Mary McPhee lived in a tiny stone house in a remote part of the country with nothing but her cat and her memories to keep her company. Her parents had died many years before, and she remained in that little cabin, following a routine that had not changed since she was a girl. Lonesomeness was a familiar part of her life, and she put it in its proper place with the thought, “There’s plenty who are worse off than the likes of me.” She blessed the sun when it shone and praised the rain for making the grass grow. In her heart, Mary kept alive a flicker of hope that something wonderful was waiting for her just around the corner. It might take awhile to find, but she was convinced that it was there; it was just a matter of looking in the right place.
Mary seldom had two coins to rub together. She ran errands and did extra chores for nearby farmwives, occasionally receiving a penny or two for her labors. More often than not, she simply earned a plate of cabbage and boiled potatoes or a slice of buttered bread and a cup of tea. She made do and was grateful for the food and whatever else might come her way.
One day, a young boy appeared at Mary’s door with a plea for help. His youngest brother and sister were sick with the croup and his mother needed help with the washing and cooking of the meals. “Will you come, Mary McPhee?” he asked in a solemn voice.
“Of course I will,” she answered, reaching up to grab her shawl from the peg by the door.
It had been a long, troubled walk for the child and as they returned to his home, he revealed his worries to Mary. “Mary, are you not afraid walking this lonely stretch of road at night by yourself?”
“Afraid? No, I’ve walked this road all my life. What is there to be frightened of?” Mary replied.
“Why, Mary McPhee, surely you’ve heard of the pooka. He travels these roads at night, playing tricks on folks and causing all sorts of devilment.”
“Oh, that old black horse—he’s nothing to be afraid of. His tricks are harmless. All he does is turn himself into a pile of straw that can’t be lifted or spoil the berries or bewitch a cow and get it to kick over a milk pail. Why would I be afraid of nonsense like that?”
“Mary McPhee, have you not heard the other stories? How he knocks people into ditches, scares them with his fiery blue eyes, bruises them with his great big hooves, and takes them away on wild night rides!”
“Ah, he only abuses them that’s afraid of him. I’m not a bit afraid. In fact, I’d welcome a ride through the countryside. It would be a grand adventure the likes of which I’ve never had!”
“Oh, Mary, don’t say such things. You never know who is listening,” cautioned the boy. When Mary heard the child’s innocent reproach, she gave a hoot and the sound of her laughter tinkled across the fields and up into the air.
Mary spent the remainder of the day working. She washed the clothes, hung them on the line, and, as they dried, she started the stew simmering and baked the bread. After she served the other children their supper, Mary cleaned up the dishes and brought in the clothes as the sun sidled its way out of the reddened sky. The woman finally tucked her children into bed for the night, then sat down with Mary to enjoy a welcome bowl of mutton stew. As the two women ate their meal, Mary felt weariness creep into her worn body. She sipped the last of her tea, wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, and bade the woman good-night. “Will you be all right, Mary?” asked the woman. “It’s late and it’s a long walk back to your place.”
“Don’t worry about me,” said Mary. “There’s a full moon out to light my path. I’ll be just fine." Mary moseyed along, feeling the weight of her tired feet and enjoying the peacefulness of the evening. The moon cast a silvery sheen over the landscape and caused lacy shadows to fall across the fields. “Just lovely,” muttered Mary to herself, and then she stumbled over something in the road. Looking down, Mary saw an old, black pot. “Well now, that’s an odd thing to find abandoned in the middle of the road,” she remarked. “But you never know, it might come in handy. I’ll just take it along with me and see what comes of it.”
She bent down to lift the pot by its handle and saw that it was filled with gold coins. “Goodness gracious,” she exclaimed, standing bolt upright in shock. She circled the pot several times, observing it from all angles to make sure that it was real and when it didn’t disappear, she thought to herself, “It would be foolish to leave it here. Why, it’s just sitting here, waiting for me to take it home. "However, the pot was too heavy to carry, so Mary tied her shawl around it and began to drag it down the road.
As Mary lugged the pot behind her, she imagined the things she could do with her newfound riches, her ruminations moving from the practical to the fantastic, until she chuckled to herself and muttered, "Mary McPhee, you’re putting on airs. What would the likes of you be doing in a castle with servants?”
After a while, Mary had to stop and catch her breath because hauling the pot was hard work. Turning around, she gave a cry of surprise for she discovered that her pot of gold had turned into a huge lump of shining silver. “Well, will you look at that!” she exclaimed. “It is indeed a strange night. A lump of silver may not be a pot of gold, but it’s more convenient and easier to keep safe.” She adjusted the shawl, took a deep breath, and continued down the road, pulling the treasure behind her.
The lump of silver weighed almost as much as the pot of gold, and soon Mary had to stop again to rest. She turned around and this time saw that the lump of silver had become a great lump of iron. “The moonlight must be playing tricks on my poor, tired eyes. Nevertheless, a lump of iron is more than I had when I woke up this morning." With a smile on her face, she took hold of the shawl and made her way back to her cottage.
When Mary got home, she reached down to pick up the lump of iron and, in the moonlight, saw that it had become an ordinary stone. With a laugh, she declared, “Luck has been with me this whole night. The lump of iron is nothing more than a stone, but isn’t that exactly what I need to prop open my front door.”
Mary untied the shawl, lifted it off the stone, and wrapped it around her shoulders. The stone began to shiver and shake and Mary watched in amazement as it bounced and jumped about, sprouting four legs, a long neck, and a tail, until it became a fine black horse with eyes the color of blue flames. It switched its silken tail, shook its powerful head, and pawed the ground with its mighty front hoof. “That pot of gold befuddled my brains,” said Mary, shaking her head. “I should have known that such peculiar antics were the workings of none other than the pooka himself!”
The pooka bent its head until its fiery eyes were level with Mary’s face. In a gravelly human voice it asked, “Would you like to go for a ride, Mary McPhee?”
Without hesitation, Mary replied, “Indeed, I would.” The horse bent its neck and Mary hitched up her skirt, grabbed hold of the horse’s long mane, and pulled herself onto its back. The pooka gave a mighty leap and sprang into the air. They raced along, the pooka’s hooves barely touching the earth as they bounded across the fields and flew over the hills. The pins that held Mary’s hair bound came loose and her long tresses streamed out behind her. “Look at me,” she hollered out with glee. “I’m flying!”
The pooka came to an abrupt halt at a spot where two roads crossed and stomped the ground with its hoof. All of a sudden, a thin gray cloud of mist began to float over the surrounding fields. It glimmered in the moonlight, swirling higher and closer, thickening as it twirled, until it was so dense that Mary could not see her own hand in front of her face. Then slowly, the silvery haze faded away and revealed a fine, big house with a delicate blue light spilling out of its open door. “Go on in, Mary McPhee,” said the horse, bowing its head to the ground. Mary slipped off the pooka’s back and made a quick attempt to straighten her disheveled hair and clothes. Warily, she stepped into the patch of light, placed her hand on the doorframe, and peered inside.
Mary’s eyes widened in astonishment as she gazed at the spectacle arrayed before her. Hundreds of blue-white flames hovered in the air, casting a pearly sheen over the most beautiful people Mary had ever seen. Their dazzling blue eyes twinkled as they chattered and laughed, the sound of their voices rippling through the room like a spring rain. Every one of them had white hair and alabaster skin, but none wore the signs of age. Music drifted up from the earth below, a delicate, haunting melody that silenced the conversation. As Mary stood in the doorway, the people began to dance, moving around the room with the fragile agility of moths fluttering through the night.
A man wearing a waistcoat of dove-gray feathers walked toward Mary and extended an elegant hand. “Would you care to dance, Mary McPhee?” he asked. Mary nodded her head and placed her workworn fingers in his translucent palm. She seemed to float across the floor as he led her to the center of the room. All traces of fatigue departed from Mary’s body as she danced like a feather on the wind, allowing the music to seep into her bones and carry her around the room. Mary danced all night long. Outside, morning approached through the open door and in the face of its soft light, the blue-white flames weakened. The alabaster people slowly dissolved, the edges of their bodies blurring until they completely vanished from sight. The music wafted away and Mary found herself standing in the middle of an empty field as dawn brightened the horizon.
The pooka stood next to her and in a hoarse whisper gently announced, “I think it’s time to go home, Mary McPhee.” With a few powerful strides, the pooka carried Mary back to her humble cottage and deposited her next to her front door.
“Good-night, Mary McPhee,” said the pooka.
“Thank you,” answered Mary. “It has been a grand evening.”
“Indeed, it has,” declared the pooka. “Now you’ve got a story to tell, Mary McPhee, and you can remind your neighbors that the pooka is more than tricks and treachery.” The pooka kicked up his heels, gave a loud whinny, and galloped down the road. Mary watched until the great black horse was just a speck in the distance, then she went inside.
Mary put on the kettle and brewed herself a cup of strong tea. She sat in her chair, sipping her tea and related the night’s adventures to her ginger-colored cat curled up on her lap. “Oh, puss,” she said, “it was a night of wonders. I will remember it all my born days. I would never trade it for anything, not for a lump of iron, or a hunk of shining silver, not even for a pot full of golden coins.”
An old Scottish proverb says, “Were it not for hope, the heart would break.” An attitude of hopefulness can allow us to respond openly to the possibilities that life offers. Hope entails clear vision; we are conscious of the problems in the world and see the obstacles in our daily lives. We do not blithely suppose that all will be well. In times of hardship, we look backward at our collective history, examine our spirituality, listen to the stories of our ancestors, and see that we can triumph over difficulty. The memory of the past offers a promise for the future and we are able to declare our confidence in the goodness of this world.
This recognition of the underlying goodness of things helps us view others sympathetically and enables us to be open to the world around us. Hope encourages us to see things differently and imagine creative solutions to our problems We are willing to set aside our fears, take risks, and work to bring about changes in our environment.