Old Grogan’s vocal chords were in need of lubrication before you could get him started on his tale but once a pint of the black stuff was before him he was away and then there was no stopping him. We’d heard the story a hundred times but we had reason for wanting to hear it again and we were prepared to pay in food and drink. He started in his low baritone drawl and we were mesmerized as if he was the ancient mariner.
“I was anxious to get home that St Patrick’s Day. Tired to the very bone I was. The daffodils were just showing a promise of gold. The frosts of early March had changed to milder weather causing a low mist to lie, that got thicker on more open ground. I was making my way home in the twilight. On the edge of the town there was a field cut across with paths leading in various directions connecting several farms and the village of Clougheragee. Have you heard tell of Clougheragee Horseman -- the Dullahan who carries his rotting head as a lantern and uses a human spine for a whip? It was said, if you ever met him and if he spoke your name, that it was the last thing you’d ever see or hear.--" Grogan paused for a draught of beer as if the to dispel a bad taste in his mouth.
“I’d never believed in the Dullahan or any of the other Faerie Folk. My usual path took me towards Clougheragee before veering left towards the lights of home. I had hopes of a big pan of stew. I entered the field by the usual gap. The temperature seemed to plummet as I climbed towards Clougheragee Hill. The twilight deepened and so did the mist, until it became a fog so thick that I couldn’t be sure how far I’d come. It took a while to realize that I must have mistook my direction. I felt the ground had flattened out under foot but there was no sign of the lights of our farmhouse. After scratching my head a bit I decided that if I turned left and kept on straight down hill, I would come out at the stream by the lonin. It was unnerving not to have met another living soul on all this crisscross of paths. But I was on no path so I began to wander in ever widening circles looking for some track."
“And that’s when you seen him?"
“Aye, through the mist. That was direction enough for me. I made for the spot and I called out in a friendly tone. All of a sudden I was right up on him and I realized that he hadn’t been far away, just short in stature. He wore a green square-cut jacket with row upon row of what looked like real gold buttons and a pointy hat and he asked me my business. His voice was lilting and light. He was a Leprechaun alright. I told him I’d got lost in the fog.
“Aw, that’s good," he said as if implying that my explanation was an excuse.
“It’s the truth," I said. Just then I became aware of a thudding sound behind me like the pounding of a horse’s hoofs. I wanted to look round but the wee man fixed me with a keen eye.
“You’ll be wanting to know where the gold is hid, surely."
“What gold?" The sound was getting louder, and was accompanied by a vile smell of putrefaction. “A good supper’ll better suit me and a warm hearth," said I.
“Gold." he whispered the word as if it was a spell he cast. “We have lots of it, just like this." He ripped a button from his coat and held it up to me. It looked warm like living gold, not the dead stuff we take for the real thing. This was organic - pure. I was enchanted by its luster and softness. It seemed lit from within and for a moment I could see nor hear anything else and it was a good thing for me for as the evil Horseman sped by, I became aware of him.
Terror rooted me. I heard the drumming of those hooves, the snorting of that accursed beast, the whip-crack of the human spine and I saw the phosphorescent, sickly glow of the severed lantern - head held aloft in his corrupt hand. He drew on my very soul as he thundered past but I could not tear my eye from the golden disc. At last when I was nearly overcome by the stench of rotting flesh, the horseman receded into the mist without turning or speaking my name. On the ground he left a slime of blackened prints.
As if unfrozen I reached out to take the button but it became a withered leaf in my hand and I was quite alone. Lustful now for the faerie gold, I saw a bright stream shimmering in the distance and I made for that. It was only the brook reflecting a thin ribbon of sunset that pierced the low mists. I was nearly home. I looked at the sunset and the daffodils and I realized I’d been given a gift of wealth more precious by far.
Say what you like about the little people and their mischievous ways. You’ll never hear them maligned by me.
Grogan always ended the tale with proof for the skeptical. He reached into his pocket and took from the folds of a linen strip a withered leaf but for a moment his hand was lit with a light so golden it transfigured every face and entranced all who saw it so they wanted to see it again if only for the briefest time. It might as well have been real gold for the hospitality he enjoyed at its behest. The next moment it was only a dry leaf again. But it had worked its magic. We believed him.