Keening

I have my own personal banshee. Most mornings, usually during my second bowl of cereal, she lets out a soul-melting wail to give me a heads-up on my impending death that day. I used to get worried, but it’s been going on awhile. And I’m still here.

Most people don’t notice her right away. She has long gray hair that falls in clumps across her face, but her traveling cloak, which pools around her feet and has a voluminous hood, tends to match the colors of whatever room she’s in. She’s always there with me. In every space I occupy.

But she only wails in the morning.

“What’s it going to be this time? Chicken bone? E. Coli? Trampoline accident?” I dunk my spoon into my milk, foraging for marshmallows.

“Mock me at your peril,” she whispers in a voice that grinds bones.

“Fuck, dude,” my roommate says from the front room. “This banshee shit should have been in the lease. It’s unnerving. She sounds like she has pleurisy.”

My roommate has been reading a lot of Charles Dickens lately and is trying out a bunch of new words. I dump my milk into the sink and turn toward the front room.

“Today is the day,” my banshee says.

“I hope not,” I say. “I have a date tonight.”

My roommate’s eyes widen as my banshee slips into the front room behind me. “My sister is not going to be into something so sepulchral,” he says.

“She settles down after breakfast,” I say. “Usually, if I don’t mention her, no one notices her.”

My banshee has been with me since I was ten when I fell onto the subway tracks trying to reach someone’s abandoned McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. My mom wouldn’t take me to McDonald’s, so I really coveted those cheap, plastic things. I remember the cement rushing up to me. The rank smell of wet sludge soaking my shirt. The vibration of the coming train.

And then the keening.

My banshee was looking down from the platform, one notched finger pointing at me. Then some guy jumped onto the track and threw me back onto the platform. He barely got out himself before the train rumbled into the station.

“I heard that horrific sound, and I knew something was wrong,” the guy had said, his eyes unable to look at the woman in the cloak who had sounded the alarm.

My banshee had accidentally saved me, and now I was stuck with her.

My current roommate’s sister was coming in from across the country. I had seen a picture of her when my current roommate was moving in, and I have been unable to forget her since. Wide-set eyes. Slightly upturned nose. Sharp collarbones. She’d triggered something in me that day, her face looking blandly up from a half-open box of pictures.

“Who’s that,” I’d said, trying to sound as casual as possible.

My roommate had pulled the box toward him and looked inside. “My sister,” he’d said. “But who the fuck is THAT?” He’d almost dropped the box the first time he’d seen my banshee. I wish he had because it would have given me an opportunity to slip the picture into my pocket.

My previous roommate couldn’t handle the banshee. It wasn’t just that she was ever-present and aloof; he couldn’t shake the thought that she was foretelling his death.

“It’s for me,” I’d told him. “She’s just wrong every day.”

“How do you know it’s not for someone else? A banshee predicts deaths. Someone dies when you don’t, man. You ever think about that?”

I doubt it was related, but he did die a few days after moving out. I never include that fact in the apartment listing.

My current roommate is a book editor and spends a lot of quiet time in his room. Most days, when I leave for work, he’s already set up on the couch with a book, a cup of coffee, and a bag of jelly beans. Which is exactly how it is this morning.

“Does your banshee look more intense today?” he says.

I glance over at her, her crooked back tucked into the corner, her pale hands splayed on the wall. Maybe she is breathing heavier today, but it’s hard to tell.

“I think she’s fine,” I say. “Have you heard from your sister?”

“She gets in this afternoon.”

“And she’s still down for dinner with me?”

“Yes. It’s all she’s been talking about.”

“Really?”

“No, man. Come on.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

My roommate sighs. “I know you are. It’s kind of weirding me out.”

When I’d heard she was coming for a visit, I’d immediately ascertained her single status and did a full-court press for a date. I have no regrets.

“It’s not weird,” I say. “I promise.”

I open the door, and my banshee launches forward, ready to follow.

“Be careful,” my roommate says and then goes back to the book he’s reading.

Sometimes even I can’t find my banshee once we step outside. She blends into crowds so well it borders on invisibility. But I feel her with me always. Today though, is it possible she’s staring at me harder? There’s a prickle on my neck; a cold sweat on my back. My roommate has me feeling anxious. There wasn’t anything different about my banshee’s warning, but suddenly the world feels full of obstacles. Parallel universes of possible deaths.

I look around frantically for her, hoping to see something in her eyes that will put my mind at ease. But I can’t find her in the rush of bodies and cars. All I can do is proceed to work.

My apartment is only six blocks from the advertising agency where I spend my days. I used to share an office with a recent college graduate who had started as an intern but then moved up quickly in the ranks. But a freak bike accident a few months ago removed her from this mortal coil, and now I have my own office.

I get immediately to work writing copy for a popular brand of toilet paper, and it takes me a minute to realize my banshee is humming. It’s a slow dirge, something apocalyptic in its note choices, and I quickly jot down Believe the hype, this is the world’s best wipe before I forget it.

“What exactly are you doing?” I ask my banshee, who is crouched so perfectly in a shadow near the door that three people had come in to talk to me this morning and no one noticed her.

“You like?” she whispers, her voice like ten thousand fingernails on ten thousand chalkboards.

“Not even a little,” I say.

“Too bad.” Then she starts humming again.

At lunch, I go to the most crowded restaurant I know to drown her out. It’s a relief to be away from her incessant humming, and it gives me time to really think about what’s going on. She’s never behaved this erratically before. How am I going to build a meaningful relationship with my current roommate’s sister if my banshee is drawing attention to herself? My previous relationships have all ended poorly. I usually make a good first impression and things start well, but then my potential love interest has to come to terms with the fact that an ancient woman with piercing black eyes will be staring at us as we attempt coitus. I don’t have a 100% failure rate, but it’s pretty bleak. And nobody comes back twice. 

Since my current roommate has outlasted every other roommate I’ve ever had, I have been hoping there is something in his family’s DNA that predisposes them to being totally cool with screaming banshees. I am mesmerized by his sister, but also, maybe my banshee won’t bug her that much. I would love to have a real relationship with someone where I was able to fully invest the time for us to know each other on a deeper level. Someone who accepts me as me. With banshee.

I have this feeling deep inside that my roommate’s sister might be the one. And for the first time in years, I’m worried that my banshee is actually foretelling my death, and I’ll never get the opportunity to find out.

I put my sandwich down, only half-eaten, and run out of the restaurant. Even though I hope she won’t follow me, I hear her cloak flapping in a breeze.

My boss hates my idea for the toilet paper. So, I wrap up early. The humming has thankfully stopped, but my banshee seems to be standing out more. Her cloak isn’t blending as well as usual, and I’m more aware of her than I’ve ever been.

I’m pretty sure my old boss would have loved my toilet paper idea. I’ve seen a million toilet paper ads, and I’ve never seen one rhyme hype and wipe. My old boss was more willing to take chances, but he was really unnerved by my banshee.

“Can’t she stay at home?” he’d asked on his last day in the office.

“You try to tell her,” I’d said.

But he never got the chance because he’d been involved in a fatal car accident that night.

I stop at the apartment to shower quickly and change.

“Good, you survived,” my roommate says while somehow seeming to be in the exact same position from when I left. But there are a lot less jelly beans in his bag.

“You were right,” I say. “Her mood’s off today. I’m feeling jittery.”

“Oh humbug,” he says.

We stare at each other.

“Did I use that right?” he says.

“Hell if I know. I’m going to get ready.”

My banshee sits on the counter while I shower, and the steam loosens a few of the knots in her hair. She looks sad, her face slightly distorted through the clear curtain where beads of water run down the plastic like tears. She’s made it impossible over the years to have meaningful relationships and maintain long-term friendships, and she’s completely ruined masturbating, but I feel this little pang of remorse. As if there is something I need to apologize for.

She shifts back to the corner behind the toilet while I towel dry and get dressed. When I return to the front room, my roommate is on his feet, anticipating my exit.

“Couple of things about my sister,” he says.

“Lay it on me,” I say.

“She hates when guys tell her she’s pretty. And she hates when guys try to pay for her meal.”

“Are you setting me up? Because those are two things I was definitely planning to do.”

“Why would I set you up?”

“So I bomb with your sister.”

His face doesn’t change.

“I think you got that covered without any help from me,” he says.

At that moment, my banshee begins to hum again.

“Seriously dude, I don’t think I can handle being around her anymore.”

I open the door, and my banshee slips out ahead of me.

“It doesn’t feel right,” my roommate says. “Say your vespers because this doesn’t seem like it’s going to end well.”

Banshees don’t kill people. They just know when people are going to die. It’s not their fault. But maybe they take pride in what they do, though. Maybe my banshee is tired of being wrong every day.

“It’s okay,” I say to her as we walk across the street to the restaurant where I’m meeting my roommate’s sister. “I’m not mad at you.”

For the first time in a long time, I take a good long look at her. Her bedraggled hair obscures her face. Her gnarled fingers clutch the air in front of her. Her slumped shoulders threaten to pull her to the ground. That cloak must be so heavy. I wonder if she’s ever taken it off.

“This is a really important meal,” I say.

My banshee growls and hurries ahead. She’s settled behind a plant before I get through the door.

“I’m meeting someone,” I say to the hostess, and I get this little thrill in my chest. 

“I think she’s here already,” she says as she grabs a menu. The thrill in my chest turns into an explosion.

My roommate’s sister looks exactly like her picture. There’s a relief that comes along with that. The same eyes. The same collar bones. The same aloof but alluring manner. She’s pulsing with energy, like a downed power line snapping and popping on cement.

“Hi,” I say.

She looks up and appraises me. I can’t read a thing in her eyes. “Hi,” she says and returns to browsing the menu. “A lot of stuff sounds good here.”

“Yes,” I say.

“You planning on using only one-syllable words? Because I’m definitely going to need more syllables.”

“No,” I say, and then we both laugh.

“At least sit down. You’re freaking me out.”

I sit down as she looks over the menu at me.

“Panoply,” I say.

“Pardon me?”

“Sorry. That was the first multi-syllable word that came to mind,” I say.

“Why?”

“I write copy for ads. My boss didn’t like my idea today, and he told me to think of the product as a panoply.”

“A panoply of what?”

“Toilet paper,” I say.

“Toilet paper is toilet paper. I don’t think fancy words can spruce it up.”

“You’d be terrible at my job.”

She laughs.

“Hey,” I say. “Your brother told me not to say you’re pretty and not to try to pay for your meal.”

“It’s true. Impressive. He must like you.”

I pick up the menu as she leans forward.

“Where is she?”

“Who?” I ask. But I know. This is going to be over before it starts.

“You know who I mean.”

I sigh and point to the plant near the kitchen.

My roommate’s sister gasps. 

“She’s a little much to take in the first time you see her,” I say.

My roommate’s sister gets up and walks directly toward my banshee. My first thought is to freak out, but I take a deep breath instead.

My banshee shrinks away from my roommate’s sister, but she doesn’t run.

“Why don’t you join us?” my roommate’s sister says.

My banshee doesn’t respond, so my roommate’s sister grabs an empty chair and places it on the side of the table between us. Then she sits down again.

“Let’s order,” she says. “Do you know what your banshee likes?”

“I mean,” I say. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her eat.”

“She has to eat. Take a guess. What do you think she would like?”

I look at the menu. “Spaghetti?”

“No,” my banshee says, suddenly in her seat, her voice plunging into my ear like a stake. 

“Pick anything you want,” my roommate’s sister says.

“Stuffed mushrooms,” my banshee intones.

“I like those too,” my roommate’s sister says and then turns back to me. “You know you wince every time she talks?”

“I don’t think so. Not every time.”

“You do,” my banshee says and holds out the words until all her air has been released from her lungs.

My roommate’s sister shakes her head at me. “And you don’t even know what food she likes.”

This date is not going well at all. I was worried she wouldn’t like me because of my banshee. Now it’s as though she prefers my banshee to me.

“Perhaps if you just talked to her.”

“But,” I say. “She doesn’t want to talk to me.”

My banshee opens her mouth, her jaw hinging audibly. Dust falls from the wrinkles in her face and sputters on the table.

“I’ve watched you grow up,” she says, the words like whips on an exposed back. “I’ve watched you become a man.”

She was right, of course. She was with me through everything. Watching. Warning. The only constant, really. My dad had bailed before my subway accident, and my mom was too focused on herself. I was left to make a life of my own. A life with my banshee.

I look at her face and find the kindness in there. The care with which she has watched me.

“She’s part of me,” I say, and my banshee attempts a smile that causes our waiter to back away before asking us for our order.

“Exactly,” my roommate’s sister says. “And that’s why you can’t sustain other relationships. Because you falsely advertise the nature of your relationship with your banshee.”

Tears spring to my eyes, and I swipe my arm across my face.

“I think I love you,” I say to my roommate’s sister.

“No. You don’t,” she says, “I just opened your eyes. People often confuse love with awakening.”

She closes her menu and gets up. 

“I think you two should have this dinner together. Talk it out. Then call me.”

“I want to see you again,” I say in a panic.

“It’s possible,” she says and pats me on the head. “My brother does seem to like you.” She turns to my banshee. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” my banshee says, and this time, I see my roommate’s sister wince.

“I think I’ll get the stuffed mushrooms too,” I say.

But my banshee is watching my roommate’s sister walk across the restaurant. She opens the door and lets in a burst of traffic and human noise into the room.

Then my banshee jumps to her feet, her cloak shivering like melting ice, and begins her keening at a pitch I’ve never heard. The other people in the restaurant fall from their chairs, clutching their hands over their ears.

But unlike every other time I’ve heard her plaintive wail, I look directly at her. I follow her eyes through the front window and onto the sidewalk where my roommate’s sister waits to cross the street.

I spring from the table, leaping over people curled in fetal positions on the floor, and run after her as if our lives depend on it.

Author Headshot

Josh Denslow is the author of the collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books). His stories have appeared in Catapult, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, and many more. In addition to constructing elaborate Lego sets with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane.