by Mrellan Harahan
The last echo of the banshee’s wail faded as a raven took wing and flew across the face of the full moon. An old woman’s moon, the country folk called it. They said the full moon was a wise, old woman, and God help the man who laughed at her, for she would curse the rest of his days with misery. They said the next day the neighbors came to check on the old woman and she was not there. They said nobody ever saw the old woman again. For weeks a great raven, so black that it shone blue in the sunlight, sat on the lantern hook by the front door. They said the old woman was a witch and when she died, she turned into that raven. The old Irish folk tales still live, and strange things happened out on the Connemara.
Sure as I know, my Christian name is Margaret Mary, between the howling of the wind of the ocean, on that cold, clear March night, I heard the banshee wail for the first time. Ma’am said I listened to too many stories and believed the silly old songs sung around the fire in the wintertime. Nevertheless, I know what I heard. I would have known even if no one told me. It was a death wail.
Everyone who knew the old woman either feared or cursed her. Heathen was what they called her. She didn’t have a Christian name. Her name came from the old Celts and the fairy folk they said.
Ytha is what she told me to call her that first day I saw her. I was playing hide and seek with the old herding dog down the lane. I climbed the wee stonewall to see where the dog had gone. When I looked up, there she was.
She wasn’t near as tall as ma’am, all bent over with a heavy black shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders. Her black skirt was ratted and ragged at the edges. Her shoes were so old that they were not even black anymore. Her hair was gray and matted like it was rarely brushed. But the thing I really noticed was her eyes. I never saw eyes like that before. They were a ghostly color of white-gray, like no color at all. Ma’am said she was blind. I’ve never been around someone who was blind.
When I came over the wall, she just stood there, about three foot away from me. Her face turned in my direction, but I knew she didn’t see me. Somehow, I knew right away she couldn’t see. Her nose twitched, as a rabbit does when it senses danger. She was leaning on an old tree branch that was almost as twisted and Bent as she was. I froze when I saw her; she was the most fearsome thing I had ever seen. I just knew she was a fairy witch and I was going to get a curse on my head. Her voice sounded like a rusty hinge on the big oak front door.
“Who’s there? Speak up I say, who’s there?
The dog barked. I was so scared. I fell off the wall and landed on a pile at her feet. I picked myself up, fast as I could, and answered her in a squeaky little voice that didn’t even sound like me.
“Tis I, Margaret Mary O’Halloran. I live down the lane, and I was just playing with the dog.
The dog barked again as if confirming what I told the old woman.
“Well, if you must be here, come in and help me make tea. You can slice the brack for me.
I just stood there staring at her. Somehow she knew that.
“What are you looking at child?” she asked in a voice that didn’t seem so raspy now
“They all say you are a fairy witch. Is that true?”
She just snorted as she turned around and started feeling her way back to the cottage. “Believe anything you hear do ya? Don’t be a fool. Let’s get out of this wind before it cuts ya to bits.”
The one-room cottage wasn’t near as big as my ma’am’s kitchen and parlor.
Once whitewashed walls were now gray-streaked from coal and peat that burned continuously in the little hearth at the far end. A hand-made rocking chair sat to one side of the hearth. A little cot, covered with a dingy sheet and coarse wool blanket hugged the wall. Her clothes hung on a roughly carved peg, hammered into the wall above the bed. At the other end of the room was a small sideboard, a table with a plain chair and a three-legged stool. She shuffled around the room putting the teapot on the hook, in the hearth and getting dishes and a loaf of brown raisin brack out of the sideboard.
She picked up a cracked and crazed teapot from the dry sink and threw in a handful of tea, from a box, which had a faded picture of biscuits on it. “Don’t just stand there staring,” she said impatiently. “Slice that brack and spread it with that butter in that tub.”
I couldn’t get over the fact that although she was stone blind, she knew my every move, even when I was just standing and staring. The kettle over the fire began steaming, and she took the edge of her skirt and fetched it off the hook.
The smell of tea and peat filled the room as she sat in her rocking chair, she munched on the brack and took great slurps of the strong, black tea. A shaft of sunlight streaked across the room from one of the two windows. I watched hen feathers zigzag down from the roosting basket hanging in the rafters as I chewed the dry brack. Maam would have thrown it out to the pigs rather than giving it to us. Even the raisins were tough and hard. The tea tasted strong and bitter, and I wished I had some milk in it. I was too scared to ask the old woman for milk, or sugar either, and she didn’t offer. Maybe she was too poor to have any long twisted strands, I thought.
It seemed she had forgotten I was even there as she stared into the fire with those horrible unseeing eyes. I wished I could leave, but I didn’t know how to do it and be polite. Suddenly she coughed; it was a great, loud, wet noise. She brushed long twisted strands of hair away from her face and turned to me. “Be a love and pour me some more tea, child. These old bones pain me terribly every time I stand.”
I jumped up, and my foot caught the edge of the chair and tipped it over.
“You sure are a clumsy child. Just like a calf who aren’t used to being in a stall. See if you can pour that tea without breaking the pot.” She grumbled at me, but I could see just a hint of a smile around the edges of her mouth.
“Yes ma’am,” I said, being very careful as I poured the tea. Her hand brushed against mine as she took the cup back. It felt cold and rough. I reached into the old wooden box by the chair to get turf for the fire, but the box was empty.
“Would you like me to bring in some turves for you? The box is empty, and the coal bucket is almost empty.”
Yellow, broken teeth showed through the smile that was higher on one side of her face. “Bless you, child, I would like that. It is so cold, the wind makes even this ugly old face hurt.”
It took several trips, but I filled the box with turves. By the time the coal bucket was full, the sun was already sinking back into the choppy gray waters of the Atlantic. The stone fences in the field between the cottage and the bay cast black shadows that crisscrossed like giant tic-tac-toe games.
“I guess I best get headed for home before my Maam starts worrying about me. Thanks for the tea and brack,” I said with my best Sunday manners. She didn’t hear me though. Her head drooped between her hunched shoulders, and the rhythmic sound of her weasy breath told me she was asleep.
The next day was Sunday. After Mass, we all piled into Da’s little car and went to Gran’s for dinner. It was dark when we came home. Da had to drive by the old thatch to get to our place, and I saw the fire light dimly shining from the window. When I said my prayers that night, I silently asked God to take care of the old lady, even if she was a witch. I was sure that God loved witches as much as he loves good Catholic girls.
Monday after school I ran all the way home, changed out of my uniform before ma’am told me to, and fed the chickens.
“Maam, I did my chores. Can I go play now?” I yelled through the open door.
“Margaret Mary, what has gotten into you today? Are you sure you’re done? It usually takes twice this long to do your chores.”
“I’m all done Maam. Can I go play now?” I said impatiently, wanting to be off across the rocky field.
‘All right, but be home before dusk. There is a storm brewing, and I don’t want you out in it. And don’t forget your cap and scarf.”
I could see smoke curling out of the chimney when I climbed over the stonewall. I stepped over a skinny, orange tomcat and knocked on the door.
The old woman opened the door with one hand and grabbed her shawl around her with the other. “Who is it?” she crackled, “and what do you want?”
I wondered what had possessed me to want to see her, “Tis Margaret Mary. I came to see how you are.”
“Tis more likely you came to eat the rest of my brack! she said. “Come in if you must, but I’ve already had my tea, and the cat ate the last crumbs of brack. It was stale anyway.”
She shuffled over to her chair and fell into it with a grunt.
“Throw a handful of coal on the fire and pull up that stool. No sense in being cold when I pay that outrageous price for coal.”
She just sat in her chair and rocked for the longest time, her face turned to the hearth to get every bit of warmth the coal would give.
‘So why did you come?” Children are usually afraid of me and stay away. I think you are too, but you came anyway. Why. What do you want of me?”
“I don’t know,” I said, afraid to lie. I knew if I lied, she would know. Maam always did. I swallowed hard and went on. “I don’t believe you are a mean, old witch. I came to see how you are and to talk to you, I guess.”
“I’m a blind old woman, the cold makes my bones hurt, and the smoke from the coal makes it hard to breathe. I feel terrible, and I am miserable! Even the cat would rather be outside than sit in my lap these days. So if that is all you wanted to know maybe you should just go home.” Her shaking hands rearranged her shawl. A grimace crossed her face as if even this small motion caused her pain.
I didn’t move, mainly because of fear, I guess, but something inside me said, she’s just a sad old woman. My heart reached out to her. Her next words scared me, and I jumped.
“Don’t feel sorry for me, you foolish girl! If you really do care, fill that turf box, so that I don’t have to.” Her voice softened a little.
I filled the box and checked the coal bucket, and then sat back down on the three-legged stool, and tucked my feet under it. Resting my chin on my upturned hands, I stared into the fire.
“Fires have great magic, you know,” said the old woman. This time it did not scare me that she could read my thoughts.
“When I could see, that was one of the things I loved most to watch. I still love to watch the flames, but now I have to look with my heart.”
I could see the reflection of the flames on her face and I understood what she was saying.
I stared into the flame. “What is so magical about a fire?” I asked, not really believing her, but hoping that she was right.
“No magic is going to work unless you believe in it,” said Ytha. “The first rule of magic is: magic is only as powerful as you believe it is. But then you are a good Catholic girl, so you don’t believe anything I say anyway.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I changed the subject, “Have you always lived here?”
“No, not always,” she said. Her hands relaxed in her lap and the tension left her face. “I once lived in town. That was back in the days when they believed I was useful. Back before I got old, and the children called me a witch. People respected me then. I was the town midwife.”
Her voice had that far away sound that all grown-ups get when they talk about the old days. As she stared unseeing into the flames, her voice lowered almost to a whisper. I scooted my stool closer to hear the old woman’s tale.
‘Back then, I birthed most of the babies here about. I had a little carriage and a sturdy gray poney, and I even went out into the wilds of the Connemara. Once I was called to birth a baby not too far from her. I had been to that house three times before but still there had never been a bairn in the crib by the fire. Always, the babies died in a few hours after birthin’. The young couple seemed so loving and kind. I wondered what they did to displease the gods so.
I wanted to cry when that bairn came out. That child too had the curse upon it. The mother knew as soon as she held her. She was so tiny and fragile. Her lips were the blue of a baby bewitched with the chill of the soul. It broke my heart to see the tears run down the mother’s face and she begged me to do something for the child.
That evening when I was sitting by my fire, I heard a wee voice singing. Right out of the flames, stepped a fairy. He wasn’t much taller than that stool you’re sitting on. He was dressed in a fine brown suit with a belt of gold holding the jacket closed. A matching cock hat tipped to one side over his ear, and he had bright gold buckles on his shoes. He just stood on the hearth just looking at me for the longest time. When he spoke, he said he knew about the baby I birthed that day. Now I know that a fairy never does nothing without getting paid for it.
“What is your price sir?” I asked.
‘I ask only the usual payment,” he replied, with a self-satisfied smirk. “I must have the bairn to raise as my own. You will tell the parents that the child is dead.”
I told him no. I told him how the parents already lost three babies, and I feared that the young mother’s heart could not bear the loss of another. The fairy just looked at me and kept smiling. “Would you be willing to pay the ransom for the child?”
“Ask what you will, and I will consider it. I say.”
The fairy tapped his foot and scratched his head for a minute, and then he says, “I will give you the child’s life if you give me your eye-sight.”
Now that shocked me so much I didn’t know what to say. “You have one day to think about it,” he said. “I will be back tomorrow night for your answer. “ With that, he jumped into the air and disappeared.
The next day I visited the mother and child. The child was worse. She quaked as if her very soul was frozen, and her breath came in little gasps. She would not nurse, and she was even too weak to cry. Her mother held her in one arm and counted the beads of a rosary with the other. I knew her prayers would not work.
That night I told the fairy I would accept his offer. “you would do that for someone who isn’t even kin?” he asked in amazement. “Why?”
“Because I know the heartbreak of never having a child,” I told him.
‘Yes, so do I,” he said. “All the women in my clan are barren. There have been no babies for many years. That is why I wanted this one. It is fairy law that I give you a chance to bargain. I will accept your eyesight as a ransom for the child. You will not go blind until one year from this day. On that night I will visit you and take you sight.” Then he disappeared.
The child, of course, lived and grew to be a healthy and beautiful girl. Her parents worshipped her, and she was the joy of their life.
A few months later, I moved into this cottage. The fairy returned as he promised, but before he took my sight, he told me that his clan had been so impressed with my love that they had offered to help me by teaching me the herb craft and helping me begin my garden. That garden served me well for many years. They must have put an enchantment on it because the plants grew and bloomed all year round. Even at Christmas, I could pick fresh dill, rosemary, thyme, and mint. Folks thought I grew my plants inside, but I never did.
For some years, I would load up my buggy every Saturday, hitch up the pony, go into the town market, and sell my wares.I always carried my medicine box and put it under the counter of my booth. It contained the special herbs and potions that the wee folk taught me to make for ailing children. I gave mothers with babes a lot of croup tea in those days.
Then one Saturday, in the spring, I was coming home, and I heard some young boys yelling and calling me names. They threw stones at the pony and me. The pony panicked and ran into the ditch. It broke its leg, and the cart turned over on me. Your own Da found me and brought me home. I was hurt bad, and what with arthritis I never got out again. How was I to go out? My pony was shot, and the cart was in bits.
For these past few years, the wee folk is the only ones who cared for or visited me. Even the tinkers stay away from my door. That is ‘til you and that infernal dog decided to climb my fence.’
The old woman sighed deeply, wrapped her knurled fingers around the arms of her chair, and forced herself to her feet. “It must be getting on toward dark now. You better get home before your Maam starts worrying about you,” she said, Bending to put more coal on the little fire grate. “Tomorrow I’m making fresh brack, so I suppose you’ll want to come and get your share.”
“Thank you, Maam. I’ll come if I can,” I wrapped my scarf around my neck and pulled the wool cap down over my ears. I could hear the wind whistling threw the little stonewall across the field, even before I opened the door.
The next day Maam had company for tea and she hardly even noticed when I asked to go outside. She only repeated her instruction that I wear my cap and scarf.
I could smell the freshly baked brack as I knocked on the old woman’s door. She opened the door with a big grin on her haggard old face. “Ah, sure as flowers bloom in the spring, I knew you couldn’t resist the smell of sweet bread cooking. Come in, come in, child.”
That afternoon, as we sipped tea and ate the bread, she told me more stories about how she had delivered most of the babies in County Galway.
My Da is from a family of ten children. Old Ytha had brought most of them into the world. She told me people paid her with jars of jam and pots of thick, brown stew. I loved to sit by the fire and listen to her stories, but she always seemed to know when it was nigh on to sunset, and she would chase me out the door just before the first stars appeared.
For the rest of that winter, I went down to old Ytha’s cottage every chance I got. One afternoon, a week after Patty’s Day, I climbed over the wall and didn’t see any smoke coming from her chimney. I thought that was strange because it was still cold enough for me to wear my heavy jacket outside. I knocked on her door and heard no answer. I got scared that something had happened to the old woman. I ran all the way back to my mama’s kitchen.
“Maam, you have to help me,” I said between gasps of air. “The old woman down the way, Ytha, she won’t answer her door, and there’s no smoke coming out of her chimney. Maam, she must be sick or hurt! We have to find out.”
“Calm down, child. When your Da comes home, I’ll have him go check on her. Now hang your coat on the peg and set the table for me.” She calmly went about fixing the dinner without another word about the matter.
I knew not to argue with her. Da always says Ma’am is the stubbornist woman he ever knew.
Soon as Da’s car pulled up in the driveway, I shot out the front door to tell him.
“Well now what is all this fuss,” he asked, holding out his arms to catch me and give me a hug.
‘Da, I think old Ytha is sick or hurt. She won’t answer her door, and there’s no smoke from her chimney. Maam says you would go down and see. Can I come with you Da? She is my friend.”
“Now, now,” he said, opening the front door and motioning me to go in first. “Let me kiss your Maam before I have her mad at me. I’ll go down and check on Ytha, but I think you should stay here and help your mama get dinner ready.”
It seemed as if Da was gone a very long time and when he came through the back door, his face was real serious, like when his sister got hurt in a motor accident. He didn’t say anything to either Maam or me. He just walked over to the phone and dialed a number.
“Dr. O’Flaherty, this is Ullick O’Halloran, out at Boley Beg. Could you come out and look at Ytha-the old woman who lives down the lane from me. She appears to be pretty ill.”
A little while later, the doctor’s black Rover pulled through our gate and parked behind Da’s car.
“You stay here, Margaret Mary, give the doctor a chance to examine the old woman.” I watched the light from their torches bob up and down as they crossed the field with its great ghostly rocks and shadowy fences. I crossed myself and silently asked God to make Ytha better.
They didn’t come back until I took my bath and put on my fuzzy, flannel nightdress. Maam said I could sit in the parlor and wait for Da and Dr. O’Flaherty. When Da came back, Maam met him at the door, and I could hear them talking low, in the entry. Like they didn’t want me to hear what they were saying. Da came into the parlor, sat down beside me, and put his arm around me. “Margaret Mary, Ytha is very, very sick. The doctor says she may not live much longer.”
I felt the tears burn in my eyes and roll down my cheeks. “Oh, Da!” was all I could say. He hugged me while I cried for the strange old woman. After a few minutes, he wiped my tears with his handkerchief and told me I could go see her after school the next day.
I ran all the way home from school and Maam met me at the door. She already had her coat on, and she held a soup pot wrapped in a towel. “I’m taking this soup down to Ytha. Please get the loaf of bread from the kitchen counter.”
The old woman looked so pale lying on her cot. More like a shadow than the feisty old lady who somehow knew what I was doing whenever I was in her cottage. I sat on the edge of her bed, my fingers playing with the hem of her blanket.
“Quit fidgeting child,” said the old woman, in a weak voice that didn’t even try to sound mean. “And stop those tears. Death ain’t nothing to cry about. It’s as natural as birthin’, I don’t know why they cry at death. Death is better than life for me now. I have lived a long life, and now I will soon be under the hill with the fairies. Be happy for my child. I will once again see the moon and dance by the bonfire.”
I sniffed and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “But I won’t see you anymore, and I will miss you terribly.”
Her shriveled hand reached from under the covers and found mine. She squeezed it, and her voice lowered to a soft murmur. I Bent down to hear her, “When you see the Raven, smile, for ‘tis an enchantment by the wee folk, and know that it is a friend.”
Maam shooed me out of the cottage. She said Ytha needed her peace. Before I left, I Bent down and kissed the old woman’s cheek, knowing that I would never see her again.
Later that evening when Maam put our dinner on the table, I saw a tear run down her cheek. “Maam, why are you crying?” I asked.
She turned away and stood at the sink looking out toward the old woman’s cottage. “Ytha was a midwife. My mama always swore, if it had not been for Ytha I would have died. The old folks say that I was born with the chill of the soul. I couldn’t breathe or keep my body warm. My Maam lost three children before I was born and another one after me. Everyone swore that it was old Ytha and her potions that kept me alive.”
During the middle of that night, I woke to the sound of the banshee’s wail. I sat straight up in my bed and wrapped my blanket around my arms. The full moon shone threw my window. As I sat there, thinking about Ytha, I saw the raven fly across the moon. I smiled, crossed myself, and thanked God for Ytha. Then I snuggled down in my comforter and went back to sleep.
The Inspiration that led to Little Gems
LITTLE GEMS is a collection of short stories that have been inspired by Ray’s involvement with The Story Mint, a New Zealand writing organization for aspiring writers that boasts a worldwide membership. Ray was instrumental in helping to start The Story Mint’s unique serial writing project. These serials, each written by ten separate authors from across the globe, have become popular and have helped new and experienced writers showcase their work.
Several stories in LITTLE GEMS first appeared as “One Author” serials written by Ray Stone for The Story Mint.