In this excerpt, the mysterious Mr. Donn tells our young narrator about one of the most fearsome creatures in the fairy realm – the headless horseman, he who heralds death.
II. THE DULLAHAN
The Tale of the Man Who Ran From Death
Mr. Brennan MacCarthy was a wealthy man. He lived on a large estate in Northern Ireland, in a two-story home of brick and lumber. The grounds of the MacCarthy Estate were expansive, rolling across nearly twenty acres of repossessed farmland. Only a quarter of the land was still worked, and never by Mr. MacCarthy himself. He had twenty-five employees, ten of whom were farmers working off their debts, ten more who tended the grounds and the walled-in garden, and five more of whom worked in the household – a cook, a butler, and three maids. On the grounds were staff residences, but most preferred to commute for fear that they might run into Mr. MacCarthy on their days off, few and far between as they were.
Although Mr. MacCarthy’s house was large, and his estate grand, he lived alone and rarely had visitors, even on the holidays. He was generally much disliked, whether more for his greediness, his churlishness, his exuding strangeness, or the odd smell of smoke and salt that hung about him, no one could say for sure. To his credit, Mr. MacCarthy possessed sufficient self-confidence that he didn’t let what others thought bother him, and he continued to unabashedly infuriate and unnerve all whose paths he crossed.
Mr. MacCarthy was also superstitious. While a lot of his contemporaries still respected the old ways, most did not wake up and fall asleep with the fear of a fairy stealing them away or snatching their souls. It was the 1930s, after all, and though Ireland retained much of its rich culture and folklore, people had considerably more to worry about in their daily lives than fairies, demons, and banshees. The older Mr. MacCarthy grew, the more superstitious he became, and the more superstitious he became, the more unpleasant he was.
By the time he was sixty-one, Mr. MacCarthy’s staff had dwindled down to eleven. His workers were unnerved by the salt he carried on his person at all times, and the weekly bonfires in the center of his garden. The eccentric old man would throw a match into a fire pit filled with dry kindling on the stroke of midnight every Saturday without fail. “’T’will scare the blasted fairies away,” he snapped at Gwen the very frightened maid one evening as she prepared the kindling. Gwen took leave of her position the following day, and if Mr. MacCarthy noticed or cared, he didn’t show it. By this point, he was quite used to his staff quitting or falling mysteriously ill only to be seen working at the MacLemore farm not two days later, in full health and considerably happier than they had ever been at his estate.
Mr. MacCarthy had a clowder of black cats roaming his grounds. When Mr. MacCarthy was having a peculiarly peaceful day, he might bring one inside and let it sit on his lap by the fire. They didn’t have names, but they served a dual purpose: they took care of his mice problem, and they warded off evil spirits. Ms. Annie the cook had an unfortunate allergy, and resigned not long after the number of cats peaked at fifty-two.
Mr. MacCarthy made his own meals from that point on, and for five years he ate bacon that dripped with grease and runny eggs for breakfast, and sausage and potatoes for lunch and for dinner. Ms. Annie hadn’t a more diverse menu, and Mr. MacCarthy was decidedly more concerned about fairies than food, so it worked out quite nicely, particularly for Ms. Annie. Free of the MacCarthy Estate at last, she took up a position as a barmaid in a nearby pub, was seduced by a con artist, and lost what little fortune she had. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but she preferred being poor and hungry to being slightly less poor and working for Mr. MacCarthy.
Now Mr. MacCarthy had a prized possession, a solid gold pocket watch that had been in his family for five generations. It wasn’t the sentimentality or the familial value attached to the watch that made Mr. MacCarthy treasure it as much as he did; no, it was the monetary value. He had had it appraised once, years before, and had been told it was worth at least £16,000. He carried it with him at all times and checked it often, if only to run his boney fingers over the polished golden surface in adoration.
It was mid-November, and there was a bone-chilling bite in the air. The moors had been howling relentlessly all day and all night for three weeks on end, and Mr. MacCarthy hadn’t been able to keep his bonfire going for more than a couple of minutes before it was snuffed out. Still, he would sit out for hours in the chill every Saturday night, nursing an infant flame that would never grow up.
On one such Saturday night, he was sitting on his favorite bench, glowering at the tendril of smoke, all that was left of his short-lived fire. His gold watch was clutched in his hand, his troubled fingers skirting absentmindedly over its surface. The wind whipped through him like an assassin’s knife. It was dark, the kind that seeped into your veins and froze your heart – the kind of dark that is so thick it can only have something festering in it.
And so it was with a terrible sense of foreboding that Mr. MacCarthy heard the rusty whine of his garden gate opening. He always kept the outer gate locked; his garden was unusually large, with great reaching trees and little ponds with lily pads and bullfrogs, more like a small nature reserve than a private garden. As he had become increasingly paranoid over the years, Mr. MacCarthy had taken to keeping the gate padlocked for fear of someone, or something, stealing into his garden and lying in wait to attack him. He always entered and exited the garden by way of the back door of his house, keeping the gate permanently locked. So, he knew, it was impossible that his gate should be opened, without, at least, a fair amount of noise as the intruder broke the lock.
Mr. MacCarthy leapt to his feet, with more speed and agility than a man over the age of sixty had any right to move. The clattering of approaching hooves beating against the immaculate stone walkway echoed in his ears as he stood there, his aged muscles quivering with the need to run, to get away, to hide from whoever – whatever – had slipped effortlessly past his padlocked gate and was riding purposefully toward him.
Through the trees, an eerie, pale yellow glow manifested, swaying in the breeze, bobbing with the gait of the approaching horse. A lantern, he thought as the phosphorescent orb drew closer. His mind screamed at him to run, but his feet were held fast by dread. He had a horrible feeling that he knew exactly what this was. The stories had been told to him since he was naught but a bairn. It was the horseman, he who heralds death. It wasn’t a lantern being held aloft by the mysterious caller – it was the horseman’s head.
He was being visited by the Dullahan.
That terrifying thought was enough to spur him into moving. His usually well-cared for timepiece tumbled from his fingertips and plummeted to the stone below with an echoing clink. He turned on his heel and tore into his home through the back door, locking it securely behind him. He could still hear the horse’s hooves striking the cobble outside, and, terror painting every thought, he hobbled up the stairs as quickly as his buckling knees could take him. Up the first flight, and he could almost feel the horseman’s breath on his neck. Second flight, and his ears tingled, knowing that at any moment, the Dullahan was going to speak his name. Third flight, and he was becoming increasingly confused as to why the horseman hadn’t caught up with him. Maybe he couldn’t climb stairs on his horse? Could the Dullahan dismount and follow him on foot?
Mr. MacCarthy didn’t know, but he refused to take any chances. When he reached his bedroom on the fourth floor, he bolted the door shut and made his way cautiously to the back window that overlooked his garden.
The Dullahan had vanished.
Not trusting that it wasn’t still lurking, waiting for him somewhere, Mr. MacCarthy hid himself away for the rest of the night, not sleeping, barely even breathing, and didn’t emerge until the first lights of dawn stretched into his room, and he was, somehow, alive.
He had almost convinced himself that he had imagined the whole thing, but when he made his way into his garden, this time accompanied by the soft morning light, there was his golden pocket watch, lying on the ground in front of the bench, right where he’d dropped it.
Inexplicably, he realized, he had encountered the headless horseman from the fairy realm, the Dullahan who heralds the death of any whose name he calls … and he had survived.
The Dullahan is one of the most terrifying entities that crosses from the fairy world into that of mortals. Its detached head, which Mr. MacCarthy was lucky to have not seen from close proximity, glows like a glass jar filled with hundreds of dying fireflies, with an ear-to-ear, grotesquely giddy grin stretching across its face. Its eyes dart around feverishly, soulless black pinpricks with no pupils, seeing everything. He clutches a human spine in his bone-like hand, used as a whip to spur on his black, snorting steed. Only allowed to speak once on each journey, the Dullahan searches out the dying and calls their names. Death follows not long after.
Needless to say, Mr. MacCarthy did not want to have another, more intimate, encounter with the horseman, and so he decided to run away, as far as he could, as fast as he could. Even if it meant he would never return to his rich and beautiful estate, he would gladly forsake his home and even his riches, if he could only escape from death’s greedy clutches.
Mr. MacCarthy fired all of his staff, even those who owed him money, except for his housekeeper. “Mind the house until I return,” he told her, tossing three months’ pay onto the table.
“And when will you return?” Ms. O’Leary asked, eyeing the proffered money warily. The master never gave up money willingly, and certainly not more than he absolutely had to.
“Perhaps never,” said Mr. MacCarthy, and Ms. O’Leary’s face brightened considerably at that.
“And what of the house, sir, if you don’t return?”
“Until I return, the estate is under your control,” he answered, his eyes fixed intently on the dark shadows in the corner of the hall. “If I don’t return, keep the blasted house.”
Ms. O’Leary gaped. “But sir… why me?” She had made it no secret in her time working for Mr. MacCarthy that she could care less if he lived or died.
“Because you’re the only one left!” Mr. MacCarthy blared. “Now leave me alone, woman! I must depart at once.”
And so he did. The afternoon following his encounter with the horseman, Mr. MacCarthy was on a train to Omagh. He shared a carriage with a fat woman in frayed clothing not much better than sackcloth and her two screaming children. She tried to make conversation over the sound of her little boy’s wails, but Mr. MacCarthy steadfastly ignored her, and she gave up.
There was an unexpected delay when the train had to stop for repairs, and so it was nearing nightfall as they passed into County Tyrone and drew near to the station. As the train surged along, Mr. MacCarthy stared out of the window, nervousness washing over him in waves. At one point, he swore he could see a horse galloping across the countryside next to the tracks, keeping pace with the train. He jerked back in his seat, plastering himself against the bench so as not to be seen by the horseman. When he peeked out the window a minute later, however, nothing was there, and the woman across the carriage from him was eyeing him peculiarly.
He checked into the inn nearest the train station. The rooms on the second floor were all taken, so he was forced to hole himself away in a small, dirty apartment on ground level. He pulled the ratty curtains tightly over the window overlooking the grassy knoll the inn perched on. The gargantuan bed situated under the window made an awful racket as Mr. MacCarthy pushed it, screeching, across the floor. Someone knocked irately on the wall, but he did not stop until the bed was as far from the window as was possible and his breaths were coming in short, panting bursts, his muscles burning with strain.
He didn’t bother unpacking his things, or even undressing. He simply put his pocket watch on the dresser by the window, lay on the bed, and, though he was loath to do so, soon succumbed to sleep.
He awoke to a soft squeaking, which turned into a creak, the sound of a seldom-oiled hinge protesting the pressure put upon it.
Mr. MacCarthy’s eyes snapped open, and he was disoriented for only a handful of seconds before he recalled what had happened and where he was. Slowly, dreading what he might see, he turned to the door. Closed. He breathed a sigh of relief, and made to sit up on his bed… and noticed the window hanging open, the curtains dancing madly in the frenzied gust. He tried to calm himself, to convince himself that the window had merely been blown open by the wind. It didn’t work, but he pretended it did and stood on shaky legs. He had to close the window.
Moving like a war-torn soldier through enemy territory, Mr. MacCarthy slunk across the floor, his sock-clad feet padding gingerly against rough boards. His chest ached as his heart pumped furiously, fear driving his pulse to new heights. His hands quaked as he reached for the curtain and drew it back.
His mouth contorted in a silent scream, a deluge of horror flooding through his veins. Stomach twisting, his whole body shook in fear. There held at eye-level by a black-gloved, skeletal hand was the creature’s glowing, moldering head. The Dullahan’s splitting grin widened, its eyes rocketing around as if they were trying to see everything at once.
That galling grin never wavering, the Dullahan opened its mouth, but its eyes were now locked on Mr. MacCarthy. The old man lurched back, slamming his hands over his ears, terrified of hearing his name uttered by the ghastly apparition. His elbow collided with the dresser as he moved, sending his watch skittering across the floor behind him as he raced to the other side of the room, hoping desperately he could stay out of reach although he knew it was impossible.
When he turned around, however, it was to an open window that looked out onto the trimmed grass, the stars, and the brilliant half-moon. The Dullahan was gone – again.
Mr. MacCarthy ran from the Dullahan for three weeks, never staying in one place for long. During this time, the Dullahan would only return after dusk, and it always manifested itself in the most petrifying of manners – but it never once attacked him, never called his name. It would just sit on its steed before its victim, staring with those starving eyes that couldn’t see enough, the infuriating smile plastered onto its face. He didn’t know why he was able to escape it, but he tried not to question his good luck.
Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t been able to take all of his wealth with him, and when one is traveling constantly, renting rooms, and buying every meal, even a substantial amount of money can dwindle quickly. Eventually his money ran out. Far from home, with none of his vast wealth to aid him, he found himself poor, alone, and frightened.
He felt empty, and for the first time in a very long time, Mr. MacCarthy wanted to live, wanted to do more than sit among his money in his hollow, hulking home. He wanted to experience life; he wanted to discover what true happiness was, and to learn how to take hold of it. Mr. MacCarthy had wasted his life away in the rich rubble built and destroyed by fear and greed, and now, alone in the world, hunted by a thing of nightmares, he keenly felt the ache of things missed, a life wasted. He wanted what he had never allowed himself to have, because in his travels, he had seen people living, people loving, people refusing to spend their lives consumed in their own worries.
Mr. MacCarthy sat on a bench in a small park, listlessly watching a group of giggling children play. His fingers loosely curled around his pocket watch, limp and tired. He had nothing. There was nowhere left to go. He had been quite literally running away from death for weeks now, and had lost everything – he couldn’t even get on a train and go back home one last time.
His head snapped up at the clear, high voice, and he saw a spritely boy standing before him. He was almost elven in appearance, with pale skin, green eyes, and thick blonde hair that curled over the tops of his ears.
Mr. MacCarthy had not had someone speak to him without disdain or fear in his voice in ages, and he was unsure of how to respond, so he simply sat, gaping at the child.
“Sir, can you spare a half-crown?” the lad asked. “Me mam don’t want me asking for money, but she’s been goin’ hungry so me and my sister can eat.”
For the first time in his life, looking at the thin face and pleading eyes of a hungry child, Mr. MacCarthy wished he could give someone else money. It wasn’t like he would need it much longer, after all.
“Sorry, lad,” Mr. MacCarthy said, and found he genuinely meant it. “I don’t have as much as a farthing. I’m very poor, now.” His voice caught as he spoke.
“How can you be poor if you have a watch like that, sir? You have to be a very rich man!”
“Connor!” a harried woman’s voice scolded as she marched across the grass. She was dangerously thin. “What have I told you about begging? We do not ask others for money. We can take care of ourselves.”
The woman shook her head as she grabbed the boy’s hand and pulled him away. “I’m so sorry, sir, if my son was bothering you.”
Mr. MacCarthy nearly didn’t hear her, because he was thinking very hard about something. In all his time running from the Dullahan, he hadn’t even considered his watch. It was precious to him, yes, but it was hardly doing him any good now, was it? He could sell it and use the money to move on, and then—
And then, he realized, he would trudge on and on, never stopping, never resting. He would never stop running. He would never be happy. He would continue a life on the run, forever hunted, a condemned man walking the earth that didn’t need him anymore. The old man was weary. It was time to rest. No more fleeing. It would end tonight.
Another thought struck him. He had missed out on much in his life. He hadn’t made people happy; he hadn’t made people anything other than angry or nervous or upset. He had done little that was worthwhile, because after all that time hiding away with his money, what good would it do him now? Maybe he had wasted most of his existence. If today was his last day on earth, why should he not do something of which he could be proud?
“Wait!” He beckoned the child over. “Come here, lad,” he said. The boy glanced up at his mother, freed his hand, and returned to Mr. MacCarthy, his head cocked.
His mind was reeling at what he was about to do, but Mr. MacCarthy maintained his resolve. With a tentative smile – and how wonderfully bizarre it felt to sincerely smile! – he pressed his golden pocket watch into the boy’s small hand.
“I told you I was poor,” he said, watching with glee as the boy’s eyes widened comically. “Nothing of value to my name, not a farthing, not even a pocket watch. You, on the other hand,” he mused, “look quite wealthy.” Almost to himself, he muttered, “And I am not sure I envy you.”
The mother strode over, a look near to panic on her face. “No, we cannot accept it,” she fretted. “We do not accept charity.”
“And I do not give it,” he said shortly. “But I am an old, old man, and I fear I will not be on this earth much longer. I have no heirs, no friends, no family. When I die, people will fight over my last prized possession at estate sales, and the thought is unbearable. No, if you take this burden off my hands, lady, you will be doing me a charity.” Again, to himself, “I am so very tired.”
Sympathy and hesitation warred for prominence on the woman’s features. After a tense moment, sympathy rose the victor, quickly joined by a sort of disbelieving joy. “Thank you, sir. You are a very kind man. Can we help you any in return?”
“No,” he said. “You’ve already helped me more than I deserve.”
Mr. MacCarthy sat on the park bench for the rest of the day. When dusk arrived and the last few families trickled away, Mr. MacCarthy sat up straight. It was cold tonight, colder than usual. Darkness folded over the park, but for the first time in weeks, he wasn’t afraid.
This time when the Dullahan appeared, it was driving a black coach led by six sable horses. The same repugnant grin contorted its face, but this time, it didn’t seem quite so terrifying. The black eyes zipped around, and Mr. MacCarthy found himself speculating: Perhaps the creature was looking around like that because it was trying to drink in every bit of life it could while in the world of the living. Maybe the Dullahan knew how precious and fleeting life is, and maybe, just maybe, it coveted the vibrancy of life as much as the mortals themselves did.
The doors to the coach flew open of their own accord. Sighing heavily, with resignation shaded with relief, the weary old man rose and ambled forward. “Hello,” he said. “I’ve decided it’s time to stop running.”
The Dullahan just grinned at him, but to Mr. MacCarthy, it looked as if it were proud of his choice. Then, with a voice that rasped like a hive of angry bees, the Dullahan spoke Mr. MacCarthy’s name.
As Mr. MacCarthy climbed into the coach, he couldn’t help but wonder why the Dullahan hadn’t caught him sooner. Surely locked doors and stairs weren’t enough to keep back the herald of death itself. It was then, in his last moments in the mortal world, that Mr. MacCarthy remembered the item that had been with him at all times, that he’d had on him every instance the Dullahan had appeared, the relic that he had just given to a family in need.
Somehow, his pocket watch had kept the Dullahan at bay. If he would have kept the watch, could he have warded off death indefinitely? But then, he thought, as the coach thundered across the park at such speed that sparks erupted from its wheels, he would still have been running, and that family would still be starving.
And the weary Mr. MacCarthy finally, gratefully, fell asleep.
As he uttered the final words of the story, Mr. Donn’s smile echoed Mr. MacCarthy’s peace in his last moments. I sat in the heavy silence, marveling over what I had just heard. Mr. MacCarthy’s tale had been told so earnestly, it was almost as if Mr. Donn had been there, had witnessed it himself. I had a wild thought as I considered his large house and expansive garden.
“You’re not Mr. MacCarthy, are you?” I asked, thrilled and frightened at the idea of having just been told a story by a dead man.
Mr. Donn chuckled. “No, lass.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t decide if I was disappointed or relieved.
Something was bothering me about his tale, though. “Why was the Dullahan afraid of a silly old pocket watch?”
“It wasn’t because it was a pocket watch,” Mr. Donn explained, “but because it was pure gold. The Dullahan has an irrational fear of gold. Perhaps it is the purity of the precious metal, or the clarity of his ghastly reflection upon its surface, though people can only speculate.”
I had a sudden, captivating thought. “Mr. Donn, if the Dullahan is afraid of gold, does that mean I can live forever if I always wear gold jewelry?”
Mr. Donn shook his head slowly. “Think on the story, child,” he urged me. “In the event you were able to escape from the Dullahan indefinitely, it would be a half-life, like Mr. MacCarthy’s. Even the stubborn old man who was terrified of dying gave in to death in the end. Running from death is far worse than dying. You continue to live, but only just, in a world that is more than ready to go on without you.
“And besides, the Dullahan is simply the herald of death. He does not kill, although he did take Mr. MacCarthy’s spirit to the other side when the old man finally accepted his death.” Mr. Donn’s gaze pierced straight through to my soul. “All surrender to the siren call of death in the end, no matter how far, how fast, or how desperately one runs. Even so, Mr. MacCarthy’s odd attachment to that pocket watch saved him in the end.”
I knitted my brow. “Saved him? But he died.”
Mr. Donn was, as always, remarkably patient with me. “Yes, he died. But the watch bought him enough time to see what life was about. He redeemed himself on his final day. You see, child, death, as some say, is the great equalizer. It comes for us all, young and old, rich and poor, believers and skeptics. The Dullahan chased Mr. MacCarthy until he lost everything and saw the truth about life, about the world, and about himself.”
The kind old man leaned forward conspiratorially in his chair, and I, in turn, followed suit, thinking proudly that I was about to hear a great, important secret – a grown-up kind of secret that Mr. Donn was going to trust me with. “Make no mistake, Blake Callaghan, that pocket watch saved his life, in the way that truly matters.”
Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Wilson