Our Song





Only the truly vigilant would hear my song this night.


A bitter wind blew across the snow-covered fields. It rattled shuttered windows and whistled through the trees. I felt it flowing through me as I walked towards the call. Dawn painted the horizon a pale rose.


I came to a farming village. During planting or harvest season, its inhabitants would be bustling, long since awake and long since at work.


But not on this day. Even my eyes, so well adapted to coming in the night, could only make out two sets of tracks in the fresh snow. A single set emerged from one of the smaller cottages at the edge of the huddle of houses. It walked down the side street before disappearing around the corner of the main thoroughfare. There was no doubt about where it was heading: the church spire was easily visible from where I stood.


The second set was simply the return of the first set accompanied by another, larger pair of footprints. This track ended at the door to the same cottage.


I was not permitted to enter the house. What I had come to do, I would do from afar.


It was not my lot to know whether, beyond that old stone wall, lay a sick grandmother praying for her final release or a young father struck down in his prime, suffering not for himself but for the family that would starve without him.


All I knew was that the other inhabitants of the tiny house had lost hope. The priest they’d invited was not there to help the sick; his presence was meant to give comfort to the survivors. He would tell them that the soul had been taken to the paradise that his church promised its faithful.


The priest truly believed that he had the power to shepherd the spirit and to guide it away from its rightful place.


But if that were true, I wouldn’t have been called. In this land there were souls who, perhaps, might be guided by foreign beliefs, but there were also families whose ties to the land were too strong for that. They were scions of the people who’d opened the island of mist and forest to the sons of men—and who made peace with the people of the síde.


Others had come afterwards. Men of the south and men of the north. Men of steel and cruelty and, in the end, men with families. They’d brought their wives and their children to our land, and that had ultimately brought peace.


I was never called for them. I only felt the pull when a true child of the isle was nearing the end. They were ever fewer, and ever poorer, but still they abided.

For them, and them only, I came.


For them I sang.


As the song burst forth I felt, as ever, that the sound was beyond my control. I was merely the instrument, playing a melody of the eons for the one whose time on the Earth was at an end.


I don’t know whether anyone heard my song over the wind and through the stone of the walls, but it soon ended.


Once it was done, I sat atop the deep snow to wait. The person I had called would be the only one whose eyes could discern me there. That one would come to me.


Eventually.


*


As the sun climbed into the sky, I watched the village go about its business. Not many were out and about and life seemed quite subdued, even for a morning in midwinter. It was almost as if the people had no energy to spare.


By noon there was no sign of the one I awaited, so I settled. Most spirits found their guide quickly, but some were at first loathe to leave the familiar sights of family and hearth.


Eventually all came to the one who’d called them, and I—or one of my sisters—would wait for them until they did. We honored the old agreements, even if the people themselves often didn’t remember that any agreements existed.


It was nearly night when I saw her. Had I been capable of tears, they would have flowed. As it was, I felt emotions roil within. Often, my existence was a blessing, but today, it was a curse.


In bringing release to the people of the land, I saw spirits in many forms. Some were mere beings of light, happy to be free of the chains that had bound them to failing bodies. Others were so strongly identified with their physical appearance that they brought parts of it along with them unwittingly. The most glorious of these that I’d seen was the spirit of an old woman who came to me as a ball of light with tendrils of flame-colored aether stretching out behind, a memory of the hair of her youth.


Some were unable to leave their suffering behind them. Still others weren’t even certain what was happening.


She stopped before me, looking at me with frightened eyes. She looked like she wanted to run away, and didn’t understand why she couldn’t.


“Hello, little one,” I said.


I spoke as gently as I could but still she shied away. Her feet might not be able to obey the command to escape, but it didn’t seem that her head had to follow the same rules.


“Why can you see me?”


“Because you are there.”


“But no one else can see me. Not Mama. Not Nana. Not even Peter, and I know Peter should be able to because Mama gave him most of the food so he could work.”


“I can see you, but I am the only one. And you are the only one who can see me.”


The girl was about eight years old, with light-colored hair and eyes that were much too big for her face. No. It wasn’t that the eyes were too big, but rather that her face itself was too small. Her cheekbones were too prominent, and her eyes sunken too far in.


The girl might not have starved, but she had been starving when she died. Her arms matched the face, emaciated and bone-riddled.


She was a spirit that had most certainly brought her suffering with her. That was not how death should be.


“Why can’t others see us?” the girl asked. She leaned closer as she said it, her fear of me giving way to the much greater fear of learning a truth she already suspected.

“I’m afraid you died, my dear.”


She looked down at her feet, as if seeing their color for the first time. “Then Nana was right. She said that she heard the banshees wailing for me, and that I wasn’t long for the world. Nana made Mama get the priest.”


She said it matter-of-factly, as if the fact of being dead was less important than the question of who did what.


Then she looked up at me, opening her eyes. “I don’t want to die. Little Peadar died and Mama was so sad.”


“All things must die, little one. The fish in the sea and the trees in the hills. They all die. Even little girls and little boys. It is the way of the world.”


I expected her to lash out, expected anger or petulance or… or anything that showed me that she was just a small child. But she just nodded with the acceptance of someone who’d seen more than her years suggested. “And why can you? See me, I mean.”


“I was the one who sang for you,” I told her.


“You were the banshee? Nana says you can always tell when someone is going to die because of the banshees. She says it’s the most awful sound she ever did hear.” Then she studied me. “You don’t look like a banshee.”


I felt a smile tug at the corners of my mouth. This should have been a solemn occasion, but the earnestness of the poor soul moved me differently. “And what should a banshee look like?”


“It should look like something that screams and screeches in the night, with big teeth and a horrible face. Something awful that would frighten even Nana. It should be a ghost with a hood. A black hood.” She nodded, satisfied. “But you don’t look like that. You look like Mama. The way she looked when we had food.”


This had started to become one of the most unusual conversations I’d had in a very long time. Most of the spirits I met were more concerned with what would happen to them next than with how banshees looked. Even the children fell into that pattern, once they accepted what had happened to them.


But I sensed that this child was different somehow.


She curtsied, a clumsy but respectful gesture. “I’m Colleen, miss banshee.”


*


Time passes differently for the dead. For some, an instant might pass in the mortal realm for each decade of their own time. For others, the opposite might be true. And when one such as I—a spirit and a force of nature that dealt intimately with the transition—was in conversation with them, we were subject to their perception of how time flowed.


Colleen’s time was slow, like barges floating with the tide. The world around us went past at a frantic pace as she meandered along the path she had to walk on the way to acceptance.


I found myself coasting with her. Ever was it so: I couldn’t let the spirit move across until it was ready.


But I felt something that I’d never sensed before. It was a pressure, as if the world of the living was calling me. Many needed to cross over, more than I’d ever felt at one time. So many that the spirits who tended to the souls were stretched thin. Their pain became mine for, after all, I was one with them, and they were one with me.


It soon became too much for me.


“I must sing,” I told the girl. “Take my hand.”


I took her with me. I don’t know how it worked, but when I walked the shadow road to the place a mortal still lived who needed to die, she came, breaking every law of the worlds of the living and of the dead.


This time, there was no village, no footprints in the snow, and certainly no church spire. There was just a small shack on a cold winter’s day.


I sat in the snow, waiting for the right time, as I had done countless times before. It was a moment of intense contemplation, of serene rapport with the land. There was nothing quite like the sense of the song of the dead building up within me. It was my interaction with the sublime.


“What are you doing?”


The moment shattered and I turned to look at the girl. She was watching me with rapt attention.


“I will sing for the dying, and meet the dead,” I replied.


I saw her spirit walk up to the shack. It was a sad thing, of grey wood. She returned to where I sat.


“I don’t think he wants to die. He looks sad.”


“I will end his suffering.”


“I think his suffering is because he’s dying. He looked very hungry.”


“He won’t be hungry ever again.”


I sang. I wasn’t finished speaking to Colleen, but the song burst forth without asking my leave.

When it was over, and its echoes had faded far across the countryside and I was spent, Colleen looked at me with tears in her eyes. “That was the most beautiful thing I ever heard.”


I smiled.


“What happens now?”


“We must wait.”


“Wait for what?”


The man who strode forth from the shack didn’t look at all how I imagined him. I’d expected a sack of bones wrapped in tight skin, but the spirit before me strode tall and proudly from his meager dwelling, spade on one shoulder. He stopped before me.


“So it’s true that you call.”


“It’s true.”


“And you guide us to our reward?”


“I help you accept.”


“I don’t need that help. I accepted this weeks ago. ’Twas my body that needed the time to move along.”


“Then your path forward is clear.”


The man gazed into the distance, took a step forward, and was gone.


“He looked different than when he was in the shack,” Colleen said.


“The dead shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of the living, little one.”


She looked guilty. “All I did was go inside to have a look at him.”


“You must never do it again.”


*


Colleen didn’t cross over. I did not know the reason for it. Time went by and the winter became more cruel and still she walked the hidden pathways by my side. She stood with me as I sang, time and again. The people of our island were dying at a rate that I couldn’t recall having seen before.


One thing she didn’t do was heed my admonition about the living. Colleen went where she pleased, and she studied the world around us. In mere weeks, the wide-eyed waif I’d sung across the great divide became a very different spirit. The gauntness left her features, but as she fleshed out to what she must have looked like before she began to starve, a hardness took root in her gaze.


After one song, the latest in an unbroken string, I confronted her. “I’ve told you many times that the lives of the living are not for you to meddle in. And yet you insist on exploring what is happening to them. It has been changing you.”


“My people are dying. They are dying in droves. They are starving.”


Her words sounded true. They echoed the weariness I felt from singing too often and ushering through too many spirits. “Death is the end of suffering. It is a natural thing, and one we need to accept.”


“But this is not happening because of the natural order of things. People are dying for no reason. There is plenty of food, but the landlords are not allowing it to go to my people. They are shipping it over the sea. They aren’t dying. They’re being killed.”


I was surprised. Evidently, she’d been listening to more than just the families of the dying… or perhaps the families of the dying were speaking of more than just their grief. It was harsh to hear those words from one so young, but I reminded myself that she only looked young. In reality she had become eternal when I sang for her.


“Of peaceful old age or on a battlefield, death has its place. Our place is not to question it.”


“You are complicit. Your song, as you call it, is the wailing of the devil that destroys any hope of recovery.”


“It would be worse if my song was absent.”


She said nothing, falling into deep silence.


The next few days passed as a cyclone passes. My toil was continuous as the winter showed no signs of relenting and one emaciated peasant after another fell to its icy clutches, or to the starvation that spread across the land. Each time I sang, Colleen stood beside me, eyes accusing. She blamed me for each and every death, each and every shattered dream.


And there came a day when I could sing no more.


It happened outside of a poorhouse. I could hear the screaming of the woman I was to shepherd even through the stone walls.


She was in the throes of childbirth, and her starved and unborn child had already followed my notes to a better place. But each person must have their own song, and I could not summon it for the woman.


Her time was now. I could feel the tug, the need to sing. But the stuff of my spirit was too weak, too thin to allow the song to emerge. I could manage nothing, not even the whistle of a small bird.


I fell to my knees.


Colleen watched me with hard eyes. “Aren’t you going to kill her?”


“I can’t sing. I am trying to bring her through, but I can’t.”


On the other side of the wall, the screams became ragged, as a poor woman was taken beyond the bounds of human endurance. And yet she lived, and yet she screamed.


At first, Colleen seemed satisfied with my weakness. She went into the poorhouse to watch from a better vantage. I wondered what she expected.


Soon enough, she returned. She looked the way she had on the first day I’d seen her. “The woman isn’t recovering. She’s getting worse. There’s blood everywhere. She’s begging to die.”


“I… She will never get better. I am trying to end her suffering, but I can’t.”


Colleen looked torn. The screams had become whimpers, but still they carried to where we were. Then another scream broke the silence.


“What is it like for them, when you call?”


“You should know.”


“I don’t remember. I was hungry then, and afraid.”


“But you came. The song must be better than whatever she is feeling now.”


An eternity passed as the woman tore her voice to shreds. And then Colleen stood beside me. She laid her hand on my shoulder.


“You must do this.”


I tried to summon the song, but even her acceptance was not enough to give me the strength I needed. “I cannot.”


“Then I will do it.”


And she sang. It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.


The tortured screaming ceased, and Colleen changed before my eyes, becoming a figure of a young woman, perhaps a mother, perhaps a friend. Perhaps a mirror image of the one who’s sung for her, the one finally coming to understand that the reason she hadn’t crossed over was that there was a different destiny assigned to her.


She sat cross-legged in the snow to await the spirit that she would shepherd across. The wind was still bitter; this soul would be the first of many.



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