Grandma Eileen came into some money in 1962 after the death of Grandpa Joe. With it, she moved herself and my father far away from the only life they’d ever known in a small village in Ireland to a bustling, U.S. city. There, she made a name for herself as a seamstress, selling her craft to “the high society folk”. Dad got himself a couple of business degrees and started helping out on the operation side of things and it was through his work that he met Mom.
By the time my brother, Allen, and then myself, were born, Grandma’s solo operation had grown into a family run corporation overseeing a handful of dry cleaning and fitting shops with enough employees to run each.
We were a tight-knit family and, since Grandma would have been on her own otherwise, all lived together in a large, two story house. My parents remodeled the second floor into an apartment so that Grandma would have her own space away from the rambunctious activities of two young boys. When my parents would go out, Allen and I would tromp up the stairs so she could watch us, which would inevitably lead to arguments over incredibly important matters like who got to sit in the big red recliner, what to watch, or who got to snuggle Priss, Grandma’s sweet Maine Coon.
It seemed to me that Grandma always sided with Allen, which he lorded over me with a smug smile, while I was left sulking and petulant. When I tried to tell my parents about the obvious favoritism, they just said that Grandma loved us both equally.
In addition to her obvious bias, Grandma had also always been a little eccentric. Dad said it was left over superstitions from the Old Country, omens of bad luck and the like, so when she sat us down one night while we were visiting the apartment, I wasn’t concerned.
“Never speak to the Little People.” She said gravely, “If they ever make themselves known to you, don’t acknowledge them, don’t even look at them. Do you understand?”
“Why?” I asked at the same time Allen asked, “Who are the Little People?”
She regarded us with an almost panicked expression, “No questions, just listen and do as I say, okay?”
I squirmed nervously under her intense scrutiny and managed a stiff nod. Allen furrowed his brow uncertainly, but finally did the same. Grandma remained thin lipped and serious throughout our visit, her eyes darting to and from the front windows at the smallest of sounds, so I was relieved when my parents came home and we were free to go back downstairs. Our subdued behavior for the rest of the night didn’t go unnoticed and, when Dad was tucking me into bed, he asked what was wrong.
“What’s a Little People, Dad? Grandma was talking about them.” I paused, hesitant to make myself seem like a baby, “She made them sound scary.”
He chuckled and I immediately relaxed. How bad could it be if Dad was so dismissive?
“They’re just a fairy tale, kiddo. Let me guess, Grandma was saying to ignore them or something, right?” When I nodded, he said, “She used to say the same to me when I was your age. It’s just one her her stories that she brought over from Ireland, don’t worry about it. You get some sleep now. Love you.”
Reassured, I was able to fall asleep quickly and peacefully. Grandma’s warning about the Little People didn’t trouble me again and, soon enough, I had forgotten all about it.
“I want to pet Priss now!” I whined at Allen, who had been hogging both the recliner and the cat all afternoon. He stuck his tongue out at me and hugged Priss closer to keep me from trying to take her. I balled my hands into fists and breathed heavily through my nostrils, as if my frustration would do anything but make my brother keep Priss from me even longer.
“Grandma!” I finally shrieked, “Allen won’t let me play with Priss!”
I heard her clucking her tongue from the kitchen and when she poked her head in, her ire seemed more aimed at me than Allen, “What have I told you about yelling in this house, young man?”
With no help coming from her, I grumbled something about going to play outside and stomped my way down the stairs and out to the backyard, where I plopped myself down with a huff and began plucking blades of grass and tearing them to shreds. I’m not gonna cry, I’m not gonna cry!
“You ok there, child?” Someone asked.
I jerked around to find the speaker and there, half hidden in Grandma’s rose bushes, was the tiniest person I’d ever seen. I thought I’d been mistaken at first, that it was a trick of light and shadow, but no, there was certainly a man there. Standing at no more than two feet, he was dressed in delightfully bright colors from head to toe, all of which seemed just a hair too big for him. His hat, a floppy thing with a tinkling bell on the end, kept sliding down over one eye.
He grinned at me and offered a flourishing bow, which sent that hat to the ground and revealed a shiny bald head. I giggled despite my nervousness and watched him scramble to pick it up and set it back in place.
“You seemed sad just the now.” There was a sweet lilt to his voice, the kind Grandma had, “Are you alright?”
I bit my lip and started to get up. It wasn’t his smallness that unsettled me, a child’s mind is very accepting, it was the fact that he was a stranger. My parents lessons about Stranger Danger would not unheeded.
“Wait!” He held out a hand and in his palm was a perfectly smooth, round rock that changed colors as he moved it about in the sunlight, “Take this, it will help you feel better.”
I was fascinated by the stone and took a step forward, but stopped myself before I reached him, “I’m not supposed to take things from strangers.” I felt a touch of pride at having remembered that.
“Right you are, lad, right you are! So let me introduce myself so that we can be friends, aye? My name is Coilin. I don’t usually come out when you folk are around, but you seemed so sad that I wanted to do something for you. You’ll let Mr. Coilin give you this nice present, won’t you?”
It was just a stone, a very pretty one, what harm could come from that? And he was so very small. I checked to make sure we weren’t being watched and hurried over to him to take his offered gift. He dropped it into my open hand and cheerfully encouraged me to give it a good look over. Feeling more at ease, I sat in front of the bush and thanked him for the rock.
“Why don’t you tell me what was troubling you before, child.”
I frowned sharply, my mood darkened by the reminder of Allen and how horrible he was being, and closed my fist around the stone, “My dumb brother always gets to do whatever he wants and Grandma just lets him.” I complained, and was gratified when Coilin tilted his head sympathetically, “He’s mean to me, but he gets away with everything!”
“Oh aye, I understand, I have brothers too, you know, and sometimes I feel the same way.”
It felt good to finally be able to talk to someone who understood, “It’s not fair!”
“Not at all!” Coilin agreed, “Do you know something…I think I can help you!”
He nodded eagerly so that the bell on his hat jingled, “It sounds like your brother could use a little taste of his own medicine, hmm?”
That sounded exactly like what he needed. I leaned forward, excited to hear Coilin’s idea.
“Take that stone I gave you and put it in his shoe!”
I couldn’t hide my disappointment; that didn’t sound like it would be a very effective way for me to exact my revenge.
Coilin tapped his index finger to the side of his nose, “Don’t worry, lad, trust Mr. Coilin.”
That night, I did as the little man in the bush had told me and, with some measure of regret because I hated giving it up, put the rock in my brother’s shoe. I didn’t know what to expect and spent a sleepless night waiting and wondering. It felt like I had just managed to fall asleep when Allen started to scream.
I rushed from my bed and came sliding into the hall at the same time as my parents, who looked only half awake but wholly troubled. I followed them to Allen’s room, where he was standing on his bed, pressed against the wall.
“What’s the matter?” Dad demanded.
“My shoe! It’s in my shoe!”
He was deathly pale and trembling, his eyes wide like saucers. While my parents tried to coax him down from the bed, I leapt at his shoe and picked it up, eager to see what had caused him such a fright. When I tipped it, only the stone I’d put in it the night before tumbled out. Although confused, I was quick to pocket it in my pajama bottoms and held the shoe up innocently.
“You want your shoe, Allen?”
“There’s a spider in there! I saw it crawl in! It’s huge! Kill it, Dad!”
I left while our parents scoured the room for signs of the giant, shoe dwelling spider and hurried back to my own room. I sat on my bed and plucked the stone out to sit in the middle of my palm. I gazed at it wonderingly, gleefully, and knew that the man in the bush had been responsible for what my brother had seen. It made me feel like I’d made a powerful friend.
I went back to the bush that afternoon and crouched in the same spot I’d been in the day before.
“Mr. Coilin?” I whispered, “Mr. Coilin?”
There was a rustle and the tinkling of a bell and then the small, grinning man was standing before me again.
“Hello again, child!” He said cheerfully, “Did you do as I told you?”
I nodded, unable to hide my pleased smile.
“Wonderful! Do you feel a wee bit better now?”
“But, surely, one little prank isn’t enough, is it? Not after all he’s done to you.”
This time, I was slower to agree.
“This afternoon, when you’re eating your meal, put the stone under his chair.”
“But what if someone sees it?” I asked.
“No one will, I promise.”
Again, I trusted in the little man and his advice. I tossed the stone into place before taking my own seat and waited with baited breath for Allen to join me. Mom had made us grilled cheese for lunch, usually my favorite, but today I merely held it in my hands and watched as my brother sauntered in and took his place across from me.
“What?” He asked, frowning, when he saw me staring.
“Nothing.” I said and quickly took a big bite of my sandwich.
He rolled his eyes at me and picked up his grilled cheese. He managed three bites before he threw it, gagging, back on to his plate.
“Mom!” He cried.
“Yes, honey?” She was washing up in the kitchen.
“There’s bugs in my food!”
She was beside Allen almost immediately, inspecting his sandwich with great concern.
“I don’t see anything, honey.”
“There were worms, Mom! And ants!”
“Are you playing a joke on me, Allen Maxwell?”
“N-no.” He sputtered, deflating completely when she put the plate back down and he saw for himself the only thing on it was a partially eaten grilled cheese.
Mom excused me once I was done, but she kept Allen at the table to talk about what he thought he’d seen. I pretended to have dropped something by his chair on my way out as an excuse to get my stone back, but neither took much notice of me. I could tell they were both a bit worried, but I didn’t let that bother me. I was finally getting back at Allen and that was all that mattered! I slipped quietly back outside and reported the second success to Coilin.
He clapped with delight at my news, which made me puff up with pleasure.
“Now tell me, my boy, does that make you feel like you’re even?”
“No.” I said, almost crossly, “Tonight we’re going to Grandma’s. She’s always liked Allen more. I want to…to make her eat bugs or something, too!”
“Of course.” Coilin nodded gravely, “I believe I could be of some help there, lad, more than just worms betwixt some bread. Bring your granny and your brother out to this very spot tonight and we will give her exactly what she deserves.”
We shared a conspirators’ smile and agreed that I would return that evening after supper.
It was easier than I thought to get them outside. Allen was feeling fidgety and nervous and that, in turn, was making Grandma anxious. After a tense dinner, during which Allen kept looking through his food for insects, I asked if they wanted to go outside and walk around the yard with me. Allen seemed hesitant, but Grandma hurriedly agreed on both of their behalf.
After making sure Priss was lounging safely inside, the three of us tromped out to the garden. We made the rounds to each of Grandma’s flower beds, Allen and I listening politely while she explained what plants were what, but all the while, I had my sights set on the the rose bush.
When we finally got it, I heard the tiniest of bell tinkles from somewhere in the tangled depths and I knew Coilin was there. As agreed, I nonchalantly dropped the stone by the bush and called my brother over to look at something. I didn’t know exactly what Coilin was going to do, but if it were anything like his previous two pranks, it was going to be great.
“I don’t see anything.” Allen said irritably, peering into the bush.
By then, Grandma had noticed our unusual interest in her roses and had started to come over. When she was just beyond arm’s reach, the stone at my feet flashed one, a bright gold, and then it’s surface faded into a murky black.
I fell back in surprise and Allen tried to as well, but something had him around the wrist. A vine from the rose bush, thorny and cruel, was biting into his flesh. He cried out and clawed at the vine, but another shot out and took him by his other wrist.
“Grandma!” We both screamed even as she tried, futilely, to tear at the plant, bloodying her palms and fingers on the thorns.
I hugged Allen around the waist, trying to drag him back, begging Coilin to help, but the vines continued to twist and turn up Allen’s arms until they were lost from sight. Grandma beat against the bush, wailing like a banshee from one of her stories. Allen looked to her, his eyes glassy and his pale lips flecked with blood, and then he was gone, yanked impossibly into the bush. Grandma collapsed to her knees in front of it, reaching for the spot where Allen had been.
“Coilin!” I shouted, “Help! Help Allen!”
At the sound of his name, Grandma turned to me, and I saw such fear, such anger, in her expression. I thought she was going to strike me, and maybe she was, but the sound of a tinkling bell froze her solid.
“Consider your debt repaid, Eileen O’Hara.” Coilin’s voice sounded from somewhere far away, much too far to be in the bush, and then there was silence.
Grandma Eileen came into some money in 1962 after the death of Grandpa Joe. A death she had arranged with the help of the Little People. All they had asked for in return was to give up the love of her first born son. She agreed and celebrated the end of her abusive, alcoholic husband before taking her money and fleeing to America. She thought she managed to escape, but the Little People are patient, and they do not forget.
She knew they had found her again; she heard their whispers outside her window. She didn’t know how, not after so much time, and she tried to warn us, but we didn’t listen. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; the Little People had come to collect, and collect they did. Dad’s relationship with Grandma was never the same after Allen disappeared. He said he didn’t blame her, that he knew she would have died before she let anything happen to my brother, but there was no warmth in his eyes anymore, no affection.
We sold the house barely a year later. Grandma wasn’t invited to join us in our new home. They told her the new house was too small, but the truth was, it was just too hard for my parents to see her. With nowhere else to go, she ended up in a retirement community, where she remained, alone, until she passed away in her sleep some time later.
When Mom convinced Dad to collect her things and provide a proper burial as a way to say our final goodbye, we found that Grandma had kept little; only a few photographs, some clothes, and a murky black stone that she had said reminded her of home.