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Faithful Johnny - a Halloween story

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

faithful-johnny-a-halloween-story

The leaves were turning green and she could see her father fastening the yokes. It was time for planting and usually a time of joy, as Siobhan would watch Johnny help her father. She had loved him since they were wee children and their loved had blossomed as they grew up together, with the seeds being planted early, just as her father’s crops would be. Instead, she looked longingly out of her cottage’s eastern window, awaiting the return of her betrothed. He had marched off to war with the other young men of her village.

She had known better to beg him. He was strong and lean and always ready to stick up for those with no power, which included his family and friend on the western side of the isle, as they attempted to fight off the foreign invaders.

A soft song escaped her lips. The same song she had sung for months now, ever since he had left as soon as the weather had turned warm.

When will you come again, My faithful Johnny,

When will you come again, my sweet and bonnie.

When the corn is gathered, when the leaves are withered,

I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again.

faithful-johnny-a-halloween-story

The crops were starting to grow, although with the rents being harsh, even a good harvest would give them just enough to get through the winter. Still, the trees were showing promising buds. Perhaps there would be enough for a fine feast at their wedding.

It was high summer now and their wedding should be drawing nye. He had left in the earliest of springtime, promising to be home before the turn of the year. It was now high summer and while some of the village boys had returned, he had not. Still, perhaps she should be grateful. Half of those, them as had come home, were lucky if they hadn’t lost something. Most hadn’t come back whole, whether in mind or body. She could see them as she sat on the porch, staring east, awaiting her lover’s return, continuing her song of hope.

Then winter's winds will blow, my faithful Johnny,

Then winter's winds will blow, my sweet and bonnie,

Though the day be dark with drift, that I cannot see the light,

I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again.

faithful-johnny-a-halloween-story

She sat atop the mound under a hazel tree looking out towards the western sea. Her parents had always warned her to stay away, that she ran the risk of being carried away by the Sidhe, but it was her favorite place to be alone. She had found two overlooked hazelnuts and caressed them as she thought of the hazelnuts from last Samhain, the ones she had thrown in the fire for her and Johnny. The ones that had popped and landed atop each other, foreseeing his proposal that came later that year.

The wind had been growing more chill and the shadows longer, with summer’s end approaching. Yet she didn’t care, but only wrapping her shawl tighter around her shoulders. The world seemed to turn magical, with the autumn twilight appearing as fairy fire as the sun set in the west. What had once been her favorite view had since turned into an ill omen. With all the other boys having returned, in one shape or another, Siobhan had all but given up hope. Her friends had even hinted that perhaps Johnny hadn’t died, but had found someone else. While she couldn’t bring herself to believe that she could hear her song turning into a lament.

Then will you meet me here, my faithful Johnny,

Then will you meet me here, my sweet and bonnie?

Though the night be Halloween, when the fearful sights are seen

I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again.

faithful-johnny-a-halloween-story

Finishing her song, she sighed and moved to stand. A rustle of cloth and shuffling footstep gave her pause and her blood turned cold. A voice came from the shadows of the tree, the last shadows of the summer as the sun sat in the west, brining on Hallowe’en and the ending of the year, the new shadows of winter coming with a full moon that had already risen.

“My fair Siobhan.” The voice softly called to her. “I’ve been waiting for you. It was a difficult wait, knowing your heart was breaking. Even with our bond, I had to wait until this night. Even then, it is well that you were on this side of your cottage.”

Siobhan turned to see her faithful Johnny. She started to weep with joy, even as he walked into the moonlight. It was her faithful Johnny, but he had perished in a skirmish months earlier. All that was left were his clear blue eyes and tawny hair, but was otherwise fleshless. Her cry of happiness was choked off in fear. Her limbs were frozen, struck asleep by the half baleful, half loving gleam in his eyes.

His decaying hands reached out to her, his skeletal arms enclosed her, and with his graveyard breath he whispered in her ear. “I told you that I would come tonight, if I couldn’t come before. I’m so glad you came to sit here tonight.”

A sudden waft of wildflowers came to her then. She felt the fear depart her and she felt his arms let go, although she could tell that he was still nearby. When she opened her eyes, there stood her faithful Johnny, the one that had left months earlier. Lean and strong and handsome.

Looking around, she could see trees full of apples and hazelnuts. The nearby gurgling stream shown like honey and she could see salmon leaping in and out. She could hear the fairest of music issuing from an unknown source nearby.

“A reward for fighting the foreigners and never forgetting our ancestors.” He told her, his smile gleaming in the fairy light. “Welcome home.”

faithful-johnny-a-halloween-story

Background

“Faithful Johnny” is a musical piece of art, typically sang and discussed as a traditional folk song, although it was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1815, as part of his “Twenty-five Scottish songs: for voice, mixed chorus, violin, violoncello and piano), being called in German “Der Trueu Johnie: O Wann Kerhst du Zurück). It was published in 1818 in Edinburgh and London, then four years later in Berlin. The words were written by Anne Grant, her helping give the music the feeling of a traditional folk song.

I wanted to create a story that incorporates the mention Hallowe’en, as it is one (if not the only) folk song to mention this greatest of holidays. I also wanted to incorporate other folklore aspects of Ireland to round it out.

The story starts with Johnny having already left to fight off the invaders, a nod to the Normal invasion (although you could easily think of the Vikings and the English, as well). Being on the western side of the island, Siobhan is looking east, the direction her lover took.

When he comes back, she is now looking west. West lays the direction of the ancestors and the fairies, to the islands across the sea. Once she has accepted that Johnny has probably died, she is looking for him in that direction. She has also chosen to sit atop a fairy mound, an entrance to the otherworld where the fairies and, according to some, the ancestors live. In this case, I’ve added some Tír na nÓg attributes, with it being a realm of happiness with a river of honey.

The hazelnuts and salmon come from the folklore on the Tree of Knowledge and stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill.
I’ve also used the hazelnut here for the divinations that are performed on Halloween, which includes the act of throwing nuts into a fire in order to see if your potential mate and you are meant to be.

The creepy part of the story with Johnny’s corpse reaching out to her, as well as the reward of an afterlife in the mound, were inspired by the tale of Nera. You can find my version of that story here: https://letterpile.com/creative-writing/The-Strange-Adventures-of-Nera-1-A-Tale-of-Irish-Halloween-Samhain-Spookiness

And of course what makes Samhain so special is the liminality of the holiday, where the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. why else did it take this night for Johnny’s return?

I hope you enjoyed it! Happy Halloween!