Loretta Sweeney met a leprechaun on her way home from the bus-stop.
This didn’t faze her one bit as she was always meeting such magical creatures. A phoenix landing in her tiny back garden, a griffin careening past her one day. Not to mention baby dragons, and effervescent fairies, and that mermaid the time she went swimming in Lahinch.
And one day, a unicorn. Iridescent white with a kind of subtle glow about it, in pinks and purples and turquoise. That unicorn had invited her to ride it, and despite her shame at still fitting the criteria for riding on unicorns at her advanced age, she had gleefully accepted, and had wondrously galloped through star-paths.
And only last week she’d met an alien. A proper alien, with a smooth porcelain surface and glistening antennae.
“Will I take you to my leader?” she asked it. She knew the protocol! Oh yes. No flies on Loretta.
Imagine if she, little Loretta Sweeney managed to introduce an alien to the taoiseach! What a wonderful thing for Ireland. Aliens usually only visited America after all.
Or, would it be good for Ireland?
“Do you come in peace?” she asked anxiously. She didn’t want to be responsible for an alien obliterating the whole of Ireland. Or even just the taoiseach, nice young fella like him.
The alien assured her that it came in peace, but that it didn’t want to see her leader, just to chat with her– shy, red-faced, overweight, frumpy, boring Loretta. Well not so boring now, eh! Not if an alien wanted to speak to her.
And now, today, a leprechaun! Not that she recognised it as such. It wasn’t dressed like a leprechaun. No noxious kelly green clothes. No big stovetop hat. No straw-like red hair or beard.
This creature wore a fitted red jacket with gleaming gold buttons, and a pair of perfectly creased black trousers, and no hat at all.
“What are you, now?” she asked.
“I’m a leprechaun!”
“But, you don’t look like a leprechaun. And –” something belatedly struck Loretta about the leprechaun’s voice – “Are you a lady leprechaun?”
“I am a leprechaun of the female persuasion, yes. We don’t like the term ‘lady’ as it has classist undertones.”
“Ahh, okay. I – I didn’t even realise there were lady, I mean, female, leprechauns.”
The leprechaun rolled her eyes. “How do you think baby leprechauns happen?” She snorted. “As it ever was. Women written out of history.”
“Sorry,” Loretta said, feeling responsible in that moment for the sins of every single one of her species. “But – ” she came back to her original thought “ – you don’t look like a leprechaun.”
The leprechaun sighed. “And what, pray, is a leprechaun supposed to look like?”
“Well. You know. Green suit. Big green hat. Red beard – well, obviously you wouldn’t have one of those, but …” she trailed off at the leprechaun’s increasingly gimlet glare.
“That offensive depiction of my noble race was developed to disparage the Irish back in the 1800s, you know. And then we add patronising and insulting cultural appropriation – well …” the leprechaun ended heavily on a sigh. “But look, we don’t have time for this. I’ve come to warn you.”
“Look. We in the other-world know you’re lonely since your mother died. That’s why we’ve been coming to spend time with you. But now there’s a problem. You’ve come to the attention of the, shall we say, less benign creatures, and they’re planning to come and visit you too, and that’s not good.”
“Demons. Zombies. A poltergeist. An incubus. Things like that.”
“What’s an incubus?”
The leprechaun stared at her, incredulous. “Ah for fuck’s sake. What do they teach in those human schools of yours?” She sighed. “An incubus is a male demon who comes in the night to seduce you.”
Loretta’s face flushed even redder than its normal hue. “Wow.” Then: “Maybe that wouldn’t be too bad. I mean, these incubus chappies, are they, you know, handsome?”
“Fucking gorgeous! They take a shape that matches your exact fantasy, your dream lover.”
“Oh no! You’re not considering entertaining him are you?”
“No—oo. Of course not. No. Not a bit.”
“Because there’s a huge catch. They pretend they’re there only for your extreme pleasure and wildest fantasies, but really they’re just sucking up your life force. Bit like human men, eh, haha.” The leprechaun briefly paused to appreciate her own wit and then continued, “But seriously, their victims deteriorate bit-by-bit until – ” the leprechaun jerked her hand under her chin in the universal symbol for death.
“I see …”
“So,” the leprechaun said briskly, “I came to tell you how to prevent this. I have here – ” from her pocket she produced a folded piece of paper “ – an incantation – a statement really – that will stop them coming.”
“Thanks so much,” Loretta said absent-mindedly, taking the paper.
“The only problem – Loretta, will you listen to me! This is important! – the only problem is that you can’t bar the evil ones and let the good ones through. It’s all-or-nothing. So it’ll mean saying goodbye to the rest of us. It’s unfortunate but there’s no way around it.”
That caught Loretta’s attention. “Ahhh no. How will I manage without you all?”
“We’ve been discussing that. And we think you should do what all lonely humans do. Join clubs. What about the ICA?”
“The ICA! That’s full of boring middle-aged women!”
“We – ll … ” the leprechaun said diplomatically before continuing, “And meetups and things. Lots of options!”
The leprechaun rolled her eyes. “Yes?”
“You say he saps your life force bit by bit?”
“Well could you just, you know, be with him once or twice? Not risk death. Just a bit of life force.”
The leprechaun stared at her. “Are you serious? Are you seriously considering this?”
Loretta shrugged. “Maybe. Probably not. But … maybe. If, hypothetically speaking of course – ”
“Of course,” muttered the leprechaun.
“ – If I could just entertain him as you call it, once or twice. Could I?”
The leprechaun considered this. “You probably could alright. He wouldn’t do anything against your will. The life force has no value unless freely given. But any bit of life force that’s gone is gone forever.”
“I understand. And … would the incubus come before the zombies and others?”
“No idea. They’ll do what they want.”
Loretta grimaced. “So I could be dead of zombies before ever the incubus came.”
The leprechaun stood with her hands on her hips, lips pursed, as she studied Loretta. In the end she said,“Look, I didn’t tell you this, right?”
“No, no you didn’t.”
“And my official advice is to recite the incantation and end it all, right?”
“Okay, so. Just ignore the ones you don’t want to engage with. They’ll do their worst, but their worst is bearable. Just don’t respond. Let it pass over you, or through you.”
“Even ignore the zombies?”
“Zombies are a joke!” the leprechaun sneered. “A joke with good PR. Seriously. Just dodge them if you meet them outside – they’re slow and cumbersome. And when you’re inside just lock your door against them and you’ll be fine.”
“It’s the demons you’ll have to watch. They’ll inhabit you and twist you, like the worst nightmare you never had. But even that is finite, and if you just accept it, it won’t harm you.”
“And the poltergeists make a mess, but that can be cleaned up.”
“Right then. I’ll be off.”
She turned and walked away until she blurred and faded into nothing.
“Well!” Loretta said, and walked the rest of the way home.
That evening she thought hard. She looked at the folded incantation. It would solve everything. If she used it.
She stood and placed the incantation safely in an empty vase on the mantelpiece.
That night the demon came. It did, as the leprechaun had warned, invade her fully: her body and thoughts and heart. Her stomach churned with nausea as her body twisted in torment and her thoughts spun. Ghastly kaleidoscopes of colours played in her head, swirling and dipping and zooming and screaming loudly. Strange creatures plucked at her, pinching her skin. She leaked sweat all over, and shivered unbearably as her soaked nightie clung to her . Her heart throbbed painfully, and her breathing became laboured and jagged. She wanted it to stop, desperately wanted to get off this particular ride. But to ask for it to stop was to engage with the demon and she must not do that. So she endured. All night she endured.
And morning came, and with it, peace.
Well, that hadn’t been so bad.
In due course zombies met her on her path home. Rotting and vile with a nearly-visible miasma of eau-de-decomposition. She gagged as she walked briskly past them, heart thudding. Fraying hands jerkily reached out for her, but she ducked and weaved and avoided them.
She reached home safely, and locked all the doors and windows. All night they milled around outside, the noise of their jostles a kind of malevolent whisper. She resolutely ignored them and by morning they were gone.
Two weeks after that she was woken in the middle of the night by thuds and crashes from downstairs. She went to the landing and looked over the bannisters into the main room. Her belongings flew back and forth, crashing and colliding. And then the same crashing and banging started from her bedroom behind her.
She concentrated on breathing deeply, holding onto the bannisters for comfort. Behind her a picture fell off the wall onto the floor, but the landing, being otherwise empty, was otherwise calm.
She stayed there for hours, in the still centre of the maelstrom all around her, refusing to despair of her damaged belongings. It could be replaced or mended or done without. The place needed a good clear out anyway.
All night she stood there, stoic, waiting, enduring.
When morning came and daylight made its tentative way into the house, the crashing and the violence abruptly ceased.
She began clearing up, and over the course of a day, little by little, she brought order back. The losses were great though. A framed photo of her parents on their wedding day – destroyed. Her own christening photo – destroyed. Her mother’s favourite chair, fit only for firewood.
One thing remained intact though: the vase on the mantelpiece containing the rolled up incantation.
She looked at it and wondered. Could she go through more of this?
She had endured three such events. But they were exhausting.
There was nobody else to come though, but the incubus.
Nobody else on the leprechaun’s list anyway. But the leprechaun had only been giving examples.
Could she endure more if she needed?
She turned away from the incantation and made herself a cup of tea.
Two nights later she woke abruptly. A shadow stood in her doorway, silhouetted by a light from the landing.
The shadow stepped towards her and as its position changed the light illuminated him. The incubus. Surely it was him. Tall, broad-shouldered. Dark hair. High cheekbones. Smoothly beautiful skin.
“Hello,” he said. His voice was deep and melodious.
“Who are you?” she asked, just to be sure, surprised at her calm voice.
“Alfonso is my name, but you can call me as you wish. I have come to see such beauty, such perfection, as you are.”
Ah now. That was a bit cheesy. Seriously?
He perhaps picked up on her thoughts as he rowed back immediately. He laughed, a perfect laugh, full of humour and kindness. “Sorry. Corny line.” Then: “May I?” he indicated her bed, and she nodded permission, not sure what she was agreeing to. Her heart thudded and sensations stirred in her groin.
He delicately sat on the edge of her bed.
“That’s better,” he said. “Much better to be on the same level, yes? Not with me looming over you.”
“True,” she said, and sat up, so they were even more even. She was so aware of her night-time breath, her sensible nightie, her no-doubt messy hair. Alfonso was wearing dark trousers, and a gleaming white shirt, unbuttoned for two or three buttons, the sleeves rolled up and exposing strong muscled arms. His hair was perfectly coiffed; his breath was sweet. And yet, perfect grooming aside, there was an air about him, of barely contained virility, of essence of masculinity.
Loretta felt quite faint, but pleasantly so.
“You are beautiful,” Alfonso said. “Your eyes are so pretty. Your – ”
“You can’t see my eyes in this light,” she said, and cursed herself for interrupting.
“True. But I know it anyway. I have been watching you, from the other world. I hope you do not mind? Watching and admiring.”
“And I have come to see, if with your permission, we could lie together and share our pleasure.”
“Are – are you an incubus?”
“Yes. Clever you. I am. And if you know that, you know that your pleasure is my only aim in this.”
“Well that, and my life force.”
“Pschwaw.” He waved that away with a dismissive hand. A long-fingered, shapely hand. “A little of your essence, of which you have so much, in return for pleasures you cannot even have dreamed of. A fair exchange, surely.”
He reached out and caressed her cheek. And she was lost.
Swirls and peaks of pleasure she had never thought possible, intensity and gasps and sensations beyond words.
And so much else, so much that goes up to make the perfect lover, the ideal encounter: laughter, and chat and snuggles. And his intense distilled desire for her. If that desire was a lie, it was a lie so well told that it was indistinguishable from truth, and she blossomed and responded to it.
She fell asleep in his embrace, to the sound of whispered compliments and adoration.
The next morning she woke alone.
She stretched, feeling her body so alive, tingling. She would ride no more unicorns.
She was tired though. But of course she was. She had barely slept. And it had all been so … so acrobatic.
Two nights later he came again, and as soon as she saw him she opened her arms to him, and welcomed him into her embrace.
She was very tired the morning after that, however. Exhausted.
This has to stop, she told herself. I’m losing my life force and I can’t afford to lose any more. I’ve had my pleasure now and surely that’s enough.
But when he came again, her body overruled her decision and once more she welcomed him into her bed and into her body.
She began to lose weight, too tired to eat and newly indifferent to food. Her high colour faded until her skin had the colour and translucence of the inside of a shell. Acquaintances began to notice. “You’re looking amazing!” they told her. “What’s your secret?” And she smiled a quiet smile and muttered something about diet and exercise.
Men began to notice too. She could see their gaze upon her, and thrilled to it. A customer at work even asked her out. For a brief moment she was tempted. She could stop this madness, and live an ordinary life. Live with the current levels of chronic exhaustion which, after all, were no more than many people lived with and had come by honestly. And live a content-enough life with this good man – this one, or one like him.
But he was so far from her ideal lover. Overweight, callous-fingered, broken-veined, thick-voiced. Sex with him would be so pedestrian, a chore.
And so she refused him, and she rejected an ordinary life, and she continued to welcome her midnight lover whenever he came.
With every visit he took a bit more of her life force. Imperceptible in each encounter, but it added up. She drooped. She lost too much weight. Her skin grew dull and crinkly, like used baking parchment.
People started asking her was she okay. Was she ill?
No, no, she assured them. All is well.
After a time she had to give up her job. She had some savings, result of a non-existent life with nothing to spend money on. She’d live on that. And her expenses were so little.
As time passed she became mostly bed-ridden, living on tinned soup delivered by the supermarket, and barely able to make it downstairs to open the door to the drivers.
And still she could not, would not, stop.
Her days were full with memories of him, and her nights were full with sensation and experience, and intensity. Somehow, no matter how exhausted, she had the energy to participate with him, to join him in his magic dance.
And then the night came when she knew this was it. That there was only the last bit of life force left and he would take it from her and that would be it.
As he filled her and her body sang, she thought , content and peaceful, but what a way to go.