Peter vowed to stay with me, in sickness and in health, forty meters from his dead wife’s grave, on the steps of his dying manor. The dying manor lay at the foothills of the dying village, kissed good-night by the dying sun. This Droste effect of deterioration and decay is my wedding portrait.
It should have come as no surprise then that my cadaverous groom’s mistress was a Banshee. There were rumors, of course, of another woman. Annabelle herself had hinted as much, but this was . . . startling.
No wonder the neighbors looked at me sorrowfully and blessed my heart.
Expectations were low for the wedding night. Age and a mutual lack of attraction make for soggy fireworks. But I can’t say I wasn’t offended when she came.
She dropped like a silvery tear from the moon through the pane of glass. Beautiful, of course— thin and sylphlike. Glittering and translucent. Youthful. She reclined on my pillow and pulled Peter’s dim, grey head to her ivory breast. Fiery hair fell in undulating waves over his face, drawing an otherworldly curtain. Then the Banshee sang. A low, throaty wailing sound. Not beautiful, but sensual.
From the lumpy armchair, I gave them my version of the evil eye. All. Night. Long.
I confronted Peter about it over breakfast. It was necessary to shout, otherwise I’d never be heard, from my end of the long, long table. Wispy eyebrows rose like surprised rainclouds on a wrinkly expanse of sky, then fell in furrows over his drooping nose. “Annabelle never minded.”
“Annabelle was a fool.” I retorted. “When we were children, she sat in front of me at church. Every time I got bored, which was often, I pulled one of her big, fat, springy curls. I guess she didn’t mind that either. She never told me stop—she didn’t even say ‘Ouch.’”
“She was probably scared of you. You were a bit of a bully, Margaret.”
“Ah… That’s probably it. You’re very astute.” My lips twitched.
His lips hardened. “I’m not discussing Annabelle with you.”
“As you wish.”
We ate our porridge in silence. I wondered if the house, the servants, and my plans were worth dealing with Peter and the phantom third wheel. He was probably wondering if he would have been better off hiring a housekeeper than marrying a bitchy old maid.
At bedtime, Peter presented me with a. . . gift? It was a small wooden box, engraved with a moon and stars motif. Inside lay a silken purple sleeping mask and two matching feathered earplugs. Gingerly, I picked up an earplug by its bedraggled plume and examined it. The rubber end was crusty and discolored.
“You gave me your dead wife’s earwax.”
He sighed, much abused, and climbed into bed. I closed Annabelle’s box of denial and laid it to rest in the wastebasket.
I curled up on the armchair, its lumps caressing mine, and waited for the Banshee to come.
She didn’t acknowledge me with her eyes, but with a twist of icy lips. I didn’t acknowledge her at all. Her shimmering and singing was an absolute bore. I picked up one of Annabelle’s books, a silly romance, and read steadily through the night.
Tomorrow, I’d ask Peter if he’d heard her keening on the night his wife died. Did his girl do her job like a proper Banshee, or was she merely ornamental?
The sun rose, as it always does, and the Banshee melted into its fiery rays. I dozed then, and when I awoke, Peter had already disappeared. Not literally, like his Creature of the Night. He was just making himself scarce, probably driving his inconvenient horse and buggy through the village streets where only cars belong. Buggies are dead, Peter is a relic.
The moon-and-stars box had left the wastebasket and found a new home on my pillow. I chucked it out the window and went in search of servants to interrogate.
The maids were useless, all reciting the same script: “Annabelle never minded.”
Senile old Cook was better. She’d known Peter and his long-gone family since she was a girl. “You have to understand, dearie. They’ve got a very special bond. He’s the last of his blood.”
“So her days are numbered, too. Banshees are tied to their families, you know. They watch over the noble families. But what happens to a Banshee when that line ends?”
“They follow.” Cook clutched her big bosomy heart at the romanticism of it all.
“The Banshee’s cracked, then. If I were her, I’d have moved my arse out of the bedroom years ago, so that the line could continue—if you know what I mean. Annabelle was always strolling stupid babydolls around. I’m sure she would have been happy to oblige and continue the Banshee curse indefinitely.”
“Not a curse,” Cook admonished. “Their keening heralds the death of the great ones.”
“And as for poor Annabelle. . . no children ever made it safely from her womb.”
“Did she mind?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Of course she minded. But after that last time, the bad time, the doctor said no more.”
“The Banshee had no reason to stay away.”
The moon rose, illuminating the box on my pillow. Annabelle’s box that would not go. I opened it again. Threw away the mask. Threw away the earplugs. Was about to throw away the box when I felt a sharp tug at my hair.
I ouched and jumped up, fists balled. The box fell to the ground with a crack like split bone.
No one was there.
I knelt to pick up the box. The lid had broken open, revealing a secret compartment. No jewels. No old coins. Just a bit of a crushed sleeping tablet and a folded note.
The scribbled writing on the note was dark and furious. Holes punctured letters where the pen had pressed too deeply. I mind. I do. I do.
Icy claw-like fingers grabbed a hank of my hair, close the scalp, and tugged violently. It made me glad. I was proud of my ‘Belle.
“Spirit at last?” I chuckled.
Peter crept in late, when he thought I’d be asleep. I wore Annabelle’s sleeping mask and let out soft, fake snores.
The mattress dipped beneath his weight. Shortly after, ice and prickles wrapped in female form slid between us. The Banshee flipped her hair so that the frozen strands dragged across my face, but I refused to shiver. Once she had made herself comfortable, the wretch wrapped herself around my husband’s body and began to croon.
Discreetly, I pushed up one end of the night-mask and blinked sight back to my blurred eye. In the moonlight, Annabelle was visible in the doorway. She more lucent than the Banshee and wavered like pond water beneath a barrage of stones. Tarnished gold and silver curls rested limply on her shoulders, devoid of the delicious springiness of her youth. This insipid little husk of an apparition was a disappointment. She was such a pretty girl—I thought she’d have made a prettier ghost.
Annabelle rolled her hollowed eyes, as if she had read my thoughts, and pointed to the Banshee. The floosy and Peter were tented in her hair, lost in song and nonsense, and never noticed us wives.
She won’t let me in . . . she mouthed noiselessly.
I threw the mask to the floor and jumped up on the bed. I knew some songs of my own. At the top of my voice, I sang my favorite. Not a hymn or anything like that—just a ribald, old drinking song of my daddy’s.
The Banshee does not sing duets, and is apparently unused to being interrupted. She relaxed her hold on my husband and turned on me. As she uncoiled, her lovely features twisted and her teeth sharpened. Fury shot like lightning from her eyes, but landed as no more than a tickle. These feeble attempts at intimidation gave me the giggles, which of course only served to make her angrier.
She tried to stare me down, but something over her shoulder caught my eye. Annabelle had entered her old room, her old bed, and straddled Peter. More fearsome than phantom, her body pressed against his, and her slim white hands held his throat. He quivered with fear, which was funny, too. He was more scared of his sweet, little wife than he was of a harbinger of death.
Loud and long and into his face. Decades of rage, pain, and resentment poured from her lips into his.
When the Banshee joined in, I knew it was over.
It must have killed her to know her last song was a duet. Something to be shared. Her keening rose above Annabelle’s shriek, but her death knell only served as the descant to a lifetime of suffering. Annabelle’s voice could not be stifled.
The Banshee fell silent. Her mournful eyes reproached me.
“Oh, go to hell.” I was not one to be reproached.
She disappeared then. Evaporated, the way inconvenient, heavy fogs always do.
I ran my hand up Peter’s chest. It was cold, and his heart no longer beat.
Annabelle sat on the edge of bed, swinging her legs and glowing like a girl. She smiled at me, both sheepish and proud. I smiled back—not sheepish, just proud.
“You could stay, you know. There’s plenty of room, and it’s your house, too. That is, if you don’t mind me being here.”
She reached out and gave my old, grey forelock a gentle tug.
BIO: J.G. Formato is a writer and teacher from North Florida. She lives in a little house by the woods with her husband, four children, two dogs, two cats, and one highly gymnastic hamster. Her short fiction has appeared in Persistent Visions, Bracken, Equus from World Weaver Press, and elsewhere.