JUNIPER was different from us. In the first place she came from another country—Cornwall—and although she spoke our language perfectly, apart from the p's, which no one but us could pronounce properly, she looked different. She was taller, darker skinned, and although she had black hair as Finbar and I did, she did not have our bright-blue eyes. Her eyes were a soft, dark color, brooding and quiet.
Then again, she did not live as our women lived. She was what in our language was called a cailleach—it meant a single woman, but more than a single woman, one who had something uncanny about her. In our village the women were the wives of farm workers, of sailors, of fishermen, with swarms of children tumbling over their doorsteps. The few who were unmarried lived at home and looked after their parents. No woman lived alone, as Juniper did.
Juniper lived away from the village, high up in a white stone house set on a sort of inland cliff that looked as if, a few yards from the front of her garden, the ground had suddenly split open. Behind her house was a great meadow covered in spring and summer with flowers. Beyond that, as I was one day to learn, was a moor, fragrant with mint and asphodel and bog myrtle, and beyond that again blue mountains. At night up there the stars seemed very close, and by day you felt as if you were on the roof of the world.
At the front of her house was a winding path that led down to the village; there were sheep tracks and caves in the red wall of the cliff. The front of her house looked toward the village and the back of it onto her herb garden and the moor.
The most important thing that separated Juniper from the rest of us was that she did magic. When we called her a cailleach, what we really meant was that she was a witch, a sorceress, probably in the pay of the Devil. Proof was that she did not come to Mass on Sundays, when the priest held aloft the bread and the wine. She came to the village when people were desperate and did not care anymore if Fillan Priest disapproved of them. When a man whose wife had labored for hours in vain could not stand it any longer, when someone was near to death after an accident, when a child was delirious with fever, when a woman had an evil spirit, they sent for Juniper; and whatever she did (and no two people ever agreed about what she did), as often as not the patient recovered. It did not seem to make us grateful; on the contrary, it only increased our feeling that she was a witch.
I was really frightened of her as a tiny child. Mothers in our village used to threaten their children, "I'll give you to Juniper if you are naughty." I wonder if Maeve so threatened me. Of course, Juniper wasn't the witch's real name. Like so many in our village she was called by a nickname—in this case because the plant juniper was a favorite remedy of hers. It was easy enough for people like us to get hold of—we could go and get it up on the mountain, and in a village where many were very poor, it was cheap medicine for many ailments.
MY EARLIEST MEMORY of Juniper was when I was a little child of three or four standing in the village street while my grandmother chatted with a group of neighbors. Suddenly a silence came upon us as Juniper passed, with a friendly word to the women and a smile for me that I did not return. I buried my face in my grandmother's skirt—I can smell the fusty, old-woman smell now—and did not breathe again until the tall figure had passed on her way. My grandmother had put her hand on my head to reassure me, but with childish logic I reasoned that she would not do that if Juniper were not dangerous.
THE FIRST TIME that Juniper and I had anything you could really call a conversation was when I was about five. I spent a lot of time with my cousins because my mother, a woman so beautiful that she was known as Maeve the Fair, had left by then, and my grandmother was getting too old to care for me all the time. (My father, Finbar, was usually away at sea, sailing that angry triangle between Wales and Dalriada and Ireland. Sometimes too he sailed to Cornwall or to Brittany, and brought back tin or silver ore or copper or finely wrought armor or salt.)
I was younger than all but the youngest of my cousins, and an only child who had tantrums when she did not get her own way. Looking back, I am amazed at how patient they were with me, especially as, at least at the beginning, I had more to eat and nicer clothes than they had. Like Juniper and many others, I was not called by my proper name, but by a teasing word that you would translate into English as "Wise Child." This was not a compliment—it was a word for children who used long words, as I often did, or who had big eyes, or who seemed somehow old beyond their years. I did not mind it, since I admired my cousins so much and felt loved by them and it was such fun to be among them and petted by them.
It was an autumn day, golden and still. We had gone to the shore and played there, Conor and Domnall, Seumas and Fingal, Bride, Morag, Mairi, Colman, and me. Then, with big baskets, we had wandered until we found the fields where the blackberries grew thickly, huge walls of bramble encrusted with luscious hulls like red and black thimbles. I did not pick very quickly, because I stopped so often to eat the fruit, but in the end I filled a small basket.
On the way home I got tired. It was getting toward dark, it was cold and misty, and the scratches on my arms and legs, which had not bothered me before, began to hurt. The basket felt heavy, and I wanted to be carried. Conor carried me for a long way on his back, and Colman, always a friend to me, though not much bigger than I was myself, carried my basket, but in the end they too were tired, and Conor set me down on the track and Colman returned my basket.
"Walk!" said Conor.
I had loved riding on Conor's broad back, and I did not want to walk. I sulked, I dragged behind while the others waited for me, and finally I sat down on the ground, thinking this would force Conor to carry me again.
"Very well," said Conor. "We will go on without you."
"The tarans may get you," said Mairi, who had always had a spiteful streak. "Or the people of the Sidh." The tarans were the ghosts of unbaptized babies who were said to snatch children away, and the people of the Sidh were the fairies, the Shining Ones.
To my amazement they all walked off and left me sitting there—they were sick to death of my temperamental outbursts—only Colman looking uncertainly back over his shoulder. I could see their white and brown smocks growing fainter as they crossed one field and passed into another, and finally they were gone. The darkness was edging the bushes and gently nudging its way into the corners of the fields, and the sky was a dim blue like the eye of an angry old man. I was shocked at their desertion.
It did not occur to me to get up and follow them. I went on sitting on the track where they had left me, and a great loneliness crept over me. Undoubtedly the tarans or the Shining Ones would get me and I would never see anyone I loved again. Tears poured out of my eyes and down my cheeks, and I leaned my head on my knees and sobbed out loud with tiredness and hopelessness. Then it happened.
From the Hardcover edition.