NOTE: This is part of the new novel I am writing. I am posting it here as a diversion for readers who may be living under shelter-in-place policies while the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to pass. For an explanation of this project, please click here. To read the chapters I’ve posted in order, click here.
Tumbleweed Motel, Coldwater, N.M.
Sierra set a plate of gingerbread biscotti and two mugs of decaf English breakfast on the kitchen table and glanced toward the door to the hallway, where wisps of steam emerged from around the bathroom door. At Dr. Kavanaugh’s suggestion, Morgan was taking a hot shower with one of Abuelito’s homemade eucalyptus melts to try to keep her sinuses open. The tears hadn’t stopped, and Morgan had been screaming too hard to eat much dinner. Joey had coaxed a few spoonfuls of orange sherbet into her mouth between wails, but that and several cups of tea were all she’d managed to choke down.
“Let me get this straight,” Sierra said, stirring sugar into her tea. “You, the long-lost banshee niece of a woman known locally as the modern incarnation of La Llorona, had no idea your father’s estranged sister had spent the past 60 years in Coldwater when you applied to replace its late high-school principal, whose daughter confirmed for me that she was a banshee the night he died?”
Dr. Kavanaugh sipped her tea. “None,” she said. “Dad and Aunt Shirley had a falling-out when I was about 3 years old. I knew she was somewhere in the Southwest, but I didn’t know where, and I had no clue what she did for a living. I was under the impression she’d died when I was little. I knew we had fae in our family, but if I’d had any idea she’d inherited the gift and was still alive when I was old enough to travel on my own, I’d have been out here in a heartbeat. There’s no way I’d have let her live and die alone, especially after what she’d been through, and especially when I didn’t have anybody around me who really understood what I was dealing with. As you know from living with Morgan, this is not an easy condition to manage, especially if you don’t know exactly what it is.”
Sierra nodded. “I’d like to say I’m surprised by all this, but living in Coldwater, I’ve learned not to be shocked by much of anything. This spot seems to attract coincidences and visions I can’t explain away.” She looked at Dr. Kavanaugh over her mug. “I don’t know whether Morgan is a banshee because I ended up in Coldwater, or I ended up in Coldwater because I was going to give birth to a banshee.” She brushed away a tear. “I hope it wasn’t the former. I hate thinking I somehow did this to her by coming out here. That’s an incredible gift she’s got, but I see how it affects her, and I can’t help her. I can’t explain what it’s like to watch my child breaking apart under the pain of knowing someone she cares about is going to die – to watch her sob her heart out and scream her throat raw and know there’s absolutely nothing I can do to make it any better, because it just has to run its course. It tears me up.”
Dr. Kavanaugh reached across the table and gave Sierra’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “You didn’t do this to her,” she said. “Coldwater is a thin place.”
Sierra raised an eyebrow. “A thin place?”
Dr. Kavanaugh nodded. “The ancient druids believed there was about three feet of space separating heaven from earth, or the human world from the spirit world. In some places, that space is thinner. The two worlds are closer, and things pass between them now and then. Thin places attract the odd, the gifted, the spiritually aware. Thin places tend to draw in fae folk. Short of moving to some bog in Ireland, I don’t know that you could have found a better place to raise her around others of her kind.”
“It seems strange that Morgan should have ended up like this when she’s only a quarter Irish.”
Dr. Kavanaugh waved a hand dismissively. “She’s descended from the O’Briens. She belongs to one of the five families most closely associated with the bean sidhe. The connection to the original bloodline is more important than how Irish she is. She’s an O’Brien. The gift runs in the family.”
“So what do I do for her?” Sierra asked. “It kills me to watch her fall apart.”
Dr. Kavanaugh took a deep breath. “The first thing you have to understand is that she isn’t falling apart. She’s mourning, yes. She’s keening. The tears are flowing. But it’s not – I don’t want to say it isn’t painful. It’s a heavy load to bear, knowing someone is going to die soon and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. And it takes a toll on you physically. I spend a lot of time lying around with cucumber slices over my eyes and peppermint oil under my nose. Lot of headaches. Fatigue. Pretty much what you’d expect. But it’s – there’s a sort of clinical distance that comes with it, like – like being a hospice volunteer or something. You have a gift, and you have a responsibility to use the gift compassionately, and you learn to focus on that and not let the sadness of your duty consume you.”
“It looks painful.”
“It’s not pleasant. But it’s unavoidable.”
Sierra’s face clouded over. “So how do I help her?” Tears shone in her dark eyes. “There’s got to be something I can do to make it easier for her.”
Dr. Kavanaugh stared into the middle distance for a moment. “What you’re doing is right,” she said. “Remedies for the physical aftermath – sinus congestion, headache, sore throat. Herbals are good if it happens very often; I’m sure you know the risks of giving a child too much acetaminophen.”
“Miss Shirley was big on peppermint tea for headaches,” Sierra said. “We’ve gotten a few other herbs from Abuelito. When she gets really bad, I call him, and he comes over and calms her. I don’t think he’s like you and Morgan, but he isn’t afraid of her. He brings things for her and pokes around the kitchen making some sort of tea and gets her to sleep after the screaming passes.”
“Abuelito is a treasure,” Dr. Kavanaugh said. “You were smart to call him.”
“I’ve known Abuelito longer than Morgan has been alive,” Sierra said. “I’d trust him to the ends of the earth.”
“As would I.” Dr. Kavanaugh smiled. “Abuelito knows what he’s doing, and he’s smart enough to know when he’s out of his depth.”
“It’s not the physical symptoms that worry me,” Sierra said. “It can’t be good for a little girl to be subjected to this kind of emotional upheaval every time somebody in town dies. And people are starting to make connections. Some of them are afraid of her. Some of them say hateful things to her.” Her dark eyes searched Dr. Kavanaugh’s face. “What would have helped you cope at her age?”
Dr. Kavanaugh met Sierra’s gaze. “Knowing what I was,” she said. “Knowing what to do about it. Knowing it was a gift, not a curse, even if it was unpleasant for me to live through.” She looked away, chewing her bottom lip. “Adults’ patience would have helped. That’s something Morgan has that my mother either couldn’t or wouldn’t give me. Just your being there for her is huge. Joey seemed to know exactly what she needed when I brought her in this afternoon. He didn’t flinch when she screamed, and he wasn’t alarmed by her tears; he just put his arm around her and let her cling to him and cry.”
“Joey is remarkably unflappable,” Sierra said. “When he knows what to do, he’s the calm in the storm.”
“You have no idea how much that helps,” Dr. Kavanaugh said. “My mother used to panic when I screamed. She couldn’t make up her mind whether I was a drama queen or a victim of demonic possession. I’m not sure which would have been worse, to her way of thinking, but both earned me more than one spanking of the ‘I’ll give you a reason to cry’ variety.”
Sierra shuddered. “Jesus. I’m sorry. That’s awful.”
Dr. Kavanaugh shrugged. “She could have made it easier,” she acknowledged. “I’m just glad Morgan has you and Joey. A calm presence makes a big difference. The screams will last until the victim dies, regardless of what anyone does, but having someone there who cares about you and supports you really lessens the emotional impact. Or, at least, it does for me.”
“What do we do for the insomnia and nightmares?” Sierra asked. “She usually has two or three nights of that to put up with afterward.”
“That’s another thing that just kind of has to run its course,” Dr. Kavanaugh said, “but again, physical contact helps. I can always tell when I’ve been alone too long, because it takes a lot longer to recover from that aspect of things. I bounce back faster and feel a lot better when I can snuggle up to somebody I trust while I fall asleep. That sense of having somebody there to watch my back helps me relax enough to sleep a few hours. I know Morgan is a little old to be sleeping in Mom’s bed to ward off nightmares, but for the first few nights after a premonition, it might not be a bad idea.”
“I can do that,” Sierra said. She hesitated. “It sounds like we’re doing about all we can.”
“You are,” Dr. Kavanaugh assured her. “You can’t take this from her. You can’t fix it. But you’re making it far easier than it would be without you.” She blinked, holding back tears with the air of someone who’d had plenty of experience fighting them – which, Sierra supposed, she had.
Sierra put her empty mug in the sink and turned to look at Dr. Kavanaugh. “I’m sorry,” she said, reaching over to squeeze the other woman’s hand. “I’m so sorry you didn’t have the support you needed when you were figuring this out. Thank you for being willing to fight through everything this is dredging up to be there for Morgan.”
“No – thank you for letting me be here,” Dr. Kavanaugh said. “I needed to confront this. It’s not pleasant, but it’s necessary, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”