I will have it known that I am not afraid of anything I could drop-kick. Just so, this story creeped me out when I first heard it.
Part of it was the environment. I heard it in 2012, while living in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. Most of my pocket money was from telling ghost stories as a busker in their busy cobblestoned city centre. While I was doing this, I learned a lot about the Irish immunity to ghost stories and about their ability to top you with a good story of their own. This was one of those.
You’re just a kid, almost graduated, eating gelato in the city you grew up in.
There’s a house where they hanged that mayor had to hang his own son for murder in 1493. There’s the fields that used to belong to the British, that grew nothing but food for foreigners while your family starved because all the potatoes were blighted. There’s the cathedral built in 1965, with money given to the city by the descendants of the Irishmen who fled the famine and went to America.
There’s Jane and Declan, your best mates, eating gelato with you as you walk over the swan river. There’s some fat Americans taking pictures of the birds. But the birds look angry and ugly and nothing like swans do in picture books. Not to you.
There’s the Rosin Dubh, which means Black Rose, even this time of day you can hear the heavy bass thudding out from the bar. You’re not eighteen, so they won’t let you and your friends in that nightclub. Not until you’re older.
You had your first drink with your dad over fish and chips in that old man bar, Mulligans, and the jazz club is too expensive. All your hopes are tied up around the Rosin Dubh. That’s the place where magic will happen. Listening to American pop songs and dancing in a silent disco.
Declan falls into conversation with the Americans, because they ask for directions back to town. Which is stupid because you can see back into town. Or at least the cobblestone that will lead back into the town. Declan chats and chats with them and then shows them his card trick. Declan fancies himself a magician. He only knows but five tricks, two of them pub tricks, tying a knot in a cherry stem and making a fork look like it’s bending in a pint. The other two are cards tricks but have elaborate set-up.
The tricks fast enough to do on the street, involves rubbing the face of a card and then sliding it down into your palm and hiding it behind the cars just underneath it. Looks like you magically changed the card. He likes to use the seven of spades, a black card, and turn it into the seven of diamonds, a red card. He used to turn kings into queens but too many people weren’t looking carefully enough to see the change.
The couple is astonished by his little trick and the woman claps her hands and chirps at him. The man says something painfully wholesome to the tune of, “Well, I’ll be! Aren’t you a magical little leprechaun.”
Declan and you flinch a little. It’s a stupid word, loaded down with negative racial slurs and world-wide stereotypes about the Irish, a jibe at the expense of our entire country. But the man doesn’t know he’s not the first to call us leprechauns. He means it harmlessly.
Jane is newer to this tourist town. She’s from Donegal and says angrily, “feckin’ leprechauns? Really, you fat pigs, that’s what you think of us?”
The tourists look at her with an uncertain confusion. They didn’t understand. Her brogue is too thick.
You take her arm, “come on, Jane.”
Declan apologizes for her. “She’s a wee touchy.”
Then he cringes a little because he said wee to an American and the two of them smile amused, perhaps thinking touchy is one of our many ways of saying drunk. They think everything is another way to say drunk over here.
We continue up the river path and you put your arm about Jane. Her body is tensed and trembling, you realize not with rage.
“What’s wrong, Janie?”
She shakes her head feverishly, sending her crimpled red hair over her shoulders. She touches her headband unthinkingly to get the stray strands out of her face. Her eyes are wet as if she wants to cry.
“Just… nothin’. You’d think I’d gone mental.”
Declan joins at a slow jog. “Sure we do. Going off on some Americans. Everyone knows they don’t know any better. Why I was in a cafe the other day… I heard a bunch of them complaining because they thought we all ought to be wearing kilts and long skirts and corsets. We’re not Irish to them; we’re a Scottish romance novel.”
You chuckle and Jane flashes a rakish smile. “You’d like it if we all went about in corsets.”
Declan nods agreeably. “And if I was in a kilt, you’d know it.”
You say, “so our point is, Janie, what’s wrong?”
Jane sucks in a breath. “Alright. I’m not doing any drugs and I’ve not been drinking. But the other night… I saw some.”
“Saw what?” You ask.
Jane looks like she’s angry to even say it. “Leprechauns.”
Declan bursts out laughing. “Oh, Christ.”
“Stop it. Don’t laugh at me,” Jane said. “I swear. I was walking up this very road, heading to the college to fill out some paperwork for my fresher year and I… there was these-”
“Wee folk wearing green hats and buckles and smoking giant cigars dancing a jig on a pot’o’gold.” Declan puts on what we call an American Irish accent, some Hollywood bastard hybrid of the Dublin city growl and the Kerry lilt.
“Creatures,” Jane insists. “They weren’t funny. They were dark and old and one of them pointed at me like he was saying he had picked me for something. Little people, yeah, but not like us. And not wearing cute hats and dancing.”
She is so cool and serious that even Declan with all his clowning is silent. He looks to you and you clear your throat and say, “Janie, there’s nothing like that in Galway City. I mean, we built a mall around the ruins. Those kinds of things don’t exist except in stories.”
“I’ll show you where I saw them,” Jane says. “Maybe you’ll see them too and you’ll know I’m not mental. Come on.”
She flits off hurrying down the river path and you look at Declan and shrug. The two of you follow her.
Declan gets his tongue back. “I hope we do see a leprechaun. I’ve always wanted to drop kick something baby-sized.”
“You don’t have five little siblings,” Declan answers.
Jane runs ahead of you and you can’t help but notice the way she looks in the dusky light of the setting sun. She’s wearing her leggings and a flouncy tunic, the rage these days. And if it were not for the trainers and the thick stripped socks and the bangles on her arm, she could have been from the early days of Ireland. She’s got the rosy freckled skin and the fiery red hair they sing about in those traddy songs. You can almost see her diving into the river and drowning herself, tragically beautiful.
Declan with his pierced lip and bleached hair doesn’t match up with any historical ideal. Just a cocky bastard chasing after Jane.
She stops on the bridge between to the kiddy park and an eatery as crammed full and squashed as one of its sandwiches. “It was here. They were coming out of this grate.”
You look down and see the river rushing under you. A river you’ve seen a thousand times and never really thought about. How old is it? How long have those rocks been washed? How much longer do they have?
A swan swims out unexpectedly and with a little shriek, you and Declan both jolt back. To cover his own start, Declan pushes you and says, “Afraid of the little people?”
You say nothing, look back to the grate. “I just… do you guys see that?”
Something glints where the swan has been and in the coming dark it looks like a piece of gold. But that’s stupid.
“Yeah,” Declan drops to the vent and looks harder. “Is two Euro?”
I have one in my pocket and hold it out to compare them. “Naw, can’t be. Mine is smaller even from up here and that’s gotta be, what ten feet down?”
Declan hums and wraps his fingers about the bars of the vent cover. It moves easily. “That shiney ’s got to be… the size of tea saucer.”
Jane gasps with fear. “You two don’t wanna… you go down there, do you?”
“Just to see what’s shining,” Declan says.
“It’s probably trash,” you say. “Let’s come back tomorrow morning. When it’s light. We’ll be able to see.”
“Yeah,” Declan says and begins to stand. “Probably a foil from Landis.”
Jane takes out a little torch she had on her house keys and points it down the vent. The light almost doesn’t reach it, but we can see the shape of the shine. It’s a big solid circle.
“No way.” You can hardly breathe.
“Maybe it’s… really metal,” Jane says. “Not copper, that would have gone green.”
“Gotta be gold.” Declan says. “If it’s been under the bridge as long as… well, it’s gotta be old to be that big.”
“Maybe it’s a toy from the park. Some kid rolled it down. Shiny Frisbee.”
Declan looks up at you and Jane and grins. He could be in a movie with that look of mischief. “Only on way to find out. Make sure no one sees me.”
Jane snorts but turns to the empty street outside of NUIG, “you’re a fecking idiot.”
You keep an eye on the river path. The vent grates as Declan moves it and you hear his feet and hands on a ladder. Probably a sewer he’s climbing into. Probably a water main valve or something official and gross. Farther down the path, nearly at the Rosin Dubh, you can see two people kissing. It makes you a little sad and lonely. Maybe you should have had the courage to climb down into the darkness.
“Christ!” Declan says and you and Jane both turn to look down at him. He’s holding it out of the water and shining Jane’s mini-torch at it. A coin of gold, as big as a saucer.
“Wow,” you gawk at it, then immediately turn to Jane. “Is this a joke? Did you put that there?”
“Where would I get a piece of metal that big?” Jane asks. She looks nervous and uneasy. Gold and leprechauns go together, but that’s stupid. The wee folk are not real.
Declan bangs the gold on the ladder. It tings like wealth. Your mind swims with thoughts of money and the things you could but with that much gold. Melted down it probably wouldn’t be more than a few hundred Euro, but it’s old. That means it’s precious. There could be a whole trove under there. They would send archaeologists. Does that mean you wouldn’t get rich from this discovery? Doesn’t seem fair. Maybe you could claim it was a family heirloom. You found it stuck in a chest in your dead grandmother’s attic. You’d all three split the profits. You’ll do the lying to earn your part.
“There’s more down here,” Declan says. “Come down and see.”
Jane gives a little whine of doubt and you say, “Deck, let’s come back in the morning. It’ll still be here and there’ll be more light. We can bring a bag.”
Declan is either ignoring you or can’t hear you. He’s wandered deeper under the bridge, out of your line of sight into the darkness.
Jane wrings her hands. You’ve never seen anyone actually do that in real life. “Declan, come out of there.”
Then you heard a cry and the splash of water. It’s your turn to kneel at the open ladder. “Declan!”
He doesn’t answer. You see nothing but darkness down there. No glint of the gold. No Declan. “Deck! This isn’t funny.”
“Hurry down,” Jane says pushing your back. “He must have fallen. He could have hit his head. He could be face down in the water.”
You hurry down the ladder into the darkness. The darkness could drown you. You can see the water from the light under the bridge and you hear Jane coming down. You wish you had a little torch on your key ring and you feel along the wall, ancient stone of the bridge and walk carefully over the smooth cement you can hardly see.
There’s a pin prick of light ahead. Jane’s torch. You grab it, slipping on the stone beneath your shoes. You cast the little light around and it illuminates the water flowing past. Another swan, leisurely paddling, looks at you with a kind of disgusted confusion. Then paddles on.
That’s when you realize it should not be this dark.
Yes, it was twilight and the sun set. But there are streetlights all around this bridge. There’s a kiddy park just up the hill with spotlights. The bridge is not thick enough to cast a shadow like this.
It’s hard to breathe, like the darkness is really drowning you. “Declan… Jane?”
You can’t hear either of them just the rush of the water, the damp splash on the stones, and distantly the voice of your grandmother weaving terrible stories about the fair folk. She scoffed at the name leprechaun. Said it didn’t apply to them anymore. Just like goblin didn’t apply to them anymore. It used to, but now-a-days they went by other names. Names that humans did not know. So Human could not treat those names lightly.
You shiver in the chill and cast the little torch around. You’re not looking for the gold anymore, not if it was an entire plate of gold, not it was a ticket for a thousand euro a week for life. You’re looking for light, for the ladder, for the way out.
Because it’s not back the way you came. There’s nothing back there but more darkness.
“Jane?” You call. “Are you still up there?”
She doesn’t answer.
You take a step back, back the way you came. It’s a thin shelf you could not have gotten turned around. Or did you already turn around? It’s impossible to orientate yourself in this much blackness, with only the sound of the river.
Your hand on the wall touches something. Something cold and rough, like wet denim. You turn the light to it, the beam shakes and falls on something red, that used to be a jean jacket covered with buttons. Something that used to have bleached blonde hair. Something that is hanging from the underside of the bridge with its chest split open. Something that has been dead for weeks.
You scream and drop the torch. It plops into the water and leaves you in the darkness alone with that thing. Too cold. Not drowned.
“Jane!” You see her when you turn, when you run. She stands at the foot of the ladder. The only light is from above her head, the street light, the sane world above. “Jane, go back! He’s dead! We have to get out of here.”
You run towards her, towards safety, arms out-stretched.
Then she turns to you, red hair streaming over her shoulder. Her jaw distends unnaturally, her eyes are wide and glazed, her lips pulled back, her tongue green from the lollies you’d been sucking earlier, stuck sharply out of her mouth.
You groan. That sound that startles you because you didn’t realize you were making it.
Something small is coiled on her tongue. Tiny and black with a sparking green tongue of its own.
Snakes, you think daftly – moving away from your friend who is not your friend, not anymore- were driven out of Ireland in the fifth century by Saint Patrick. There are no snakes in Ireland.
So what is on her tongue?
The snake uncoils and under it there is… a playing card. The snake flickers its tongue at the edge of the card and it flickers up. You see a black seven of spades. The card Declan disappeared in his fake magic trick. The edge of the card falls down to Jane’s tongue. The snake hisses and darts out its tongue again, lifting it once more.
Now it’s the red seven of diamonds. But it’s not red, it is? It’s gold. And all the diamonds are real diamonds sparkling inside your friend’s unhinged jaw. The kind of card you would see kept in a treasure trove.
The snake hisses. Sounds like laughter.