In our ‘Countdown to Christmas’, The Kilkenny Observer is delighted to welcome Catherine Cronin as our second contributor in our Christmas short story section. Enjoy
By Catherine Cronin
“How can we possibly top last year’s Christmas?”, asked Mrs. O’Mahony. “It was the best Christmas of my life… and death.” The other ghosts nodded in agreement
Last Christmas, in an effort to cheer up their youngest ghost, Finn, they had used the magic of the season to conjure up the lost purple beech tree that had been Finn’s greatest love in life, and in death. It had proved more important than any of them could have expected, creating a new glow in their community.
Lady Butler had asked this particular group of ghosts to plan this year’s Christmas celebrations. Finn was proud to be asked but he was starting to feel the new magic slip away from the ghosts.
He stared at the empty chair beside him. “What troubles you, Finn?”, Lady Butler said gently. She always knew when something was wrong. “I… I think for this Christmas to be successful and for the magic to last, we need to do something together – all together.” Sir Langrishe was confused. “We did that last year, boy.”
“No,” Finn said, “not really, because not all of us were there.”
“Who was missing, child?”, asked Mrs. O’Mahony.
“The Pale Lady.”, whispered Finn.
Mrs O’Mahony shook her head. “Oh, Finn. The Pale Lady’s no ghost. She’s a banshee.”
Finn was shocked. He had heard about banshees but did not know they had one in their castle. He often saw her sitting on a chair-shaped trunk near the pond. Despite being a ghost himself, he feared her. Mrs. O’Mahony had come from Clare to work in the castle two centuries ago and had shared lots of old fairy stories with Finn. So, he believed her when she said the Pale Lady was a banshee. Still, he was confused.
“But, Mrs. O’Mahony, the Pale Lady never cries like in the stories you told me. And, she doesn’t have a comb.”, he said. Mrs. O’Mahony nodded. “True, Finn. But that’s because her family died out a long time ago. Every banshee is attached to just one family. She can only call to them. With no one left, she lost her voice and her comb. And remember, Finn, she isn’t a ghost like us. She is trapped between the fairy world and the human world. She can never pass on”.
Her final words echoed in Finn’s ears. Never pass on. This is what most living people did, and even some ghosts. When they were finally done with this world, their spirits passed on to the next realm, in peace. The thought that the Pale Lady could not, made Finn sad.
He felt duller than ever and wanted so much for everyone to glow as before. Suddenly, the commanding voice of William Marshal spoke. “Finn, I know you desperately want to bring back the magic of Christmas but, please, do not disturb the poor Pale Lady. We cannot help her.”
The meeting ended with no plans made. Finn went up to the Parade Tower to haunt for the night. Rather than face the city, he stared at the darkness of the park. He could not stop thinking about the Pale Lady. In spite of Marshal’s instruction, Finn felt sure that helping her would help all of them. The next day was Christmas Eve, so he had to act fast.
The living arrived early the following morning. Children wanted to see the ducks and play on the swings before Santa arrived. Finn watched as they passed him down the path towards the pond. No one could see him. No one could see the Pale Lady.
She sat with her back to Finn. She was completely white. Her head was stooped and her robes flowed over the stump like sheets of snow and ice. Finn had been there hours wondering what to do. Every time he worked up the courage to approach her, he pulled back. So, he stood there, waiting.
Eventually, he noticed the banshee’s head rising and pausing. Her pale neck suddenly snapped to the side. Turning, she flew towards Finn, freezing just before him. Her mouth was open as if she were screaming but no sound came out. Finn was terrified. Her brilliant white eyes bore into Finn with a thousand questions. Why are you here? Why are you staring at me? On and on and on – all justified inquiries.
Why did I disturb her peace?, Finn thought, frantically.
When she felt like she had scared him enough, she turned back.
Still, Finn did not want to leave. The lady noticed this and turned to scare him again.
Unexpectedly, a lost look came over her. She moved to comb her hair but she had no comb to use. She dropped her head sadly.
Just then, Finn had an idea.
He ran to the nearest holly bush and plucked a single sprig. This might work on her fine silver hair, he thought. He went back to where the banshee sat and, approaching her carefully, left the holly by her side.
At first, she moved to charge him again but when she saw the sprig, she paused. Even though her face showed little emotion, Finn knew she recognised his gift.
She picked up the holly and began to move it through her hair, turning her back on Finn. Finn felt it was time he returned to the castle.
That evening the ghosts retired to the red room to talk of Christmases past. Finn noticed that, as always, they had left a chair empty. “Why do we do that, Lady Butler?”, Finn asked.
Lady Butler smiled. “Well, Finn, it’s like this; an empty chair represents all those who have passed on. It shows they are remembered in happy times. And across the homes of the living, and in the haunted places of the dead on nights like tonight, you’ll find an empty chair, so those who have gathered can look to it and imagine that some missed loved one is there with them.” Finn looked thoughtfully at the chair.
All of a sudden, a bright light shone through the window. The ghosts rushed to see what was happening. Out on the lawn, the Pale Lady, the banshee of the park, was floating above the ground, her hands outstretched.
Finn pressed his face against the window. The lady looked directly at him. Then, in a haze of holographic hues and a cacophony of melodic high-pitched sounds, she burned out of existence, disappearing before their very eyes.
The room was silent. But the glow of the ghosts grew warmer and more intense as the huddled group realised what they had just witnessed. The Pale Lady had passed on.
A shocked Mrs. O’Mahony announced, “Well, I never! I wonder how she did that, and why now?”.
There was a slight pause until Finn suggested, “Maybe she just wanted someone to miss her.”
Every ghost looked at him in that enchanted moment and glowed as one. Finn knew this time the magic was here to stay and, as that thought occurred to him, he glanced back to see a single sprig of holly resting on the empty chair.
Catherine Cronin is a writer originally from Kilkenny but currently living in Zurich, Switzerland. After a breast cancer diagnosis, writing became essential for coping with her new way of living. Catherine brought her one-woman, Orphan Disease, to the Watergate Theatre in April this year, and her new play, Caged, has just received its first run with Close Encounters Theatre in Zurich. She is now working on her first poetry collection.