The apple trees growing in the shade of the Gydynap hills are far from beautiful. They are old, gnarled and twisted, and, on the odd occasions that any of them bears fruit, the apples are small and bitter, barely good enough for making cider. This said, however, every springtime, without fail, they produce a gorgeous and fragrant blossom that speaks of a harvest that never arrives.
Philomena Bucket has always waited impatiently for the coming of the blossom; it reminded her of her childhood in Ireland. She had few happy recollections of her early life, but the flowering of the trees in her grandmother’s orchard always glowed in her mind like a beacon. After her grandmother died, the apple orchard, and all the stuff of memories, were brutally snatched away, and the adults of the Bucket family found themselves in the workhouse in Dublin. Philomena and her sisters were deposited in the Foundling Hospital for Orphans and Abandoned children, just south of the River Liffey.
Philomena dismissed those dark and distant days from her mind as she plucked a sprig of blossom and pinned it on her coat, laughing as a shower of petals cascaded from the tree, covering her hair and shoulders like confetti.
As spring days go on the island of Hopeless, this particular one was decidedly… well, almost spring-like. The wind was moderate, there was no apparent sign of rain, and the usual shroud of mist that hung over the land was surprisingly light. The green shoulders of the Gydynaps rose up into clear grey skies before her; it would be more than optimistic to expect sunshine as well.
Philomena hummed a little tune and walked with a definite spring in her step as she made her way towards the summit of the hills. Drury, the skeletal hound, sensing her mood and wagging his bony tail, gambolled like a lamb over the grass (not that Drury had recently witnessed a lamb gambolling, at least, not for the last hundred years or so).
The Gydynaps are possibly the strangest place on the island. This is not to say that there are – to quote the traditional Scottish prayer – a greater number of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties wandering around there than on any other part of Hopeless. It is, instead, as if the hills are host to an indefinable presence, quietly possessing an aura of awe and antiquity that even the most insensitive soul could not fail to feel. And this is why they are shunned, for, unlike Philomena, most Hopelessians prefer the terrors that can be seen, and hopefully avoided, to the ageless, invisible, threat, that many believe pervades the Gydynaps.
Drury had spotted a crow foraging in the grass and decided that it would be worthwhile chasing the bird. Like crows the world over, this one had every confidence in her ability to avoid capture, and made a point of keeping just enough space between Drury and herself in order to give the dog the impression that he might just catch her.
Philomena was not worried when he disappeared from sight. Drury was his own master and would find her when he grew tired of the fruitless chase.
As the morning drew on the day became suddenly colder and a freshening wind brought ever-thickening wisps of mist on to the hills. Philomena drew her coat closer about her and was on the point of deciding to go back to The Squid and Teapot, where she had a room, when a bent figure, wearing something resembling a monk’s habit, appeared a few yards in front of her, as if out of nowhere. Philomena rubbed her eyes and concluded that the mist must be denser than she had thought.
“Good morning,” said Philomena, cheerily.
The elderly stranger raised a hand in greeting and Philomena thought he said,
“Imagine what? What should I imagine?” asked Philomena confused.
The two looked at each other for a few seconds before Philomena realised what he had said.
“Maidin mhaith” she repeated back with a beaming smile, dredging up what she recalled of the language her grandmother had spoken.
The old man looked around, confused. The landscape had unexpectedly changed. From these high hills he could see that they were surrounded by water.
“What is this island called?” he asked, in a dialect of Irish that sounded archaic and unfamiliar, but to Philomena’s amazement she understood him perfectly.
“Why, this place is Hopeless,” she replied, surprising herself by answering him fluently in his own tongue.
“Indeed it is,” he said. “I have wandered for years, through hollow lands and hilly lands, but I have never seen anywhere quite as dismal as this.”
“Oh, it’s not too bad once you get used to it,” said Philomena, unconvincingly.
The self-confessed wanderer gave her a long, hard stare.
“Do I know you?” he asked. “I feel that I do… maybe a long time ago. Things are a bit hazy since I went into that hazel wood…”
‘Cheeky beggar’ thought Philomena, ‘I’m young enough to be his granddaughter,’ but she just smiled sweetly and said,
“Sorry, I don’t think so.”
Just then a slight breeze swept by, disturbing the apple blossom that still clung to her hair and shoulders.
The old man gazed at her, his eyes suddenly alight with longing and wonder.
“Yes… yes I do know you,” he said. “There is apple blossom in your hair… You are the one… I know it.”
Before Philomena could object, he had reached forward and taken her by the hands,
then, with surprising strength and agility, drew her quickly towards him and kissed her full on the lips.
“Ah… I taste fish,” he said. “You were once a fish, a trout. Do you recall?”
“I think you’ve got me mixed up with somebody else,” said Philomena, more than a little taken aback, and pulling away hastily. “I had a bit of cold Starry-Grabby pie for me breakfast. That’s what you can taste. I was never a fish. Honestly. I’d have remembered.”
The old man looked dejected.
“It was a very attractive trout,” he said. “All silvery. I could have sworn you were she. That is such a shame. But… you don’t fancy walking through some long, dappled grass with me, just in case you’re mistaken. It might bring it all back to you.”
“No thanks,” said Philomena, who was becoming increasingly uneasy. “Besides there’s no long grass up here, dappled or otherwise.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said morosely. “To be honest, I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever find her. She only ever called me by my name once, then she ran off, faded into the brightening air, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.”
“Don’t give up hope,” said Philomena, feeling suddenly sorry for him. “Stick with it, and you’ll be sure to bump into her eventually.”
“Hmm, I hope you’re right,” replied the old man. “But if by chance you do see the girl, say that her Aengus is still wandering around looking for her.”
Without saying any more he turned and, with a wave of his hand, walked into the gathering mist.
Philomena stared after him until he disappeared from sight. Lost in her own thoughts, she was suddenly brought back to earth when Drury pulled up alongside her, his tail still wagging.
Her reverie broken, she tried in vain to catch the last few ragged ribbons of ancient Gaelic speech which floated through her mind, before they disappeared forever. But they were gone, like snow on the water, and with those words faded all memory of her encounter with the Wandering Aengus.
With apologies to W.B. Yeats.