Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 7), January 2011.

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

“What’s that, dear?” the nurse asked, in her usual tone of forced cheerfulness. “Something about burning?”

Nora came back to the present with a start — she hadn’t even realized she’d spoken aloud. “It’s a poem, that’s all,” she replied, a touch defensively. “Nothing for you to worry about.”

“Oh, how nice!” the nurse replied, with that special smile that said, clear as words, I’m thinking of increasing your medication. “What’s it about?”

Nora winced inwardly, reluctant to answer. Perhaps this was a good time to pretend her hearing aid wasn’t working well, or that she’d lost track of the conversation. Heaven knew that happened often enough these days, but that, she thought acidly, was because so few people said anything worth listening to any more. Still, some imp of the perverse made her reply, even knowing the likely result. “’The Hosting of the Sidhe’, by Yeats. It’s about —” she sighed resignedly “— fairies.”

“Oh, how nice!” the nurse said again, with an even brighter smile.

Nora couldn’t restrain herself: “If you think they’re always nice, you obviously haven’t read much of the traditional lore! People called them things like ‘the gentry’ and ‘the good neighbours’ because they didn’t want to attract their attention. Some of them were downright monstrous, and even the brighter ones were fierce — beautiful like a forest fire, not like a flower. The sluagh, or host, were associated with the spirits of the dead, and — oh, never mind.”

Another nurse, one of the less vacuous ones, paused to listen, and commented to the other: “You know, Mrs. Flanagan was a noted folklorist.”

”Is, not was,” Nora retorted. “I’m old, girl, not dead! Retired I may be, but I keep up with the field.” But that was a half-truth — she’d been retired for 25 years now, and while she still subscribed to several journals, her eyes weren’t good enough to read them any more, and it was a lucky day when she could pin someone down to read a whole article to her. That grated on her nerves far more than the damned wheelchair, but there was no help for either one. Slowly but surely, she thought, her body was shutting down. No wonder her mind tended to wander these days — what did it have to come back to?

Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair unbound,
Our breasts are having, our eyes are agleam.

All at once, she felt desperate to escape this claustrophobic, disinfectant-scented rabbit warren, and feel the wind and the leaves for real, her hair blowing — well, what was left of it. Thankfully, that was possible, at least for a short while. She forced herself to smile at the nurse. “Dear, would you mind pushing me outside? I’d love a bit of fresh air before dinner.”

“Of course, Mrs. Flanagan. But we mustn’t stay out too long — the sun’s nearly down, and it’ll be getting chilly.”

Sunset, Nora thought. The perfect time, really, to be contemplating Yeats and fairies. The Celts regarded liminal times and spaces, between one thing and another, as magical: riverbanks, seashores, hilltops, deep wells, and of course, sunrise and sunset. Come to that, this whole place was a liminal space, wasn’t it? All the residents caught between living and dying, biding time before crossing to the Otherworld, and half of them “away with the fairies” already, in the colloquial sense of not all there.

She sighed happily as a gust of autumn wind ruffled her thinning hair, and leaves eddied around her chair. One thing she did like about this home was the location —just outside the city, by a nature preserve, with many winding paths into the trees, some of them smooth enough for a wheelchair. Out here, she could lose herself in memories and dreams, no longer shackled to a body that was well past its best-before date.

“So, Mrs. Flanagan, do you believe in fairies?” The nurse’s voice brought her back abruptly to the here and now. Still, the wind and the trees had restored her enough that she didn’t feel the need to snap this time.

“Well, that all depends what you mean by believe, doesn’t it? When I was a girl I certainly did — though so did nearly everyone back home, even if most of them wouldn’t admit it. But my sister Kathleen and I were convinced we’d seen them, in the woods near our family’s farm in County Galway...” She trailed off, wishing she could be alone with her memories of Kathleen. “You know, dear, it is a bit cold out — would you mind fetching my shawl? It’s in my room, by the door.”

Well, that would buy her a few minutes of peace, at least. She gazed into the darkening trees at the very edge of the woods, as the sun touched the horizon, and remembered the adventures they’d had as girls, when the Otherworld seemed to lie behind every tree, around every bend in the path.

And suddenly it seemed she could hear the sound of rushing hoofbeats, and the chiming of bells. Perhaps it was just the wind and someone’s chimes — but no, woven into it was the sound of voices, and didn’t one of them sound like Kathleen’s? Then the trees parted, and the building behind her seemed very far away...

The host is riding ‘twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

She wondered briefly if the nurse, when she returned, would find an empty wheelchair or an empty body, but it didn’t seem to matter any more. She never once looked back as she moved to join the host.

Story prompt: "If this was my last day on earth..." This story won that challenge.