The hiring fair in Ballymena was busy that May morning as dairy farmer, Sean O’ Hara looked for a young herdsman to work with his cattle. Women in bonnets, with brightly coloured shawls, mingled with men in fustian frock smocks and breeches. The sheep sale had just finished, and the sun was high in the blue sky as Sean looked at the lines of young and old men waiting in the hope of being hired. Most had tickets stuck in their hats to indicate they were looking for employment. Many of them held shepherds’ crooks in their rough, weather-beaten hands but Sean had no need of a shepherd. With the spring sun on his back, for the first time in months, he felt life was at last rising from the bleak graveyard of winter.
Right at the end of the line of hirings, Sean suddenly noticed him. He felt sure the boyish figure had not been there the first time he had walked slowly down the line of hopefuls. Twisting an old cloth cap slowly in his hand, the young man looked Sean straight in the eye. His look was neither desperate nor brazen. Sean liked a man who was confident but not reckless, frank and not devious.
‘You’re a cattleman?’ It was more a statement than a question.
‘Aye, sir. I’m good with cows, so I am.’
Further questioning revealed the boy had worked on a farm in the south, but the family had emigrated to America and the farm had been sold. The terrible Famine of the 1840’s had left death and devastation in its wake. Many had come north in search of employment. Sean shook hands and handed over a penny, known as an arle, in the time- honoured manner. The boy picked up a small knapsack, all his worldly possessions, and followed Sean out of the fair.
At first the noise of the fair echoed in their ears. The shrieks of the youngsters on the swing boats, the fiddlers tuning up for the dancing, the whinnying of horses being ridden off tonew stables. Gradually the noise faded. As they walked along the cliffs only the sound of waves, crashing on the rocks below and the cries of the wheeling seagulls, disturbed the afternoon silence. Sean was a man of few words and the boy remained silent,always a few deferential paces behind his new master. Standing at the head of the valley, they had the first view of the old farmhouse, nestling at the lowest point, surrounded on three sides by steep green hills. In the far distance a herd of black and white cows was dotted over the lush green pasture, like old fashioned lead farm animals from a traditional toy box.
‘There’s your new farm,’ Sean called over his shoulder to the boy who nodded approval. The two, half walked, half scrambled, down the steep, grassy slope to the farmhouse door. Sean pushed the battered door open with his shoulder, beckoning the boy into the small kitchen. He showed him how to pump water into two large wooden buckets out in the yard and to boil water for tea. The two sat drinking milky tea from chipped tin mugs, while Sean explained the simple routine of farm life.
As the evening light began to fade, they walked over the darkening pasture to drive the cattle home for evening milking. Sean was surprised by the animals’ response to the new boy. Normally they were wary of new faces and new voices. Yet the moment they heard the boy speaking softly in Irish, the cows lifted their heads and walked towards him. Soon he had disappeared in the middle of the black and white herd.
‘Let’s be taking them back or it’ll be too dark for milking.’
The boy nodded and began leading the cows towards the farmyard, like some bovine Pied Piper. As they neared the yard, three hares leapt out of the tall grasses in front of the boy and the leading cows. In a few seconds their long ears and bobbing black-topped tails had disappeared into the darkening wood. Sean quickly crossed himself, these creatures often brought bad luck.
As the spring turned into summer, Sean depended more and more on the boy. The herd was thriving, and the milk was richer, creamier. The milk yield had increased, and Sean was considering extending the herd. He was only waiting for the midsummer fair at Ballymena.
The boy was happy to sleep in an empty stall in the barn which Sean had made into a simple lodging. He was up and milking before Sean appeared, and the cows were devoted to him. Even the young heifer which had been wild and difficult, came to his call. For the first time since Sioban’s death, Sean felt life gradually returning. He looked at the gold of the buttercups in the water meadows and his heart seemed to beat again to the rhythm of the seasons and the beauty of the fields.
Autumn had arrived. The chill in the morning air, the mist over the valley, the evenings closing in were reminders that summer was fading. Sean had bought the boy a new woolenjacket and leather gaiters, ready for winter. He’d never bought gifts or clothes for anyone before, that had been his wife’s job. After the death of the baby, she had ordered the tiny white coffin and sown white burial clothes for six months old Patrick. Sean thought of that winter’s day. The village had struggled through the snow to the farm and walked in procession to the funeral mass. The white of the coffin had seemed to merge with the falling snow. For the first time for months, Sean went to bed with a deep emptiness in his soul. In the middle of the night he awoke, feverish and sweating, despite the cold. He lit a candle which flared up casting a halo of light on the image of the Virgin and the rosary beads hung from Her shoulders. In the corners of the room, darkness gathered. Not even pinpricks of light from the candle could penetrate this gloom. In the silence, Sean could hear the wind howling round the house and branches tapping on the windows. He looked at the empty half of the old wooden bed, but he could see only the figure of the boy, stretched out naked in the candlelight.
He dressed quickly and battled to open the front door in the face of the wind and rain. Pulling his cap down over his ears, Sean struggled along the stony lane out of the farmyard. Sheets of rain were being blown across the valley as he fought his way towards the village.
After what seemed an age, Sean saw the church, its stone cross lashed by the storm. He opened the gate into the churchyard and heard it blown shut, with a loud clang, behind him. However dark the night, Sean knew the small graveyard like the back of his hand. Bent double by the wind, he stood in front of a small child’s grave. A flash of lightning revealed ‘Patrick’ and ‘Beloved son’, before darkness descended again. Next to this plot was his wife’s grave. Sean traced the well- known letters engraved in the hard granite. ‘Much loved wife’. The headstone dripped water into the grass beneath until the grave itself was flooded. The white lilies which had been left in a green, metal vase, lay drowning in the waterlogged grass. White petals splashed with mud, stuck to Sean’s wet boots.
The dawn was breaking as he walked back down the lane. It had become a stream with the water racing down into the valley. As he looked back from the farm door, the sun was rising, a red rimmed eye just above the horizon. The storm had blown itself out. A beam of sunlight lay along the top of the valley. A brown hare was framed in gold light as it crossed the sodden field.
It was a week later and again Sean awoke hot and sweating. He reached into the empty, cold space beside him. It had been Siobhan’s voice he had heard. She had been sobbing uncontrollably as on the night Patrick died. Sean dressed quickly, running his fingers down the rosary beads. He sat in the kitchen with a lantern on the table and a shot gun. The barrel shone in the light; the wooden stock gleamed wickedly. He had loaded the gun and locked it. Gun in one hand and lantern in the other, Sean walked slowly to the end of the barn. Pushing open one of the doors, he looked at the boy sleeping on his straw mattress. He was naked, as he had been in Sean’s vision on the night of the storm. As he looked at him, the smooth, tanned skin, the shock of brown hair, the strong muscles across the shoulders, something strange began to happen. Slowly he was changing. In the light of the lantern his smooth skin gradually furred over, like mould on stale bread. His mouth split, his ears grew long and furry, as a stag’s antlers are covered in velvet. Sean raised the gun; his finger was on the trigger. The half-hare, half-boy suddenly opened his eyes. He stared at Sean with a puzzled, resigned expression. Sean pulled the trigger. The bullet went straight to the heart. Blood splashed on the barn walls. The straw was dark red.
Sean picked up a sack from the floor of the barn. Gently he put the body in and tied the sack up. As he walked across the fields, a great orange moon hung in the sky. It cast a path of light over the dark fields. The cows looked up as he passed but did not approach or follow him. As he climbed the stile out of the field, they were all huddling in a distant corner.
As Sean walked to the cliffs, he felt the sack become lighter. It was after all only a hare. In the distance, he could hear the sound of the waves far below, breaking on the granite rocks. The turf here had been cropped short by sheep. Their droppings made the surface slippery. Standing on the cliff, Sean looked down into the darkness. There was only the sound of the ebbing tide. Suddenly the scene was brightly lit as the moon sailed out from behind a bank of dark clouds. Sean could see the rocks far below with the foam surging over the granite blocks before being sucked back by the tide. He held the end of the sack, swung it round once, then hurled it over the edge. He watched as it twisted and turned until it hit the rocks and was pulled down by the retreating tide.
Sean looked out at the moonlit path over the sea, narrowing to the horizon.
As he walked slowly back to the farm, all the old tales of witches and hares flooded back into his thoughts. All the stories of ‘shapeshifters’ taking the form of hares. His grandmother had spoken of them as harbingers of death, tricksters who brought messages from the other world. Everyone knew that witches turned themselves into hares to steal milk from their neighbours’ cows.
Neither male nor female, hares moved by moonlight between that secret, enchanted world and the everyday world of humans.
Next morning Sean spent over an hour driving the cows in for milking. The heifer was as wild as ever. The milk yield began to decline. Some days Sean would forget the evening milking. He would go twice a day to confession. Even Father Connolly began to wonder about his sanity. In the village there were rumours that the fairies had stolen Sean O’Hara’s brain. On moonlit nights hares fed on the grass on the cliffs. Perhaps they drank the milk from the cows?
Next year at the Ballymena fair, farmers walked along the lines of those looking for employment. A young boy stood at the end, twisting a cap in his hands.
Sarah Das Gupta is an 81-year young retired teacher who taught in India and Tanzania as well as the UK. She began writing in October 2022 while bored in hospital, following an accident. Her work
has been published in over 50 magazines in ten countries, including: US, UK, India, Canada, Australia and Nigeria.