Magic on the Cliffs of Moher

Liam ran. The old man ran so fast and reckless he drew the attention of an eye a half-mile down the cliff line. Henry, the owner of the eye, saw his chance. He chased Liam into the heavy trees and dense air, scanning for a cap of white hair and the paling blue of a sweater vest.

Liam found Henry first.

“There is a girl,” Liam whispered from somewhere behind Henry, who was both a stranger and kinsman. The cliffs had brought them together years ago—the young man who climbed the cliffs and the old man who lived atop them—and magic perhaps. Liam’s voice sounded deep and dangerous, refuting the innocence of his short and rather thin body. “Watch for her,” he commanded.

They stared, frozen and tense as elegant deer before flight, finding only sloping earth and patches of gaping moss on bark and snickering mist. But then came a flash of light. Liam and Henry ran to the girl through fallen logs and obtuse trees, and the girl wasn’t so much a girl as she was a woman, so effortless and free in the way she weaved through the wood, charging the air. She laughed a time or three, and the laughter bubbled up into damp leaves and found a home.

Henry matched her pace, desperate to prove to Liam that he was worthy, deserving of a welcome into Liam’s worlds of wonder. One more minute and he would have her.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” Liam yelled. But he shouldn’t have, for the sound of his bark startled the woman. The earth leapt upwards to help her escape—so it seemed to Henry.

“Have you ever visited the giant jungle in Canindeyu!” Liam tried again. She ran faster, without laughter, beyond Henry’s swipe or trip.

“The tree at its heart? Have you been there?” Faster.

“Can you tell me where it is?” he shouted. Faster still.

“There is a woman named Amanda—“

But the bright creature was gone, swallowed in earth, root, and mist.

“Who was that?” Henry asked, the dim light of dawn examining the curves of his young muscles and the melancholy hunger of his blue eyes. It was the first time he’d spoken to Liam. Their wordless, unacknowledged friendship had at last cracked into sound.

“A messenger,” Liam answered, panting, still staring where she disappeared. “She carries letters, objects, and messages between the secret places of the earth. At first I thought she was here for me, but…”

Henry relished this admission. Many were the times when he stole glimpses into Liam’s tattered leather journal as it sat unaccompanied on the burnt red metal chair outside Liam’s house—the one with drawings of glowing, sparking red gems, silver-coated panthers as small as mice, flying snakes with dozens of wings, riverweed that stretched like rubber, a cat-like creature with spidery legs and moss for fur, giant trees, and ancient runes surrounded by bits of labyrinth. Many were the times when Henry snooped outside Liam’s giant seed house—that’s what the townspeople called it in gossip—or spied Liam coming back from one of his sudden and mysterious trips covered in scars and bruises. And Liam knew Henry snooped, spied, and stole glimpses. Liam knew Henry was fascinated, obsessed at times with his mysteriously magicked life. But no confrontation took place, no excuse or explanation. And now this, a truth telling.

“Who else would she be here for then?” Henry asked, naked in ferocious need, hoping the old man would admit another truth.

“There’s a piskie that lives in a cave around here,” Liam answered. “The message was probably for him.”

“A pixie?”

“No, a piskie. Sort of like a pixie, but wrinkled and mischievous. Maybe they’re what pixies turn into after thousands of years. I’ve never inquired.”

“We should ask the piskie, to be certain. Maybe she was here for you after all, and you’ll know to expect her again. And this time, not chase her away.”

Liam and his vivid green eyes laughed as he wiped his forehead of sweat. The air enjoyed catching that hearty laugh and parading it great distances through the trees. The old man looked remarkably without a definite age, as if the forest run had erased the proof of years.

Henry followed Liam deeper into the wood, farther away from the town of Carran, its sprawling, baleful cliffs, and the magicked seed house that dared to stand upon them. Henry pinched himself several times to make sure their jaunt wasn’t another dream.

The men knew they’d reached the piskie’s cave when Henry tripped a wire that released from some branches a scarecrow costumed as a ghost.

“He likes pranks,” Liam explained.

The cave opening was nestled deep in a small hill covered in trees. With the sun so low in the sky, at first the dark mouth seemed a foxes’ den. But as Liam showed, one had to slide down the opening, through mud and clay, to reach the makeshift door where Liam also became the second victim of the piskie’s pranks; he knocked to discover the door was covered in a green goo that turned human skin purple for three days.

“Who is it?” a crafty, crooked voice rang out with almost no evidence of a nose to broaden its tone.

“It is Liam, Markkine.”

Markkine the piskie squealed in delight and flung open the door. His face looked as it sounded—small and sly—and he wore evergreen corduroy trousers, green moccasins, and a frumpy jade sweatshirt—frumpy so it would cover up his wings, the tips of which popped up between his neck and the hood of the sweatshirt, veined and glittered. The piskie’s face was adorned in thousands of wrinkles and crowned in tireless red hair that mocked his age by staying young and plenty.

“You’ve brought a friend,” Markkine noted, “an eager and restless creature I see.”

Henry didn’t care what the piskie called him as long as he could stay in Liam’s world, which slid on like a glove just as he knew it would. Markkine put on a pot of coffee without an offer and acceptance, and invited his guests to sit at a small square table decorated in what looked to be dozens of temperamental scratches. The whole room was like that—small, scratched, gathered at random, but it didn’t feel cold or uncomfortable, probably because the piskie’s wingtips cast a glow of cozy.

“Did a messenger come to see you?” Liam asked as if the answer would determine whether he sat.

“She did.”

So Liam sat. Henry followed. Markkine poured steaming black coffee into three ceramic mugs with cracked blue rims. They sipped, and the coffee flowed into their open fissures and broken thoughts. Henry liked how coffee did that—acted as a wizard-made serum, feeling the needs of its drinker and becoming what he lacked. A shot of hope today, it heard for Liam, unsweetened. A cup of promise, it heard for Henry, with a touch of cream.

“I’m sorry, Liam,” Markkine offered. “I guess you hoped she was meant to find you.”

“She came my way. Why would she come my way if she had already delivered to you?”

“Messengers are odd things. They see so many whats and go many wheres. It is natural for her to be curious about you and your giant seed from that giant jungle. If she hadn’t visited your cliffs, I would have questioned her and the very message she gave me.”

“How did you get that giant walnut seed to Carran, sir?” Henry asked at last, after wanting to for so long.

“I did nothing but turn it into a house,” Liam said. “The seed followed me here.”

“Oh, forgive me,” exclaimed Markkine, taking up a polite manner. “I didn’t know the young man was ignorant of your life, Liam, or I wouldn’t have said anything.”

“It’s okay, Markkine. Henry is a friend.” Henry and Liam exchanged a look of meaning which reminded Henry of the first time they met beyond a solemn nod or inscrutable expression—also the first time he climbed the Moher Cliffs. Henry’s slick, eager fingers had reached up onto the bluff and faltered as Death tickled his right toes. Liam appeared above Henry, perched with ease on a tuft of grass and earth as if he was without old groaning muscles and thin trembling bones. With one hand Liam caught Henry by the wrist and flung him over onto the grass. They regarded each other that day, a look that substituted for a hello. So began Henry’s curiosity with the magicked life of Liam Whelan.

“It all started in the jungle,” Liam continued, “where I met Amanda.”

“—Always Amanda—“ Markkine snickered between Liam’s sentences, sliding back into himself.

“When I was young, I went to the jungles. Deep south and as far away from busy, quarrelling shores and dull, crippled beauty as possible. I went into the soul of the jungle and learned about love.”

“Love?” Henry asked.

“Love,” he replied wistfully, sipping his coffee and savoring its hopeful flavors. “I learned to love my hands, my muscles, my courage, and my determination. I learned to love the milk and bread of nature. And then I learned to love a woman, my wife, Amanda. The first time I saw her, she was climbing a hulk of a tree. You could have knocked half its trunk away and it would have stayed standing. Her hand slipped, and she almost fell if it weren’t for two feisty fingers on her right hand. I didn’t say a word. I just watched, in awe of her audacity. Death didn’t scare her. She didn’t cry or yell for help. She used the power every last one of us is given at birth to claw and kick her way back onto that branch. After that, I couldn’t leave her. She was my muse.”

Liam paused to scold away a waiting tear.

“Amanda was looking for a wishing stone when we met—a red gem with what looked like lightning inside. I thought it folly at first, but my heart was hers, so I happily went down her path. And to my surprise, she ended up being right. The stone did exist and we found it. One wish each. She went first and wished that magic would follow both of us around the world, forever, always. It began immediately. Creatures appeared that we hadn’t been attuned to before, great cities right there in the jungle suddenly visible, and then we found the mammoth tree. When we saw all that wonder, that tree, I couldn’t think of a wish to top hers, so I let the stone be and we started climbing…” His voice trailed off into memories.

“And then she died?” Henry asked.

“God no!” Liam exclaimed. “We lost each other in the branches. They were like endless cities, those branches. I searched them for years, but couldn’t find a trace of her, so I left to find help.”

“—That’s how he found me—“ Markkine interjected.

“And her wish lived on. Everywhere I went, magic followed. I couldn’t be free of it. The faster I ran, the harder I tried to escape the memories and that wish for a moment’s peace, the stronger the magic pursued. That’s how it is. Movement stirs magic to life. With too much stillness and lingering and waiting, magic fades. So I came home to Carran. The seed appeared in the beginning, the sea tried to lure me away with whispers and promises, the cliffs tried to spurn me onward, but most of the magic paled eventually, in Carran at least.”

“Yah, but when he leaves, the magic wakes up with a fiery roar, hot on his tails,” Markkine said in some ripe tone of gossiping old ladies.

“You go with him on his trips?” Henry asked.

“I do,” Markkine said proudly, heaving his meager chest into the air and flitting his wings. Envy simmered along Henry’s bottom lashes.

“You help him find the tree?”

“No,” Liam told for Markkine. “I abandoned that idea long ago. It’s too hard. Magic moves, shifts, buries itself, invites fog and mist to cover it up until the truly worthy arrive to gaze upon its glory. And large manifestations of magic are often the hardest to uncover. So I turned to hunting for the wishing stone again. To make the wish I never used.”

Liam and Markkine dipped into silence, thinking, thinking, and hoping too.

“We have to go,” Liam said abruptly, taking the last dregs of coffee.

He and Henry walked quietly and comfortably through the woods, listening to the noon songs of birds invisible in bushes and treetops.

“Thank you for your help,” Liam finally said when they reached the cliffs.

“Sir,” Henry started, “why give me these answers now and not before?”

Liam fingered the scruff on his face and wrinkles that were less deep than hours before. He thought for a moment longer and grabbed a good breath of forest air to say, “Because, Henry Boyle, you got up and chased them.”

Henry smiled the rest of the day and the following morning as he approached the seed house to offer his services and ask to accompany the two on their next journey. But Liam’s seed house was busted open. Various cases and travel packs were strewn about the ground, open, with articles of clothing, shoes, and books falling from their jaws. The door was ajar and from it came noises of cabinets wrenched wide, furniture flipped over, chattering glasses, bottles, and dishes, and a man groaning. Henry boldly opened the door. There was Liam, collapsed below a tiny seed house window.

“Liam!” Henry rushed to the bloody old man.

“Get me the first aid kit,” Liam breathed. “It’s under the bathroom sink.”

He looked frightful. The bone of his left arm popped all the way through muscles and skin. The left leg of his trousers was mostly missing, offering Henry a queasy glimpse of the evil purple bruise underneath covering his whole leg. A gash marked one side of his jaw, and blood flowed from somewhere on his back as well, pooling on the wood floors. Henry found the kit and Liam opened it to fumble through vessels of liquids and jellies and creams of all colors.

“You need to go to the hospital,” Henry pleaded.

“No. I have plenty here from the piskie to fix all this.” Liam found a sickly yellow cream he’d been looking for, ripped his torn pant leg off completely, and found the pussing, blistered hole against his left knee. He covered the sting, the bite—whatever it was—with the cream, shouting curses as he did.

“Where is Markkine?”

“I kicked him out of course! This is his fault!”

“It’s his fault you’re like this?”

“No, it’s his fault I’m here. After we departed yesterday, Markkine and I decided to go back to one of our hot spots to see if anything had shifted. And we found it! We found the wishing stone, Henry. At last. Of course, along with it we found a few balors, harpeys, and spiteful leprechauns with poison arrows, but they weren’t a problem. I knew how to outwit and outrun them. They just had to think they were winning for a time. Then I’d show ‘em. But Markkine wouldn’t listen. I was fighting the balor, and he was arguing with me and distracting me when the stone came into my hands, and I couldn’t think! I couldn’t make the wish. He touched my shoulder, and then we were here, in this stubborn seed on these stupid cliffs, away from my tree, away from my Amanda.”

“Maybe the stone heard you anyway. The wish jumped from your heart, through your fingers, and into the stone without you having to utter one word.”

Liam only sighed and moaned. He pushed the rogue bone back into his arm, grabbed a tiny, thin bottle of blue liquid and downed the whole thing in a cringe. He put a bright violet cream on the other gashes in his flesh, and then went still for a while, breathing with increasing evenness each time the sea crashed into the crags until falling asleep.

Henry wandered the guts of the three-room house, a house that drew crowds when it first appeared—Henry had seen pictures—cleaning and repairing as he did. The round walls were smooth, not a ready splinter or rough edge to be seen, and they reflected fantastically rippling patches of light from unremarkable non-magicked little lamps. A brown leather couch with faded cushions stood as friend to an earthy red armchair and quaint wood end table, and a fire burning stove and cabinetry with peeking dishes and mugs loitered on the other side of the room. They all looked bitter at being in something so wondrous while not containing any wonder themselves.

The space was warm, without a single lingering draft, and bundled sounds into their most perfect versions. Crackling logs engulfed in fire after Henry got Liam to bed. A bubbling stovetop espresso pot the next morning. Wind soaring and sliding over the dome as dusk settled. Henry’s shoes as he shuffled over the almost-level floor to assure Markkine of Liam’s survival.

Early the following sunrise came a deliciously packaged knock at the door.

The air grew dense and electric; Henry knew the knocker. He opened the door and faced her, a flash of light standing still. He noticed that she was about his age, that in the light of dawn her hair looked like strands of chocolate-colored silk bound together in long wild curls clambering toward her icy green eyes, and that her eyes were the freest pair he’d ever seen, and the most curious. The young woman looked Henry over too. She examined every detail—his sea eyes, wild smile, tanned skin, and well-used muscles. Henry thought that for a moment she liked him.

“Liam?” she asked, peering inside the house, eager and greedy for a new place.

“No, I’m not Liam,” Henry said. “Liam is sleeping—er, recovering. He’s going to be fine though. Would you like to come in?”

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Henry. What is yours?”

“Sabrina.” He’d heard that name before, a fairly common name, but it somehow sounded exotic when spoken from her pink-brushed lips. Henry noticed she was barefoot, and dressed in loose, ripped jeans and a similarly beaten tank.

“Can I help you, Sabrina?” Henry asked.

She looked out to the whitecap-striped sea like it was a ticking clock. Slowly, cautiously, Sabrina reached into one of her back pockets, and pulled out a rumpled white envelope. To Liam, it said. She held it to Henry, but would not release it from her thumb and forefinger until looking bottom-deep into his eyes as he promised, “I will make sure he gets it.”

Then she ran.

Henry shoved the letter into his pocket and chased her. He couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t stop chasing, not now, since that’s where magic was found. She was a mystery to be solved, wildness to be had and earned with consuming discovery. It started to rain. Henry nipped close at her heels until they reached the misty wood where tufty bluffs melted into rolling, tree-adorned hills. Strong and young as Henry was, Sabrina could leap over fallen branches and thread through tightly spaced trunks in ways he could not, so he lost her, a savage pursuit forever branded into his mind.

Liam woke on his own, free of Henry’s prompting. Rain pounded the top of the seed, though inside it sounded as mere tickles. Liam wobbled into the main room to find Henry sipping a cup of coffee dosed in patience. A rumpled white envelope sat on the table before him. To Liam, it said. Liam looked at Henry, eyes cut fresh with desire.

“She came,” Henry whispered.

Liam lifted the envelope, slowly, cautiously, just as Sabrina had handled it. The white thing made high snapping noises of paper that’s been wetted and dried several times over, turning it into something stiff and grumpy. He ripped open the seal. The seed cushioned the sound exquisitely. Inside was a piece of floppy, resilient cloth with fraying edges.

Liam unfurled the wide and long cloth from his raised hands, and Henry heard Liam gasp. Painted on the cloth was a map of tree branches, vivid and exact, with a black, twisting, weaving dotted line pointing the way to whatever world lay at its tops.

A tiny piece of paper fluttered to the floor. Their eyes followed it down. If not that way, than another. Love, Amanda. Liam broke. That stubborn and waiting tear finally escaped his eye.

“Your wish,” Henry started.

“This has nothing to do with my wish,” Liam spat suddenly. “This is a map to find my love. A map of our tree. But I do not have the tree. And so I do not have my wish.”

“You found the wishing stone again once,” Henry encouraged. “You will do it again, and this time you’ll make that wish to find the tree.”

“No, it is over,” Liam sorrowed, pressing the map to his face in search of any scent, any hidden breath of her.

“But the note says to find another way. You told me the magic follows when you move, so don’t stop moving, don’t stay in one place, Liam. Leave Carran.”

But Liam slumped into the armchair, clearly and bitterly in Carran with a map of a misplaced world soaking up his tears and despair. And as if he had never been awake, Liam slipped back into the sleep of loss.

Henry woke to an earthquake not three hours later. Frantic fists pounded against the door of his recently neglected apartment, which he had been exiled to at Liam’s half-unconscious insistence. Henry jolted from his bed sheets, unsure if he was in the forest, Markkine’s cave, the seed house, or some other familiar dream world. “I found the tree,” Liam exclaimed from the door, drenched in biting autumn rain. “I need your help.”

Henry followed Liam without question. His heart beat about wildly. They reached the edge of town and kept going. They reached the seed house and kept going. They reached the forest. Liam swerved and kept going. Then appeared a vast, open clearing along the bluffs. A shovel glinted in the center of the clearing at the occasional drop of lightning. Liam told Henry to dig—dig until Liam told Henry to stop, and not before. So Henry did. He dug and dug some more, boots full of mud, hands covered in blisters, flesh stiff from the cold rain.

Thunder clapped, tree trunks creaked, and raindrops smacked, singing a chorus to the melody of shovel splitting earth. Black-blue clouds freed flashes of light. Seawater capered up the air to get a peek and a glimpse of the magic-movers.

Liam finally reappeared, carrying a stack of large panels. Henry stared, confused. Liam dumped the armful into the hole as Henry sprinted to the seed house. Quickly it appeared, haunting the cliffs in the distance, cracked open like an egg, with furniture and knickknacks spewed about the grass wishing they too were made of the wondrous seedstuffs.

“Liam, what have you done?” Henry shouted as Liam approached.

“Magic moves when we move, Henry,” he laughed against the rain. “Just like you reminded. Don’t you feel it in the air? I have chased that tree all over the world. If not that way, than another, she said. So I have found the other way, and it’s been here the whole time. I will bring the tree to me!”

The Moher Cliffs shrugged, waves spun and spat, the sky laughed and rolled, lightning contorted and danced. The earth shouted and jumped and brought the awakened magic to Liam and Henry. And at last Henry could feel it, electrifying the air, causing goosebumps on his arms and legs. There it was, all around him, the world he sought from Liam.

In stacks and bundles they carried the shards for burial. They drowned them in mud and clay and hope, and waited with the storm. Beside that grave, Liam and Henry considered each other—two wild, needing, powerful, earth-covered creatures moving about in the night, maybe more real in that moment than in all the others.

Liam stumbled to the earth. Henry gave in to sleep under a blanket of rain, to dreams of bed-sized leaves and boardwalk branches. He climbed them. The earth stretched out below, stars mingled in the green and offered bright and sparking rides. A house here, a cockeyed city there. Creatures of voice and mind enfleshed and dressed in ways he’d never seen. Real wonder. Then—

Voices oohed and aahed.

Henry pulled himself from dreams to face the curious eyes wondering at his sanity. But the eyes looked up not down, at a tree—the tree, the giant, terrible, beautiful, impossible tree. It stretched up from the earth, towering over little Carran and its little cliffs and little sea, towering over the clouds and giggling at how very low they’d managed to fly. Its branches unfurled and wound and shot up to reach the hidden stars and moon and places few people knew how to see. The colossus widened its trunk and reached down its roots, whispering to the Cliffs of Moher about the man climbing its branches and the other man at its base covered in mud and dried rain; and the cliffs whispered back; and the tree promised to leave the whimpering bluffs quite soon.

Something whitish waved frantically in the wind from under the shovelhead, crinkled and peevish from being wetted and dried and splashed in mud. Henry picked it up to find it was a note. What are you doing just sitting there? The piskie’s with me. Now take my book of wonders and add to it. Keep moving. Stir up the world. Truly, Liam.

The tattered leather journal poked from under Henry’s left leg, wrapped in golden twine. He smiled, and anyone would have been hard-pressed to discover a lick of melancholy in his eyes just then. He looked over to the wood, at where he would begin, and there he saw a flash of light darting through snickering mist.