It rained on the day of my uncle’s funeral.
It was a mean sort of service, held in a little church on the shores of Lough Merrow, a short way from my uncle’s house. My house, I reminded myself. My uncle did not have many friends at the end. The staff at Merrowley were there, of course, as was my uncle’s solicitor. I would not have thought to return myself, had it not been for his passing: we had parted on sour terms when I left for England. He had not kept his intention that I should take over the running of our ancestral home a secret. Nor had I hidden my disinterest in being tied in a mouldering house, filled with the somber shadows of ages past. I could only hope that the old fool didn’t go to his end thinking ill of me.
My uncle had never married, and had no children of his own, so Merrowley had passed to me. I was the master of the house I grew up in, and I still had not decided what to do with it.
After the service the mourning party shuffled out of the church, eager to get out of the rain. But as I stood in front of the door, shaking the hands of each mourner while they offered their condolences, I heard the strangest sound: the voice of a woman singing. I could not say where it came from: it felt like it was coming from all around me, as if carried by the rain itself.
How can I describe the voice? My knowledge of Gaelic is rudimentary so I could not understand the words, and it is hard for me to put into words, except to say that it spoke of an inestimable sadness. There was no mistaking that sentiment, that aching sense of loss, as if something vital had been ripped out of the world, and the land itself was weeping. She sang as if to move all the angels of Heaven myself Yet despite that I could help but feel a certain familiarity, as if the voice came from a dream of my youth, long forgotten. It moved me to tears, and I had to dab my eyes with a handkerchief before I regained my composure.
I looked around, hoping to find the mysterious singer, but there was no sign of anyone.
My uncle’s housekeeper, Mrs White must have caught the look of confusion on my face. ‘Something troubling you, Master Donal?
‘Do you know who that is?’ I asked?
‘Whoever do you mean, sir?’
‘That voice. The woman singing. Who do you suppose it is?’
She frowned.’I hear no voice, sir.’
‘Come now, Mrs White, how could you miss such a thing.’
Her eyes were wide. The colour had drained from her cheeks. ‘There’s no voice, Master Donal.’
Now I have known Mrs White since before I had begun to walk. A solid, sturdy woman, who had weathered nine children and at least two husbands, one of home was a drunk and a gambler, she always seemed to me as sturdy and indefatigable as an ironclad warship. She was never one given to flights of emotion.
‘Mrs White,’ I said, ‘are you feeling alright?’
‘Quite alright, Master Donal. Best we head on inside, don’t you think? Get out of this rain, and forget about such things.’ She smiled, but it was forced, taut, as if she had to squeeze her muscles to contract as she pulled on my arm and dragged me towards the house.
I thought to protest, but she had already grabbed me by the arm, and begun to pull me back towards the house. I turned my head, looked on last time around the churchyard for the mysterious singer, but there was no one there.
So Merrowley was mine, in name if not in spirit, for I could not help but feel a distance between the house and myself. It was like I viewed it through a mirror, coated in dust and the detritus of long years, as if the house was a mirage or dream, always out of reach of my fingertips. Mrs White’s presence did little to comfort me. I still felt the absolute loneliness at night the chill of the autumn air wrapped around me like a shroud, squeezing all joy and mirth from my lungs as surely as a constricting serpent.I slept little and fitfully.
To pass the time until sleep took me, I decided to sort through Cillian’s old correspondence, the entire drawers in his study left overstuffed with unsent letters, bills, deeds and journals. Even the occasional poem, though my uncle was at best an indifferent wordsmith.
In the evenings I would wade through his paperwork, sorting through what was to be kept, what needed to be sent to the relevant parties, and what could be safely burned. I would work through them for hours at a time, until the light outside became dim. One night, as I sat at my desk, sifting through my uncle’s journals to wile away the hours, I happened upon one entry towards the end which caught my interest:
March 12th, 19__
Have heard her voice at last.
Happened while taking evening constitutional by the lake. Rain caught me by surprise: had to take shelter in the boat shed.
Unclear how long I stayed there. Mind feels heavy, fogged, like waking in the middle of the night. Reminded me of the night we found her. Heard the song from all around me, felt like the rain itself was calling to me. Then was gone, and the rain eased off.
Woman’s voice: lament, maybe? Reminiscent of keening I heard at mother’s funeral.
Troubles me. Surely it must be A. Has she has come for me? Is it time? Must warn Donal: there is not much time left.
The mention of my name startled me. What could he have wanted to warn me about? I could not help but think of my own experience, of the voice I had heard in the rain. Could it have been the same voice that Cillian had heard?
I had to know. I kept on reading.
It soon became clear that my uncle had entertained a particular interest– bordering on obsession– with the recent history of our family. He made painstaking notes about every death in the family, whether they happened in Ireland or abroad. Most often, he wrote of some figure simply referred to in his notes as A.: “A. appeared at Diarmaid’s,” he would write. Or, “is this A.?”, circled and underlined, in relation to a sudden storm that caused some distant cousin’s ship to capsize. Again and again, I saw the pattern: a death in the family, a sudden change in the weather, and a woman singing, heard but never seen.
Who could this person be? And why did they haunt the edges of my uncle’s imagination so?
As I read, it became clear to me that this investigation wore on my uncle’s mind. His penmanship, at first so florid, became ragged and terse. His words attested to a prolonged, fevered desperation, as if he wrote against some unspoken deadline that feed the fires that drove his mad search for answers.. Ocassionally I would find scraps of paper, cuttings and photos that my uncle had left in the journal: a weather report from half a century ago; a police file about the death of some unknown relative; and the faded photo of two young men and a woman, who judging from their dress were attending a wedding. The men I recognised easily enough as my uncle and my father in their youth, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. But the young woman standing between them, starting out at me with melancholy eyes, was a stranger to me.
All of a sudden, I was startled back to wakefulness by the noise outside my window, the murmur of the rain battering the house from the outside. The wind carried the sound through the house, crept through the cracks in the walls, the secret places under the floorboards, moaning and whispering around me.
My mind was racing. Sleep would have been impossible: I kept on reading, page after page, word after word, until at last I came to the final entry in my uncle’s journal.
April 30th, 19__
Hear her song constantly now.
Hear it when I wake up, thudding on the roof with every wretched raindrop. Follows me through the rooms of the house, reverberates from the foundations to the rafters. I stop up my ears: does no good. Mrs White hears nothing, she thinks me mad. I pray to God and the saints that I she is correct, and the song is only the weary imagining of a lonely old man. It would be better than the alternative, that I am haunted by an omen from the past.
If these are to be my last words, let them at least do some good.
I have failed. All my research and long studies have come to naught. I had hoped to make some final breakthrough before the end, if only for Donal’s sake. But I have not, and time is short.
I suppose you will read this, Donal. Despite the passage of time and the scars that I still bear from our parting, I want you to know: you are my heir, the son I never had. And although I shall leave you Merrowley and all its holdings, I must inform you of another, darker legacy that is now your burden to bear.
I say you are the son I never had, Donal, but I will not say you are the last of our family. For there is another out there, hiding in the rain, a some phantom from beyond the veil of logic. It has haunted our family since I was young, ever since we found her in the lake. I have no doubt now that it is my sister, your aunt, Aibell, and it has been my life’s work to break the spell she holds on our line. I hope you can forgive me for never mentioning her to you, but the memory was too painful to bear: it was your father who found her body by the lake, the day after the great storm. I should have been there to keep her safe, I should have been there.
But the evidence is now incontrovertible. I heard her sing for Father and Mother when they passed. For Gerald, and Mary, and Steven. For as far back as I can remember, every time one of our family has died, the rain has come, and brought her song with it. No, that is not entirely true: for in every case I heard her song before someone died. I have long wondered whether Aibell is warning us that our death is coming, or whether– and I shudder to imagine the possibility– she is somehow responsible. Could it be that it is her song itself that caused my father’s heart to fail, my mother’s breath to give out? Is it possible that she stalks me through the rain even now, biding her time, waiting for me?
I can hear her now: her voice is coming from outside the window, echoing with every raindrop pounding on the glass. She will be here soon. I wish I knew how to break her curse, but I have no succour to offer you except for this: make your peace, Donal. Prepare to meet thy God. It is my fondest wish that you should marry and have children of your own, but I fear I know you too well. You take after me too much: you shall live alone, the last of our line. Perhaps that is for the best, and her dreadful curse will die with you.
Oh God, the window! She is calling my name. Goodbye, Donal. God be with you.
Here my uncle’s journal ended. The page was crinkled, warped by the ink, stained by water.
My fingers quivered as I laid down the book. My heart raced, beating so loud in my chest that I feared it would burst. I could hear the whisper of the raindrops dancing on the roof. light-headed, I peered behind me, at the window I had left open to let in air.
There was nothing there.
I let out a sigh, and the tension left my lungs like the air from bellows.. I was alone. These scrawlings were nothing but the troubled phantasies of a man in pain. Who could say what twisted imaginings had passed through his addled mind as he wandered his house alone as he saw his end approach. He had always had a a passion for the fantastic. Was it truly a surprise that he had dressed up his demise as ghosts and goblins?
I laughed, though the cold air made my chest hurt. Thinking of him sent a sharp pain through my soul, as had his cold reminder that I was the last of our family left alive. For a moment the notion passed through my mind that I should sell Merrowley, or maybe even burn it to the ground, and lay whatever power Cillian’s ghosts had over the place to rest
But that decision could wait until morning
I stood up to draw the curtains before retiring to bed. The wind had died down and the evening was calm. The whole world was at peace. The only sound as I rolled onto the bed and closed my eyes was the gentle patter of raindrops above my head. I listened for a moment, letting the sound lull me to sleep.
My eyes snapped open.
No, it couldn’t be.
Somewhere, far away, I heard it. The sound of a woman, singing, calling my name.