Lots of people are unfamiliar with banshees, the Irish ancestral spirits who wail when a family member is about to die. There are many varieties of banshee: Weeping old ladies, hideous specters, and my version, a maiden who died too young. To celebrate TEXTING’s pub month, I figured I’d show you my vision of a banshee.
Here’s the scene in which our hero, Conor, meets the banshee who wailed outside his bedroom window when he was about to kill a spider.
The girl wafted in over the window seat, solidifying as she went. By the time she’d seated herself in his beanbag chair, she was as solid as a middle school principal except for her right foot, which remained translucent. As he watched, the foot floated up as if she were sitting in a swimming pool.
“Look at you, now,” she said to the foot. “Why ever would you be doing that?” She used both hands to press her leg down and trapped the wayward foot with her other one. “There. All fixed.” She looked brightly at Conor. He lay there on the carpet, organizing his thoughts.
She couldn’t have floated in the window, he decided. There must be a ladder out there. It was nighttime and his room wasn’t lit very well and he hadn’t seen her right.
“Who are you?” He sat up, so he’d look like he was taking charge.
“Oh good, you speak the Tongue. I was afraid we’d not understand one another.”
She frowned. “Our own, of course.”
“I never heard it called such as that. Is that what you call it?”
“It’s what it is.” Conor stood up, wobbled, and sat down on his bed, forgetting to check for the location of the spider. It could be crawling up his back for all he knew. “Who are you?” he asked again.
“I beg your pardon, you asked that already, didn’t you? I am the daughter of Maedoc, called Ashling, I don’t know how many years dead.” She pointed at his cell phone. “That is a little computer, is it not? I was watching you from outside. What are the little creatures that jump?”
“It’s a video game.” Conor’s mouth said, although his brain whispered, DEAD? She thinks she’s DEAD?
“Vid. Ee. Oh.” Ashling tasted the word, rolled it in her mouth. “Vid-ee-oh game.” She surveyed the room. “This is strange and lovely. So clean! Is it that you’re noble, or is it that everyone lives in such a way?”
“We’re not noble.”
Concern flickered across Ashling’s face. “Not a son of the Ee Nay-ill?” Or that’s what it sounded like, anyway.
“My father’s name is Brian. Brian O’Neill.”
Ashling’s face brightened. “A son of the Ee Nay-ill, then. Descendent of kings.”
Grump talked about O’Neills being kings, back in the dawn of Ireland. “There are a million O’Neills,” Conor said, feeling he should apologize. “I don’t think we’re noble anymore.”
Ashling stuck her pointy little nose in the air. “The Ee Nay-ill,” she said, “are always noble.”
Conor thought of Uncle Ralph drinking Budweiser and belching the national anthem.
Ashling stood up and walked around his room. She was wearing a green ankle-length wool tunic with a thin leather belt, a red wool cloak open in front, rough leather shoes on her feet. Her red hair hung to her waist in a thick braid, a green ribbon woven through it.
She floated up for a closer view of the solar system map on his ceiling. Her shoes were three feet above the floor, yet the beanbag chair was dented where she’d sat in it. She seemed real—sturdy and solid and muscular. But she was totally floating.
“What are you?” Conor asked. Why wasn’t he freaking out? He should be running out the door.
The girl landed in front of him. This time her hand stayed in the air, raised over her head as if she were the brainy kid in class. “Did you see that? How I floated? And, mark you, I just learned this…” She faded invisible, then unfaded back into view, except for her left foot. “An amazing thing, yes? Yes?”
Conor’s rear end seemed to have become part of his mattress. “What are you?” he whispered again.
Although he was beginning to think he knew.
“Not supposed to tell what I am.” She wasn’t very tall—Glennie’s size. She could stare straight into his eyes as he sat on his bed. Hers were a merry blue—O’Neill Blue, but with an odd wedge of gray at the bottom of each iris that for some reason lifted his heart. She smelled of woodsmoke and a chilly night. “But I don’t see why I cannot tell one person. Promise not to distress yourself?”
“I…I don’t know.” He thought he might be distressing himself already.
Ashling startled him with a wide grin, gleaming except for one brown tooth on the side. “I am a banshee, of course. Your family’s banshee. Sent by the Lady to…to… ach, you will distress yourself, will you not?”
To keen—like mega-weeping.
Before a death in the family.
Conor’s nerves woke up with another mighty twang. “Am I going to die?”
“You are distressed. I knew it.” Ashling patted his shoulder. “Calm yourself. It’s not so bad. I died once upon a time, and now here I am, all new clothes with a ribbon in my hair.” She gazed earnestly into his eyes. “Anyway, it might not be you. I’ve no idea what Death I’m sent for, see—I’ll feel it when it’s about to happen. At least, I hope I will. In the meantime, I’m compelled to keen for any death that happens near you, the Ee Nay-ill. It’s part of my training.” She frowned. “At least, I think it is.”
“You haven’t always been a banshee?”
“Of course not. This may be my one and only time. But I shall be very, very good at it. They’ll talk about me after, they’ll say ‘Ach, if only she’d stayed, what a wonder she—’”
“I was about to kill a spider before.”
“I know it, that’s why I keened. And a marvelous keen it was, worthy of—”
“The spider didn’t die.”
“I know it. That was odd.”
She’s a screwup as a banshee, Conor thought. No matter how great she says she is.