One season, a long time ago, the rain never came. The crops grew stunted and crooked, like broken teeth. The townspeople fretted about the fields, about their empty bellies, about the bad omens. They tried to fix it. But despite the prayer vigils in the tiny stone church, despite the quiet sacrifices made under the hush of dusk to the gods they knew before, the harvest never came. Something else did instead.
Peggy Byrne was there. She saw the drought unfold, dry as bone and long as the list of Byrnes who had worked the land before her. When it was all over, the townspeople blamed her. They insisted she found it. She didn’t. Not really. Not in the way things normally get found, which requires looking.
Peggy had been reaching into the chicken coop when it happened. She didn’t expect an egg to greet her hand, but she was praying it might. When her hand met dry straw and nothing else, just like every other morning, she stood, closing her eyes for a moment. The sound of the forest rose up around her, cicadas and wren in harmony.
Then a sharp crack. And another. Peggy opened her eyes in surprise, searching for the source of the noise, and there it was: pebbles being thrown against her fence, lobbed from the Kelly’s corn fields. Peggy stood up straight, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand.
“Bridgid? Katherine?” she called. The Kelly girls were always up to something. Only two summers younger than Peggy, yes, but it felt more like a millennia sometimes.
No answer. Another pebble. Peggy stomped over to the fence. “You two better stop your messing!” she shouted. The drought had put everyone on edge.
Another pebble, larger than the others, lobbed right at her shoulder. “Girls!” Peggy shouted, reaching down to pick up the stones. The last one had a perfect hole borne in the center. Peggy shoved them in her pocket, stepped through the fence in a fury of skirts and boots, and stormed into the Kelly’s fields. She heard giggles, which turned her cheeks redder.
Peggy jogged down the path through the stalks, charred brown with drought stress. They reminded her of a husk doll she had found in the bog one autumn—all shrunken and brown, like an apple left to rot in the sun.
She stopped for a moment, realizing how far her anger had carried her into her neighbor’s fields. The giggling started up again, and suddenly, the stalks to her left shook like someone was walking through. She crossed her arms and faced where she was sure the Kelly girls would appear any moment. She waited, tapping one foot.
And then, a shift: the air felt colder, heavier, she realized, and smelt of bonfires.The movement in the fields became more fierce, like men and their hounds were pushing their way through the stalks. “Bridgid? Katherine?” Peggy said, this time in a whisper, her arms coming uncrossed. The rustling intensified, just a few feet from Peggy. Fires and animal musk and the smell of a deep, dark and endless night under a full moon filled her nostrils. It was an ancient scent, from long ago.
She had to run. She did not know this herself, not really—it was someone else who lived inside her, another voice from deep in her bones, her great grandmother’s or maybe her great-great grandmother’s, screaming in her head about other botched harvests, about the times before Christ came to Ireland, the years they did not have enough corn to make the offering.
As Peggy turn to flee, whatever was coming broke out of the stalks in a roaring wind. It was a gale, like she had felt by the winter sea as a child, and she screamed and stumbled, falling back through rows of corn.
For a few moments, she couldn’t move, her heart daring to crack her rib cage. The normal breeze had returned; she heard no sounds in the stalks around her. Her breathing slowed.
When Peggy finally got to her feet, she realized she could not see which way went back to the center path. She turned, just once—you see, that’s all it takes—and there it was.
A half-circle stretched before her, yawning like an open mouth. It curved away from Peggy, its path marked by rotten stalks of corn in a perfect spiral. In the center, a gaping slash loomed open in the earth, dark and moist as spring soil.
A henge, she realized. The smell from earlier came back, with undercurrents of damp soil and rotting corn. Peggy screamed again, and this time, someone finally heard her— the Kelly patriarch, Cormac.
The townspeople discovered later he had been just a few rows over in the corn, inspecting the stalks for insect damage when he heard Peggy’s shout and rushed to her as fast as his aging legs would carry him. It was curious, they said, that he only heard the final scream.
“Are you hurt?” Peggy heard over the stalks. “Where are you?”
“I’m here! It’s Peggy, I’m over here!” she shouted back. Cormac crashed through a few more stalks, leaning heavily on his oak staff. Finally, he appeared near Peggy, breathing hard.
“Are you alright?” he asked, reaching down to help her up.
“I’m .. I …,” Peggy said, lost for words other than to jerk her chin in the direction of the hedge. Cormac turned, slow as sin, to his left and took in what the corn had been hiding.
“It’s back,” Cormac said, so quiet and hoarse Peggy almost didn’t hear him.
“It was here before?” Peggy stuttered.
“Yes,” Cormac said, drawing himself up and looking 10 years younger for it. “A long time ago, Peggy. Before your parents, rest their souls, were even born.”
“What is it?” The henge’s mouth yawned wide ahead.
“I wish I knew,” Cormac replied.
“What do we do?” Peggy asked in a hushed voice. Cormac stiffened at her inquiry, like he had been struck. The henge knew what it wanted. The henge had always been clear with its demands.
“I’m sorry, Peggy, I really am,” Cormac said in a whisper, reaching toward her with his gnarled fingers. She drew back. She understood now.
She grabbed the old man’s staff away from his hands. He gaped at her, mouth wide like a fish, before she slammed the staff into his knees. She didn’t flinch when he fell to the ground, or when she hit him once—just once; he had to be alive—in the head with the blunt end. She felt weightless, perhaps like she was underwater, as she dragged his unconscious body to the mouth of the henge. He slipped inside with a quiet whisper of fabric against soil.
Peggy dusted her hands off on her skirt. She tied her hair back up. She remembered what her grandmother had told her about becoming a woman in the old days. Then she walked down the path through the stalks to her chicken coops. She reached into the coop, searching, until she pulled out an egg, at long last. It was smooth and brown and free of imperfections. Peggy cupped it in her dirt-stained fingers, holding it against her cheek. Then she slid the egg gently into her pocket and walked back the way she came.