Fiction, Uncategorized

Baintsí by Madeleine Milligan (Lucent Dreaming Issue 4)

Tadhg dropped to his knees, holding fast to the bundle in his arms. The tide slowly approached in glowing shades of burnt orange under the evening sun. He sat cross-legged on the sand, ignoring the moisture seeping through the seat of his trousers, and looked down at his daughter. Her eyelids, red and swollen yet void of tears, were closed forever. Her lips, white as her cheeks, were parted in slumber. He watched her nostrils twitch in time to her dreams and found that he also had no tears left. Her thin face and body were finally calm, as if she knew that things would soon be better.

Bébhinn’s calm washed over him before the waves had even reached them.

1

Coughing as the fumes itched at the back of his throat, Tadhg sunk his hands deep to the elbow in the green water. His eyes burned and hot tears dripped off his chin. This is how my Eistir did it, I’m sure.

He thought back to the fever that struck him down the winter before and remembered her standing at the very same pot, red hair turning dark against her sweating forehead. After steeping the mint to a thick paste, she’d held his face over the rising steam. “Lie back, my love,” she’d said as she spooned portions of the mixture into squares of muslin and delicately washed his back and chest with them. “You poor lamb.”

This time, Tadhg leant his face away from the heat. It was intoxicating, thickening the air in the room and scorching his senses. He cast his eyes towards the bundle in the corner, no sign of movement atop the bed of rushes. Every now and again a snuffle or mew would break through the crackling of the fire, but not a foot was thrust out of place. With a shiver, Tadhg returned his attention to the wooden spoon beside the pot. He worked wide circles in the murky water, careful not to let a single drop of his sweat land in the pot – for he was sure it would affect the Healing.

When the fire eventually dwindled, he took a spoonful of the wilted leaves to his mouth and chewed through the scorch, pressing his knuckles into his eyes as the liquid trickled down his throat. He tried to ignore the cold heat in his nose. When the mint was sufficiently ground into mulch, he knelt beside the rushes and pulled back the cloth.

Bébhinn lay perfectly still and white as a cloud on a breezeless day. Her thin hair was the fiery red of her mother’s but shone stark against her complexion. Not a single freckle tarnished this canvas. Her little mouth opened slightly, lips as pale as chalk. Tadhg resisted the urge to cover her back over, fearing the very breath from his lungs would cause her harm. He passed the pulp between his hands before resting them on her forehead, fingers light as feathers for fear of tearing her papery skin. Her lashes trembled as she woke and a wounded whimper clenched at his heart. But her eyes did not open.

He worked the tart mixture into her skin, smoothing it across her brow, massaging it into her temples, gliding it over the softness behind her ears. “Just like you did,” he whispered. As he passed his stained thumb down her nose, he marveled at its size, hardly even as wide as his fingernail. He watched her wee chest rise through a sigh and Tadhg found fresh tears escaping his sore eyes. Quickly turning away, he took up an uncooked leaf from beside the pot and knotted it to her delicate wrist with a piece of twine, careful not to tie it too tightly around her fragile bones.

To protect her from disease, Eistir said.

2

The coming night was the same as all the others. As dusk fell over the village, Tadhg took a light from the fire to all the candles and lamps in the hut, until a golden glow began to cast ominous shadows against the mud walls. Lifting Bébhinn from the mattress on the floor, he held her frail body to his chest, so small that he could cup her back with one hand. With his finger, he teased goat milk, fresh from that morning, between her lips. But it was to no avail – the tiny pale tulip of her mouth quivered feebly. He worried that the liquid would trap in her throat.

And finally, as darkness shrouded their home, it began.

At first, it was hardly recognisable. A villager might mistake it for the call of a dog or the cry of foxes. Perhaps even the wail of a sickly infant in the next town over, but Tadhg had heard the same cry every night for a week now. It was a keening like no other; guttural sobs, drawn long and low. They were distant, carried in by the far-off waves beating the shore of Inchdoney, but Tadgh could be sure that with each sundown they drew closer. Bébhinn stirred in his arms.

“There, little leanbh,” he cooed, laying her head on his shoulder and pressing his cheek against her minty scalp. “Dadaí won’t let her hurt ye.”

But Dadaí was just as scared as daughter. The cries ricocheted around his skull, close enough that he felt her breath on his ear, yet far enough for the wind to carry them away. He held Bébhinn tight against his chest, quivering with each inhalation.

Keep her safe, my love.

They stayed that way deep into the night, Tadhg wishing that it was the cries of his daughter keeping him awake instead. When the keening faded to a whimper and the sun began to rise, he laid Bébhinn down on the rushes and fell into a hot, fitful slumber, gasping in and out of consciousness as he dreamt of gnarled knuckles reaching for her soundless throat.

3

“Morning, Tadgh. Well?”

“Well, thank you. ’Tis a misty morning, Father Byrne. What brings you here?” Tadhg stepped out from behind his door, keeping a cautious hand to the wood.

“We haven’t seen you at Mass for some weeks.” The clay pipe between Father Byrne’s teeth swayed slightly as his tongue circled the mouthpiece.

“My apologies, Father,” Tadgh said as he took a tentative step towards the other man. “I’ve a hard card dealt since my Eistir’s passing.”

“The Church is always welcoming.”

“Bless you, Father. ’Tis my Bébhinn. She is sickly. I fear—” he fussed with his clothing, passing the hem between his fists, “—I fear she is being preyed upon.”

Father Byrne peered over the rim of his glasses, the pipe continuing its rotation. “Preyed upon, Mister Murphy?”

Tadhg bobbed his head. “Father.”

“Like an animal?”

“No, Father.”

The chewing stopped. “A person?”

“A being, Father.” He grew restless, twisting the cloth of his shirt as though he were wringing water from it. “A woman. She cries—Oh! She cries.” Tadhg felt tears beginning to swell in his eyes already, a familiar heaviness rising in his throat. “She keens outside, Father, all night. Every night.” He saw Father Byrne’s brows raising. “I fear the day I see her face. She is a banshee. Come for my Bébhinn. I know it.”

Taking the pipe delicately between his fingers, Father Byrne lowered his voice. “A banshee, Tadhg. Like in the stories?”

The tears now fell. “Stories, Father? You know too well of the changeling that cleared this town last winter. You know the curse it brought upon us all.” His hands fell away from his shirt and he reached for the sleeve of Father Byrne’s own. “You dealt with it, Father, first hand. ’Tis real. She is real. My Eistir knows it, too.” He fell to his knees and pressed his forehead against Father Byrne’s warm fist. “You must help me. You have come here to help me!”

Father Byrne patted the back of Tadhg’s head, hesitantly. “Dear man. Your Eistir is dead.” He eased Tadhg to his feet. “You are talking nonsense.”

“Nonsense?” It was barely a whisper, more an escape of air.

“Come back to Mass, Tadhg. Pray for your daughter. Not this banshee.”

4

The sprig around her wrist had begun to wilt. Tadhg slipped it off and threw it to the fire, watching its leaves curl and blacken. It lit the darkening room momentarily, before dying down to a gentle glow.

The heady scent of mint had taken several days to dwindle, but it was quickly replaced by the sweet, oaky musk of sage. It now hung in bunches from the ceiling, littered the floor by the door, and burnt slowly over the fire. He took up a bundle and tied it to Bébhinn’s wrist as he had done with the mint four nights prior, and felt Eistir place her hands on his shoulders, soft and light as feathers. Keep her safe, she would always say. Tadhg felt for her warmth upon his neck, but her fingers vanished as fast as they had appeared. Keep her safe.

It keened again. Almost at his door this time. He could hear each crack in her cry, every intake of shuddering breath. Once, he thought he heard the chattering of her teeth through her sobs, before realising it was his own jaw quaking in fear. Tadhg pressed his knees under his chin to quench his shivering, and his dirty fingernails pinched crescent moons into his arms. Her cries sank deep into his chest, rumbling and animalistic, before soaring high and screeching like a bird of prey.

Keep her safe.

The previous afternoon, while the sun had kept the darkness and keening at bay, he had spent hours tightly binding sage. He’d fumbled over the knots and lost sprigs along the way, tucking them back in as he went, until he had nine smudge sticks laying at his feet. Hanging them above the fire to dry out, he’d then set to work pushing stems into the mud walls and ceiling. Now, with the night wrapping its unforgiving arms around his home and the banshee keening on his doorstep, he took a smudge stick from its perch and lit it on the embers of his dying fire. He blew on the leaves to extinguish the flame and watched as silver plumes of smoke spiraled upward. He silently asked Eistir what should happen next.

Bébhinn lay naked in the centre of the room, her skin rippling with goose-flesh. The fire lit her red lashes, long and fine like her mother’s. Tadgh prayed to see those eyes, greenest of pastures, that mirrored Eistir’s. He thought back to the day he’d slid a golden ring onto her delicate finger, hammered into intricate patterns by the light of his own fire, and she’d cried in his arms.

Her silhouette crouched beside Bébhinn, orange hair falling over the baby’s milky cheeks. Cleanse her, she said. The banshee’s screams heightened, slicing through the pungent air. She mourned like a baby without breast, her sobs catching in her throat.

Tadhg crossed the floor to his daughter.

Burn the devil out of her.

Tasting the salt of his tears and the smoke in his throat, he held the burning sage to her face.

5

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What is the stench?”

“Sage, Father,” Tadhg mumbled. “To ward off evil.”

Father Byrne ducked his head into the hut and looked about himself. His eyes widened at the mess of leaves and debris. He squatted beside the man curled by the fire and observed the baby in his arms, swaddled and smothered in blankets. “You mustn’t mess with these things, Mister Murphy. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Tadhg crushed Bébhinn closer to his chest, his tear-stained face collapsing into a grimace. “Eistir told me how.”

“Show me the girl, Mister Murphy.”

But Tadhg held her tighter, pressing his damp mouth to the mop of auburn hair peeping through the fabric. Father Byrne watched agape as her near-lifeless body was nearly choked to death by blankets and limbs.

“You will hurt her, Tadhg. Come, now.”

The man’s shoulders convulsed and a stream of mucus ran over his lips. He kissed Bébhinn’s scalp once more, a sob rocking his body, and released his grasp. As Father Byrne moved himself closer to the bundle, he couldn’t help but compare the shivering man to the stories of witches shrieking upon a stake, burned before their entire village. He dragged his hand down his face and peeled back the blankets, unwrapping layer upon layer until the heat of Bébhinn’s breath hit his hand.

She seemed thinner and greyer than ever; her lips were disappearing into her colourless face, her ribs cutting through her taut skin. Her closed eyes were swollen and raw. And defacing her cheek, like the brand of a hot iron, was a circular burn. The mottled mark was no bigger than a scilling coin but seemed so grotesquely large upon her baby face. Father Byrne recoiled and his hands flew to his mouth. All he could do to stop himself from wrenching the child from her Dadaí’s arms was to press his face into the crook of his elbow and retch.

“What have you done? What have you done…”

6

Bébhinn’s marred flesh healed to a scaly pink that shone whenever it caught the light of the fire. As the days grew shorter and colder, Tadgh’s cheeks grew as hollow and grey as his daughter’s. The long winter nights saw him pressed into the corner of his hut, as far from the door as possible, clinging to Bébhinn as the horrendous shrieking descended upon them.

“Give me strength, Eistir,” he cried through his shivers.

I am here, came her calls as she wrapped her warmth around them.

The keening now seemed closer than ever, crawling over his roof and beating at his door. A howling wind saw leaves dancing across the mud and he imagined Eistir twirling barefoot among them, her ruby locks twisting in the air. The handmade ring on her marital finger flashed playfully with her movements. But the only music was the keening of the banshee, screaming for the soul of their baby, and soon Eistir’s haunted face crumpled and she cried alongside her.

Keep her safe.

7

“I’m taking her to the beach.”

“You think it will help? ’Tis mighty cold, Mister Murphy.” Father Byrne observed Tadhg over his spectacles. He looked worse than the previous week, his skin waxy and eyes tired and distant.

“Fresh air will do some good, I should think.”

“For the both of ye.”

Tadhg nodded, casting his bloodshot eyes to his feet. “Thank you, Father,” he said, before taking his leave towards the sea.

The walk was tiresome, the cold air making his tears fall thicker and faster. Soon enough he could see the water along the horizon line, a good few hours away from the shore, and it calmed him some.

“Time is on our side, Eistir.”

And now, sat on the wet sand with Bébhinn in his arms, he noticed her brows untie the knots they’d been in since her fateful birth a month earlier.

He felt her calm wash over him before the waves had even reached them.

Minutes turned to hours and sun turned to moon. Tadhg did not know how long he’d sat there until the water tickled at his toes and a keening rolled across the hills of Inchdoney. But this time, he did not shake. He did not feel the familiar dread rising within him. He simply sat, his daughter in his lap, listening to the banshee’s cries grow louder. She was eventually close enough that the wind no longer whipped her voice away.

The tide was approaching fast. It filled Tadhg’s trousers and chilled his hands beneath Bébhinn. It would soon soak through her blankets. The banshee screamed harder as the icy water rose higher. The baby began to squirm, the most movement Tadhg had ever seen from her.

’Tis working.

It was all he could do to stop from laughing over the keening.

’Tis working, Tadhg.

He watched Eistir place a calming hand on Bébhinn’s forehead, the tide coming faster still. Wash away disease.

Darkness hid them as together they held their daughter beneath the Healing sea.

8

When dawn broke, the tide had retreated and the keening ceased. Tadhg’s limbs were stiff from the chill. An eerie silence set his ears ringing as he eased himself to his feet, the weight of his soaked clothing wanting to hold him down. His skin stung and his head span. He rolled his creaking shoulders back, careful not to wake the sleeping leanbh in his arms – for he knew he must not disturb the Healing. Keeping her covered and as warm as possible, he turned to face the rising Sabbath sun.

And there atop the hill, the dawn silhouetting her, was a woman. She was naked, spare a cloak of stony grey tied around her neck and billowing around her thin legs. The hood was pulled low over her eyes. She lifted a weak hand as a waning sob trembled the ground beneath Tadhg. Yet still he felt no fear.

“The tide has taken disease. You can’t hurt her,” he called as he watched the woman creep forward, her bare feet seemingly gliding above the sand. He tightened his grasp around Bébhinn. “Healing waters have cured her!”

The banshee floated down the hill until Tadhg could make out the tracks of tears down her sinewy cheeks and a wetness around her collar. Her mouth was just visible beneath the hood of her cloak; it hung open and contorted in pain, globules of saliva mingling with her tears. As she drew herself tall in front of him, cloak barely concealing her cavernous chest, he finally felt the unwelcomed pang of panic.

“Bébhinn is cured,” he whispered. “She is no longer yours to take.” His voice shook as he cradled his child, who lay still and quiet in her dreamless sleep. With shuddering breath, Tadhg drew back her swaddling.

She had succumbed to the water, her little lungs filled with ice. Her stomach had bloated, her lips, once so void of colour, were blue as a summer’s sky. And her eyes – closed throughout her short life – were wide open in death. As bright and piercing as her mother’s, the greenest of hues stared up at him. The banshee shrieked, her body twisting in agony, but Tadhg did not hear her.

“She is cured,” he shouted, holding Bébhinn’s tiny body towards the woman. “She is cured!”

He shook Bébhinn hard to wake her and pinched at her sides. Her head hung limp over his hand. He could no longer feel the feeble beating of her heart, nor the shallow rasp of her breath. His tears swelled once more.

“Did I do something wrong, Eistir? My love?”

But through the raging of the wind and the keening of the devil, he no longer heard her words comforting him. She was lost. He had lost them both. The banshee began to choke, suffocating hiccoughs and sobs. She reached out a quaking hand, all bone and skin and rot, and stretched towards Bébhinn.

On her finger, hanging loose from her decaying form, was the ring of gold, its hammered edges catching the dawn.

’Tis over.

Browse issue 4 in full.
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