Ann Huseman ©2003
We had come from Ireland across the wide oceans on a voyage that had seemed to last an eternity. All of us jammed together during the daytime, lined up on coffin-like bunks at night, tossing with the waves until you felt your insides were going to explode. On the good days, we got a ration of beer and a bit of bread. On the bad days, there was just a growling, empty stomach.
When we were at sea for two weeks, I came down with the fever. My pop, Robert Keene, summoned the priest. My marm, Mary McDonald Keene and my Granny Kate McDonald just stood at the foot of the bunk wringing their hands and counting their prayer beads and repeating "Hail Mary, full of grace".
"Pop, " says I, "who is the lady combing her hair beside Marm and Granny at the foot of my bed?"
Pop's face turned as pale as milk. "What lady?'
"You can't have her!" Marm screamed and pushed her rosary at the lady.
It must have been my fevered state. I could have sworn
Marm's arms went right through the woman. Afterwards, I sank into a deep
sleep filled with strange dreams of a sailing ship floating on a sea of
stars. The stars became mist, and I could no longer see my own hand. And
then there was nothing.
Oh America, when it was as young and as new as a babe in arms-still exploring, still trying out dreams. It was big and wild and teeming with deer, wild bears, wolves, fox, and mountain lions. I had never seen such animals. Or food. Nuts on the trees, berries in the bush, corn, sweet potatoes, and squash.
We settled in Stratford, Virginia. First sleeping in the forest and then living in a small cabin scraped together from logs and Pop's blistered hands. We stayed in Virginia for almost two years. We would have stayed longer, but Indians kept attacking us. Finally, Pop had just about had enough of it.
I was ten years old when we walked across the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky. It snowed that winter and we spent three months in a cave. How we survived, I don't know. But finally, the snows melted, and we made our way westward to a small valley surrounded by mountains. We named the place Carney Creek.
It was October twilight of the second year at Carney Creek when I asked Granny Kate about the milk. Marm was in the bedroom resting because she was in the last months of her confinement. Pop had gone hunting for a pack of wolves that had been raiding our chicken pens. Granny was in charge of keeping me out of trouble.
We were seated on the front porch surrounded by ripples of color and textures curving up, then down the mountain, and finally vanishing into purple haze. "Why do you place the saucer of milk outside the back door each night?" I said to Granny.
"For the Sidhe, Molly, child," Granny Kate said without looking up from the bowl of corn ears in her lap. Her weathered hands deftly pulled shucks and silks then tossed them over the side of the porch and into the yard for the pigs.
"Who?" I lay on the front porch absently pulling silks from a corn ear and watching pale shadows settle in the distance as the moon rose.
"The fairy folk." Granny Kate looked out over the hills. "Hasn't your Marm told you?"
"No." I threw the corn down and turned to give Granny Kate my full attention. "Tell me, Granny, please."
"Well, the fairies are the ancient ones, the Danaan, who arrived in Ireland long ago on a cloud of mist from the sky.
"What nonsense are you talking?" Marm appeared in the doorway with her eyes still half closed and full of sleep. She looked at Granny. "The baby has stopped kicking." Marm rubbed her round stomach. "I think it's almost time."
"Robert should be back soon," Granny Kate stood up and put her arm around Marm. "You go back inside and rest. I can take care of Molly."
"Should I make a corn doll for the baby?" I looked up at Marm and Granny.
"That would be nice, Molly." Marm put her hand in her back and smiled. "Maybe a clover necklace to go with it?" She blew a kiss and went back inside the house.
"Tell me more about the fairies," I said jumping off the porch and landing in a profusion of wild clover and dandelions. Lightning bugs flittered above me, around me, and landed in my hair as I bent over to scoop handfuls of pink clover.
"Fairies were golden haired, handsome people, poets and artists, who knew how to heal with plants and herbs, and could sing like the angels. You couldn't hear a fairy song without crying. They were magic."
"Where did they go?" I jumped back up on the porch and began braiding a chain from the clover.
"There was a great battle many years ago between the fairy folk and the men from the South. They were fierce warriors and after many battles, the men defeated the fair folk."
"They killed them?" I put down the clover necklace and stared at Granny.
"Not all. A bargain was struck. Men would live above ground, and fairies were banished below ground to live the rest of eternity. But things hadn't been settled. Not quite. The fairies made night raids on the men, stealing their cattle and sometimes even their babies."
"Babies?" I thought about Marm.
"So another bargain was struck. The men agreed to never cross a fairy mound, not to cut treetops, and to put out a saucer of milk each night for the fairies." Granny got up from her chair and sat down beside me on the front step.
"And that's why you put the saucer of milk out each night!" I smiled.
"There is a bit more." Granny put her arm around me. "Some of the fairies were given over as servants to the men. They were to watch over them and warn them in times of trouble. Most of all, they warned men of death. They were called Bien Sidhe, the banshees. If you hear wailing in the night or see a dark pale woman combing her hair or washing a shroud-that's a banshee." Granny crossed herself and spat on the porch.
"The woman on the ship!" My eyes grew round.
"Some say they followed us from Ireland." Granny looked off into the distance. "Banshees are all that we know of the fairies now. You can hear their lonely cries at night as they wander the earth, alone and forgotten for eternity."
"What happens if you don't put the milk out?" I measured my small hand against Granny's large rough palm.
"Then the banshees can take you away to their kingdom underground."
I shivered as darkness fell and an owl hooted in the distance. "I wish Pop would come home."
"Don't you be frightened," Granny said and gave me a hug. "I'm just an old woman full of stories."
Suddenly, I heard long, slow moans. I jumped and looked at Granny.
Granny got up from the step. "You stay put, Molly. The baby is coming."
Two hours later, Pop arrived with two wolves' heads. Marm was in the bedroom with Granny. I could hear moans and footsteps and "Oh blessed Jesus", as I lay on a pallet by the fireplace in the living room and pretended to be asleep.
Pop kissed me on the forehead and went into the bedroom.
Golden-haired fairies and their beautiful songs played in my head. Then a raven-haired woman with a pale face floated into the vision. Suddenly, I remembered. We had forgotten to put the milk out!
I got up from the pallet, found a wooden bowl, and tiptoed outside. Barefoot and shivering, I made my way in the moonlight to the banks of Carney Creek where we kept a jar of milk secured by a rope to the bank. I pulled the jar from the water and poured milk into the bowl. Suddenly, I stopped.
Someone was singing. It was as if all the sadness that had ever existed in the universe were reduced to a few lyrical notes. It told of lost yesterdays, hopeless tomorrows, and forgotten dreams. It was a song of death.
As I listened, a shadow flitted across the corner of my eye.
The bowl and the milk crashed into the creek. I sat frozen with terror and watched them float slowly downstream and into the shadows. All the while the singing continued. Finally, I turned my head.
A pale woman with wild raven hair was scrunched at the edge of the creek bank washing a shroud. Sweet Jesus, I could see right through her! It was the woman from the ship. The banshee.
I jumped up and scrambled backwards up the creek bank, so she couldn't grab me by the nightshirt. When I got to the top, I turned and ran as fast as I could back to the house.
"Granny! She's out there. The Banshee!"
But nobody was listening. I could hear crying from the bedroom. The door banged open and Pop appeared with blood on his shirt and hands. "Quick, Molly, get some water from the creek."
"I can't, Pop! The banshee is at the creek!"
"I don't have time for games, Molly! Hurry!"
I grabbed a bucket, and crept out the front door into
a night that was now hidden under a blanket of fog. Down to the creek
I went again with the hoot owls calling and the fog getting thicker. "Hail
Mary full of grace, Hail Mary
" I repeated over and over as
I filled the bucket then turned and ran back to the house.
Two steaming, snorting horses came pounding out of the mist pulling a black coach. The horses were headless!
I froze with my hand at my mouth. What could it mean? Slowly, the coach door opened. The banshee got out of the coach and stood staring at the house.
And then, lord-a-mercy, she started to wail! Screeching and clawing and whipping her long black hair until I thought she was going to collapse into a fit.
I jumped for the bushes. The bucket went flying, as I hid with my hands over my head.
Birds scattered from the trees, chickens clucked, and the pigs bolted from the yard. From the distance, a lone wolf howled.
"Go away!" The front door banged open. It was Pop. I raised my head. Could I make it to the door?
Could I get past the carriage?
"You won't have this baby!" Pop sank down to his knees, put his hands over his eyes, and cried.
I can tell you, it is an awful thing for a child to see her pop in tears.
And then I remembered. The milk! I hadn't put the milk out! It was spilled at the bottom of the creek. It was my fault and now the banshee would have the new baby.
I ran crying up the hillside, "Take me," I shouted. "Take me. I spilled the milk."
"Molly?" Pop's eyes searched the fog.
But it was too late. Two claw-like hands grabbed me, pulled me into the carriage, and threw me onto the floor. My heart was beating as fast as the horse's hooves that were speeding, speeding away.
I think I fainted. I don't remember passing through the fog, passing through the forest, passing under the good earth into the place of the banshees.
Was it days, years, hundreds of years that I was with them living in their shadow world without a bed or a home? Doomed to live beneath the earth. But that wasn't the worst of it.
As I grew older I began to change. Whether it was magic, or living underground, or the fate I was born to share. My hair grew black and twisted, my face grew pale, and my voice became hollow. And one day, there was no human left in me.
I know why the banshee wails. She wails for sunshine and soft breezes and a summer afternoon when clover was in bloom. She wails for the feel of a soft hand and the purple mist of the mountains. She wails for the dance of the fireflies, for dreams, and for lovers who will never whisper to her on a front porch. She wails for all that is lost to her and can never be returned.
I am the banshee now, mistress of the night. The chill on a cold winter's evening is my suffering. The howling wind is my lamentation. When death is upon you, I will mourn you and sing your funeral song. Inside my black coach pulled by headless steeds, I travel the moonless highways in search of a companion.
Whatever you do, don't forget to put out the saucer of milk.