Baintsíde: Fairy Women
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
By Belen Cahill
Supine, Brigid stares unblinking at the ceiling, paisley duvet pulled all the way up and over her nose so that only her eyes and forehead remain exposed. She began dissassociating as a kid throughout long stints in the hospital, whenever she heard her parents hissing at each other through the too-thin walls of her childhood home, and eventually during sex (good and bad, it didn’t matter). She started looking for faces in ceilings. Eyes, nose, mouth at the very least; sometimes wrinkles, birthmarks, disfigurements, contusions too. She preferred linoleum or stucco, but didn’t discriminate. (Anything can look like anything if you look hard enough.)
She was violently roused by an unholy wail shortly before sunrise. It somehow emanated from every corner of her room and also from somewhere within her own body, ripping through her petite frame like a stroke and swelling against the walls of her skull at such a rate that she could’ve sworn she was drowning in it. Underwater, yes—that was it—akin to the primal yearning of a mother’s whalesong. And then, at once, everything ceased. She felt as she had only once before when years ago she had reluctantly agreed to accompany her sick grandfather to a Philharmonic performance. (“You never know when he’s gonna go, you know,” her mother had slurred into her ear the night prior.) In that instant at the end of the first symphony when the conductor’s hand swiftly curled into a tight fist, she thought her heart had stopped along with the music, and she was escorted, gasping, out of the concert hall.
For a few minutes, she lay fetal on her bed, inert and reeling, as if post-exorcism. She sensed something warm there with her in the quiet blue of her bedroom—a kind of throbbing loneliness. But when she pulled the chain on her bedside lamp and everything suddenly shone yellow, she was alone.
Brigid called her mother once the sun came up, who drew in a long, measured breath upon picking up. “This is something that happens to the women in our family,” she calmly explained, “When a relative dies. It’s called a banshee. You can sage the room, if you want.”
Later, her phone rang this time. “Peach, Kitsie just called. It was Grandpa. Any way you could drive up to see her?”
And so she stares. But now she isn’t looking for just any face—she is looking for his. And for the first time, the practice seems grossly absurd: How could blotches of water damage or cream-colored pockmarks possibly do it justice? His brow furrowing when removing a hook from the mouth of a fish. His blue eyes widening ever so slightly at the sight of stained glass in the midday sun. Would she recognize it, motionless? Did she even want to find out?
“Kind of like the guy in X-Men? But Marvel totally appropriated it. It’s like this Irish legend, I guess. They’re female spirits, only women can hear them.”
After shoving her phone between her cheek and her shoulder, Brigid’s searching hands dig around her coat pockets. She catches her reflection in the car’s window. She looks old.
“Okay, can we maybe not come for my sanity right now? My grandfather just died.”
She could feel Trevor waning. He had been for some time now, ever since the night he told her that he wanted to meet her dad and she had said no. What she hadn’t said was that she was scared that she would start to see him in Trev. That more than anything she was terrified of becoming her mother—of settling.
She finally procures a key. In one fluid motion, she unlocks the door and collapses into the driver’s seat. The radio suddenly blares on as she turns the key in the ignition. Blake Shelton has never sounded so offensive.
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
She forgot to turn down the volume before getting out of her car last night. Again. She quickly turns the volume knob until all she can hear is the thrum of rain against metal. Droplets crawl down the windshield slowly, and then all at once, and then slowly again, unsure of themselves.
“Sorry, I should probably go. I have to pick up some flowers, or . . . something. I’ll call soon.”
She watches one droplet as it merges with another and careens toward the hood.
“Okay. Love you.”
She pulls out of the driveway and glances up at her window, half-hoping to find someone watching her go.
The car sputters up the gravel driveway towards a small shingled house, which strikes Brigid as somehow vulnerable amid the downpour. She can just barely make it out through the windshield since most everything has been blurred into abstract swaths of grey-green. The Cape turns a special shade in the rain, she thinks.
As she grabs the bunch of dahlias from the center console and opens her door, she sees that her grandmother has already come out to the porch. Kitsie looks even frailer than the last time Brigid saw her, no more than a few months back. Her flesh hangs off her bones like wet clothing. Her hair, for the first time in Brigid’s memory, is down, just kissing her hips. Her Virgin Mary pendant sits right below her clavicle, as always. She is cupping a mug of tea to her chest, smiling.
Brigid shuts the door and scampers up the front steps. Wordlessly, she wraps her arms around Kitsie, burying her face into the nape of her grandmother’s neck, where it is warmest and smells most like her—like driftwood and bread and salt.
“Gran,” she whispers.
Kitsie gives her a brief squeeze.
“You didn’t need to bring flowers, dear.”
In the dimly-lit kitchen, a blanket-clad Kitsie picks a few mint leaves from the small herb garden she grew in an ivory clawfoot bathtub, one of the few things she could keep from their old house. She tears the mint over a bowl of raspberries and cream, pours tea into another mug, and brings both over to Brigid, who is nestled into a rocking chair by the fireplace, looking blankly into space. Brigid shivers suddenly, and offers a half-smile.
Kitsie tucks a strand of hair behind Brigid’s ear before slowly draping herself on the couch. Brigid takes a sip of her tea and burns her tongue, recoiling. They are both quiet for a moment.
“So, did you go to see him?”
Kitsie’s eyebrows rise; she isn’t accustomed to such directness about her estranged husband, least of all from a grandchild, all of whom had always stepped around the subject with her. Not that they needed to have done so–she would’ve been forthright, had they asked.
“I considered it, but no. I didn’t.”
She isn’t sure if this had upset Brigid or not, so she adds, “When the hospital called, a nurse told me that ten minutes before he flatlined he raised his hand to his forehead and gave a final salute to the world.”
Brigid chuckles, then blows across the surface of her tea.
“In character until the bitter end,” she replies, her voice small.
Seamus had been in remission for ten years after a close call with prostate cancer, and had insisted from then on that he ran ten miles a day and was in perfect health, despite three heart attacks and a prolonged flirtation with jaundice. Although Brigid had caught electrifying glimpses of him growing up, he mostly sequestered himself behind delusions of grandeur and pathological lying. He and Kitsie never divorced, even though they didn’t see each other for the twenty years leading up to his death. They believed divorce to be a sin, so they only separated. Since the scandal, he had lived by himself in the attic of a small apartment, with little more company than an archaic television, a bible, and an American flag, which hung apathetically by the window.
When he went in for his annual PET scan the week prior, he lit up like a Christmas tree. He died five days later in an empty hospital room, which he saluted. If no one was going to say goodbye to him, he was going to do it for them, Brigid thought. Three of his children arrived at the hospital five minutes too late.
Kitsie abruptly pushes herself up from the couch.
“I think it’s about time that I tuck in for the night,” she says, “Thank you for coming all the way up here, dear. I do appreciate it.”
Brigid waves her off. “It’s no trouble, you know that.”
Kitsie saunters over to the bar-cart that has sat untouched by the coat closet for over a decade. She looks down at the decanters of Irish whiskey and drags her finger along the rim of the pewter tray. Brigid watches as she inspects her finger, coated with dust, and pauses, considering. All of a sudden, she is pouring herself a glass.
Brigid starts, “Gran, are you sure-”
“Do me a favor, Brie, will you, and grab that jar on the mantle? Next to the nutcracker.”
Brigid unfurls herself cautiously. She has never seen her grandmother drink. Seamus had been a raging alcoholic before he went through AA, and three of Brigid’s nine aunts and uncles had followed suit. She examines the jar, which is filled with some kind of unidentifiable clear liquid, before handing it to Kitsie, who refuses to meet her gaze.
After wrestling with it momentarily, Kitsie manages to open the jar and pours some of its contents into her lowball. Only now does she look up at Brigid, her eyes bright.
“Holy water.” She takes a generous swig. “For insurance.”
Brigid feels her jaw go slack. Kitsie holds out her glass expectantly.
Before she even realizes what she’s doing, Brigid clinks her mug against it. The two lock eyes.
Brigid jolts awake, awash with a cold sweat and ears still ringing with the faint echoes of a keening. She had been dreaming that the banshee had screamed again, this time for Trev. She heaves her grandmother’s quilts off of herself and swings her legs over the side of the bed. The floor is unusually cold.
She grabs a chunky cardigan that Kitsie left on the chest at the foot of her bed and throws it over her shoulders, gingerly stepping out of her room and into the creaking hallway. A moth buzzes against a bare Edison bulb overhead. The floral wallpaper is peeling from the humidity and the walls themselves are laden with family pictures. Kitsie and Seamus and the kids before the first family tennis tournament, all in white, and with parasols; an atypically somber portrait of Kitsie’s mother, Margaret, who was known during her prime for dancing on slick pub tabletops; Kitsie’s father, Captain Mac, aboard his lobster boat, which he would later die going down with; Kitsie on her wedding day, looking unimaginably young.
As Brigid rounds the corner to the kitchen, a gust of wind blows some papers off of the counter. A grocery list and an electricity bill float through the biting air like leaves, landing at her feet. The back door is open and whining almost inaudibly as it sways from its hinges.
“Gran?” Her call hangs unanswered in the house’s stillness. Brigid wheels around, picking up her pace as she walks towards Kitsie’s room.
Brigid bounds into Kitsie’s room. Her bed is empty.
Suddenly Brigid is running, back through the hallway, out the back door, down the muddy path towards the beach. The soles of her feet sting each time they slap against uneven earth. After what feels like a lifetime, she reaches the sand. The marine layer is so dense that as she runs past cairn after cairn she starts to mistake them for bodies.
And then, at last, one is a body. Kitsie is standing knee-deep in the surf, motionless. The pining sea laps at her nightgown.
“Gran,” Brigid is panting. She wants to say, “What the fuck?” But what comes out is: “You left the door open.”
She wades into the icy water–toes curling familiarly around pebbles and butterfly shells and corroded beach glass–until she is standing next to her grandmother. Brigid’s teeth start to chatter, but Kitsie remains unmoving, her long hair whirling around her face like a storm.
“Right after Seamus and I got married, things were immediately difficult.”
Brigid turns to look at her.
“He was finishing up school, and commuting up to me on weekends. He had me schedule Saturdays and Sundays around job interviews, mass, dinner parties–that I had to prepare, mind you. He referred to me as ‘his little secretary.’ And it was fulfilling for me, being his wife—making him coffee in the morning, making sure his shirts were pressed and his pants were pleated. It didn’t hurt that I was good at it, too. You have to understand, it was all I ever wanted, to have a family. But I didn’t feel like he was proud of me, and that wounded me deeply. One especially hard weekend, my mother was in town—your great-grandmother. Boy, would she have loved you. And I was crying in the kitchen while Seamus was out having a drink with friends, and I asked her why she had let me get married. And she took a second to think about it and then do you know what she said?”
Now it’s Kitsie’s turn to look at Brigid.
“She said, ‘Well, somebody has to mow the lawn.’”
Kitsie brushes some hair out of her face, turning back to the moonlight on the open ocean.
“Somebody has to mow the lawn,” she repeats under her breath.
Trembling, Kitsie carefully lowers herself into the water until she is kneeling, as if in prayer. She lets her hands fall below its surface, and capillary waves begin to break against her forearms. She spends a few seconds here, fumbling underwater. As she starts to rise, she loses her balance, and Brigid grabs her hand, steadying her. She sees, in her other hand, that Kitsie is gripping her wedding ring.
Kitsie reaches her hand above her head and hurls it through the air. A glint of gold cuts across the dark sky before distantly plopping into the sea, like a closing wink. She is silent for a moment. Then, she grunts, unimpressed, and commences to trudge back to shore.
Back on dry land, Kitsie says to Brigid, “Let’s build your grandfather a cairn.”
In the morning, Brigid finds a note on her pillow. It reads:
“Dear Brigid, I just collected some fresh eggs from the coop and have left them for you in the kitchen. Make yourself an omelet, if you’d like. I would make it myself, but I had to go to church—I’m doing a reading today, from the Gospel of Luke, my favorite. I’ll be back around noon, and we can start making arrangements for the funeral then. It occurred to me earlier that we never talked about the banshee. I hope she didn’t frighten you too badly, she is utterly harmless. Leave her a bowl of water outside your door next time she visits. It helps, I think. Love, K"