Here’s a short excerpt from the tale I’m writing. It is set in a psychiatric hospital in the west of England, 1970, and the ‘I’ is a folklorist.
The lack of light in this place is starting to cause me problems. They are the same problems that have attached themselves to me since she died, exacerbated now by the gloaming austerity of the buildings here; they lock out the daylight and cast everything in a pall of grey and brown. It’s been five days since my arrival and I haven’t seen the sun once. It has rained every day. At least that’s what my memory tells me. I might be wrong, I often am. But the view from my window confirms the grimness; the high Victorian facades soaked with rain from the outside and seeping the dampness of insanity from within. I’ve made a mistake coming here, I know it. The place has deprived me of the ability to hide my own desperation and grief. I’m surrounded by lunatics and those looking after them, all engaged in stripping away the illusion of normality and replacing it with the unfettered reality of human madness. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to retreat to. I’m immersed in it and my carefully constructed coping mechanisms are being dismantled. When there is a knock at the door my head swims for an instant and my hands start trembling as usual. But as Moore enters, the sudden horror of human contact subsides back inside, and, quickly, I’m able to put on my mask of acceptable social behaviour. I can also slip into a past tense…
‘Ahoy there,’ said Moore, inviting himself in, smiling as usual, ciggy in hand. ‘Ready for action?’
‘I guess. Is she still ok for this?’
‘Yep, she’s out in the vegetable garden talking with her faeries. But she knows you’re coming.’
I picked up my notepad and book, controlling my breathing and forcing the tension out of my body.
‘What’s that?’ asked Moore, nodding at the book in my hand.
‘It’s a motif index… Aarne and Thompson. Bit of a bible for folklorists – it codes and numbers all the different motif types from traditional stories. I had to… err, nick this volume from the reference library before I came.’
‘Ha, excellent. Well come on then, let’s see how many motif numbers you can jot down for Fernanda. I think you might be busy.’
We walked past the laundry building and oil tanks, then under the grey neo-gothic elevations of the chapel, dripping rainwater from their eaves high above.
‘Yeah, you’ll find Fernanda interesting,’ said Moore, chuckling as he always did. ‘She’s the only South American in the hospital… actually, she’s probably the only non-English person in the hospital.’
‘So why is she here?’
‘Chile. Something kicking off there – about to elect a Marxist called Allende apparently, and her family have cleared out and come over here.’ Moore affected a conspirational gesture. ‘But she’s already been here for a few years at school for some reason. The father found out she’d been having some problems, extracted her from said school and used his influence to get her admitted here. He’s some sort of diplomat or suchlike.’
‘So what are her problems?’
‘Delusional psychosis according to Dr Dawkins at mission control in there,’ he gestured back at the hospital, ‘but I think you might find that label a bit wide of the mark. I get the impression that she just genuinely sees things the rest of us don’t. But you’ll have to make up your own mind on that.’
We walked past the west end of the chapel, with the vegetable gardens in front of us. Moore stopped to light up a spindley-looking joint, took a drag and handed it to me.
‘This is your first field interview isn’t it?’ he said. ‘For your research I mean.’
‘It is, yeah.’ I could feel myself blushing. ‘My folklore has all been from books and lectures till now… bit embarrassing really.’
‘Well, this is where theory can become practice. Good place to start… in at the deep end with a psychiatric patient. If you can deal with her unusual behaviour patterns, you’ll find out a lot about the faeries, I’m pretty sure of that. Anyway, there she is over there in the red top, doing some weeding, or whatever it is you do in a vegetable patch.’
A couple of tokes on the joint calmed me a bit. I gave it back to Moore and went to find out just how mad my first ever interviewee might be.
The sun came out. A cloudbreaking ray fell over the gardens, picking out colours that hadn’t seemed to have been there a moment before. Fernanda’s hooded red top pulled her out of the background, made her seem physically separated from it. I walked over to her, hiding anxiety with a smile. She was crouching to place some nuts onto a tree-stump next to the vegetable patch, but saw me, stood up and stretched out her hands as though she expected me to take them in my own.
‘You’re just in time for the ravens. They are being called now.’
Her accent was slight but distinct. She looked through me somehow. But her eyes were smiling. She’d already taken some control.
‘They only trust me, but I think they’ll trust you too.’
She walked to the end of one of the garden paths and I followed. Closing her eyes she swayed whilst another ray of sun found her face, and I was able to take in her features unobtrusively. When she opened her eyes, they seemed black, iris and pupil, and I couldn’t tell what she was looking at.
‘Dos cuervos,’ she announced, ‘coming to us now.’
Sure enough, from the tree-line to the north, two ravens appeared and silently flew down onto a fence at the far end of the gardens. They tarried there, conspiring and ensuring their coast was clear before gliding down together to the tree-stump, where they put their beaks to work on the nuts. They hopped about taking some more nuts before retreating back to the fence.
‘Now observe,’ she whispered. ‘They will silently call their comrades.’
We stood in silence for about a minute, Fernanda staring into the middle distance, whilst I shuffled around hoping this wasn’t going to go on too long. Then I saw six more ravens appear above the tree-line, making their way towards us. They flew down in ragged tandem, alighted on the fence with the other two, then, two by two, drifted down to the ground and hopped over to the nuts on the tree-stump. We were only twenty feet from them, but they carried on as if we weren’t there. When they’d finished and were moving back to the fence, Fernanda crouched down. One of the ravens broke ranks and landed closer to us. It bobbed its head a few times in our direction, then flew off, taking the others with it back into the sky.
Fernanda stood up and said ‘I know you want to know about the faeries. Las hadas… they are the nature spirits, the elementals. They are everywhere.’
‘Do you see them now?’
She laughed, then smiled. I blushed.
‘The ravens see them. All animals do. The faeries fix themselves onto the minds of the ravens and then give them instant communication with others of their kind. The faeries summoned the ravens by riding on their minds… their thoughts. Hey my friends! come get the nuts at the tree-stump.‘
I chuckled. ‘But do you see them?’
She stared at me for the first time but said nothing. Instead she took my hand and led me round the vegetable patch to some spinach leaves. She got me to crouch down next to her, and pointed at the biggest leaf in the patch.
‘Stare at this green leaf’, she said. ‘Just stare at it for some moments.’
I complied. The leaf was crumpled a little at its top making a ball-like shape, and the longer I looked at it the more I started to see patterns in the natural chaos of its shape: first a green rose flower, then a scrunched up piece of green paper, which seemed to momentarily expand and contract before forming into a small childlike face. I started, looked again, and it was gone. There was just a snail-nibbled spinach leaf.
‘You see,’ she said. ‘They are here, but you just don’t want to see them. The faeries are part of the minds of the plants… the earth, the rocks, everything.’
I turned to her, she was close. I could see she meant it. But the usual rational stream of thought pulsed through my mind, first explaining the optical illusion of the crumpled spinach leaf, then aligning itself with the reasonable view that she must be delusional and making this up from within a damaged and beguiled mind. But even as the stream of rationality assured me this must be so, I knew it wasn’t.
‘You are a modern Western person my friend,’ she said, quietly. ‘You have grown up in a world of science and material things. It’s quite simple really. You’ve disconnected from Spirit. Once you disconnect you stop seeing what’s really there. If you were a child I would be able to show you. But you have grown up and disconnected. There is Spirit everywhere, but you can no longer recognise it.’
I fiddled with the motif-index volume in my hands, coming to terms with my abrupt perception of inferiority to someone everyone else here thought insane. And, as she looked through me, I was pretty sure she knew this.
‘I need to be alone now,’ she announced, standing up and running her hands through her black hair. ‘But if you can come again tomorrow, without your books, I will teach you about the faeries. I think you might be one who can be taught.’
Without another word, she packed her trowel into her little gardening bag, smiled and started off back to the hospital. She turned at the edge of the vegetable gardens and waved.
‘Mañana,’ she called.
I watched her disappear behind the chapel. It started to rain again.
‘Mañana indeed,’ I whispered, looking first at my unopened book and notepad, and then back at that plain old spinach leaf, now quivering under the raindrops. A raven passed overhead, cawing as if laughing at me. Mañana indeed.