I will recount for you the story of the Stump Child. There was once a little person who sat alone on the top of a fallen tree stump. She was pale and delicate and marble-skinned, and though the fog rolled up into the woods, and the wind lashed, and the rain came down in torrents, the child remained still as stone atop the stump, rain dripping from her nose, not moving at all. The child was seen from time to time by passing travelers, and they would comment on her, asking their guide who it was that they glimpsed there among the curling branches, far off the path. Sometimes the guide would tell them. The less fortunate found out for themselves. . .
We were walking along a muddy trail in that country called the Emerald Isle, heading for the town of Arklow. I had booked passage on a ship bound for England, and from England I was quite looking forward to the journey home, wandering the dusty halls and sunlit motes of the Cabinet, exchanging notes with the other curators, and catalogueing my many perilous encounters in the faery hills of Lough Corrib.
I was not expecting further encounters of the supernatural sort, and when I saw the face, high up the hillside, I thought at first it was an owl. I told myself it was an owl, because owls are generally benign creatures, and one needn’t feel obligated to know things about them or record tales about them and their histories. And yet when I peered closer into the rain, I saw that it was indeed nothing like an owl, but a child, with her knees pulled up to her chin, and her small sharp face peering over the tops of them, eyes slightly pointed, and very dark, too distant to read, but close enough to see that they looked like little holes in the woods, like little hole-punched openings.
“What is that?” I asked my guide, whose name was McCarthy, and who seemed to me a quintessential Irishman in that he was brusque, sharp-witted, somewhat superstitious, and very difficult to understand. For sake of simplicity, I have refrained from writing out his marvelous accent, and have put down his words in plainer, duller English.
“That?” my guide said, not even glancing toward the dark woods, but keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead, “Is Betty’s Daughter. Don’t look at her.”
And so of course, being a Curator of Curious Things, I wrenched my head around and looked up into the trees with great interest.
It was a weird, unearthly sort of forest we were walking through. Ireland has no shortage of such woods. The trees grow sinuous, as if their branches are floating up in water. The bark is always thick with moss, the ground thick with mist, and the rocks are wrapped as if in green velvet. The resulting impression is one wild beauty, but also forlornness, and a sense that one should not be there, that the forest should be walked through at great speed until one is in a city with cars and ugly buildings where one belongs, and that the forest should be left to its own devices, of which there are no doubt many.
But cars and cities were far from us, and so were all manner of humans, and as I stared up into the woods, I felt the child turn her head and look at me.
“Why is she called that? Betty’s Daughter? What is she doing there?”
“Don’t speak to her. Show her no kindness. Come quickly.” My guide kept his eyes on the ground, but his brows were low, and as he spoke, he came back toward me and gripped my arm. I resisted, shrugging him off.
“Come, Sir,” he said. “Bad things happen when you stray from the path. The woods are treacherous in the quiet hours.”
I was not listening. I turned back to the girl. The rain was coming more violently now, and suddenly I was noticing details I had not seen before: the child wore a blue smock with a soiled collar, and little old-fashioned black leather shoes, and she no longer appeared quite so bony and fey, but like an actual child, shivering in the cold and weeping, so that I could not tell where the tears ended and the rain began.
“Is it here often?” I said. One part of my mind was trying to swim its way to the surface and whisper warnings in my ear, and the other part looked into the child’s eyes and felt a deep, unimaginable sadness. The child’s hole-punch gaze was blue now. She was sniffling, crying. . .
I saw a child walking with her mother down a forest path. The sun was shining, and for a moment it was an idyllic scene, something from a painting. Their garb was Victorian, and the forest was younger and wilder than it is now. The mother stopped suddenly, several paces away from where I observed them, and I saw she looked haggard, and her clothes were askew and her face was tired and pockmarked. She took the child up to the stump and sat her there, and though I heard no voices, I saw the mother’s mouth move, and her finger wag, and then the woman left and hurried on down the path. The child sat on the stump and waited. The sun faded. The fog came, creeping up the hillside and lapping slowly at the base of the stump like cotton tongues. The dark followed, then the rain, and the child sat on the stump in the cold and the damp, and waited. The rain dripped from her nose, and the water pooled in her shoes. Her mother did not return that night.
I realized suddenly I was standing, petrified, in the path, and my guide was dragging at me, his eyes wild. “Do not look at it! Do not look!”
I turned to him again, and said, almost dreamily: “Why does no one help her?”
“Come away!” the guide screamed.
But I could not. The child on the hillside was sobbing wretchedly, her hands were over her eyes, and now I saw her mother faraway, reaching a smoky city, limping past grimy brick walls and signboards, boarding a boat, going farther away, and all the while her child sat alone in the woods. The mother died on the boat and was thrown overboard. The child waited in the woods for days, then weeks, becoming thinner and thinner, and the people who passed by crossed themselves and hurried on in terror. And then, in my vision, I saw two people clumping up the muddy path, a guide and a Curator in aubergine shoes, wending their way through the green and the mist.
It became clear to me then what must be done: I would save the child. I would take her to the city and hand her over to be someone else’s problem the way noble heroes do, and I would be successful where others had failed. And so before I really knew what I was doing, I was racing up through the underbrush, the branches grasping at my jacket and snatching at my cheeks. I heard my guide cry out behind me. I scrabbled in the mud, slipped on the moss. I saw the stump approaching, and the child on it, and I saw suddenly the child was death-white, a starved, hateful little thing with hungry eyes, one-hundred-and sixty years dead with fingers curled around the stump, leaning down toward me. My body tipped forward. There was no more ground under me. And I saw there was a great pit at the base of the stump, invisible from the path, and far down in the depths was something larger, a vast creature with many eyes like little crystals, and dark spines and an embarrassment of legs, slithering in the dark.
And just there, the guide jerked me back, and together we rolled down the hill and fell in a heap at the bottom, muddy and soaked, and the Irishman very angry.
I did not look back at the child on the stump. I grappled myself to my feet and together with the guide, hurried up the path and over the hill. We did not slow until we were in Arklow and I had boarded a boat. To this day I do not know exactly what breed of magic Betty’s Daughter was, or what ancient creature lived in the pit at its feet and used it to lure in its dinner, but in all honesty I am not curious enough to find out.
You may think me foolish for not knowing better than to look into the hole-punch gaze of the creature on the stump. My Irish guide certainly did. But then, Ireland is an ancient and enchanted place, and there is no telling what one will do there, or what might live in these green hollows and old woods, and perhaps that is the long and short of it: we are not meant to know everything. If we did, there would be no adventures.
(Curator Bachmann is, as of the posting of this, still in Ireland, traveling merrily away, and will blog about his less supernatural encounters later.)