructed shelters from the rain and collected dry wood to build fires to keep each other warm. As they sat around the merrily dancing flames, they told stories; stories about where they came from, their families and childhoods. It was how they kept their pasts alive. The past was important since everyone’s future was so uncertain. No one was safe if the Jerries came; not even the fae. Though they were adept at camouflaging themselves, none were yet capable of performing the magic needed to make them truly invisible. There was not a single adult among their vast numbers to train them in the art of spellcasting. If it had not been for the skill with which they used their surroundings, Isa might have thought them ordinary children like herself.

When she was with the fae, Isa forgot about her own life. She forgot about Mummy’s tear-stained face at the train station as she was herded onto carriages with hundreds of other children all sporting labels around their necks on rude string. She did not remember how her suitcase had disintegrated in the heavy rain, the handle pulling out the top and spilling her most cherished possessions on the platform to be scuffed and stood on by inpatient feet. The memories of Mummy crying over a short letter signed by King George himself faded into obscurity. The trappings of the outside world diminished when she was cocooned in the strong, comforting arms of nature and the creatures that inhabited it.

The more time she spent with them, the more Isa became one of the herd. She learnt to move the way they did, to weave herself in to the fabric of the world around her. Eventually, she was given her own bow (though none of them carried arrows). On another occasion – and with great ceremony – they presented her with the green tunic worn by all fae. She had earned her place among their ranks. Isa had never felt such a sense of belonging as she did amidst the faeries. And yet she was not one of them. She never could be. Because at the end of every evening, she had to return home. Even though she felt it was not her true home (the woods were her home now) she always had to return to her grandmother. Equally, as she turned to leave, the fae sank back into the undergrowth and were swallowed by the shadows. The had a home too; a home that Isa only ever saw from the outside. She never went inside. Only true faeries could enter through its large oak front door. She had a mummy to go home to. No matter how she dressed or how well she could hide amongst the trees, Isa would never be true fae.

Yet no matter how she spent her day, what adventures she joined, what skills she learnt or fun she had, she could not share her knowledge of the faeries with anyone. They were her secret. When she went home to Granny’s every evening and the old lady asked her where she had been, Isa’s answer was always the same.

‘With the children from the orphanage.’   

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Biography

Hannah McNiven is an Irish writer who was long-listed for the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award 2017 and short-listed for the same award in 2018. She is also screenwriter of the winning short film chosen by the Wexford Film Fund 2019 entitled The Lady on the Hill.

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