[Its occurrence] is most strongly associated with the old family or ancestral home and land, even when a family member dies abroad. The cry, linked predominantly to impending death, is said to be experienced by family members, and especially by the local community, rather than the dying person. Death is considered inevitable once the cry is acknowledged.
-A definition of “Banshee”, from Celtic culture : a historical encyclopedia
The morning was hot and sticky. The night before felt even worse. I had been in a foul mood since returning from work the day before, the blistering sun seemingly cooking me along the way. No amount of cool water seemed to quench my thirst and I became all together lethargic. The darkness of night brought no relief to the heat and I slept in a twisted heap of sheets, fans lining the perimeter of my bedroom doing little to cool me down.
I awoke depressed, my restless night bringing only darkened eyes into the new day. I suspect I would have remained in bed if it were not so warm, and it was to my benefit to make my way into the shower, setting the temperature as cold as the handle on the wall would allow.
It was then that I first heard the noise. It came from outside the window up above me, meant as a method to let out the steam from the shower (as if I would ever use the hot water ever again!). I was in the middle of letting the water run across my shoulder when I heard it. At the time, I could barely discern what I was hearing. I could not tell if it was organic in nature, or possibly the sound from some mechanical device. At the very least what I remembered at the time was this; It sounded terribly sad. I remember hearing it for that moment, and in curiosity moving closer to the open window to listen. But as I did the water spurted past me, hitting the bottom of the tub and made all else unrecognizable.
The shower had worked marvelously to improve my attitude on the day. Feeling refreshed I decided to risk the increase in temperature in order to enjoy a warm cup of coffee. It had been a habit of mine for sometime during the morning to either listen to the radio, news, or music as I prepared breakfast. I remember that morning I had chosen to the later of the three, finding a music station of contemporary jazz that seemed to match my improving mood. The music playing, I set the kettle of water to boil and went to fully open the windows in the front room. Outside, the small nook of soil and plants shared by my neighbor was being looked after.
He was an elderly gentleman, kind and soft-spoken. He liked to be called by his first name, Jack. And after a planter of mine had broken nearly a year prior, he had resolved to help me nurse the plants back to health in our small patch of soil.
That morning, Jack was out in force, sporting a bright bandana tied to his brow and colorful gym shorts. We greeted each other with a simple nod and smile as I opened the windows and made my way back into the kitchen. It was in the quick succession of events that I heard the noise for the second time.
Terrible sadness. I thought it to be the low baying of a dog. It was so difficult to discern what I was hearing. Sadness. And beyond that, pain.
Jack took care of his own dog. It belonged to his wife once, an adorable creature, whose tail quite literally was bent like a piece of wire. Its name always seemed to escape me, my memory filled completely by its awkward shape giving the pup an adorable quality that I appreciated each time he was walked passed my door. The sound was not from Jack’s dog. It was too low and seemed to be coming from someplace off in the distance. My assumption was it simply belonged to another. Some poor creature tormented by the rising heat of the morning.
“It will pass,” I said to assure myself.
I continued to make my morning brew, the song on the radio entering another wonderful solo by a trumpeter. Outside I could hear Jack shaking a large bag of pebble rock to cover the soil, the brushing them out into an even surface like you would smooth out the wrinkles on a tablecloth. His morning routine continued as I finally poured the sweet cream into my coffee and sat on the couch in the front room. Along with the window, I had left open the front door, though the screen door remained closed. The last of the cool morning breeze filled the room, and I enjoyed watching the steam rising from the top of my cup.
The howling began yet again. Through the screen door, I could see my little patch of shared soil and plants. Jack was there, looking off down the road at something I could not see. The song on the radio ended and my small apartment became noticeably quiet.
Outside the cries continued, in earnest now. Sadness and pain; a shrill sound.
“What a terrible noise!” I told myself, still somehow content at that time in believing it was something from my natural world.
At that time, my coffee was still sweet and warm. At that time, the morning was brisk and sunny. At that time, I did not know the noise I was hearing was, in fact, the cry of a banshee.
Jack had stood up, fixated on some point off in the distance that I could not see past my front window. He made no effort to look my way, and instead slowly walked back towards his own door. His eyes never faltered from their line of sight. He disappeared from the view of the screen door. I could see his shadow walk past the light in the kitchen. At last, his door shut, and in a sudden chill, I heard him twist the deadbolt too.
The wail came again, sadness and pain. I remind you, up till now I was living in a constant heat. Yet somehow at that moment, with that sound echoing, the air became cold. I stood up, suddenly tense, unnerved by my ignorance to have let the sound continue for so long without giving pause to its source. My coffee was cold in my hands as I walked toward the open front window.
“A dog has been struck by a car,” I told myself.
A tragedy, yet somehow comforting in the fact that it would be a sound explanation to such an unnatural sound. My heart ached for an explanation now, feeling it begin to rapidly beat in fear. I stood up and walked to the screen door.
There was silence.
My curiosity was insatiable.
I opened the door.
Still, there was no sound.
Outside, the ground was warm beneath my bare feet but my neck was pricked with chills. I turned the corner, prepared for the worst.
But out on the road, I saw nothing. No sign of violence or tragedy. Nothing unnatural to fixate my attention on.
My chest was suddenly was gripped tightly in horror as I questioned myself, “What if the sound was not a dog?”
“PAIN! SADNESS! FEAR! DARKNESS!”, suddenly cried the banshee.
(The cry, dear reader, cannot be fully expressed in words. Instead, I have described to you what I heard; emotions in their wildest forms)
The sound! Like a gale of wind that strikes you so violently that you breath is taken out of your lungs. I found myself clutching my chest, instinctively protecting my beating heart.
The road from my home goes up a low hill, the old neighborhood stretching for miles in all surrounding directions. The banshee as best as I could discern, was near the top of the hill, though her voice echoed all around me.
A shadowy figure cowering in terrible sadness. Stooped over, her dark hair covered her face from my view.
“PAIN! OH, PAIN AND SADNESS!”, she continued to wail.
The sound had frozen me in place. I stood there, looking up from my place of vulnerability, exposed. It did not take long before she noticed me.
“pain…“ Her cry was low again as she began to move.
How she did, I do not know. She may have moved upon legs hidden from sight or simply glide like a wisp of smoke. Either way, she headed down the hill, towards me.
“Darkness. Sorrow! ALONE!“ She cried, steadily increasing again in ferocity.
My legs trembled and I wanted to do nothing more than look away from her. To escape from the darkness before me. At that moment I knew her as death, and my heart raced to stay alive.
The bight day seemed to become a sudden shadow as she reached me. I awaited my fate.
“FEAR! FEAR! FEAR! FEAR! FEAR!”
My heart continued to beat, the sound pounding in my ears. The muscle of my life muffling all other noise. I became aware that the banshee had moved passed me. Her wail now quieted by my own body, the rhythm of my heart. She continued to move down the road, stopping to look at the patch of soil with its new cover of pebble rock in front of my home.
In those moments of terror, I somehow missed the presence of the others. Figures of somber nature. They stood close by, though each was careful to never catch the eye of the banshee. They carried with them large cases, their arms filled with jackets and bags. I was frozen to move, and fear I would have remained that way even in the sweltering heat, if the banshee and not been taken away.
A car arrived suddenly, and swiftly the figures began to move. Each deposited their bags into the car, then as cautiously, as they could, moved as one against the banshee. Their arms against hers, she was moved into the car, her focus never leaving the garden. The doors were shut, and the car drove off. Noises of a normal nature suddenly returned in full, and I slipped back into my home as quietly as I could. As I shut the door, I noticed then the newest addition to the small garden that resided between my home and Jack’s. A plant with pale and delicate white flowers. It was jasmine. I knew this not from an extensive knowledge of botany, but from a deeper belief. A belief based on the stories Jack told me about his late wife.
That day I tell you, I encountered an ancient and powerful figure of magic. The banshee’s cry was terrible and unforgettable. A warning I believe, to always appreciate the heat of life (no matter how warm), to stave off the chills of death, or suffer the consequence of embers gone cold.