Bloody Fabulous: Stories of Fantasy and Fashion
I type back: most of them get drunk.
John knocks and opens the door. He’s freshly showered and wearing clean clothes. “Mother wants me to sit with her. I think she’s afraid she’ll go tonight. Please eat, and feel free to ask Martha if you need anything.”
There’s no sense of Sorrow on the wind, no signs that she’ll be wailing and crying in the dark. But some people know she’s coming even before a banshee sings a lament.
“Don’t worry about me,” I say.
So I eat supper alone in the dining room. The house is very quiet. The housekeeper, Martha, says that Mrs. O’Neill asked for all family pictures to be put away, which explains the squares on the walls that don’t match the rest of the paint. Afterward I walk the grounds, protected from the cold by my thick wool coat, and lean on a wall to watch the ocean crash on rocks below. A light shines steadily from Mrs. O’Neill’s bedroom. Once or twice I think I see John’s silhouette move behind the curtain. A deathwatch is a sad and lonely business, and he’s endured so much loss: his men in battle, his father to the grips of time.
“How is it, to be around Death so much?” I’d once asked my mother, when I was much younger.
She’d brushed my bangs from my forehead and said, “What’s it like to be around autumn and winter after the sweet summer?”
It’s hard to get a straight answer out of a banshee.
Still there’s no Sorrow here. Only the wind and sea spray, and my face turning numb in the cold. Back inside, I shed the coat and study myself in the mirror. Trousers, an Oxford shirt, loafers. I think about what my mother and sister would wear at a time like this and call the housekeeper.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I say, “but my luggage got mixed up. Is there . . . a blouse or something I can borrow?”
Martha eyes my body critically. “Wait here.”
After several minutes she comes back with a shopping bag filled with neatly folded clothes. “You’re about the same size as Mrs. O’Neill once was. She meant to donate these. Here, try this.”
From the slacks and skirts she extracts a purple and black printed blouse with three-quarter length sleeves and beaded cuffs. It’s flowing and pretty and completely unlike anything I would ever wear, but at least I don’t have to ditch my black trousers.
“Looks lovely,” Martha says, once I’ve changed. Her approval nearly sends me back into my oxford shirt. But this isn’t about me, so I go down the hall and knock on Mrs. O’Neill’s large doors. When John opens the door, I can see his eyes are red.
I say, “I wanted to say my respects before retiring. And I don’t want you to be alone.”
He glances backward. “I don’t know . . . she doesn’t want visitors.”
Mrs. O’Neill’s weak but clear voice says, “Let her in, John.”
Her room is bigger than my apartment. The only light comes from a tall white lamp on the bedside table. John’s mother is propped up against a sea of blue silk pillows in a four poster bed carved of oak. Above her is a painting of a tall ship, the kind that once carried Irish emigrants away from the famines to the promise of America.
But it’s not the painting that makes me gasp, or the obvious luxury of the bedding, or even the familiar smell of heather from a pot of warm oil.
Instead it’s Mrs. O’Neill herself—tiny, withered, her gray hair hanging long to her waist. To humans she appears quite normal. Anyone with the Sight would see the seaweed twined in her hand and silver scales covering her hands.
“John,” I say. “You didn’t tell me your mother was a merrow.”
“A what?” John asks.
“He doesn’t know,” Mrs. O’Neill says. “Sit down, little Banshee. Tell me of Ireland, which I’ve missed these many years.”
A merrow is what Americans might call a mermaid. Under the sea is where they live, and in the days before the Fairy Wars they were mortal enemies of the banshees for reasons lost to history. I don’t think she’s very dangerous—she seems too frail—but she’s very old and there’s power in old things.
There’s a knock on the door that John just closed. I expect Martha the housekeeper, but instead it’s a quite impossible sight: Maeve and Loman, looking disheveled from their first-ever transatlantic airplane flight.
Triumphantly Maeve says, “I knew it!”
“You’re not dying,” Maeve tells Mrs. O’Neill, some minutes later, from the chair beside the elderly woman’s bed.
“I’m surely dying,” Mrs. O’Neill says. “You can’t feel like I do and not be dying.”
Maeve tosses back her hair. “You’re grieving, and that’s a different kind of dying. But there’s no Sorrow on the wind, is there, Colleen?”
“Not at all,” I say.
Mrs. O’Neill sniffs delicately into a lace handkerchief. “I know what I know. But it’s nice that you came all this way to say goodbye.”
John asks, “Can someone please explain what’s going on?”
Loman consults the small brown notebook he always keeps in his pocket. “Your mother went missing after the Night of the Big Wind in 1839 and was presumed dead, as many were. You are the product of her marriage to a mortal named John Jacob O’Neill, recently deceased—”
“Yes, he knows that,” I say, interrupting. John doesn’t need to be reminded about his own father. “But how did you know?”
“You can smell it,” Maeve says. “He smells like the son of a merrow and an O’Neill. I decided to come investigate immediately.”
“I smell like a what?” John asks.
I sniff. “I can’t smell anything.”
“When you’re as old as I am, you smell everything.” Maeve turns back to Mrs. O’Neill. “Now then, the war was a terrible thing and many fine fairies died on both sides, but it’s time to reconcile. What you need is a turf fire and some boiled potatoes and a leprechaun to sing you a song.”
“Could you possibly be more cliché?” I mutter.
Loman puts away his notebook. “As a matter of fact, I sing quite well.”
Maeve pats Mrs. O’Neill’s knee. “We need merrows back in Ireland. Women who know the ways of the ocean and can teach the younger generations. They know nothing these days, the children. Come with me and we’ll toast you on Wren Day.”
John asks, “What’s a Wren Day?”
“The men wear wrens on their head,” Loman said. “Paper ones, these days. Not the dead ones. I know several wren songs, if you’d like.”
Mrs. O’Neill waves her handkerchief again. “I’m too old for such a trip.”
“You’re no older than me,” Maeve says. “Put aside that glamour you’re wearing, pick out a nice dress, and let’s have some supper. What they serve on airplanes isn’t fit for pigs.”
John takes his mother’s hand. “If what they’re saying is true, Mother, then please do whatever you can not to die. I can’t lose you.”
Mrs. O’Neill sighs. Her eyes water a bit. But she takes her hand from John’s, folds her fingers together, and bows her head. The smell of heather fades, replaced by salt and sea and a gust of wind from nowhere. Before our eyes, the illusion of an old woman dissolves to a young woman with beautiful brown hair and a smooth pale face.
“Ah, quite nice,” Maeve says.
John steps backward from the bed. I bump up beside him, trying to look reassuring. This must be a bit overwhelming. But once things settle down, I hope to explain everything to him—banshees and fairy wars, merrows and men with wrens on their heads. He’s a human but he’s also half merrow, and this is his heritage as much as ours.
Mrs. O’Neill gazes plaintively at Maeve. “But I still miss my husband.”
Maeve holds out her hand to help her rise. “As you will for a long, long time. But he would want you to live, and so does your son, and so do we all.”
The merrow stands up. Her legs are strong and smooth now, her gait steady as she crosses the dark green carpet. She reaches up on tiptoes and kisses John’s cheek. “My brave, strong son. I have so many things to tell you, so many stories to share.”
“As do I,” I promise him.
He pats his mother’s cheek in wonder, then turns to me and gives me a sweet, warm kiss. My toes curl and my heart speeds up and hello, here’s a man I hope to get to know much, much better as soon as possible.
“Tell me everything,” he murmurs.
Maeve heads for the door with Loman right behind her. “First we eat.”
Mrs. O’Neill doesn’t move. She’s gazing at me with sharp merrow eyes and keen disapproval. Jealousy over her son, I guess. I square my shoulders, prepared to withstand any objection or withering comment.
Instead she asks, “Is that my blouse?”
“I have a question to ask of you,” the nobleman said.
The man before me was either young or ageless, I couldn’t tell which. Rosewood velvet and perfumed hair and not a care for social convention. He hadn’t even granted me the courtesy of his name. If he’d come for a commission, he was making a bad start of it.