4 min read
Laura L Zimmerman
Jagged Irish wind torments the front door as my family settles into our morning meal. The bruised table Father made from the old maple tree that died before I was born holds cold porridge and day-old rye bread.
Ma sits in the corner with her darning, a shawl over her shoulders. Nana stirs the cast iron pot hanging over the fire.
My twin sister, Ciara, jumps beside me, grasping my forearm. Despite our fourteen years, she’s the shorter of the two of us, her feet barely touching the hard earth beneath the bench where we sit.
The front door bursts open. Father presses his thick shoulder to shut it, fighting against the wicked wind. He pulls the woolen hat from his head, catching his breath.
He rubs his hands together, blowing hot hair into them, then tosses his hat to the side, stomping his muddy booted feet as he walks over to find a seat across from me. “Our luck has changed! Neighbor Jack gifted us coffee.” He sets the small canister on the table.
Nana gasps, her pale blue eyes fastened on him. “So expensive! How can he afford it?” But before he can answer she chides him further. “Won’t you clean yourself, after feeding the pigs? And the floor…you’ve muddied it already, and it’s barely past dawn.”
Father grunts a laugh but it fades quickly as he glances at Ma. “I have news from town.”
My ma lowers her darning. “Did James drop the vegetables he owes us? We won’t last much longer—”
He taps his fingers on the worn wooden table. “Father Finley passed last night. He’d just finished locking the chapel up after Mass. It appears his heart stopped suddenly.”
“No!” The word sneaks from my mouth before I can stop it.
He was my favorite clergyman to dance with at the Mayflower celebrations in springtime. And so young!
Ma’s lips press flat.
Nana pats my hand. “Oh, Alana. I’m so sorry.” She turns to Father. “‘Tis the third this week, John. What can this mean?”
He nods somberly. “It’s also the third time the cry of a bean sídhe has been heard.”
I gulp. “The banshee?”
Ma catches my eye. I look down at my lap, my heartbeat racing away.
Interrupting their conversation could earn me a whack over my knuckles with a wooden spoon if I’m not careful.
“Why should that matter?” Ciara asks, clearly not worried about punishment. “The bean sídhe always calls to those who are to pass into the next life. There is no way to stop death.”
Nana sinks into the chair. “Not always.”
My lower lip trembles as I say, “Do you mean there’s a way to stop death? Or do you mean the bean sídhe chooses who will die?”
Father stops chewing.
“The latter.” Nana pulls in a shaky breath. “The bean sídhe—a true weeping woman—is a ghost. One already passed from this life but destined to remain among the living, predicting the death of others.” She pauses, her gaze bouncing from Ma back to Ciara and me. “There are, however, mortals that possess the same abilities. A banshee witch.”
“Like us?” I ask.
The women of my family have passed down the secrets of our witch's blood for generations. But we’ve never used them for harm. We’ve always used our magic for good, to help the community in which we live.
Ciara’s eyes go as wide as mine feel.
We would never cause harm to another. So who among our clan could it be?
Nana shakes her head. “Some believe there are witches who use spells to become a bean sídhe just for a few moments, to take the souls of others for their spells.”
“But why?” I frown.
Nana and Ma make eye contact.
Ma puts her darning down. “Enough. You’ll scare the girls.”
“But Ma,” Ciara begs.
“Time for chores, both of you.” She points toward our bed chambers. “Father and I must figure out a way to put food on the table for the ‘morrow.”
We scuttle to follow orders before my father raises a hand to make us obey.
Once we’re out of earshot, Ciara whispers into my ear. “I have an idea. If this is a banshee witch, I know how to stop her.”
I swallow. “How?”
“Shhh.” She glances over her shoulder. “We’ll go at the witching hour. I know where Ma hides the Book.”
The Book. The Book of Spells.
I nod. “If this is a banshee witch who seeks harm, we must stop her before someone else dies.”
Ciara dips her chin in agreement and we part to begin our daily chores.
The moon is full by the time my twin and I sneak out of the house late that night. Our family heirloom is tucked under her arm, a book of spells from which we’ve only just begun to learn through Nana.
I shiver as we trek across the gravel path. Despite the layers of clothing I’ve wrapped myself in, nothing can keep the winter frost from permeating my skin.
“Where are we going?” My breath comes in puffs.
“Brier Hill. It's the tallest of the hills that overlook the town. We’ll be able to spot the banshee witch from wherever she might appear.”
I swallow. It makes sense.
So why does my heart patter like the frantic gallop of a horse?
We keep silent as we run. The world around us is just as quiet.
Not an animal cries nor human murmurs as we move. A scent of smoke and oak lingers in the air, making my mouth water, my thoughts on the brown bread Nana bakes over the open fire on holidays. When we have the money.
The muscles in my legs complain as we traverse the sharp incline that will put us at the top of the hill. Twice my animal-hide shoes lose traction, sending me skidding on my knees down the path until I regain control.
Once we’ve found a spot nestled among some bushes, we squat into a ball, trapping our body heat and giving our legs a rest.
“What now?” I ask.
Ciara opens the book. “I already looked at the spell we need. The only way to stop a banshee witch from impersonating a bean sídhe is to do a counter spell at the same time she cries out. This will trap her voice, making her mute for life.”
“But a mute witch is cursed. We must keep ourselves a secret from the townsfolk as it is. And we mean no harm. Surely they will burn whoever has done this at the stake once she loses her voice, for they will know for sure she is a witch.”
Ciara nods. “It’s a consequence we’ll have to make. We can’t have an evil witch using the souls of our people for her spells. Not when there are those of us trying to do good in the world.”
I exhale, a white cloud puffing around me.
Movement out of the corner of my eye catches my attention. “There.” My voice is barely audible.
A few meters to our left stands a woman. It’s difficult to make out who it is by the moonlight but it’s clear she’s in the process of performing a spell. Her arms move in a fluid motion.
“Hurry!” Ciara grabs my hands in hers.
Together we begin to chant the words on the page of the book that lies open at our feet. Once I have them memorized I close my eyes to concentrate harder. Over and over we say the words, passion filling our intention.
The woman releases a guttural cry.
I open my eyes, still holding Ciara’s hands.
The banshee witch grabs at her throat as if she’s choking.
“It worked!” Ciara whispers. “The witch is mute. Now we’ll know who among our clan has performed these atrocities.”
At that moment the moonlight shifts just slightly, casting the strongest of light on the banshee witch.
I drop my sister’s hands, my own coming to cover my mouth in horror. “Ciara!” With trembling fingers, I point at the woman.
The muted witch is Ma.