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The following is an excerpt from Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy.
Part I: A Clairvoyant Woman Walks into an Irish Pub
A clairvoyant woman walks into an Irish pub and before you even ask, no, this isn’t the beginning of some joke or drunken tale told by an idiot—this is precisely what happens. She walks into an Irish pub, my pub, sits down on the barstool right next to mine, orders a vodka soda with lime from Rory, and proceeds to tell me that my “colors” are bleak.
“Thank you?” I say, unsure if this is the proper etiquette for acknowledging such a compliment, or insinuation, or whatever it is I’m dealing with here.
It’s at this point I notice that her hair is impeccably dark and meticulously coiffed. Streamlined. Not a single coil of fuzz extending from its flawless sheen.
“You must think I’m crazy,” she says next, presumably reading my thoughts. “But the truth is I don’t tell many people about my gift. It’s just that, tonight… well, you know.”
At that, she gives a ceremonial nod toward her vodka soda with lime. Picks it up. Takes a sip.
“Oh, I know,” I say, stupidly, before taking a nervous gulp from my pint of stout.
I try to lock eyes with Rory, who’s at the far end of the bar. I’m desperate for a conversational lifeline. But it’s Hockey Night in Canada and the Ontario-born barkeep is watching his Leafs take a thumping on the ancient TV that’s chained up in the corner.
“What’s your name?” the woman asks, recapturing my gaze.
“Finn,” I say, suppressing the urge to make her guess. “What’s yours?”
“Finn,” she echoes, ignoring the second half of my response. “And what are you doing here, Finn?”
“Believe it or not, I’m the weekend busboy,” I say, tapping the bottom of my glass on the bar. “Slow night.”
“I meant in Montreal.”
“Oh, uh, I’m a student.”
“A student of what?”
“Well, uh, I’m undecided at the moment.”
“Of course you are,” she says, not in a venomous way, but certainly not in a nice way either.
I take another nervous gulp from my pint of stout.
Five minutes later, the clairvoyant woman is walking out of the pub, her high heels clacking like raptor talons on the tiled floor of the front hallway. I carry her empty glass behind the bar, squeeze some pink dish soap out of a repurposed yellow mustard bottle, turn on the hot water, then run my thumb and forefinger ever-so-gently around the edge of the glass to clean off the lipstick stains she’s left behind.
“It’s about time you got back to work,” Rory barks, still facing the TV.
“Yeah yeah yeah,” I play along. “I’ve really let the place go to hell.”
Apart from Rory and I, there are now only three other people in the pub: Shane, our resident musician (who’s yet to play a set), and a pair of regulars.
The TV flashes and an angry man in a floral-pattern suit appears on the screen. Hockey Night in Canada will return after these messages, he promises, before yielding the airwaves to an advertisement for farm-raised Vancouver salmon. And just like that, Rory’s trance is broken. He dances his way behind the bar, arms swinging in excitement—his Leafs are only down by a goal.
“So, what did she say to you?” he asks, slapping a friendly hand on my shoulder.
“You mean the crazy woman?”
Rory furrows his brow.
“You think she’s… unwell in some way?”
“I mean, she said she could read my colors. And that they were ‘bleak.’”
Rory scratches at the golden-orange bristles covering his chin.
“Funny. I remember her coming in here a couple years ago, before your time. And I’m pretty sure she said the same exact thing to me. And to Shane.”—he looks around the pub—“Oh, and to Gabrielle and Marie-Jeanne.”
“Wait, seriously?” I gasp, my ego flailing with the realization that the clairvoyant woman had once had the audacity to diagnose other people with this affliction of the aura, an infliction that I had at first thought, so naively, to be uncommon.
“I would never lie about such important matters,” says Rory.
“So… she is crazy,” I deduce, unintelligently.
“Or maybe everyone who drinks in this pub has a tortured soul,” Rory says with a smile as he reaches for a pair of shot glasses.
An hour and several shots of whiskey later, Rory and I are sitting in a booth competing in a no-limit Texas hold ‘em tournament with Shane the musician (who still hasn’t played a set) and the two regulars: Gabrielle, a waitress and cocaine enthusiast from the jazz club up the street, and Marie-Jeanne, an underwater welder who spends her days submerged in the frigid St. Lawrence making sure the city’s bridges don’t collapse and that the island of Montreal—and it is an island, something I didn’t learn until moving here last year—remains connected to the rest of the world.
Without warning, Rory goes all-in, gets called, and is soon all-out, much to Shane’s delight. But alas, much to Shane’s chagrin, Rory pulls a fresh twenty from his wallet and promptly buys back in, pointing out, correctly, that a “no rebuy” rule had not been established prior to the start of tournament play.
The table decrees, after a 4-1 vote, that a “one rebuy” rule shall henceforth be in effect for the rest of the tournament. And really, this is a measure designed to protect Rory, not punish him.
Rory, whose pupils have grown a full centimeter wider since an hour ago.
Rory, whose body odor has grown exponentially stronger in that timeframe as well. That, of course, being one of Rory’s many quirks. Having grown up in a steel town, he refuses to “defile” his body by applying aluminum-derived products to his armpits.
“Have I ever told you guys the knife story?” Rory is asking now while stacking his newly acquired chips into tiny, leaning towers.
“Yes, Rory, we’ve all heard the knife story,” I imagine us replying in unison like some dysfunctional sitcom family. Meanwhile, in reality, some of us grunt, some of us nod, but otherwise, we ignore him, opting instead to focus on our cards.
Except for Marie-Jeanne, that is.
“Actually, Rory, now that you mention it, I don’t think I’ve heard—”
“Let’s go! Big blind, small blind, fuckers,” Shane shouts, interrupting her. “You can’t forget to put those in.”
Gabrielle drops a pair of chips onto the table. The ceramic colliding with the wood produces a satisfying clack. “Hey, don’t be such a fucker, fucker,” she says to Shane.
Shane’s cheeks are Santa-Claus red. Brown and grey strands of ‘70s-rock-star hair are plastered to his forehead, like seaweed strewn over a rock. He smiles. An unexpectedly cherubic smile. A smile that instantly makes him look years younger. Then he puts out his fist.
Gabrielle smiles back.
Pounds his fist with her own.
“So, I needed some new knives,” Rory continues as if there had been no interruption. “Some good kitchen knives, you know? Because mine had become all rusty and I couldn’t sharpen them for the life of me. So, one night, and I happened to be completely wasted that night—”
“Surprise, surprise,” Marie-Jeanne chimes in.
“Yeah yeah yeah,” says Rory. “So, anyway, I walk into this restaurant, that nice Italian place over on Saint-Laurent, you know the one? Caggiano’s or Reggiano’s or something like that. Hey, did you hear they can’t call pasta ‘pasta’ on their menu anymore? They have to call it ‘pâtes’ now because the OQLF came in and—”
“Rory,” Shane snaps. “It’s on you.”
“Okay, okay. Jesus, I call. So, where was I? Right, so, I walk into this restaurant and I’m completely wasted and I see that there’s no one in the kitchen, you know? There’s no one back there. So I walk into the kitchen and there’s this knife rack on the wall with all of these amazing knives. Butcher knives and chef knives and all sorts of knives. So I start sticking these knives down my pants. Or in my belt, you know? I start tucking them in there. And then I hear someone behind me yelling, ‘Hey, turn around! What the hell are you doing?’ And I say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna turn around but I have to tell you that I took some of your knives and they’re in my pants.’ So I turn around and the guy sees that I have like a dozen knives, a baker’s dozen, probably, sticking out of my belt and he just gives me an odd look and starts laughing and calls for the manager.”
“Did you get arrested?” I ask.
“No no no. I put all the knives back and they let me go.”
“Fucking idiot,” Shane says, folding his hand.
After more shots and pints and a cigarette in the alleyway, one foot in the door, keeping an eye on the table, another shot and another pint and lighting a second cigarette with the first and another pint and then… there are just two players left:
Rory and Shane.
Two celestial bodies that had been destined to collide from the start. Both bodies full of alcohol, but only one showing any sign of it.
Rory is swaying rhythmically back and forth as if his chair is mounted to the deck of an invisible ship. His eyes are as wide as I’ve ever seen them.
Shane goes all in.
The game is over.
Shane screams a string of obscenities, the closest he’s come to singing all night, then quietly threatens murder while Rory smiles what can only be described as a goofy goddamn smile and stands up on wobbly legs to collect his winnings.
“Shots!” he declares proudly after stuffing six twenty-dollar bills, two of which had been his own, into his wallet. “Shotsforeveryone!”
Shane doesn’t participate. Instead, he storms the pub’s tiny corner stage, grabs his guitar by the neck, shoves it into his gig bag, and leaves.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle and Marie-Jeanne congregate at the end of the bar in anticipation of the aforementioned shots and begin commentating on the (arguably) surprising outcome of tonight’s impromptu poker game.
“Tabarnak! Je ne le crois pas.”
“I can’t believe it either!”
“It’s a goddamn miracle is what it is.”
“Or just plain luck,” I mutter, ever the sore loser.
We down our shots and I toss the glasses in the sink while Rory begins jabbing at the oversized plastic buttons of a desktop calculator. Jumbled ribbons of receipts litter the bartop around him.
If there’s order in this chaos, it’s well-disguised.
I’m worried Rory isn’t going to be able to finish his cash. Worried that by the time we walk out of this place the sun will be shining and the day staff will be walking in. But just as I’m preemptively blaming Rory for this potential inconvenience, I see his golden-orange eyebrows shoot skyward.
“Finn,” he calls. “Fiiinn!” Louder this time. “Ditchoo… Ditchoo lockthefrontdoor?”
I grab the key from behind the bar and sprint toward the front entryway. The worn-out soles of my shoes allow me to slide across the tiled floor like it’s an iced-over pond.
Upon hearing the familiar clink of the lock, a wave of calm washes over me.
With the door locked, there’s no longer a risk of late-night rabble-rousers or miscreants or other unsavory characters crossing that threshold and causing us trouble. And, more importantly, it means that Rory can now smoke inside.
Blue tendrils escape from Rory’s Number 7 and creep ceilingward as I wipe down tables that are already clean and hum songs that Shane never bothered to play tonight.
Gabrielle and Marie-Jeanne are presently polishing off their last-call pints and chattering aggressively (about what, I am unable to understand). I flash them a sheepish, don’t-mind-me smile as I glide around the pub on tired legs, working through my end-of-night checklist.
Passing the stage, I see that the illuminated stained-glass sign hanging above it, the one that bears the pub’s name, or at least, its English name, is still aglow. On numerous occasions, the Office Québécois de la Langue Française has threatened to remove it, along with all of the English-language posters and paraphernalia covering the pub’s walls. But thus far, the OQLF’s threats have remained empty. “It’s amazing what a little old-fashioned palm-greasing can do,” Rory had once offered by way of explanation.
I hop up onto the stage, pull the skinny, beaded chain, the kind you might find hanging from a basement light fixture, and “The Old Shamrock” fades out of existence.
Meanwhile, the employees of Le Vieux Trèfle need to keep burning that 4 a.m. oil.
Stepping off the stage, my foot kicks something, a plastic something, and sends it spinning. I bend down and pick up a small vodka bottle, empty, which must have fallen out of Shane’s gig bag while he was packing up. I take the bottle out into the alleyway and shove it into the recycling bin, burying it deep below the surface.
“HeyFinn. Fiiinn. Wannadoashot? Eh? Onemore? Beforewego?”
These are the sounds I awake to.
Eyes open, I unfold my arms, which had been crossed atop the bar, and as I do so, red crumbs begin flaking off my clammy flesh, falling like tiny dead leaves.
“Wannadoashot?” Rory asks again, his face beaming.
I flip open my cell phone and look at the time.
It’s 5:07 a.m.
I search my memory. Replay locking up. Wiping down tables. Turning off the stained-glass stagelight. Taking out the trash and the recycling. Mopping the floors. Doubling up the kegs. Restocking the fridges. Saying “bonne nuit” to Gabrielle and Marie-Jeanne. Making a bad joke about it actually being morning. Promising Gabrielle that I’d make sure Rory didn’t do anything stupid. Promising Marie-Jeanne that I’d make sure he got home safe. Watching the two of them stumble out, arm-and-arm, and being jealous that they were leaving. And that they were arm-and-arm. Then, slumping into a barstool. Chugging a glass of water. Devouring a bag of ketchup-flavored potato chips. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
“You finish doing your cash?” I ask.
I sound like a parent inquiring about the status of a child’s homework. Only Rory is old enough to be my parent. And, technically, he’s my boss. Both of these factors contribute to the awkwardness of the situation (at least in my mind).
“Yeahyeahyeah,” Rory replies, oblivious to my inner turmoil. “Solet’sdoonemore, thenwego, yeah?
“No,” I say, more loudly than I had expected to.
His smile turns to a sad-puppy frown.
“Justonemore. Beforewego,” he whines, only he doesn’t need to whine because he’s already pouring the shots.
“Come on, man, it’s late. I don’t wanna do another shot.”
“Yeahyeahyeah,” he says, sliding the glass toward me.
“No no no,” I reply. “I gotta get you home.”
He raises an accusatory eyebrow. “Gottagetmehome? Gottagetmehome? Whaddayou talkinabout?”
His agitation is palpable. I raise my glass.
“Let’s just fuckin’ do this.”
And we cheers.
I bring the empty glasses to the sink. Turn on the tap. And, after making sure Rory isn’t looking, spit whiskey down the drain.
We walk out of the pub.
Part II: “Needmoresmokes!”
“Needmoresmokes!” Rory repeats, more forcefully this time.
A trio of crows, which had been silently keeping their vigil atop a telephone wire, begin pumping their wings nervously, the flap-flap-flap of their feathers echoing off the asphalt.
“Yes, Rory, we’re gonna stop so you can get smokes,” I explain, again, before clarifying, “but then we’re getting in a cab, remember?”
We’ve been walking, or, in Rory’s case, stumbling, for nearly five minutes, but have only succeeded just now in crossing the parking lot. Looking back over my shoulder, I can still see the pub, a green rectangle composed of smaller green rectangles, nestled among the steel and concrete monoliths that have come to dominate the city’s skyline.
As we begin the slow trudge up the deceptively steep slope of rue University, it dawns on me that while my plan is to throw Rory in a cab (after he buys more smokes, of course), I don’t actually know his address. While he’s always the first person to show up at your apartment with a smile and a case of beer, Rory, unlike other members of the Le Vieux Trèfle’s staff, has never been one to host—not parties, not casual get-togethers, and not, heaven forbid, poker games. All I know is that he lives somewhere near campus, near the base of the city’s namesake: mont Royal.
On any other night, or morning as it were, I’d eschew the cost of the cab and walk the mile back to my place in Le Plateau, leaving Rory to his own devices. But for some reason—maybe because I promised Gabrielle and Marie-Jeanne, or maybe because I’m worried about how I’d feel if something were to happen to him, or maybe because I’m genuinely concerned about his well-being, but probably because of some combination of all those things—I feel compelled to make sure Rory gets home.
Given the speed we’re presently moving at, however, I can’t be certain that I will ever actually succeed in that goal. And I can’t help but think about how my charitable actions may end up disrupting the activities I had scheduled for later this morning—namely, going to Tam-Tams. Take one part drum circle, add equal parts arts & crafts fair and live-action role-playing tournament (during which adults and children alike dress in cardboard armor and attempt to de-limb each other with duct tape-covered foam weapons), and you’ll have something approaching the free, open-air festival known as Tam-Tams, which takes place in Parc du Mont-Royal every Sunday. For a godless college student like myself, it’s the closest thing I have to going to church, and thus far, my attendance record has been unblemished.
But will it remain that way?
Rory’s broken-record howling pulls me back to reality and I’m forced to reassess our present situation. Thankfully, we are now approaching the intersection of rue University and rue Sainte-Catherine, which means there will soon be plenty of 24-hour dépanneurs nearby where Rory can buy a pack of smokes.
From our new vantage point, I can see mont Royal looming ahead of us in the distance, a hulking mass of vegetation, dotted here and there with extravagant, castle-like stone structures. Of course, the most prominent feature of the mountain, some might say, is the glowing, one-hundred-foot-tall steel cross that punctuates its northeastern peak. Thanks to an advanced LED fiber-optic lighting system, which the cross dutifully bears upon its steel bones, city workers can change the cross’s color—such as from white to purple, or purple to white, depending on what’s happening with the Pope—with the push of a button.
At present, it’s glowing green.
Really, the cross is the perfect symbol for this city, I think to myself. A little bit traditional, a little bit gaudy.
Paris meets Las Vegas.
I blink and see the naked body of a man suspended from this perfect symbol. Hair hanging down over his face. And what looks like a guitar slung over his shoulder.
I blink again and the cross is empty. Only the green LED lights remain, glowing like an “unoccupied” sign above an airplane bathroom.
“Did you just see that?” I gasp.
I turn to Rory, who is waiting to meet my gaze.
He smiles what can only be described as a goofy goddamn smile.
While Rory is inside the dep buying cigarettes, I’m waiting outside and quietly questioning my sanity, repeatedly daring myself to look at the cross to check if he’s still there and repeatedly chickening out. I was always better at truth, anyway, I lie to myself.
I must be tired.
Over-tired is probably more accurate.
Heck, I fell asleep on the bar tonight. So, that settles it. That’s what I’m going with. What I just experienced was your standard, run-of-the-mill, sleep-deprivation-induced hallucination of a pub musician being crucified.
Two minutes later, I hear raised voices coming from inside the dep and am about to go inside and investigate when Rory comes bumbling out, balancing five packs of cigarettes atop two open palms.
“Everything go alright in there?”
I watch, admittedly with some degree of schadenfreude, as Rory struggles to stuff the cigarette packs into the front and back pockets of his pants.
“You stocking up or something?”
He ignores me.
There’s a cab crawling down the street and I raise my hand to hail it, but Rory deftly sticks a cigarette between my fingers.
“Smokefirst, thenwego. Yeah?”
This hadn’t been part of our original agreement, but it’s something I should have anticipated. Not being in the mood to argue, and absolutely being in the mood for a smoke, I let the cab roll past.
We smoke in silence, standing on the sidewalk outside the dep, and all the while I’m wondering if the same, horrifying image that’s flashing through my head is flashing through Rory’s head as well. Just as I’m about to broach the subject, to ask him what he saw, to ask him what that goofy smile had been about, Rory speaks.
He gestures to the fast food joint across the street, its neon sign glowing yellow and red.
I flip open my phone.
It’s 5:31 a.m.
My stomach rumbles.
When it comes to reinvigorating the dulled senses of someone coming off a night shift, there’s nothing quite like the caustic aroma of bleach and food-scented chemicals paired with the sterile, ocular onslaught provided by fluorescent lighting.
Rory and I are waiting in line, squinting up at the menu. It’s busier than I had expected, although a lot of the people seated in the booths are catatonic, making the place feel eerily quiet, the soundscape consisting primarily of ragged breathing and sizzling oil.
“Ah fuckme,” Rory howls, adding a new track to the mix.
I look down to see that Rory has turned his pants pockets inside out. Cigarette packs and twenty-dollar bills litter the floor.
As I crouch down to help him scoop everything up, I contemplate the moral ramifications of taking a twenty for my troubles. A delivery fee, if you will, for getting him home safe (which, admittedly, I haven’t done yet) and for covering the cost of a cab (which, admittedly, I haven’t gotten for us yet). But my conscience forces me to abandon this disgusting idea, despite the fact, that, one of those twenties had been mine and had only come into Rory’s possession by mere chance (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself).
I begrudgingly hand everything back over to Rory.
“Adozencheesebugers,” he declares upon reaching the front of the line, clumps of twenties in his hand. “Nonono, abaker’sdozen,” he clarifies.
The woman behind the counter sticks to the script.
“Could you repeat that please, sir?”
“Isaid, Iwantabaker’sdozen. Ofcheeseburgers. Douzainedeboungalers des cheeseburgers.”
This is the first time I’ve ever witnessed someone order a baker’s dozen cheeseburgers. Or a baker’s dozen anything, for that matter.
Oh, the pitfalls of drunken excess, I pontificate, assuming that at least half of those burgers will end up in the trash, uneaten, all because of some ridiculous impulse that had manifested in Rory’s whiskey-logged brain.
My face is burning with embarrassment as I step forward to place my order. I consider pretending that I’m not with him, that he’s just some random guy I bumped into when I got in line and that I just happened to be nice enough to help him pick up the money he had dropped (without stealing any of it, I might add).
Then, I remember we’ve both come directly from working at the pub, which means we’re still in our matching uniforms: Black shoes. Black socks. Black slacks. Black t-shirts. We look like a couple of stagehands, I realize, before ordering a single cheeseburger and a side of fries and taking my place next to Rory, who’s standing to the side of the counter.
No, not standing.
He’s rocking back and forth, his hips swaying to the rhythm of some nonexistent song, or a song playing only in his mind. He’s still dancing when he retrieves a paper bag containing a baker’s dozen cheeseburgers from the cashier, grumbling a “merci beaucoup” as he does so. The bag looks over-stuffed, as if it is about to burst at the seams, and is nearly transparent on account of the grease.
The plan had been to get in a cab.
The plan had been to go home.
Put as succinctly as possible, the plan had been to get in a cab and go home.
But then came the smokes. And the food. And, now, Rory refusing to get in a cab until we have eaten some of that food and have had a few more of those smokes.
So, here we are. Walking out the side entrance of the fast food joint. Turning down a side street. Searching for a place where we can eat and smoke and not get in a cab.
“Iknowagoodspot,” Rory assures me.
But I don’t feel assured. And I especially don’t feel assured upon discovering that his “goodspot” is actually the Christ Church Cathedral.
The cathedral, which I must have walked by hundreds of times without ever really paying attention to before, is a fearsome-looking, gargoyle-infested remnant of the Gothic Revival movement. And, like La Croix du mont Royal, it’s one of the city’s most iconic religious structures.
“Hey, Rory,” I finally work up the nerve to say as we step off the sidewalk and onto a well-trodden path. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be here.”
Rory waves a hand.
“Meandyou, wecanbehere. It’sokay.”
He scampers on ahead, his grease-saturated paper bag swinging back and forth by his side as he leads us past the cathedral’s main entrance and around to a side courtyard. Along the way, we encounter piles of trash, murders of feasting crows, and the occasional human body rolled up in a sleeping bag. Amongst my other concerns, I’m concerned that there is not nearly enough distance between these three categories of things.
Ahead of us looms a stone archway, which mimics the ornate architecture of the cathedral’s façade, complete with symmetrically arranged gargoyles, one on each side of its opening, and a stone cross topping its crown, centered above the keystone.
Standing at the threshold, I can see only darkness on the other side.
Well, darkness and branches.
Part III: There Is Only One Tree in the Churchyard
There is only one tree in the churchyard, I realize now, standing on the other side of the archway, but it’s the biggest tree I’ve ever seen.
Not the tallest, mind you, but the most expansive, the most sprawling, with dozens if not hundreds of horizontal limbs, thick as my torso, some thicker, crisscrossing the space beneath its opaque canopy, dividing the churchyard into chambers of various shapes and sizes.
In the beginning, all of these chambers are bathed in darkness.
Then, I see a flicker.
“There he is,” Rory says, pointing. “Come on, I’ve got to introduce you to someone.”
There’s something about what Rory has just said that gnaws at me, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Then, as we’re scrambling toward the light, crouching under some tree limbs and climbing over others, it hits me:
Rory has just spoken in complete, coherent sentences.
When I try to bring this peculiar fact to Rory’s attention, however, a slew of garbled sounds spill from my mouth.
“Rooo… Rooo? Waaa? Ahhh?”
“Oh, right. That,” he says flatly. “You really shouldn’t have spit out that last shot I gave you.”
He waves a dismissive hand.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m gonna have you all fixed up in no time.”
The light that had once been flickering faintly in the distance soon reveals itself to be a bonfire, around which are seated about a dozen people.
I smell them before I can see them in any detail. The stench of sweat and soiled clothes. Of ancient fabrics crusty with biology. I want to turn around. I am turning around when Rory grabs me by the shoulder.
“What’s up with you?”
I point to my nose.
By way of reply, Rory smirks, inhales vigorously, his nostrils flaring with the effort, and then emits a deep, satisfied-sounding sigh, as if he’d just been huffing a hydrangea.
“Just wait,” he says with a wink.
I wait, fuming in silence, listening to the murmurings of the men and women seated around the bonfire grow louder as we trudge ever forward. Beyond French and English, I can detect traces of German, Spanish, Italian, and what I think is Mandarin flowing from their mouths and out into the dank morning air. There’s something undeniably soothing about their voices, about the way the different languages meld together, forming intricate chords and patterns—chords and patterns that Rory promptly smashes with his voice.
“Ogma, you old bastard!”
The multilingual murmurings come to a sudden halt.
A few unnerving seconds of silence pass by. Then…
“Rory, my boy!” a voice roars in response. “Is that you?”
“The one and only.”
As we reach the edge of the bonfire, I see a bald, bone-thin man with ebony skin perched on a tree branch, just out of reach of the flames. The man’s face is tattooed—a long strand of dark ink curving around his forehead, punctuated by a series of shorter, intersecting dashes. From this distance, it resembles a crown of barbed wire. Or thorns.
“And what have you brought for us this time, my good lad?” Ogma is asking now.
Rory casts a suspicious eye in my direction before hoisting his paper bag full of cheeseburgers aloft.
“Cheeseburgers,” he proclaims. “Cheeseburgers for all.”
The men and women sitting around the fire cheer and holler with gratitude as Rory begins handing out greasy, lukewarm balls of wax-paper-wrapped cheeseburgers. When the paper bag is empty, Rory reaches into his bulging pants pockets and pulls out the cigarette packs he’d bought earlier, rips them all open, and starts divvying up the cigarettes into little bundles.
“Here,” he says to me. “Help me hand these out, will ya?”
I stare at him for a second, dumbfounded, then get to the task at hand, keeping my nose scrunched as I make my way around the circle.
“Who’s your friend?” Ogma finally bothers to ask.
“Oh, right. That’s Finn,” Rory replies. “The weekend busboy. The one I was telling you about. From Boston.”
“American?” Ogma snarls, before addressing me directly for the first time:
“Ehhh… Ehhh…” I mumble while rotating my hand, the universal sign for “a little bit.” This, as it turns out, is exactly how I would have responded to the question were I still capable of speaking.
“Mmhmm. And what have you brought for us, Finn l’Américain?”
I take the single cheeseburger and single order of fries out of my bag and feel my face reddening.
If Rory had told me ahead of time that we were going to feed the homeless tonight I would’ve bought more food, I think to myself, trying to rationalize away the shame.
It doesn’t work.
Ogma, a fresh coat of disgust now covering his face, looks to Rory.
“Is he supposed to be here?” he asks.
“Yeah. I mean, I guess so. I mean, that’s what Morrigan said.”
“Morrigan?” Ogma moans. “That old crone?”
“Careful, Ogma, you’re not getting any younger yourself, you know”
“Ah, but then what about you, Rory? You’re no spring chicken either…”
As the two continue bickering, an idea coalesces in my brain.
I put my French fries together in little bundles, just like Rory had done with his cigarettes, then start walking around the bonfire and handing them out. When my French fry container is empty, the bickering stops.
“Get my friend a drink,” Rory says to Ogma.
Both men are smiling what can only be described as goofy goddamn smiles.
I look into the plastic cup and don’t like what I see.
When Ogma had ladled it out of the metal pot, he had said it was a specialty mead of his own brewing. “Nectar of the gods,” he had called it.
It’s certainly an unfiltered mead, I consider, eyeing the yeast particles and rotten, hexagonal chunks of honeycomb floating listlessly about. Organic flotsam in a golden-brown sea.
I try to politely decline this generous offer with words but to no avail. Even uttering the most rudimentary of sounds now proves impossible. So, I put up a hand in protest. Shake my head. Make every physical gesture I can think of that signifies “no.”
But Ogma is persistent.
“Drink,” he says. “Drink of my mead, and you will know why they call me Ogma of the Honeyed Mouth. Drink of my mead, and you will know why they call me Ogma of the Sunny Countenance. Drink of my mead, and you will not only bear witness to the light shining through the cracks but shatter those partitions that keep our two worlds separate. Drink of my mead…”
While Ogma continues his recitations, Rory leans over and whispers in my ear.
“Just drink it,” he says. “Trust me. It’s good.”
And I do trust him.
And it is good.
In fact, it’s so good that after taking my first, teensy-weensy, just-in-case-it-might-be-poison sip, I tilt my cup back and begin gorging myself.
“There’s a good lad,” I just barely hear Ogma say over the sound of the sweet liquid surging down my gullet.
The flavor is so bright, so pure, so radiant. Like distilled sunlight. Or lava that has cooled but somehow been kept liquid—the energy of the Earth’s core trapped in every sip.
“Hey,” I say, wiping my mouth, “This is actually pretty good,” only realizing several seconds later, after draining the rest of the cup’s contents, that I’ve regained the power of speech.
But that’s not all that’s changed.
For starters, the odor that had been assaulting my nose and putting tears in my eyes? Gone. Replaced by the scent of apples and marigolds and crunchy autumn leaves. And as I lower the plastic cup from my lips and scan my surroundings, I see that there is no longer a single bonfire burning in the courtyard, but hundreds if not thousands of them, scattered beneath the branches of the biggest tree I’ve ever seen, illuminating entire populations of once-hidden people.
“Care for a refill?” Ogma asks.
Even while feeling the most confused I’ve ever felt in my entire life, even while hypothesizing that the stuff I just drank was laced with acid, or that I’m currently suffering from some kind of mental break, or, worst-case scenario, that I’m dead, I can’t find it within myself to refuse Ogma’s offer.
“Yes,” I say, “I’d love a refill. But first, I have a question.”
Ogma and Rory raise their eyebrows right on cue.
“Who’s Morrigan?” I ask them.
After several more cups of mead and a cigarette from Rory and a cheeseburger and then another cup of mead and another cigarette from Rory, I’m nowhere closer to knowing who this Morrigan character is but I am definitely closer to feeling the happiest I’ve ever felt in my entire goddamned life so that’s gotta count for something.
Then… I hear those words.
The words you never want to hear when you’re feeling this Earth-shatteringly good:
“Alright, it’s time to go.”
“Go?” I reply. “But we just got here.”
“Just got here?” Rory retorts. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
I fish around in my pocket for my phone.
Flip it open.
“We still have time for one more,” I say, feigning confidence, and feigning it poorly.
“Finn.” Rory pauses. Looks at me with an expression I’ve never seen on his face before—an expression of grave seriousness. “We have to go,” he continues. “We’ve got people waiting for us.”
“At another bonfire?”
“Something like that.”
“Do they have mead?”
“No. But they’ve got something better.”
A song is playing in 6/8 time.
An Irish song.
One of the old ones.
Its melody ripe with trills.
Its lyrics ripe with tales.
Of invading forces.
Of an island under siege.
Of a culture under threat of obliteration.
The song echoes throughout the cathedral-sized chamber I now find myself standing in, the vaulted ceiling of which is being supported by a massive, wooden spine. With my eyes, I follow the curve of the spine all the way down to its gnarled, bulging base, which is growing from the center of the chamber.
“Welcome,” says Rory, “to the trunk.”
The impossible trunk of the impossible oak is so wide that even after walking for several minutes in its direction, it appears no larger on the horizon.
The music, meanwhile, has been getting louder.
After another five minutes of walking, I discover its source:
There he is, banging away on his old guitar, blood dripping from his hands.
He’s sitting at the edge of a circular pool of water, which is about the size of your typical above-ground swimming pool, but unlike your typical above-ground swimming pool, there’s a suspension bridge—albeit a small one—stretching across it. There’s also what looks like an aluminum rowboat resting on the pool’s banks.
As Rory and I walk closer, I see Marie-Jeanne, in full scuba gear, swimming near the pool’s surface, circling the bridge’s foundations. The tip of a spear is poking up out of the water next to her.
Gabrielle is there, too. Sitting on the bridge’s railing. Watching and giving direction to Marie-Jeanne from on high. Legs dangling.
Both of them are so absorbed in whatever it is they’re doing that they don’t see Rory and I approach.
“Hey, fuckers,” Shane calls out, his song having reached its somber conclusion. “What are you doing here?”
“Same thing you’re doing,” Rory replies.
“Would one of you mind telling me what the hell is going on?” I interject, recognizing immediately upon doing so that the mood-elevating effects of Ogma’s mead have all but dissipated. “Where the fuck are we? What is all this?”
I wave my hands wildly at the pool of water, at the bridge, at the rowboat, at the gargantuan, tapering tree trunk that is simultaneously right above us and miles away from us, even though I know that’s not possible. Even though I know none of this is possible.
“You haven’t told him yet?” Shane says to Rory.
“You have seniority,” Rory replies. “I figured you’d want to do it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”
And with that, Rory walks over to the rowboat, drags it into the water, and hops aboard. Only now do I realize that the rowboat, of course, is made of steel, not aluminum.
“I’ll see you later, Finn,” Rory says, picking up a fishing rod that had been lying on the bottom boards. “We had a fun night, yeah?”
Then Rory’s back is to me. And his fishing line is in the water.
I turn to Shane, who’s been waiting to meet my gaze.
“What the fuck is happening?” I ask him. “Am I dreaming? Am I hallucinating? Am I… dead?”
“Chill out, you’re not dead.”
“Chill out? Chill out? Have you looked around you, Shane? This isn’t normal. I mean, look at them. Look at them, right now. What the hell are they doing?”
“Yeah. You know, it’s when you, uh, try to separate the little fishies from the water they’re swimming in. People have been doing it for a long time.”
“This isn’t funny,” I snap. “This isn’t some fuckin’ joke.”
“You’re right. Most people taking fishing very seriously.”
I turn to leave.
I’ve had it.
Had it with this night. With this morning.
I’ve had it with these goddamn lunatics.
I resolve to do what I should have done hours ago, which is to take care of myself first and get myself the fuck home.
“You saw me earlier tonight, didn’t you?” Shane asks rhetorically. “On top of Mount Royal.”
I turn back around.
“What were you doing up there?”
“Taking my shift.”
“We all take shifts,” he says, casting his eyes toward the water. “And in return, we get to fish.”
I try to process this information. Try to focus it through the lens of reason. But keep coming up short in my efforts. My brain can only interpret what I’ve just learned as, at worst, the mad rantings of a drunken musician, and, at best, some kind of silly parable.
“Well, there better be some magical fuckin’ fish in that little pond then,” I say, “if they’re worth being crucified for.”
“You’re not too far off,” Shane replies, smiling. “Only… there’s just one fish.”
“So they,”—I point—“are all fishing for the same fish?”
“Oui, monsieur. You like salmon?”
“Meh,” I reply.
“Well, I guess it’s not about the flavor anyway. It’s about what’s inside the salmon that matters.”
I can’t help myself…
“Omega-3 fatty acids?”
Shane smiles, but it’s a reluctant smile.
“Fine, tell me,” I continue, indulging him, “What’s in the salmon?”
I’m now leaning harder than ever toward the “mad rantings” interpretation of Shane’s story.
“I guess I’d rather just go to school for that,” I say, “rather than, ya know, fish for it.”
Shane’s reluctant smile now morphs into a frown, and it’s not just a surface-level, mouth-muscles-only frown—the wrinkles of his crow’s feet have joined in.
“Are you even supposed to be here?” he asks, his tone darkening.
“I definitely don’t think so,” I reply, honestly, “But apparently Morrigan does.”
“Morrigan,” Shane echoes while scratching at the white peppering of stubble on his chin.
“Who is she?” I ask.
“You’re about to find out.”
Walk to the base of the trunk, then go up.
Those were the instructions Shane had left me with before returning to his music.
Looking back over my shoulder, the little suspension bridge is now a mere silhouette. My friends, who are presumably still gathered around that little pool, have been rendered invisible.
When I finally reach the base of the trunk, when I’m close enough to caress its cracked, corrugated bark with my open palm, I repeat the second part of Shane’s instructions:
“Then go up.”
Scanning the trunk, I pray I’ll discover an elevator, or an escalator, or, at the very least, a staircase.
What I end up finding is a ladder. And not even a real ladder, but some twisted, thorny affair, which seems to be a living extension of the tree—its meandering “rungs” consisting of a series of bumps and branches.
I grab the nearest handhold and begin hoisting myself upward.
This is one of those defining moments, I realize. This, right now, is the final stage of the hero’s journey. The twelfth (or thirteenth?) labor. The moment everyone has been waiting for.
But the thing is… I’m just not that kind of guy.
So instead of climbing that deathtrap of a ladder, instead of allowing myself to be transformed into some kind of trope or archetype or cliché, I turn around.
And walk away.
Back the way I came.
Now, more determined than ever, to leave this place.
To wake up.
To be rid of this sick delusion.
I pick up my pace.
And just as I see the outline of the bridge come back into focus, I hear the rustling of feathers.
A shadow dashes across the ground in front of me, coming and going in the blink of an eye.
A large shadow.
The whoosh of air, crackling with static electricity, washes over me a full second later, knocking me off my feet…
Want to find out how the story ends?
Grab your copy of Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy to read the conclusion of “Druids of Montreal”
A collection of 17 short stories, NEON DRUID mixes urban fantasy and Celtic mythology, creating a universe where lecherous leprechauns and debaucherous druids inhabit the local pubs, and where shapeshifting water spirits from Scotland and sword-wielding warriors from Ireland lurk in the alleyways. Stories range from tales of supernatural horror, to street-level fantasy adventures, to farcical, whiskey-drenched fairytales. Learn more…