(An Irish Tale)
Once upon a time, a farmer lived in the high mountaintops and always worked as hard as he could. Still, no matter how much he tried, the family struggled.
Then one chilly November day, the farmer’s eldest, a lad named Padraig, was walking to the house from the barn when he felt a strange presence nearby. “Who’s there?” he said, turning and calling to what seemed to be the wind.
He’d hoped no one had heard him sounding foolish.
He turned and began to walk back to the house when he felt that presence brush past him. A moment later, a young bull appeared before him.
“Here I am,” the bull said, and Padraig knew at once this must be a pooka. You see, the villagers and farmers in that part of Ireland always spoke of the days when pookas were plentiful. They said they were more mysterious than dangerous, and if one treated them with proper respect, all would be well. Some said a pooka could be helpful, offering prophecies and warnings. They usually appeared in the guise of a sleek, dark horse with yellow eyes and a wild mane, yet they could imitate human speech. In this form, they said, the pookas roamed the countryside at night, making mischief, tearing down fences and barns, scattering livestock, trampling crops.
Sometimes at this time of year, they said, the pooka appeared as a goblin that stole crops at the end of the harvest, so farmers always left behind a pooka share to protect the rest of the farm. Sometimes they looked like black goats with huge curling horns, other times like big hairy bogeymen. The mere sight of a pooka could scare the hens from laying eggs and the cows from giving milk, and sometimes those wild horses swept up late-night travelers and tossed them into bogs. They could be vindictive, people said.
And here in the form of a bull, Padraig was certain, was a pooka.
“Come to the mill late tonight,” the bull told Padraig. And Padraig could not refuse. Otherwise the pooka might destroy what was left of all his family’s hard work.
So late that night, Padraig went to the mill, and there, to his astonishment, he found that all his work was done: The sacks of corn had been milled into flour.
“What’s this?” he called, looking to see if anyone was near, but not a single pooka showed its face. And so the next night he sneaked into the barn and concealed himself inside an empty chest so he might catch sight of the pookas.
Sure enough, midnight came, and with the hour came a whole team of pookas — bulls, goats, hairy bogeymen and sleek horses. A moment later they set to work, milling all the harvested corn into flour.
Padraig was eager to tell his father and his brothers of the pookas, but he knew if he gave up the secret, he would regret it. So he said nothing, simply loaded the wagon with flour, drove to the village and sold it. Then he returned home to the farm.
From that time on, the pookas came secretly every night and performed all the work that needed to be done. Sometimes Padraig came and hid in the chest and watched as they worked. Sometimes he stayed in his bed, praying he would find their handiwork done in the morning.
As time passed, the farm grew more and more prosperous, and Padraig was pleased to see how happy his father had become.
“Luck has finally come to us,” his father said, and Padraig longed to tell him. But he kept his secret.
After some time, Padraig could no longer bear the secret. And so on the anniversary of their first arrival, he decided to bring gifts to the pookas as a way of saying thanks. The bogeymen wore tattered suits; the horses had no bridles or bits; the goats needed blankets, and so did the bull.
Padraig worked for days, gathering his gifts, and when he was ready, he walked to the barn and waited for his friends to appear. He thought of the pookas as his friends.
He waited in the barn for them to appear, and when the clock struck midnight, the door to the barn opened wide, and Padraig cried, “Surprise!”
The bull, his first pooka friend, registered a look of horror. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Why are you here?”
“I have gifts for you,” Padraig said, and he began to unload his sack that he had filled with fine suits and blankets and bridles.
The pookas stood and stared at him, and when the sack was empty, they began to whisper. “It’s time.”
“Yes, it’s time.”
“It’s time. It is.”
“What time is it?” Padraig asked the bull.
The bull shook his head. “It’s time to go off to see a little of the world,” he answered.
“Off to see the world,” the pookas echoed him, one after another.
And so they departed.
After that, the family was fine. They were prosperous enough, and so Padraig and his brothers went off to study.
A few years later, on a cold November day, Padraig was preparing for his wedding when he reached into his pocket and found a small sack of gold coins, and he knew the pookas were still nearby, still watching over him. But he never said a word.