Grandmother always told the stories at nighttime. It was when she conversed with the darkness, exchanged the liquid blackness of past and present and when I would lay still in my bed with the unsettling sensation it wasn’t me she was talking to. When the sun set, the stories came out, but these stories did not belong to Grandmother. They belonged to the two glittering things that stared down at me before bedtime, a shadow face that did not exist in the day.
“Your great aunt,” the shadow face said, “had the most beautiful voice in all the village. Pity that she never left the old country. She truly could’ve made something of herself here with that voice. But in the old country, no. In the old country there were few occasions for singin. My mother, your great-granny, used to say she was too beautiful.” The glittering things disappeared momentarily into the darkness as she laughed. “She never said that about me, I’ll tell you! But my mother always said it, that Sister was too beautiful, like it was some reason for mourning, some kind of curse.
“And she was. My sister. Not just her voice, everything about her. Her heart, her spirit. She had a soft face, gentle eyes. Not as clever as I was as a lass, mind you, even though I was the younger. She had that innocence that animals have, if you know what I mean. Like a bird, up in a tree singing, all beautiful and careless. I loved her, but Mother—well, she was busy with five other little ones, so she mostly ignored the two of us. My sister more so. It was like Mother knew what was going to happen. The way she’d look at my sister, so distant and scientific, like she wasn’t even looking at her own daughter.
“I reckon Mother was partly to blame for the way things turned out. My sister was a joyful creature, but time made her sadder. And sadness made her more beautiful. By fifteen she was indisputably the most beautiful of God’s children, man or woman, in all the village. And around that time was when a sickness came to the village. Mind you, back then wasn’t the way it is now days, where’s all you need to do is run down to the kitchen to telephone the country doctor. Back then, you had to run to the doctor’s house, and if you were lucky he was home, and if you were real lucky, he knew something about whatever ailment brought you there.
“Anyway, the winter was rough, and when the disease come along with a cold Spring, there wasn’t much to be done. There was at least one burial every week, and small village as we were, everyone would gather ‘round solemnly in the cemetery. I remember how at the first funeral everyone came with bouquets of flowers, but by the fourth, each family came with just one rosebud or white lily because everyone was starting to ration out their respects.
“Sister always came with two flowers in her hair which she’d place over the grave after it was all covered, which made Mother real mad since our garden was already so picked over. But the village loved her, because she would come singin’—they called it keenin’ since they was mourning songs. She earned a real reputation from it, she did. People in nearby villages even heard about it, and would send for her some Sundays when someone was being laid to rest.
“Everyone wanted to say thank you for her beautiful voice, but being a poor village as it was, no one had much to give. Some of them started giving her small bottles of spirits, but soon as she brought one into the house, Mother got so angry she pushed her out the door and told her to get rid of that devil juice. Father had had a real drinking problem, and Mother thought all of our problems came from those darn bottles.
“Sister wasn’t wasteful, so she hid them, started drinkin’ them the next year, when she was sixteen. Said that the warmth made her forget the sadness. Said they were a gift.
“Something else changed that year. I reckon that’s what made her start drinkin’ in the first place. Sister was used to walkin’ all around town singin’ like always, but since the year of all the deaths, every time someone heard her, they would start to cry. Sister couldn’t stand to see how sad her voice seemed to make everybody, but every time they heard her sing, they’d think about the loved one in the ground, back to the day they buried ‘em.
“It wasn’t bad at first. Sister sang less. Grew quieter. She took to wearing a black cloak most all the time, which she draped over her green dress and stopped wearing flowers in her hair. But silence wasn’t enough.
“By the next year, every time someone saw her beautiful figure in the streets it made them cry. Eventually, when all the tears dried up, people started gettin’ real angry whenever she left the house and went out in public. They cursed her, I reckon because the mem’ries of their lost loved ones were too painful.
“More and more she would leave for the countryside, to be away from the village, to go singin’ in other villages, before they too began to think only of all their deaths when they saw her. She brought back lots of liquor because that’s how everybody thought to thank her, you see.
“Two years later, when sister was eighteen, our youngest brother died. Mother asked her to sing at the funeral. Sister didn’t want to, but I begged and begged her. I wish I hadn’t, but I wanted her to sing, because it was our little brother, and it seemed like it was how we ought to say goodbye. Mother grew to despise the sight of her, just like the rest of the villagers. Every time she saw Sister, she’d say my brother’s name. She’d weep, or shout, or tell Sister to get out of her sight.
“That was when Sister left home. She was still beautiful. Even the long walks in the countryside, out in the elements, couldn’t change that beautiful moonlight skin. When I would see her, she would smile sadly at me, but wouldn’t speak, like the voice within her was drying up from so much silence.
“That same year news of her death came to our family. She was out wandering as usual, and some vagrants had sliced her stomach in half with a knife, leaving her blood to seep into the winter snow. The old country doctor, the one I mentioned, was the one who found her, on his way back from a house visit for some poor old lady with consumption.
“She was already dead, you see. The vagrants had stolen the silver cross she wore around her neck and taken her cloak. They buried her in the forest, not the cemetery, since it was too far from town to carry her and too snowy for any wagons to get through.
“I never saw the body. Sometimes I wished she was still alive. That I could hear her singing, keenin’ in the wind. She would’ve been something over here, I’m telling you! All that beauty, that voice, and nothin’ but sadness.”
I felt Grandmother’s coarse hand near my cheek as she pulled the wool blanket up closer to my chin. “You would’ve liked your great aunt.”
But I didn’t think so, because all I could picture was a beautiful girl with her stomach spilled out across a red patch of snow.
Six days before Grandmother passed away she told me the story of the Bunworth Banshee. She left the light on, because she wanted to get it just right and read it in the practiced words of Lady Wilde. So, instead of lying down, eyes locked upon the two glittering specks in the darkness, I sat up cross-legged in my bed and heard the tale of how an old Mr. Bunworth died, and how the wailing of the Banshee was heard outside his window.
“Where do Banshees come from?” I wanted to know.
Two months ago, Grandmother told me about how the faeries, or the good people, fell down from heaven, but didn’t fall quite far enough to land in hell. “There is a story behind every story,” she’d told me then.
Now, she peers up at me, the light of the single lightbulb in the room reflected as two orbs in her glasses. She places the big book of legends down in her lap and contemplates the question. “One day you will have to read this ole book and find out for me!”
I laughed, and Grandmother read on, and Mr. Bunworth died, but I did not feel sad or scared, because it was a book of legends, and it was Grandmother, not the shadow face speaking. Grandmother had to tickle me to lie down in bed and then she gave me a goodbye kiss and pulled the string that turned off the light.
As the dry branches of the tree next to my bedroom window scratched across the glass, I thought of the wailing Banshee. I pictured her wizened old face, her white hair, her toothless mouth, her dirty, crooked fingernails, as I fell asleep. Legends, I thought, are not so scary as the stories they tell us.
The circumstances of Grandmother’s death were strange, though the death itself surprised nobody. She was going to be ninety-three next year (as Father put it, much to my mother’s dismay, she was reaching her expiration date). She was found peacefully asleep one morning. Asleep in the most extreme sense of the word, her body situated for a comfortable descent into eternal rest.
The day prior, as I was walking back from school along with the other children, I saw an old woman, with long white hair, dressed in a green dress and a black coat, standing on a street corner. She held out a small aluminum can and howled every time someone passed by.
The other children ran across the street to walk on the other side, but I did not like being taken for a coward, so I walked right passed her. She was old, with shriveled hands, but I detected a sad beauty in her face. She grew silent when I walked by, and watched me with keen green eyes.
I quickened my pace and darted up the block to stand on my tiptoes, ringing the bell emphatically that granted me entrance to the upper apartment where my family lived. Her wailing frightened me.
Later that night, the branches scraping at the window spoke to me in her voice. Father entered my room, stumbling after dark, and asked had I made any noise?
Mother did not let me see the body. She thought it was too morbid. In the kitchen, she clasped me in her arms from behind and I felt her chin rest on the top of my head. “You are too beautiful for such things,” she said, and I could feel the words vibrate down my skull.
I shrank away from her in dismay and helped myself to some Lucky Charms.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!
(photography courtesy Acton Wright)