Granny Beatson’s house was in the Highlands, where the fairies lived. It was an old stone cottage covered in white harling, with small wooden windows and a warped door that you had to force open with your shoulder. The walls were nearly as thick as Sarah’s forearm and the ceilings were so low that Mum could touch them without even stretching. Every summer, Sarah and her family would go to stay with Granny Beatson while Dad was busy with work. They would sit in the living room by the stone fireplace and speak to Dad on the phone every night. He always said how much he wished he could be with them. Sarah missed Dad, but she wouldn’t have given up coming to stay with Granny.
Granny was an inch or two shorter than Mum, with silver grey hair that she always kept tied back in a neat bun. She scoffed at the fashion for perms and curls, said she found it relaxing to sit at night and brush through her hair. Sometimes Sarah would sit with her in her room, watch as the long strands were released from their pins and fell down to Granny’s waist. It reminded her of the stories of mermaids. Granny would sit brushing her hair with an old silver paddle brush while singing songs to Sarah about the olden days and the fairies who lived near Granny’s cottage.
“I left my baby lying here, lying here, lying here I left my baby lying here To go and gather blaeberries…”
Granny told Sarah that the fae were wont to steal babies or children who wandered alone in the woods and that she should always stay close to Granny or Mum when they went out walking. It didn’t frighten Sarah – Granny knew how to keep her safe.
When they went out walking in the woods, Granny would usually wear a woollen plaid skirt with a green wax jacket and black boots. Sarah always remembered the smell of Granny’s jacket – it brought to mind damp, drizzly weather, splashing in the mud and the laughter of her mum and grandmother. Colin, her brother, was only little then – big enough to walk but not big enough to keep up, so he and Mum would walk behind, leaving Granny and Sarah with just each other.
“Granny,” Sarah said. “Are the fairies really real? Could they really take me away?”
“Mind the root,” Granny said, not replying right away.
She took Sarah’s hand and helped her balance as she stepped over a tree root that had grown up out of the earth. On their right, the river was heavy from an earlier rainfall and the noise of the water thrummed in the background.
Finally, Granny looked upward at the tree branches swaying in the breeze. The leaves rustled, chiming in with the river’s song. “D’yae believe in magic?”
Sarah was just turned seven years old by then and was starting to question the magical things her parents had taught her. She wanted to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, because she didn’t want to miss out, but she had started to wonder if they weren’t just Mum and Dad.
“I don’t know,” she said, reluctantly admitting her doubts.
Granny smiled. “Dinnae doubt it. The world’s full ae magic.”
“What do you mean, Granny?”
They kept on walking, Granny holding her hand to keep her from stumbling on the uneven ground. “Just listen.”
So Sarah listened as they walked. She heard the water flowing through the woods; she heard the whistling of leaves and branches; she heard birds chirruping in the distance. Further back, she thought she heard Colin roaring like a dinosaur, one of his current favourite pretend games.
“I just hear the woods, Granny,” she said.
They reached the end of their walk, where the path opened out to a small waterfall. At the foot of the falls, the water slowed, turning into a still, deep pool, before slowly gathering speed and forming the river they had been walking alongside. The air was humid and a petrichor smell drifted through the clearing. On the edge of the pool, there was a great log that had been filled with coins, battered into the wood to stand on edge, silver glistening in the light that filtered through the trees.
Granny crouched by the log and Sarah followed her, feet squelching in the wet soil. She pulled out a ten pence piece and picked up a stone. It was something they did once a year when Sarah visited in the summer – hammering a coin into the log as an offering to the fairies.
“What happens if we don’t give them a coin?” Sarah asked.
“Depends. They might turn yer milk soor, or pinch yer food or…” She glanced over at Sarah, a mischievous sparkle in her eye. “Snatch yer bairns.”
Sarah felt a momentary flash of fear but tried to look brave. “They wouldn’t take me, would they?”
“Och nae, sweetheart, Granny wouldnae let ‘em.” She hit the rock against the coin, quickly and efficiently hammering it into the wood.
She stood up and took Sarah’s hand again, grinning as she did so, her sapphire blue eyes bright with love. Sarah always felt safe with Granny, even deep in the heart of the fairy glen. She hoped that they would always get to stay with Granny in the summer and wished that they could visit her more.
In the distance, she could hear Colin squealing and Mum shouting for him to be careful. Granny tilted her head to listen.
“Think yer ma might need a haund,” she said.
“Colin is a handful,” Sarah agreed, copying what her mother had said not long ago to Granny.
Granny laughed. “Aye, he is at that.”
They started to follow the path back the way they came and Sarah didn’t even pause to think that Granny hadn’t really answered her earlier question.
II. Cast your worries from your mind
As Sarah grew older, she stopped believing in magic.
Her Dad had a different job so they were able to go on holiday together but they still came to visit Granny Beatson. Sarah wanted to go somewhere cool – her friends were going to places like Spain or France – but Mum said Granny would miss them if they didn’t visit.
By then, Granny seemed somehow smaller. She walked just a bit more slowly and she had taken to using a hiking pole to keep her balance on the uneven ground. She wore warm trousers now, with her wax jacket, because she felt the chill more than she used to. Her face carried deeper lines but her eyes still lit up when she saw Sarah and her brother.
On the first day, they went for a walk in the same woods they always had. Mum and Dad walked together and Granny walked with Colin, who was happily informing her about the money he got for his last fallen tooth. Sarah trailed behind them all, dragging her feet and wishing she was with her friends. She had headphones covering her ears and could barely hear their voices over the dance of guitar chords and the steady beat of drums.
They reached the end of the path, where it opened out to the waterfall. Branches swayed overhead and dappled rays touched the wet ground, light shimmering across the water. Granny pulled out a coin for the fairies, just as she always had.
“Fairies aren’t real, you know, Granny,” Colin said. “I know it was Dad who gave me money for my tooth.”
Sarah hunched her shoulders and kicked at the ground, waiting to be able to turn back. She didn’t see Granny glance her way, lip turning downwards with a flicker of sadness. Granny turned back to Colin and smiled. “Mibbe nae but ye can never be tae suire. Hunners o’ others came here afore us, just in case.”
“Just in case what?” Colin asked.
“In case they try to lure you away,” Mum said, with a smile, remembering other times like this with Granny. “You’d dance and play games and have fun… but you’d forget us and dance your life away.”
“Plus they like tae cause mischief,” Granny said with a wink. “Best t’ keep ‘em sweet if ye can.”
Sarah rolled her eyes but Colin nodded seriously. “Okay. Can I help put it in?”
Granny handed him the coin and the rock, kneeling at his side to make sure he was careful and didn’t hit his fingers. When they were done she used the pole to help her back to her feet again. Her knee was dirty with mud and she brushed off as much as she could with her hand.
Mum moved forward to take her arm and Dad distracted Colin by pointing out a bird in the trees. For a brief moment Granny allowed herself to lean against Mum but then she straightened up, pulled away. Mum reached out and touched Granny’s arm, a frown of concern lining her brow. When she spoke, her words were hushed – Sarah wouldn’t have heard anything except one song was just finishing and the next hadn’t yet started.
“Have you thought anymore about coming to live near us?” Mum asked.
Granny waved a dismissive arm. “This’s me hame. Bin here all me life. Dinnae ken anythin’ else.”
“But if you lived nearer –”
“Your the yin that moved away from yer hame, lass. Ah’ve always managed just fine.”
Mum briefly looked down, eyebrows lowering in a moment of guilt. She looped her arm around her mother’s – Granny seemed tempted to complain but held her tongue. Mother and daughter’s eyes met in a brief moment of shared history, shared loss. Mum opened her mouth to speak again but Sarah struggled to hear anymore through the sound of her music.
III. This uncaring world makes dust of you all, Soon forgotten by your kind
Granny’s new house in Sarah’s home town was a new-build flat with an accessible entrance. The walls were beige and the home itself was as bland as its colour. Granny had decorated with pictures of the family, including Grandad, whom neither Sarah nor Colin had ever had a chance to meet. Granny always complained about how far away they were from the hills and trees she had grown up in. She said she wasn’t built for a commuter town.
Sarah didn’t like to eat or drink at Granny’s house because she didn’t always see the dirt on the crockery when she washed them by hand and she said she disliked the dishwasher. Dust tended to gather on the pictures and the shelves – Granny tried to clean them but her hands shook and it was hard for her to brush all the surfaces. Mum did her best to keep things clean when she visited but she already had their own house to manage.
Granny herself grew thinner over time. She was slower to speak and even slower to move. Sarah didn’t really like to walk with her anymore. When they visited at the weekend, they started to just stay in the house because Granny couldn’t move very far without needing to stop.
“Dinnae ken where we’d go anyway,” Granny would mutter. “Bloody concrete jungle.”
They would sit in the living room and Mum would tell Granny what Sarah and Colin had been doing that week. Colin enjoyed talking about his video games and Granny would smile lovingly and nod, though she likely only understood half of what he said.
“It’s aw so different now,” Granny said. “At yer sister’s age I was awready working in Mam’s shop and courting yer Granda. I remember yin time we got in sae much trouble because…”
But Sarah tuned out the conversation, looking out the window and wondering what her friends were doing right then. They had invited her to the shops but Mum told her she wasn’t allowed to go. Usually when they went, they would run into others and end up hanging out together at the park. She never did find out what Granny and Grandad got in trouble for.
An hour or so later, they were preparing to head home. Mum had taken their cups through to wash and asked Sarah to help while Dad and Colin grabbed their coats.
“I don’t know why we have to come here every weekend anyway,” Sarah said.
“You used to love visiting your Gran.”
“When I was little,” Sarah said. “It’s boring here. I could be meeting Claire and Stacey.”
“Your Gran’s a bit lonely,” Mum said. “It’s hard for her to get out now. And the friends she has left mostly live up north. She moved here to be closer to us.”
“I don’t have anything to say to her.”
Mum ran a hand across one of her eyes and turned away from Sarah. “She loves hearing about you. She’s always interested in what you and Colin are doing.”
“Well she’s boring.”
Sarah turned to head for the front door and saw Gran standing in the doorway to the living room. She had gotten up to say goodbye, though Mum had said there was no need. She was shaky on her feet, leaning heavily against a walking stick.
Sarah caught the look of hurt in her eyes. Her lips pressed together in a mix of disappointment and sadness. Her expression suggested that she knew she was boring, knew there was no reason for her family to be interested in her, but wished so much that it wasn’t true. Sarah quickly turned away – she didn’t know what to say, so pretended the moment hadn’t happened.
Her mum came out of the kitchen and interrupted the silence. “Mum! I told you to stay in your chair. There’s no need to be walking about for us!”
Sarah didn’t know if Mum realised that Granny had heard what she said. Her stomach twisted with regret and she left the flat to go and wait by the car. She never spoke about that moment with anyone.
Sometimes, when she thought about Granny, that image appeared unbidden behind her eyes and her stomach would twist in a knot again. It tainted the good memories, like rot eating away at a tree, until thinking of Granny at all was always marred by that one moment. She would wish she had said something. Instead, it was a secret between her and Granny, a moment that haunted them both but neither spoke of.
Granny died when Sarah was sixteen. Over time, they had drifted further apart. Granny was in her flat more and more, unable to go to the social clubs that she went to when she first moved down. Talking to her was difficult because her mind would wander into the past, perhaps because there wasn’t much good to say about the present. By the end, she could hardly speak at all.
Sarah only met her once in those last months. It was scary to see Granny like that. She was pale and weak and the life in her eyes seemed to dim with every movement. Sarah wished she had spent more time with her before it got bad.
Granny lay in her bed, propped up on pillows. Her hair had been cut to her shoulders because she wasn’t able to brush it herself anymore. It was thinning and dull. Sarah sat on a chair at her side, holding Granny’s hand, waiting while Mum fetched her a drink. She remembered when Granny used to hold her hands in the woods – back then she was strong and muscular but now her hand was shaking, lined with veins, struggling to grasp Sarah’s. She was so thin that Sarah could feel the bones of her fingers.
There was a strong smell in the air. Body odour and bodily fluids that hadn’t been fully cleaned away, but also a sickly sweet but sour scent that permeated the room, the secretions of a body breaking down, unable to renew itself and starting to give up trying.
Sarah wanted to run away. She wanted to block this out, pretend it wasn’t happening. Granny’s dying, she thought to herself, finally putting words to the reality that had been haunting her for months.
“Remember…” Granny said.
“Need a coin.”
“Need change the day… Gran-daughter’s coming tae visit…”
“Granny that was years ago,” Sarah replied.
“We’d offer a coin to the fae when I was growing up too,” her mother said, as she walked in with a tumbler of water, her eyes red and swollen. “Right up till I moved to Glasgow for Uni. Said holding on to magic is as important for adults as children.”
“Why?” Sarah asked.
Her mother covered her face with her hand, sucking in a deep breath. “She said magic is about appreciating life. Hopes and dreams and wishes and all that.” When she lowered her hand, Mum’s face was twisted in pain and bitterness. “Honestly, I don’t see any bloody magic in this.”
Mum hardly ever swore in front of Sarah and she didn’t even notice she had done so. Sarah hunched down in her chair, focusing her gaze on her hands. The image fractured through the tears welling in her eyes. Mum probably thought Sarah was crying for Gran, and she was in part, but she was also crying because she was scared. Her mind raced with questions that had no answers – Is this my future too? Will this happen to Mum one day? What happens to us after we die – is it better than this? She wanted to voice her fears but Mum was struggling as much as she was, so she tried to push them down, hide them away. Mum had always known what to do when things went wrong, but Mum couldn’t fix this, not for any of them.
At the funeral, there were many people there that Sarah didn’t know, or only vaguely remembered from Granny’s home town.
They reminisced of others they had lost.
They talked about Granny – but they knew her as Morag Elspeth Beatson; Morag McAllister; Wee Aggie…
“When we worked in the shop thi gither she never put up with oany cheek. Bairns would run fleeing fae just a look.”
“Mind that Hogmanay, dancing along the street, first footing till the sun came up….”
“She coped so well with losing your Da, dinnae know how she did it…”
“She was always so determined. Studying, working and bringing you up all herself…”
“Mind when Young Jimmy chanced getting his feet under the table? She soon set him straight!”
Sarah realised that she didn’t really know the Granny Beatson that they talked about. She wished she had. Mum clung to Dad at the funeral, but kept her head held high, not wanting to cry in front of everyone. Sarah thought about asking Mum about her life with Granny but over the years she never found the right moment. Sometimes Mum would bring up a memory of her childhood, or their time visiting Granny when Sarah was small, but then her eyes would drift and cloud with pain and she would soon change the subject.
IV. So what is it, the faeries ask, that you truly leave behind?
Sarah felt no great pull to return to the Highlands. She thought of her Granny’s home and the familiar walk many times, but it was several years before she visited again. She travelled there with her husband and young daughter and they stayed in a hotel not far from where Granny used to live, all those years ago. By then, most of the people who mourned her grandmother had passed away. If any still lived, she didn’t know how to contact them. The town had moved on and Granny was hardly even a memory.
When they walked along past Granny’s old cottage, it looked so similar that Sarah could almost imagine herself a child again, jumping out of the car, excited to see her grandmother. A chill ran through her body, a shiver of grief and a frisson of fear at the thought of her own mortality and how quickly time had passed. A modern development had crept up through the surrounding fields, rows of cookie-cutter white houses with postage stamp gardens and an arm’s length of space between each wall. Granny would have hated it.
They walked past the cottage, following the pavement until they reached the wooden steps that led down into the trees. Under her breath, Sarah sang a half remembered song, echoing a memory of her Granny’s voice from years ago.
“I left my baby lying here, lying here, lying here I left my baby lying here To go and gather blaeberries…”
Sarah’s daughter, Niamh, quickly tired and was carried on her Dad’s shoulders the rest of the way. The wind whistled through the trees above them and to their right they could hear the bubbling of the river as it flowed past. There had been a drizzle of rain all morning and drops would well in the leaves then fall to the woodland floor – drip, drip, drip.
“We used to do this walk a few times every year,” Sarah said softly. “Gran said it was her favourite.”
“I can see why,” her husband said. “It’s probably hardly changed in hundreds of years. Except for us traipsing through it anyway.”
“I sometimes think taking her away from here was what killed her.” It was a thought that she had never before voiced and it caused a lump to rise in her throat. “This was where she belonged.”
Her husband lowered his hand from Niamh’s ankle briefly to squeeze Sarah’s hand. He smiled reassuringly at her and she smiled back, then turned to look into the woodland.
They reached the pool at the end of the walk and Niamh was lowered to her feet. Sarah crouched by the old log. It had started to crumble with the weight of the coins that had been offered to the fairies. Someone had started using another, younger, trunk, which lay beside it. Sarah ran her hand across the coins, imagining all of the people before her, imagining her and her grandmother, all casting hope into a ten pence piece – hope that maybe there was something out there that could grant good favour, something that could hold the bad luck at bay. In the end, it didn’t help her gran.
She sucked in a breath and then turned to smile at Niamh. “They say that there are fairies in these woods. That you need to offer them a coin or you’ll have bad luck.”
Niamh looked back, wide eyed. “Really?”
“Yeah, if you’re not nice to them, they might come in the night and tickle you!” Sarah grasped her daughter in her arms, tickling her sides, and Niamh squealed with laughter.
When Sarah let her go, Niamh looked up at her, grinning. “Can I give the fairies a coin?”
Sarah pulled change from her pocket. “I have to put it in but you can choose which one we give them.”
Niamh deliberated for a while, before settling on the one she thought was the shiniest. “I think they’ll like this one best of all.”
“Good choice,” Sarah said.
She hammered the coin into the wood, Niamh excitedly watching her every move. “Will we see the fairies?”
“I don’t think so, sweetheart. They like to hide. They’re really shy. But maybe if you listen carefully, you’ll hear them while we’re walking back.”
Niamh skipped away to follow the path back. Her husband rolled his eyes at their risk taking daughter and ran to catch up with her. Sarah stood for a moment. She looked up at the leaves dancing above her head. She listened to the water as it splashed into the pool in a never ending wave. She imagined her Granny looking at these same trees, watching the same pool. She imagined her coming here with Sarah’s mum and telling the same story Sarah just told Niamh. The smell of an old wax coat and the sparkling of sapphire eyes. How many times would Granny have stood in this same spot, watched over by the ancient woods?
A slight shiver travelled up her arm and she felt as if someone was watching her. She lifted her hand to her neck and turned, but all she saw was a haze of midgies dancing at the edge of the water.
Just listen, her Granny had said.
“I just hear the woods,” Sarah whispered.
“Mum!” Niamh shouted. “Are you coming? The fairies say I need ice cream and I want to call Granny!”
Sarah laughed and quickly wiped at her eyes, pushing back unshed tears. She walked away from the fairy pool one last time. The sun broke through the clouds, casting dappled light on the river. The coins in their special log flashed silver then dulled again as the sun disappeared once more, conceding victory to the rain.
OCTOBER 2023 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Caroline Ashley is a clinical psychologist who works for the NHS in Scotland. She was a finalist for Globe Soup's Science Fiction Short Story contest and two of their 7 Day Story Writing Challenges. Caroline is currently posting a serialised young adult fantasy novel on her website and also writes a monthly blog about the psychology within fiction.