The harbinger came ahead of the storm, as was customary. She sat in the passenger seat of the semi-truck and quietly stared out into the darkness. The warm breeze generated by the Kenmore’s heater swirled about her, warding off the damp cold of night. She preferred nature; an open window with cool wind playing about her hair would have been much more to her liking. The woman was, however, merely a temporary guest in the truck, and as such owed a guest’s duty to the owner.
The truck crested the large hill that separated the once prosperous town from the rest of the world. A bolt of lightning lit the sky and highlighted the storm’s leading edge. It was close. There wouldn’t be much time for distractions; she had so much to do. People needed comfort, some needed saving, and one was marked for punishment. Like the coming storm, it wouldn’t be pleasant, but the world would be better when she finished.
The truck departed the dark highway just as the first drops of rain struck the windshield. It bounced off the even pavement and onto the ill-kept city road. The driver maneuvered his massive vehicle into a truck stop parking lot. The establishment was little more than a café with fuel pumps placed beside the highway to welcome tired travelers. A neon sign in the café window indicated that the old building also served as the local greyhound station.
That’s a convenience, she thought.
A small, fragile-looking woman climbed down from the big rig with exceptional grace and dignity. Turning back she smoothed out her gown, adjusted her shawl and studied the man who had given her a ride. He was a type rarely seen in the world anymore—a gallant—and the world could use more like him. “Thank you kindly.”
“Sure you want to get off here?” the truck driver said. “This town looks a bit rough.”
She smiled at his concern. “I’ll not be here long. You’ve been kind, may good fortune follow you and yours. ” She watched as the door closed, and the large vehicle lumbered back to the highway. It was only a small blessing she gave him. She hoped, however, that he’d make good use of it.
The growing wind surrounded, and pushed at her, with its excitement. In its torrents, her white dress flapped and billowed like the sails of a great ancient ship. The only real protection she had from the elements lay in the dark gray shawl draped across her shoulders. Still, she didn’t mind the cold, it was a trusted friend, and she allowed herself a few moments to feel the wind on her skin. Her hair danced joyfully on its currents. There was little time, and she could only allow herself a moment in the glorious embrace of the coming tempest. A playful gust of wind accompanied her as she entered the café.
Despite the dramatic entrance, she drew remarkably little attention and she was not displeased. It was sometimes better to go unnoticed. Besides, she knew that if she had wanted everyone in the room would heed her, and only her. For the moment, she was content to just sit unmolested and rest from the road.
Before her, a sign read ‘please be seated.’ The dining room was an obstacle course of booths and tables, mostly full. She claimed a lonely booth in the back of the dining room and made herself as comfortable as one could on red, faux leather.
Wayfarer respites were always like that. Weary travelers needed a break from the breakneck pace at which they traversed the land, unheeding of its true splendor, required a place to slow down, even if only briefly before the continuance of the journey. One could find all types in the between places.
The room teemed with families on vacation, who crammed themselves into small booths as the parents doing their best to ignore the food fight starting among their little ones. There were the professionals, people who made the road their home and business, lonely souls who usually sat at the counter or alone at a table. To alleviate their loneliness, they made polite, and sometimes not so polite, banter with the waitresses. It was a proper place for her first stop in the wasting town.
From the large window behind her booth, she watched the night traffic. An intermittent series of red and white lights flowed along; automated will-o-wisps doomed to forever run the endless cement paths of man. In the reflected light of the window pane, she observed herself, unable to remember the last time she had beheld her own reflection. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that, although looking tired and travel worn, she was still beautiful. Smooth, fair skin and high cheekbones hinted at her proud Celtic heritage. As always, her beauty was tainted by the great sadness which hung over her, as tangible as her shawl and her blue eyes. She had seen much tragedy and more suffering than any should have to bear. Yet it was her duty to endure it all.
The waitress arrived and presented the woman with a menu and a smile. It was a casual, practiced act designed to help the young woman hide her pain from strangers, just as her heavy makeup hid bruises.
“May I have some hot tea, miss?’ A strong Irish accent colored the traveler’s words. “And some honey if you please. Thank you kindly.”
The waitress politely took her order and walked away, leaving the traveler to relax, a daunting task as the uncomfortable faux leather seat was sticking to her leg. She turned her attention back to the window and the growing accumulation and darkening of the clouds. Watching the advancing storm front lifted her spirits. Even from inside the shabby walls, she could feel it; she felt its currents, its eddies, its power and its life. The world always seemed a little better after a good blow.
The waitress tried to hide a wince as she lifted the tray that held a small metal teapot, a teabag, a cup and a little plastic bear filled with honey from the counter. The stranger watched her carry them across the room and set them on the table before her, an act that must have caused considerable pain, considering the young woman’s broken ribs. “Anything else I can get for you?”
“There might be something that I can do for you.”
“I’m sorry, I’m really broke. Good luck though.”
“Oh, I’m not sellin’, dear. I’m here to give you a gift.”
“I’m sorry, do I know you?”
“No, we’ve never met, Addie. But I’ve come a long way to see you.”
“Oh, but this is going to sound odd. But I’m in a hurry, and there’s no help for it, so here it goes. Our families go back, Addie. All the way back to Ireland.” A look of confusion appeared on the waitress’ face. “My family knew your great-grandfather before he came to America.”
“Yes Addie, and I’ve come a long way to repay a debt. A debt long owed.”
“What debt?” The young woman’s voice turned hard and her eyebrows arched. She was not used to kindness; it was as obvious to the stranger as the abundant mascara that hid the fear in her eyes.
“You’ve naught to worry from me. I’m only here to help.”
“I don’t know you.” The waitress gathered her resolve to walk away.
“But I know you, Addie James. And I know the situation you are in. I’m here to help you.” The stranger put the tea bag into her pot. “You’ve no reason to believe me, save the pain in your side, but heed me. Tell your man nothing about the child you’re carrying. Or he’ll beat you, Addie. This time he’ll beat you, both of you, to death.”
“How can you? Have you been stalking me?” Fear lit up her eyes. She had only learned of the pregnancy that morning. Color washed from her face. Someone had seen her leave the clinic.
“No, I just got into town. People of my family, we know things. I can tell by how you move that you’ve been hurt, and your belly is starting to show.”
“He wouldn’t hurt me. Not once he knows.”
“Knows what?” The traveler held the woman’s gaze, her eyes hard and voice stern. “That you and the child have taken his options from him? I know you love him but use your wits. He’ll be fine at first, and then he’ll go and get a drink. Then he’ll hit you, and the baby inside you. You know I’m right.”
“You don’t know that.” The waitress sat on the side of the booth.
“Oh, Addie, I do. I’m sorry. But I’m here to help you, honestly. Now take this.” She held out a silken purse. “Take it, it’s yours.”
The waitress accepted the proffered bag and peered at its glistening contents. “Those coins are ancient, from a time before Saint Patrick himself walked the clover. They are worth quite a bit more than their value in gold. Take them, sell them, a collector will pay more. Take them and get on the next bus. Go anywhere and start over. Don’t worry. He’ll not come looking.” The stranger looked directly into the stunned woman’s eyes. “This is important. Do not go back home. Those coins will buy naught from him but your death. If you go back even to pack, you doom yourself and your child.”
The young waitress sat dumbstruck in the booth opposite staring into the purse.
“One last thing, take heed not to sell the last coin. Keep it for luck. As long as it stays with you and yours, you will always know the good fortune life had denied you ‘til now.”
The stranger left the café unnoticed, her tea untouched.
Many times, she had offered such a choice to young women in trouble. It disturbed her greatly how few of them had the good sense to take her council. She could do nothing more, however; it was up to the young mother to chart her own destiny for good or ill. Pregnancy, she reminded herself, had a way of bringing out the practical nature in women.
The stranger walked the darkening road, traveling along cracked and broken sidewalks that led to the inner city. Infrequent rain drops kept her company as she made her way. Well-maintained buildings soon gave way to faded paint and cracking walls. Graffiti appeared frequently on the walls of the barred up shops and half-stripped cars lined the road in front of closed pawnshops and thrift stores. The only shops that dared do commerce after dark in the neighborhood were the liquor stores, and they were doing brisk business. It was a place that hope had forsaken, and only the most intrepid stranger would dare to visit unescorted, especially at night.
The storm clouds, weary of holding back, released their cargo of water, and the rain came in an ever-quickening cadence. The drops struck the ground all about, inviting her to play. Delighted and grateful, she joined in, casually avoiding each one. It wasn’t as though she minded getting wet, but there were ancient principals to be upheld. She glided down the sidewalk, careful to step between each drop. Lean one way, a raindrop missed. A half step the other way, two drops missed. Slow down, speed up, twist, turn, lean, it was a game she had learned long ago. Now, it was a distraction she used it to take her mind off her more unpleasant duties.
One such duty swiftly approached.
The man was close. Fear and despair hung in the air like old laundry, as tangible as the graffiti on the wall beside her and as hard to ignore as the woman’s frantic pleas coming from the alley. Playtime was over.
The stranger stopped dancing. Her shoulders dropped as she pulled the shawl over her head to conceal her face. The gracefulness of her dance shifted to a clumsy shuffle. The beautiful Irish woman was gone, replaced by an old crone who moved with the weariness of too many years as she rounded the corner.
Under the gloom of a failing street light, the man terrorized his victim. Using his excessive weight, he had her pinned to the brick wall, her clothing all but ripped from her bruised and scraped body. At her throat, he held the gleaming knife that threatened her to silence. With his other hand, he reached down and unzipped his pants to free his ‘other weapon.’
“Leave that girl be.” The voice sounded timeworn and frail.
“Mind your own business, granny!” The man shouted back. “Leave now if you want to live.”
“Thomas James O’Hurley!” The crone called out in a voice that echoed off the walls of the alleyway. The woman ambled closer, much to the disbelief of the rapist. “Your mother must be so very proud of you. Tell me, Tommy, is that the only way you can get a woman?”
“You stupid, little bitch.” He released his victim and let her fall. She landed into a pile of garbage bags that had been left there from a closed restaurant. The terrified woman whimpered and pulled the shreds of her torn clothing together to cover her nakedness. “Now you’ve said enough.”
“It must be very sad knowing that the only love you’ll ever know must be taken from another at the point of a knife.” The crone continued to approach.
“You ever feel a knife rip your guts, hag.” The thug lunged at her, his knife held low.
The traveler merely dropped her shawl in response and stood imperiously before the surprised rapist. The wind caught her hair, blowing it wildly around her head, glowing like a wildfire under the light of the flickering lamp above.
“Whoa, rethink this Tom.” The man shifted his stance.” Maybe I’ll just take you first. That’s what you really came for, isn’t it? Jealousy. Afraid you’d miss out on a piece of the old Tom.” He grabbed at his crotch obscenely.
“I offer you a choice, Thomas.” Her voice merged with the wind and hit him from all sides. “I offer it only once.”
“Yeah, well, you made your choice, come and get some.”
“There’s a police station nearby. Go there now. You will confess to all your crimes. You will go to prison and do your time. Become a decent human being.” The stranger adopted a regal bearing as she spoke.
“Okay, sure I’ll just do that after I’m done with you!” he laughed and lunged, intent on cutting the superior look from her face.
The blade missed her cleanly; a knife thrust was an easy thing to dodge for someone who accustomed to dancing between raindrops. The attacker, however, was quite unprepared for the counterblow that struck him like a wrecking ball. The force of it sent him flying into the alley wall. He grunted loudly as the impact knocked the wind out of him. The stranger approached and gently removed the knife from his hand. She stared at the wretched item for a moment, and then threw it over the building, giving it to the storm.
“You’ve been the cause of a lot of pain, Tommy. Much sorrow.”
“Who are you?” he struggled to his feet.
“I’m the one to give it all back to you.” The wind rose up behind her. Lightning flashed above them, so close the sound of thunder knocked him senseless. Unaffected, the woman spread her arms wide and let the storm flow through her, called on it to collect all the pain the man had caused, and bring it to her. The power of the storm spread to every corner of the town and found it for her, and there was an abundance.
The winds ferried the whole of it to her; all the pain felt by anyone the cowering wretch before her ever hurt. Her features contorted as she absorbed the maelstrom until her face became a demonic mask of impossible cruelty.
“Away! God help me!”
“Don’t you know, Thomas? You long ago turned your back on him, now He’s forsaken you.” The criminal fell back and tried to crawl away from the vengeful creature, but she moved with the speed of the wind, and gently touched his chest.
His mind exploded with fear, dread, shame and pain. Everything the storm had brought her, she gave back to him; all the pain he had ever caused another, the agony of the women he had raped, the men he mugged, everyone he’d ever beaten, everything was his to feel as they had felt. She sent him the pain of helplessness victims, the frustration of families and police, even the hunger of the children whose parents he robbed of grocery money. She fed the entirety through the temporary connection, then withdrew her hand from a quivering, babbling wreck.
“Now, it’s all yours, Thomas, and you’ll never be able to escape yourself. “As the last of the pain and horror flowed into the huddled form at her feet, her appearance once again returned normal.
A wind gust blew upon her shawl as it lay in the mud, lifted and shook the fabric free of dirt and water, and returned it to her. It was still a bit damp but would be dry soon enough. The traveler draped it back across her shoulders and appraised the sobbing young woman on the ground. Another shawl appeared in her hand as she approached her. “Sarah, get up, you don’t belong in the trash. It’s time to be strong now.”
“Are you an angel?” The naked woman held her torn clothing close to her body.
“I am despair.” She helped to pull away the shreds of clothing that could never again cover its owner and wrapped the woman in the shawl until it concealed and warmed her. Then she reached into a pocket and pulled out a pin that gleamed gold in the dim light. She used it to secure the shawl. It covered the battered woman like a toga, short but concealing. “This pin will keep you safe. Never lose it, nor give it away. No need to worry about him, he’ll keep. Do you know where the police station is?”
The woman nodded.
“Good, go there now and report this. He’ll be waiting right here for the police to come. You can stop him from hurting another for a very long time. Go now, Sarah. You can do it. You’re stronger than you think.” The woman ran out of the alley.
“Thomas, when the police arrive, you have another chance. Confess to all your crimes and do the time they give you. And, if you ever harm another human being so long as you live then I’ll be back, and I’ll not be so nice.”
She strode out of the alley, leaving a terrified man behind, crying like a child who had just learned that monsters really do lurk in the dark.
One last duty remained before she could rest.
The rain and wind beckoned, calling on her to resume the game. Sway, step, and turn, her motions evolved into a dance in response to the growing ferocity of the tempest. The winds flowed through her and took with them the residual emotions she had been forced to endure. It freed her to dance with greater intensity and purity of spirit; step left, the raindrop missed, twist, twirl, and leap.
She enjoyed being alone with the gale; it was as close to freedom as she had ever known. The rain came down harder, and her dance became more elaborate to compensate. She danced toward the suburbs, twirling and leaping into the waiting winds. Her graceful motions set off by the flashes of lightning, and the joyful sounds of thunder. And always, there were the raindrops, each one to heed and avoid. Some she teased and almost let strike her, just to spin away at the last possible moment. The heart of the tempest was almost upon her. The rain came down in a deluge of sheets, to avoid them she stepped ever so gently between the veil that separated the realms.
Thus, insubstantial, she stood before the small tract house; invisible to all save for the moment the lightning flash illuminated the world. For that moment, the banshee’s ghostly form appeared, wringing her hands and crying in sympathy.
She watched as the young mother inside moved around the kitchen, busily trying to feed her young offspring. Two small children fidgeted at a table next to the high chair where a baby was making a game out of throwing his sippy cup on the floor for his mother to retrieve. The woman moved deftly between feeding the baby a mouthful, getting the other two another helping from the stove, and picking up the cup.
Love emanated from the house, as tangible the woman’s angst and fatigue. The woman loved her home, her children, and her soldier husband who was off fighting a war in another land. She did her best to hide her apprehension from the little ones. The banshee could feel her worry, why hadn’t she heard from him this week?
A black military staff car came down the street.
It stopped in the front of the military housing unit. Two men in military uniforms got out and tightened their coats to better protect themselves against the storm. Like her, they were here because they had an unpleasant duty to perform. They carried news, unwelcome news that would destroy the wife inside the home.
“Men and their wars,” The Banshee had stood many times near little abodes such as this because men cared naught for those left behind to pick up the pieces of their folly.
The soldiers approached the door with a letter in their hand.
She knew what the letter held. Pain and loss built up within her until the sorrow become unbearable. She wailed, giving the sorrow to the wind, low at first, so low that it was hardly distinguishable from the din of the storm. The woman inside the small house heard it, however. Deep in her soul, the young mother knew. She remembered the legends that her Irish grandmother had told her, and the wail of the banshee filled her with dread. She fought against her irrational thoughts.
The doorbell rang.
The spirit of the storm could now feel the emotions of the woman who stumbled to answer the door and pulled the greatest portion of her fear and apprehension, bringing it back to her. The banshee wailed again, long and mournful, to dampen the pain and ease the shock of realization; the new widow was numb as she answered the door.
The next wail was deep and terrible in its despair.
The banshee absorbed the fear and pain, holding it as long as she could bear. It was only the next earsplitting wail that prevented the woman inside from going into hysterics as she saw the letter.
“Be strong for your children,” the phantom whispered on the wind.
A shaky hand received the letter.
Another cry split the air to take away the oppressive finality of the message announcing her husband’s death.
“What’s done is done. The letter doesn’t make it so. Open it. I’m here. I’ll help, you’re not alone.” The banshee whispered as she drew the sting of the loss into herself.
The woman read.
Pain tore at the woman’s soul. The banshee wailed, lamenting what was, all that could have been. The sound, loud as thunder, shook the heavens and echoed between the veils that separate worlds. She lamented the children that would never be born. She wailed for every tear the children who remained would shed without a father to guide them. The long mournful shrieks carried it all away, dispersing it into the storm, until all that remained was a mother who would carry on alone, for the sake of her children.
The widow stared down at the paper for a long time. Finally, accepting the truth, she slumped to the floor and wept.
For the worthy, the spirit could take the worst of the pain away at the horrible moment of learning. Most of the woman’s tears, however, would be spent over the months and years ahead, a sacrifice to her husband, laid nightly upon his pillow. She would carry on and raise his children as women had always done. The family would prevail, and an ancient bloodline would endure.
Her job done, the banshee left. More ritualistic, more melancholic, she swayed her way back into the real world; twist, twirl, and leap. The storm subsided around her, and she danced until it was gone. She ended her dance facing the sky, and let a solitary raindrop strike her. One tear from the heavens landed on her fairy face and trickled down her cheek.
Opening her arms, she bid farewell to the retreating tempest. It left with its power and majesty, and the woes of man. The world really was a better place after a storm.
“One way to Portland,” She said to the elderly man at the Greyhound ticket window.
The stranger made her way to an empty window in the back of the bus. A final lightning bolt struck above them as the bus rolled out onto the lonely highway, heading west. She shed her last bit of glamour and slumped back into the seat, giving into the exhaustion. Several seats ahead sat a woman still wearing her waitress outfit.
The stranger smiled.
The world of Man may have turned their backs on the Fey, but the fairy folk have long memories. They still tend to the children of those they once called a friend.