The first time I heard the cry of the banshee was three days before the full moon. My blood ran cold because I knew exactly what it meant. In my youth, my grandmother entertained us with fantastic fairytales and spooky stories. The haunting tale of the banshee had been one of my favorites, so when I heard the strange keening, I immediately recalled the legend. The story about a witch who announced the imminent death of a loved one was common throughout Ireland. There was even a poem that children sometimes chanted in the schoolyard, often around Halloween:
If you ever hear the banshee cry,
Someone you love is soon to die.
Three days after her frightful song,
Your beloved companion will soon be gone.
My grandmother’s fervent storytelling had painted vivid images in my mind. Her version of the banshee had wild white hair that flew around her face as she howled. Her teeth were filed to points and the irises of her eyes glowed red in the darkness. She appeared at the houses of the soon-to-be bereaved precisely three days before the victim’s soul was claimed.
I heard the eerie sound again, and it startled me from my reverie. The high-pitched wail came from the copse of trees beyond the barn. I looked over at my husband, who was relaxing by the fire, whittling a small wooden baby toy. He didn’t look alarmed.
“Did you hear that, Declan?” I asked. I strode toward the window and wiped the frost from the pane. I peered out into the darkness but saw only hills and sky.
Declan looked up from his work. “I didn’t hear anything, Fiona. Is something outside?” he asked.
“Tis’ nothing. Probably just the wind.”
I had just put our baby, Ronan, to bed. He was feverish and colicky all day. I walked into his bedroom and watched him sleeping peacefully in his crib. He still had two spots of high color in his cheeks, and a damp curl was plastered to his forehead. I was consumed with love when I laid my eyes upon my son. Ronan was almost a year old, and I could still barely believe that something so beautiful was mine. His eyes were bright, and he delighted in everything. His unrestrained giggle made my heart fuller than it had ever been in my life. I reached down to touch Ronan’s tiny hand, and he grasped my index finger, even as he slept.
I heard the sound again, coming from the woods, and my stomach twisted with fear. Some old legends compared the banshee’s cry to the scream of a hawk while others said it sounded like the demented laugh of a lunatic. What I heard was indescribable, but I knew it for what it was. I pressed my hand to my mouth and squeezed my eyes shut, willfully holding back the panic and grief filling my mind. I gripped the rail of the crib with both hands, until my knuckles turned white. I concentrated on Ronan’s rhythmic breathing and calmed myself in the rise and fall of his curved belly. I stood there watching for more than an hour, as my fear crystallized into determination.
The next day, Ronan’s fever was unrelenting. He fought against a rattling cough, and his usually inquisitive eyes were glazed and staring. Declan sent for the village doctor, but he was unavailable, tending to the sick in a neighboring county. Ronan refused to nurse despite his cracked lips and dry tongue. His anguished cries grew more feeble as the day progressed, eventually turning into whimpers before sleep took hold.
I gave into my fear for only a moment and held Declan close as my tears fell onto his soft flannel shirt. I inhaled deeply and took in his familiar scent of wood smoke and tobacco. In his arms, I felt safe, but when I heard the cry of the banshee for the second night in a row, I knew that even Declan’s powerful arms couldn’t hold back what I feared.
On the third day, I packed a knapsack with a silver crucifix and the family Bible as the blood red sun disappeared behind the hills. I left Ronan in the care of my husband since it was too dangerous to bring him with me. I told Declan that I was going to seek the help of a distant neighbor, a woman who was skilled in natural remedies. It was the first and the last time I lied to my husband.
I crept across our farm to the far side of the barn, as the stars began to appear one by one. The bare trees stretched their black limbs skyward and cast deep shadows in the bluish light of the full moon. I sat down on the cold earth and waited, watching the distant woods for any sign of the banshee.
As midnight approached, I became ravaged by anger and grief, crazed by the thought of the banshee slipping into my home and stealing away with my precious child. I had believed that he was safer at home with Declan, but now I doubted. I was torn between waiting outside to ward off the witch and racing home to hold my baby to my chest. I rocked myself and sobbed until my own eyes became bloodshot. I beat my fists into the ground and screamed into the night sky.
“You cannot take him. He is mine!”
I was answered by silence, so I buried my face in my hands. I wept for hours until I heard my wails being joined by an unearthly, haunting song. My head snapped up as I saw the banshee standing just inside our pasture.
“My child, is it for me that you cry out?” she asked. Her face was calm and her demeanor told me nothing about her motives.
I leapt to my feet, but I was stunned into silence. The banshee did not look like the hideous crone described in the legends. Her beautiful face was smooth and ageless, like a maiden’s, and her flowing white hair looked like ribbons of silver in the moonlight. Her eyes were icy blue, but they held no malice, only sadness. The banshee waited patiently for me to respond. Despite the chill of the night air, I saw that no mist came from her breath as it did from mine.
“You cannot take my child. I will not let you kill him,” I said, with more courage than I felt. I tightened my fists to quell my trembling.
The banshee blinked slowly, as if considering how to respond.
“You brave girl, nearly everyone professes a deep love for their kin, but you are the first to confront me yourself, to try to snatch back what I am here to take.”
The banshee clasped her hands together as she spoke, as if in prayer.
“Fiona, you need to understand that I do not kill. I am not death. I am only its messenger. I am charged with carrying away a soul. ”
“Take me instead,” I pleaded, dropping to my knees. “Ronan is just an innocent child.”
The banshee shook her head sadly. “Nay, that is not a bargain I can make. Besides, do not be foolish. What kind of life is left for a child without a mother?”
The anger rose in my chest. “What would you know about life? About grief? You are a cowardly witch who steals children in the night!” My index finger stabbed the space between us as I yelled.
“My dear, I know a great deal about grief and what it can do when it consumes you. Many centuries ago, my own child died in my arms. She was just a tiny lass, not yet older than a season.” A single tear rolled down the banshee’s cheek and sparkled like a diamond.
“Time is a thief, and I can no longer remember her sweet face, the touch of her skin, or the sound of her cries. Most likely, this is a mercy. I was destroyed by my grief, and I willfully forfeited my life. This is what I became.” The banshee spread her arms wide so I could see all of her phantom form.
“To the world, the banshee is the embodiment of death, but this is incorrect. My cries are meant to warn people of the inevitable arrival of mortality. In time, death comes for everyone. My wailing reminds people to love their kin, fiercely, whilst they can. T’was a grace I did not receive myself. I had no warning when my baby passed away. I would give anything for just one more moment with her.”
My breath caught in my throat and I knew instantly what my offering must be. I had to speak without hesitation or I would lose my courage. I held my head high and explained my sacrifice to the banshee.
“If you spare my child’s life, I will trade places with you, body and soul. You can be a mother once again and raise Ronan up as your own. I will walk the earth and carry my grief alone, but only if you will love my child and protect him with all your heart.”
The banshee silently considered, and then slowly inclined her head.
“Aye, we are agreed.” She walked up to where I knelt on the ground and placed her palms on the top of my head. She whispered in a voice that sounded like the wind, “Tá sé déanta. It is done.”
In the middle of the night, Declan awoke to the sound of Fiona singing a lullaby to Ronan. The song was beautiful, but haunting; it was a melody he had never heard his wife sing before. She rocked the baby gently in her arms and stroked the hair on the top of his downy head.
“Declan,” whispered Fiona, “The fever has broken, he is well. ‘Tis the most wonderful thing.”
Declan sighed deeply, relief flooding his body. He smiled at Fiona, noticing that her beautiful face had never looked so serene. She leaned down gently to place Ronan, now asleep, back into his small crib. Her flowing hair spilled loose over one shoulder. Declan noticed that her shiny locks looked like ribbons of silver when they caught the moonlight. Out in the distance, in a neighboring village, a wailing sound filled the night. It went unheard by the contented family of three.
Banner Image: Moonlight in trees by Alex Dickson