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by Colm Reynor
Aisling lay curled in the corner of her bedroom, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. It was all she could do after she had seen such things; such horrible things. It happened more and more frequently as she reached womanhood; the visions becoming more real and vivid in her mind until they would overwhelm her and only grief and fear remained. She didn’t understand at first what it was that tormented her. Visions, feelings, even smells and sounds, terrible as they were they were never quite clear to her. All she felt was the pain and suffering, but as she grew older the visions became clearer and she realized what it was she saw, what tormented her so; it was death.
Aisling always sobbed after she had seen death. It was such a painful sight so much grief, sorrow and fear. All Aisling could do was endure what she saw; for people didn’t understand her. People didn’t want to listen. She was known to be fey and introverted, not having many friends; a sad, lonely girl. Other young girls she did become close to would quickly tire of Aisling’s somber moods and apparently constant tears. Although she never mentioned what it was that brought on such sadness, children, even parents and teachers, became cautious of the young girl, questioning her mental stability.
A dreadful winter, so relentlessly cold, griped the west of Ireland; consuming the life from once fertile land and covering the rocky hills and pastures in a beautifully soft, white blanket, its splendor a rude parody of the hardship it was causing the local inhabitants. In this bleak, frozen heart of winter, many lives had been lost. Adding to this, Ireland itself was in a state of transition. The Free State had finally been established after a devastating Civil war which tore not only Ireland but communities and even entire families apart. The country and its people were struggling to cope.
Wiping the tears from her cheeks she lifted herself from the floor and into her bed. Her mother Grainne would be up soon to say goodnight and Aisling would not allow her to see her like this; it scared her too much. Grainne, forever the doting mother, could never believe there was anything wrong with her beloved daughter.
Her father was an ex-military man named Padraig O’ Neill who had fought for the British in the Great War and now plied a modest trade as a carpenter. He had always been cold and distant with his only daughter, thinking her ill or possessed. Now, though he would never admit to it, he feared Aisling. He had heard her many times, cry and wail for the dead. “They don’t want to die”, she would scream, “leave them alone”.
But for her father, the moment he became truly disturbed by his daughter’s behavior, realizing she did not suffer from childish nightmares or an overactive imagination, was on a stormy night four years ago, at the height of the Anglo-Irish war, when Aisling was just eleven years old. It was well after midnight. Padraig sat beside the low burning fireplace puffing on his pipe, drinking his favorite whisky and reading an assortment of newspapers; as he often did when he became restless and yearned to be back with his old comrades and friends, some of who now fought against the British instead of with them. Most like him however, had families that needed looking after. The struggle with the British was a young mans war he would say. And years of fighting in the bloodiest war of the modern era was enough to sate anybody’s lust for battle. He was reading of the awful burnings down in Cork city when he heard a soft creaking sound and turned to see Aisling dressed in her nightgown, walking slowly down the rickety stairs; head bowed her black tresses hanging loosely over her face.
“Aisling?” Even at this young age Padraig had become accustomed to his daughter’s odd behavior. “What is it?” And as was Padraig’s way with his daughter, he became quickly irritated.
He could see she had been crying. She stopped before him not willing to lift her bloodshot eyes to meet his. “Your friend”, she muttered.
“Yes go on girl, what are you talking about?
“Your friend with the yellow fingers”.
She was referring to his friend Daniel who lived down the street. He was a childhood friend of Padraig’s. When he stopped by the house Aisling always asked him about his nicotine stained fingers. “Gardening”, he would say with a gentle smile or “working with all that wood, like your father does, it stains my fingers”.
“Why are daddy’s fingers not yellow then?”
“Because he does not work as hard as I do”, and he would burst out into that booming laugh that Aisling loved to hear whenever he came by.
“Daniel”, Padraig said. Aisling nodded her head. Padriag could tell she had started to cry again, quiet sobs, as though her body did not have the energy to cry out anymore.
“What about him?”
Aisling began to run her fingers through her hair and Padraig noticed the strands that remained in her fingers then drifted to the ground as she released them and repeated the process.
“Stop that Aisling, now, and tell me what’s wrong.”
“He’s going to die”.
Padraig had dismissed Aisling angrily shouting at her to stop talking such nonsense, sending her back to bed and coming close to striking her but managing to restrain himself. The next day, much to Padraig’s dismay, he had discovered his friend had indeed died that night. Angry and confused by the incident he had urged his wife to send Aisling away to a convent but Grainne’s tears finally won over her husbands rage and fear, but the relationship between father and daughter and indeed husband and wife grew ever more strained.
Aisling rubbed her eyes and tried to fall asleep but could not. The sight of the old O’Grady woman and her grandchild’s lifeless faces would not allow it. She held back more tears. They were not dead yet, she would go their tomorrow and warn them. She had to help. She remembered the last time she had tried to warn someone about a death; her father, and she would always remember his reaction. She had vowed never to tell anybody about what she saw again after that. But now with so much death surrounding the community how could she not? She had become less afraid of what she saw as the years passed and less afraid of her father. She decided she would visit the stricken family the next day and warn them.
Sleep was finally descending on Aisling’s tired mind when her mother quietly opened the bedroom door. She sat down on the edge of the bed and gently stroked Aisling’s hair.
You’ve been crying again”, Grainne sighed.
“It’s okay mam. I’m alright.”
She could see her mother become visibly upset then take a deep breath. “You know,” she said, “Your name means dream. That is what frightens you darling just dreams.” Grainne often told Aisling this when she found her in such a state, more to reassure herself rather than her daughter. “My mother used to tell me stories about Aisling; dreams that foretold the future. I thought they were wonderful stories and the name was beautiful and that’s why I named you Aisling. My mother said only special, gifted people had Aisling. Your special darling, remember that.” But Aisling was already asleep. Grainne leant over and kissed her on the forehead. “Goodnight”, she whispered before leaving her daughter to sleep.
…she wandered aimlessly through a foggy haze, barley able to distinguish her outstretched hands, as she tried in vain to grasp something of substance. Laughter echoed somewhere in the distance but not like normal laughter, this sound had a cutting edge, she felt it rather than heard it, and it was almost painful. The laughter would then turn to crying; a long sorrowful lament. And then abruptly all would be silent, the laughing and crying hushed; before the horrible noise would resound once more around the indistinguishable twilight. Finally the fog began to dissolve and she realized she was near her home in the snow covered farmlands, or at least a hazy, confused version of the place she recognized as home. In the distance she saw a high mound of earth; the snow covering it was a brilliant white and untouched. And before the mound was what looked like three figures, waiting in the distance. She knew the mound; it was the fairy mound outside her village, the Sidhe people called it, using the Irish term. She slowly made her way toward the Sidhe and the figures waiting there. Waiting for her, she knew. Suddenly she was before them. The Sidhe rising up behind, majestic and dominant draped in its white mantle. Her attention however was drawn to the shadowy forms silhouetted against the snowy mound. They looked like three woman. One seemed young and was sobbing uncontrollably, she did not look up and her features were distorted with grief. The other was tall and middle aged with long black hair; she had cold grey eyes, her expression haughty and severe. Then laughter rang out again and she turned to see a stooped and withered looking old woman with thin grey hair and wrinkled features. The crone stared back with hooded, rheumy eyes and laughed all the louder…
Mary O’Grady sat staring out the window. The paint had long ago begun to peel from the wooden frame and sill and she picked a cracked piece off the rotting wood and cast it aside with a sigh. She looked back at her empty bed before returning her gaze to the calm, cold darkness. It would be another long night. Her infant child had stopped crying for now but he would soon be crying out again. He was ill and getting worse. A local doctor had taken a look at the child a few days previously and diagnosed a cold; giving Mary some medicine and telling her to keep the baby warm and well fed. But her baby had not gotten better. And she could not afford to take him to a hospital, plus travel was too difficult due to the snow and ice. Curse this winter she thought. And there was her mother. She had become sick not long before her son and having refused to see the doctor was bed ridden and feverish. A stubborn old woman thought Mary and again she wanted to blame her mother for her son’s sickness but chided herself and felt ashamed to be placing blame on her own elderly mother. But the feeling persisted. A tear began to well in her eye and she stubbornly tried to halt its progress but to no avail and it ran solemnly down her cheek. She licked it away from her lip, leaving a salty taste in her mouth.
She sat by candle light, as she did most nights, drinking a cup of tea and reading a book. On this night her tea was untouched, her book open in her hand but yet to be read. Instead she stared out into the night. The stars shone brightly as did a crescent moon and the light from the lamp-posts cast a dull glow over the icy streets and crystalline grass. The loveliness of the night was lost on Mary. Then she saw something or someone. A shadow had begun to shift away from one of the houses across the street.
The O’Neill house she thought it was.
…she wanted to get away but could not move. She was so cold and stiff. And that voice; she had heard words but did not want to listen. She hated those words. But through all the crying and bitter laughter and cold and sadness she heard the words again “…through you they will know death,” and she screamed in anguish…
Aisling awoke shivering. People bustled around her, a crow croaked somewhere near by as if in defense of Aisling or in defense of what could soon be a meal. A thick blanket was wrapped around her as her father lifted her up into his arms. Disorientated and nauseas Aisling was unsure of what was happening or where she was. She heard her mother crying and talking in sobs close by and she saw Mary O’Grady looking on from a distant but she did not see the fear in the woman’s eyes only the sadness. Then Aisling remembered; the old woman, the child. She shivered in her fathers arms. And as she drifted back into unconsciousness the crow croaked once more and the Sidhe rose up against a dull, gloomy sky.
Aisling was bed ridden, pneumonia refusing to loosen its grip on her body. She remembered little of what happened the night she was found by the Sidhe; but she did know Mary O’Grady had seen her that night wandering in the dark and went and found her and she also knew Mary’s mother had died that night. Mary however had not come to visit and Aisling had heard her mother and father argue the previous night
“People are saying things about Aisling,” her father had said.
“I don’t care there’s nothing wrong with her… them people are disgusting.”
They had moved away from her door but Aisling could hear them mention the Sidhe where she had been found. The Sidhe was the source of many superstitions and was said to be haunted. There was the legend of the washer-woman; an old, wrinkled woman who would be seen sitting by the Sidhe, a rotting wooden bucket before her, washing items of clothing that were said to belong to the recently deceased. The old folks say it is the burial site of an ancient Queen. While some of the younger generations claim to have seen a girl by the Sidhe hunched over crying. And whenever this story is told Aisling’s name is never far from people’s mind. What did people think of her, wondered Aisling, what did she think of herself?
Suddenly a shadow passed across her face. She knew what it was. Her body became rigid her eyes wide with horror. The shadow moved closer and she felt the pain it carried in it, not its own pain but the pain of others. She silently cried out and before the shadow engulfed her she saw the child’s face then all was dark.
Mary O’Grady heard the strange keening sound like a faint howling on the wind. The sun was setting and she had just read a short fairy tale to her son, sending him to sleep. He had seemed better she thought but she swallowed a lump in her throat. The pain of her mother’s death was still fresh and she could not stand the thought of loosing her son; her entire family. Carrying her usual cup of tea she made her way to her bedroom and again heard the mournful keening sound. Curious she went to her window and looked outside.
The tea cup fell from her hand and smashed on the floor.
Mary however remained transfixed by the sight of the girl, rocking back and fort, pulling at her long black hair and issuing a horrible cry that froze the blood in Mary’s veins. She knew straight away who the girl was and stumbling back in shock she ran to her baby’s room.
Aisling did not recover from the pneumonia. She passed away a couple of days after the night Mary O’Grady’s child died; a night which would always be remembered by the local village people. Most heard the sound of Aisling’s pain that night, but none went too her. They saw her crying and shaking in the freezing cold but would do nothing; for the girl who had been found by the Sidhe, who it was rumored, could see death, held too much fear for them. They would never forget the sorrowful keening sound she made as she sat outside the O’Grady house, pulling strands of raven black hair from her head as she stared up at the dead child’s bedroom window. Only Aisling’s mother came to bring her home; even her own father, like many others, refused to look at her in fear they may suffer the same faith as the O’Grady family. More tales spread concerning the girl found by the Sidhe. She was the harbinger of death people would say. For even in death people feared her. And Grainne and Padraig were eventually forced to move away.
Not long after her baby had died Mary O’Grady’s heart gave way. Too much grief they said. And on the night Mary died many swore they saw a woman outside shadowed in the night, pulling at her hair and making a dreadful keening sound.
She became known as the woman of the Sidhe; the Bean-Sidhe. And people would say if you heard the keening of the Bean-Sidhe, death was on its way.
COPYRIGHT Colm Reynor