Trick of the Golden Light
Come here to me, son, and I’ll tell you a story.
It’s about Jimmy McCloskey, who lives down in the village – Jimmy with the wild eyes and his mouth hanging open, and I know what he shouted at you yesterday when you met him in the road. You were a good boy to run home to your Mammy like that.
Now, if you were ever to take Mick the labourer into Mary Pat’s and buy him a drink or two – you’d have to be grown up first – Mick would tell you a tale of how Jimmy got to be that way. This is how he told it to me.
Mick was always one for telling tall stories down at Mary Pat’s, and even before his misfortune Jimmy was the sort to believe everything that was told to him. And one evening they’re both sitting there with the drinks in front of them.
“My grandfather had a bottle full of golden light,” says Mick. “And it never went out, no matter where he was, until the day he died. He carried it around in his pocket, and it got him out of dark situations many a time.”
Well, Jimmy is all full of interest at this. He never was a man for the dark. And Mick sees that he’s pulling him in, and the tale gets bigger.
“So of course,” says Mick, “everybody used to ask him how he came by this bottle of light. And he would say that he just found it, lying in the lane one night. But before he died, he passed the secret on to me.”
And Mick stops, and takes a swallow of whiskey, and wanders his eyes around the room, and acts like he’s forgotten all about the story.
“Well, go on,” says Jimmy, when he’s had enough of this. “I’ve never seen you with a bottle of light.”
“That’s because I never was a brave enough man to go and get one,” says Mick. “Granda said that you have to wait until the cuckoo storm, the one that comes in September when the days and the nights are the same length. But it has to be a storm where there’s lightning. And on that night, when the lightning and thunder are raging round your head, you go up and stand on the fairy mound, up at the highest point of the lanes.”
Mick looks over sideways at Jimmy, wondering how far he can go. And he sees that Jimmy is hanging off the story, the whiskey forgotten in front of him.
“But you can’t just go empty handed,” Mick says. You have to bring a bottle with a good strong stopper, full of sweet milk. And as much shiny metal as you can get hold of, all attached onto yourself in some way. That’s to reflect the lightning, so that the fairies will see you. Granda said he put a bucket over his head, but I’m sure anything would do.”
And Mick thinks that he’s definitely gone too far this time, and looks round at Jimmy for the big laugh. But there’s Jimmy still sitting, looking at him with his eyes like saucers.
Now, this is the part where it starts getting harder to get sense out of Mick, when he’s telling you the story. He’ll swear on his Mammy’s grave that the watery blue of Jimmy’s eyes had turned a shade darker. He’ll say that he looked for a minute, and opened his mouth to say something, but then just gave himself a shake and called it a trick of the light. Took another knock of his whiskey before going on.
“Well,” says Mick, going back to his tale. “So you stand yourself on the mound, and take the stopper out of the bottle, and pour the sweet milk down onto the ground. And then you hold out the bottle and you scream at the top of your lungs: ‘Light! Light! Light!’. Three times, just like that.”
“And what happens next?” says Jimmy.
But Mick’s mind has turned unsettled now, and he’s lost all the pleasure of the tale, because Jimmy’s eyes are a shade darker again. Mick shakes his head and says the first thing he can think of to get the story over with.
“Ah, now, that’s the part that I was never told,” he says. Granda wouldn’t say what happens after that, except for one thing. ‘After that,’ he said, ‘you have to fight for it. Make sure that you never let your bottle break.’ And no matter what I did, Granda would never tell me any more than that.”
Well, the talk in Mary Pat’s turns to other things, but Mick notices that every now and again Jimmy goes quiet, and sort of squares his shoulders to himself. And he knows that Jimmy is taken in, but he can’t give a laugh about it in his usual way. He makes up his mind to go easy on the whiskey for a while, because every time he looks at Jimmy he sees another change in his eyes.
If you ask Mick now, he’ll say that he couldn’t tell if it was the light going out or the darkness going in, and he didn’t like that at all. He kept quiet at the time, for fear of being laughed out of the place. He just made himself forget about it, because he had only made up the story after all. The next day Jimmy’s eyes were back to normal and everything looked the way it should.
So that was that, until a year later, when the cuckoo storm was roaring with thunder and lightning like the sky was coming down. Mick wasn’t married yet, but he was courting Cassie by then, and he used to walk down every evening to Greers’ farm where she was working.
He’d stayed later than usual, waiting for the storm to go off, but it had set in for the night. So he had given up waiting, and was trudging away home up the lane with an overcoat held over his head: when above the noise of the storm he heard a load of yelling and squealing and clanking coming from the top field. And you never know what you’re going to see up there, so Mick covered his face all up with the black coat so that only his eyes were looking out, and went and stood by the gate, as quiet as a corpse.
And in a big flash of lightning he sees Jimmy McCloskey standing on the fairy mound, with all his Mammy’s pots and pans tied on a rope round his waist, and a bottle held out in his hand with the arm all stiff. And he’s twisting and jerking and flailing around like the dance of a madman beside the standing stone.
Well, Mick never claimed to be a brave man, so he ran back down the hill and got old man McCloskey out of his bed. By the time they got back up to Jimmy he was lying like a dead man in the middle of the fairy mound, with broken glass all over the place. Not a mark on him except two big long cuts in the shape of a cross over the palm of his right hand, where the bottle had smashed. He carries the scar to this day. Mick always says that must have beenthe thing that saved him. Or saved part of him, anyway.
We call him God’s creature like the rest of us, son, but it’s best that you stay away from Jimmy McCloskey. His eyes are as blue as ever they were, and people just laughed at Mick when he told his story. But I’ve known Mick all my life, and I believe him, son. I wish that I didn’t. When I look at Jimmy now, I can’t help remembering what Mick said: that there was no way of telling whether it was the light going out, or the darkness going in.
So it frightens me when he shouts those things, about blinding a child. He may not mean them at all. But there’s no way of telling, until he gets hold of one.
So you remember what I’ve told you. I know that the old Jimmy would tell you the same thing, if he could. Don’t let it be you that he catches, son, and don’t ever let your bottle break. Keep your own golden light held tightly inside you.
Mandy Taggart lives on the North Coast of Ireland, and is inspired by the folklore, ancient and modern, of her local area. Her story, “Ways Of The North,” was the winner of the 2012 Michael McLaverty Short Story Award, and her short fiction has been published widely in print, audio and online. She is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a writer and aspiring photographer. Her work has appeared in various journals, online and print, as well as several anthologies. She blogs about the creative life at http://wwwonewriter.blogspot.com.