Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Banshee

My grandfather was not only a superstitious man, but he worried almost constantly -- worst case scenarios were his specialty. He was a Boston Irish Catholic who went to Harvard when Irish Need Not Apply signs still hung in Boston storefronts. Pop was a day student at Harvard and his classmates would not speak to him because he was Irish. He graduated with the class of ‘28 and went on to work on Wall Street -- his first day on the job? October 29, 1929 -- Black Tuesday. He witnessed men jumping out of windows after losing their fortunes. So no wonder he worried.

A hat left on a bed would haunt him for weeks. A black cat crossing his path would send him to that cabinet over the refrigerator where Johnnie Walker would console him. “Never change a horse’s name.” Pop would say and I never did. “Never walk in one shoe.” or "Never walk with a crutch unless you truly need it." Once, when I was very small, I was playing with an umbrella in the house -- I opened it and walked about like the girl on the Morton's Salt box. Pop raised his voice to me, something he almost never did, “Don’t do that! Close it up, that’s bad luck!” A horse shoe was always to be hung with the opening upright so that the luck wouldn’t fall out. Getting out of bed on Friday the Thirteenth was practically impossible for him. He saw risk and omens everywhere he went and I grew up thinking this was a normal way to carry on.

I developed an intense fear of the dark when I went to live with my grandparents at the age of three. My mother had divorced my father and she had to earn a living working with horses on the race tracks of New York. She walked into a world where women were rare and not welcomed. Bringing me along was just not possible. So she left me in the hands of my quirky grandparents on a little farm in Connecticut, with horses and dogs and the Long Island Sound nearby. There wasn’t anything to be afraid of. I was given my own room and my pony was in the barn. But the change in my surroundings and the sudden absence of my mother instilled in me a desperate need to sleep with a light on. The closet light worked most nights, but there were nights when I needed not only the closet to be illuminated, but the bathroom light had to be on too...this would fill the hallway with a comforting glow that nothing evil could emerge from. My grandparents slept in separate bedrooms and Pop’s room would be filled by the light from the bathroom too, unless he closed his door. But I had a thing about my grandparents closing their bedroom doors at night too -- I needed them to be completely accessible. So poor Pop would spend the night showered in the light that I required. But he and my grandmother never made me feel that this problem I had with the dark was odd or wrong. I am sure they figured I would outgrow it, but it wasn’t until I went to college and had a roommate that I was finally forced to sleep in the dark -- I was too embarrassed to tell her that I needed a light on and so I would lie there sweating myself to sleep.

Pop told me about The Banshee one Halloween -- he wasn’t one to conjure up scary stories, although he was one of the best story tellers I ever knew. He was famous among his friends for his tales of horses and polo games. He had a mind like a vault for details and his memory never failed him in his 97 years -- if only his heart had remained as strong as his mind, he never would have left us. The Banshee, he explained, was a horrible screaming woman who’s visitation told of imminent death -- he described her as a hag with long dirty hair. She went running about in a long diaphanous gown and put the willies into the hearts of even the most courageous of Irishmen. He told me of hearing a knocking noise in the house the night his father died -- he was sure it was The Banshee trying to get in. His father was in Boston and my grandfather was miles and miles away in in southern Connecticut. But Pop said the knocking woke him in the middle of the night. In the morning he received a call that his father, who was a terrible drunk, had fallen down the cellar stairs and had died of a fractured skull.

My grandmother told him to stop frightening me with tales of The Banshee...but he wanted me to know about this harbinger of death, it was a tale his mother had told him and I am certain that he believed that The Banshee existed and that she might come for him one night. Of course I had to sleep with the closet light and the bathroom light on that night -- certainly the power of the light would keep this horrible bitch from coming into our house.

There was a rash of tack thefts around Connecticut in the mid-seventies. People were breaking into horse barns late at night and stealing saddles, bridles, any leather goods they could get their hands on. They were stealing horses too -- and selling them to slaughter houses. Our barn was close to the road on our 5-acre property, which made it an easy target -- far enough away from the house that someone could sneak in at night unnoticed. My grandfather decided to have an alarm system installed in the barn. We had a good friend named Clint who was a polo player and an electrician -- I nicknamed him String Bean cause he was so tall and skinny. So String Bean came over and put sensors on all the stall doors, the main door to the barn and the door to the tack room. He hung this enormous bell just outside the loft door under the eaves of the barn roof. When the bell was activated it sounded like an air raid -- it sounded like a prison break at San Quentin -- it sounded like a heist at Fort Knox. Nobody was going to sleep through that. And the horses were terrified of it -- their eyes bulged, they snorted, and spun in their stalls as String Bean tested each sensor to make certain it would trip the alarm.

Pop was very satisfied with his new burglar alarm. My grandmother was appalled and embarrassed by it. She apologized in advance to all the nearby neighbors and said that if Pop wasn’t such a Worry Wart, it wouldn’t be necessary. The neighbors just laughed.

It was summer time when Pop and String Bean put the alarm in the barn and back then, nobody in Connecticut had air conditioning. We all slept with our windows wide open -- the night air and the symphony of cicadas would set us all to dreaming....even if the closet light was on.

On the night of a full moon, exactly two weeks after String Bean had wired our barn against intruders, the alarm went off in the middle of the night. Its great bell revved and blasted like a wave up the hill from the barn and into the windows of our house. It silenced every cicada within 20 miles, I am certain of it. It woke my grandfather. It woke my grandmother. It woke me. I balled up under my sheets and squeezed my eyes shut and plugged my ears....all I could imagine was the story of Black Beauty. In my mind I saw a dirty little Cockney man with bad teeth wearing a torn tweed coat stealing my pony with the intention of taking him to work in the coal mines. I heard Pop get up out of bed -- “Goddammit! Goddammit!”

Now my grandfather was not one for hurrying -- I could hear him banging around in his room for his clothes and his boots. His boots were lace up paddock boots -- they took some time to put on and at 3 am, they were going to take that much more effort. My grandmother knew this. She had lived with the man for close to 40 years at this point. And she was furious about the alarm -- in her mind, all the neighbors were awake now and swearing a blue streak about the Glynn’s nuisance noise maker. So without a word, she slipped out of her bedroom in her bare feet and night gown. She busted out the kitchen screen door and ran to the barn to turn off the alarm as I trembled in my bed, certain that my pony was already half way to the coal mines of Wales. Then, the bell, as suddenly as it had started ringing, went silent.

I heard the screen door slam and I peered out my window to see my grandfather trundling in the moonlight toward the barn. I had no idea that my grandmother had left the house. The bell was so loud, I didn’t hear the kitchen door slam the first time -- when my grandmother went racing out bravely into the dark. And Pop had no idea that she had run out there either.

Pop made his way down the hill toward the barn. I am sure he was full of adrenaline and ready to catch some fiend carrying a pile of polo saddles. Pop was a big man and strong -- he was not averse to physical violence if need be, hell, he was Boston Irish, he was an old polo player, he knew how to take a man down. But as Pop made his way toward the barn, a vision appeared. She was aglow with the summer moon and her diaphanous gown fluttered in the night air -- her hair seemed to stand on end and she was moving quickly toward him. He stopped. He shuddered. He called out to the apparition, “WHO WHO WHOOOOOOOOOOOOO THE HELLLLLLLLL ARRRRRRRRR YOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUU?!” His knees went weak, he had expelled all the air in his lungs to address The Banshee who stood just a few feet away from him.

“OH TOM GLYNN! For GOD’s sakes, its me! Its Mabel! Jesus Christ! I had to turn that thing off before the whole Westport Police Department arrived! One of the horses must have kicked at a door and set it off...”

To the day he died, my grandfather denied this ever happened and if my grandmother would tell the story in his presence he would turn scarlet red in the face and say she was a Damn Liar.

Happy Halloween!

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