The Veil - A Halloween Tale
By Wendy K.
Murdoch dipped the cloth into the washbasin, squeezed out the excess water and then placed it on Scott’s burning forehead. The young man in the bed tossed and moaned as he struggled to breathe. What had started out as a mild case of the flu had developed into pneumonia with alarming speed. As his son’s condition worsened, Murdoch had become more frantic and he had sent Johnny to fetch the doctor. The sky to the west had been filled with ominous black clouds and the light had taken on a greenish cast as the former gunfighter had set off for town. With Teresa away visiting friends, Murdoch and Scott were alone in the big empty house.
The storm was now raging directly over the hacienda and Murdoch despaired of seeing his youngest or the doctor any time before dawn. It would be suicide to try and travel at night in this weather and the rancher prayed that Johnny would realize this. His love for his older brother might push the young man to do something rash and the last thing Murdoch needed right now was to be worried about them both.
But could Scott hold out until morning? Did the boy even have that long? Murdoch had his doubts. There was a feeling of dread in the air that he couldn’t shake and the raging storm outside did nothing to alleviate that. Or perhaps it was the date: October thirty-first.
Legends and superstitions from his childhood in Scotland bubbled to the surface of Murdoch’s mind, making him shudder. Tonight was All Hallows Eve and the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest. This was the kind of night when ghosts and goblins wandered the world, intent upon making mischief and causing misery. The wind shrieked and howled, rattling the window in its frame and bringing to mind tales of the Bean Nighe. The Bean Nighe was the Scottish name for the more commonly known Bean Sidhe of Irish legends, a female spirit who forewarned of an imminent death with her wailing and moaning.
Murdoch reached out and ran the backs of his fingers gently down the cheek of his eldest son. The heat was incredible. Scott turned his head slightly, leaning into the caress, and rasped out a single word. “Mother….”
Murdoch’s blood ran cold and a fearful dread blossomed in his stomach. Scott had never met his mother; she had died giving birth to him. For his seriously ill son to call out for her now lent even more credence to his superstitious fears. He was overcome with a terrible sense of foreboding that Scott might not survive the night.
The howling of the wind, sounding more than ever like a woman’s keening, grew even louder and the windows flew open with a bang, the white curtains billowing inward like lacy ghosts. Murdoch crossed the room and wrestled the flapping panes shut. When he turned back towards the room, he was brought up short by a hooded, black robed figure on the other side of Scott’s bed. As Murdoch watched, surprised to stillness, the figure placed one thin, pale bony hand on Scott’s chest, right over his heart.
The reaction from the delirious young man was electric. He gasped, lungs rattling wetly as he arched off the bed. This snapped Murdoch out of his stupor and he rushed forward. “Stop!! Who are you? What are you doing?”
The hooded figure’s other hand came up in a “halt” gesture and Murdoch found that he couldn’t move. He was rooted in place, muscles trembling and straining with the effort to traverse those last few feet and prevent this….creature… from harming his helpless son.
Having neutralized Murdoch, the shrouded figure once again turned its attention to the blond man on the bed and, with a curious plucking gesture, began to slowly pull its hand back from where it rested over Scott’s heart. As it did so, a white vaporous material came along with it, emerging slowly from Scott’s chest like a reluctant cloud. The Scotsman realized with a shudder that the wispy vapor was Scott’s life force, his soul, his very essence, and that he must prevent this malevolent wraith from accomplishing its mission at any cost. He knew with a bone deep certainty that if the thing hovering over his son was successful in completely removing the gauzy white caul from Scott’s supine form, that his son would die.
It dawned on Murdoch that the windows of Scott’s room face west and that this being was a Hag of the Sluagh, a host of evil spirits who sought out the souls of people on their deathbeds. But how was it that this creature was here in California, where no such tales existed? And then Murdoch remembered. When he’d left Scotland, he had taken a small jar of the soil from his father’s farm with him. Once he had taken ownership of Lancer, he had sprinkled that very same jar of soil onto the ground and mixed the two together, the joining of the old and the new. Could that tiny bit of soil have been enough to allow this thing to bridge the distance? Had that one inconsequential act of long ago doomed his son now?
Sweat rolled down Murdoch’s forehead and dripped into his eyes as he struggled to move, the effort drawing a whimper from his throat. The hooded figure glanced up at the sound and the rancher caught a glimpse of lank white hair and glowing yellow eyes sunk in a withered, gray-skinned face before it once again returned to its task.
But it wasn’t as easy as all that. Scott’s will to live was strong and the caul clung tenaciously to its host, half in and half out of the seriously ill man. The hag tugged harder and there was a soft sucking sound, like when you got your boot stuck in the mud. Scott’s breaths were now shallow rasps that gurgled ominously and he had grown deathly pale where before he was flushed with fever.
NO! Murdoch mentally shouted, as despair welled up and threatened to choke him. His lips and tongue were as frozen as the rest of him and he could not give voice to his rage and denial.
With a final soft sigh from Scott, the caul gave way at last and the Hag cackled as it slipped completely out.
“STOP!!!” Commanded a vaguely female voice from behind Murdoch. “You cannot have him!”
The Hag jumped away from Scott and backed up against the wall until it reached the far corner of the room, a look of surprise and dismay on its hideous features. The caul drifted down, released from the Hag’s startled grasp, and covered Scott’s deathly still face and chest like a gossamer veil. It settled there for a moment and then slowly sank back inside him.
Murdoch cast his eyes sideways in a vain attempt to catch a glimpse of his son’s champion but was unable to do so. He could, however, still hear it speaking to the Hag.
“Be gone from this place!” The voice ordered in a stern yet hollow tone. “That man is under my protection. You and your kind have no power here.”
The Hag in the corner drew itself up and hissed its anger at the as yet still unseen figure.
“Be gone, I say!!” The woman cried out again, in a voice so thundering, so commanding that the windows rattled and the walls shook. With an anguished cry, the Hag melted into the floorboards, leaving behind a dark oily stain and the smell of rotting flesh.
Murdoch, released from his supernaturally imposed paralysis, whirled around to face his son’s protector. It was Catherine, his beloved Catherine, dead these twenty-five years. In life she had been tall and slender, with sparkling blue-grey eyes and a delicate, heart-shaped face. She had worn her blond hair done up in fashionable ringlets and her smile could light up a room. She had been young and vibrant and Murdoch thought his heart would burst in his chest he had been so filled with love for her.
But the specter in front of him was just a pale shadow of the beautiful woman he had loved. Leached of all color from the top of her head to the tips of her slippered feet, she was a study in shades of gray. Her eyes held none of the sparkle he remembered and her gaunt face was expressionless.
“Murdoch,” She…it…greeted him with a whisper, no trace of affection or any other emotion in the hollow voice.
“My God,” Murdoch murmured. “Catherine?”
“Because of the date, because of what I now am and because there was need. Our son…”
She looked over at the blond man lying on the bed and the tiniest flicker of a smile caught at the corners of her lips.
Because of what she was? Murdoch was slightly confused by this statement until another of the old tales from Scotland popped into his head and his heart was filled with sorrow.
“Mnathan Nighe?” he asked gently. Mnathan Nighe were the restless spirits of women who had died in childbirth.
Not taking her eyes off of Scott, she simply nodded.
“You’d be so proud of him, Catherine.” Murdoch felt the need to try and comfort her. To give her some sort of peace. “He’s a fine young man.”
“Not out of danger yet…” She moaned softly. “Go to him…”
With an agonized groan, Murdoch turned and rushed to Scott’s bedside. He extended his shaking hand and placed it on his son’s chest, directly over his heart, unconsciously mimicking the hag’s actions of just a little while ago. The skin was cooler and he could feel the organ fluttering beneath his hand but Scott wasn’t breathing. Murdoch grasped his son by his shoulders and gave him a firm shake. “Breathe, Scott, breathe!”
The rancher shook the young man again, harder this time. “Breathe, damn you!”
“I will NOT lose you,” Murdoch shouted as he slapped Scott hard across the face. “BREATHE!”
Scott gasped and coughed and finally began to breathe on his own.
Weak-kneed with relief, Murdoch sank down to sit on the edge of his son’s bed. He could still hear some residual congestion in Scott’s lungs but it appeared that the terrible fever had broken and that the blond was now out of the woods. Tears in his eyes, Murdoch gathered the limp young man into his arms and hugged him tightly.
“Thank God!” he whispered fiercely. “Thank God!”
With unbridled joy on his face, Murdoch looked up to share the good news with Catherine but she was gone. Vanished as if she had never been there.
With the dawn came the sun and Johnny and Sam from town. Murdoch, who had been dozing in a chair next to Scott’s bed, was awakened by the sound of thumping feet and jingling spurs as Johnny raced up the stairs, hollering his father’s name. The door to the room burst open and his youngest son’s eyes went straight to the sleeping figure on the bed.
“His fever broke during the night,” Murdoch murmured softly. “He’s sleeping now.”
The former gunfighter leaned against the wall next to the door, slumped with relief. He had known that Scott was in a bad way when he’d left for town last night and being delayed by the terrible storm had made him all the more frantic. He’d been absolutely terrified that he and Sam weren’t going to get back in time. He should have known that Scott would pull through.
“Well,” he said with a shaky laugh, “Scott’s a pretty tough hombre when he needs ta be. I shoulda known that no little germ was gonna get the better of Ol’ Boston.”
If only Johnny knew. They had come within a hair’s breadth of losing Scott forever and even now, in the bright light of day, it still sent chills down Murdoch’s spine and made his throat close up. He resolved then and there to never speak of it again. No, the details of that night would never pass his lips. Besides, who would believe him?
Before Murdoch had to come up with some sort of response to Johnny’s comment, Sam appeared in the doorway, clutching his medical bag and slightly out of breath. He crossed to the bed and looked a question at Murdoch.
“He seems to be doing better,” Murdoch told him. “His fever broke during the night and he’s breathing easier.”
“Well, since Johnny dragged me all this way, why don’t I just check him over to make it official? After all, I’m the one with the medical degree.” Sam replied with a chuckle. “You look all done in, Murdoch. Why don’t you and Johnny go get some coffee? I’ll join you when I’m done here.”
“Good idea. It’s been a VERY long night.” Murdoch stood and stretched his tall frame. With one last caress to Scott’s hair, he headed towards the door. “Johnny? You coming?”
“Yeah, sure…” Johnny flicked his eyes towards Scott, reassuring himself one more time that his brother was okay. He was about to follow Murdoch when he caught sight of something on the floor in the corner. It was a dark, greasy looking stain. Johnny stepped closer and bent down to get a better look. “Hey, this wasn’t here before. What is it? Did you spill something?”
“No! I-I’m sure it’s nothing,” Murdoch stammered. “I’ll have Maria clean it up. Let’s go get that coffee.”
The rancher breathed a sigh of relief when Johnny, more concerned about Scott than the stain, allowed himself to be distracted by the idea of a hot cup of java and followed his father downstairs leaving Scott in Sam’s capable hands.
Sluagh: (Pronounced slooa). Means “The Host”; a horde of evil spirits who seek the souls of people on their deathbeds. They flew in from the west, like flocks of birds, and tried to enter a house where someone was dying. West-facing windows were sometimes kept closed to keep them out.
Bean Nighe: (pronounced BAHN-neeyeh). The Bean Nighe is a Scottish fairy whose unnatural wails are seen as an omen of death. Her Irish counterpart is the Bean Sídhe (BAHN-shee or the more Americanized banshee)
Mnathan Nighe: (pronounced MRAH-huhn neeyeh) the spirits of women who died in childbirth.