Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

W.B. Yeats, The Stolen Child

Ignoring the adults calling, I thrust my body between densely packed bales, stalks clawing at my thin cotton shirt. Karen followed—both of us burrowing until we found a recess atop the uneven stacks, far from the edges of the vast, open-sided barn and a good ten feet above ground. The warm, sweet scent of straw was everywhere; its fine dust tickled my nose and parched my mouth, familiar as my own breath. Karen shook her ringlets, dispelling stray stalks in a flutter of satiny ribbons. There was no need to shake my own hair—it was cropped too short to move.

Karen picked up where she’d left off:

“Ye have to go—every day except weekends. And it lasts all day, so ye hafta have lunch there.”

“I’m going to St Michaels,” she continued, alluding to the redbrick Roman Catholic school behind the cinema, “but me Mammy says you’ll be at the Model.”





  1. not within the boundaries or confines of a place.

“the dog was still barking outside”

In spite of Karen’s warning, school, when the time came, was a shock to the system. I grew up loving the land and its secret places. The pastures and peat bogs of Co. Kildare stretch away over a landscape battened flat under dinted pewter skies. It’s a rugged, wide-open place with a desolate beauty all its own; romantic rain-washed hues—oxide, sage and burnt umber—that my godfather, Jim Flack dedicated his life to rendering in watercolour, his paintings hanging for many years in the Oireachtas, the legislature of Ireland, as well as our home, where the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly he painted especially for me was my favourite.

Green was my world on the farm, from the emerald grass that gives my country its name to the celadon lichen furring the trees whose very outlines soothe me even now when I visit them, heavy with immigrant-ache, transformed into Google Maps’ fleet-footed, fish-eyed Pegman.

My early years were stippled with the consequences of not behaving as I was expected to. The world indoors was a confusing place where tempers erupted without warning and with dire consequences. Much safer to be outdoors where clumsiness and cheekiness transmuted into curiosity and a fascination for the colors, textures and rhythms of nature. Surrounded by the pungent scent of soil and the peacefulness of plants, I could twirl or rock and be completely myself without fear of rebuke or shame.

My autism, unknown to anyone in eighties rural Ireland, meant I lived largely in the boundless realm of my imagination where I reveled in the sensory stimulation and glorious indifference of the natural world. At five years old, my still-wild senses thrilled to shifting air currents, ion-heavy before a storm, the momentary cool of cloud-shadow on a sun-dappled day, the rich exhale of the earth after rain. I lay, with my ear to the ground, feeling the slow Paleozoic heartbeat thrumming up through the earthworm tunnels. To me, the land was a great living creature sodden with sleep, beneath whose bogland and soft moss Time accumulated in its earthly form: peat, inching over granite and limestone in the slowest of tides. I had only to push my fingers into the sun-warmed soil to know that the bones of the land were my bones, the veins of yellow ochre making loose stones and protruding rocks seem touched by fire, a contrasting echo of the blue-green tracery beneath my own pale skin. I was part of the bedrock of this mythic, windswept landmass, so firmly rooted and thoroughly immersed I had to be re-tamed when I came in for meals, the earth washed from the ridges and whorls of my skin. All the same, my mother took me to Shaw’s department store to buy a dress and shoes.

I remember my first day as clearly as if it were last week, can still see that button-down cotton shirt-dress, soft in spite of its newness, with pin-stripes of white and violet so fine you could only see them up close, and knee-socks dazzling as snow but deceitfully scratchy. My new shoes pinched—stiff and unyielding compared to the supple sandals I’d worn all summer. My father took me in—late; the crunch of our steps in the otherwise silent gravel yard broadcasting our misdemeanor.

Seated in the immense classroom, I felt like a pebble displaced from its muddy indent—adrift and unsure. I took up my pencil and, teeth set in my lower lip, began to trace the blue lines on the paper in front of me as instructed. Every few minutes I glanced up at the rows of heads hunched over desks like barley bent before a breeze. Tall windows illumined the huge space but were too high up to see out of. The mottled panes were filmed with dust anyway but, here and there, insolent shafts of sunlight pierced the grime, pinpointing a million golden motes in serene, balletic free-fall. I ached for what others called “Outside”, as if it were a room you entered and left. I slumped in my seat with a sigh. Out there, I knew, the flowers boiled with bees, the clouds were advancing and departing to a timetable of their own devising in the huge, hammering heavens, but I was no longer there to see it.





  1. the external side or surface of something.

“she gazed at the datestone on the outside of the main building”

  1. the external appearance of someone or something.

“was he as strict as he appeared on the outside?”

The Model School in Athy was founded in 1851, part of a national drive to provide non-denominational schooling. In all those years had never managed to make its Tudor Gothic appearance remotely welcoming. Standing near the junction of the Kildare and Dublin roads, the rain-washed granite edifice seemed a physical continuation of the sullen Irish sky bearing down upon it. The towering brick chimneys and tall, narrow doors and windows made it an intimidating spectacle to a child.

The headmaster, Mr. Warren, was similarly tall and narrow. I studied him from a safe distance. Aloof and unsmiling, with an aquiline nose and gimlet gaze, his bible-black three-piece and wiry, dark hair were as unchanging as the school he presided over, and his reputation struck fear into the staunchest of hearts. Cries echoed down the corridors, casting a pall of unease when they reached our ears. Rumour had it he’d cane you simply for dropping a ruler.

Within those thick stone walls, my intuitive connection to the wider world shrank in the face of a dominance that made the elemental forces of nature seem powerless. The air was dank and unmoving. Chalk-dust clogged my throat. Sitting at my desk, I grew fascinated by glimpses of small items that had fallen through the gaps in the floorboards—a tarnished silver ring, an oxidized coin, slips of paper with indecipherable markings. These things called out a warning to me. The dread of growing old enough to enter Mr. Warren’s classroom was a constant burr under the blanket of my thoughts. Its prickly insistence would intensify with each passing summer.

The classrooms were vast, their soaring ceilings obscured in the lightless vacuum of altitude. I knew of three but there could have been countless more. Part of the school’s intimidating power lay in the concealment of its entirety; like a bagged snake poised to strike, there was no knowing its reach. The toilet block lay outside, across the Infant yard. It was rough-hewn from the same blue-grey granite and semi-open to the glowering sky. The only roofed parts were the stalls themselves, unlit and Spartan, and often out of paper. Chilly in the winter, it had the twofold effect of discouraging malingerers and dispersing odours.

Classes numbered thirty, more or less, with Infant groups taught two or three to a room. It was impossible to hear anything above the shuffling feet of sixty or more restive five-year-olds, and it was a daunting place to stand up alone in. If we needed the toilet, we had to ask in Irish: “An bhfuil cead agam dul godti an leithreas?” Unable to pronounce let alone remember a phrase in a language that played no role in our daily lives, most of us squeezed our legs together until breaktime. Those who couldn’t wait were desperate. We all watched, spellbound, as a girl no older than six tried to phrase her request, each garbled attempt drawing a stony, “Try again” from the teacher. The hush deepened as we held our collective breath. She stood there, wretched, colour suffusing her cheeks, a hand cupping her groin every few seconds before she remembered herself and clamped it grimly to her side. I never forgot how beaten she looked, face aflame and eyes downcast, hers the only ones in the room not fixed on the pool forming at her feet.





situated on or near the exterior or external surface of something.

“she adapted her outside appearance”

not belonging to or coming from within a particular group.

“subject to outside approval”

Weeks passed and a routine set in, as it does in even the most awful circumstances provided they continue long enough. I got better at remembering to empty my bladder at breaktime, and keeping all four chair legs on the floor when the teacher passed. Expectations about how I should pay attention, feel, and think ceased to be amorphous and gained outlines I could see, their deposition and solidification a sedimentary process of learned responses that gathered, layer upon layer, over the bedrock of my wildness.

And so it came to be that what once was instinct passed into memory. Instead of the peatland’s subtle palette, I sought to read the flickers of facial expression and to shutter my own transparency. Ears once receptive to the pylon’s signal crackle before a storm tuned now to a listener’s tonal response and I’d temper my interactions accordingly. I’d never thought of myself as separate from the world I lived in; the Outside I came from was sensory-rich and immersive, there my interactions unfolded organically and overlapped, building intuitively like the scales on a pinecone, rewarding curiosity with wonder. Now, I learned that, in order to shape myself to expectation, I must view myself from the other side of my skin. This was a different kind of Outside, spare and narrow and subject to judgement.  I was slowly, gently prodded to deny my felt experience. Jackdaw and squirrel were reduced to facts on a blackboard copied diligently into Nature Study books, their sentience suffocated between the covers. Naturally, it followed that the wind was no more wilful than the sky was awake. This marked the start of the rupture between my speaking self and my breathing, animal body.

There was a payoff of sorts. I was soon—magically, astonishingly!—able to decipher the adventures of Tom, Nora and Spot the dog all on my own, my stubby finger looping from one thicket of letters to the next in time to the words I mouthed. My physical world may have shrunk but I could now shrug its bonds by slipping between the pages of books. Reading opened up a world beyond the fields and hedgerows of our farm and the handful of folks who visited it. It introduced me to people of all ages and backgrounds and allowed me access to their innermost thoughts. I developed a sense of connection with them, felt sympathy when they struggled, triumphant when they prevailed. Through reading, I began to acquire a vocabulary for who I was, how I felt, and what I liked. Re-channeling my love of rhythm, I memorised all five verses of ‘Ducks Ditty’, reciting it to myself—or anyone who would listen—faster and faster, inexplicably excited by the metric stresses pounding like a train. All these things I mastered by applying my mind, but one conundrum remained.





  1. situated or moving beyond the boundaries or confines of.

“the children formed clusters in the yard outside the classroom”

  1. beyond the limits or scope of.

“making friends was a skill outside my ability”

Bare and featureless, the playground was as ascetic as the classroom, though free of the regimental expectations. I wandered among the laughing groups, lonely and craving connection, my fluency in the wordless argot of field and hedgerow useless here. And while books had kindled a desire to commune with others, connections with characters on a page, however deep, can only ever run one way. I still only knew how to be on my own.

Just how did you make friends if you didn’t know a soul? I hated the dusty gravel whose sharp little stones bit mercilessly into palms and knees. I squinted around searching for familiar outlines and my eyes came to rest on the nearest tree.

The yard was constrained by the road and beyond the gritty main expanse it narrowed into a point. This corner was left green, a mix of tussocky vegetation worn in patches to earthen smoothness by small feet. At its apex stood a huge oak, a tree long revered by my Celtic ancestors as a symbol of knowledge and from which the county took its name: Cill Dara – church of the oak. Its crown extended, broad-leaved and imposing, from a formidable trunk between whose base and the stone wall lay propped a large, rusting garden roller. It was on this forlorn and flaking hulk that girls liked to perch, swinging their legs and playing House beneath the benevolent branches, shouting, “Go away!” to any boys who dared approach. Recognising two from my class, I squared my shoulders and made my way over, stopping a few feet away.

“See ya later lovie, I’m away into town to do the messages.”

The pale girl with the dark bob hefted an imaginary handbag and jumped down from the roller, tossing a final instruction over her shoulder:

“Be sure an’ wear a jumper now. It’s fierce cold out here.”

Bony fingers curled around a make-believe shoulder strap, she looked like a stiff breeze might blow her over. She hesitated when she saw me, a sideways flick of the eyes checking that her curly-maned friend had too.

“What’re you playing?” I asked, toeing an exposed root and looking what I hoped was amiably from one to the other.

“Mammies an’ daddies.”

“Can I play?”

The other girl drew herself to full height on the roller, eyes like ice chips locked on mine.

“We’re finishin’ now anyhow.”

My face felt hot and I tried to keep my voice unconcerned.


I walked away, limbs jerky and awkward under their gaze. When I looked over a few minutes later they were still playing.

I tried again at last break. This time the girl with the curly hair didn’t spare my feelings.

“Lookit,” she said, pausing to lean with one hand on the stone wall, scratching her bottom unselfconsciously with the other, “we don’t want you in our game, alright?”

I felt her resentment, sour in the sun. Something inside me curled up like burnt paper and although I lacked the boldness to really dislike her, right then a part of me wanted to.

Stung by their hostility and our uneasy proximity in class, I was close to tears by the time my mother arrived in the yard to collect me. When she asked how my day was I pointed to the girls, who had resumed their game beneath the tree, and relayed what had happened.

“Wait here.”

She strode toward them, mouth seamed in grim decision. I rubbed a knuckle across my lips and watched her call them over, saw the intensity with which she spoke to them—her face inches from theirs—and pretended not to see the glances cast my way.

I fell in with her as she marched out of the gate, her gaze fixed on the path ahead. Squinting sideways, I searched her face.

“What did you say to them?”

She lifted a hand to shade her eyes, hiding whatever might be behind them. As she scanned the cars parked along the curb, I wasn’t sure she’d heard me.

“I told them if they ever do anything like that again I’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks.”

In my mind’s eye, redbrick rubble digested two inert forms—one dark-haired, one curly blonde—in slow motion.

Thus began my friendship with Melanie Nash and Eva Moynan.





  1. a person who does not belong to a particular group.

“something passed between the girls that was invisible to an outsider” 

We like to think of relationships as destined somehow—fated, but often they’re the result of more prosaic influences. Despite its dubious origins, or perhaps because of them, our odd triangle endured, doubtless aided by routine, and the dog-eat-dog politics of the schoolyard to which I was largely oblivious. But all triangles have points, and I was about to find myself at the sharp end.

It was breaktime, and we should have been outside in the chilly yard. Cautiously, Melanie tried the handle of a door off the deserted corridor. Eva and I exchanged glances, her pale face mirroring my own uncertainty. Straining on tiptoe to see past Melanie’s voluminous curls, my heartbeat slowed when we were met with cathedral silence. We jostled in and closed the door, whispers swallowed up in open-mouthed amazement. The room boomed with stillness. Tall windows filtered sounds of break-time play and a closed door appeared to lead to the outer hall and the Senior yard beyond, but in lieu of desks the floor space at the head of the room gave way to a series of ascending tiered levels, each with an austere, narrow bench running end-to-end. I’d heard it called the Gallery. It was the strangest room I had ever seen.

“Grand!” squeaked Melanie, breaking the silence. “Let’s play Witches!”

Her jay-blue eyes flashed with excitement. The smell of dust and disuse was pungent. It felt safe, like a good hiding place. All we had to do was keep quiet. Melanie sat on a bench, turned her back and began to count, “Turty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…”

Time dissolved then, the way it does for all children transcending dull reality, only to solidify with nerve-jangling rapidity when Melanie froze mid-dash in her final creep-up on Witch Eva, their stricken faces pulling my own towards the doorway and the object of their horror. Motionless as a stuffed bird, I watched as Mr. Warren entered, long legs stalking the boards with fierce precision, like haberdashed pincers. With one mind, Melanie and Eva made for the door in the opposite wall but I was highest up. By the time I gained ground level they were gone and my path was blocked. My heart went to water and drained from my chest; my only recourse was through those legs. I made myself small, squeezed my eyes shut, and committed myself to destiny. For his part, Mr. Warren had only to bring his knees together.

I don’t recall the caning—no images of a headmaster’s oak-paneled office, no sounds of bamboo thwacking reddening skin. What I do remember is walking out into the playground wondering if I was going to start feeling some particular emotion, like sadness or shame. Instead, I felt a lot of things I didn’t know how to identify and decided I mustn’t really be feeling anything. I thought I had friends figured out, had seen the crisp outlines in my mind, but now, to be honest, it was all blurry again.

Melanie and Eva ran over, drawing a curious, drama-hungry swell in their wake. They’d blabbed about our hijinks in the Gallery and my subsequent capture. I was now a cause celebre and they overlooked their prior abandonment to bask in the reflected glory. Unprepared for the sudden attention, I caught snatches of the babble—

“She’s only after gettin’ caned.”

“She did? Jaysus! That’d make you jump up and never come down again!”

Who was I now, in this brutal place? Nothing made any sense. In the brief minutes before the bell, I let go all thoughts of friendship, with its unspoken conditions and blurry messages I couldn’t grasp, settled instead for fleeting popularity. People were too perplexing; better to blur into the blurring.

And so I find myself, forty years hence, Google-haunting these narrow lanes, searching for the familiar outlines of old friends in the hedgerows—thick trunks and knotted arms now ivy-draped and brittle, longing for that sense of simple acceptance—when I was enough as I was—that I know I left here somewhere.


Rumpus original art by Teresa M. Beatty

Aisha Ashraf is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in various literary journals, newspapers and magazines, including The Maine Review, River Teeth, The Huffington Post, and The Independent(UK). More from this author →