Dan Flattery is a writer and musician from rural Ireland. He has inadvertently collected material working as a farmhand, school librarian, life model, cleaner, bar tender, kitchen porter, and music teacher. He has recently completed five years of work as a researcher on Jim Sheridan’s Murder at the Cottage (Sky).
The doctor had been frank. It wasn’t up for debate. He’d said ‘John Joe, if you don’t quit the drink immediately, you’ll be dead by July.’ I asked him was he quite positive. He was. I asked when I’d have to quit to make it to September, so I could at least catch Galway in the hurling final. He said he didn’t know.
‘You’re just going to have to pack it in’. I breathed into my hand and took a sniff. The whiff of dust and eggs. He scribbled on his clipboard and said, ‘You’re not a young man anymore, John Joe’, which struck me as uninspired, coming from a medical professional. I slapped the sixty-euro on his desk and left, wondering how I’d afford a second opinion.
The following afternoon I gathered together all the bottles in the house and poured them out in the garden. I thought this way I’d avoid smelling up the kitchen and kill some slugs in the process. Each bottle took an age to glug out over the turnips and Brussels sprouts. Too cruel a fate for the twelve-year-old single malt Tullamore Dew. I hurled it over the fence, into the overgrown field behind the house, where the gorse cushioned its fall.
On Monday I drove the library van onto the ferry to the small island. I’d felt nauseous all morning, but the waves didn’t worsen the effect, so I walked out onto the deck and turned to the approaching island. The first thing you could make out was the castle on the hill, then the church and the graveyard. I knew my eyesight was getting worse because the length of time between some tourist yelling out the name of the thing and my spotting it was forever increasing. I turned away when the tall scaffolding surrounding the soon-to-be new library hub came into view. Tanned hands covered the eyes of well dressed children as my breakfast merged with the Atlantic.
Driving around the island made the stomach worse again. I made stops at most of the houses, knew all of the locals by name. Knew their tastes. If they hadn’t specified a title, I had to select something for them. The elderly women were mad for crime novels. The more brutal, the better. ‘Not much murderin’ in that last one, now’, was a severe reprimand. I didn’t understand it. There wasn’t a single Garda car on the island. They might as well have been reading science fiction.
Back home, I watched Kerry dismantling Tyrone in the football. After that, Waterworld was on RTE 2. This wasn’t the original plan. There was paperwork to do and I’d promised to call my daughter before she put the kids to bed. However, I’d arrived home late after getting stuck behind one of the donkeys that roamed the island. There were also the cravings. I suspected that if I got up, I’d start searching the cupboards for drink, and there was none. So I was staying put.
The first thing I noticed was the diminishing volume of the television. I made to reach for the remote, but my hand wouldn’t move. Then the ball ceased to be a ball and became a white line, tracing endlessly across the screen, colouring in. It started colouring outside the screen as well. A severe queasiness struck me in the stomach. It took me a minute to notice the sound that had entered the room.
It lingered there, the room was filled with it, and yet it was obvious that it flowed from a point above the sofa. Feminine and guttural, it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. One syllable, with intricate contours; scenes were engraved in it.
It was a set of child-sized teeth marks in a blighted vegetable.
A strand of pale hair burrowing into a moth-eaten carpet.
The flight of the buckle and the buckling knee.
The festive bloom of an unforgiving microbe.
Only when I felt the draught on my face did I notice I’d fallen from the armchair. The feeling was slow to return to my limbs. I threw on my coat to go out into the night, and found the front door already open. When the sun started to rise, I poured what was left of the Tullamore Dew down the toilet, splashing some on my hands to disinfect the gashes I’d received fishing it from the thicket. I’d never been religious, but I picked up a set of Rosary beads in the VDP that morning. I hoped their discount status wouldn’t affect whatever power they might have to still the feral voice that had spoken to me.
* * *
A week later, I parked at the primary school and sat on the low stone wall outside. I looked out across the network of walls marking the boundaries of fields that covered the island like a patchwork quilt. There was time for things like this at the school. Only six children attended it, and none of them readers. No cement held the stones together, just the weight of those above. I noticed that where the walls had collapsed, they’d been replaced with wire fencing. A black van meandered across the hillside below. The orange logo grinned at me. I knew the sound was coming before I heard it, and threaded my fingers through the Rosary beads.
It was a cable-knit jumper floating in a rock pool.
The slim, beige, perfumed panel that hides the mouth of the rank basement.
The rider of an off-white mule who says,
‘If you don’t know me by my mount,
You’ll know me by its tracks.’
When I opened my eyes I was on the grass. Across the road, my daughter stood watching. When I sat up and waved, she nodded and walked on. I saw her making the sign of the cross as she went. I wanted to tell her I hadn’t drank for a week, but it wasn’t my daughter.
There were very few people in Tigh Rian when I arrived. My vision was still blurry after the fall, but I could make out Pol O’Ceallaigh and Barry O’Suilleabhain playing cards with some American tourists. Odhran Milligan hunched over a pint at the bar. Rian poured me a whiskey and a pint of black and I felt my faculties returning.
The only sound in the place was shouting over the card game. The lads had clearly been on it for a while, and the tourists looked shook. I knew their families, and had the honour of delivering the O’Ceallaighs the island’s first books on the psychology of problem children. When the tourists made their excuses, Barry called over to me.
‘Well, John Joe. How are you keeping? You look like shite. Come over here and warm yourself’.
The fire looked good. I bought a round, then Barry did. Before I knew it, I was describing the sound.
‘So you’ve been hearing wailing and seeing strange women? Not to worry. I nearly shrieked, myself, at the sight of you.’
‘Don’t mind him. He knows as well as I do what you heard’, said Pol, elbowing his friend. ‘The banshee, obviously. Do they teach ye nothing in the Pale?’
‘Yes’, I forced a smile, ‘but they’ve updated the curriculum, since the seventeenth century’. I wasn’t going to tell them that I had put the same name to the voice.
‘World’s not updating, John Joe’, said Barry, ‘Just look at Odhran there’.
‘Would you shut your mouth?’ slurred a voice from the bar. The lads’ laughter wasn’t returned.
‘Watch yourselves, you pair of eejits’, I told them.
‘Your surname’s O’Hara, isn’t it?’ Pol ignored me.
‘As well you know’.
‘That’d tell you. Banshees only call to the old Irish families, the O’s and Macs’.
‘And the Fitzgeralds’, added Barry.
‘The Fitzgeralds as well’, agreed Pol.
‘And my granny heard one’, said Barry, ‘and her maiden name’s Walsh’.
‘An anomaly’, Pol shook his head, ‘like your man there’.
‘Be ag ciuin, a amadan!’ came Odhran again, more sharply this time. They ignored him.
‘I’m sorry to tell you’, said Pol, ‘that she only calls to families where someone’s circling the drain. The banshee, that is, not Barry’s grandmother’.
‘Though she does that as well’.
‘You two are out of your minds’, I said, wondering how visible was the sweat on my brow.
‘You’re not in Dublin any more’, said Pol, matter-of-factly. ‘Slow down on that pint there’.
‘Sure, when we were kids’, said Barry, ‘we weren’t allowed down to the handball alley after dark, because the fairies would get you. You’d disappear for a few hours and come back a changeling.’
‘Some did come back different’, muttered Pol.
‘If they came back’, said Barry. ‘They found one child dead on the beach, stripped from the waist down. The fairies at it again, so we were told’.
‘And isn’t it a wonder’, smirked Pol, ‘with Father McGettigan presiding over those handball matches, imbued, as they say, with the power of Christ, that he couldn’t give those fairies a run for their money’.
‘Theirs is an older power’, said Barry with a wink. ‘Sure, Milligan, would you happen to know anything about that? Isn’t your name ‘little, pale green one’, as Gaeilge? Perhaps you’re a changeling too’.
Odhran’s broad back rose from the stool and in two steps he was in Barry’s face. During the argument that followed, the table was knocked and my pint hit the floor, shattering into a glittering black pool. When Rian managed to get Odhran to leave and Pol went to replace my pint, the only sound in the place was the slow drip of the spilled drink down into the cavity beneath the floorboards.
* * *
I woke to the sound of chickens and a thumping in my head. Tigh Rian’s car park lay in the dark behind the van’s frosted windows. The last ferry had left without me. At the library terminal, they’d be wondering where the van was. I pulled my coat tight around me and couldn’t tell if my fingers shook from cold or fear as I typed the PIN into the dying android. It was half four in the morning and there were voice messages from my manager, Carol, and from my daughter.
I listened while inspecting the van. The chickens had shit all over the roof. It was frozen in place, bioluminescent in the moonlight. I’d have to clean it. I expected Carol to ask after the van, but she didn’t seem to have noticed it was missing.
‘Hi John Joe, I hope you’re well. I’m sure you’ll know that the opening ceremony for the new branch is Friday week. Now, Charlie and I agree that it would be really lovely, fitting, really, if you would cut the ribbon and say a few words. Changing of the guard and all that. Let me know what you think. Also, on that topic, when is good for a wee chat about your plans?’
Maybe I’d leave the roof as it was. I hung up before my daughter’s message was played. Still too pissed for that. It was then that I noticed I couldn’t feel my feet.
Back in the van, I removed boots and socks to discover that my toes were purple and swollen as overripe tubers. I prodded one and felt nothing. Like touching the foot of a corpse. The engine wouldn’t start, so I limped over to Tigh Rian’s and began hammering on the door. After five minutes and no response, I started walking to the house of the island’s nurse, the phone’s meagre torch guiding the way. It was a bit of a distance and there were no houses between there and the pub. No street lamps. Unable to feel my feet on the rough ground, I lost my balance and careened into one of the walls that lined the path. The phone hit a rock and its light died. I checked the screen. Totally fucked. I could feel blood on my knees, but couldn’t see it in the dark. Standing again, I stumbled on. My eyes adjusted and I could see the little shop above which the nurse lived, the lone streetlamp, something moving beneath it. I fell again and something broke. Not the phone. As I lay there, a horned silhouette began to advance up the path towards me. The banshee’s cloven hooves beat a marching rhythm on the tired soil. I pleaded with her. With dignity at first, and then with bitter sobs echoed back to me by the hillside.
‘Demon, there’s nothing left in me for you to take. A friend of yours beat you to it. By a long stretch, the fucker. I hope you got him as well.’
She was close enough now that I could see her breath. I dug out the Rosary beads and flung them. A miracle. They went around the thing’s neck. No miracle. She drifted onwards, wearing the beads as proudly as a child on the day of their first Communion.
I braced myself as the stray donkey ambled past. It studiously avoided eye contact, like you might with a mad person on a bus. The sound of hooves receded into the dim.
The fucking ears, I thought. Half risen, my heart sank as I spotted another figure climbing the path towards me. A woman this time, wearing a long shawl. I held my hands out to protect myself as she let out a shriek that rent the night.
‘John Joe, is that you?’, cried the nurse, turning the torch on me. ‘You gobshite. What on earth are you doing out here? You’re after waking up the whole house with your racket’.
I woke in the sickbed in the late afternoon. The nurse had made me a fry. My toes would be alright, she said, but the rib would take longer to heal. Unable to stop myself, I told her about the banshee, about the sound it had made, about losing consciousness. Then she asked me about my drinking and I told her about that too. Delirium Tremens, she said. She told me that going cold turkey can cause an alcoholic to have seizures. Apparently, hallucinations sometimes accompanied these fits. According to her, what I’d been hearing were my own involuntary moans.
‘Not an omen of death, then?’ I asked her.
‘Depends on how you look at it’, she said. I was wondering what the nurse meant when her youngest son ran into the room. ‘Ma’, he said, ‘No mass tonight. Father McGettigan’s dead’.
* * *
I don’t think anyone ever got the full story about what happened to the priest. Least of all me, who the Gardaí were so eager to speak to, given my disorderly state that night. Luckily some early rising farmer had seen a light go on in the house around five, after I’d been put to bed. Rumour had it that the post mortem was delayed for so long that they had no choice but to call it a heart attack. A broken window was attributed to strong winds that night. Of course, what the locals were most interested in was the donkey turning up with a rosary on its neck the following day. People thought that was very significant for some reason. The Vatican, it was said, was preparing a statement.
I walked up to the parochial house on my last shift, because I’d never taken a good look at the place. I’d seen the priest in the pub from time to time and he’d always said that there was only one book he needed. The stone wall surrounding the two-storey had deteriorated in places, and been replaced by a barbed wire fence that was almost submerged by the long grass. I skirted this perimeter and took the place in. It was the largest house on the island, rivalled only by the ruined fort. One of the walls at the back had been chalked up like a Gaelic handball court. A woman’s face peered back at me through one of the windows, before I realised it was my reflection, distorted by the blown glass. I wandered down to Tigh Rian’s after that. The two lads were there, but not Odhran. He hadn’t been seen around for a few days. I drank half of my pint and left for the boat. From the ferry, I could see the ribbon-cutting ceremony in full swing.