There was once a child with a kind and caring temperament who grew up in a family whose manner was as harsh as old rusty nails. She was as different from her kin as night is from day. Their words were seldom and as sharp as summer’s nettles, while she spoke in a low, rolling tone like the whispers we share in the room of a sleeping infant, and would delight in the warmth of conversation with strangers. She was fond of stories and tales and would often ask curious questions of people about their comings and goings and would take to dreaming and musing of the wonderful lives they lived. She rarely passed those along the laneways without offering the warmth of an excited greeting over her shoulder as her parents rushed her along.
As she grew, the family of the kind, talkative girl would respond to her with ‘whisht’ to silence her. ‘Whisht!’ they would say on her meeting new people and ‘Whisht!’ they would shout if she asked a question and ‘Whisht!’ they would howl if she would speak about her understanding of her life and the lives of those about her. Soon, much sooner than most would expect, she grew to know the silence of her own held-back words and ‘whisht’ was said to her so very often that her own name was forgotten and it became her moniker. Her once bright spirit and her sweet mouth, always on the cusp of a smile, had become dim and cold. Where once her steps were light and dancelike, they had become slow and stolid. She lived a life of forced silence where the morning birdsong had no companion. She would silently pass her old friends on the street and would not even respond to new year blessings. She had become a stranger to those about her, and in becoming so distant to her friends and family, she became a stranger to who she once was. As the years came and went, the seasons rose and fell and old age was knotted into her bone and creased across her flesh. Death came to claim her. She passed as silently as she was forced to live.
After she was gone, those who had known her would sometimes wake at night to find her crouched down, balancing on the very tips of her toes at the heads of their beds, still dressed in her burial gown, which was stained dark from the grave soil, her hair in wet knots and tangles. She would inhale deeply with laboured breaths, as if she was sucking the air from their voices before they would find themselves, frightened and light-headed, tumbling back into a slumber. Most would meet the fresh day with hoarse crackling voices, Whisht having stolen away in death what she was denied in life. She especially longed for the voices of the young.
Generations later, in the amberlands of Cork, twilight had just descended on a shaded boreen that held to itself the full welcome of autumn with its crinkled leaves and golden tones.
Generations later, in the amberlands of Cork, twilight had just descended on a shaded boreen that held to itself the full welcome of autumn with its crinkled leaves and golden tones. The air was heavy and damp as rain gently fell, the drops dancing off a lone trailer, leaving dark marks like inky flicks of music notes on manuscript paper.
The trailer was a small one with a single door at its centre that led into a cramped cooking space. There were two padded chairs to the left that could be made into a makeshift bedding area by placing a board upon the lip of both. To the right was a washing space and a narrow bed, divided from the main part of the trailer by a thin sliding door, which rarely moved with ease.
This trailer was home to a young mother and her five-year-old child. Her husband had passed in the height of his youth and his family lived all about her. Happiness had been a near constant companion while her husband lived but now, while not a stranger, had become a rarely met visitor. She found the weight of loss very heavy and so she decided that she and her child would take a few days away from the family molly and find a small speck of peace in that solitude. The loss of her husband had brought with it a sharper closeness to his family, which was welcome but often proved suffocating as she navigated her own personal seas of sorrow.
One evening, she heard a noise. She checked the drawers that lined the small kitchen. The utensils rattled and clattered as she opened up the drawers and asked, ‘Anyone there?’ But beyond the noise of the metal clasping, there was not a single word of reply.
Then she checked the small cubic press beside the bed, the handle firm and the clasp stiff. It took more than a few pulls and jolts before it opened. As the press door creaked, she eased her body down and looked in, gasping sharply in surprise. Inside she saw her very own daughter, who she knew she had just left behind her on the bed. Whirling around, she discovered the bed was empty.
In the cabinet, the child was crumpled up and softly whimpering. Her legs were bent and jammed tight against the edges of the cabinet, her arms crossed about her body, hands tucked over each shoulder. Her head was turned, cramped against the top edge of the cupboard, with little room to catch a good breath. Unable to move her head, the child turned her eyes towards her mother. Their gazes locked on each other in terror, both holding back a scream. The mother’s legs folded like the pouring of cream with the shock of realising that the child she had held by her hip as the pot of sleeping broth boiled, whose fingers her own hand had clasped while she sang some melodies of peace, was never at all her daughter. She swept the little girl out of the press and crouched over her, shielding her little one and pressing protective kisses on her damp curls.
She saw only ruffled blankets on the bed. The trailer window was thrown ajar and moving in the wind, while shrill, sharp laughter echoed down the laneway, becoming fainter and fainter.
The mother sat clinging to her child until dawn, unmoving, afraid to let the little one go for fear she would not hold her again. She knew Whisht had visited.
Like a flickering lamp, these eerie tales illuminate the threads between our mundane outer lives and the mysterious, wild and spooky visions of our inner worlds. Featuring chilling black and white illustrations by celebrated artist Helena Grimes, Oein DeBhairduin’s book Twiggy Woman was released on 26 October and available in book shops, from Skein Press and online booksellers.