The Doorway of the House: A Folktale at Samhain

This is a story I wrote in the fall of 1996 for my Celtic Studies Folklore class at university. We were supposed to research and write about the Celtic folklore tradition but I decided to take it a step further and write my own folktale. I tried to use the style and voice of the traditional Irish tales we had been studying. 

This is the story of a visitor not acquainted with these parts, who was quickly introduced to our land, and who left again, just as quickly. He came not long ago and, in his short time here, he came across those creatures who inhabit the other world and the many doorways between that other world and ours.

These doorways exist in both time and space; there are certain times of the year and the day during which the line between the two worlds blurs. There are also places on this Earth that allow the two worlds to meet.

The most common doorway used by the spirits in our world, and indeed I have seen it myself, is found between the inside and the outside of a house. At certain times, crossing the threshold to the regions beyond is dangerous, as is not protecting your threshold from otherworldly beings roaming without.

Had our visitor known these things, he might have been prepared for the world awaiting him. As it happened, he did not.

This visitor came from America to settle the affairs of his late grandfather. Now, his grandfather had lived his life among us, but Bob Smith had never before seen Ireland. Well, he came over in a ship, being afraid of flying, and landed on the banks of West Munster, just down the road there, on the day of Samhain.

My wife met him not far from the landing spot and he told her of his journey over.

‘Twas a fair journey. He boarded the ship in the Boston Harbour on a sunny morning. The first days passed by, as you can imagine, slowly and uneventfully. As the boat entered Ireland’s waters, Bob came up on deck to see how much longer it would be. He was just thinking how grey everything looked and felt when he happened to look down over the edge of the boat. And what did he see but the dry land, with heather growing on it and no water at all.

He was alarmed and ran to find the captain, for you see, he was not acquainted with the work of the Good Folk. Unable to find him, Bob returned to his room to gather his bags, figuring his vision was the result of too many days at sea.

Upon reaching the shore, several passengers, and Bob along with them, stepped out of the boat and into the fog that was rolling off the sea. As he turned to wonder that more people were not with them, he could find no trace nor tidings of the boat, as if the sea and the fog had swallowed it up.

Shaking his head and thinking that the tales of Ireland’s poor weather were not exaggerated after all, he made his way up the hill towards my wife.

As I have said before, my wife met Bob a little ways up from the shore. She introduced herself and asked about his journey over. Hearing him tell of his vision in a mocking, sarcastic tone, she tried to explain to him the work of the Good Folk. She warned him that he must respect, not mock them, for they hear what we say.

She also tried to explain that there are certain times and places that are like doorways between our two worlds – the mist and the water and even the West of Ireland, for example. She explained, too, that the sea contains a parallel world, and that that must have been what Bob had seen. And Bob arrived on Samhain, the time of year when there exists almost no division between the supernatural and the natural, the night that the Sidhe mounds open and the fairies become more active. She also warned him that the fairy folk travel between this world and the other through the cracks in time at the rising and the setting of the sun, when it is neither day nor night.

“So you see,” she explained finally, “if you are in the right place at the right time, you can sometimes see Them and feel Them. But I wouldn’t think you would be wanting to.”

But Bob was foolish and he passed her off as a silly, superstitious woman.

This was his first mistake, for she was right to warn him. The Good Folk must have heard his disrespect, for what happened to him that night was surely Their revenge.

Now, the fairies are not exactly evil. They can be good and generous, just as They can be vindictive. Surely you have heard of Puck? But They do not like to be disrespected.

That first evening, Bob settled into his grandfather’s house with a meal my wife had made for him. He was just sitting down to it as the sun set in the west when he spied a small shadow passing through the beams of the red sun rays. But not believing in the spirits, he shook his head and paid the shadow no attention.

My wife and I had told Bob earlier that no matter what he chose to believe, he must set all the dirty water and fire ashes outside the house at night, sweep the hearth, and go to bed.  And he must not go outside. Inquiring why this was so, Bob was annoyed to be told that these were precautions against any bad things which might come into the house.

Finishing his supper, then, Bob began to feel curious about the house and land his grandfather had owned. He poked about inside and then went out.

Remember, the sun had set and it was the night of Samhain. Well, he went out anyway.

Whatever mischief had occurred during the day, thirty-three times more mischief occurred that night – on either side of the threshold of his grandfather’s house. You see, he had not done the things we had told him he must, nor had he heeded our warnings.

Outside the house, Bob heard laughter and footsteps approaching in several directions, but he saw no one. Anyone could have told him that the air was full of Them.

Feeling uneasy, Bob decided to go back inside. The dirty water was still in the house and the fire was still alight in the hearth, but the kettle that Bob had left to boil was on the floor and was cold.

Deciding enough was enough, Bob went to bed without his tea.

From his bed, he could see the hearth and the table at which he had eaten. He lay watching the firelight flicker through the room. Then, he caught sight of one of Them in the corner by the door. Folks who have seen Them say They have a hardy look and dress in red. This One that Bob saw did, too. He danced around in a little red cap and pants, and a short red coat.

Bob lay still, trying not to move, and watched, unable to look away.

In came Another by the door, this One a girl, and dressed in grey, and then Another. After a while, the room was filled with Them and Their laughter and dancing. Bob was too frightened to move and suddenly wished he had done as we had bidden him to. But it was too late now and he would not stir from his bed.

The elves and fairies kept dancing, paying no attention to him or to anything else, but Bob soon noticed a chair drawing near the fire. No one appeared to have moved it, but there it was, moving toward the hearth. Then all the furniture began moving through the house as though it, too, was part of the dance. But that one chair by the fire stood still.

Bob lay watching, his fear turning to anger. He was trying to figure out what he could do to bring an end to all that was happening. He did not like being at the mercy of these creatures and did not intend to spend what was beginning to feel like an eternity, sharing his house with Them. He arose and ran into the room, trying to scare Them off.

Most paid little attention to him, but Some, Those with wings, flew above his head. He cursed Them, saying “damn fairies!” It is not right to use Their names like that and so, of course, he brought more ill luck upon himself.

He just about caught One, but he scared It and It disappeared into thin air.

Suddenly, the house fell quiet and he realized they were all gone out the door. He smiled, figuring he had scared off the supposedly powerful creatures. Not so.

As he lay back down, the door opened and who should he standing there, but his grandfather, the one who had died. His grandfather came in, as if he was coming home. He went to the fire and warmed his hands, as many spirits of the dead are said to do, and sat in the chair that had been made ready for him at the hearth-side.

The unprotected house was opened to all spirits that night; there were none that did not come inside. His grandfather sat in the chair all the while, as the spirits came and went by the door.

As day broke, the house finally fell quiet. Bob arose, packed his things and came in search of my wife and me. He had had enough, he said, and asked me to accompany him to the ship, for he would to spend another night in Ireland.

On our way to the docks, Bob acted rather queer. We passed by a stream and he asked me if I heard the music or saw the One in the tree. I did not, but I’m sure that he did, for They were surely up to Their tricks again. I think that They were seeing him off, making sure that he would leave. They do not have as much power in the day as They do at sunrise or sunset, but this One scared him all the same.

I saw him off shortly after and returned home, passing by his grandfather’s house on the way. I walked up to the window and looked in. The tables and chairs had been upturned and everything within was in disarray.

Let that be a lesson to you. Beware of the fairies, their comings and goings from this world to that, and above all, beware of ignorance. May all who hear this tale learn from Bob.

That’s my story and if there’s a lie in it, let there be. I saw it all myself.