Bean Sidhe by Maureen Bowden

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Narrated by Bob Eccles

My grandmother, Ninny O’Hagan, told me a secret when I was seven-years-old. We were on our way home from town. Every Saturday she took me out and bought me a piece of furniture for the doll’s house Dad made me. This time it was a blue plastic bathtub. I can still recall its smell. It reminds me of the day I found out who I was.

Bean Sidhe
Photograph by Eleanor Bennett

‘I have something else to give you,’ she said, leading me into Saint Anne’s church. Our shoes clicked and echoed up the aisle and I breathed in the smell of incense as she led me to the side chapel. We sat in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary cradling her impossible son.

She nodded to the icon, as you would to an old friend, before turning to me. ‘She knows more than she was telling. So do I, and so will you.’ She squeezed my arm. ‘You must never tell anyone, Moirhan.’ She always called me that daft name. Everyone else called me Marianne. ‘You and I are Bean Sidhe: women of the Sidhe, daughters of the Goddess,’ she glanced again at the statue, ‘whatever men choose to call her.’

Dad had told me stories about the keening of the Bean Sidhe, the female monsters howling at the death of the ancient Gaelic leaders. I started to cry, ‘I don’t want to be a monster.’

She slapped my hand. ‘We’re not monsters, but we have Cumhacht: power over life and death.’ She had my attention now. This was turning into an interesting day. ‘I don’t have much time left in this worn-out flesh, and when my silver cord snaps the Cumhacht will be yours.’ She was no longer Ninny, who sang me lullabies and read me stories. She was scary. ‘The wisdom to use it well won’t come easy, and I’ll be keeping my eye on you, so don’t think this is going to be fun.’ We’ll see about that, I thought, but she seemed to whittle her way into my mind, ‘I was like you, once,’ she said. ‘I know you better than you know yourself.’ I looked at her as if I’d never seen her before: wrinkled, bent, long grey hair snatched into a bun in the nape of her neck, like Snow White’s stepmother cackling over her apple, but her eyes were still clear, and as blue as my plastic bathtub. Blue was her colour.

That night I wrote in my diary, ‘Ninny told me I’m a Banshee. When she dies I’ll get the Coo Act and I’ll be able to kill people.’ I read it over and over, and then I tore out the page and threw it in the fire in case Mum and Dad went snooping. I knew how to keep a secret.

My cousin, John told me another one. ‘Your dad’s a bastard.’

‘He’ll tan your hide when I tell him you said that. Only grown-ups are allowed to swear.’

‘It’s not swearing. I heard my nanna say your ninny wasn’t married. That means he doesn’t have a dad, so he’s a bastard.’ John’s nanna was Ninny O’Hagan’s sister: Auntie Aggie. She didn’t like Ninny and I didn’t like her. Uncle Jimmy, her husband, used to come round to our house sometimes to talk to Mum and Dad and Ninny. Auntie Aggie never came. When I get the Cumhacht she’d better watch out, I thought. I walloped John in the face. His nose started bleeding and he ran away, howling like a Bean Sidhe.

Mum was watching. ‘Marianne, come here,’ she called. ‘Why did you smack John?’

‘He said Dad’s a bastard because Ninny wasn’t married.’

Mum’s face went pale and her lips tightened like they always did when she was angry. ‘Of course she was married,’ she said. ‘Granddad O’Hagan died before you were born.’ She didn’t look at me when she said it. She was a bad liar, not like me. I could stare into anyone’s eyes, except Ninny’s, spin a load of old flannel, and they’d believe every word.

Mum needn’t have worried. I wasn’t telling. Keeping secrets was fun.

Ninny died six months later. I woke in the middle of the night, and for the first time I heard the keening of the Bean Sidhe. I tried to tell myself that it was the singing drunks staggering home after chucking out time at The Swan, but the Cumhacht had already touched me. I rose out of my body and drifted outside to join them beneath her bedroom window. They stood in rows: rainbow-coloured ghosts in the moonlight. A few of them had a silver cord attached to the soft place beneath their ribs. The Cumhacht told me that it linked them to their living bodies. Those without it were dead. Ninny faced us. Her hair hung to her waist in black curls, her skin was pale and unlined and she stood tall and straight. Her silver cord snapped.

The Bean Sidhe called, ‘Welcome Ninian,’ and the keening rose to a pitch that the legends say makes men scream and wish for death.

I woke in my bed when it was barely light. I could hear voices, doors opening and closing, Mum crying, and footsteps on the stairs.

Dad came into my room. He sat on my bed and took my hand. ‘Ninny’s gone to the angels, Marianne,’ he said. I knew she wasn’t with the angels, but I kept the secret.

At the funeral Auntie Aggie and Uncle Jimmy sat beside us in the pew, while the priest splashed holy water on the coffin. Auntie Aggie said, loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘May the wrong she did die with her.’ Mum gave her the same look she gave Dad when he came home singing from The Swan.

Ninian stepped into my dreams most nights. She talked to me about the Cumhacht. ‘It’s dangerous, Moirhan,’ she said, ‘Use it for the good of others, but never for your own good, unless you’re in great danger; and don’t make excuses to yourself for using it to get what you want.’

I nodded in agreement whilst telling myself I’d decide what to do with it, but I couldn’t keep secrets from her. She said ‘If you abuse the Cumhacht I’ll take it away from you.’

I remembered her telling me she used to be just like me. ‘Was it ever taken away from you, Ninian?’ I said.

She smiled. ‘Yes, but that was for abusing another kind of power.’ I was about to ask her more, but she stepped out of the dream.

My curiosity about Ninian and my dad’s father grew as I acquired a rudimentary sex education from smutty jokes and adolescent speculation.

I learned the truth when I was twelve. ‘Aggie’s dying,’ Ninian said. ‘Be a friend to her. She won’t accept friendship from me.’

‘Nor from me,’ I said. She crosses the street to avoid me.’

‘That’s because you remind her of me, and she can’t forgive me for what I did.’

I had a feeling I was about to collect another secret. ‘What did you do?’ I said.

‘I seduced her husband.’

‘Uncle Jimmy? Why did you do that?’

‘Because I could, and I was young and selfish.’

‘So he’s my grandfather?’

‘Yes. When Peter, your dad, was born Aggie knew. She’s a Bean Sidhe but she gave up the Cumhacht so that she wouldn’t be tempted to kill me.’

‘Is that why it was taken away from you?’

‘Yes. The last thing she did before she gave it up was to take it from me because I’d abused my power as a woman.’

‘When did you get it back?’

‘The day I died, and it awoke in you.’

I felt differently about Auntie Aggie after that. When she was too ill to get out of bed I visited her. ‘Is that you, Ninian?’ she said.

‘No, It’s Moirhan. It’s not my fault that I look like her.’

‘I know, child, and the time for hate’s long past.’

‘Is there anything I can do for you?’

‘You can read to me if you like. My eyesight’s failing.’ I picked up the book from the bedside table: Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She grinned. ‘Don’t worry I won’t tell your Ma and Pa.’

‘It’s our secret,’ I said.

Every week I visited her and lady Chatterley. I learned more from that book than I did from the diagram of the reproductive system of the rabbit in my biology book. When she was close to death she said ‘Will the Bean Sidhe keen for me, Moirhan?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I promise’.

When Ninian stepped into my dream that night I told her I’d given my word. She nodded.

When the time came Auntie Aggie left her body and stood before us as we keened. Her silver cord snapped and we called, ‘Welcome, Moragan.’ Her hair was the colour of fire and her eyes blazed green. The touch of the goddess shone in the contours of her face. Ninian’s colour was blue; mine was red; Moragan’s was gold.

Dad died when I was fourteen. He’d been born with a weak heart and I suppose he just wore it out. It stopped one Saturday evening as he was watching the football results on TV, filling in his Littlewoods Pools coupon. I was in my room beautifying myself with lipstick and eye shadow I’d stolen from Mum’s make-up bag, when the Cumhacht called me to the Bean Sidhe. I rose from my body and joined them. He was a man of the Sidhe, so I stood with the two sisters and we keened as the Goddess took him. I know he heard us. Mum said he was smiling when he died. She thought he’d finally got the draws right and won us a fortune.

It was a pity he hadn’t because Mum’s part time job at Tescos didn’t pay much and Dad’s pension barely covered the bills. The insurance man, Barry Braughton, made a suggestion to Mum. I was ear wigging at the top of the stairs.

‘Listen, Irene,’ he said, ‘you’ve never made a claim. Get together some of Pete’s old clothes and set fire to them in the backyard. I’ll push it through, no questions asked.’ That was a secret I’d rather not have collected.

Ninian agreed. ‘The Cumhacht’s growing in you. Protect your mother.’

After the dodgy fire insurance claim, Barry had a hold over her. Every week he’d call. He’d be leaving by the back door when I came home from school. Sometimes I could tell she’d been crying. One day the school bus was early and I arrived while they were upstairs. He came down first and smirked when he saw me. I walked out to the backyard and opened the door for him. He followed me out and pinned me against the wall. He put his hand on my breast. His colour was muddy brown. The Cumhacht flared, he screamed, clutched at his chest, and ran out the door and down the back entry. I watched as he collapsed and died among the dog turds.

Our neighbour, Jack Davies found him when he heard stray dogs growling outside his back door. They were fighting over the body. Mum said next day it was the talk of Tescos that ‘dirty Barry’ had died of a heart attack. The story was he’d wet himself so he must have gone up the back entry for a slash. She noticed a lot of the women were singing to themselves as they shopped. She never spoke of him again after that, and I’d collected another secret,

Ninian knew, of course. ‘It’s alright, Moirhan,’ she said. You had to protect yourself and your mother, but don’t ever let killing come easy.’ I should have heeded her.

Jack Davies’ wife, Lucy, had Parkinson’s disease. In those days nothing much could be done about it. She was bent nearly double, she shook all the time and it was hard to understand what she was saying. She couldn’t go out so Mum used to do her shopping. Jack started calling to our house with a box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers as a thank you, and he’d stay for a cup of tea. I noticed how he and Mum looked at each other. It was innocent, of course. I knew they’d never do to Lucy what Ninian and Jimmy did to Moragan, but it started me thinking. What if she didn’t want to go on living with her illness? He’d make a great husband and step-dad, and I had the means to make us all happy.

One day, after Mum came in I offered to take Lucy’s shopping to her house for her. She was pleased to see me. While I was putting the shopping away she asked me how I was doing at school.

‘I’m doing okay,’ I said. ‘You might be able to help me with a project I’m working on. We have to ask people, if they had one wish that could be granted, what it would be.’ I guessed what she’d say, and I was right,

‘I’d wish Jesus would take me, Marianne.’

‘Do you mean you want to die?’ I was covering my back with Ninian.

‘I do, pet. Would you like to live like this?’

Bean Sidhe
Image credit: katalinks

That was enough for me. That night I stepped into her dream. She was young. She danced, swinging her hips, singing ‘My Boy Lollipop’. I snapped her silver cord. She smiled, waved to me, and stepped out of the dream.

Ninian was furious. ‘You had no right,’ she said.

‘But she wanted it, and now Mum and Jack can be happy too, so why was it wrong?’

‘You didn’t do it for them. You did it for yourself. That’s why it was wrong.’

‘I’m sorry. I thought it was best for everyone.’

‘Lucy would have died soon anyway. She didn’t need you to help her along. I warned you about making excuses for yourself. You’ve become dangerous, Moirhan. I’m taking the Cumhacht from you until you’re wise enough to know when not to use it.’ I sobbed and pleaded, but in my heart I knew she was right, and a small part of me was relieved.

Mum married Jack the following year. Everyone said how young and pretty she looked, but as I walked up the aisle behind her I could feel their eyes on me. Another power was growing in me: the one that Ninian abused. I wouldn’t make the mistake she made, at least not with the husband of a Bean Sidhe, but I intended to have some fun, and by the time I was given back the Cumhacht I’d have collected a few more secrets.

 

AUTHOR BIO: Maureen Bowden is an ex-patriate Liverpudlian living with her musician husband on the island of Anglesey, off the coast of North Wales, where they try in vain to evade the onslaught of their children and grandchildren. She writes for fun and she has had several poems and short stories published. She loves Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare and cats.

ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.com

 

References:

Gaye, Barbie (1956) ‘My Boy Lollipop’, Writers: Spencer, Levy and Roberts, USA, Darl Records.

Lawrence, D.H. (1960) [1928] Lady Chatterley’s Lover, London, Penguin Books.