11 Mar The Banshee
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"The Banshee"Written by
Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
I consider myself to be a logical being. My experiences in life have led me to such a conclusion that approaching problems from a skeptical and logical viewpoint is in my best interest and is, as far as I understand it, the best way to live one’s life. Not to say that those who place a greater self interest and reliance in supernatural and spiritual matters are lesser in any way, but I am solely attempting to say that such beliefs haven’t appeared necessary to myself in my many years of experience as a lawyer (a career that I have practiced for more than 23 years). There has only been one episode in my life that I could with any certainty deem “supernatural” in nature, and that is the episode which I will attempt to recount to you, dear reader, from the best of my memory at this time.
The year was 1955, I was a young man at the time and had just begun my postgraduate studies in law at Yale University in Connecticut. I was a particularly adventurous youth, oftentimes to my own detriment, and sought out any and all excuses to travel, have adventures (as I liked to think of them) and escape from my studies, something which I now regret, though my experiences have provided me with plenty of knowledge for which I will forever be grateful. It was at one of these times, when my adventuring spirit was at a high point that my brother Josiah invited me to spend a few weeks with him in Brazil. Josiah had moved recently there to teach English at the Catholic University of Petropolis in the state of Rio de Janeiro, I assume he suffered from the same adventurous spirit as myself, a curse that no doubt impelled him to take up the venture in the first place. The thought of traveling to Brazil seized my spirits, and though I would certainly miss a period of classes, the trip would be brief and I felt confident that I could both complete any assignments while in Brazil, and catch up upon my return if necessary.
After some debate, it was decided that perhaps a period of only one week would be better for my vacation, and my brother wasted no time in purchasing the airline tickets and making the necessary arrangements. I felt that the pricing must have been expensive and I offered to pay for some of the expense, but he declined, insisting that his recent employment had given him more money than he and his young family needed and he was anxious to use some of his newly acquired funds for some good cause and that he was looking forward to seeing me.
The day of the trip arrived. I brought with me only a midsize suitcase with clothes for the week and a few school supplies. The plane ride was comfortable enough, although I couldn’t sleep to save my life. I never could sleep on planes, and the length of the journey was enough to exhaust one’s spirits. After what seemed hours of fitful tossing and turning, I drifted off.
When I awoke, day had already broken and it was almost time for our descent. I was served a small breakfast of something or other, and the plane landed in Rio de Janeiro. Josiah had spoken very highly of Brazil, so my expectations were somewhat heightened. My first impression of Brazil was that the landscape was very beautiful, and I found myself constantly looking around at the immense cliffs and green hills that seemed to roll forth from the ocean and out of the earth like something from a dream. The city itself was small, I thought, at least compared to the other great cities of the world that I had visited, but set against this tropical and gorgeous coastline one couldn’t deny that this was a desireable place to be. I can only imagine the kind of nightlife that took place here, the parties being somewhat legendary. I myself never got to see these for myself, perhaps one day I’ll return. I count myself blessed for simply having been there and seen the natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro.
The people I found extremely friendly, if lacking in fluent English. Many of them, I think, were overconfident in their ability to speak the language, but I guessed that they got by with what they knew in order to make ends meet, and as my bus took me through the sprawling brick suburbs I saw people peddling goods and selling food to the tourists, so it seems to me my hunch was correct in that regard.
The bus ride to Petropolis was easy enough, and there I did manage to fall asleep. When I awoke I looked out the window to see a sheer drop of several hundred feet. We were climbing a mountain on a thin stretch of road that clung to the side of the mountain. One more foot to the left and our bus would hurtle down to our certain doom! I closed my eyes until the terror had passed. Heights are something that even a logical man can be afraid of, I think, without anyone judging him for it.
Petropolis, I learned, is also known as “the Imperial City”. Back when Brazil still had emperors, this is where they had their summer homes, a fairly common practice at the time for aristocrats and important persons. The city was established by the Germans in the 18th century, and the cultural and architectural effects of the motherland are extremely evident. As soon as we entered Petropolis I felt as if we were in a different country. The streets were cobblestone, the buildings were constructed in semi-timber architecture, with the wooden cross beams exposed over white plaster, as is common in Germany. It reminded me of my trip to Europe and I must confess and I had not anticipated finding this level of sophistication and culture in Brazil.
Josiah met me at the bus station and we boarded a bus back to his home. Petropolis I found was constructed of individual neighborhoods, or bairros, as they are called here. Josiah lived in the bairro Coronel Veiga, outside of the city. The ride wasn’t long, and I found that Petropolis too was a city built into the mountains, with enormous, rising hillsides that stretched up into the clouds. It rained often here, in fact it was one of the rainiest cities on Earth, and the constant rain and humidity caused an almost constant fog to fall upon the hill, giving it a haunted and mystical quality. The rising hills seemed to disappear in the clouds. The houses were constructed in such a way that they were almost stacked, one on top of the other, built into the hills themselves. Long, straight stair cases climbed up the hills, providing the only access to the houses that weren’t directly on the street, which was most of them. It seemed a rather poor system, according to my judgement, and the thought of those poor people having to climb enormous staircases everyday just to arrive at their homes made my heart weep for them. No one had yards or actual property. To my eternal disappointment, I discovered that Josiah was one of those who lived on the middle level of one of these hills, so in order to reach his home, we had to climb up half a mountain to get there, up a long and steep staircase made of stone.
The home in which they lived was divided into two parts: the lower home, which was comprised of two floors and on the interior was very American in style, and the upper section which served as an extra apartment that they could rent out or lend to guests, and it was this section of the house that I was given as my quarters during my stay. The apartment had a separate entrance, and one had to step outside and climb the stone steps up to the next level to find the door to the apartment, as the apartment itself actually rested upon my brother’s home.
Now I’ve spent a great deal of time lecturing, it feels, upon the wonders of Brazil and of my journey and impressions of the country. I assure you, reader, my tale does take a darker turn. My first evening there was spent in good company, and Josiah and myself spent a good deal of time talking and reminiscing until long after dinner was over into the late hours of the night, as siblings often do after long separations. His wife retired the children, and rejoined us as we were finishing our second bottle of wine. As she entered the room, the clock on the wall signaled the hour. Midnight! How quickly the time had passed! Josiah was quick to apologize as he would have to excuse himself from my company, the college awaited him in the morning. I too, was exhausted from my journey, and wasted no time in bidding adieu to my family and heading out onto the dark staircase and into my chambers.
I lit several candles, but somehow that only seemed intensify my isolation. It may have been the elongated shadows, or the constant flickering of the flame that made me feel as if someone were in the room with me. My quarters were small, consisting of a sloped ceiling, a feather bed, a bathroom and a kitchen. There was even a desk that looked out a set of glass doors and a small balcony. Josiah had warned me not to use the balcony, as it was in repair and the railing was not yet sturdy enough to use. Frankly, I had no desire to use the balcony, as my previous description of my bus ride might have led you to guess, I am afraid of heights, though the view from the window was striking enough, looking out over the hills and valley below. I was content to view it all from behind the glass barrier.
I had hardly lay myself down upon my mattress when I heard a haunting sound. My first instinct was that it was the wind, howling around the jagged houses perched along the mountain. But the noise seemed to grow louder, as if it were growing closer. It was a woman, I realized, sobbing, somewhere outside. She must be hurt! I jumped from my bed and looked out the small glass pane above my bed. What I saw as I looked from that window was an image that is forever engraved in my mind. A ghostly apparition, it seemed, was climbing the stairs just outside my chambers. A woman wrapped in a ragged shawl, climbed, wailing quite loudly. Surely the whole neighborhood must be awake! Slowly, she climbed, until eventually her cries began to fade. For a long while I could not move. I was frozen in place, it seemed her cries had the effect of casting fear throughout my whole body so that I was stiff and unable to do anything. I do not know how long I stood there, watching, unable to move. At some point I must have, as I woke up the next morning in my bed feeling far from refreshed, the memory of last night still burning in my mind.
I dressed and went downstairs to join my family. In the light of day, the stairs seemed ordinary, plain. There was no sign or signal that this was a place where spirits walked and wailed during the night. A haunted place.
I could not resist the urge to bring up the subject over breakfast, though some might frown upon my engaging such a topic in the presence of children, I feel that it was not a sin, as they too must be victims of the woman’s nighttime visit.
“How are you this morning, Brother?” Josiah asked, that young and jovial smile of his ever present across his face. “Did you sleep well?”
“I wish I could say that I have, but it seems there was some ungodly creature who decided to scream the night away right outside my window.”
At my mention of the woman, Josiah and his wife shared a frightened glance. The look might have been looked over by some, but not by myself, a student of the law. They knew something.
“Ah yes. It’s a neighborhood drunk, no more. She does that from time to time. I’m sorry I didn’t mention it.”
“Mention it! My good brother, all is forgiven. She is not your doing? Then all is well. Tonight I shall retire a little more prepared. Though I can’t imagine what happened to that poor wretch to make her so dreadfully sad. Poor, girl.”
And that was that on the subject. A common drunk. Though I sensed she might be more than that, I dare not suggest it, logic constrained me. And what could she be, other than a drunk? A memory swam into my mind, of something Josiah told me when I was younger. There is such a thing as a banshee, he said, a woman who wails and cries warning of a death to come. A banshee! The lawyer inside me scoffed at the idea. Children’s stories, to keep them good and in their beds. But my memory of the night before would not leave my mind. It haunted me all the day long.
Dread aside, the day was rather pleasant. There was much laughter, as there often is when families come together. I took advantage of my visit to see some of the sights of Petropolis including the Palacio de Cristal, a building made entirely of glass for the sole purpose of demonstrating engineering prowess. It was quite remarkable, and reminded of me of the larger structure that had once stood in Chicago and I very much wished that I could have seen it. After exploring the city for the afternoon I found myself at the Imperial Museum, where the Emperor himself once lived. The most impressive structure to me, however was the church. St. Peter’s of Alcantara, an enormous Cathedral that overlooks the city square. I never would have thought coming to Brazil that I would find impressive Gothic architecture, yet here it was standing right before my eyes.
The interior of the church was just as impressive, and after exploring I found myself below ground, reading inscriptions on the ancient tombs in the burial crypt. This is where the last Emperor himself was buried, and as I looked around I found myself suddenly alone. Alone with the dead, I thought, how perfect. It seemed that death was following me everywhere I went. Well, seeing as I could not stay here by myself any longer I quickly made my way to the stairs and as I was reaching the top, the door swung closed all by itself. I tried the handle, but the door was locked tight! Minutes passed, I was alone in the dark and no amount of banging or shouting seemed to be doing me any good. Terror soon began to set in, and I began to think this trip was entirely a mistake. I had just about given up hope and resolved to die here in the dark when I heard footsteps. I resumed my pounding on the door. Evidently, this time someone heard me and the door was thrown open, light poured in.
“Desculpa, amigo. Quanto tempo voce estive aqui?”
“I’m sorry, I speak English. I’m an American.”
“Ah, American! English.”
The man before me was short, balding, with a long, single twisting eyebrow. I don’t want to seem judgemental or rude, but he was not a pleasant man to look upon. His eyes seemed to bulge out of his head, giving him a bug like quality to him. However, he was kind enough and he escorted me back to the chapel where we engaged in a friendly conversation. His name was Vagna, I learned, and he was a bus driver here in the city. His English was poor, but he seemed eager to talk to me and even more eager to learn about America. When I told him that I was a student at Yale, his eyes seemed to grow even larger “Yale…rich, your family, lots of money!”
“Well, I suppose you could say that. Yale isn’t cheap.”
“No…lots of money…to learn at university.”
And so our conversation went. Eventually I grew tired of trying to decipher what the man was getting at and the time was growing late, so I bid him adieu and caught the next bus back to Josiah’s house.
As I was walking down the foggy street to the long staircase, I saw something ahead of me on the side of the road. It looked almost like an animal, digging, but it was large and for a moment I was seized with fear. An animal that large could be dangerous. What kind of animals did they have here in Brazil? I felt a wave of uncertainty wash over me, I felt a stranger here, in a strange land. I assume most travellers at one point or another feel some level of this as they come to terms with a foreign place. But the fog cleared somewhat and I was able to distinguish that the creature was actually a person, digging in a pile of trash. I approached the person, their face was covered in filthy rags, ridden with holes. As I neared, the thing turned its head in my direction and I saw the face that was hidden from me the night before. The woman’s face from the stairs! It was a face that was completely unforgettable, insane pale eyes, a scarred face covered in dirt and warts, and hair that shot out in all directions from discare. This was no human, this was an animal!
I quickly turned and continued on my way, not daring to look back. As I reached the stairs, I felt impelled to run, which resulted in my walking at a slightly quicker pace just in case anyone was watching. I had almost reached Josiah’s house when I decided to look back and much to my surprise I found the woman standing at the foot of the stair, looking up at me, as if she were waiting to see which house I entered! Terrified, and unable to stay where I was under the foul woman’s gaze, I ran up the rest of the stairs and into Josiah’s house.
For the rest of the evening I was considerably shaken up, and Josiah could tell from my silence that something was off, but he could not get out of me what it was, and I could not bring myself to tell him what was causing me such anguish and paranoia. “I’m simply tired from running about all day, I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from the journey.” Such excuses continued until I almost believed them myself, and I excused myself much earlier than the night previous and left for my apartment. As I exited Josiah’s house, I carried a lantern with me, and looked both ways on the stairs to see if the woman was there, waiting for me. I could not see her, but it was a considerably foggy night and I could not see the bottom of the stairs. I quickly ran up to my apartment door, unlocked it, and slammed it behind me! Only once I was inside with the door locked did I feel safe, though it took a moment for my heart to calm.
I had to do something to distract my cursed imagination! Never had I felt this level of terror since I was a child! This was no spirit, no banshee! This was a human being, tormented, yes, but nothing more! I decided to try some reading to distract myself. I had to keep up on my schoolwork anyways, so I took out one of my textbooks and began to read. For the first while I couldn’t concentrate, my mind kept wandering to the woman on the stairs. But I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I remember I heard a sobbing and my head shot up, back to consciousness.
It was her! She had once again begun her nightly climb! I took up my lantern and rushed to the glass doors to the porch overlooking the valley. Down below, I could see her on the stairs, climbing and wailing, heading my direction! Chills began to run down my spine, I did not like the idea of her coming this way, or standing outside my door! But what could she do? Logic argued inside me, she was simply a drunk woman, the city was full of them! Then why was my heart pounding inside my chest? Why was I fixating on her and why did she terrify me? Soon the woman grew near, I could hear her feet shuffling outside on the stone steps. She was outside my apartment now, I could hear her cries. I could hardly take it, I just wanted her to be gone!
And soon she was. She continued to climb, upwards, into the fog, finishing her nightly ascent to heaven knows where! I decided that I was being a coward. She was just a woman, and soon a new curiosity took hold me of. I found myself crossing the room and unlocking my door. Where did this new bravery spring from? Where was it taking me? But I knew the answer. It was taking me to the woman. Up the stairs. My ascent was quick, and I carried the lantern with me into the fog, soon the mist enveloped me, and I could see nothing but the stairs in front of me. Before long, I found myself once again on level ground. I had reached the top of the stairs. The mist was somewhat clearer up here, and I could see that I was standing in a road, more houses were built on up either side of me. So this is where the woman climbed to each night. It seemed silly now, to have followed her here. Whatever her reasons for climbing those stairs, it was none of my business. I looked around for her, without success. She seemed to have vanished, perhaps into one of the houses. Perhaps this is where she lived. I suddenly felt very alone and vulnerable. Why had I come here? I was a fool! I turned to return the way I came, and there she was! Standing right behind me in the night! The woman! She screamed, and I’ll never forget the way my heart grew cold, those terrible eyes staring right into my soul!
The next thing I knew I was lying in my bed, caught in a terrible sweat. Had it really happened? I could not say. But I knew that the woman was real, and I was still in my apartment in Brazil. The memory or dream stood burning like a fire in my mind. I rose and looked out the wide window. The day was overcast and raining, clouds as far as I could see.
That day was spent indoors, as the weather would not allow me to leave. Somehow being close to the stairs was the worst thing for me, and I found myself dreading having to climb up to my apartment alone. After too much schoolwork and many card games with my niece, Josiah returned from the University and preparations began for dinner. We were short one ingredient, and I volunteered to go down to the bakery and fetch it. Some fresh air would do me some good, I reasoned. I put on a poncho and descended the wet, slippery steps to the street below. The walk was a brisk one, and the wind was howling the entire way to the end of the street. It seemed an ill omen, as if I could not escape the woman’s howling, even now during the day. The rain followed me wherever I went, and despite my poncho, I found myself soaked from head to foot by the time I stepped into the bakery.
Using my basic understanding of Portuguese, I was able to conduct a transaction for some additional flour, and as I about to walk out the door, who should I run into but Vagna from the day before! He seemed glad to see me, and though I didn’t want to stay and talk, I indulged the poor chap for a moment, mostly as a favor for my rescue the other day. He invited me to come with him to his place for dinner, I politely refused, some other time perhaps, I suggested. It seems he didn’t like my refusal of his invitation, I’m not familiar with the customs of Brazil, it may be that I offended his honor and broke some sort of cultural custom, but I did not trust the man and I would risk offending one villager for the exchange of my own safety. I quickly walked home and this time on the stairs I did not look back.
The evening seemed to pass too quickly. Dinner ended, conversation began, but once again I found myself distracted. All I could think about was the woman. What if she was a banshee? I wondered. Was she trying to warn me? Was someone going to die? I suddenly began to feel very ill, and paranoia set in. Who could it be. My brother? His wife? Myself? I returned to my apartment and no sooner had I entered then I heard the woman on the stairs, howling and wailing. I stepped back out to watch. I wanted to see her. There she was on the stairs below, howling and sobbing, making her way towards me. I stepped back inside, the rain was still pounding down and I wondered at how she was able to stay brave the elements. I stayed in the doorway for what seemed like an eternity. The sobbing had stopped, I realized. She was gone. Had I missed her? Perhaps she turned back because of the weather? I opened the door to see what had become of her only to find her standing right before me. She looked into my eyes and emitted the most terrible shriek I’ve ever heard. I felt like my bones had turned to glass and were about to shatter into a thousand pieces.
I fell back inside, stumbling and falling onto the ground. To my terror, the woman entered, she looked around, lifted a white, ghostly hand and pointed into the darkness of my bedchamber. She wailed again, breaking into a fit of sobbing. I turned to where she was pointing and was shocked again to find a man standing there in the dim light. He stepped forward, his hiding place revealed. It was Vagna, waiting for me in my own house! He carried a sharp metal pole in his hands, no doubt to be used with malicious intent. He wasted no time, swinging the stick at me, trying to impale me! I rolled out of the way, backing up towards the far end of the room. He was trapping me, soon I would have nowhere to go! Vagna wound up for one final swing, I dodged it, falling and rolling on the ground. But Vagna had put too much force into his swing, he lost his balance and fell forward. A heavy gust of wind swept through the house, pulling the glass doors open as he fell upon them. The balcony broke underneath his weight, and Vagna fell from sight. I looked out the window to see his body on the stairs below. I turned, but the wailing woman was gone. I ran to the door and looked up and down the stairs, but it was as if she had vanished into thin air!
To this day, I cannot say what became of the woman. But I do know what I saw, and I admit I cannot explain it. Some things cannot be explained away by ration, that much I have learned and am able to admit. And even if I live my life as a rational man, ruled by logic and facts, I will never be able to deny my own supernatural experience of the woman on the stairs.
Credit: D. M. Hutchins