Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2018
Adult Winners

Third Place

Our third place Adult winner is MacKenzie Tastan of Union City, California.

The Banshee’s Lullaby

MacKenzie Tastan

Paul flexed his gloved hands and sighed. It was colder than the day before and he wasn’t quite dressed for it. He glanced around at his fellow archaeologists. No one was complaining, but he couldn’t be the only one feeling uncomfortable. When he had been offered a chance to join an international crew on a field project on Achill Island in the Republic of Ireland, he had jumped at the chance. This was exactly the type of project he had always dreamed about participating in and so far it was proving a disappointment. All the tourism books talked about Ireland as the Emerald Isle. They said it was green and lush. He knew they all said that because he had checked them out of the library before he came. He was as thorough a researcher in his personal life as he was at work. What the books failed to mention was that the Emerald Isle was cold and rainy even in July.

Achill Island was an isolated rock about fifty miles from the mainland and so far, the locals had bordered on hostile. Paul understood now why a foreign excavation crew had been necessary. The recruiter had told him that they were impressed with his resume and, “only experienced personnel were being considered for this particular job.” It had appealed to his pride. He’d been doing contract archaeology for close to twenty years and he was familiar with every phase of a project. This one was an anomaly because the entire crew was being brought on as part of the excavation phase. Apparently a local crew had completed the preliminary survey, but had declined to stay on and dig. Paul had never heard of anything like that. As an archaeologist, you didn’t turn down a chance to dig. Digging was what you lived for. It was why you were put on this earth. Usually, it was the company who laid people off when it was time to dig. If a survey yielded culturally significant sites, most firms would either reroute a project and do more survey work to get it cleared for construction or cancel it altogether because excavation was too expensive. Whoever heard of a crew not staying on to dig?

It was strange, but it hadn’t set off any real warning bells until he had put his stuff down in the bunk house and gone out to the island’s only pub with the rest of the crew. They all had their own rooms at a local Bed and Breakfast. It had seen better days and the family who owned it was probably strapped for cash, but Paul wasn’t about to complain. Single occupancy rooms on on the job were getting harder to come by. More and more companies were trying to save money by putting crews up in double occupancy rooms or dorm style accommodations. He was too old for that shit. If he came back one more time to sex noises, he was going to lose his cool. He wasn’t a prude. He just wasn’t twenty-two anymore. A man needed some privacy in his life.

At the pub, he had acquainted himself with the other contractors. Georgia was young and pretty and straight out of school. Rodrigo was in his thirties and a seasoned shovelbum. Kane was in his late twenties and obviously interested in Georgia. They were all from the states except for the crew chief, Dominic. He was the only Canadian. Paul immediately noticed the varying levels of experience on the team. The recruiter said they had picked himbecause of his experience, but all these guys had been working for different amounts of time. Then there was the fact that there were no locals. He was positive there were plenty of Irish archaeologists who could have done the job and maybe done it better because they knew the soil. Things went from strange to stranger after the introductions.

So, who’s ready to piss off the little people tomorrow?” Georgia asked, a mischevious glint in her eye.

Sorry?” asked Paul.

The little people. You know, fairies, leprechauns, the Tuatha de Danaan.”

Yeah, I know what little people are. Why exactly would we piss them off?” “Because the whole site is located in a fairy fort.”

Great, Paul thought, That explained why they couldn’t get a local crew. Even in 2018, the Irish were notoriously superstitious, especially in rural areas. They probably could have brought in English archaeologists for less than Americans, but the English and the Irish still didn’t love each other and finds from an English team might have been more likely to come under fire. Achill Island was also conveniently located in a gray area close to Ireland and Northern Ireland. The government was obviously invested in keeping English/Irish tensions here at a minimum. He would have come anyway, but he resented that his employer hadn’t told him everything up front. He certainly didn’t believe in fairies. Most of the locals didn’t either, but they wanted to show solidarity with their countrymen who did. Fairy tales were like part of the national identity here.

Paul was up bright and early the next morning after a good night’s sleep in his own room. He resolved to only accept single accommodation projects from this point forward. Fiona, the establishment’s owner, was serving sausage and toast in the dining room. One of the tricks of the trade you learn early when you get paid a per diem allowance is to stock up on food when it’s free and keep more of your paycheck, so he tucked in. “It’s nice to see that one of you has an appetite this morning,” Fiona remarked as she served him a second helping.

The others are still jet lagged,” he said in between bites. “It’s not that they don’t appreciate a good meal.” Paul was dressed in his normal hiking boots with a layer of moleskin glued to the inside. It kept his feet from blistering, even when he walked for miles every day. He was dressed in quick- drying cargo pants and a button down shirt that would have looked at home in a Safari movie. He had layered a battered sweatshirt and a jacket over that, but he still felt the chill when they stepped out of the van and into the fog.

It was foggy most mornings here. He had read that in the guidebooks, too, but this fog felt heavy. It felt unnatural somehow. The ground was wet and his boots sank into the mud and squelched with every step. He clothes were saturated almost immediately and his body was covered in a feverish sheen of sweat. He could see why the locals felt like this place was haunted. It was fucking creepy. He thought he heard someone sigh as they stepped inside the hilltop enclosure, but but he couldn’t be sure.

Paul was a registered professional archaeologist, but he had mostly worked in the US. He hadn’t actually done any digging in Europe since his student days, so he had made it a point to read up on the legal regulations here, the soil types, even the types of pottery he was likely to find. The good news was that the artifacts here would stick out more than they did at home. Pottery tended not to be earth colored and people had been using metal tools for a lot longer. The bad news was that this island had been occupied for thousands of years. People could have been living in the same spots for a hundred generations and they were going to have to work extra hard to keep their finds straight. He had also done some reading on the area’s cultural history. Ring forts, or fairy forts, as they were commonly called were Iron Age settlements located in a circular shape on top of man-made mounds of earth. They were subsequently abandoned for a variety of reasons and the medieval occupants of the area, not knowing who built them or why, had incorrectly associated them with the fairies, who were accepted as the original inhabitants of Ireland until the beginning of the twentieth century.

As soon as he had accepted the job, Paul had become fascinated with Irish history and mythology. After all, his profession was all about learning what the past still had to teach. Ireland was about to share its secrets with him. He was sure of it. The morning went on and the fog seemed to intensify rather than backing off. He was uncomfortably cold and sweaty. It was a terrible combination. Dominic started out by giving everyone a walking tour, pointing out features that none of them could see through the fog. He was the only one who had arrived early and checked out the site ahead of time. They marked off the parameters of where they were testing with orange construction flags, which seemed like overkill since they were basically digging inside the old fort and nowhere else, but Paul guessed it was some kind of a company policy. He was paired up with Georgia and Kane got stuck with Rodrigo. That kid gave him some serious stink eye, and he couldn’t help feeling amused. So far Georgia had displayed zero interest in Kane, not that Paul had any skin in that game. His last relationship had ended badly two years before and he wasn’t looking for any more commitments. His lifestyle was hard for any partner accept and he was starting to wonder if maybe he was selfish for asking them to.

He and Georgia made idle chit chat as they dug shovel tests every two meters. This was a good way to grid out the site and see where the most intense spots of cultural activity might be located. Basically, they were cheating to see if they could only dig the good parts. He found out that she was the from the Midwest, she lived with her parents, and she’d recently graduated from a small college in Indiana. Paul said as little about himself as possible. It wasn’t that he thought of himself as mysterious, but he’d found that coworkers, especially the younger ones, usually were more interested in talking than listening. Besides, it wasn’t like he lived a very exciting life. He had an apartment about an hour outside of Milwaukee. It was a good jumping off point for jobs. He mostly used it as a storage locker and a laundry mat. The only time he was there for more than a few days at a time was in the winter when the field work dried up. Those were the months where he cobbled together the rent by substitute teaching and temping. Last year he had delivered packages for FedEx during the holidays. He did whatever it took to make ends meet until he could go back out with his shovel.

Georgia was green, but she was nice. He’d had plenty of worse partners. When Dominic called it quits for the day and announced that they had outpaced the other two by almost a third, Georgia slapped him a high five. Kane glowered. They all went back to the bed and breakfast to shower and have dinner and then they decided to hit the pub again. It wasn’t like they had a lot of other options for entertainment.

Paul should have known something was wrong as soon as they walked in. The locals had pointedly ignored them the day before, going on with their conversations as if they hadn’t noticed the strangers in their midst. This time there was total silence as they sat down. They ordered pints from the bar and drank them as they weathered the accusing stares of the natives. Finally, an old man approached their table with his hat in his hands. He twisted it nervously, like he wasn’t sure he should be talking to them at all.

You folks are the ones digging up on Moragh Hill,” he said.

No one else answered, so Paul felt compelled to say, “You know that we are.”

The old man nodded. “It occurs to me that you may not know the history of that particular landmark, being as your foreigners. Maybe you don’t realize what you’re getting mixed up in up there.”

Kane scoffed, “We’re digging up an settlement. People built it, not leprechauns.”

No one thinks it was the leprechauns, son,” the old man said, scratching the thin layer of white stubble on his chin. “We all know better, but bad things have happened to everyone who has done damage to that hill.”

Why don’t you tell us about it?” asked Rodrigo. He sounded more intrigued than afraid, “I think we’d like to hear a good ghost story.”

The old man pulled a chair over from a nearby table and laboriously lowered himself into it. Paul had the feeling they might be there for a while. The old man cleared his throat. “Everyone around here knows the stories. The first time someone tried to build anything up on Moragh Hill was back in the eighteenth century. A wealthy Englishman bought the land and wouldn’t heed the warnings of the common folk. I imagine he thought they were all ignorant peasants.” He looked pointedly at Kane and Paul took a drink to keep from laughing out loud. “This fellow planned to build a manor house with a fine view of the country, but immediately after he started clearing the land, his oldest daughter contracted a wasting sickness. They say it came on suddenly. One day she was a healthy girl in the prime of her youth. The next day she was skin and bones and could hardly get out of bed. The man called every doctor in the county, but none of them could find anything wrong with the girl. Finally, the girl’s mother brought a wise woman from the countryside to see her. She told the mother the girl was suffering from the anger of the wee people. She said that the mother should leave an offering of bread and milk up on Moragh Hill and that she should convince her husband to stop the construction. The wife must have held some sway over him because he agreed to halt clearing the land and she went up to the hill and made the offering. When she went up, there was only a sliver of a moon and she could hardly see the ground in front of her. She laid down the bread and milk and she said a prayer to Mother Mary that her daughter might recover. That’s when she heard it, an unnatural sound not meant for human ears, the song of the banshee. The mother swore that she could feel the banshee’s breath on her face like she was right in front of her and that she was howling in rage that she wouldn’t be allowed to carry her daughter’s soul away to the Otherworld. The girl recovered, by the way. She went on to marry a wealthy farmer from another county.”

This is bullshit,” Kane said as he set down his empty mug.

You can always head back if you’re not having a good time,” Georgia said, not bothering to hide her disdain. “I’d like to hear the rest of the story.”

Kane snorted, but didn’t get up to leave. The old man nodded and went back to twisting his hat. “The second time was back when my grandfather was young around the turn of the century. There was a man in town who thought that he might take some of the stones from the ruins up on the hill for his garden. They would lend a certain charm to landscaping, but no sooner had he removed a few and put them in his cart, then he started suffering horrible chest pains, like he was having a heart attack. He abandoned the cart and made his way down the hill as fast as he could to call on the doctor. My grandfather said this man was honest and not given to exaggerating or making up crazy stories. He swore that on the way down the hill, he heard the cry of the banshee and he was convinced that he would not live to reach the bottom. He said he felt as if death was reaching out to grab him with icy fingers and howling in rage every time he slipped her grasp. The thing was that as soon as he had left the hill without the stones, the pains stopped and he felt fine again. The doctor examined him and gave him a clean bill of health. He never set foot on Banshee Hill again.” The old man was quiet.

When was the third time it happened?” Paul asked. Digging up material remains was his passion, but nothing could substitute for learning the local myths and legends of a living people. It was like seeing the other side of a coin that he rarely got to turn over.

The old man continued. “The last time it happened was back in the ‘40s when I was a young man. A lad I knew from secondary school inherited the property from a relative he had never met. He planned to sell the land and use the profit to make his start in life, but first he had to go up and see what was there. He made a survey of all the visible ruins and planned to camp on the hill for the night. He cut some branches from a tree to use as kindling for his campfire. He said that as soon as the flames licked the branches, he heard a scream the like he had never heard before nor expected to hear again. He swore until the day he died that he had heard the wail of the Banshee that night and that it had made his blood run cold. He was sure that if he had stayed up on Banshee Hill any longer he would have seen the Banshee herself, reaching out to him with her gnarled hands. He was sure that she was nearby and waiting for a chance to claim a soul and take back to the Otherworld. My friend was too afraid to go back after that night and he never did sell the property. It’s only since he’s passed away that it’s fallen into other hands and now they want to try to develop it. I say try, if you dare, but I think what you experience up there will change you.”

Great, I feel totally transformed. I’m going to bed,” Kane said and stalked off toward the bunkhouse.

Geeze, what crawled up his butt and died?” asked Rodrigo.

I know what didn’t get near his butt,” said Dominic, flicking his eyes toward Georgia.

A light went on for Rodrigo, “Oh, got it,” he said. “Alright, well I’m off to bed, too. We’ve got an early day tomorrow.” They all made their farewells to the old man and thanked him for his story. He seemed sad to see them go. Apparently they’d been a better audience than he was used to. Paul was the last one to leave and he shook the man’s hand on his way out.

Suddenly, the man gripped Paul’s wrist with surprising strength, “Stay away from Banshee Hill, my boy. I know you’re older than these lads, but you’re still a young fellow from where I’m sitting. You’ve got a lot of life left. Don’t throw it away because you’re too stubborn to see what’s right in front of you.”

Paul yanked back his hand. This night had quickly gone from fun to creepy. “What do you mean Banshee Hill? I thought the place we’re digging was called Moragh Hill.” Paul liked place names. Their etymology could tell you a lot about the people who used to live there.

Everyone who lives on the island knows it as Banshee Hill, no matter it says on maps. We know to beware.” Paul had to admit he felt a little uneasy on the way home after that. He didn’t exactly expect to hear the wail of the Banshee in every owl hooting, but he felt like it was possible. It seemed like she could be waiting right around the next corner.

The next day Paul woke up to a raging headache. Normally he would have blamed a hangover, but he only drank one beer. He had tossed and turned all night as he kept waking up from a disturbing dream. He had dreamed that he was up on Banshee Hill digging alone. It was mostly dark with a sliver of a moon. There was the figure of a woman next to him and she was singing a haunting song. He couldn’t remember the tune, but it left him feeling sad and lonely. Once again, he was the only one who took advantage of the free breakfast. Someone needed to teach these rookies better. Nightmares or not, Paul had a strict policy about not turning down free meals. Besides, Fiona seemed nice enough. He didn’t want her to feel like her cooking was going to waste. She smiled as he sat down and seemed glad to have someone to fuss over.

That’s enough sausage, thanks. I have to stay trim for work. Say, Fiona, do you know what people are saying in town about our work on Banshee Hill?” Subtlety had never been Paul’s strongest suit. He was a straight forward man and he appreciated straight talk. He deliberately used the term Banshee Hill instead of Moragh Hill to see if he could get a reaction from their host. It worked like a charm. Before, Fiona had seemed warm and friendly, even glad for some company, but after his questions she seemed nervous and withdrawn, like she couldn’t wait to get rid of him.

I’m not sure what you mean. Everyone knows it’s called Banshee Hill, but I’m not sure if I can recall any particular stories about it. There’s a place called Leprechaun Glen on the other side of the island.” Paul was pretty sure she was lying, but he was also pretty sure she needed the money from their stay, so he couldn’t really blame her. It wasn’t his primary concern at the moment, but he would actually love to visit Leprechaun Glen if he ever got the chance, just so he could take a picture next to the sign. He really hoped there was a sign.

The van ride to the site was sullen. Everyone’s eyes were red and no one looked particularly rested. Rodrigo broke the silence, “Did anyone else have weird dreams last night?”

God, I’m so glad I’m not the only one,” Dominic said, “I kept dreaming that I was back up on Moragh Hill and there was a lady there singing. I don’t think it was song I knew though, which seems weird, because where does something like that come from in a dream?” Kane and Georgia admitted that they had dreamed something similar and Paul’s sense of unease grew gradually worse the closer they got to the hill. By the time they hiked up to the site, he was feeling physically ill. When did I turn into such a pussy? I can’t be this nervous because an old man told me a story. But he was. He was so preoccupied with his own discomfort that he hardly noticed the hard time Kane was giving Georgia for most of the morning. Tensions reached a head during the lunch break when Kane reached across Georgia on the pretext of getting to the water cooler and grazed her chest. She sucker punched him hard in the gut and he doubled over before Paul or Dominic could do anything. Paul thought it was hilarious. He knew Kane was a douche. There was at least one on every crew, but Georgia just looked so nice. She looked like the kind of girl you would meet when your aunt dragged you to church with her one Sunday, but would never talk to because you knew from a glance that she was too good for you. He never would have guessed she would snap like that. Good for her. She seemed pissed, but she didn’t say anything again for the rest of the day. The two of them were still digging shovel tests at a good clip and he thought maybe she was just wiped out. It was right before Dominic called it quits for the day when he heard the singing. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and he felt chills run down his spine. For one moment, he was sure that the banshee had come for him. Then he looked up and saw that it was Georgia singing and he felt like an idiot. The longer he watched her though, the less he felt stupid and the more he felt creeped out. It was the same song from the dream. Maybe she just had a good memory, but what were the odds that she could sing it perfectly? Not to mention that it was entirely in Gaelic, a language most people from Indiana didn’t speak. Paul didn’t mention the song to anyone else on the way back. He didn’t want to sound like a superstitious weirdo. They were getting enough of that from the locals. That night they didn’t talk much at dinner and they didn’t head down to the pub afterward. Even Kane was quiet. Paul went to bed early, hoping that a good night’s sleep would help clear the fog that felt like was gathering in the corners of his mind.

He woke up from a sound sleep to a shrill cry that was definitely not the alarm on his phone.
He sat bolt upright in bed, convinced that it had to be the Banshee. Never mind that they weren’t on the hill. She had followed them home. They were all about to die. He heard the scream again and decided that it sounded distinctly human. There was a pounding on his door. “Hey man, it’s Dom. Are you okay in there?”

Paul threw off his covers and answered the door. It was too early to leave for work. Why was this fucker knocking on his door? “Yeah, I’m fine. What’s going on out here?”

It’s Kane. Fiona thought she heard a noise coming from his room. She went in and found him. He’s dead.”

What kind of a noise did she hear?”

She said it kind of sounded like singing. She called it the Banshee’s Lullaby.”

Paul felt the color drain from his face. Was this really happening? “Did you tell the others yet?”

I just told Rodrigo. I haven’t told Georgia yet.”

I can tell her,” Paul offered.

Thanks, man. I have a lot of calls I have to make. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve never

had anything worse than a sprained ankle on a job.”

Paul gingerly made his way down the hall to Georgia’s room. He knocked softly at first and then louder when no one answered. After a minute he tried the handle and found it unlocked. The bed was made and there was no sign of Georgia’s belongings. She was gone.

Fuck!” Dominic swore when Paul told him the news. “She’s probably going to file some kind of harassment claim. They’re going to crucify me for this one.”

Paul paced outside while Dominic made the call to their employer. One employee dead and another missing wasn’t exactly a job well done.

You think she took off last night?” Rodrigo asked.

Paul shook his head. He had a terrible suspicion that couldn’t possibly be correct. Things like that just didn’t happen in real life. Dominic stepped out into the hallway looking sick. Paul figured he’d been sacked until he said, “There’s no record of Georgia working on this project.”

What do you mean? She was here with us the whole time,” Rodrigo said.

Paul kept thinking about that creepy song she sang yesterday and what it might have meant. He thought maybe he could ask around and find out, but he didn’t think he wanted to. This project had been weird enough already. He just wanted to get the hell off this island. There was no way anyone would believe him if he said he’d heard the banshee’s lullaby.

Continue to the 2nd place story

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