Author's Note: I did not write the Irish folk song "My Singing Bird." If you enjoy Irish music, I highly recommend Sinead O'Connor's beautiful rendition. This fiction is rated T for instances of language, violence and sexual scenarios. Will do my best to return reads/reviews! They're greatly appreciated.
(in Irish folklore) a spirit in the form of a wailing woman who appears to or is heard by members of a family as a sign that one of them is about to die.
Oh, it's an iconic image now, the Irish washerwoman. She sits round a tub of steaming hot water, a wooden framed washboard in hand, fingers pruned and numb from scrubbing, diligently tending to her domestic duties. The tauntingly nicknamed 'biddies' wrote to their families that they were 'in service,' but for less than five shillings a week, their labor was little better than slavery. Still, any life - even an indentured one - was better than the starvation blighting Ireland, or the disease-ridden squalor of squatting in South Boston tenements.
After nineteen years of hunger and every day being a struggle, a fight to survive, Branwen Keane was just thankful to have a roof over her head and food in her belly. She never thought she'd beg at the door of somewhere as lovely as Ashworth Manor, much less grace its halls, albeit just to dust them.
Ashworth Manor was a Victorian mansion so grand it could have housed the Queen herself, and to be fair, Mistress Ashworth certainly thought herself a Queen. The urban palace lay just outside of Boston, however, not England. The mansion was fairly new, constructed in the Italianate style popular at the time, three stories high with a low-pitched roof, tower protruding out the top, and an iron-wrought balcony where Mistress Ashworth stepped out and surveyed her 'kingdom.' Unlike the polluted city sprawl, where the only thing green was vomit pooling in the streets, Ashworth Manor had a gorgeous garden terrace that reminded Branwen of home before the famine struck and browned the land.
Out of habit, she left a bowl of cream outside like her Welsh mother would, so the 'Little People' spared the garden vegetables from destruction and let them flourish. Each morning, the bowl was mysteriously empty. The other maids scoffed and assured Branwen the thirsty culprit was just the mouser cat slinking outside, not a brownie or pooka seeking tribute.
Dozens of poor Irish could have nested in Ashworth Manor with room to spare, but it only housed the Master and Mistress, their two children, and several maidservants. Master Ashworth was home infrequently; an aristocrat who craved not only money, but power, he served as a state delegate climbing up the political ranks in the Whig party. The family planned to take their yearly holiday to visit with relatives in England, so the house servants were even harder at work than usual, readying for the Ashworth's highly anticipated departure. The Mistress wouldn't set foot beyond her front gates without ensuring the marble floors were polished from top to bottom, not a crumb spotted the fine china, nor a wrinkle creased the linens.
Branwen was quite happy to be assigned laundry; the fresh, breezy air was certainly preferable to sweating in the scullery with Miss Bridget, a stout bossy woman who took up most of the room with her size and chatter. Over and over again, she wrung the Ashworth's sopping wet vestments out of the piping hot tub before her, and clipped them to the clothesline dangling above to dry. A song from home passed Branwen's lips, like it often did while she tended chores.
"I have seen the lark soar high at morn
Heard his song up in the blue
I have heard the blackbird pipe his note
The thrush and the linnet too
But there's none of them can sing so sweet
My singing bird as you."
So lost was she in song, Branwen took no notice of the figure approaching her, until his own voice merged with hers in a deep, lilting melody that prickled her skin with goosebumps before she even glimpsed him. When she gazed upward, and realized who stared and sang back at her, she dropped Master Ashworth's pure cotton white dress shirt onto the ground, a fumble which would've earned her a slap across the face from the head housekeeper or Mistress Ashworth had they known. Branwen stumbled backward, but her visitor caught her underneath the arm before she fell. He didn't stop singing, even as she trembled in his grasp.
"If I could lure my singing bird
From her own cozy nest
If I could catch my singing bird
I would warm her on my breast
For there's none of them can sing so sweet
My singing bird as you."
Lorcan McCraith drew Branwen to him, as he always did, his arms winding around her form, still small and lithe but thankfully no longer starving. Although he was full of strength and warmth, she shivered. His fingers gently brushed the wayward strands of red spilling from the bun pinning her hair back. He smiled down at her, ignoring but not oblivious to her fear.
"Oh, Bran, my songbird. How I've missed you."
Lorcan was the epitome of black Irish good looks. He was of average height, and slim, his body corded with taut muscle from years of hard labor. His skin was a noticeably darker olive brown, hinting at a trace of Spanish ancestry, and his face was of such beauty, other men of Southie jested one smile could have even the most virtuous lasses petticoat round her ankles. The only oddity about his appearance were his pointed ears, which he typically concealed underneath a cap, reacting vehemently whenever anyone drew attention to their unusual sharpness. His lightest features were his green eyes, which never seemed to stop flickering in mischief, promising fun... and trouble... which Branwen knew too well.
The last time she saw him, he had been in rags just as she was, his dangerously beautiful face coated in grime, disheveled clothes twenty years out of fashion. Now, he was freshly bathed, a stylish felt hat covering his dark slicked back hair, and donning a high-collared frock coat so finely fitted it must have been personally tailored for him. Branwen knew, though, that no matter how fancy his garments, they were tainted, covered in the blood of innocents.
"I... I didn't think you'd ever find me..."
He chuckled and slid his hand down her lower back. "I don't lose track of my belongings easily." His Dublin accent was noticeably different from hers; while he hailed from the city, she came from the countryside of County Cork.
Lorcan squeezed her tighter. "Last time I held you, you were nothing but ribs, now you're feeling softer. Glad they're keeping you fed, Bran. Or did the Puritan Master come knockin' at your door after hours, and put his bastard seed in your belly?"
Branwen was relieved he pressed her face against his chest, so he couldn't see her pale skin flush. "No, no, o'course not. Master Ashworth is a good and virtuous Christian. He'd never. No man's touched me, not since.. not since you."
"I remember that night fondly, your sweet lips and porcelain skin, burying my face in your long crimson hair, spilling freely down your back, not bound up as it is now. I plucked you to be a feather in my cap, and yet you flew away."
"How did you find me, Lorcan?"
He drew back from her and tilted her chin upward, forcing her pale gray eyes to meet his vibrant green. "I'm the only man to tame you, you wouldn't survive a night on your back in a brothel, too much a child yourself to teach a schoolhouse, and too stubborn of spirit to waste away and die in a gutter. I wondered if you donned a habit, but you'd never feel content cloistered from the outside world, harsh as it may be. It saddened, but didn't surprise me, that you made yourself a biddie, waiting hand and foot on English pigs, a safe little slave."
The young dark-haired man nodded toward the empty bowl of cream on the ground, which Branwen had yet to fill this morning. "I have other birdies watching, you know, though none sing as lovely as you." The sight of the cream bowl, the enigmatic meaning behind Lorcan's words, tingled Branwen's spine.
"Please," she whispered. "Leave me be. I'm happy here."
A shrill voice, posh and reprimanding, interrupted the pair before Lorcan had opportunity to deride her claim. "Branwen! Branwen! I swear, leave these biddies unattended for one moment, and they start slacking!"
Mistress Ashworth burst outside the painted oak doors of her home, her blazing bright pink gown and domed skirt flouncing quite spectacularly. She looked more like a cake decoration than the high fashion Parisian women she desperately wished to emulate. Behind her powdered make-up, she would have been a handsome woman, had she smiled more and not drawn on her eyebrows at such a high arch, giving her an air of constant irritated surprise. The scullery maid Bridget bawdily joked the Mistress always looked ready to stoop over the crapper.
The pink-clad woman was out of breath by the time she reached the pair and her abandoned laundry. Branwen wriggled out of Lorcan's arms, though she knew had he chosen to hold her, he would have no matter how much she pushed and squirmed. "M-Mistress! I'm so sorry, he's just an old family friend, come to tell me my.. my dear sweet auntie's passed..."
"I don't believe it, you trollop," Mistress Ashworth sneered. "I don't care if your dear sweet auntie is already six feet underground, you know male visitors aren't allowed on the premises without a chaperone. You filthy paddies breed like rabbits." She lifted a hand, ready to strike her servant forcefully across the face, but before her open palm made contact with Branwen's rosy cheek, her hand froze in air as if by some invisible force.
"I wouldn't, Mistress Ashworth, if I were you."
Branwen knew from experience that the softness of Lorcan's tone was more dangerous than had he yelled.
Mistress Ashworth winced, unable to twist her own arm from its imperceptible lock. Her ice cold eyes now glazed over, a drunken expression relaxing her normally irked features. "Oh?" she said faintly. "And why is that?"
"Because, I'm a selfish sort. I don't like others touching my things, especially without permission." He cocked his head to the side, surveying her prudently, a cat wondering how to toy with a mouse before swallowing it whole. "Why don't you slap yourself, to apologize?"
"Lorcan," Branwen said, "please, don't."
"I'm sorry, Branwen," Mistress Ashworth said in the same bewildered manner. "Do forgive me." She was now able to move her paralyzed extremity, and took both hands, smacking herself repeatedly across each cheek, over and over again without the slightest care about the stinging pain she no doubt inflicted upon herself. The sight was horrifyingly comedic, but Branwen was too unnerved to glean pleasure from the woman's mindless self-harm, no matter how often the Mistress insulted or hit her. Lorcan, however, smirked and snickered as if he sat in a theater watching a highly entertaining play.
"Lorcan!" Branwen was in a panic now. "Please, I'm begging you, make it stop!"
He sighed heavily, like a child whose prank was spoiled by an adult who forgot how to have fun. "Very well, mo ghrá.*"
The Mistress abruptly ceased her manic movements, her caked on make-up smeared. She was still under Lorcan's trance, by the dazed glint in her eye.
"Now, oink like the frilly hog in a dress you are, and crawl on your hands and knees in the dirt back to your glorified pigpen."
Though Branwen was terrified, she couldn't help but choke out a nervous laugh. The image of the ever-so-dignified Mistress Ashworth hunkering down on all fours, in her flouncing finery, and grunting through her nostrils as she dragged herself belly-first through the muck, would have forced Master Ashworth himself to chuckle. The vindictive part of Branwen only wished the other maids could have gathered outside to see. Lorcan threaded his long, nimble fingers through hers, and pressed her hand tightly.
"I've missed it," he said. "Your laughter."
"You've gotten me into another fine mess, Lorcan McCraith. Now the whole household is going to come rushing outside wondering why the Mistress is covered in mud squealing like a pig."
"We'll be gone, by then." He tugged her hand insistently. "Come, I've got a carriage to take us back to Boston."
Branwen bit her lip and shook her head. The most frightening thing in the world was telling Lorcan 'no.'
"I can't. I... I don't want to. S'not much, but I'm happy here, Lorcan. I have a normal life for once. I can't go back to Southie, not with the Black Rose Gang, not with all that thievin' and violence and bloodshed, not with you. I'm sorry. Please, just go and let me be."
He refused to take 'no' for an answer, like Branwen knew he would. "Things have calmed down, with the Black Rose boys and me. I've bought a pub, The Roisin Dubh. You can sing there every night like you've always wanted. No one's innocent, not in these times, but all we take from our neighbors is a few shillings a month, like the bowl of cream you leave for the Little People, a protection fee. We're actually keeping the neighborhood safe from other gangs."
Branwen remained still, not saying a word, and refused to meet Lorcan's pleading gaze. He pushed her hand away, turned and plucked a leaf dangling from the branch of a great elm tree overlooking them in the cool shade. He held the green leaf out to her, and with a wave of his other hand, the leaf transformed into a dollar bill. Branwen's eyes widened, but she did not take the money offered. Instead, she backed away from him, and nearly tumbled into the hanging clothesline where her all but forgotten laundry flapped in the breeze.
"I can give you whatever you want, Bran, with a wee bit o' glamour. The money always turns back into leaves, by the next day, but shopkeepers are too bewildered to catch me. I can get you out of that horrid smock, into gowns that would make Mistress Hog flush in envy. All you have to do is be mine."
"If you can make Mistress Ashworth pretend to be a pig, and turn leaves into money, why can't you just make me go with you?"
Lorcan smiled softly, sadly. "You can't force someone to love you. Not even the strongest glamour can do that."
A moment of bravery struck Branwen. She asked the question she always feared to ask. "You're not human. You're one of them, aren't you? The Fair Folk?"
In the myths and legends her mother told her, the fae couldn't reveal an untruth, in spite of their wrathful trickster ways. He merely continued to smile, drew closer, and placed her hand on his solid waistcoat-adorned chest, so she could feel the gentle thrum of his heartbeat. Up close, his beauty was almost blinding. "I have two eyes to gaze upon you, lips to kiss you with, and a heart that beats for you. What else does a human make, Bran?"
"That's not an answer. You also have two pointed ears, and can perform magic.. or glamour... or whatever you call it."
"You're perfectly human, mo ghrá, and I'm under your spell."
"I don't love you, Lorcan." Tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes, two pale gray depths as stormy as an Irish sky. "And I never will. You terrify me."
Fury contorted Lorcan's beauty into a hideous mask, proving his allure was just another glamour, a leaf pretending to be riches. He crumpled the dollar in his fist. "Know that I did not wish for it to come to this, songbird. But if you do not sing for me, you will for no one."
By no accord of her own, Branwen collapsed forward onto her knees, before the wash tub, the water no longer boiling but tepid. She realized, even in her panic, that crying out for her life was useless, but uncontrollable sobs wracked her body anyway. Lorcan moved behind her, his footsteps swift and silent. She tried to gather up all of the will in her being to stir and fight back however she could, but he exerted the same merciless invisible restraint that he had over Mistress Ashworth. He yanked her hair, and red tresses came tumbling down her back, just like the first night they made love.
"Sing for me one last time, mo ghrá."
A piercing wail tore out of her, as painful as war or childbirth, as the sounds of life and death itself, one that would haunt the residents of Ashworth Manor for years to come. He submerged her head under the water of the wash tub until her body went limp and she screamed no more.
He had slipped away by the time the maids found her, cold and ghostly white, slumped over her wash as though she were still performing chores, an Irish washerwoman to the end. And like the dried up leaves in the shopkeepers' registers, Lorcan McCraith couldn't quite be blamed for the crime. No one left a bowl of cream for the Little People, any longer, and the Ashworth garden dried and withered like the young woman who died among its once vibrant green terrace.
But that wasn't the last time Branwen Keane's screaming cry pierced the air, nor was it the last time she sang for a McCraith. For whether he knew it or not, Lorcan McCraith had found a way for Branwen to sing for him and his descendants, forever.
The Banshee of South Boston was born.
*mo ghrá - my love