Laughter in the Forest
by Michael B. Pinkey
...a fable for our time
On St. Patrick's Day the color GREEN festoons every window, storefront, lamppost and park bench in my town, and everyone wears green--taken as a whole, the crowds of men, women and children moving along the sidewalks resemble nothing so much as a bagful of green confetti dumped onto the pavement and then pushed along by a slow, slow breeze. Even most of the dogs in town have green ribbons tied around their necks, or green-enameled-steel shamrocks dangling from their collars, because this town--Begorrah City--is real proud of its Irish ancestry.
I like green, so this suits me fine--I don't even mind that the Shillelagh Cafe serves green mashed potatoes on St. Patrick's Day, although a few complaints have been heard over the years--once from a guy driving through to New York, who found himself resuming his journey more quickly than he had planned, and another time from some clipboard-tapping ballpoint-pen jockey from an office upstate which sent him here to worry about the deadliness of so much food coloring (and that guy left town to a lot of loud laughter once we found out what he was here for, because everyone knows the cook at the Shillelagh uses spinach juice instead of that stuff in little plastic bottles). It is pleasant, indeed, to eat parsley-garnished corned beef and green mashed potatoes and green beans for lunch, and to wash it all down with a couple of gallons of green beer, and then wander along Blarney Boulevard to Guinness Park to sit on one of the green metal benches there among the effusions of greenery which have greened up again pretty well this close to springtime--to sit there, listening to the green-headed parakeets among the green leaves of the trees, and--to watch for leprechauns.
We have leprechauns here in Begorrah City. They've been here since the place was nothing more than a few tents and cookfires and laundry lines strung through the trees, so we figure they stowed away in the boxes and suitcases and trunks of the Cullhaghenhs and Multolligans who started this town.
Now, you wouldn't know we had leprechauns to just drive through our city, or even by only stopping over for lunch. If rabbits are shy and skittish about people and cars, leprechauns are at least a hundred-thousand times more so. I lived here for seventeen years before I caught sight of my first one--on St. Patrick's Day, 1981.
Because--as shy and sneaky and given to hiding among the shadows of dandelions as leprechauns are--they cannot resist what goes on around here on St. Patrick's Day.
So, if you sit on a bench in the park here on St. Patrick's Day and keep your eyes on the bushes without LOOKING like you are keeping your eyes on the bushes, and sit very still for a long time--maybe a couple of hours--it's just about guarenteed that you'll see a leprechaun. If you are smart, you'll just enjoy seeing one, the way you might enjoy seeing a hummingbird or a moth glowing under the moon, and let it go at that.......if you are thinking the way I did on that St. Patrick's Day in 1981, you'll remember the legend that catching one of these wee folk grants you right and title to their pot of gold, AND....
Actually, I was deliberately out in the park that St. Patrick's Day hoping to grab a leprechaun--I knew, by then, that they could be found that time of year (these things get around any town our size), and I was desperately trying to come up with enough money to get my TV out of the pawnshop--make my car payment--get my electricity turned back on--the usual expenses, but they were pressing me particularly hard that year. I chose a spot near a large mock-orange bush, and settled back, pretending to nap.
Then I caught sight of him--only three inches or so tall, dressed in green to blend in with the color of the park grass, his bushy-browed eyes sharply upon me as he moved past my leg with no more speed than that of a crippled snail. I waited--I waited--watching him through my fake-shut eyes, I waited AND--when he was just about to feel safe and make his dash on past me--I GRABBED HIM!!!!!
My God, how he kicked and cussed and struggled and squirmed!!! You haven't ever really been cussed until you've been cussed out by a leprechaun who finds himself in your fists instead of hiding under beer barrels downtown, where he'd planned to spend the afternoon. However, my grip was firm, and we both knew The Rules--
"Away with ye!" he shrieked. "Y'll get NAAAAO pot o' gold from the likes of ME!!!"
"OK," I said, giving him a squeeze, "if you'd rather be cursed according to the old tradition, upon your head, down onto the heads of your great-great-great-great-gr--"
It shook him up quite a bit to hear me refer to this "curse according to the old tradition"--I grinned, glad I'd spent that afternoon at the library the week before.
After a time of the usual and-to-be-expected haggling, bargaining, dealing, and counteroffering, the leprechaun--who I by then knew was called Casey O'Shannahannlaughlentenvaugh O'Grynne--led me out of town, past the sewage plant, beyond the field full of old tires, though the dilapidated motels-turned-into-flophouse-apartments and the brand-new mansions being put up where the bottle factory used to be till it burned, on down the road--then off the road, into trees, and through the trees until I had no idea whatsoever where we were.
"Dig here, then, if y'll not have heart enough to leave it be," Casey said at last, pointing at a nondescript area deep in the shadows around us.
I glared, startled. "Whaddaya MEAN, 'DIG'???!!" I demanded. "You didn't say anything about digging!!!"
"Aye--'tis a fact, now, 'tisn't it?! HEEEEHEHEHEHEEEEEE!" the leprechaun laughed--in a flash he was off the ground and standing on a rather high tree limb above me. "But dig ye will, if y'll have the gold--have it or leave it, as ye please--I've kept my end of the bargain!"
And he vanished, like a popped soap bubble.
Well, I'd heard stories of how people had been led to leprechaun gold, only to be tricked out of it--like the guy who nailed a handerkerchief to the tree involved, and went back for a shovel, only to find that every tree in the woods had a handerkerchief nailed to it--things like that. I was determined this would not happen to me...I knew, also, if I left the place, I'd never find it again without marking my trail, and I couldn't think of any foolproof way to do it--putting out pennies or anything like that to follow back was a laughable idea, which only a fool would have had faith in...I sat down on a nearby fallen tree, staring at the spot in the ground, and thinking about my situation....
That was almost thirty years ago, and I must say, that guy Thoreau had it right--life in the woods really is a pleasant way to spend your days.
Every now and then I can hear leprechauns cussing at me from the woods surrounding the shack I built right above the place to which I was led--the sound is a lot like the rustling of dried leaves high above you in a rather strong wind--it makes me laugh to hear their rage as I go about my daily dig with the very servicable big flat rock I found, and a diet of berries and acorns and clover salads is actually really very healthy compared to the cheeseburgers I used to eat every day. The hole I've been working on is several hundred feet deep now, but I know I'm on the right track--I have found traces of gold chain and, once, a gold coin with an antique harp design engraved upon it. Of course, after the ladder broke--I guess, a couple of years ago--it was impossible for me to get out; I'd've starved, if the leprechauns hadn't kept tossing those acorns and berries down to me a couple of times a day. They do that because they know if I die without renouncing my claim on the gold it will be cursed, and useless to them, from then on--so they keep me alive, and tell me they'll help me get free if I'll give up the gold, and now and then they whisper to me as I sleep of the "sweet life" back in town--the girls, the TV shows, the beer and the chicken-fried steaks I'm supposedly missing--but I laugh at them all. Really, I just laugh. Out loud. I laugh at them all out loud, every day, all day long. And I'm going to keep right on digging.
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