Raonaid looked out at the sea of blue jumpers and wondered how, after years discovering new plant species in the field, she had ended up doing supply teaching. It wasn’t that she was unhappy, but there were days when she wondered if she’d missed something. The children in front of her were silent, save for their quiet breathing.
“Can anyone tell me what happens when it rains?”
They looked back at her with their big eyes, waiting for her to answer her own question. A girl in the middle of the group, pale as a sheet with walnut-brown hair and ocean-blue eyes, raised her hand. Raonaid nodded toward the girl for her to speak.
“Mum says that’s when the fairies come out and take care of the forest.”
“Is that right, Anna?” Raonaid didn’t want to hurt the girl’s feelings. The girl nodded with a big smile. A boy in the corner sniggered to himself and Raonaid silently agreed.
“Well, what we’re going to look at is what the book tells us because that’s what we’ve got to do today,” she said.
Anna looked down, but nodded as she did, “Okay...”
"Take out your jotters so you can write this down", said Raonaid as the lesson began.
After school, Raonaid decided to take advantage of the glorious weather at the pub. The sun had been streaming into the classroom all day and it was rare enough that everyone in the village had made the same decision. The beach was teeming with people enjoying the evening air. Children ran about in wellies while their parents strolled along, calling to them. Everyone knew it wouldn’t last. Over the Isle, they could see dark clouds moving toward them.
The sound of glasses clattering and people chattering filled the pub. It was only Wednesday but you’d never know it. While the seaside village where she had moved to was lovely and quaint, there were only so many places to while away the evening. She didn’t mind too much, for a long time she’d had only her field assistants and samples of moss for company.
Raonaid sat outside with a pint, she didn’t care that two half-pints was more lady-like, and listened to the sounds of gulls, waves and families. She missed her time in the field on long research trips, but this? This was hard to beat.
As the evening went on, she decided to have her tea at the pub. The weather moved in while she ate her steak-and-kidney pie and had another pint. Rain drops hammered the roof and the wind howled, bringing on a chill even if it wasn’t cold in the pub. Mark, the landlord, started a fire in the hearth, filling the room with dancing, orange light. After eating, Raonaid sat near the fire and watched the flames, letting them lull her into thinking that there would be no work tomorrow. She was warmed inside and out but the peace was interrupted by the crash of the door as an old man fell into the room, pushed by the storm.
A few raindrops were thrown into the pub and they sizzled as they disappeared over the fire. The sound reminded Raonaid of what little Anna had said about the rain and the forest. It made her smile but also made here wonder. Anna’s mum hadn’t been around for a while, her dad had said. What other tales did she have?
It was time to go, at last, so she gathered up her things and zipped up her jacket all the way, hoping to keep the warmth inside. At least that would be worth having nipped her neck with the zip.
Outside the pub, lights shone down so people could see where it was safe to walk. There had been enough people falling into the sea that they decided it was worth the expense. Raonaid followed the path until reaching the road. The wind had eased a bit but the rain was here to stay. Knowing that there was nothing to be done, she walked along the road wishing she had remembered to bring a torch with her. Looking back, the windows gave off a warm glow that beckoned visitors come.
Just keep walking and you’ll make it home, she thought to herself.
The world was white noise as the rain fell straight down. Raonaid walked between forest and sea. Home wasn’t far, but it was far enough.
She looked to her left at the wall of trees and thought about fairies. It would be lovely, wouldn’t it? Of course, years spent in the forest had only proven that the only thing that happened when it rained in the forest was a damp sleeping bag. But still.
Overcome with wonder and possibly emboldened by an extra fireside pint, Raonaid turned off the path and marched toward the forest wall. Stepping through a gap in the trees, the noise quietened down. The rain was muted and slowed by the canopy above. She removed her hood to see and hear better, only the stray droplet landing on her head. The sound of twigs snapping and the quiet rustling of small animals ceased as her presence was noted by all of the creatures.
With all of the sound dampened she could hear her heart beating gently and decided to keep moving in, trying to keep the forest wall directly behind her so that she didn’t get lost. As she moved she picked her way between fallen trees and over small dips in the ground that were covered by piles of leaves. Spraining an ankle would be easy and would make for a truly miserable night.
Continuing to move deeper into the forest, the temperature got cooler and Raonaid knew that she was in danger of losing sight of the wall but she didn’t care. The relief from the rain and her curiosity kept her going. Deeper and deeper, darker and darker, quieter and quieter until the noise began to grow again. Further in from the road, the animals were less fearful of her and the occasional squirrel would run across the way.
The rain continued to fall and Raonaid continued to walk. But there was still no sign of fairies. It wasn’t a surprise, there was never going to be any. Not knowing how far she had walked or what time it was, Raonaid turned around and made her way toward the edge of the forest. Her boots had left a depression in the wet leaves but the near absence of light made it slow work.
As she continued on, it seemed like the edge would never come. Step after step after step, but still no sign of the trees beginning to clear.
“I’m probably lost,” she said out loud.
“Oh not at all,” said a voice like a babbling brook.
Raonaid stopped in her tracks.
No answer came. Seconds went by but they did so slowly. She could hear the rain hitting the canopy high above her but all was silent and still otherwise.
Raonaid took another step forward. From the ground just in front of her foot sprang up a small, blue light that pulsed slowly.
“This way,” said the voice again. And the light flew off into the trees.
With no other choice, Raonaid followed the blue light, not sure whether to explain this to little Anna.