A down-to-earth man gets earthbound for good.
|Conor O’Neill was a stingy man. His meanness with money and his selfishness not only did much to make him unpopular with the townsfolk - whose ill opinion of him could be put down to mere envy - but it estranged him from his own family, turning natural affection into avarice and greed. He had funds sufficient to afford a comfortable life for even the least fortunate of his relatives, but not only did he not care for such familial extensions as cousins and nephews, he barely kept his own household and children. His wife had to scrimp in order to provide the basic necessities and his children often wore hand-me-downs. Even Conor himself had only one good suit, and demanded that his wife keep it scrupulously clean and pressed.
Yet Conor was well-pleased with his life. He did not miss the comforts his wealth might have provided. He was convinced that soft mattresses produced weak spines, so felt no need to replace the worn-out and under-stuffed bed that he shared with his wife. He preached on the ill effects that too much meat had upon the digestion, and could expound for hours on both the physical and moral superiority gained from a watery vegetable soup as opposed to a roast cut of beef. A good deed, in his opinion, was sharing his knowledge and advice with the world. Giving money to the poor was foolishness, for that only bred sloth and killed ambition. For Conor, charity did not begin at home. It simply did not begin at all.
Conor believed himself to be of a sound constitution and he further believed that this was the direct result of his unwillingness to spend money on a horse and carriage. The lack of any other form of transportation forced him to walk wherever he went. It was upon one of these walks, a return from the home of a business associate, that Conor’s death, and subsequently his life, began.
Conor walked a familiar path in the dark. Although the footpath wound itself torturously in and about the trees as it traversed the woods, Conor knew it well and rarely strayed off the worn trail.
In fact, he had not yet felt the need to waste any precious oil to light his lantern. In a moment he would regret that decision, as a baneful shriek rose up behind him. Conor spun around but saw nothing. An animal, perhaps, and nothing unusual, he reassured himself. Still, he lit the lamp and kept it going until he was home.
He’d have forgotten all about the incident if that had been the last of it, but it wasn’t. Soon, it happened that every time he walked beyond the busy streets and away from places where people gathered, he heard the same cry. If he had been disposed to spend money on physicians, he might have considered a visit to one. After a week of being followed by this high-pitched shriek, he began to wonder if it wouldn’t have been a wise expenditure.
It was on a walk home, well after dark, that Conor was finally able to confront the source of the wailing. These days, he always lit his lantern when night fell and so when he quickly turned at the accursed noise, his light illuminated his surroundings. Something shimmered in the glow of the lamp. He bent down to discover a comb, beautifully carved in iridescent mother of pearl. He picked it up and examined it. It might be sold for a pretty penny, he thought.
“Ah ha!”, cried a voice. “Now you are mine, Conor O’Neill, and never shall you escape me.”
A white-robed figure of a woman, her form waving as if buffeted by the breeze, appeared before him. Her arms flailed above an elongated face which was framed by wild and flowing locks of palest hue. Her features were sharp and angular, her long and crooked nose coming to a point just above a gaping chasm of a mouth. When she shrieked once again, it opened like a deep well of blackness, her lower jaw dropping to her sunken chest.
“Conor O’Neill, you are appointed to die. You are selfish and self-righteous and your soul may not rise at its release from your body, but will forever be tied to the earth.”
With that, the banshee disappeared. Conor knew it was a banshee, he had heard all the legends, but his practical nature had never allowed him to believe in what he considered to be superstition. Yet there was no denying what he had just experienced. Or was there?
For a brief moment, he had allowed himself to weigh his options, to make a plan to change his life and right the wrongs of which the banshee had spoken. What if this were all the product of delirium or some bad mushrooms? This evening’s soup did taste a bit off, after all. Conor made his way home and heard no more cries or wailing as he walked. He went to bed and slept exceedingly well, for Conor had made his plan.
The next day Conor went to see the village physician. Conor told him of his excellent theories on health and vitality while the doctor occasionally raised an eyebrow or made a noncommittal grunt. At long last, the doctor declared him tolerably healthy, and likely to live another 20 years at least. Satisfied that the doctor was not an utter fool, Conor paid his fee and left.
Several days passed without hearing so much of a whimper, let alone any screeching banshee, and Conor began to forget about his strange encounter. What worried him now was having twice caught his daughters whispering with their mother and going silent at his approach. He was the man of the house and there would be no secrets kept from him. Each time they said it was about the grocer’s bill or some other trifle. When next he saw them conspiring together, he crept up upon them to eavesdrop. He heard his daughter whisper “banshee” only to be spotted by his wife who quickly silenced the girl. Conor couldn’t help but notice that they were both smiling.
Conor set out that next morning to accomplish two things. He would visit the priest, just to make sure he was up-to-date on whatever securities the church could offer in regards to his well-being and after-life. The second visit would be to his solicitor, to change his will in such a way as to keep his obviously disloyal family from wasting his fortune should he die. Who would be smiling then?
Father O’Brien was surprised to see Conor in church and on such a grave mission. He heard his confession and talked to him quite seriously about his duty to God, his family and the community. Conor impatiently sat through this lecture, since he’d only come for the absolution and not advice. Finally, satisfied that he had fulfilled the basic requirements, Conor readied to leave. The priest called after him “Remember, Mr. O’Neill, our greatest duty on earth is love.”
“What utter tripe”, mumbled Conor as he walked briskly towards the paneled doors. “ My greatest duty is to see my greedy family never has an opportunity to grab my money. Time to attend to that will.”
Conor stepped out into the bright sunshine, and for a moment was blinded by its glare. He hesitated just a moment on the stone steps, but it was a fateful moment. For had he not waited there those few seconds, the stone statue that had cracked and crumbled over the centuries and which fell at that very moment, would have missed him entirely. As it happened, he was standing directly beneath it and was killed instantly.
No one mourned Conor. His family did go to the funeral, but didn’t hire a keener to wail for him. As days passed, Conor realized that the banshee had told the truth - his spirit was earth-bound. After the funeral, things only got worse. His daughters were riding in carriages, and going to expensive dressmakers. His wife held extravagant parties and served outrageous meals.
Forever tied to the earth but with limited influence on the living, Conor did what he could to disrupt the festivities. If his family entertained guests, he rattled chains and knocked on walls. When they tried to sleep, he howled and groaned. Once or twice he even floated as a glowing mist across the great hall during a party. No one seemed to pay him any mind.
For their part, the family and their friends were agreed. Conor was no more of a haunt now than he had been while he was alive and so, they did as they always had done. They ignored him and enjoyed every moment of their new lives.