On our first walk to the beach we found that a high tide had just retreated from the edge of the dunes. The sea had carried away large amounts of sand from the soft upper beach, creating divots and small valleys across the normally smooth strand. There was peat everywhere.
During high tides and strange weather the lumps of black peat appeared out of the ground, sitting in heavy, proud masses too large and too dense for the tidewater to shift. These boulders were soft and damp, and you could kick away a corner to reveal veins of ancient wood and grass through their middle.
‘You could burn this,’ I said to Fiona. ‘It’s no different from any other bog.’ We walked until we found one spud-sized, rounded turf of peat and carried it back with us to the house. It was cold and soggy in my hand, covered with a layer of sand that set my teeth on edge.
I left the lump in front of the fireplace where it steamed through the afternoon. By evening it had lost half its weight and begun to smell less like the sea and more like bog.
After dinner I waited until the fire had settled before setting the black round in the centre of the orange coals. For fifteen minutes it hissed and spat salt as the last of the sea was exorcised. Then the peat slowly took and its edge began to glow like the coals.
The peat didn’t burn so much as submit to the heat. It smouldered and shrank, and after an hour cracks appeared across its surface. ‘Not a huge success,’ I admitted. Maybe we should have dried it for longer.
We were dozing in the late evening when a loud crack came from the fireplace, the sound of timber breaking in the heat. The flames danced up around the peat lump, turning white, then purple, then blue. The lump began to shake and break apart as though it was being torn open. ‘Jesus, it’s like something is alive in there’ exclaimed Fiona. As soon as she’d spoken there was another huge crack and a shower of sparks from the centre of the hearth.
Out of the flames climbed a tiny figure. It made its way across the coals and hoisted itself over the grate, hanging by both hands before dropping the last few inches onto the slate. It walked, slightly unsteadily, across the fireplace and sat down at the edge.
As the figure cooled it turned from white to orange and finally darkened, and we began to be able to make out its features. It had the form of a man with a long white beard and dark eyes. He wore clothes, apparently unsinged by the flames. On his head was a patchwork paddy cap, and the rest of him wore an old but neat-looking tweed suit, complete with vest and polished black shoes. He looked furious.
‘Hello?’ said Fiona. The tiny man said nothing, but continued to stare at us with indignation. After a moment he coughed heavily into one fist and then wiped his hand on the black slate.
‘An bhfuil Ghaeilge agat?’ I asked. Fiona looked at me and I shrugged. ‘He might be old. Pre-English,’ I said. The man said nothing, but his expression shifted slightly from anger to unreserved contempt.
‘Look at that,’ said Fiona, nodding toward the man. Where he’d wiped his phlegm on the stone was not wet, but instead covered with tiny golden flakes. The tiny man coughed again, this time not bothering covering his mouth, and a shower of gold scattered across the carpet.
‘An bhfuil ocras ort?’ I asked. ‘Bhfuil cupán tae uait?’
‘He’d drown in a cup of tea,’ said Fiona.
The man spat. ‘Cá bhfuil mé?’ he said in a deep but small voice.
I jumped up. ‘Dia duit! Seo é me teachsa. Tá fáilte romhait. Daragh is ainm dom.’
The tiny man’s expression didn’t change as he surveyed the living room. ‘Cá bhfuil an trá?’
I pointed. ‘Cúig noimead síos an bóthair.’
The man climbed down off the fireplace and began walking across the floor. ‘Stop him?’ whispered Fiona. I shrugged. In thirty seconds he was at the front door and stopped, then turned and looked at us foully. I ran over and opened the door and, after pulling his collar up around his neck, the tiny man walked out into the rain. After stopping to sniff the air, he set off in the direction of the beach. He could walk clear under the front gate without stooping, so I didn’t venture out after him.
Fiona collected the gold flakes in an empty spice jar. We inspected them in the lamplight and agreed to bring them to the jeweller the next morning. When we awoke, I picked up the sealed jar from the bedside table to examine it better in daylight. In the bottom there was nothing but a few flecks of dried bog peat.