For two weeks, her wail was impossible to miss. “She’ll be quiet soon. She’ll go on for another night or so, and then it’s all quiet,” the bartender told me. When I told him I intended to find her, he grabbed my arm. “You might die. You just have to let them cry their peace.”
Some called her the Widow of the Hollow, said she’d lost seven children a hundred years ago. Others said she was from the Civil War, and the town had lost all of its young men. “Grief like that can turn you into a banshee,” someone said. “How much grief does it take?” I asked, knowing there was no way a person had turned into a banshee. That’s not the way you get them. “Losing your children—I imagine that could turn you into a banshee,” said a young woman. An older man raised his hand, “I’ve lost all three and I haven’t turned into one yet.” No one said anything. I said, “I’m so sorry. That must have been very hard.” He drank from his pint, not meeting anyone’s eyes, “Death happens. It’s not anything to wail for weeks about. People have to move on.” Other faces nodded in agreement but didn’t speak. He said, “Some of us need sleep. Go find her and maybe she’ll shut up.” Someone else said, “If she’s cried for hundreds of years, having a little talk with this guy isn’t going to stop her.” I drank down the rest of my beer, “I didn’t say I was going to stop her.” I put my beer down, and some money on the counter. “I’m going to listen to her. That’s what you do when someone is upset.” The bartender called out just before the door shut, “That’s what bars are for.” More laughter.
Moonlight turned the gravestones into the crooked teeth of a wide-open mouth. She sat heavy on a white marble bench in the graveyard. When she howled, though, she rose like a veil in a strong wind, all twisting with pain. Her lament echoed off the stone mausoleums. I didn’t want to scare her. I asked if I could sit with her, and she didn’t stop her keening. But she looked at me and moved back a bit to give me room, I think. So I sat with her. Every new cry was fresh pain. It had no rhythm or music or predictability. She focused on me. I looked her in the eye for some of it, and then I looked down at my hands. Grief is hard to look at in the eye. Even if you are ready for it. I was not going to be afraid of it, but it can be heavy. She knew. I stayed silent for the first hour. She filled the trees with her sadness. I cried with her some—as she could pull the grief I needed to express out of me. I told her what I, a visitor, knew about the people who had died recently. I thanked her for grieving for each person. Her ability to cry for others, even strangers, was something few people did. Even in small towns, like this one, where they “know each other well”— I knew she could teach them a lot.
Then beneath the trees, we saw someone else approaching. It was the old man from the bar. He hesitated when we turned. “I can–,” he called out, “I can take over for a bit.” In a moment, standing next to me, he confided, “I rushed my wife when we lost our last one. I thought it was for the best that we both stop crying. I wanted for her, for us, to be happy again. She wasn’t ready.” He broke down and I held him while the banshee poured out his pain. He stayed with her after I left.
Later I heard the old man brought her to the bar in the middle of the night, where he sat with her, surrounded by others. Oh, good, I thought. That’s what bars are for.