Nollaig loved to go alone into the hill country near her home—though not too far up, in case she should be hurt and no one would be able to find her. Her favorite place was where a swift brown brook flowed through a lush wood of deep green oak and ash. Not far from the brook stood three large standing stones, and also the stone temple ruin of an ancient people who had gone before. The day after Nollaig was told that she and her brother would not be allowed to travel with the shepherd Nial and his friendly companion Focal (and maybe even the funny little man called Yng), she longed to be alone in her secret place, and so she went.
On this day the sun shone with an unusual brightness, but Nollaig didn’t mind, for with the brightness also came a wonderful warmth that went straight to her bones and made her feel profoundly alive. Nollaig’s mother Banmaith, daughter of a renowned teacher from Baile Átha Cliath, had taught her how to read and write. So, when she went alone to this quiet place or that, she enjoyed bringing things to read. Sometimes she brought ink, quill, and paper. This day she brought an old manuscript. It told only part of a story about a brother and sister who met an ancient woman, and then, not long after this time, the sister drowned and saw wondrous things below the waves.
The air lay heavy with death. A wind moved like mercury through the air and over the land that seemed to Esma as if it had never been alive. All appeared grey, and fruitless, and filled with hopelessness.
‘We are children of twilight,’ said Esma’s brother Grimbold as he tossed a fist-sized stone into a dull field of rocks and weeds. ‘How can we sing here when the skies are brass?’
‘Then let us sing hymns of other places,’ Esma said. “Let us make psalms of bright groves where tall ones wander, touching with their strong fingers every note as they search for sovereignty in our joyful requiem.’
As Nollaig sat with her back against an olden oak, she felt an overwhelming need to weep, and so she did. She felt her heart stricken as if someone had touched it… yes, with strong fingers; and in her weeping she began to sing, and to pray, and then to lift her hands in wordless praise.
Presently, in the shade made by myriad leaves, figures like shadows began to emerge from fallen foliage and come toward Nollaig. When she opened her eyes, all around her stood a strange people with skin as white as lilies-of-the-valley. At first she thought they all might be stricken with leprosy, but seeing that nothing of them was deformed, she wondered. They smiled at her, these odd people, yet said not a word. Lily People, Nollaig thought, and this is what she felt she should call them.
“Good morning, strangers.”
No one answered her. Instead, they all turned away and gathered around the temple ruin, their white robes billowing like clouds in a morning breeze.
Nollaig knit her brows. “Curious.” She lay her book aside and rose to her feet. One of the Lily People saw her stand, broke away from the circle, and walked toward her.
“Torn Wrist,” said the woman, for Nollaig had suffered an accident once where her hand had been utterly severed from her wrist, and then miraculously healed by the shepherd Nial. “Why do you come to this place? Would you have us teach you? Is it the Ðaioiӕ tongue and its meanings you seek to learn? We will teach this language to you, if you will know it.”
Nollaig looked at the scar on her arm. “My name is not Torn Wrist. My name is Moiré Ní Cumhach, baptized as Nollaig. Who are you?”
The woman’s champagne eyes glazed over as if she were suddenly ill. She spoke nothing in reply.
“Are you ill?”
“I say, who are you? Answer me, for I have told you my name. You should answer me, if you would be kind.”
The woman shielded her eyes with her long, pale fingers. “I… am Neavglana. We… are called the Lost Ones. Please. Remove your… heart. It shines… too brightly….”
Nollaig reached into her dress and took hold of her heart. She closed her eyes. Something was amiss. Something abnormal. She looked past the white woman standing in front of her. The other Lily People—and there was a score of them—all stared at her, their eyes dim with sickness, their bodies in various poses of weakness. Some leaned over on sturdy staves, others crouched and held their bellies, others knelt with their arms crossed tightly over one another. One—a man—rested on his hands and knees as if he needed to wretch. “Remove your heart!’ He began to weep. “It be… bright! It… burns!”
It was as if Nollaig was now in a dream. She thought that she should be terrified of these white-robed Lily People, terrified of their frightened expressions, terrified of their moans and screams coming first like a trickle and now like a flood.
Notwithstanding, she pushed her fingers beneath her skin and below her ribs. She took hold of her heart, felt it beating, felt the warmth of her flowing blood. She wrapped her hand around it and gave a little tug. It broke free and surrendered to her. She pulled it from her breast and held it in both hands, wondering at its beauty—amazed that it seemed to be on fire, yet it did not burn.
A woman who knelt in the long, swaying grass spoke. “She removes her heart… as we have asked.”
“No!” said a man who leaned on his staff, the only thing keeping him upright. “She takes out her heart… not for us. Another hand… guides her. She removes it… not to destroy it… but to defeat us! The spirit who guides her knows… it knows we…”
“It knows!” cried an anguished woman, her eyes covered with her hood. “The spirit… knows we speak… the Ðaioiӕ tongue!”
Nollaig no longer knew that she stood in the company of the Lily People. She knew only one thing. She knew that the beauty cupped in her hands was more precious to her touch than the gentlest lamb, and that its scent made burning myrrh smell like burning paper.
“Hold it close, hold it dear, for you will not have it for long,” whispered a sweet voice in Nollaig’s ear.
“No!” The young shepherdess began to weep. She knew this could not be true, yet the voice was so clear, so beautiful, like that of an angel. “I… know… I know that you are lying to me.”
The Lily People began to wail as if they were a chorus of singers trapped in unquenchable flames. They could not escape, though they tried. They rolled and writhed. They reached out for Nollaig, beckoning for her to help them, their faces contorted in agony.
Nollaig knew that it was right to place her heart back into her body, and she did so, but the celestial warmth that flowed around and through her did not cease. Her action did not lessen the pain of the Lily People. Rather, they thrashed about with even more violence, for now the girl’s heart was where it had been before she removed it—in its holy temple. The screams of the unclean pale folk were piteous to hear, but a peculiar joy overwhelmed Nollaig so that her thoughts were captive to the gift of her fiery heart. She heard nothing at all now except the sound of waves rolling onto a far distant shore.