Column: Living with the Locals

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I’ve been having a hard time sleeping, lately. I hear that lots of people have. My partners and I trade stories of our dreams as we wake, trying to pin down the frenetic movement into tales that can withstand the sun’s rays. Mine always seem to fade too quickly to catch them, unspinning into cobwebs and tangling around my fingers, pulling apart the moment I put the least tension on them.

“It was something about a school?” I’ll say, grasping for the details. They always evade me, and I shake my head, settling back to listen through other adventures and forget my own.

This week, the pattern breaks. I am restless, the way I sometimes get when shifting seasons make the bed too warm, and I wander out to sleep in the living room. Alone except for my altars, I fall into a dream that is not quite a nightmare, one of the anxious, upsetting kinds that forces me to wake myself up rather than see it through to the end.

Laying in the dark, too close to sleep to move, I imagine a voice. “I thought you’d like that one,” it says. “It had all the things you liked in it.”

“They just weren’t in the right order,” I reply. “They went too far.”

“Oh – I can fix that. Come on back, and I’ll try again.”

It isn’t a voice I recognize, exactly. I feel it out, testing it against the allies I talk with most often, and come back with no clear idea of who it belongs to.

“No – I’m going this way,” I say, and slip into a new dream and a more restful sleep.

I remember the conversation when I wake up, in a way that is clearer to me than the dreams themselves. I turn it over in my head, remembering Julia Roberts in a ball gown, her wings forgotten, promising her Peter Pan that she would be waiting for him in that space between dreams and waking. Laying on my couch, I open my eyes and look over at the small altar on the window, which I keep for spirits I euphemistically think of as “the locals.”

“Well nuts,” I mutter, and bury my face in the cushions.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, “The Fairy Dance,” oil on canvas, 1895 [public domain]

The cover of my father’s edition of Yeats features a wizened, unpleasant looking leprechaun that smirks out at prospective readers with a knowing look. As a child who read in a way very much like breathing, I coveted that book. I was sure that it had the good kind of story in it, the kind with danger and far off places and bargains for improbable stakes. When I was deemed old enough to borrow his books, that was the first one I asked for, and I read it cover-to-cover.

Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland is Yeats’s attempt to gather up the stories he was hearing of the spirits that inhabited the world around him and their dealings with humans. In the years since, I’ve learned a lot about Yeats and the limitations of his work, but at the time, I had never even heard the name. I understood the book as a natural history of sorts, a spotter’s guide to local wildlife and true accounts that had been gathered first-hand. It was all true – and there were terrible things that could happen to someone who wandered from the road at just the right moment and met the people who lived on the other side of the hedge.

My memories of the book are distorted by time and other stories, and the wonder of a kid who hadn’t yet learned about any sorts of truths besides the literal one. At one point, not very long ago, I learned that people had gone missing only to reappear decades later, all of their families long dead. Powerful beings with arcane rules of hospitality leveraged complicated systems to make the unwary into addicts, or captives, or lesser versions of themselves. Monsters that looked like friends appeared to drown good people who had wandered slightly from their paths. Perhaps all of these things still happened, somewhere, and there was very little that could be done to avoid them.

That was my introduction to the “good neighbors,” and it instilled a healthy fear in me – right underneath a roaring fascination. I have always loved stories of the folks that live just sideways from us, whether inhuman, or once human, or close enough to human that only a misplaced detail could give them away. I’ve read books, watched movies, and collected art, but I’ve never worked with them in my magical practice. No, never. Wouldn’t I know better than that?

"Plucked from the Fairy Circle". A man saves his friend from the grip of a fairy ring.

“Plucked from the fairy circle,” from Wirt Sirkes, “British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions,” 1880 [public domain]

“What does that mean?” my friend asks me, with an air of gentle sarcasm. “What do you mean, you don’t work with them?”

I shrug, gesturing at my altars. “I mean, it’s not like the gods, you know? I don’t see them around. I’m not running into them in the astral, things like that.”

The sarcasm turns into a deep and amused disbelief, and I can feel myself writhe under it in discomfort. “So the book doesn’t count.”

“The book’s not finished,” I argue, halfheartedly. “The book might never be finished, I’m not-”

“Or that ritual your group does every Midsummer. The one where you always volunteer to be Puck.”

I am probably flushing at this point. “I didn’t write that. I just know the part.”

“Or the altar, and leaving out bread and honey,” they prod, grinning in earnest now. “That’s not working with them.”

“That’s not the same,” I say, emphatic. “It’s not working with, it’s propitiating. Showing respect.”

“Uh huh.” They chuckle, and shake their head, and let it go.

My partner is less amused. “Why would anyone invite them in?” she asks, wrinkling her nose. “It seems – dumb.”

“I’m not arguing with you,” I agree, thinking of the many stories where getting too close to the gentry goes terribly wrong.

“I mean, I like reading about them too,” she says. “But I like reading true crime. That doesn’t mean I’m going to make friends with a murderer.”

“I’m not sure that’s fair,” I say. “All the stories say they’ve got rules. They’re just different than ours.”

“Like a murderer,” she agrees, and I laugh.

The obvious question here is about what it means to have a relationship with someone, what Pagans mean when they say they “work with” a spirit. There are other questions too – because I’m not convinced that the “good neighbors,” the “fair folk,” the “gentry,” the alfar, the elves, the fairies, and the fey are all the same people. There’s a sort of colonial hubris in thinking that everyone from “over there” can be understood as one group, and it sits uncomfortably as I tidy my altar. If I offer the local spirits of Chicago the same sorts of things that I’ve heard about offering Irish spirits, will those offerings be welcome? Can I claim to engage with a community when I only know stories and not individuals? How do I show respect, and engage with the people around me, without sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong?

I know it’s possible. My neighbor downstairs has a long relationship with a pooka, and I have brought handfuls of blackberries as thanks for insight and welcome in hard times. A friend of mine talks to the “neighbors” before anyone else, and is close with them in a way I recognize and admire. She talks about them as amoral but not unkind. That makes sense to me. I can interact with that from a place that is not just fear.

A fairy ring the author found in the park, with a tantalizing stick in the middle [L. Babb]

On my way home from the beach, I get a little lost.

It’s not unusua l- there’s a large park between my home and the water, and the paths aren’t labeled in any sort of clear way. I wander them on purpose, and usually I take a long loop to make my way back home. But tonight I miss a turn and end up on the peninsula overlooking the city. It’s cut off from the path I need to take home, and probably fifteen minutes out of my way.

It’s on the way back that I find the fairy ring, just far enough from my usual route that I would have missed it otherwise. It’s big enough that it’s hard to miss, but I’m tired and not entirely watching my feet. It’s luck that I manage not to stumble into it.

Sitting in the middle of the circle is a small stick. I’m a Witch. Witches love sticks.

It feels like nothing so much as a joke, and I grin as I take the picture. “What a nice stick,” I mutter to myself. “Trap? What trap? Just a stick. Nice stick. Just reach on in and take the stick. What could go wrong?”

I enter my home empty-handed. I sort of regret not taking the stick.

*     *     *

When I was a child, my aunt collected gnomes. She got them all from flea markets, and pointed out to me the tiny carved penny and initials that meant they were true Thomas Clarks, and collectible in a way that a regular garden gnome would not be. I nodded, and took note, and looked over the figures as her collection grew into a merry-faced army. They reminded me of the little figure in my father’s book, and of my uncle with his inscrutable but cheerful face and his big horses. They seemed too simple and too pleasant to be of the “good neighbors” – but they became tied up with a sense of home.

When she died, my aunt’s collection was disposed of. It took me years to find a Thomas Clark again. The gnome now smiles at me from the window, and occasionally I leave new baked bread for it, unsalted. Good porridge, the square of butter still visible. Fresh berries in cream.

That’s something I forget about neighbors. I live here, too.


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