Niall Espen


“Our people do it all the time, and no one’s caught on.” He leaned into his trunk to put his last box into his car. His eyes slide over her. Her hip jut to the right, knee bent, arms folded, shoulders slouched as she clenched her jaw. She had the same black eyes that most Unseelie Fae had – eyes just like his, but hers were weathered with an older magic. Laorie squared up to her as she tapped her right heel and scratched the crook of her left elbow. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and gently squeezed her, when he pulled away, he let his hand linger on her left shoulder. Tears had filled her eyes, but her heel had calmed to a halt. Her lip quivered as her hand scratched harder at her elbow crook. Laorie’s hand slipped down her arm, and between her elbow and hand.

She latched onto his hand and cried for a long minute. Quiet little sobs as she held his hand to her arm. When she calmed down, she wiped her tears from her face. Her voice strained as she whispered, “it was never for long, though, and no one ever left for longer than a few days.”

Laorie smiled through his tiredness. “I’ll be fine, and it isn’t as if I’m going far, Shannon.”

Shannon nodded, slowly, with a sigh, patted his hand, and let go of him. He closed his trunk, gave her one last hug, and drove off. When Laorie arrived at the house, he searched the first-floor rooms. Lobby, arrangement room, chapel; music, prep and flower rooms, garage, and kitchen. The stairs to the second floor were tucked away in the kitchen behind the walk-in pantry.

⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞

Laorie glared out at the lake from his breakfast nook, and considered whether it would take him longer to drown or for his coffee to kick in. His eyes landed on the willow. Its branches hung down inches above the reeds on the water’s edge, as if they’d been trimmed, recently. There was a glint of light through the tendril branches. Laorie squinted passed the reflection of his exhausted face, but he couldn’t completely make out what he’d seen under the tree. He sighed, put his slippers on, finger-brushed his wild hair, and took his coffee down to the lake.

The gardens were filled with wilted flowers, browned bushes, garbage, blankets, and dead leaves. He noticed the yard had a few bald patches but was greener and lusher as he closed in on the lake. The willow leaves shimmered as they reflected the morning light. He brushed a few branches aside, peeked through the veil, and noticed a young brunette raking the grass around the willow’s trunk. Her hair, bare feet and shoulders were dewy. Laorie grunted a clipped hello. She swivelled at her hips, and smiled, brightly. “Hullo, come in, and who’re you, darling?”

“I appreciate the invite. I’m the new funeral director.” Laorie stepped inside the tree’s branches. Sunlight hit her rake and bounced into his eyes while the woman hummed loudly.

“Ah, right. The new director.” Her eyes wrinkled with her smile. “I’m your neighbour, Candis.”

Laorie narrowed his eyes on Candis, as he sucked back his coffee. He groaned, ambiguously. ‘Of course, I’d have a perky, morning-loving nymph for a neighbour…’

“I hope I didn’t disturb ye during yer breakfast.” Candis plunged her fingers into the soil around a dandelion, pinched close at the roots, and pulled. The roots gave up their hold on the soil, and she lifted hand and plant from the soil. She took it to a small satchel, and slipped it in, among other dandelions. “It’s always best to tend to one’s home in the morning.”

“I always need my coffee before anything else. Mornings are for beauties like yourself, but while I have your attention,” Laorie lifted his mug with a wry smile, then after a small chuckle, he continued. “Are there any good tales of your tree? Or a problem that I could help ease?”

Candis turned from the fresh dandelion in her hand. “There’s one good tale, but I’ll only tell ye, if ye can fetch some help to fix the overgrowth.”

“I put in a request, last night.”

“Ah, they should be here, shortly, then.”

Laorie nodded, sucked back more coffee, glanced around at the divots in the ground, then approached one. He nudged some dirt into the hole with his foot, patted it down, and moved onto the next. Candis followed suit. Her green eyes fixated on him. His black eyes met hers, and he grunted, “I’m listening.”

Candis nickered and put her rake against the willow trunk. “Alright. I better tell ye, then. There was a couple who frequented this lake. Most knew of their courtship, and as the tale often goes, trouble landed in their laps. Her father pressured her into an arranged marriage with another, but she refused, and when she saw her love next, begged him to speak with her father. He intended to speak with him, but when he went to him, the young man’s throat seized him. His voice had fled. He panicked. No one saw him for a long time, and when he reappeared, his love had been married off and there was a haunted air to him. He sat under the branches of my tree for years before his passing. They were the ones who planted my tree.”

She ran her hand along the bark of the willow. Her skin blended against the backdrop of the tree bark, and even mimicked the bark in the way her skin sagged and wrinkled. “She returned to this tree to find him. She mourned for him, but in the wake of his death, she found her own voice. She left her husband, joined the navy, but became a pirate shortly after. I heard that she found her fortune as a pirate queen.”

Candis grabbed her rake, gave the understory of her tree another glance. “It sparked a lot of interest with young couples, and the broken-hearted. They like to come around on weekends.”

Laorie mumbled, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He watched as she tidied a few branches. He sighed. “I’ll be summoning more neighbours. A few from each court.”

“Thank you, dearie.” She said, absently, while she pruned a few leaves.

Laorie smirked and strode off. He left her with, “you’re oh-so welcome.”

Candis paled as she turned to see him hasten his retreat. “Oh no…”

⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞

The chapel was nearly empty. A few milled about as Laorie as Charissa murmured about her father. How he couldn’t budge from the front row or approach the coffin. The way that he had picked chunks of skin from his thumbs over the yellow dress that brightened the white satin of the coffin. Laorie noticed his fingers hadn’t stopped despite the bleeding. He gnashed at his bottom lip. A broach cradled in his restless hands. Charissa nimbly wrote out the cheque as she wore further into her murmurs. Laorie kept his eyes on her father. He remembered his name, a strange one – Benito.

“Here you are,” twittered Charissa.

Laorie took the cheque from her, shallowly bowed, and crimped his lips. “You honour me.”

He folded the cheque into his breast pocket, as he made his way to Benito. His white hair was thinned but hadn’t yet receded. Fresh, thin wrinkles swept across his forehead and around his eyes. He stared, vacantly, and his breathes were stilted. Laorie sat in the chair next to him like a king. Legs stretched, posture relaxed, as he leaned toward Benito. “She wore that every day, didn’t she?”

Benito sighed as he turned his hands over to look at the broach. He faltered and fumbled into a smile. “Every day without fail. I wanted to put it on her,” he glanced to Laorie, and shrugged. Laorie nodded. A long pause with a heavy air. Laorie pulled a pill container from his pant pocket, shook a whole clove from it, put the container back, and chewed on the clove. From his breast pocket, he pulled a set of cards. Benito raised a brow as he watched him shuffle the cards with a grand flourish.

Laorie whistled the ‘Evening song of the Drunken Fisherman’ to silence the chatter from the lobby. “Want me to tell you a story, friend?”

“Please do.”

Laorie eyed Benito, as he fanned the cards, single-handed. He pulled a chair in front of them, picked three cards, set them down, and repeated, once more.

The High Priestess (Reversed) | The Chariot (Upright) | Judgement (Upright)

The Hermit (Reversed)| The Fool (Reversed) | The Hierophant (Upright)

Benito looked at the cards revealed. Laorie didn’t take his eyes from Benito, as he whispered, “you’ve done well, friend. You’ve built on a knowledge of yourself. You found success on your own terms. Then you met her, and you re-evaluated your life. You wanted something that you couldn’t achieve on your own, and so you two built the life that you wanted. It was a life lived full of reflection, focus-driven success, and knowledgeable pursuits. Now, you’re on a new road that requires you to rediscover yourself.”

Benito pointed to the second set of cards. “Do these cards say how I can get over her death?”

Laorie shook his head.

“Then what’s the point of doing this?” Benito shifted to get a good look at Laorie. His hands clenched the chair that he sat in, as their eyes met. The blackness of Laorie’s eyes reflected his face back, but he didn’t recognize himself. His wrinkles had deepened, his eyes were sunken, and his face had been greatly sun-dried. A shallow heartbeat passed before he wheezed, “are you some trickster? A con-man who likes to target the grieving?”

“No.” Laorie glared, and Benito shifted as his reflection worsened until he looked like a clothed prune on popsicle sticks. “But I also don’t take full stock into what I read. I consider it, at least.”

Benito nodded; hands still clenched on the chair. The broach dug into his sweaty palm. His forehead creased as his mouth bent into a stiff smile. “Alright…”

Benito relaxed and gestured for him to go on. “I’d like to suggest with staying what’s worked for you and do some introspection.”

“I don’t know. I’ve had Maggie to lean on for so long.” Benito flattened his hand, palm up, broach slick in his hand. Eyebrows stitched together when he saw the flash of his torn thumb. The tarnished gold broach with a Wedgewood peony rose at the centre seemed so much older, now. Benito’s face fell as his arm slumped in his lap. “Is it silly to want to hold onto something?”

Laorie shook his head. “You loved her, and it reminds you of her.”

“But you came here with a single car full. You left everything behind.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“What then?”

“These cards.”

Benito looked at the cards. They weren’t frayed at the edges, or bent, but the coating on the cards had thinned, and the colours were dulled. He met Laorie’s dark eyes and saw a much younger face reflected in them. Laorie took the broach from his hand and clipped it to the lapel of Benito’s jacket. He pursed his lips, then crooked a small smile. “Are loved ones ever truly forgotten?”

⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞

Laorie sat against his bedroom’s balcony door, glanced around the yard, and caught the moon’s reflection in the lake. Candis was long asleep, but he could see in the yard that some Cait-Sìth had met for a parade. Laorie crinkled his nose about it, but only stretched out by the door. The sky clouded over, and when Laorie looked up, he spotted the Slaugh Sidhé as they roiled in the sky. He shivered at the sight and inched back. One deep breath, two, three, four…

A six-inch-tall man climbed onto his knee. The small man had a grizzled face, bulbous nose, and large ears. In a rusty voice, he creaked, “everythin’s done for the day.”

“Well done.”

The small man jabbed his knee with a hair finger. “Have ye spoke with yer family? Let them know how ye’re doing?”


“How much longer until ye do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ye can’t break yer bond with them.”

“I know.”

The small man jabbed his knee, again. “Ye need to work on yerself, ye bairn.”

“Work on what? I’m fine.” He picked the small man up, and grumbled, “I appreciate the concern, Brownie, but I don’t want to be chained to my family, and the court. I want freedom.”

“Ye do yerself an’ me a great disservice, Bairn.” His grey-edged black eyes narrowed on him. “Now pu’ me down.”

Laorie let him go, and murmured, “what can I do, codger?”

“I den have a roadmap, now de I?”

Laorie chuckled at that and sent the small man on his way. ‘What can I do?’

⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞

Laorie had taken his coffee out on the back porch and gazed over the property. He watched as garden faeries hustled through the flowers that had taken hold, and slid along the dewy, green grass. He breathed in the night-chilled fragrant air. Then took his usual spot as he eyed the Hiking Trail. The morning troupe of walkers marched along the trail, and chattered like geese. Candis moved from her tree to the little shed and back, as she tended to the reeds, ferns, and other lakeside plants. She paused as a young woman in a grey smock broke from the walkers and approached the lake with caution. Laorie crooked his head back. There was a small cardboard box in her hands. ‘Probably one of those broken-hearted people…’

One of the Cu Sidhé from the graveyard slunk around in the taller grass and stalked her. It dribbled at the sight of the young woman. It hunkered, paused as the ground near its paws shifted, then stumbled forward and retreated to the longer grass.

Candis disappeared into the reeds. Then eyed Laorie, as he eyed the women. He thought he saw Candis try to catch his attention, but realized she was waving him down. He held a hand up, then awkwardly jimmied his other hand against his ear. “Can you see it?”

“You mean her aura, and the Cu Sidhé? Yeah.” Laorie grumbled, “what do you want me to do?”

“I think we should help her.”

“You mean me.”

“I want to help, too.”

“But you don’t want her to see you.”

“Not as I am.”

“Fine…” He clipped as he relaxed his hands. In a breath, he sank into a pool of shadows, and stumbled from the shed in a loud clatter as he forced himself into a stumble. The woman stared in awe as it happened. “Well, that certainly isn’t a port-a-potty, now, is it?”

She fumbled with an awkward retort, but failed, and made for a retreat, instead. “Isn’t this a beautiful lake?”

She jolted, and nodded, but her retreat was forgotten. “I heard that the lake and willow here could help soothe a broken heart.”

Laorie shrugged, and sucked back a sharp, black blend.

“You’re the one living in the funeral home, now, yeah?”

Laorie nodded with a grunt.

“Are there really ghosts in there?”

“Are there supposed to be?”

“I dunno. I’ve heard people say that there’s something wrong with that place, and that no one should be in there after sunset.”

“What’s supposed to happen after sunset?”

“You hear the voice of the man who died here, then you’re cursed either to have the love of your life promised to another or be unable to say ‘I do’ at the altar.”

Laorie pulled his mug to his mouth to bury his laugh. “Then I have nothing to fear.”

He approached her with his eyes on the box in her hands. He scowled, “you planning on dumping that in the lake?”

She fidgeted with the box and fumbled with her words. “I was. I’m sorry. Please don’t be angry with me!”

He swigged his coffee to stifle a darkly grin. He watched her pull a photo from the box and offer him a look. A lady not much older than her – Laorie assumed in her late teens, or early twenties. “I wanted to do a funeral pyre, here, to get over my feelings for her.”

Laorie chuckled, “that’s merely a novelty. Why don’t I brew you a tea, and give you a reading?”

“A reading? As in tea leaves? Isn’t that kinda hokey?”

Laorie lead the way as he chortled. “No more so than your plan, and not tea leaves.”

“That’s a good point, and I guess it’s better if I don’t ruin any of the work that you put in to make this a beautiful place.” She tucked the box under her arm, awkwardly. Laorie eyed it with caution but said nothing.

She sat on the back porch in a seat looking off towards the town’s scenic downtown. She smiled at the hanging baskets filled with colourful splashes but wasn’t disappointed as she smelled the fragrance from the colourful yard that slopped to her right and behind her. A breeze blew through and warmed the porch as wind chimes sounded below; a flurry of hollowed bamboo.

“You know, I never caught your name. In fact, no one in town seems to know what it is.” She called through the screen door into the kitchen. She could hear the bubble of his kettle, and a spoon tap against a dainty cup. “I’ve heard a few people say that you prefer to be called by your job title, or simply just Director. Is that true?”

He tipped the boiled water into two separate cups. An odd pair. One rosy with a frilled lime-green lace on its saucer; while the other was a purple that was so dark that it was nearly black with a blood red inside the cup, and a black saucer with blood red splatters on it. He placed the cups on a tray with milk, honey, and sugar. His cards in his breast pocket tapped against the small container of cloves. He shuffled back to the porch with the tray in hand. “That is true. I prefer to be called Director. If you’d prefer something more personal, you may refer to me as Dire.”

She watched as his head bowed and hid his expression. Her brow scrunched together, as she wondered, aloud, “are you trying to keep your distance?”

Laorie looked up, bemused, from the tray between them. She reached for the pink and lime-green cup, but he spun the tray to offer up the other cup, instead. She withdrew with a disappointed, breathy gasp. She debated. Then gave in and took the darker cup. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt for you to be more inviting, and speak more. I’m sure more people would welcome you into the community that way.”

“Is that so?” He grabbed the feminine cup, slid the tray to the side, and seated himself at his place. “And if I’m not fond of the spotlight… What might a young lady like yourself suggest?”

She deliberated. He waited with his cup to his lips. “Don’t stand out so much.”

He opened his mouth to respond, but she snorted, and added, “but I assume that’s out of your wheelhouse. After all, you’ve stood out like a sore thumb since you took bought this funeral home. Everyone was saying that you were bonkers to want a haunted place like this that can curse you to a life alone. Then you got the vegetation growing again! The woman that ran this place before you gave up after three months. The family before her gave up after five, after tragedy struck the family, and the man before them gave up after a year.”

Laorie laid out two sets of cards between them while she spoke.

The Star (Reversed) | The Tower (Upright) | The Hanged Man (Reversed)

The Magician (Upright) | The World (Upright) | The Devil (Reversed)

“Oh! I love your cards.” She stroked the matte finish cards and could feel their worn patches. “You must love these cards, too. So, what do they say, Dire?”

She took a long sip of her tea and relaxed into its bitter warmth before she added the amber-hued honey. She gave it a few stirs, then added three sugar cubes. Laorie sipped the tea, unbothered, while she added three splashes of milk. He set his cup back on its saucer. Then hummed, “I see that you hyped yourself up for something good – perhaps a confession? Only to be discouraged by a disaster. You turned away from her to sacrifice your own feelings for her benefit?”

She fumbled her cup, but caught herself, and nodded with heavy shoulders. “She got hurt in an accident awhile back, and is in physio and rehab for her injuries. I didn’t want her to stress over anything else.”

“Is that wise?”

“It would be selfish of me to burden her like that…” She complained. Her head sagged, shoulders slumped, and she swilled the bulk of her tea.

“There are ways to do so without burdening her.” Laorie tipped his cup to the magician and the world.

“What do you mean?” She glanced at the cards. The magician was a drawn infinity symbol above an owl butterfly with a branch, pentacle, knife, and chalice at the bottom. While the world looked like a tropical jungle with plenty of vines, as if it had been drawn from a horror. She weighed the cards, and their meanings. Laorie took a long sip of his tea. She asked, “do I really have infinite choices?”

Laorie nodded. “The magician reminds us of infinite choices, and possibilities in life, but you need to show the resolve. Then you can reach the closure that the world offers, and you’ll find contentment.”

“But how?”

“That’s up to you.”

⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞ ⁞⁞

Laorie drew a trio of spirals in graveyard dirt on his kitchen floor. He placed a sprig of wormwood at the centre, added an Obsidian, Lapis Lazuli, and a black diamond. The skin under his eyes were sagged and darkened, his face was pale, and his hair was pulled into scattered and sloppy bun.

Laorie crushed a chrysanthemum over the spiral with a long mental lamentation, and murmured prayer for it to work in his favour. The spot sizzled, spat, and hissed as the flowers withered. Then three crinkled pops snapped in the breakfast nook. Three shades sat bathed in moonlight. He couldn’t see their faces through the Summons, but a few tears soaked his face as he smiled. Their voices crackled through…

“We’ve missed you.”

“How are you? Are you eating enough? Do you have everything you need?”

“Are you getting on well?”

“Have you found me a boyfriend, yet?”

“Slow down. I’m fine, eating well, have everything, I think so, and no.”

“Are you coming back home?”

“Oh, honey. He’s got a job to do over there.”

“It’s not as if he can’t come home for a visit, and I’d like to know if he plans on it.”

Laorie chuckled. “When I come back for a visit, you’ll have to help me with tarot readings. Seems like there’s a need plenty for some guidance.”