The keening of the Banshee woke Niamh up for the third night in a row.
She was the only one in the family who could hear it. Being a Sensitive usually runs in families, but it seemed she was an anomaly.
She spent her days closely watching the faces of those around her to see who was the next to die. Were the charcoal circles etched under her mother’s faded green eyes simply fatigue? Was the set of her father’s prominent jaw typical stubbornness, or masculine masking of pain he felt was weakness, determined not to reveal? Surely her little sister Brigid was not marked—freckles dancing across her pale Irish skin, red pigtails bouncing along with her. Niamh even studied her dogs. Flannery, the gangly slate grey Irish Wolfhound and his sister Mairead, with silvered heather unruly fur. They stared back at her, their mahogany and copper eyes searching, heads titling silently from side to side. Niamh felt they knew more than they were saying. They must have heard the Banshee too.
Everyone in the house seemed fine. And she knew she was not the one marked.
That night, the family, including the dogs, set out across the fields to her grandmother’s house one county over in Kerrick. It was her grandmother’s 92nd birthday, and the extended family would be there. Niamh would watch them for signs. Surely one of them would be marked clearly.
Her grandmother’s cottage was simple and comfortable—if a bit snug for a dozen people and six Irish Wolfhounds. Low beamed ceilings, river rock walls in varying grey hues, thatch roof recently replaced with modern shingles at Niamh’s father’s insistence. Pewter framed family photographs battled for space on the rough driftwood plank of the mantle. The fire burned Ashwood, intensely hot with a scent calmingly warm and sweet. Cross-stitched samplers, once colorful yarns faded by time, hung in impeccably straight rows on the walls—and if someone made the mistake of commenting on one of them, Niamh’s grandmother would drone endless minutiae about each one, going for hours. It was a mistake people only made once.
As Aunt Siobhan and Uncle Conor arrived with their five children, and three more wolfhounds, all from the same litter as Flannery and Mairead, space became a crucial issue, Niamh’s mother tried to shoo Flannery and Mairead outside to play with the other family dogs, but they resolutely remained on either side of Niamh, which was actually much more frightening than reassuring.
The cozy house always smelled a bit musty, like old people and fading potpourri. Today the dishes the family had brought layered atop that base. The sweet, honeyed fruitiness of the generations-old family recipe for soda bread. The fresh ocean breeze fragrance of oysters in rich cider and savory bacon. Chunks of tender lamb floating in a simmering pot of parsley, roux, and bay leaves with the snap of onion and earthiness of potatoes. The cabbage, kale, and spring onions soared over the hearty Colcannon. And of course, the chocolate cake with cream cheese icing saved for last, a lower, patient aroma.
Niamh found a corner in the front room with a wooden rocking chair her grandfather had made for his wife when she discovered she was pregnant with Niamh’s mother. Like all of his craftsmanship around their sheltered, comfortable home, it had held up to decades of use and a dozen babies had been rocked to sleep in it. Niamh wished she could feel something of his essence from the chair, wishing to could be “that kind” of Sensitive. He died when she was six—ten years ago.
Niamh barely remembered him. But she remembered hearing the Banshee. Niamh told her mother about it, but her mother shoved a basket of laundry into the six year old’s hands and told her to be useful. She hadn’t made the connection that time. It took two more deaths—Aunt Patty’s car accident and cousin Liam’s drowning in the icy pond—for Niamh to understand. Not that it did any good.
Since then, she had heard the Banshee wail for neighbor Finn O’Brien (a heart attack at 50), her father’s sister-in-law Riley (a seizure even though she wasn’t epileptic), Brigid’s eight year old friend Quinne (a seemingly routine fall on the school playground), and Uncle Bellamy’s dog Galway (snake bite of all things—in Ireland). Niamh knew ahead of time someone would die, and when she warned her sister to be careful on the playground and begged Uncle Bellamy to keep Galway inside, Niamh was scolded and dismissed as being fool-headed.
Niamh accepted that no one believed her, and that nothing could prevent the Banshee from calling a soul when it is time. The Banshee is simply harbinger, as she is too now in a way, that death is claiming someone. The space between the wailing and the dying lags, mires the tempo of time, impedes the ticking of the clocks and hinders the cycle of moon to sun. Life is measured in the slackening, stalling seconds.
Grandmother’s scraggly cat launched himself onto Niamh’s lap, ignoring the dogs, and hissing into her face, breath reeking of tuna and a putrefaction Niamh did not want to place. Ayden’s mysterious parentage, place of origin, and unknown age only served to intensify her grandmother’s bond with him—one of many cats who have kept her company since her husband’s death. Ayden rarely interacted with anyone other than her grandmother, and confronted by the yowling, rank, twenty pounds of fury, it occurred to her this was the only time she has ever touched the cat. Claws flurried frantically at the air in front of Niamh’s nose. Emerald eyes connected, conjoined.
Niamh realized the cat knew too.
“Bloody dogs, stirring up every precious fixins,” her grandmother, always practical in her peat moss tweed skirt and brown wool shawl wrapped around her stooped shoulders, muttered as she plucked Ayden from Niamh’s lap, giving the wolfhound pair a cataract-clouded bloodshot Evil Eye. Flannery and Mairead were unfazed by the cat and the old woman, staunch bookends to Niamh’s fluttering trepidation.
Gifts were opened, toasts made, songs sung, and relatives wound their way around one another, helping themselves to the various hearty dishes. Niamh scooped enough onto her plate to be unremarked upon and retreated to the rocking chair.
The cat roosted on top of the china cabinet, gaze fixed on Niamh.
Candles and a fresh round of raised voices ushered in the finale of the party. Despite her fervent protests at “all the daft fuss” made over her birthday, her grandmother smiled, rose lipstick dotting worn teeth, at her collected family. She collected kisses and raised the knife to cut the first piece of cake.
As the knife parted the pearly cream cheese icing, Niamh watched her grandmother’s flesh melt, droop off her bones, and slide down her diminutive body to an ichorous puddle on the wood floor around her sturdy walking boot. The glutinous squelching of gluey splattering coated the insides of Niamh’s ears with viscousness. Feculence permeated the cottage, invading Niamh’s nose.
There was no blood, just aqueous skin and viscous tissue, liquescing off bone to which it no longer belonged. The woman’s organs putrefied and sluiced, pulpy, through her hollowing ribcage. Her eyeballs bounced from their sockets. The cat leapt from his perch in time to catch the hopping spheres with his claws, slipping them both into his mouth. Then Ayden raced out the open back door of the cottage screeching, escaping the macabre tableau.
Niamh pressed her hand to her mouth, glad she hadn’t eaten the food congealing on her set-aside plate. Flannery and Mairead jolted to their paws beside her.
Time twisted in upon itself, like a serpent swallowing its own tail.
Niamh faintly registered light-hearted comments about the cat’s behavior as the cake serving scene played out with the denuded skeleton handing pieces of chocolate birthday cake on hand painted ancestral bone china. Empty sockets still feigning eye contact, precariously hanging jaw bobbing in gruesome casual familial conversation, as the tongue pulverulenced from tip to throat, powdering the top of the gelatinous mass on the floor.
Beside her, the wolfhounds quivered, hackles stiffened, gnarrs building in their broad chests, vibrating in readiness. It seemed only she and the animals had witnessed the surrealistic, Salvador Dali version of a birthday party scene. Everyone, including her grandmother, carried on as before.
Unable to bear the otherworldly milieu, execrable effigy and pungency, Niamh bolted for the nearby front door, followed intently by the dogs as she dashed across the darkened fields toward home.