The tale of Bridget Cleary is a famous one — but a tale oft mistold. The known story is but one view of the events that took place. Here is the story of the truth.
In all the lands, humanity fears the wilds of the woods. Its borders surround the throngs of civilization, separating the familiar from the fantastic. Who knew what wonders, what terrors lurked in those dense groves over the hill.
The people of Oaken Vale imagined they knew what lay beyond the hills in Oak Wood. Faeries. The Fair Folk. The Wee Free Men. So many pleasant names for something they knew to be sinister. After all, the woods are dark and deep; who knows in there what sleeps?
There were legends, and rumors. If you stepped inside a ring of toadstools, the Fair Folk would come and take you. If you ventured too far into the woods, The Wee Free Men would lure you in, never to return. Or, worst of all, you’d be snared by faerie webs and taken, and a faerie child, a changeling, would take your place. The forest, they said, was a place to be feared.
The faeries of Oak Wood had their own reservations about the humans of Oaken Vale. Humans had no qualms about turning on each other if threatened, let alone if they were presented with something different. If humans truly met with the faeries, the results could be disastrous.
Few dared to walk the fine line of liminality between the wilds and the humane. But the Wild Woman of Oak Wood was neither, and so stepped herself onto both sides of the bordering woods.
They thought her a witch. Witch, she knew, was the human term for “different,” “feared,” “unwanted.” But oh did they need her. No human knew the magic of Faerie; no faerie was brave enough to share it with the humans — tinctures and medicines unknown beyond the borders of the woods, more than humans as yet knew.
The faeries, though, knew her as their own. Her hands and feet were as gnarled as the roots of the ancient trees, her hair blooming green, with the leaves of her own ancestral tree, the oak. Combined with her tall stature, she moved as a sprightly young tree. Neither human nor faerie would see the humanity she carried within her. All the better for observing, learning, beyond the threshold.
Truth be told, there was no one who went over the hill and back as much as the Wild Woman of Oak Wood. She brought wisdom out of the woods, and wandering under the dense canopy, away from the sprightly fae, pondered new knowledge from the nearby towns. She understood the behavior of humans, even better than they knew themselves.
It was the good mayor of Oaken Vale that knew the Wild Woman best in the whole town. He sought her advice often whenever she visited. The good mayor was older, and knew more than most of the townspeople about the legends of the forest. They were still legends, and not everything in them was true; and yet, the mayor did not fear the Wild Woman, nor the legends that shadowed her. He probably thought of her as his friend. The Wild Woman hoped so. He knew her better than anyone else in the small town.
At least, until the Red Woman of Oaken Vale ventured over the hill.
The Wild Woman first saw the Red Woman, then a girl, on one of her visits to the town. She stood with the mayor, talking of the town’s goings-on, when the girl passed, walking, almost skipping by. The Wild Woman looked over at her, filled with curiosity.
“Who is that sprightly young girl?”
The mayor told her that the girl was the daughter of the old miller.
“She looks like she could be of Faerie,” the Wild Woman said simply.
The mayor nodded. “I quite agree.”
The Red Woman of Oaken Vale was human, but loved the forests and their mysteries. So called for her wild red hair that fell to her waist, not unlike faerie hair in the near chill of Autumn. Her face glowed pale as the cold Oak Moon of early Winter.
She was the only one of Oaken Vale that dared venture into Oak Wood. She told the Wild Woman she was there for faerie cures, or wild edibles, or perhaps some faerie wisdom. Really, she came to bask under the green canopy, to relish in the feel of faerie magic; to see the Wild Woman.