Banshee O'Donnell

As far back as I can remember, I could hear her. It would start out low, almost inaudible. Like a feeling. The hair on the back of my neck would stand up, goose-pimples would cover every inch of skin I wore, and I instantly knew what was coming. Over the years I've tried everything to ignore it. I've tried putting the TV on full blast, turning up the volume on my stereo, my Walkman with headphones, covering my head with a pillow or 2 or 3. Nothing blocked it out, nothing stopped it from coming. When I was younger I didn't really understand what it meant, not really. I was too small to comprehend the series of unfortunate events that would follow. It seemed random to me for a long while, or perhaps I even suspected it was something I was doing wrong.

The first time I realized it wasn't really a random occurrence I was 15 years old. My Daideo (or granddad) was my favorite man that walked the earth. I spent hours and hours with him down at his shop. I remember watching his grease stained calloused hands fix anything with a motor, battery, or a screen like it was yesterday. Cars, boats, tvs, radios, walkie talkies – you name it and he was either fixing it, had it fixed it already, or saved it for parts. He always had parts at the ready because everyone in Tobercurry knew about my Daideo and his skills. That fateful day he walked me to school because I was running late and Mam didn't like when I walked anywhere by myself, even if I was an almost fully grown Irishwoman. When we got to the doors of the school I gave him the biggest hug and said “What would I be at all without ya, eh?”

We were at recess when it first began. It was so low at the start that I thought it was just the hum of the heating units outside the school. By the time it got closer and of course louder I froze because I knew. It didn't usually happen when I was surrounded by people, or even when it was light outside so I wasn't sure how to navigate it. I didn't make a habit of telling people about it, I didn't want them to think I was completely banjaxed. I mentioned it to my Mam a few times over the years and I had a strong feeling it wasn't the first she'd heard of it by the look on her face. She would catch her expression and go stoic and treat the subject as if it was taboo. Then she'd tell me to quit blathering on and walk away. So there I was, in the middle of recess standing in the grass  surrounded by yelling kids, whirling soccer balls and the sun silently warming me despite the cold in my bones. I did my best to  pretend I didn't hear what I definitely heard. When it was at it's loudest it was so piercing I couldn't ignore it anymore. I fell to my knees and rocked – rather writhed – on the ground, hands over my ears. My schoolmates rushed me, wondering what on Earth was happening to me. “Don't you hear it!?” I screamed. They all looked at me, bewildered, shook their heads and wondered what it was I could possibly be hearing. I knew then I was alone. Utterly and completely alone, surrounded by people. After the screeching passed it's full intensity I slowly got up and tried to shake the ringing from my ears. “It must have been a migraine, I get those sometimes”. Slowly the crowd started to disperse, whispering to themselves but also believing my lie.

Still shocked it's was only me affected, I wondered if I really was losing my mind?  I went back inside and my next 2 classes were uneventful, even enjoyable at times. When I got up to go to my final class however, I saw her, my Mam. I knew from her red eyes and wet face instantly something was wrong. She calmly took my hand and said soothingly “Alannah, come with me now dear.”. The way her demeanor contrasted with her outward appearance frightened me enough to do something I didn't do often, comply without question.

When we got outside she faced me and gently told me that my Daideo, the center of my world, was gone. I couldn't believe it. “He was just here this morn..” I started to say but faltered. Mammy, as I called her when I was just a babe and felt like it again at that moment, held me as I cried. She cried with me as we walked home from school and began the preparations to bury Daideo and honor his life alongside our community. I couldn't help but feel like we were also burying my innocence.

It wasn't until about 2 weeks after that day, when our new normal routine started to set in, that I realized something. The wailing I had heard was around the same time my Daideo took his last breath. I decided against asking my Mam, as grief was something new and unspoken between us since that day. I didn't want to poke at her further when we were all still so raw. I decided it was just a weird coincidence and kept on marching forward as bravely as I could. It seemed easier that way, expected.

I had a best friend for most of my life named Maureen. We did most everything together. She is the only other person who I confided in about the wailings. Sometimes, she was so curious she would just stare and she'd see me shift and her eyes would widen and she'd say “Do you hear it now?” We'd laugh because the answer was always no but she kept on trying. It was like a game to her since the horrors of it were softened by hearing it secondhand, through me. I liked it that way honestly, there was no way I could describe the truth of it to her, I could barely handle it myself.

When we were 21, Maureen got sick. Life can be so unfair because Maureen was always so full of joy, she had a zest for life. She'd zip about, as light as a sprite and as luminous as one – and people would flock to her, like, well, like Faeries to a bonfire. To watch her fight so hard and suffer so often killed me a little inside. When we were 30, I was at Mass praying before service started, and I started to hear it again. This time, deep in my bones, I knew. I rushed out of the cathedral, kicked my shoes in the grass and RAN like the wind! It seemed both like forever and a moment at once, but this time I ran through the noise. It was at it's highest intensity when I got to her front door. It was already open and her family were all inside. They parted the way for me like Moses parted the Red Sea. Maureen was still there, hanging on, barely. As we locked eyes she mouthed “I hear it too” with a slight smile. With that she breathed her last and the wailing started to subside, along with my sense of reality.

“Is the devil at work in me? Am I cursed?!?!” I screamed once I got far enough away. To my surprise I heard a familiar voice behind me say “I'm afraid it's my fault my child”. It was my Mam, eyes all red again. I ran into her arms and pulled away after a few moments, so confused.

“How did you know I'd be here? Maureen is...”

“I know a ghra (my love)”.

“But how could you possibly know?” I started to protest.

My Mam sat down in the lush grass and motioned for me to join her.

Drained of all energy and needing to have answers I once again went against my nature and complied without a word.

“I can hear her too” My Mam began...

“It started when I was a wee lass. Your Nan wasn't open to talking about it, I always thought it was because she was too Catholic for superstitions but now I think it's because she heard it too.”

“So, this is something passed down to me?”

“I'm afraid so my darling. I'm so sorry I didn't share with you sooner, it was just easier to pretend it wasn't happening.”

“I understand that Mammy, I would prefer to ignore it too. But what does it mean? Where is it coming from? Are we in danger?”

My mom took her time before speaking and chose her words carefully.  “We O'Donnell women have been hearing the banshees' cry since stories could be told. Hundreds of years. Banshees do not kill people  a ghra, they just mourn those that are destined already to die. She must have warned you about Maureen because she was like a sister to you.”

“But...” I began. “Maureen could hear her too!”.

“Aye, when the veil between life and death is thinned, those who are open to it can hear it too. Maybe even see her.” This gave me chills but I remember the peace on Maureen's face at her last breath.

“Thank you for opening up to me Mam, I know it's not easy for you but you're not alone.” We held each other for a long time and I was left to myself and my thoughts on the long walk back to retrieve my shoes from the Cathedral lawn that day.

After awhile I decided it was a gift from the Lord, those tortured cries warning me that someone I love was about to die. It was terrifying on one accord and beautiful on the other. From that day on I lived in a state somewhere between a morbid curiosity anticipation and sheer terror that I would hear it again.

In the years that followed I married a beau, I had 2 children of my own (both boys, thank the heavens). Life went on as normal as it could for someone dreading the inevitable, for someone with such a peculiar burden to carry. I was around 45 years old the next time I heard her. My family lived by a train station so at first I thought it was the far off whistle of the train sounding. As it got louder and the hairs stiffened on my neck, I knew. My mam lived a few towns away and I knew it was impossible to run there so I phoned her but no one answered the persistent ringing. My husband came home from work to find me on the floor of my bedroom inconsolable and he didn't know why. When I tried to explain, in between sobs and hiccups, he asked how I knew she was gone if she didn't answer. I didn't want to be accused of blathering on again so I just told him simply “A daughter knows”.

At Mams funeral, I felt utterly alone again, like I did before we shared our secret all those years ago in the grass. I was grateful I wasn't passing this onto another generation but there was something lonely in knowing I was the last one. What would happen to our banshee? Would she go on wailing with no one to hear? It seemed sad somehow. Maybe my death will free her soul to peace? I wasn't sure and I had no one to ask. All I knew is I lived in fear of hearing her crying out again. I didn't want to lose anyone else.

Looking back, I was lucky, I led a blessed and simple life. It was another 30 years before I heard her again. I was really confused this time as my husband was in decent health for 77 and my boys and their families were all well and living nearby. As she got louder I didn't hold my ears. It seemed more bearable this time. I chocked it up to having old 75 years old ears and chuckled softly, slightly shaking the bed. My husband stirred in his sleep and I stayed still and quiet, as not to wake him.

When the intensity of her song reached it's highest, my mind started playing tricks on me. The room felt brighter and seemed warmer and felt strangely familiar. Suddenly, our banshee wasn't just noise, she was there above me, floating, inches from my face. I wish my description could do her justice but it's hard to explain. She was transparent but beautiful and so very sad. The sadness seemed to be within every part of her, embedded. Her tear filled eyes, her moistened hair, her pale fragile hands, most of her – in her wails. My heart hurt for her grief, I wanted to know who she was mourning and to put my arms around her and tell her it would be OK. Of course this was impossible so I just did my best to smile at her and said “Finally, after all these years we meet”. She moved just a hair so I could see above her and I saw My Daideo, strong and young! Next to him was my Maureen, my beautiful Maureen! And Mammy, she was radiant and beaming at me!

That's what the realization hit me, I knew who our sweet, sad banshee was grieving for, who she was here to guide. Our beautiful, haunting, piercing, family banshee - she was here to mourn for me.

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About the Author

My parents were young, divorced, broken people who raised me to do better than them. They wanted me to go to college and make lots of money. Instead got married at 19, had 5 kids before 30 and never finished school because I'm a rebel for one, and people have always been more important than things to me. I feel deeply and write passionately and hope that someone can relate to my writing and know they aren't alone, therefore, I also have company in this madness we call life.

Jessica Hannon
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