By Diane Duane
I met the leprechaun for the first and last time in the conveyor-sushi bar behind Brown Thomas. It was the "holy hour," between three and four, when the chefs go upstairs for their own lunch, and everything goes quiet, and the brushed stainless-steel conveyor gets barer and barer.
The leprechaun had been smart and ordered his yasai-kakiage just before three. He sat there now eating it with a morose expression, drinking sake and looking out the picture windows facing on Clarendon Street at the pale daylight that slid down between the high buildings on either side.
While I'd seen any number of leprechauns in the street since I moved here--our family always had the Sight--I'd never found myself so close to one. I would have loved to talk to him, but just because you can see the Old People is no automatic guarantee of intimacy: they're jealous of their privacy, and can be more than just rude if they felt you were intruding. I weighed a number of possible opening lines, discarded them all, and finally said, "Can I borrow your soy sauce? I've run out."
He handed me the little square pitcher in front of his place setting and picked up another piece of yasai-kakiage. I poured shoyu into the little saucer they give you, mixed some green wasabi horseradish with it, and dunked in a piece of tuna sashimi.
"You're not supposed to do that," he said.
"Mix them like that." He gestured with his chin at the wasabi. "You're supposed to just take it separately."
I nodded. "I'm a philistine," I said.
"So are we all these days," the leprechaun said, and looked even more morose. He signaled the obi-clad waitress, as she passed, for another sake. "Precious little culture left in this town anymore. Nothing but money, and people scrabbling for it."
It would hardly have been the first time I'd heard that sentiment coming from a Dubliner, but it hadn't occurred to me that one of the Old People thought the same way. I'd have thought they were above such things. "Do you work in town?" I said.
He nodded. The waitress came back, swapped him a full flask of sake for his empty one, left again.
"Shoes?" I said.
He laughed, a brief bitter crack of a sound. "Have you ever tried to cobble a Nike?" he said.
I shook my head. It wasn't something I'd had to try lately, though I'd had enough job worries of my own. The Dublin journalistic grind is not a simple one to navigate. I had gone from features editor to subfeatures editor at one of the CityWatch magazines, always being hurled from scandal to scandal--they would keep publishing badly concealed ads for the less discreet of the massage parlors and lap-dancing joints over by Leeson Street.
"That line of work's all done now," he said. "Planned obsolescence…it runs straight to the heart of things. People don't want shoes that last years. They want shoes that maybe last a year. My folk, we couldn't do that. Against our religion."
I didn't say anything, not knowing if it would be wise. I did some interviewing for the magazine I worked for, and had learned to appreciate the sound of a subject that the speaker didn't want you to follow up on.
"It's the death of craftsmanship," the leprechaun said. "Nike and all the other big conglomerates, they'd sooner have slave labor in Malaysia than honest supernatural assistance from a first-world country with good tax breaks…" He drank some sake. "No, we're all in information technology now, or high-end manufacturing, computers and so on. It's the only place left for skilled handworkers to go. My clan was all out in Galway once: they're all in Fingal now, for the work. Damn made-up county, nothing real about it but freeways and housing developments. Name me a single hero-feat that was ever done in Fingal!"
"I got from Independent Pizza to the airport once in less than half an hour," I said: and it was all I could think of. It didn't count, and we both knew it. All the same, he laughed.
It broke the ice. We were there for a few hours at least, chatting. The belt started up again while we talked, and some more people drifted in; and still we talked while the light outside faded through twilight to sodium-vapor streetlight after sunset. The leprechaun turned out not to be one of those more-culchie-than-thou types, all peat and poitín, but an urbanite--clued-in and streetwise, but also well-read. He knew where the hot clubs were, but he could also quote Schopenhauer as readily as he could Seamus Heaney; and as for culture, he told me several things about Luciano Pavarotti's last visit to Dublin that made me blink. He was, in short, yet another of that classic type, the genuine Dublin character. When you live here, it's hard to go more than a few days before meeting one. But you don't routinely meet "Dublin characters" who saw the Vikings land.
I ordered more sake, and paused. Slipping into a seat around the corner of the sushi bar from us was someone at first sight more faerie-tale-looking than the leprechaun: a baby teen, maybe thirteen if that, in red velvet hooded sweatshirt and fake wolf-claw wristlet. Little Red Riding Hood squirmed her blue-jeaned, tanga-briefed self in the seat as she began picking at some fried tofu. The leprechaun glanced at her, glanced back at me again, the look extremely ironic. By contrast, he was conservatism itself, just a short guy with hair you'd mistake for sixties length, in tweeds and extremely well made shoes.
"She'd have been a nice morsel for one of the Greys in my day," he said under his breath, and laughed again, not entirely a pleasant sound. "Before the wolfhounds did for them, and 'turncoat' men ran with the wolf packs, getting off on the beast-mind and the blood feast… Just look at all that puppy fat." His grin was feral. "But I shouldn't complain. She pays my salary. I bet her daddy and mammy buy her a new computer every year." He scowled.
"Do you really miss the shoes that much?" I said.
It was a mistake. His eyes blazed as he took a plate of the spiced soba noodles, another of the green plates, the least expensive sushi. He didn't have a single blue or gold or silver plate in his "used" stack. "Don't get me started," he said. "Nike, Adidas, whoever: we would have worked with them. We would have worked with them! Work is what we live for; good work, well-done, they could have had a labor force like the world never saw. We could have shod the planet."
The leprechaun chewed. "But no," he said. "A decent wage was too much for them. Why should we pay you minimum wage, they say, when we can get the work for almost nothing from these poor starving mortals over in Indonesia or wherever, who're grateful for a penny a day? And so they gave us their back."
He poured himself more sake, drank. "We were to be here for you, from the beginning of things," he said more softly; "we were to help you have the things you needed when you couldn't have them otherwise. But your people have made us redundant. Spiritually redundant as well as fiscally. So now, as we can't earn, neither can we spend. 'And who of late,' he said sadly into his sake, 'for cleanliness, finds sixpence in her shoe?'"
"Bad times," I said, looking past the Mercedes and the BMWs and the ladies walking past the sushi bar toward the "signature" restaurants farther down the road, where you couldn't get out the door at the end of the night for less than three hundred Euro for just a couple of you and wine.
"Bad times," the leprechaun said.
"And it's hard to find a decent pint," I said.
His eyes glittered, and I kept my smile to myself. Any Dubliner is glad to tell a stranger, or somebody with my Manhattan accent, where the best pint is. Sometimes they're even right. Sometimes it's even someplace I haven't already heard of. I don't drink the Black Stuff myself, especially since there's better stout to be found than Uncle Arthur's overchilled product in the Porter House brewpub in Parliament Street; but that's not the point.
His eyes slid sideways to betray the great secret, whose betrayal is always joy. "You know South Great Georges Street?"
"Yeah." It was a few blocks away.
"The Long Hall," he said. "Good place. The wizards drink there, too."
"Really," I said.
"That's where most of us go now." There was a silent capital on the "u" that I nodded at. "We go down there Tuesdays and Thursdays, in the back, for a pint. And the wakes," he said. His look went dark. "A lot of wakes lately…"
"Suicide?" I said softly. Irish males have had a fairly high suicide level of late, something no one understands with the economy booming the way it's been, and somehow I wouldn't have been surprised to find the trend had spread to the Old Ones.
He shook his head. "Nothing like," the leprechaun said. "None of these people were suicidal. They had good jobs…as good as jobs get for our people these days. Coding over at Lotus, hardware wrangling up at Gateway and Dell. They never seem to stop hiring up there in the Wasteland." It was a slang name for the jungle of industrial estates that had sprung up around Dublin Airport, and there seemed to be a new one every month, more and more land once full of Guinness-destined barley, or of sheep, now full of Europe-destined PCs and other assorted chippery.
"But it's not the same," I said, because I knew what was coming. I'd heard it before.
"No, it's not," the leprechaun said with force. "Once upon a time I didn't even know what the ISEQ was! When did our people ever have to worry about stocks and shares, and 'selling short'? But now we have to, because that's how you tell who's hiring, when you can't make a living making shoes anymore." He scowled again. "It's all gone to hell," he said. "It was better when we were poor."
"Oh, surely not," I said. "You sound like those people in Russia, now, moaning about how they miss the good old days in the USSR."
"Poor devils," the leprechaun said, "may God be kind to them, they don't know any better. But it's nothing like what we have to deal with. Once upon a time we gave thanks to God when the leader of our country stood up and announced to the world that we were self-sufficient in shoelaces. Who knew that it could go downhill from that, because of too much money? But people aren't like people used to be anymore. It's not that the money would spoil them… we always knew that was going to happen, maybe. But it's how it's spoiled them. Look at it!"
We looked out the window toward the brick façade that the back of Brown Thomas shared with the Marian shrine that also faced onto the street. You could look through one archway and see a painted life-sized knockoff version of the Pietá, the sculpted Lady raising a hand in a "what can you do?" gesture over her Son's sprawled body, her expression not of shock or grief but of resigned annoyance--"Never mind, he'll be right as rain in a few days…"--and through another doorway, a few doors down, you could see Mammon in its tawdry glory, all the Bally and Gucci and the many other choicer fruits of world consumerism laid out for the delectation of the passersby. The Pietá was not entirely without Her visitors, but plainly Brown Thomas was getting more trade. Closer to us, the street was full of cars; fuller of cars than it should have been, strictly speaking. There was a superfluity of Mercs and Beemers, and the occasional Lexus, all double-parked outside the restaurant, next to the entrance to the Brown Thomas parking structure. The cold fact of the Garda Pick-It-Up-And-Take-It-Away fleet working its way around the city had plainly not particularly affected these people. They could soak up the tickets and the impound fees and never even notice.
"In God's name, what's happened to us?" the leprechaun said. "What's happened to us that we don't care what happens to other people anymore? Look at it out there: it's nothing much right now, but this street's a bottleneck; in twenty minutes the whole of center city will be gridlocked. And it's worse elsewhere. The rents are through the roof. It's a good thing I can just vanish into one of the 'hills' in Phoenix Park at night. Otherwise, I'd be in a bedsit twenty miles south, in Bray, or somewhere worse--Meath or Westmeath or Cavan or whatever, with a two-hour commute in and back, in a mini-van loaded over capacity. And probably with clurachaun as well. Have you ever been stuck in a minivan for two hours between Virginia and the North Circular Road with a bunch of overstressed clurachaun trying to do…you know…what clurachaun do??"
Another unanswerable question, even if I had been. "It's tough," I said. "Hard all around."
There wasn't a lot more out of him after that. All the same, I was sorry when he called the waiter over to get his plates tallied up.
He looked up at me. "It's not what it was," he said, "and it's a crying shame."
"We all say that about our own times," I said. "They've said it since ancient Greece."
"But it's truer now than it ever was," said the leprechaun. "Look at the world we were in a hundred years ago. We had poverty, and starvation, and unemployment from here to there, and people being forced out of their homes by greedy landlords. But we still had each other; at least we had a kind word for each other when we passed in the road. Now we have immigrants on the street who're poorer than we ever were; and people getting fat and getting heart attacks from the crap ready-made food that's nine-tenths of what there is to eat these days; and work that kills your soul, but it's all you can get. And forget being forced out of anywhere to live, because you can't afford to get in in the first place. The only kind word you hear from anybody nowadays is when you take out your wallet…and it's not meant. Things are so wrong."
He eyed me. "But you'll say there are good things about it, too," he said.
"You've been here longer than I have," I said. "Maybe I should keep my opinions to myself."
"It was different once," the leprechaun said. "It was different when She ran things." And he stared into the last of his sake, and past it at the black granite of the sushi bar, and looked even more morose than he had before we'd started talking.
He tossed the rest of his sake back in one shot. "Good night to you," he said at last, slid off the cream-colored barstool, and went out into the night.
So it was a shock, the next day, to find that he was dead.
* * *
Leprechauns don't die the way we do: otherwise, the Gardai would have a lot more work on their plates than they already do with the burglaries and the joyriders and the addicts shooting up in the middle of Temple Bar. At the scene of a leprechaun's murder, you find a tumble of clothes, and usually a pair of extremely well made shoes, but nothing else. That was all the Folk found the next morning, down the little back alley that runs from the Grafton Street pedestrian precinct to behind Judge Roy Bean's.
At first everyone assumed that he'd run afoul of some druggie desperate for money and too far separated from his last fix. They may be of the Old Blood, but leprechauns can't vanish at will without preparation: you can get the drop on one if you're smart and fast. Various pots of gold were lost to mortals this way in the old days, when there was still gold in Ireland. But the leprechauns had the advantage of open ground and nonurban terrain into which to vanish. It's harder to do in the city. There are too many eyes watching you--half of a leprechaun's vanishing is skillful misdirection--and, these days, there are too many dangers too closely concentrated. The sense of those who knew him was that he just got unlucky.
I confess it was partly curiosity that brought me to the wake, where I was told all this. But it was partly the astonishment of having another of the leprechaun's people actually look me up at the magazine. There he stood, looking like a youthful but much shorter Mickey Rooney in tweeds, waiting in the place's glossy, garish reception area and looking offended by it all. I came out to talk to him, and he said, "Not here…"
My boss, in her glass-walled inner office, was safely on the phone, deep in inanely detailed conversation with some publishing or media figure about where they would be going for lunch. This happened every day, and no one who went missing from now to 3:00 P.M., when the Boss might or might not come back, would be noticed. I stepped outside with the leprechaun and went down to stand with him by the news kiosk at the corner of Dawson Street.
"You were the last one to see him alive," the leprechaun said. I knew better than to ask "who?"; first because I immediately knew whom he meant, and second because you don't ask leprechauns their names--they're all secret, and (some say) they're all the same.
"He was all right when he left," I said. "What happened?"
"No one knows," said the leprechaun. "He wasn't drunk?"
"He didn't have anything like enough sake." Privately I doubted there was that much sake in the city. You haven't lived until you've seen someone try to drink a leprechaun under the table.
The leprechaun nodded, and he looked as grim as my dinner companion had the other night.
"He was murdered," he said.
I was astounded. "How? Why?"
"We don't know. But he's not the first. More like the tenth, and they're coming closer together."
"A serial killer…"
"We don't know," said the leprechaun. "Come to the wake tonight." And he was off down Dawson Street, quick and dapper, just one more self-possessed businessman, if shorter than most.
Who would kill the Old Folk, though? I thought. Who stands to profit? It's hard enough for most mortals even to see them, let alone to kill them. One or two might have been accidents. But ten?…
There were no answers for my questions then. I went back to work, because there was nothing better to do, and when my boss still wasn't back by four, I checked out early and made my way down to the Long Hall.
The place doesn't look very big from the frontage on South Great Georges Street. A red-and-white sign over a wide picture window, obscured by ancient, dusty stained-glass screens inside; that's all there is. The place looks a little run-down. Doubtless the proprietors encourage that look, for the Long Hall is a pint house of great fame, and to have such a place be contaminated by as few tourists as possible is seen as a positive thing in Dublin. If you make it past the genteelly shabby facade and peeling paint, you find yourself surrounded by ancient woodwork, warm and golden-colored, and glossy wallpaper and carved plaster ceilings that were white in the 1890s, but are now stained down by time and smoke to a warm nicotine brown. The pub's name is deserved. It's a narrow place, but it goes on and on, nearly the width of the block in which it resides. There are barstools down the right side, and behind them a bar of great height, antiquity, and splendor--faded, age-splotched mirrors, bottles of every kind racked up to the ceiling, and most importantly, long shelves running the length of the back of the bar, to put pints on.
I wandered in, pushed between a couple of occupied barstools, and ordered myself a pint. This by itself gives you plenty of time to look around, as a well-pulled pint of Guinness takes at least seven minutes, and the best ones take ten. Right now, the front of the bar was full of people who had left work early. It was full of the usual sound of Dubliners complaining about work, and the people they worked with. "So I said to him, why don't you tell him to go to the F ing Spar and get a sandwich and then sit down for five F ing minutes, sure she'll be back then. Oh no, he says, I can't F ing spare the time in the middle of the F ing day--"
I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes…yet still I had to smile. This is how, when I return home, I know for sure that I'm in Dublin again. The second you're past passport control in Dublin Airport, you hear it…and after that, you hear it everywhere else in town, from everyone between nine and ninety-five. Only in Dublin do people use the F word as casually as they use "Hey" or "Sure" or "Listen" in the US. It's an intensifier, without any meaning whatsoever except to suggest that you're only mildly interested in what you're saying. Only in Ireland would such a usage be necessary: for here, words are life.
I glanced toward the back of the bar. Between the front and the back of the pub was a sort of archway of wood, and looking at it, I realized that it was a line of demarcation in more ways than one. A casual glance suggested that the space behind it was empty. But if you had the Sight, and you worked at seeing, slowly you could see indistinct shapes, standing, gesturing. You couldn't hear any sound, though; that seemed to stop at the archway.
It was an interesting effect. I guessed that the wizards the leprechaun had mentioned had installed it. I walked slowly toward the archway, and was surprised, when I reached it, to feel strongly as if I didn't want to go any farther. But I pushed against the feeling and kept on walking.
Once through the archway, the sound of conversation came up to full as if someone had hit the "unmute" button on a TV remote. There had to be about eighty of the Old People back here, which was certainly more warm bodies than the space was rated for; it was a good thing all the occupants were smaller than the normal run of mortals.
There was just as much F-ing and blinding going on back here as there had been in the front of the bar, but otherwise, the back-of-the-pub people were a less routine sort of group. There was very little traditional costume in evidence; all these Old People seemed very city-assimilated. I glanced around, feeling acutely visible because of my height--and I'm only five-foot-seven. Near me, a tall slender woman, dressed unfashionably all in white, turned oblique eyes on me, brushing her long, lank, dark hair back to one side. Only after a long pause did she smile. "Oh, good," she said. "Not for a while yet…" And she clinked her gin and tonic against my pint.
"Uh," I said. A moment later, next to me, a voice said, "It's good of you to come."
I glanced down. It was the leprechaun who had come up to the office. "This is one of the Washers," he said.
Even if I'd thought about it in advance, the last thing I'd have expected to see in a city pub would've been a banshee, one of the "Washers at the Ford" who prophesy men's deaths. I was a little too unnerved just then to ask her what her work in the city was like. She smiled at me--it was really a very sweet smile--and said, "It's all right… I'm not on duty. Days I work over in Temple Bar, in a restaurant there. Dishwashing."
She took a drink of her G and T, and laughed. "Most of us give up laundry right away. Won't do their F ing polyester!"
We chatted casually about business, and weather, and about the departed, while I glanced around at the rest of the company, trying not to stare. There were plenty of others there besides leprechauns and bansidhe and clurichauns. There were a few pookas--two of them wearing human shape, and one, for reasons best known to himself, masquerading as an Irish wolfhound. There were several
dullahans in three-piece suits, or polo shirts and chinos, holding leisurely conversations while holding their heads in their hands (the way a dullahan drinks while talking is worth watching). There was a gaggle of green-haired merrows in sealskin jackets and tight pants, looking like slender biker babes but without the tattoos or studs, and all looking faintly wet no matter how long they'd been out of the Bay. There was a fat round little fear gorta in a sweat suit and glow-step Nikes, staving off his own personal famine by gorging on bagged-in McDonald's from the branch over in Grafton Street. And there were grogachs and leanbaitha and other kinds of the People that I'd never seen before; in some cases I never did find out what they were, or did, or what they were doing in town. There was no time, and besides, it seemed inappropriate to be inquiring too closely about everybody else while the purpose was to wake one particular leprechaun.
They waked him. It wasn't organized, but stories started coming out about him--how much time he spent down around the Irish Writers Center, how he gave some mortal entrepreneur-lady the idea for the "Viking" amphibious-vehicle tours up and down the river Liffey: endless tales of that kind. He was well liked, and much missed, and people were angry about what had happened to him. But they were also afraid.
"And who the F are we supposed to tell about it?" said one of the
dullahan to me and the banshee at one point. "Sure there's no help in the Guards--we've a few of our own kind scattered here and there through the force, but no one high up enough to be paid any mind to."
"We need our own guards," said another voice, one of the clurachauns.
"And you'd love that, wouldn't you? You'd be the first customers," said one of the leprechauns.
There was a mutter. Clurachauns are too well known for their thieving habits, which make them no friends among either the "trooping" people like the Sidhe or the "solitaries" like the leprechauns, dullahans, and merrows. The clurachaun only snickered.
"What do you call a northsider in a Mercedes? Thief!" said one of the leprechauns, under his breath. "What's the difference between a northsider and a clurachaun? The northsider is better dressed!"
The clurachaun turned on him. The others moved back to give them room for what was probably coming. But there was one of the People I'd earlier noted, a grizzled, older leprechaun whom the others of his kind, and even the clurachauns, seemed to respect: when he'd spoken up, earlier, they'd gotten quiet. "The Eldest," the banshee had whispered in my ear. Now the Eldest Leprechaun moved in fast and gave the younger leprechaun a clout upside the head. To my astonishment, no fight broke out.
"Shame on you, and the two of you acting like arseholes in front of a mortal," said the Eldest. The squabblers both had the grace to look at least sullenly shamefaced. "Here we are in this time of grief when no one knows what's happening, or who it might happen to next, and you make eejits of yourself. Shut up, the both of you."
They turned away, muttering, and moved to opposite sides of the pub. The Eldest nodded at me and turned back to the conversation he'd been having with one of the merrows, who looked nervous. "I did see it, Manaanan's name I did," she said, shrugging back the sealskin jacket to show that strange pearly skin underneath: it was hot in the back of the pub, with so many People in there. "Or…I saw something. I was comin' up out of the river the other night, you know, by where the coffee shop is on the new boardwalk. I wanted a latte. And I saw it down the street, heading away from the Liffey, past one of those cut-rate furniture stores. Something…not normal."
"What was it?" the Eldest said.
She shook her head, and the dark wet hair sprayed those standing nearest as she did. "Something big and green."
No one knew what to make of that. "Aah, she's got water on the brain," said one of the clurachauns standing nearest. "It's all just shite anyway. It's junkies doin' it."
The Eldest glared at him. "It might be," he said, "and it might not. We don't dare take anything for granted. But we have to start taking care of ourselves now. Everybody so far who's been taken has been out in some quiet place like a park, or in the waste places around housing estates. Now whatever's doing this is doing it in the city. Nowhere'll be safe soon. We have to put a stop to it. We need to start doing a neighborhood-watch kind of thing, such as mortals do."
To my surprise, then, he turned to me. "Would you help us with that?" he said. "We could use a mortal's eye on this. You know the city as well as we do, but from the mortal's side. And you're of good heart; otherwise, the deceased wouldn't have given you a word. He was a shrewd judge of character, that one."
"How can I help?" I said.
"Walk some patrols with us," he said. "That's how we'll have to start. We can get more of our city People in to help us if it's shown to work."
My first impulse would have been to moan about my day job and how I had little enough time off as it was. Then I thought, What the hell am I thinking? I want to know more about these People--
"Sure," I said. "Tell me where to meet you.
"Tomorrow night," said the Eldest. "Say, down by the bottom of Grafton Street, by St. Stephen's Green. We'll 'beat the bounds' and see what we can find."
* * *
And so we did that for five nights running, six…and saw nothing. People's spirits began to rise: there was some talk that just the action we'd taken had put the fear on whatever we were trying to guard ourselves against. It would have been nice if that was true.
We walked, most of the time, between about nine at night and one in the morning: that was when the last few who'd been taken had vanished. I was out with a group including one of the merrow babes--I could never tell them apart--and two more leprechauns from my first one's clan, over on the north side of the Liffey, not far from the big "industrial" pubs that have sprung up there, all noise and no atmosphere. As we went past the biggest of them, heading east along the riverbank, we heard something that briefly froze us all. A shriek--
As a mortal I would have mistaken it for a child's voice. But the People with me knew better. The three of them ran across the Ha'penny Bridge, past startled tourists who felt things jostle them, saw nothing, and (as I passed in their wake) started feeling their pockets to see if they'd been picked. The People sprinted across Crampton Quay in the face of oncoming traffic, just made it past, and ran up the stairs and through the little tunnelway that leads into Temple Bar. And there, just before the alleyway opens out into the Square, when I caught up with them, I saw them staring at the cracked sidewalk, and on it, the empty tumble of clothes.
It was another of the People, but a clurachaun this time, stolen things spilling out of the clothing's pockets--billfolds, change, jewelry, someone's false teeth. But the threadbare tweeds were all shredded to rags as if by razors.
The merrow began to tremble. She pointed into the shadows, between the kebab place next to us, and the back door of the pub down at the corner.
Something green, yes. A green shadow melting out of the courtyard by Temple Street, turning, looking to right and left…and when it looked right, it saw us.
The great round eyes were yellow as lamps, and glowed green at their backs with the reflection of the sodium-vapor lights back on the Quay. Humans walked by it and never saw; and it looked through them as if they were the mist curling up off the water of the Liffey, as if they didn't matter. Massive, low-slung and big-shouldered, swag-bellied but nonetheless easily two tons of hard lean muscle, the size of a step van, the big striped cat put its tremendous round plate of a face down, eyeing us, and the whole block filled with the low, thoughtful sound of its growl, like a tank's engine turning over.
It saw the leprechauns. It saw the Washer. It saw me…or at least I think it did, as someone who could see the Old Folk and was therefore of interest. It didn't need us, though, for tonight. It had had enough. It gazed yellowly at us for a moment more, then padded leisurely away across Temple Bar Square into the shadows behind the Irish Film Centre--the lighter-colored stripes, livid green like a thunderstorm sunset, fading into grimy city shadow as it went, the darker stripes gone the color of that shadow already, vanishing into it as the lighter ones faded. Only the shape of the slowly lashing tail remained for a moment under the stuttering light of the streetlamp at the corner of the Square…then slipped into the dark and was gone.
A horrified, frozen silence followed.
"F me," said the leprechaun at last, when he could speak again. "It's the Celtic Tiger…"
* * *
The old people met again late that night in the Long Hall, after chucking-out time had officially been called and the mortals pushed (or in select cases, thrown) out into the street. The Old Folk, for their own part, pay no attention to licensing laws, having little to fear from them. There's no point staging Garda raids on pubs open past "time" when between the first bang on the door and the forced entry, everybody inside literally vanishes.
Many of the Old Ones were afraid to say the name of what we'd seen. The idiom had become popular in the early nineties, adopted as inward investment boomed and the economy became the fastest-growing in Europe. It had become a favorite phrase and image for Irish people everywhere, a matter of pride, turning up in countless advertisements. But no one had foreseen the side effects, perhaps not even the Old People. They were seeing them now.
"We should hunt down whoever coined the F ing name and make their last hours unpleasant," said one of the Washers.
"Too late for that now," the Eldest Leprechaun said. "The damage is done. Give the thing a name, and it takes shape. They gave a name and a shape to the force that's always hated us. It's everything we're not. It's New Ireland, it's money for money's sake, brown paper envelopes stuffed full of bribes--the turn of mind that says that the old's only good for theme parks, and the new is all there needs to be. It's been getting stronger and stronger all this while. And now that it's more important to the people living in the city than we are, it's become physically real. It's started killing us to take our strength from us, and it'll keep killing us and getting bigger and stronger…until it's big enough to breed."
A sort of collective shudder went through the room. I shuddered, too, though it was as much from the strangeness of the moment as anything else. There are no female leprechauns, but nonetheless there are always enough younger ones to replace the old who die. Power in Ireland does not run to mortal's rules, either in reproduction or in other ways. If the Folk said the Tiger could make more of itself, it could. And when the food supply ran out in the city, the Tiger's brood would head into the countryside and continue the killing until there were none of the Old Folk left…and none of Old Ireland. What remained would be a wealthy country, the fastest-growing economy in Europe, then as now: but spiritually it would be a dead place, something vital gone from it forever.
"I think we all know who we need now," the Oldest Leprechaun said. "We need the one who speaks to the Island in tongues and knows all its secrets--"
A hush fell. "We don't dare!" somebody said from the back of the crowd.
"We have to dare," the Eldest said. "We need the one who died but did not die, the one of whom it was prophesied that he would come back to the Island in its darkest moment and save its people. We need Ireland's only superhero!"
A great cheer went up. Everybody piled out the doors of the Long Hall, carrying me with them.
That's how we wound up heading down College Green in an untidy crowd, around the curve of the old Bank of Ireland and past Trinity College, heading for the river. Across O'Connell Bridge and up O'Connell Street we went, in the dark dead of night, and late-night revelers and petty crooks alike fled before our faces, certain that we were an outflow of Ecstasy-crazed ravers, or something far less savory. Past them all we went, nearly to the foot of the grayly shining needle of the Millennium Spire, and then hung a right into the top of North Earl Street, catty-corner from the GPO…and gathered there, six deep and expectant, around the statue of James Joyce.
* * *
Dubliners have an ambivalent relationship, at best, to their landmarks and civic statuary. Whether they love them or hate them, the landmarks are given names that don't necessarily reflect the desires of the sculptors, but certainly sum up the zeitgeist.
The first one to become really famous had been the statue of Molly Malone at the top of Grafton Street. Some well-meaning committee had set there a bronze of the poor girl, representing her wheeling her wheelbarrow through streets broad and narrow; and popular opinion had almost instantaneously renamed this statue The Tart with the Cart. Within weeks, the bright brass shine of the tops of her breasts (as opposed to her more normal patina elsewhere) seemed to confirm as widespread a friend's opinion that Miss Molly was peddling, as one wag delicately put it, "more than just shellfish" around the streets broad and narrow.
The convention swiftly took hold in Dublin, as all things do there that give the finger to propriety. The chimney of a former city distillery, turned into a tourist attraction with an elevator and a glassed-in viewing platform on top, became The Flue with the View. The attempt to put a Millennium Clock into the river had overnight become The Time in the Slime. And the bronze statue around which we now stood, the natty little man in his fedora, standing looking idly across O'Connell Street toward the GPO--the wild-tongued exile himself, the muse of Irish literature in the twentieth century, James Joyce himself had been dubbed The Prick with the Stick.
And so here we stood around him, none of us insensible to what everybody called the statue--and by extension, the man. We'd all done it. And now we needed him. Was this going to be a problem?
The Eldest Leprechaun raised his hands in the air before the statue and spoke at length in Gaeilge, an invocation of great power that buzzed in all our bones and made the surrounding paving blocks jitter and plate-glass windows ripple with sine waves: but nothing happened.
Glances were exchanged among those in the gathered crowd. Then one of the Washers at the Ford raised her voice and keened a keen as it was done in the ancient days, though with certain anarchic qualities--a long twelve-tone ululation suggestive of music written in the twenties, before the atonal movement had been discredited.
And nothing happened at all.
The Eldest Leprechaun stood there thinking for a moment. "Working with effigies isn't going to be enough," he said. "It might be for one of us…but not for him, a mortal. We've got to go to the graveside and raise his ghost itself."
"Where's he buried?" said another leprechaun. "We'll rent a van or something…"
"You daft bugger," said another one, "he's not buried here. He was never at home after they banned his books. It was always Trieste or Paris, all these fancy places with faraway names…"
Finally, I could contribute something. "Zürich," I said. "It was Zürich. A cemetery above the city…"
"We'll go," said the Eldest. "You'll come with us. And one or two others. We'll fly to Zürich tomorrow…wake him up, and at the very least get his advice. If we can, we'll bring him back. Until then," the Eldest said, "everyone travel in groups. Stay off the streets at night if you can. We won't be long."
* * *
Leprechauns still have some access to gold, or at least to gold cards: we flew out on Swiss at lunchtime the next day, the direct flight to Zürich. That evening, about five, we were on the ground, and nothing would satisfy the Eldest but that we go straight to the grave, immediately.
I'd been in Switzerland once or twice, and I was against it. "I'm not sure you should do that," I said. "The Swiss are very big on not going into places after they're officially closed…"
The Eldest gave me a look.
As a result we immediately took the feeder train from the airport to the main station, and the Number 6 tram from the main station tram depot to the Zürichbergstrasse. At Zürichbergstrasse 129 are the gates to Fluntern Cemetery. We got out and found the place locked and apparently deserted behind its high granite walls; but there was a little iron-barred postern gate that was open--or at least, it opened to the Eldest Leprechaun. We went in.
The cemetery is beautifully kept, and we headed around and up several curving pathways, climbing, for the cemetery is built against the slope of the Zürichberg mountain that leans above the city. Finally, we found the spot. Under a stand of trees, in a sort of semicircular bay, were some tasteful plantings, a bronze of Joyce sitting on a rock and admiring the view, a plaque in the ground saying who was buried there, with dates of birth and death, and a stern sign in German, French, and Italian saying WALKING ON THE GRAVE IS FORBIDDEN.
The other leprechauns took off their hats. Once more the Eldest raised his arms and spoke that long, solemn invocation in Irish. All around us, the wind in the aspens and birches fell quiet. And suddenly there were three men standing there; or the ghosts of three men.
One was tall, one was short, and one was of middle height. They were all wearing clothes from the turn of the twentieth-century--loose trousers held up over white shirts with suspenders. They looked at us in some confusion.
"Where is James Joyce?" said the Eldest Leprechaun.
"He's dead," said the shortest of the three.
The Eldest Leprechaun rolled his eyes. "I mean, where is he now?"
"He is not here," said the middle-sized figure. "He is risen."
The tallest of them checked his watch. "And being that it's the time that it is," he said, "why would he still be here at all? He's in the pub."
The leprechauns looked at each other.
"We should have known," one of them said.
"Pelikanstrasse?" the Eldest said to the three shadowy figures.
"That's the one."
"Thanking you," said the Eldest, and we went straight back out of the cemetery to catch the tram back down the hill.
At Pelikanstrasse is one of the bigger complexes of one of the bigger Swiss banks. There, in a little plaza by Bahnhofstrasse, you see a number of granite doorways, all leading nowhere; and past them the street curves down into what seems at first a nondescript arc of shop windows and office doorways.
"Those three guys--"
"They're something from Finnegans Wake," said the leprechaun who was walking next to me, behind the Eldest. "Three guys always turn up together with the initials H, C, and E. Never got into that one, too obscure, don't ask me for the details. But the pub's in there too, and in Ulysses…"
He told me how once upon a time, the bar had been the Antique Bar in the first Jury's Hotel, in Dame Street. There, at a corner table, a little man in round-framed glasses and a slouch hat could often have been seen sitting in front of a red wine and a gorgonzola sandwich, when he could afford them, relaxing in the dim pub-misted afternoon sunlight, while other languages, other universes, roiled and teemed in his brain.
"But someone had a brain seizure," the leprechaun said. "Jury's sold off their old property in Dame Street and arranged to have the hotel knocked down. Urban renewal, progress, all that shite. They wanted the money for the land: that was all. And, they said to themselves, we'll auction off the innards and get a few extra bob for it. If not, we'll just throw it all in the tip, and in any case we'll build a much better bar somewhere else, in a nice new hotel, all covered with lovely Formica." The leprechaun grimaced. "But then along came, would you believe it, the head of the Swiss security services. He was afraid the Russians would invade his country, and he was looking for a safe house in Ireland where the Swiss government could hide if that happened. And wouldn't you know he was a Joyce fan. He found out about Jury's auctioning off the bar, and he got one of the big Swiss banks and some people from the government to buy the whole thing. And then the Swiss came along and took it to bits and numbered every piece, and put it back together in Zürich, and here it is."
The leprechaun lowered his head conspiratorially toward mine.
"The Swiss," he whispered, "are Celts, do you know."
I nodded. "The Helvetii," I said after few moments. "They made cheese. It's in the Gallic Wars."
"And why wouldn't they have," the leprechaun said with relish, "seeing that the furious and bloody Queen Maeve herself was killed by being slung at and hit in the forehead by her stepson with a great lump of the Irish version of Parmesan."
He fell silent.
"Or it might have been Regato," he added.
We came to the door of the bar--a simple wooden door, nothing exciting about it--pulled it open, and went in.
An Irish country-house chef I know once described Zürich to me, under his breath, as "a kick-ass party town." And so it is. It has many sleek, slinky bars, jumping with the sound of the moment, well hidden from the tourists whom such relentless buzz would confuse. But here, in that busy and congenial city, is something completely different--a corner that is forever Ireland. Here Irish-strength cigarette and cigar smoke tangles (ever so briefly) under the lights before being sucked away by the relentlessly efficient Swiss ventilation system. Here voices converse at Irish volume levels, nearly enough to curl the turbine fans on a Concorde. Here Irish craic (if there is such a word) seeps out of the teak-paneled, glinting, polished walls.
And here we found Joyce. He was dead, but he didn't mind, for he was in his local.
He sat at the back corner table, by himself; amazing that the rest of the place was practically pullulating with people, but this one island of quiet remained. His hat sat on the red leather banquette next to him, his cane leaned against the table, and a glass of red wine sat on the table before him. He looked very much the dapper young man of a statelier time…though there was something else about him, something in his eyes, that brought the hair up on the back of my neck. It was more than just being dead.
Respectfully we approached him, and the Eldest Leprechaun stood by Joyce's table. "Mr. Joyce," he said, "you're needed."
You would have wondered, if you'd been watching Joyce's eyes earlier, whether he was quite in this time and place, or wandering in mind or spirit to some other time, the twenties or thirties perhaps. Now, though, those eyes snapped into the here and now.
The Eldest Leprechaun spoke to Joyce, quietly and at some length, in Irish. While he did, the narrow, wise little eyes rested on each of us in turn, very briefly. And when he spoke, he sounded annoyed.
"Well, this is tiresome," Joyce said.
Everyone who had the sense to do so, cringed. I didn't. Later I found out that "tiresome" was as close as Joyce ever got to saying F.
"What can be done, sir?" said the Eldest Leprechaun.
Joyce looked thoughtful for a moment. "There is only one hope," he said. "We must conjure the river."
The Eldest Leprechaun blanched.
"We must raise up Anna Livia," Joyce said, "the Goddess of the Liffey, and put your case to Her. Only She can save your people now. She may refuse. She is Herself, and has Her own priorities. But I think She will be kindly disposed toward you. And if anyone can raise Her for you, I can. She and I…we were an Item." And his eyes glinted.
"You'll come back with us tomorrow, then?"
"First thing," Joyce said.
* * *
And so it came to pass. I have no idea how one handles airline ticketing for dead people these days, but he was right there with us in business class the next morning, Saturday morning--critiquing the Swiss wines on board and flirting with the flight attendants. Two hours later, just in time for lunch, we were home.
A minivan-cab took us back to town. "Bloomsday early this year, is it?" said the cab driver to Joyce.
Joyce smiled thinly and didn't answer. On June 16 of every year the city was full of counterfeit Joyces. "There was a statue of Anna Livia in town, wasn't there?" he said.
"Oh, the Floozie in the Jacuzzi," the driver said. "They moved it."
"Where is it now?"
"Then that's where we're going, my good man."
He took us there. We paid him off, and after he'd left, Joyce went over to the statue and looked at it rather sadly.
It had always resembled a dissolute, weedy-haired woman in a concrete bathtub at the best of times, when it had been installed in the middle of O'Connell Street and running with the music of flowing water. Now, though, sitting dusty, high and dry on wooden pallets in the middle of the stones of an unfinished memorial plaza, surrounded by marine cranes and dingy warehouses, the statue just looked ugly.
Joyce looked at it and frowned. "Well, we have no choice," Joyce said. "For this we need the concrete as well as the abstract."
He walked over to the waterside. The Eldest Leprechaun went with him. Joyce took off his hat and handed it to the leprechaun. Then he stood straight, his cane in one hand, and suddenly was all magician…
"O tell me all about Anna Livia," he said in that thin, singing little tenor voice: and though he didn't raise that voice at all, the sound hit the warehouses and the freighters and the superstructure of the East-link Bridge half a mile away, and ricocheted and rattled from building to building until the water itself started to shake with it, rippling as if from an earth tremor underneath. "I want to hear all about Anna Livia. Tell me all. Tell me now. You'll die when you hear--"
The water inside the river walls leapt and beat against the banks, soaking us all. I began to wonder if we would die: I hadn't seen the river like this since the last hurricane. Joyce spoke on, and the wind rose, and the stones under our feet shook. "Then, then, as soon as the lump his back was turned, with her mealiebag slung over her shoulder, Anna Livia, oysterface, forth of her bassein came--!"
"I hear, I wake," said a tremendous voice in response. If you've once heard it, you will never forget it; Liffey in spate, a thunder, a roar between Her banks, lightning trapped in the water, a green-and-white resistless fury pushing everything before Her into the Bay.
She rose up. Those who had the sense to do so, covered their eyes. The rest of us were immediately showered with sodden sneakers, slime-laden Coke cans, ancient tattered plastic Quinnsworth bags, and much other, far less printable detritus of urban Dublin existence. She towered up, towered over us. She was water, water in the shape of a woman: Her hair streamed with water, streamed down and became part of Her again; Her gown was water, and the water glowed. She looked up Her river, and down Her river, and said; "Where am I?"
There was a profound silence all around that had nothing to do with the awe and majesty of Herself.
"Where am I?" said Anna Livia again, in a tone of voice that suggested someone had better F ing tell Her.
One lone voice that raised itself, unafraid, over the dead stillness.
"North Quay," Joyce said.
There was a long, long pause.
"North Quay?" said the gracious Goddess, looking around Her. "What the F am I doin' here? I was in O'Connell Street last time I looked out this ugly thing's eyes, with wee babies playin' in me in the hot weather! When we had it, which was not often. Remind me to destroy Met Eireann when I have a moment to rub together. F ing global warming, I know who's responsible, them and their peat-burning power stations, and all these F ing SUVs."
And then She peered down. "Can that be you?" She said in an accent more of the Gaiety Theatre than anything else. "Jimmy, you son of a bitch, my love, my great and only love, what the F are you doing here? You were at peace this long while, I thought, after they put you in the ground far from home, thanks to that F ing deValera--"
She went on for some minutes, splendidly, but ran down at last. "You didn't wake me up for nothing, James my love," She said at last. "What's to do?"
"There is a tiger eating our people," Joyce said. "A Celtic one. It preys on the Old Ones and tries to kill Old Ireland--"
She was looking around Her at the skyline. Not much had changed in terms of tall buildings--the Irish don't approve of skyscrapers--but much, much else was different, and we were all watching Her face with varying degrees of nervousness.
"Sure I can smell it," She said. "Nasty tomcat stink, they'll always be spraying all over everything. Marking their territory. Their territory indeed!"
For a long moment more She stood there, head raised against the blue-milk sky, sniffing the air. "Lady," the Eldest Leprechaun said, "it only comes out at night--"
"It lies up by day," She said. "Aye, can't I just smell it. Hiding won't help it today. Come on--"
Anna Livia strode on down the river, slowly, looking from side to side at Her city, while we pursued Her on land as best we could. She was looking increasingly annoyed as She went. Maybe it was the traffic on the Quays, or the pollution, or the new one-way system, which drove everybody insane: or maybe it was some of the newer architecture. One glance She gave the Millennium Spire, erected at last three years late. That glance worried me--Dubliners are sufficiently divided on the Spire that they haven't yet decided which rude name is best for it--but Anna Livia then turned Her attention elsewhere, looking over the intervening rooftops, southward. Four or five blocks inland stood the International Financial Services Centre, next to one of the city's two main train stations. It was an ugly building, a green-glass-and-white-marble chimera, dwarfing everything around it--a monument to money, built during the height of the Tiger time.
"Yes," She said softly, "there it is, I'll be bound. Kitty, kitty, kitty!"
She came up out of the river, then, and started to head crosstown. What other Unsighted mortals were able to make of the sudden flood that leapt up out of the Liffey, I don't know: but the water got into the underground wiring and immediately made the traffic lights go on the blink, bringing traffic on the Quays to a halt. Maybe it's a blessing, I thought, as I ran after the others, trying to keep out of the flood of water that followed the colossal shape up out of the river.
Anna Livia came up to the IFSC and looked it over, peering in through the windows. Then She stood up straight.
"Gods bless all here save the cat!" she said in a voice of thunder.
At the sound of Her raised voice, glass exploded out of the IFSC in every possible direction, as if Spielberg had come back to town and said, "Buy all the sugar glass on Earth, and trash it." From the spraying, glittering chaos, at least one clandestine billionaire plunged in a shrieking, flailing trajectory toward the parking lot of Tara Street Station, missed, and made a most terminal sound on impact: apparently blessings weren't enough. He was followed by his chef, who had fallen on hard times (only recently acquitted of stealing a Titian from his signature restaurant's host hotel) and now fell on something much harder, ruining the no-claims bonuses of numerous Mercedes and BMW sedans parked below.
And in their wake, something else came out--growling, not that low, pleased growl we'd heard the other night, but something far more threatened, and more threatening.
Through the wall, or one of the openings left by the broken glass, out it came. It slunk, at first, and it looked up at Herself, and snarled and showed its teeth. But there was going to be no contest. Anna Livia was the height of the Customs House dome, and Her proportions to the Celtic Tiger's proportions were those of an angry housewife to that of an alley cat.
It did all it could do, as She bent down and reached for it. It ran. Crushing cars, knocking mortals aside, it ran to get as far inland as it could. It got as far as St. Stephen's Green, and dived into the Square, through the trees, and out of sight.
From way behind, I cursed when I saw it do that. By the time we caught up with the Tiger, it would be out the other side of the Green and into Dublin 2 somewhere--
I looked over at the Eldest Leprechaun, then back to see where Anna Livia had gone. She was briefly out of sight, a block or so over now. "Come on," he said, "the Green--"
We went there--it was all we could do. When we got to St. Stephen's Green, all surrounded by its trees, there was no sound of further disturbance anywhere else. "It's still in here--" I said. We looked through the archway at the bottom of Grafton Street and could see nothing but the little lake inside, placid water, and some slightly startled-looking swans.
"Now what?" I said under my breath.
The Eldest Leprechaun gestured. I looked where he pointed. At the top of Grafton Street, by Trinity College, Anna Livia had taken a stand.
She ventured no farther south. She simply raised Her hands and began speaking in Irish. And as we looked back through the archway into the Green, down toward the lake, we saw something starting to happen: water rising again--
"The swans…!" the Eldest Leprechaun said.
It wasn't the regular swans he meant. These were crowding back and away from the center of the lake as fast as they could. The shapes rising from the water now were swans as well, but more silver than the normal ones, and far, far bigger. They reached their necks up; they trumpeted; they leapt out of the water, into the greenery, out of sight.
A roar of pain and rage went up, and the Celtic Tiger broke cover and ran up out of St. Stephen's Green into Grafton Street, down the red bricks, in full flight, with the Children of Lir coming after him fast. It may not sound like much, five swans against a tiger: but one swan by itself is equal to an armed knight on horseback if it knows what it's doing. Five swans fighting, choreographed, in unison, are a battalion. In a city street lined with chain stores, and with plate glass everywhere, when you hear the whooping whooshing uncanny sound of swan wings coming after you, you think: Where can I hide? But five giant swans who are also four pissed-off Irish princes, and their sister, worth all the rest of them put together…if you were a tiger with any sense, you'd leave the country.
This one didn't have quite that much sense. Maybe it was bloated with its own sense of its power--for hadn't it had its way all this while? It turned, roaring with fury, and leapt back down the street toward its pursuers--
A swan's wing caught it full across the face. The Tiger shied back like a horse struck with a whip across the eyes, then was battered by more wings, merciless. The Tiger turned and ran again, back the way it had been going first, around the curve in Grafton Street, with the Children in hot pursuit…and ran, in turn, right into Anna Livia. She reached down and picked it up, yowling and howling, like a woman picking up a badly behaved housecat. Herself turned and walked past Trinity, the flood that had been following Her carefully containing itself, and She made her way north toward O'Connell Bridge, the waters roaring, the Tiger roaring, the horns of frustrated drivers honking all up and down the Quays as She went. What are
they seeing? I wondered, as in company with the leprechauns I followed Herself as best I could. I had a feeling that the next day there would be stories in the Irish Times about flash floods, water main breaks, anything but the truth.
The truth was mind-bending enough, though, as we looked at the River Herself standing on O'Connell Bridge and looking north up the street.
"Yes," She said, and Her voice rumbled against the buildings. "Yes, that'll do nicely--"
In Her hands, as She walked up O'Connell Street, the Tiger writhed and splashed and yowled desperately to get away. But there was no escape. Slowly it was borne up the street, shoulder high to Herself, spitting and clawing in terror, until She stood right across from the GPO, just in front of the Millennium Spire. Slowly She lifted the Tiger up over Her head.
"So you would kill Old Ireland?" Anna Livia said. "You would kill yourself, for without Old Ireland, you wouldn't be. And as we brought you about…"
In one hard gesture She brought the Tiger down.
"So we can end you," She said, "or the badness in you…if we have the sense."
She turned and made Her way back to O'Connell Bridge. Traffic was in an uproar, and Gardai were rushing in every direction. No one noticed a guy and a few leprechauns and a little slender man in turn-of-the-century clothes standing there by the water, watching the huge woman's shape that eased down into it again…if they saw that last at all.
"Not dead yet, boys," She said, as She subsided gently into the water; "not dead yet." She threw a last loving glance at Joyce.
He took his hat back from the Eldest Leprechaun and tipped it to Herself.
The waters closed over Her again. Joyce, or his ghost, vanished as She did. Overhead, we glanced up at the sound of swans' wings, heavy and dangerous, beating their way down the air over the river.
And then I looked back over my shoulder, north up O'Connell Street, and had to grin. There, at the top of the Spire, impaled like a limp hors d'oeuvre on a cocktail stick, and not burning at all bright--hung something green.
Copyright © 2004 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd., and Tekno Books