The hand coiled there for a moment, thin and long, fingers crouched and nails digging into the tree’s damp flesh. Then it disappeared, Norah tried to follow it, her eyes darting from tree to tree, searching the whole of the trunks oppressive height, but it must have been swallowed up by the swarthy darkness because it was nowhere to be seen. She even thought she had imagined it. And that sound. Especially as she turned back to the ceremony and saw it was just about to commence in front of her like nothing had happened. They had all reacted, she knew they had, but as she stared, wide eyed and frantic, from side to side, she noticed none would meet her eyes. They were all just looking ahead at the Father or looking down at their shoes, hands clasped tight together, some even with their eyes closed as if in silent, impassive prayer. The Father was still standing by the coffin, his great, heavy boots just visible under the hem of his cassock in a way that didn’t match the formal atmosphere. Everyone was tense, no one talked, no one even cried. The poor man’s coffin was a quickly nailed together affair, old pieces of oak that looked suspiciously like floorboards, everyone was wearing black but it was clear they weren’t their best clothes by a long stretch, even mothers had given up and let their whining children go and play hide and seek among the gravestones. It felt cobbled together as a funeral, nobody seemed to know what they were meant to be doing. It was as if something more important had been triggered by his death, and she knew it had. In her own heart she could already feel it: the tension, the rage, not for this man’s death, for that she felt almost nothing, but for the message that it sent. It was a declaration of war. A challenge from the Guard. Every one of the villagers appeared to know instinctively that that was what it was, even though it had been sent to only her. And for that, nobody was happy. Not sad either, mind you. But they definitely were not happy.
As she watched the Father mutter out the words of his sermon, her back to the forest though she felt its monstrous presence looking over her shoulder, she felt nothing but a stabbing desire to be away from here, to be able to channel this hate and terror into physical power and fight. She couldn’t though, religion kept her here. Tradition rooted her to the spot like those ancient trunks behind her. There was nothing she could do, for now.
Her ears tuned in and out of the monotonous voice of Father Mahoney and the piercing squeals of the children as they darted about, escaping each other’s grasp. It will always be strange to see gravestones touched with such little hands, and brushed by baby blonde hair and ribbons and young skin. There’s something wrong in the contrast, pink on roughened grey, tiny newborn things against something as dark and primeval as stone.
She watched until she felt the little dog in her arms shift and whimper, kicking her away with its sturdy little back legs like it wanted to join in their games. She guessed it was only natural, the young ones gravitate towards each other. She held on though, she couldn’t really bring herself to let go, so she just hugged it closer to her and ignored the scratches on her arms.
Then the children stopped their dancing, one by one their singing voices slowed and stopped like swings in the diminishing wind, just one last gust turned them all towards the treeline just as their clothes and hair streamed in the same direction. The yellowed grass flattened to a fluttering grey, a massive shoal of tiny fish that shone and wriggled as a united mass.
There was one little girl at the front, blonde plaits battering her face, stray hair and pinafore flying, as she stared, open mouthed. Norah blew out one slow, shuddering breath before she followed her eyeline to where she knew they would lead. The forest bent over our her, silent and unfathomable, and out from it she stepped.
She was perhaps not the right word, for the being that the trees shook from their branches was cloaked and shapeless. It swayed from side to side sickeningly slowly. Norah shivered. How had she not sensed it? Slow as it was, it must have been emerging behind her for a while now. She backed away automatically, as slowly as she would if she had spotted a snake in her path and was worried that the thing would strike. As she got further away she sped up, the urgency wouldn’t let her eyes leave the strange creature or slow down as she crashed past the frozen people behind her. She didn’t stop until the solidness of the coffin hit the back of her legs and she stumbled into a half-sitting position onto it. The clumsy nails and splinters of the unvarnished wood caught on her dress but she did not move. Just watched in terrified silence as the monster crept closer to the ring of children. As soon as it reached the light, people around the congregation began to gasp, shout, call the names of the children, all at once so that it became nothing but an indiscernible clamour. But they didn’t move. Nothing but their mouths and their arms, which reached towards the children as if they still had time to pull them close. They did not move because the monster was recognisable now.
“Banshee!” They wailed as one, watching the way she fell to her knees without the trees for support and crawled along the dry grass, using her withered hands to pull herself along. The way she swung her head as she moved, listening to each murmur as she came upon the group. At the revelation most people had quietened, the parents lifting fingers to their mouths to tell their children to hush and be still. The children understood, they stayed so silent you would think they sucked the calm right out of the rock graves they clung to and it worked, she slithered past them without a hesitation. And then she came at the rest, they stumbled out of her way, pushing each other and falling, as she made her way through their ranks, suppressing their yelps of fear with sweating flinches as her horrible hands almost touched the rims of their shoes.
Some crossed themselves silently and Mahoney, beside her, sullenly spoke. “My God, the monsters return to us.”
No one had seen one since the second rebellion, they had been silent so long that they had become nothing but myth for the young among us. It continued on its path, ignorant to the silent screams around it, but then, finally, every person quieted. And it stopped. Sat up. The hood of its clock still disguising it’s terrible face. Nobody took even a single breath. Some dared some shaky steps backwards, they almost seemed to think that they could get away, that is until a bang sounded in the Church tower.
They all turned, shocked. Father Mahoney cursed loudly. “That old fool, I told him, clearly, no bells today; I said we needed to be subtle.” He threw an exasperated look into the air and humphed heavily. “Subtle, my foot.” He grumbled. But, even though every one else did, Norah didn’t look at him, instead she watched the thing. Its head had whipped from the tower to him as he spoke, head still tilted up but also cocked to the side so that the expressionless look of its material-covered-face was transformed into an unholy gasp as the shadow of the cloak was pulled down into its gasping maw. She gulped dryly and started to slide one foot away, hoping to edge away undetected, but she felt the catch on her clothes. One of the nails had really tangled itself into the fabric of her skirt, she yanked it without looking but she felt no give. She tried again, not concerned about ripping it, but it just wasn’t coming loose no matter how much weight she leant on it with. She would have to pull it from the other side. She glanced at the Father, he looked back and shrugged, taking a drink as if he couldn’t care less, though she knew from his shout earlier that he was just as concerned as she.
“Do something.” She whispered through gritted teeth. “Throw something, distract it.”
He looked back at the banshee, she was still not moving, perhaps the sound of the Church bells had temporarily deafened her. They were building is speed after all, the clear, falling chime she would usually have listened to in wonder had she not been elsewhere occupied. He nodded resolutely back at her, uncrossed his arms and reached out his arms. “Give me that dog.”
“No. Why?” She hissed back, turning it away from him.
“Just trust me.” She narrowed her eyes, was he thinking straight? His voice was a little slurred now, but then again, it always was. “I’ve got to throw something.”
She opened her mouth for a moment, without words. Incredulous. “I meant a bottle or something,” she gestured to his flask, “Why not throw that? Instead of a live animal.”
He shook his head and looked at her like she just had no idea what was going on. “This,” he held up the flask, “is sacred wine. I can’t go throwing it around at random banshees, now can I?”
She frowned. “Is that really important right now?”
“Of course it is.” She grabbed out at it, not to throw it, but to silence the sloshing noise it was making in his shaky hands.
“Do something.” She looked at him desperately but when he she saw the lack of reaction on his face she looked down. He was sitting on the coffin too, he probably couldn’t even stand up anymore with the amount he’d obviously drank before the service. She yanked the flask off him. Great help he was. And everyone else for that matter, just standing there like idiots, and she couldn’t even shout at them to get them to help because the banshee would hear.
As the last bell chime reverberated in the air, the banshee rolled her head back so it was facing forwards, towards them, and began to raise herself to her feet. There was nothing to hold on to, all the people had already backed up a good two metres, so she lifted her back legs with her hands still on the ground like a baby does when it starts walking. As she elevated her head, Norah could see that she was short, her back bent almost unbearably backwards from the middle up, crippling her spine into a ‘s’ shape, with her leaning her neck forward for balance. She tottered once, and twice, on her feet as they caught on the long material of her cloak, and as she did it peeled back to reveal her face.
Norah felt like it was looking right at her, even though its eyes were just white. Blind, she knew. The banshees are always blind. She wasn’t old or young, despite her withered hands. Under all that dirt, in fact, she would probably be younger than Norah. It was her mouth that was disturbing, a wide, lipless line that split her face in two, and as she started walking it began to open, like a hinge under which only darkness lay. She was going to keen.
The minute the moaning noise came from the woman’s open maw, every prickle of fear and uncertainty disappeared from Norah. She relaxed back into a sitting position, not even realising that she had attempted to stand, though nailed down, while the banshee found her feet. She sound curled and soared in a song not even the Church bells could match, joined by the cawing ravens in the trees and the mewling scream of the buzzard circling high above the Church tower. Beautiful wasn’t the word: it was powerful, it went from the highest, clearest note to almost thunderous lows, each sound perfect. Norah looked around, as a strange disruption in the rhythm stirred her from the warm envelopment in its simple loveliness, and she was shocked by what she saw. Each person, these hard-hearts who’d gathered here in their work clothes and impatiently listened to sermons for the dead man with an impassioned frown, were crying. Even the children had now sat down next to each other on the grass and were sobbing into their hands. They knew nothing of the man. Finnegan Crowe was just a farm worker, like every other one in this town, that they never would have noticed even if they’d seen him every day on their way to school. They probably had, but they wouldn’t remember. But here they were, crying, like he had been their own sibling. And parents crying like he had been their son. Their tears streaming down their faces, into hands and onto the earth below. She even heard the choked sound of someone trying not to cry next to her, surprising, she’d thought he was too drunk to even comprehend what was going on anymore.
She shook her head, scrunching her face and covering it with her hands to stop them coming. But as the banshee’s voice swirled around her, shrill, now, as an angry mother, she felt her own voice crying out. She closed her eyes and felt the tears run down her cheeks. Soon her whole face was wet, and still more came. Impossibly many. And she was angry and sad and scared. She let her nails bite into her scalp, trying to use the pain to regain control, it was useless though. Everything was coming back to her. She was squeezing so hard, she almost forgot the dog in her arms until it yelped, scrabbling at her arms in a desperate attempt to free itself. She looked down, stunned, and saw the deep gouges and bites that covered her forearms, some so torn that blood made her whole arm slick and had already dyed the cuffs of her dress a clotted red.
She started to let it go when she saw another hand grip hers. She jerked her eyes up. It was her. The banshee. Her fingernails, curved around like talons and black with dirt, pressed into her skin like thorns. Norah winced. The woman was strong for someone so frail looking, terrifyingly strong. Norah tried to push her away, grabbing at the banshee’s own wrists and attempting to pry her away, but the arms were solid as tree trunks, alive with tense muscle but otherwise inhumanly immoveable. The banshee fixed her eyes on Norah’s own, her eyes bloodshot and glistening with a cloudy film but somehow containing enough intensity to make Norah know that she should not look away.
Then the banshee opened her mouth, it felt for a moment that something terrible would happen but all she did was glance down and move her grasp to Norah’s wrist and hold her hand, cradled, within both of her own.
Norah, free from the banshee’s glare, glanced to the side, too afraid to speak but pleading with her eyes.
Mahoney didn’t shrug for once, he even appeared to think for a few seconds before answering. “I think the beast wants to read your palm.” He pointed at his own palm and nodded slowly.
“And what do you recommend I do about it, Father?” She hissed back.
“As a Priest, I would say this is the demons work but the beast’s caught you pretty well there.” He glanced at the taut muscles of her arm straining as they she held Norah so tight her face was contorted in pain. “I would say just go with it.”
Norah suppressed the urge to growl and instead looked back at the banshee woman. Her hair, coming loose of its fabric confines, she could now see was black as a crow, that almost bluish kind of black that shone like oil even under all the mud that matted it. Great chunks of it fell in knotted locks around her face, Norah could make out how she would have looked without all that wildness in her, a girl just like any one you’d see around the town. The banshee girl began to trace the lines of her palm with her sharp fingers, the movement tickling Norah to an almost unbearable extent but the sight of the banshee’s wide mouth muttering open and closed as the girl concentrated sobering her. It would have been a relatively calm if not terrifying experience had the dog not still been kicking up a fuss under its new place under her other arm. It was growling and snarling like she’d never seen it do, and at the banshee as well. Norah kept it tucked back so it wouldn’t do anything stupid, you never know, the banshee was being quite calm now but they’d all heard the stories of them getting angry when they were children, it was the kind of thing their parents would tell them when they were being bad. That the banshee would take them to her house in the forest and eat them up. Looking at the thing’s terrible mouth, she didn’t really doubt it either.
There were many stories like that they used to hear. They’d died away some recently, with the Guard and all their modern technology the children were more interested in mechanics than folk tales. But this just proved that the old wives’ tales had more to them than they seemed, the old grannies had known what they were talking about. When her granny had told her and Deidre, when they were really young, about the monsters in the forest they had never believed her, though they liked the stories all the same. Thinking about it, she had even said that banshees used to come to every funeral and that their keening songs were most appreciated by the mourners, though they weren’t allowed to live in the town because of their wild ways. She had also said something else, she couldn’t quite remember what. Something about their voice, something about what it meant. Maybe it was nothing.
There was a croak. She looked up from her hand and back to the banshee. Yes, she was right. The thing was opening its mouth. Was it going to sing again? It coughed and spluttered a few times and then some hoarse words came out. “You, you are in pain.”
Mahoney snorted beside her, looking at her blood-soaked arm. “You should get your money back, even I could have told you that.” He whispered with just too little humour to be funny. More arrogant than anything, so she ignored him.
“You, the guilt, the grave.” She had some kind of accent, or maybe it was just rustiness from not speaking in so long. Whatever it was, she couldn’t speak more than one or two comprehensible words, definitely no sentences. It was like baby talk, but the girl wasn’t continuing with her reading so Norah nodded in mock understanding despite the laughing going on beside her.
“Short lines.” The girl traced two broken folds in Norah’s hand, the banshee’s dirty, yellow finger making her skin look all the more pink and clean. “Death. Baby. Grave.” Norah nodded gravely, she knew what she meant this time at least. The banshees finger mapped out another line, this one curving and longer. “Tragedy and guilt.” The girl sighed, a strange sound to come from the same mouth as her song. She looked up into Norah’s eyes. “It was you. It is a curse. A long line of death and tragedy.”
Norah floundered for something to say. It was a curse after all! She had known it all along, inside. She had known from the minute that poor babe died in her arms that something was wrong. But it wasn’t enough just to know that she had been right! This meant it would haunt her forever, guilt and tragedy and death! She couldn’t let that happen. So she latched her own fingers around the banshee’s just as she had done to hers. “What do I do?” She stared into those unfathomable eyes. “How do I make it stop?”
The banshee didn’t move. Perhaps she wouldn’t be able to answer? Maybe she couldn’t understand. But then her lipless mouth cracked open once again and the horrible words spilled out. “It’s here, somewhere close. You know what you have to do.” The banshee pulled herself closer. “Kill it and it will all be over.” She said it with such fervent certainty that Norah knew it was true.
“I can’t.” She tried to pull back and shook her head but the beast held strong.
“You must!” She croaked with a vicious snarl in her voice and a furrow of her wild brows.
“No, no.” The tears fell once more from her eyes. “I can’t. I don’t even know where it is!” She crumpled like a child so that the banshee was all that was holding her up, her sobs turning to horrible, choking gasps from deep in her throat.
The banshee, expectedly, did not hug her close or comfort her, she kept her arms out, stiffly, to support her but otherwise remained impassioned hearing the distraught woman. But she did feel a hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t listen to this temptation, you know our saviour will come.” He whispered behind her, Mahoney again. That just incited more sobs, they wracked her until her whole diaphragm ached. “No more people need to die for this, God punishes in Heaven.” Why did he always have to choose times like this for his preaching? He couldn’t do it any other more appropriate time, like in mass where it’s all only hypothetical and easy to say you’ll listen to if you ever get into that situation, but when people have real problems, some line about ‘believing in the power of God’ and ‘resisting the devil’ was the least helpful thing in the world. Not to mention that she knew he was wrong. More people would die, more innocent children, more men like the ones who died just yesterday, and it was all her fault. And she couldn’t even stop it because she didn’t even know who to kill to make this better. It was all her fault, and no stupid rumour about an imaginary hero spread by a dead woman was going to change that, the ‘hero’ probably wasn’t even alive.
As she hung her head, the tears stopped being fear and sadness, and became ferocious, angry, they ran deep grooves down her skin like they wanted to scratch it to the bone. She could actually feel her fingers clawing in anticipation, the frustration hot in her cheeks and dancing on her finger tips as they itched to lash out. She tensed her arms, crouched her legs and got ready to break the woman’s steel grasp.
Then there was one final growling yelp from under her arm and teeth bit hard into her skin. She drew her hand away as fast as she could but the animal had already lunged at the banshee, using their linked arms to leverage itself as it aimed, teeth bared, at her face. Before Norah could even shout, the banshee had caught it around the neck, mid jump, and was holding it, dangling in the air. Norah could see that she was squeezing.
“No!” She screamed and the sound distracted her for a moment, just enough time for the twisting and snarling animal to disentangle itself from the banshee’s fingers and run as soon as it hit the floor. For a few moments, Norah could just feel her heartbeat, as if it was audible in the stinging silence. Even the banshee was breathing hard, scanning the graveyard for a sight of the animal, though, Norah knew, it would be safe and hidden from the blind girl, quietly crouching behind one of the many gravestones. Norah smiled a bit, victorious, for some reason, as if she had unconsciously wished that the banshee offer more. But it wasn’t like her thoughts could have got the dog so riled up, was it?
After a while longer of the girl turning her head from side to side in hopes of hearing some animal noise she could track, she, at last, loosened her grip, her hand abating just enough so that Norah could yank her own away, hugging it immediately to her chest and rubbing the raw indents in her flesh. She could remember what her granny had said to her now, she had said that they couldn’t live in the town because they never talked, that they only spoke when someone was going to die.
And then the banshee left, uneventfully, back the way it came, on unsteady legs, into the forest, presumably to its house in the forest. Where it kept the children, or so her granny said. It was curious that, Norah now thought, that the banshee is the woman that takes children, and then there was her reaction to the dog. The monster killed mostly animals and children. It was a strange coincidence. On top of that, she had known about the baby dying. And she said that I was guilty. Only the monster would truly know that.
As she sat there and thought her husband came over to detach her from the coffin she had nailed herself to. She stood as he helped her up but didn’t stop thinking even as he spoke to her. She heard the people of the congregation begin to move and talk again, shook but brushing it off with that unnerving ease that showed they were used to ignoring things they didn’t like, or didn’t understand. Her ears immediately picked up Maureen’s harsh tones.
“Nasty child.” She said, standing by the freshly covered grave as she lectured to some poor souls she had cornered there. “The O’Breens were an alright family while they were alive but their children really went off the rails. Really, with what he did, I’m not surprised no one turned up to his funeral! All he got were a few Guards and a quick blessing from the Father. No one hung around to keep the crows of his grave for sure!” She laughed in her arrogant way, with no amusement in there whatsoever, just condescending and a strong sense of superiority. Her bemused spectators nodded and looked around nervously for escape.
“That reminds me!” One said. “We must go stand with the family while they watch the grave.” Maureen cocked her head as if asking for a more detailed explanation. “They are family after all”, she said, looking at her young husband for support, “They want to make sure nothing happens to him, to make sure Finnegan’s soul gets to where it’s supposed to be.” She looked up to heaven, which, in itself, was a good enough argument to deter Maureen, who was at the moment playing the ardent believer and couldn’t be seen slacking in her role. She grumpily turned back to her sister as they left.
“What are you doing, girl!” She snapped.
Einin looked up, shaking of the dreamy look with which she’d been staring at the unmarked grave. “Seeing if his souls still in there.” She grinned, “Might have got taken by the crows already.”
“Nothing to smile about, you wouldn’t want it to happen to you, would you?” She answered as Einin began to open her little mouth. “No. Of course you don’t, so don’t laugh at other people’s misfortune.” She herself grinned now, proud of a speech, which, Norah had to admit, did sound particularly clerical.
“No I don’t.” Einin whispered gravely, fine, fair hair falling over her eyes as she shook her head.
“Good.” The woman huffed. “That would be extraordinarily stupid, even for you.”
She could have imagined it, but Norah thought she saw Einin’s eyes harden a little at this. “I may be stupid.” She said. “But I did notice something this morning, at least.” She stuck up her chin and looked right up at the woman. “We were talking about the Guard jackets, remember? Well I remembered, and I looked at all the Guards as we passed their morning assembly this morning and not a single one of them was missing a jacket.”
Maureen looked a bit stunned at this. It was true, she hadn’t remembered, the thought hadn’t even crossed her mind. Then her eyes grew sharp. The girl was being a bit strange recently, and not her normal kind of strange, something more…sinister maybe. She had never been so forthright with Maureen in her life as she had in these few days. She was like a different person sometime. But, for now, she chose not to say anything, just turned away. The girl watched her for a bit and then reverted her attention back to the grave. She bent over and scratched her hands through the damp soil like a child playing with mud, smiling so joyfully it could give you shivers. Norah shook her head and broke her focus on the two. It was best not to think about them just now, she had bigger things to worry about.
Instead she tuned into the other conversation happening beside her, between Mahoney and the old bell-ringer, Coen.
“What was that? You were about as subtle as a brick!”
“Eh?” The old man cupped his ear and said in a wheezy voice. “I’m thick?”
“Yes, yes you are. And you missed all the excitement.”
Mahoney sighed and said as slowly and obnoxiously as he could, in the man’s ear, “A banshee, Coen. A demon, a witch of a banshee, came out the forest and came to the funeral.”
“We used to have them all the time in my day.” He creaked, getting into story mode. “You know, some people say when they talk, somebody dies. You know I even knew a banshee once, very beautiful she was,” his eyes went misty as he recalled his past, “She used to come to all the funerals, that’s where we met in fact…”
Mahoney gave up on the rambling man, who could talk all by himself for quite some time anyway, and turned from the man and back to Norah but she had already gone, making her way out of the Church yard and away from the huddled congregation.
“Have no fear, O’Connor!” He yelled after her. “Our hero will save us all. Go home and rest, do not listen to the monster’s words.”
She gripped her hand to her mouth to stop herself from answering, for she knew whatever she said would not be in her best interests. She listened as the other members of the congregation chanted out their agreement with the Father. “We will be saved.” They all murmured with desperate certainty in their voices. He thought, they all thought, that these empty words would save them. They really did. When did faith turn into this? Just convincing everyone that they’ll all be fine even though you know with all your heart that that that is not the case. When did it become a lie?
Norah cried, wondering what had gone wrong, and carried on walking away.