In the ancient bardic tradition, AmeriCeltic Publishes Short Stories with a Celtic Spin.
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Table of Contents
2019-10-25 Story: The Chinese/Irish Ghosts of Indian Creek by Cecilia L. Fábos-Becker
2018-11-01 Story: The Black Shadow Knows by Cecilia L. Fábos-Becker
2018-10-25 Story: Thor, the Lightning Cat by Cecilia L. Fábos-Becker
2017-10-24 Story: A Visit from an Irate Banshee by Cecilia L. Fábos-Becker
2016-12-04 Story: A Ceremony of the Haggis by Tony Becker
2016-10-07 Story: Catskill Irish Arts Week by Mark Levy
2015-12-04 Humor: Traditional Music: The Difference between Bluegrass, Old Time and Celtic by Tony Becker
Wong Chan’s Ghost
The Chinese/Irish Ghosts of Indian Creek
Wong Chan and Friends
© by Cecilia L. Fabos-Becker, October 25th, 2019
It was the late 1960’s when I first met Wong Chan, or rather his ghost. Though Chan was decades dead, he looked lively enough when I met him. He wore a nice grin, and his head was firmly attached.
But not everyone Chan appeared to was so privileged. When Chan wanted people to leave his happy haunting grounds, his head was separate from his body and the two parts moved separately, a special skill due to how his skull alone had been found back in the 19th century in the Gold Country diggings known as ‘Dead Man’s gulch.
I, my parents, and a brother were gem and mineral hunters. Rock-hounds, was the colloquial term for us. Dad was a picky gem hunter and taught us to be the same. He had little use for ordinary jasper except for yard rock, and he didn’t feel we needed to travel over 300 miles north of where we lived in the Bay area for such inferior finds. No, this time we were after quite nice cutting materials like jade, grossular garnet and vesuvianite, sometimes called Californite, up in the counties along the Klamath River.
We wouldn’t have minded turning up an occasional gold or platinum nugget, either, but being realists, had no expectations of the riches of long ago. There were six of us and our dog, Princess. Though a dachshund mix, with the short legs to prove it, Princess had a leg-ier image of herself than a mirror might have shown her. We spent as much time retrieving Princess from futile chases of longer-legged, or more energetic, wildlife as looking for the prized stones, but I’m getting ahead of the story.
We’d heard stories about a Chinese jade claim that had existed since the late 1850’s and produced fine materials that had been sent to China to be made into jewelry and sculpture and for decades since, was still being sold and resold in Hong Kong and the U.S. as ‘Chinese Jade.’ Occasionally, my parents did business with gem and jewelry dealers in San Francisco, including in Chinatown. The merchants liked my parents, and sometimes we were invited to tea. I say we, because sometimes I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany them, though most of the time I was still dealing with ordinary high school classes and studying for exams and writing my school assignments. (Yes, we had lots of creative writing assignments in secondary school English and history classes, when I was a teen. It was good practice for getting through college later.)
On one such trip to Chinatown, an elderly shopkeeper, the father of the current owner of the shop, remembered the name of the mine we were about to visit, and about where it was located. He had heard intriguing stories of a Chinese miner who had been among the very few to ‘strike it rich’, first with a modest amount of gold, but much more so with jade. ‘He was called Wong Chan,’ the old man told us, ‘he fled China illegally, leaving his family behind, and they considered him dead. At that time, Chinese were not permitted to leave China except only with the permission of the Imperial government, and only for short visits or as temporary residents, as for a trading company. First, Wong Chan went to Hong Kong boarded an English ship and then came to what we called Gold Mountain. You call it now San Francisco. He went to the far north, where he heard they did not mind Chinese miners so much. Wong Chan lived among the Indians their towns, and often drove us away. Others not liked by the Americans ended up at Indian Town. These were the Irish. Wong Chan liked their Irish music, and when he was feeling rich and celebrating his good fortune, he shared his happiness with the Irish miners by giving everyone a party and sharing his food and drink, andhaving them play their music.’
‘How do you know all of this?’ my father asked. ‘My mother was Wong Chan’s oldest sister, cared for him when he was a child, and did not forget him,’ came the reply. ‘Later, when he found jade, he sold it in Hong Kong and sent money to the rest of our family. Money from Wong Chan helped us leave the farm and enter the jewelry industry in Hong Kong.’ The old man motioned to his son, and spoke to him in Chinese. The son bowed, and disappeared, then returned shortly with a beautiful carving of birds in luminous, translucent shades of light celery green jade with bits of darker fern green. ‘This is Chan Mine jade,’ he told us. Although most carving is done for tourists, we like carvings sometimes too. These are Chinese birds, from our home in China made from Chan jade. This has been in our family for almost 100 years…’
‘What happened to your ancestor’s brother, Wong Chan?’ My father queried. The old man sighed, ‘No one knows. That is part of the mystery of his death. His body was never found, only his head. It is said that when he found his last,new, very large jade deposit, he had a party to celebrate. After the party, Wong Chan was never seen again. Later, his head was found, only the bones of it, that is, and the new jade deposit was not seen again. A man named Kraft tried to find it, and thought he found Wong Chan’s discovery, but it was another deposit. Kraft made a lot of money and sold stone in Hong Kong, but it was not the same. The stories we heard were of a different color and type of stone–more like these birds.
‘Did you ever try to find it?’ My father asked.
The old gentleman sighed and shook his head slowly. ‘I came from Hong Kong only a few years ago, already an old man. My son, he is a good businessman, but he is no explorer nor prospector and does not like to get his feet dirty.’ Besides, he is a jeweler and needs his hands to be in perfect shape. Digging and moving rough rocks in and near a creek might damage his valuable hands.’
‘Hmmm,’ my father mused, and we finished our tea and left, but he didn’t forget the story, which is how it happened that in July of the following year, his and my birthday celebration took us, our camper, the entire family, and the overly ambitious, wayward dog up to the small tourist trap called Happy Camp in Siskiyou County.
Mom was known to get a little confused and sometimes was a little late in anticipating turns, and give the wrong direction. Her history of regularly driving us home to San Mateo, after visits to the Bureau of Mines then in the old Ferry Building, in San Francisco, by way of Oakland, Hayward, and two bridges, was legendary. For this trip hundreds of miles north, we had a collection of maps, including AAA highway maps, a US Geological map, a U.S. forest map, and my father’s trusty copy ofthe California Division of Mines and Geology, Minerals of California. So, much to the envy of my younger siblings, I got to sit up front in the cab of the camper with father, because I was appointed the navigator. Hah! If I wasn’t looking for road signs, I had my head buried in maps and I never saw more than a tenth of the scenery that could be enjoyed from the side windows and back door of the camper.
In Happy Camp, I did get to stretch my legs and look around the tourist trap museum and souvenir and rock shop, selling mostly Mexican rocks and minerals, while father talked with the owner and a couple of old-timers, who apparently thought we all were just a bunch of city slickers ripe for some sort of prank.
We heard all about the possible last grizzly bears in California, and the quicksand of several rivers that would swallow dogs and children, and of course, the Sasquatch. The museum had the usual few enlarged grainy photos which were copies of God knows what, dusty Plaster of Paris footprints, and a mock up plaster or maybe Papier Mache and fake fur statue of what they thought it might look like up front and personal. I thought a Hollywood make-up person working with a wrestler in a half-way decent gorilla costume could do better. Mom, who had actually grown up in North Hollywood and tried out for films and was familiar with all the behind the scenes activities, agreed. We were advised that Sasquatches could carry off unwary teen girls. My younger sister, who had a brown belt in judo already and had once tossed an overly aggressive date out of his own car through his window at a drive-in movie, left the building hurriedly to avoid laughing in front of the men.
I decided to try to concentrate on looking around more to keep listening, and focused on the jewelry, along with Mom. The jewelry was not very good. As both parents observed, it could have been much better polished, as Dad’s lapidary work was. Dad continued to talk with the men, asking questions about who still owned what mine claims in the Happy Camp and Indian Creek area, but the old men were still more interested in telling tall tales. When the tales got to the ghost carrying his head when he wanted to drive people away, Dad began occasionally harrumphing at me to get myself under control as I began sighing and rolling my eyes and had to stifle a laugh. My sister and I could have told a much better, more blood curdling ghost and demon story that had really happened to us during the Christmas holiday just months before, but didn’t because Dad didn’t know about it yet, and hopefully never would.
There hadn’t been much work or anything else lately with a slow-down in lumber sales and logging recently, and the stories the men told were mostly just high camp to see how superstitious and easily awed or scared we would be. Dad finally felt he had enough information as to where the old Wong Chan mine was along Indian Creek and how far that was from the town of Happy Camp, and that we’d be okay looking for rocks in the creek and along it, to the mine, as it was not operational. However, we weren’t that interested in what became the Kraft mine, we were after bits of the deposit never found again, the type of stone that was most prized by the Chinese--the translucent, lighter green jade with mixed with bits of darker color.
Finally, during a lull in their tales, to be polite, we bought a few snacks and sodas, and a local history pamphlet–heavy on the Sasquatch tales, of course. As we headed for the door, one of the men called out to us, ‘don’t forget now, if you hear Irish fiddle music, run, that’s when the ghost is near and going to take off his head and scare you!’
We piled into the camper and spent the next two or three minutes laughing at it all, before Dad told me to pull out the maps again and we took off for the remains of Indian Town where we would look for the road taking us to the South Fork of Indian Creek, near where the old Wong Chan mine was supposed to be.
About 2 hours before sundown, we pulled up to a wide, flat spot next to the creek and began unloading chairs, a picnic table, and camp stove and then fixed dinner. It was a beautiful evening, warm, but not hot, which was nice for July, as it could be 100 degrees in the middle of the day and still nearly 90 until well after sunset. We enjoyed watching the stars, toasting some marshmallows on the campfire, and listening for and to wildlife move about for a while before turning in. As I drifted off to sleep on the bedroll on the bottom of the camper, I thought I heard a little music and figured it was just my brother up front of the camper, playing his radio just before he went to sleep. Either that, or it was just a breeze outside, and my imagination, as a result of listening to all those silly stories at the museum and shop.
The next day I was dismayed to discover I could not explore the creek as much or as far as I would have liked. First, my youngest sister and brother had discovered a swimming hole and Dad was uncertain about their skills in cold water. Then Princess had discovered there was wildlife to be chased, and had to be, herself, occasionally retrieved. There was evidence of bears, though not anything the size of grizzlies. Near the creek, the evening before, we’d already caught the pungent whiff of a surprised or annoyed skunk, when we were cleaning dishes. We had long before learned that Princess could not be trusted to not pick on either something that couldspray (fortunately my brother had grabbed her and leaped sideways as the skunk let fly), or kick hard (jackrabbits, and we once had a mile long chase after the dog, long after the rabbit had probably bounced into the next township) or something very large. She made her territory, nearly as we could figure, whatever was at least a half mile in all directions around every bit of her family. She naturally thought she was protecting us, while we children knew all too well, it was the other way around.
On this perfectly awful morning I found that my monthly cycle had started. Because certain types of wildlife were known by rangers and my father to be attracted to the smell of blood from quite a distance and none of us cared to pollute the water, I got dog duty and had to keep closer to the camper. Dishes were rinsed in a clean part of a stream, for instance but washed at the campsite with castile soap and hot water that had been heated over the fire. Unscented, undyed, plain, real soap was used, if we washed ourselves in streams. Did I mention Dad was very particular and careful?
So, after making the rounds to retrieve the dog, check on my siblings in the swimming hole, who were now drying off and sunning themselves on rocks in the warm late afternoon sun, I parked the dog in the camper for what I hoped was her late afternoon siesta before dinner, grabbed a novel and dropped into a folding chair under a tree. Dad and Mom were at least a mile up the Creek and apparently finding something that interested them, they had barely glanced up when I pulled Princess out of the creek next to them. I was sure they wouldn’t be back for at least another hour. If I couldn’t do much rock-hunting, I might as well enjoy a Brains Benton mystery. At least he, and his more active side-kick, weren’t as insufferably perfect like Nancy Drew, even if they were a bit young.
Relaxed, I starting sinking into my novel when I heard music again. Had my brother returned and turned his radio on? No, I could hear their voices still at the creek. Had he left a radio on in the cab? No, his radio was there but off. The music stopped. It was odd music, like something I’d heard in folk dancing classes, or at a summer party with square dancing long ago.
I went back to my novel, and heard music again, and this time it was closer. Ok, now, I thought, who is playing some games with us. It must be one of those bored, tall tale tellers at the museum.
Now I was annoyed and got up to look around. It was coming from closer to the creek, but well past my brother and sister who were now dozing on the rocks. That was three times I’d tried to enjoy my novel and three times I’d been interrupted by music with no one visible.
I checked on our dog, but Princess had been running back and forth for hours between all members of the family and whatever else looked or smelled interesting and probably was exhausted and was sound asleep in the camper. Either she hadn’t heard the music, despite her usually sharp hearing, or didn’t care. Ok, I could do a little exploring, then, just so long as I didn’t go more than a hundred yards or so from my youngest sister and brother. I followed the sound, and it stopped again, just when I thought I was closing in on it.
Then I heard something else, a rustling in some nearby brush, and what sounded like some steps. Ok, human, not bear, I thought. ‘Hello,’I called, ‘is someone there? Can I help you in some way?’
Suddenly a smiling head, attached to the short, stocky body of a middle aged, no maybe a little older, Chinese man in dusty trousers, what looked like old work boots, and a black shirt with no collar, put his finger to his lips, to shush me. His eyes were friendly, and so was his smile. Then beckoned me to follow.
The music was playing again, and we followed it to where a small stream emptied into the creek. The mouth of the stream was almost hidden by brush and it meandered up a small steep gully that I hadn’t noticed before. On the other side of the brush were several other men, playing fiddles. They were drinking and laughing and seemed not to notice us. The Chinese gentleman smiled at them, and nodded and then went on, looking back over his shoulder to see if I followed. He waved me forward again. The fiddlers just continued playing.
‘How odd,’ I thought, ”they saw him, but acted as if they never saw me.’ We went a little way up the gully and then the Chinese man, turned, smiled at me, went round a curve, and then just disappeared. The music stopped, a few rocks tumbled from somewhere on the sides of the gully into the stream near my feet, but I couldn’t find him again.
Then got down on my knees and looked a lot more closely. There, below where dusty-boots had been, and where the rocks had fallen, were several good-sized pebbles of jade, light, translucent, celery green with white and darker green and just like the jade I’d seen that day when we’d had tea with the father of the owner of that shop in Chinatown.
They weren’t very large, just enough for a few nice cabochons, but there they were. I looked up to where I thought I’d heard the rocks tumble from and found a couple of more, but then no more. Somewhere further up, there was more, but I didn’t need or want it, and what seemed to be my new friend knew it. So I gathered the bigger pieces up, stuffed them in my pants and shirt pockets said to the empty air, ‘thank you! I’m glad to have met you. I liked the music too.’
I thought I heard laughter, anda ‘you’re welcome.’
I clambered back down the stream to where I’d seen the musicians, but apparently, they’d packed up and gone home, but even stranger, nothing was left behind. The dirt where they’d been hadn’t been disturbed, there no footprints, no scrapes from their wooden chairs and the log on which some had sat looked like it was falling apart far more than it had when I first saw it.
I’d just encountered the ‘Happy Camp Ghost’ of Wong Chan, and the stories were at least partly true. Apparently, though, he’d liked us, which was fine with me. I’d liked him. He had such a nice smile and a heart for frustrated kids missing out.
Passing the rocks and swimming hole again, I saw my sister and brother putting on their shoes and socks, and back at the camper, Princess was still sleeping, though now she looked like she was dreaming about chasing jack rabbits and was on her side with her front paws out as though she was leaping. I could hear Mom’s and Dad’s voices now joining those of my sister and brother. It was time to get out some pots and pans for cooking and remember what it was in the cabinet that Mom had intended we have that night and if there was some onions or something that needed chopping., So I took the rocks out of my pockets and put them on the table to show Dad, and washed my hands to get ready to help cook.
Mom headed to the camper and also washed up in the sink there and then started to hand me the fixings for dinner as I heard Dad’s voice
‘Hey, who found these!’ he exclaimed. ‘These are really nice! Where did they come from?’ I tumbled out of the camper with some cans of beans. ‘I found them, ‘I answered, ‘but I had help, though I’m not sure you’re going to believe this.’
It took considerable convincing to persuade my father I wasn’t making up the story, that I hadn’t let my imagination run away with me after listening to the tall tales back at that store. I was saved when my sister and brother said, ‘she’s not kidding, we heard the music too, but just thought someone was passing on the road with his radio on, who stopped for a little while.’
The next morning, I took my father to where the stream had entered the creek and showed him where I had walked up the gully. At least my footprints were still there–and those of one other person, whose own prints, disappeared right around a curve in the gully. My father looked closely at the area where I’d heard the rocks tumble and poked around with the tip of his rock hammer. A couple of more loose pieces of Vesuvianite popped out of rocks that had followed a split in the side of the gully and filled up with falling rocks over the years.
The rest of our trip was uneventful, and when we returned home, my father cut and polished a few pieces of the jade I’d found and set aside one very nice one, about the size needed for a man’s ring. The next time we went back to Chinatown, my father and I asked for the old gentleman saying we had something for him. His son brought tea again, and as we sipped, my father then pulled out a soft folded handkerchief from his pocket.
The old man’s eyes widened. He picked up that special stone and held it up to the light from a nearby lamp as my father motioned for me to speak. ‘I’m not sure you’re going to believe this, but I met your great-uncle.’ I said somewhat shyly, ‘I think he would have liked you to have this, to let you know he has not forgotten the family, just as you had not forgotten him.’
Several decades later, my husband and I were touring our Western national and state parks, and on a lark, I had him go to Indian Creek again where we found a place to camp near the creek. Weather and flooding had changed the area and I wasn’t sure it was the same place I’d been as a teen, but it was somehow familiar and couldn’t have been too far from where I’d been before. My husband pulled out his guitar in the evening, after we’d had dinner, and I pulled out a tambourine. We began singing and playing and then my husband sang ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, an Irish song we’d learned years before while we attended college. As the last strains faded away, somewhere in the distance, I thought I heard a fiddle or two echoing them. So did my even more Irish husband, ‘huh,’ he said, ‘someone must be playing a car radio while driving nearby.’ I just smiled, and thought to myself, ‘thank you, again.’
Schwartzschatten, Burglar Buster
The Black Shadow Knows
Schwartzschatten, the Burglar Busting Cat
© by Cecilia L. Fabos-Becker, November 1st, 2018
It was a sparkling, crisp Saturday in Minneapolis, about a week before Hallowe’en, and before the first hard freeze. We’d been lucky that year in having only a couple of light freezes by the third week in October and this was my last chance to get the bulbs in the ground. Often, at least once between the middle and end of October, we had snow and I knew my luck was not likely to hold much longer.
I was planting my last set of daffodil and tulip bulbs into the beds alongside the south side of our house, when a large, handsome, glossy black cat suddenly appeared on my left side. He had medium length fur, clearly the start of a fine winter coat, shoulders that resembled an NFL linebacker, and a friendly round face. He was watching me dig the evenly spaced holes for the bags of bulbs I had, and peering over my arm to see me drop the bulbs into the holes. Then he was on my right side, where I would have dug the next planting hole, about the same distance apart as my previous holes, digging. He clearly understood the process, and was having great fun participating, but was a little over enthusiastic. Had I planted my bulb at the depth this cat had dug, they would have been trying to bloom underground.
My husband, who had been raking leaves in the backyard came around the side of the house with a glass of water and asked “who’s your new friend?” I replied, “I don’t know, he just appeared. Did you see where he came from?”
“No, I’ve nevers seen this cat before.” said my husband, Tony. We already knew most of our neighbors, and their pets, by then, and most had dogs. Neither of us had seen him in the neighborhood the entire summer before. He was a complete mystery.
I finished my planting project, and as I headed inside, the black cat followed, right on my heels, as if he was already home. It was getting cooler and darker and clearly he was getting hungry as he was looking around the kitchen. I had cream and a some leftover Banquet fried chicken and put some of each down for him. He was quite happy with that. Later, he followed us to the bedroom, and was looking at the bed as we donned night clothes and crawled under the down comforter. “Oh, alright,” my husband smiled, come up and join us.” The cat immediately did.
On Sunday we made inquiries. But no one for two blocks all around on both sides had ever seen the black cat, or heard of anyone having owned one, so it seemed we had acquired a black cat, one week before Hallowe’en.
This cat liked to watch us, and would follow Tony’s right on his heels, so closely that there were several near mishaps. ‘What shall we call him?’, I asked. Tony speaks a little German, and suggested, ‘Well, he is like a shadow, following us everywhere we go, and he is completely black, so how about Schwartzschatten, which is German for ‘Black Shadow’.
Schwartz, (for short), soon proved to be the most unusual cat anyone in our acquaintance had ever encountered, and freakishly intelligent. Shortly after we had purchased this house, it became apparent that, a former owner had been a police officer, because frequently, about 2 a.m or so, his ghost made rounds of the house, as if checking on its security. The cat had no fear of this resident ghost in fact, Schwartz began accompanying him on these nightly rounds, and when the last footsteps of the ghost died away on the upstairs landing, he would climb back on the bed with us.
Normally, Schwartz was a very quiet cat, but occasionally seemed to be trying to converse with us, to call our attention to things, like birds in the garden, or tell us when it was time to go to bed. If what sounded like a feline version of ‘ahem; it’s bedtime,’ with a cock of his head toward the bedroom. When that didn’t work, if I or Tony was still working on something on the computer in the study, he had developed an alternative way to enforce bedtime. He’d climb on the credenza behind us bolt forward, planting his sturdy head and neck right between our shoulders, knocking our heads into the computer monitor. Then he’d sit back on the desk, with his tail twitching and expression on his face that unmistakably said, ‘I told you it was BED time!’ We were sure he’d been taking notes from the football games he’d watched with us.
Schwartz was a hefty 15 pounds or so, solid muscle and bone underneath that gorgeous soft black fur with dark chestnut highlights. The first time we took him to our vet for shots, he smiled at the name we gave. ‘Schwartzschatten,’ the vet said, ‘well, he looks like a ‘Schwarzenegger’ to me!’ Schwartz actually liked the vet, and we never had any problems there.
In fact, we never had any problem taking Schwarz anywhere! He liked to get in the car and travel with us. These car rides revealed his fascination with technology within minutes of his first trip with me to pick up Tony from work. As I drove on the freeway, Schwartz was watching the traffic and seemed fascinated with trucks. He was like a little boy, running to the back of the car to start watching any truck passing us and then running to the front to see them out of sight, and the reverse happened when we passed a truck.
Schwarz also liked sitting in either my or Tony’s lap, occasionally with his paws on the steering wheel, to see what we were seeing. He also figured out how to turn on–and off, the turn signals and windshield wipers and if bored with the traffic, would do this a few times, before settling down for a nap on the dash or the front seat.
Schwarz also was fastidious about kitty litter and didn’t really like it and none of us liked him out in the deep snow and frigid temperatures doing his duty. We’d heard that it was possible to train some cats to use the toilet and bought a training kit that was mentioned in a cat magazine.. He took to the idea, in twice the time that the kit and manual said that, if cats could be trained, would. He even remembered to flush the toilet most times, which startled more than one guest of ours.
He also turned out to be fascinated with electronics. Inside of the first month, he was laying on top of the old Heath-Zenith 100 monitor and reaching down to tap the keys of the computer selecting letters, we think based on shapes he thought interesting. This resulted in my husband having to rewrite our first family history program when after of Schwartz’ visits to the study, my family history program suddenly had everyone in the database surnamed Wallace. He soon learned to keep his tail away from the dot matrix printer when it once got caught in it. This was when we discovered he had an air-raid siren shriek that pretty well blasted eardrums within 20 feet or so. After that, though, he had a new hobby, figuring out how the printer worked and which computer keys got it going. I had more than one project suddenly printing out when I left the room, long before I’d intended to print it. On one occasion, I was editing a book for a client and had gone to make lunch. I came back to nearly 200 pages flying all over the floor.
He was also fascinated with Tony’s amateur radio gear and gave a new twist to otherwise normally incredible excuses children make when caught in some wrongdoing. Schwartz had been watching my husband make an automatic sender in which he’d push one button and it would send his call sign, the next his location, and the third a signal report, which sped up amateur radio contest contacts. The more contacts, the higher the score resulted. The new radio had a problem though. The maker had tried to put a small amplifier in the radio itself and didn’t have enough filtering between a couple of components. The result was on some bands, after operating awhile, four expensive transistors would blow all at once, sometimes even shooting up in the air with a loud ‘thunk’ as they hit the top of the chassis. So, Tony was working on a design modification and trying new components to see if he could retain the output and quit losing transistors. This meant he was testing the output, as was normally done, on a frequency not part of the communications spectrum as he tweaked adjustments, including the antenna. This was legal, so long as he was not sending signal reports, as if trying to communicate. One night he left the radio set up for further testing the next day and went to bed. A few days later we received a formal warning from the FCC of violations of federal law and regulations by transmitting illegally off the legal bands, that Tony’s call sign, location and signal report had been heard at such and such a frequency at 3 a.m. in the morning, the night after he’d left the radio set up. We had been in bed at the time and no one could have been operating the gear. There must be some mistake, right? Tony tried to tell that to an official. He asked if anyone else in the house could have done this. We scratched our heads. We knew we had a ghost in the house but he had never done anything this before and who would believe us if we said, ‘well, I supposed it might have been the ghost?’ The real answer came about a week later.
We were in the cellar, where we’d set up the radio bench and gear and also did other projects. We were refinishing two living room end tables and had a mess of newspapers, steel wool, Formsby’s refinisher on the floor around and under the tables. We had a basement window cracked open but it was still enough to wrinkle noses, including that of the fastidious cat and he was backing away instead of doing his usual inspection of our latest doings. . Perhaps he then heard something odd. He suddenly jumped to the desk and meowed at us, just before the bottom of the nearby water heater fell out. We jumped out of the way but didn’t think to grab the mess of gooey newspapers, rags and steel wool beneath the tables, which we had quickly moved. Oh well, they would come up from the floor once the water cooled, right. We never did get all the old newspaper bits and varnish off the floor. The hot water had apparently acted as a permanent sealant.
This was also when we discovered the importance of a floor drain, which, for some reason this 75 year old house did not have. It took awhile to clean all the water and refinishing mess up. Meanwhile the cat grew bored watching us from the radio bench. Suddenly we heard Tony’s sender start up sending his call sign, location and signal report, in exact order on the radio which was still on from his morning’s tests of the latest modification. Stunned we saw the cat methodically pushing one button after other, in exact sequence, several times.
‘Schwartz!,’ Tony yelled. ‘I’m not on a legal frequency! You were the one! I’m going to lose my license if they hear this again!’ He darted forward and quickly moved the dial to a nearby, but legal, frequency, and returned to cleaning up all the water. The cat, not willing to cross a wet messy floor, resumed his play. A few minutes later we suddenly heard a familiar call sign of a nearby friend returning the cat’s signal. He then asked Tony how he was doing with the new gear and if his sender was stuck. Tony dashed to the bench, sat down and replied, ‘the gear is fine, the cat just learned to use it. Have to go, need to finish cleaning up the water from the broken water heater, find a replacement and figure out how to install it.’ The reply came, ‘that’s interesting. I just replaced one at my place. Want some help?’
Ok, coincidence, right?–same as those nightly rounds with the resident ghost of a police officer.
That very friend was probably the best possible choice because he also knew Schwarz and wasn’t intimidated or surprised by him anymore. He wasn’t surprised to hear, ‘the cat was on the radio, not me.’ One Saturday evening, the friend, Ken and his wife had come over to for dinner and to play cards and games with us on a game night. Schwartz had been in the garden that day and finally decided the catnip was grown enough–at nearly three feet tall, and ate the largest plant, down to the roots. He was then on a tear all the rest of the day and evening, off and on. We finished putting away the leftovers, loaded the dishwasher and sat down to play cards. Schwartz came streaking up from somewhere in the cellar, rounded the doorway between the kitchen and dining room, dived under the table, and stopped. We soon were laughing as he was playing with our feet and ankles, often batting at or tickling the ankles. It was hard to concentrate on the cards but made the game more interesting and challenging. Ken turned his chair to the side to get up to get some more water in his glass, stood, started to take a step and fell flat on his face. We soon realized that Schwarz had also been playing with shoelaces. In two cases, Ken being one, Schwartz had not only untied the shoes, but took one lace from each shoe and knotted them together.
Everyone in the family, and our regular guests, were also familiar with Schwartz’s ‘Cheshire Cat game of hide-and seek or ‘boo.’ He’d find the darkest corner under a bed, or in the cellar, or in a closet and one would be calling all over for him for dinner, or our nieces and nephews would be looking for him for play. They’d caught him napping one day and dressed him in doll clothes from a large baby doll and paraded him past everyone, which he considered a very humiliating situation for his superior tomcat dignity. He was inclined to first hide for awhile when he heard their voices, particularly if he and they were in the cellar where the children’s toys and games, and dolls and doll clothes were, until he could hear them pull out a game. He was particularly fond of ‘Crossbows and Catapults,’ which had large thick poker chip playing pieces which were launched into the air. Schwartz could snatch them in mid air, run off with, and then get the children playing chase with him. When he decided to hide though, he’d somehow curl up just right in the very deepest shadow of a hiding spot and stay absolutely silent and motionless. We’d all see only a dark corner or shadow, and repeatedly go past where he was, until he deigned to wink at us with one emerald green eye, or blink with both and then well, grin, widening his mouth, lifting his lip slightly and showing his nice pearly white teeth that he, somehow, just knew, gleamed brightly even in the deepest shadows of the house.
The next summer, neighbors up and down the street began fretting over a new underground pest that showed up and was sawing off many carefully planted seedlings at ground level, killing them, and only sucking some of the juices from a portion of the stem at the ground. It was a shrew and no dog in the neighborhood would go after it, though they yapped and barked alarms to their owners every time it was active and they sensed it. The shrew moved quickly and didn’t leave the visible humps in gardens like gopher tunnels. It seemed to be going back and forth through the neighborhood, randomly, perhaps changing gardens when dogs and owners were getting more vigilant for awhile. One afternoon, I heard Schwarz’s muffled ‘mwwr’ at the back door. I figured he had something in his mouth and wanted in anyway, and went to see what it was before it ended up my just cleaned counter or floor, since he was capable of jumping up and knocking the door handle askew enough to sometimes get inside by himself. I opened the door, and he dropped a dead small animal with mostly gray fur and a lighter underside on the top of the back steps and backed away a few inches, so I could see and admire his present to me better. It was definitely dead, but not gory. If there had been any blood at call, Schwarz had already cleaned it away. It was nice and neat, as though its fur had been carefully groomed, and didn’t even have any dirt on it. In fact, it looked almost at peace on its back with its front paws neatly folded on its chest. The creature only lacked a small lily with a ribbon, if ones every grew that tiny, to look like a proper funeral display. It was an odd looking creature though. It was larger than a mouse, but not the size of a rat and had a long snout, and a set of nasty looking teeth, and those paws had tiny, sharp, claws. I had never seen this creature before. What on earth was it?
I saw an older neighbor out in his garden and asked him to come have a look. Mr. Kehoe came over and when he saw the animal, his eyes widened. He looked at Schwarz who had moved to the bottom of the steps and one side, and was looking quite pleased with himself for having made such a nice present. Mr. Kehoe, said ‘this is a shrew–probably the very one that’s destroyed three gardens so far and no dog will touch them. They are vicious and dangerous and can really hurt pets! Did your cat do this?’
I told him that Schwarz had it in his mouth at the door and dropped it in front of me. He asked for a tissue and picked it up and peered at it. ‘A clean quick snap of the neck. The shrew didn’t suffer. Incredible!’ He turned to Schwarz again and told him, ‘you just earned yourself a steak dinner!’ True to his word, a nice small steak, cooked medium rare, and cut up into bite-size kitty bits appeared a couple of hours later. The word went out in the neighborhood, the gardens were now safe again because of Schwarzschatten the fearless shrew hunter. We ended with praise and thanks all up and down the block, and we soon noticed that the squirrels and starlings were giving our garden a wide berth. We had the best garden yields on the block!
Schwarzschatten took his protector role very serious, well past the garden pests, and the nightly rounds of the house with our resident ghost in a neighborhood that had up to then been so safe most of my neighbors still had circa 1905 skeleton keys for their doors, when they felt the need to lock them. The neighborhood was changing though as we began to discover the second winter Schwarz was with us. Some younger party makers had moved into the neighborhood. Most were simply fun, if a little rowdy at times and just gave us and the local police an occasional interesting story to share after the holidays, like the Super bowl party soon after one young group up the street had. They had acquired a hot tub that year and invited the whole neighborhood for a post game bash and great potluck dinner with a lot of different beverages to sample. Then about 10:30 p.m., some of the guests noticed the steam rising from the hot tub and decided to use it. Well, not all had swimsuits with them, nor fit the suits of the foursome who had bought the house together. That’s when we left. At about one a.m. the police arrived after startled neighbors had come home from someone else’s party, and discovered that the young crowd up the street had discovered you could slide from the upstairs window and slanted roof to the first floor below to splash below into the hot tub, since the steam had formed a layer of ice on the roof after a few hours. However, the swim suits and underwear that most had tried to wear were sticking to the ice. Being happy go lucky and feeling quite uninhibited after all those beverages for some several hours, they did what they thought was the practical thing–dispensed with all clothing and continued to slide down the roof into the hot tub. The police literally doubled over laughing, but realized the outraged neighbors did expect them to do something more constructive, and finally got party goers to either don some sort of clothing or dispense with sliding down the roof in plain view of at least three sets of neighbors now, since the police car itself had attracted further attention. The youngsters promised they would wrap the party up in the next hour and did.
However, a few weeks later another local party goer was another matter. He’d come home so inebriated that in the lamplight, all the various white Edwardian houses looked the same to him and he mistook our house for his own. Tony was out of town on a business trip. It was about midnight and I was already asleep when the man tried his key on the front porch door. When the key would not work, he rattled it and the door. Being utterly self-convinced this was HIS house he soon was shaking the door enough to rattle the porch windows. Schwarz heard the first efforts to rattle the key and door and coming out of a deep sleep I could hear him start to growl. When the inebriated man persisted with more vigor, attempting to force the porch door open I was soon wide awake. The man might or might not have heard Schwarz’s ominous growl getting louder, on the other side of the porch door, the porch, and two solid oak doors on either side of a small foyer into the living room. He definitely must have head the air-raid siren yowl, that Schwarz then let out, as he flung himself at the first oak door and began shredding the several layers of old paint as he determined to get through that door and do the same to the stubborn would be intruder on the other side. I have no idea what was going through that man’s fogged brain, as he still shook the door and started to yell, ‘lemme in, dammit. You can’t do this to me, this is MY house!’ maybe thinking his wife was keeping him out and had deliberately set off an alarm.’ I feared what would happen if he succeeded in breaking down the porch door and then tried to climb in the living room window. I couldn’t remember if we had liability insurance for murder of an inebriated mistaken intruder by cat or not. I called the police. I had to repeat myself, twice and finally the exasperated dispatcher yelled, ‘lady would you please turn off your burglar alarm, I can’t understand you!’
‘I don’t have a burglar alarm, I yelled back, ‘that’s my cat–and he’s downstairs in the living room trying to rip apart the front door to get at the guy trying to shake it open. The cat’s more than 100 feet away!. Please hurry!’
In under five minutes, two squad cars and four officers showed up. Just before then, the man finally cleared his head of anger and whatever else just enough to take a good look at our rather distinctive porch line and realize it was not his house and began to stumble off.
Two officers found him and escorted him home. The second two came to my front door. Schwarzschatten had calmed down, once the would-be intruder had left. He was now snuggled in my arms purring, proud of his having chased away a bad guy. I opened the door, and police looked at me and looked warily past me. One had a gun drawn. The other seemed to have some sort of burlap bag. ‘So where’s the wild cat we’d been told was here. The dispatcher was convinced you had a wild animal. We have to take any wild cat in. They aren’t allowed in the city.’
I was thunderstruck. ‘What wild cat? This is the only cat I own–right here. His name is Schwarzschatten! I didn’t think there were any wild cats left anywhere near Minneapolis.’
The now very contented black cat still in my arms continued purring and just blinked sleepily at them. They looked closely and started laughing. ‘This is the cat that freaked the dispatcher! You’re kidding me! He’s just a big sweetheart.’ Schwarz allowed both to rub his head and under his chin and just purred louder. I didn’t try to explain why he trusted and liked police officers. I could hear faint ghostly chuckling behind me. I was glad I’d opened the door completely and they didn’t see the streaks of missing paint and wood, and all the peelings on the floor that the door sweep had carried just out of their view. I then explained that the vet, whose name I gave them, so they could verify Schwarz had all his shots, thought he was a Bombay cat, which was part Burmese a relative of Siamese but larger and often louder. I explained he did have a very loud yowl that almost exactly mimicked a tornado or air raid alarm and when he’d fallen asleep in the summer on the garage door and we’d accidentally caught his, er, private parts, between the frame and the door when he slid downward as it closed, he’d brought half the neighborhood out to see whether a tornado had suddenly formed despite the nice summer day, or the street alarm had malfunctioned. It had been a nice quiet Sunday morning up to that point, so everyone on the block knew Schwarz and his full volume tornado alarm yowl. I then suggested they might want to tell the deluded would be intruder to get his hearing checked. My own ears were still ringing slightly. They laughed again, thought that was a good idea and left to follow through, while also beginning to discuss the fun they would have teasing the unfortunate dispatcher the next day..
The next day, I found the gray paint in the cellar the previous owners had used, and touched up the front door.,and vacuumed the carpet. Schwarz was relaxing on the top of the sofa, next to the living room window and gazing out, just to make sure our would-be visitor was not returning.
This was just a dress rehearsal, though, for what happened in the mid spring on a quarter moon night. It had been cloudy that day and we’d been indoors all day nursing bad colds that had begun to turn into bronchitis. We’d gone to bed early with some Robitussin DM, and to ensure sleep, a couple of small glasses of Galliano. Ever since I was child, and prone to colds that inevitably settled in the chest, my late mother had given me a small glass of that liqueur as it seemed to warm and ease my chest and let me sleep. It was a technique that worked well, and my husband adopted it also. His mother and grandmother were still smokers, despite the increased health warnings, and his mother’s house was in the rotation for the holiday dinners. There were also more than a half dozen nieces and nephews of my husband’s six brothers and sisters and one or another was always down with whatever was going around that child’s school near that holiday. We always ended up with some sort of respiratory illness after a holiday, as did most of the adults, within a week or so. It was just the occasional downside of a large family in sub-arctic Minnesota, known as the ‘flu capitol of the world.’ So, after some homemade chicken soup, the medicine and the Galliano we were dead to the world and didn’t hear much of what happened. We heard a little something, and partly woke to what was probably the tail end of the event. We simply thought we’d heard some small outside noise from maybe something blowing around in the breeze and went back to sleep.
The first part of the story we found the next morning. The rest we heard from a neighbor’s kid who heard what happened third hand at his high school. We first realized the noise we heard was not a branch dropping but a window, when Tony went to the cellar the next morning for a jar of raspberry jam we’d put up the previous summer, and noticed there was more light coming into the cellar by the stairs on the north side. The storm window had been removed from the outside and was on the sidewalk outside the house. There was a small pry bar next to it. The inside window frame was scratched, rather badly and there was a lot of black cat fur all over the concrete block opening. Someone had tried to break into our cellar and Schwarz had been at the window to stop them and had probably fluffed up his fur, apparently quite a lot–the fur was literally all over the opening, top, bottom and sides. But why hadn’t he yowled? Even with the Robitussin and Galliano we would have definitely heard that tornado siren shriek of his. Hmmm.
I was removing the straw from around the roses and fertilizing them one day about a week or so later when a neighbor’s teenage son strolled over from across the alleyway. Schwarz was with me, swatting at the bits of straw trying to get me to play. Will came up and smiled and rubbed Schwarz’ head and then his tummy when he rolled over on his back to solicit that extra pleasure. He casually asked, ‘did anyone ever tell you that the ghost of a police officer is in your house?’ I stood up and asked, ‘How did you find out? We’ve known since the first night we moved into here. He’s buddies with big boy here.’ Will nodded,and said, ‘I know someone tried to break into your house not long ago. I don’t know who it was. The story is all over my high school. I think it started among the seniors, but I’m only a freshman so everyone else would have heard it before me. This is what I heard, though. The ghost and Schwarz here drove him off. The story is, the guy tried to get in through one of your basement windows and had pried the storm window out. He accidentally dropped it when Schwarz jumped into the opening and fluffed out his fur, bared his teeth and growled. The guy was startled but he figured since he was wearing gloves and had a crowbar and a heavy flashlight he was just gonna bop Schwarz on the head.’ Will looked at me and Schwarz with worry all over his face. He stooped down and rubbed Schwarz some more. ‘Boy I’m glad he didn’t get and hurt you all. You’re good people and I really like this little guy.’
Will stood up again and continued. Rubbing the cat had seemed to soothe him as well as the cat. ‘Your burglar didn’t know you were in the house. I’m glad he didn’t get in. I think he’s a Senior in high school and someone said he’s big and pretty mean. He might have bopped you and your husband, except Schwarz and the ghost cop stopped him. The guy told his friends that Schwarz suddenly jumped down from the sill and the cop was there, right behind him. The cop first just looked out the window and glared at the guy. The kid told his friends that then the whole area around the window started turning ice. He could see frost forming on the window and his breath. He said the next thing he saw was man’s face coming toward him and a hand reaching through the window glass to grab his jacket. Then Schwarz jumped back up in the frame, while the ghost was moving up and through the wall to grab the kid as he backed away and it seemed like Schwarz had grown much larger into something like a panther and was coming with police officer through the wall, toward him. He bolted. He thinks the cat is as outta of this world as the ghost, and he swears he’ll never go near that house again. I think he musta been drinking that night. I know you have a ghost, because the owner just before you, Mr. Alpenburg took to drink because of it, but a cat that turns into a panther and can go through walls? I can imagine your guy fluffing up and looking bigger, but not as big as panther!. Schwarz has got a big yowl, and is a tough cat for a cat but he is a cat. He’s also such a nice guy to everyone around here,’ and Will bent to rub Schwarz’ tummy some more. Schwarz just gave us both one of those ‘I’m very happy now,’ contented kitty blinks. He got another steak dinner that evening.
Thor, the Lightning Cat
Samhain / Hallowe’en Short Stories
Thor, the Lightning Cat
© by Cecilia L. Fábos-Becker, October 25, 2018
Dear readers: You are in luck, or not, depending upon your point of view regarding tales connected to the days of death and remembrance when many in nearly all parts of the world believe the veils between dimensions, beings of matter and energy, life and death-and good and evil are thinnest. I have two tales for you, both mostly true, but with some added imagination as well. I leave it up to you figure it all out. The first story is this week. The second will come out, next Friday, on All Soul’s Day (November 2nd).
Thor, the Lightning Cat
My favorite cousin Apollonia and I had always attracted and loved cats, and were partial to unusual cats. In the 1980’s we became certain that God and his angels had a sense of humor and also must like cats. Both of us had a cat arrive around Hallowe’en and both had unusual personalities.
One Hallowe’en, my cousin Apollonia and her brother Michael were cleaning up after a Hallowe’en party for some neighborhood children, and the usual trick or treaters at their door. Both worked in hospitals, loved children but were not fortunate in love lives much less in having children of their own. They were very bright and imaginative and volunteered as free tutors and child care providers for many of their neighbors. Their neighborhood was lower middle class with old brick-maker cottages and rutted streets, near the abandoned river docks and rusting loading and unloading machinery. A forgotten neighborhood, in a forgotten rust belt city near Lake Erie.
As night fell, a thunderstorm came up and soon drenched the last dawdling little brigands, sending them scurrying homeward. It was a bad storm with howling wind and torrential rain. The crack of limbs falling from the old buckeye trees could be heard and small branches with clumps of leaves began to buffet the sides of the house and windows. Michael remembered he wasn’t sure he’d rolled up his car windows, since the day earlier had been warm. He twisted the doorknob to the front door to open it just as a crack of lightning lit up the sky and a sudden intense gust of wind blasted through the door. Michael was flung backward into a wall, and the hinges on the door were nearly ripped out of the frame. A wet bundle of black and white fur about the size of a bowling ball was blown into the house, tumbling and rolling until it stopped by Michael’s feet. Michael was over six feet tall, and weighed about 280 pounds of almost all large bones and muscle that we used to say were the best expression of mostly Central Asian horse warrior genes in the family, and could terrify strangers on sight. Slamming Michael into a wall was no small feat. As he struggled to close the door, his sister, Apollonia came running from the kitchen, and asked if he was alright.
Michael replied, “I’m fine, but the car will have to suffer or not. I’m not trying to go out again now. We’ll probably have to repair the hinges and door frame tomorrow. I think one of your heavy rosewood dining room chairs, the captain’s chair, will help hold the door and keep it from further damage. It would be useless to do any repairs to the door tonight, but we might have a look at this little guy,” pointing to the bedraggled black and white cat who was now sitting at his feet, trying to clean his drenched, matted fur, starting with his tail, nonchalantly, as if being blown through a doorway by a storm was an everyday occurrence.
“What on earth…who in their right mind let a cat out on a night like this?!” Apollonia exclaimed, dropped the chair by her brother, and ran for a large towel from the bathroom.
The cat continued to sit and try to clean himself. As Apollonia returned, Michael told her, “Easy now. We don’t know how used to people, or strangers, he is and we don’t want to terrify the poor guy,” as guy was soon evident, when he began trying to clean mud and water off his stomach.
Apollonia began softly crooning at it, as she did babies and her own cats, all of whom had sensibly fled to their favorite comfortable spots in the cellar when the storm had begun worsening more than a half hour before. The black and white cat stopped, looked at her and around the room and went straight to the towel in Apollonia’s hands, and sat down next to it, as if he was used to be waited on by servants. Apollonia began wrapping him gently in it and rubbing and patting him dry.
“He’s a little thin, and somewhat beat up, maybe by the storm, maybe by another cat earlier,” she said, “he’s got a little gray by his muzzle and he generally looks like an older cat. Get me my cat brush and comb, and that bag of cat treats at the top of the cabinet on the left side of the sink.” She inspected his ears and head and noticed what appeared to be a few recent, some fresh scratches. Hmmm, you might want to grab some a couple of damp paper towels, and a few cotton swabs and antibiotic ointment from the bathroom, also.”
About a half hour later, the older male tuxedo cat, now clean and happy, had settled on the sofa between Michael and Apollonia and started to snooze while they drank some hot chocolate and watched their local early nightly news program. The storm continued but had lost some of its rage, and tree limbs and branches were no longer breaking and flying around the neighborhood.
Apollonia and Michael knew everyone in the neighborhood knew and everyone knew them. A quick check of a four block radius turned up no owner of the cat, nor anyone who knew of any cat owner who had recently moved or died. They came to the conclusion that this was a cat who had been deliberately dumped, and abandoned by someone from another part of the city where crime and callousness was more common.
“So what do we call him?” Apollonia asked her brother a few days later. “I can keep him. My ladies seem to have decided he’s ok, he’s keeping the Siamese twins in line, and he’s really taken a shine to Delilah, which is helping her a lot.” Delilah was Apollonia’s oldest cat and had been rescued from euthanasia as an older cat in an abusive former home. She was a beautiful long-haired calico but now very timid and the other cats that had come later found she could easily be nosed from either a favorite napping spot or a dish of cat food.
The Siamese twins, a boy and girl, were her latest acquisitions, gifts from a friend who worked at the same hospital whom Apollonia had spelled when she needed a few days for a sudden funeral of an out of state relative. They were expensive pure-breds but somehow not quite the ideal and the owner who raised cats for show and top dollar in sales, was about to take them to the humane society. Her neighbor was Apollonia’s co-worker and knew Apollonia had recently lost two older cats to cancer. The new young Siamese twins were not quite a year old, very pretty little darlings, but also complete imps, and worked together. She named them Yin and Yang.
The dynamic juvenile feline duo had soon taken over Apollonia’s feline family and were most often responsible for Delilah’s retreats. They’d also figured out how to open the back door and window latches in two rooms, to get out into the garden, get into cabinets and rip open bags of treats, which they did share, after first having their fill. They could and would climb everywhere and would try almost anything their imagination and vision inspired. Apollonia had learned to close the bathroom door when running a bath as these two were not afraid of water–they loved it. She heard splashes one day and found that they had discovered the hanging planter near the window of the bathroom, were leaping into it, getting it swinging toward the bathtub and then diving into the tub from the planter–and taking turns. Her nice soothing bubble bath was turning into a mud bath with fur floating on top of the bubbles, requiring her to clean cats, bathroom, tub and repotting the Boston fern before enjoying the bath she’d intended nearly two hours before. The kitchen cabinets now all had hard to open latches, and everything on the top shelf of the kitchen and armoires in the bathroom and bedroom were now held down by museum wax.
“Well, your tuxedo gentleman came in with the storm, with literally a crack of lightning and a gust of wind on Hallowe’en. You recently lost your cat named ‘Spook’ and probably don’t want to use that name again. How about Thor”, Michael suggested, “for the God of Thunder and Lightning?”
“Thor…”, Apollonia looked at the cat now snoozing on the sofa next to Delilah with the twins, Yin and Yang, keeping a wary eye on him at a safe distance, from their nearby chair, after rubbing a greeting around Michael’s ankles and feet. Apollonia looked at the Tuxedo cat with the pugnacious lower jaw with the bits of gray and and repeated, ‘Thor…” The cat looked up and did the slow blink of kitty contentment, “I like that and he seems to agree,” she said, and then, out of habit, looked at her brother’s feet and told him, “you might want to tie your shoes. Yin and Yang did it again.”
Michael looked down. The two Siamese had indeed engaged in their favorite greeting trick toward him, untying his shoes when they rubbed his ankles and feet, hoping he’d walk out of one or another of them so they could run off with it again and play with it, a kind of kitty tetherball, with one holding the shoe in his or her mouth and both batting it back and forth, and managing to keep themselves and the shoe out of his reach for the next ten minutes or so.
Thor may have come in on Hallowe’en with the worst thunderstorm of the year, but true to his pattern of black and white tuxedo markings, he was a gentleman. Still, he could deliver a lightning swift strike with either paw for misbehaving kittens at times. With Thor on guard, they gradually learned their manners, giving my cousin Apollonia greater peace than she’d enjoyed for the last few months. Thor insisted his lady friend, Delilah, get her fill first at dinner and keep her favorite snoozing spots, and he and she would clean one another and both began to play with the kittens at times. Thor would chase and tumble with them to their hearts’ content and Delilah was beginning to lure them with her thick, long-haired “Sally Rand’s fans” tail and let them pounce on it and then wheel and pounce on them gently. Delilah was getting her confidence back and the twins were learning manners but still allowed their imaginative exuberance.
In the summer the following year, tragedy struck. Apollonia’s mother, who lived down the street with her husband and son Michael, died, just at a time when a burglary ring was becoming active in the neighborhood. The burglars had learned that although these were rather humble homes, the families in them were often upper class east European immigrants of education and taste, who had lost nearly everything in the wars and communist takeovers of their countries in the early and mid part of the century and had rebuilt their lives. They lived in former brick maker cottages but inside they were often like small antique shops filled with treasures of fine furnishings, paintings, nice tableware, and they owned and liked to wear real jewelry. Apollonia, as the oldest daughter had inherited her late mother’s jewelry, which included a few items that had belonged to her mother’s mother, and she had a few nice pieces of her own that she had saved up for and acquired over the years. An uncle, her late mother’s younger brother, had his own gem and jewelry business for a time and had helped educate his own children as to quality stones and jewelry, and his nieces and nephews who were interested as well. Her uncle had initially learned from his own father, an aristocrat sent into exile and then made a war refugee, and then added to that knowledge by earning a GIA certificate in gemology.
Apollonia had Crohn’s disease and it took a bad turn after her mother’s death and the funeral. A month later she was in the hospital for a surgery. Her father, just down the street had his own health problems. He was a brittle diabetic and had not been minding his diet very well since his wife’s death. Another daughter moved back in with her father, and, like her brother and sister, worked in a hospital she was a nurse, about to become a physician’s assistant. All three siblings were single, which meant that they were called on to perform extra hours any time anyone with a spouse and children had some family event or emergency. One night Abby was still in the hospital, her father was in the hospital also, and both her brother and sister were working double shifts. They’d had time to check on Apollonia’s cats, feed them, change the kitty litter and give the cats a little brushing, but not much more, between the two shifts. It was the perfect night for a burglary.
Michael got off work first and went to Apollonia’s house and parked his car in the drive on the side. The first thing he discovered was Yin and Yang running around the back garden yowling. While they loved the garden, they rarely yowled. Something was wrong. He then discovered the damaged back kitchen door and broken bathroom window–besides a mess in the kitchen from the upended drawers and some emptied cabinets there. He could hear Thor now, literally calling from the back bedroom, and not willing to come out. He could not see Delilah, his sister’s favorite cat, the sweet timid kitty who had just begun to become a confident normal cat again.. He ran through the shambles of strewn emptied drawers and chairs pulled to walls that no longer had paintings on them, into the bedroom. There, and later in the bathroom as well, Michael found the armoires had been flung open and towels and clothing strewn. The fine antique real linen and lace tablecloths with hand sewn embroidery were gone, the silver tableware that Apollonia had once bought for a wedding, her own, that had not happened after all, some paintings, antique porcelains, and of course Apollonia’s jewelry, including every piece she’d inherited from her mother and grandmother were all gone, from what he could see at a glance. His first concern was for his sister’s beloved cats. She would consider their lives more important than anything else and Michael knew this.
Thor was clearly agitated and his fur was roughed up. Thor had what appeared to be a couple of torn claws and blood around them. He kept drawing Michael to the bedroom armoire and one dark corner beneath it near the corner of the room and looking worried. Michael noticed a thin trail of blood running beneath the armoire and peered beneath. There was Delilah cowering in a ball in the corner and the blood ran to her. “Delilah,” he called softly, “it’s ok, Michael’s here. Come on out baby.” He was shaking but forced himself to become calmer, called again, and then waited anxiously. He hoped the blood was not the cat’s and she was not badly injured. Delilah finally lifted her head from beneath her legs, looked up at him, and at Thor peering at her also nearby, and uncurled herself. Shivering she walked into his hands. He pulled her out slowly from under the armoire and held her close to him and took her into the living room and put her on the one remaining pillow that was still on the sofa, and soothed and examined her. She appeared to be shaken, but not injured, but there was blood beneath her claws. Thor sat next to her and began cleaning her face and ears as if to reassure her, ‘the biggest guy’s here now. It’s going to be alright, love.” Once Delilah settled on the pillow to accept Thor’s tender attention, Michael went to the kitchen and found a bag of catnip and chicken flavored treats in the mess in the kitchen, called the twins in again and gave the cats all treats and settled them in the living room. He closed the doors to the bedroom and bathroom and called the police.
While he waited, Michael began to examine all the cats and found that both Thor and Delilah had clearly fought and had blood under their claws and Thor had indeed two claws torn, one down to the quick. Michael thought quickly. He then grabbed some plastic bags out of the kitchen and swabs and ointment out of the bathroom, and gently cleaned up both cats nails and put the swabs into plastic bags, one for each cat. Then he treated the cats’ injuries with the antibiotic ointment. The police arrived as he finished. He’d told them no sirens, as the dirty work was already done and the cats were terrorized enough. They’d complied. Most of them were friends. Michael and his sister Aurelia had both worked in the ER and met and helped many of them over the years. Apollonia was in reception and intake and also met them.
Michael held Delilah wrapped in his shirt next to his chest when he opened the door for the police and closed it behind them and started telling them the basics of when he’d arrived and what he’d found. Thor began to scratch at the door to the bedroom as if he wanted them to go there first, which they did. Michael pointed out the trail of blood on the carpet and floor leading to where Delilah had been, and told them this was not Delilah’s blood, she had no injuries. He told them he thought Thor, had mauled one of the burglars, and had joined Delilah under the armoire for a time but that since Thor had torn claws and also bled a little, it was more likely the thin trail was from one of the burglars, who had been scratched and was trying to get at the cats for his injuries. Fortunately, the far corner under the armoire was just far enough to make it hard to reach them the armoire was solid oak and weighed too much to easily move it, and cats evaded the probably irate burglar long enough.
One of the officers nodded, and clipped some fibers from the carpet area with the blood on them and a swab from the floor where the carpet did not reach, and bagged both. Then they noticed something else on the floor where Delilah had been, two earrings, ruby earrings that had belonged to Michael’s and Apollonia’s grandmother. They had probably been under and behind Delilah when Michael had drawn her out. He had not seen them but he recognized them. A single strand pearl necklace and an abalone and silver bracelet were then found beneath the bed toward its head. One of the cops looked at the room including the upended jewelry box on the floor and mused aloud, “I think your cats tried to rescue a few things–burglars don’t usually upend jewelry boxes on the floor but on a bed where the stuff can’t bounce and roll. And I know those earrings, that necklace and bracelet didn’t get to the farthest corners they did by just rolling there. I think your cats were trying to interfere and rescue things. That was incredibly brave of them.” Three of the four cats, the twins and Thor, were now looking in the doorway at the police with great interest but not interfering with their work. Michael looked at them thoughtfully, especially Thor whose eyes gleamed especially intently as he watched.
The police officer then left the room and asked Michael if he thought he could give them a beginning list, everyone knowing that since it was Apollonia’s home, she was the only one who could give them a complete list when she got out of the hospital. Michael knew most of the contents of the house but not everything, and gave a list of what he remembered. The two police officers dusted for prints and noticed muddy footprints in the bathroom and measured them. There were more footprints by the back door. They measured and photographed Michael’s shoes, since they all knew that his shoe prints would be among the ones at the doors, but then could rule those out. The odd thing was, if it wasn’t Michael, it was Thor who kept leading them to every clue possible, except for two items which Thor knew Michael had and yet did not let the police know about. Michael held back two things, now hidden beneath the pillow that Delilah now rested on, after she’d decided the police were ok. Michael had let them pet her and reassure her, telling them how he’d found her. Thor went to lay beside her while Michael answered the usual questions from the police and offered them a cup of coffee, which they had politely refused.
They left, and Michael cleaned up the house as well as he might while making himself some coffee and breakfast waiting for a decent hour of the morning when he would have to call his sister, and some other calls. He found a piece of plywood in the cellar and nailed it over the bathroom window with the twins, Yin and Yang watching with barely concealed disappointment. The plywood had no latch, of course and the room was now dark besides. He looked at them, “ok, I’ll leave the light on and I’ll put water in the sink for you to splash around, but I’m not filling the tub and letting you swing from the planter. I’ve got enough of a mess to clean up before your Mom gets home.”
At 7:30 AM Michael began to make some calls. The first was to his best friend and virtually another brother to himself and his sister, “Roger, call the guys, we’ve got a big problem at Apollonia’s. She’s been burglarized and I’ve got a window that needs replacing, possibly a door, depending on whether I can repair it and the frame or not, and her favorite cat is now traumatized. No, she wasn’t badly hurt, more terrified I think, but Delilah and Thor definitely tussled with the burglars. That’s why I want you to make the next call to Jim Darr. He still works in the lab, right?” Roger answered that yes, Jim still did and, in fact, was now the day shift manager in the blood lab in the area’s best hospital. “Good, tell him to expect a package of two plastic bags labelled Thor and Delilah with swabs in them that have blood that I cleaned from under their claws. Tell Jim I’m asking him to analyze the blood on them ASAP. I’ll pay whatever he wants. I’m not waiting for the police to slowly get around to figuring it out. They’re good guys but you know how the laws limit them, and I don’t want Delilah to have to go to any lab for any exams. Poor baby, she’s had more than enough tonight..”
Michael dragged the phone from the dining room to the living room to check on Delilah. Thor was still grooming her and she was still on the pillow. He said to Roger, ” I want these crooks first before our friends in blue get them. I think one swab will turn out to have a mixture of Thor’s blood and one culprit. He lost a claw in these guys, probably did one of them real damage. Delilah hasn’t lost claws but had blood beneath them, so I think the cats might have literally nailed two of the burglars. Apparently we now have two dynamic duos. Get one of the guys over here to pick up the bags and deliver them to Jim. Then help me and my sister Aurelia spread the word to all our friends and acquaintances in the area hospitals. Tell them to watch for at least one, possibly two, probably teenage burglars to come in with some bad cat scratches and the beginnings of cat scratch fever and call me immediately when either or both of them come in.” What? How do I know how many burglars and age? Footprints, It looks like four, three younger ones similar in age and size and one older guy. He probably had the car. From the amount of fur all over the place, probably all four cats were harassing them but Delilah and Thor really mixed it up with them and I’m betting two of the burglars were scratched, the second trying to help the first throw off Thor when Delilah jumped him or something. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a couple of cat bites on these guys, too, but of course the cats would have cleaned up any blood in their mouths right away. They are usually really fastidious about their paws, too, so I’m lucky to have gotten some swabs from Delilah and Thor. Thanks, Roger.”
Michael looked toward the bathroom, where the twins were now scratching at the door. He’d closed it accidentally after using the toilet and they wanted their splash sink, again. Oh, Roger, you still there? Good! I almost forgot, I’ll take the measurements of the window glass and we’ll see who’s available to get a new piece. If it’s not too much, I’m thinking of going with a piece of Lexan this time. I’d like to see the next idiot try throwing a rock or a brick through that! One more thing, ask one of the guys to pick me up a small choice steak. No, It’s not for me, it’s for the cats. I’ll explain when you get here, but Apollonia didn’t quite lose everything.”
At 8 p.m. in the evening, Michael got the call he’d been expecting. Susan, Apollonia’s good friend from across the street had her husband, Red, minding their children when he returned home and she had gone to help Michael clean up Apollonia’s house and return most things to where they normally belonged in drawers, cabinet and armoire, and launder some she felt had needed cleaning from the rough handling given–and the cat fur that settled in the apparent melee. Roger and another friend had come over to help replace the window, with Lexan, and repair the door. When the call came in, Michael asked Susan and Rick the other friend to stay with most of the cats and scooped up Thor and put him in the cat carrier he and Roger had waiting in the kitchen. Then he and Roger headed to the hospital where two teenage males with a number of bad cat scratches, and a couple of cat bites, most with significant swelling around them had just arrived and were kept waiting by their Michael’s and his sisters’ friends.
Michael had EMT training was sometimes an assistant to the nurses and doctors in the ER. Normally he was a technologist, computer programmer, and in charge of a lot of maintenance of equipment and ran test equipment under his sister’s or another head nurse or physician’s assistant’s directions.. He chose not to finish college and become a doctor because he’d never been able to completely rid himself of an occasional unexpected and uncontrollable tendency to faint at the sight of enough blood all at once, or mangled body from a car accident or some such event. Roger made sure Michael was fortified with two shots of palinka stashed in canteen, just before he entered the ER, and then sat down with Thor in a nearby waiting area. Thor stood up in the carrier, sniffed the air and his tail began switching but he sat down in the carrier waiting without a sound. Michael donned a mask and gloves, gathered some wound cleaning and treating equipment and went to the first of the two teenagers, what the staff thought was likely the younger of the two. The rest of the staff in the ER knew what was up and had put the two suspects at opposite ends of the ER so they could not communicate with one another and told the other patients not to worry if they heard screaming, sometimes it was tough on patients when they had to have some wounds they’d neglected and had gotten really bad, cleaned and dressed. Michael went to work with one of the regular staff assistants standing by with a notepad. He asked the first suspect his name. “John Smith,” came the reply, from the slightly built, sullen, brown eyed, black haired boy with the olive skin complexion.
Really?” Michael asked, “you sure of that. You don’t look like any John Smith to me, ” Man, you’ve got a lot of infection, a lot of pus in this big scratch on your hand. I’m going to have to lance it and clean it out. Rellie, can you hold him down for me while I do that. Michael’s sister also masked, stepped forward, with a grim look in her eyes, brushing past the nurse’s assistant with the clipboard.. Rellie wasn’t much smaller than Michael and had been used to help restrain patients the police brought in high on PCP. She was a head nurse and waiting for the results of her exams to become a physician’s assistant. She was trusted to run most of the ER. She grabbed the suspect’s arm and held it firmly while Michael lanced the wound fiercely and pus oozed out. The teenager screamed, and Michael asked again, “What did you say your name was?. This looks bad and I might have to contact your Mom or someone. You might have to stay overnight in the hospital for treatment.”
“Ok, ok,” the teenager said, “my name is Roberto Ruiz but I’m not staying with my Mom. She’s in Florida. I live with my cousins. One of them is here with me at the other end of this place.”
“I need to suction this infection out, and it’s going to hurt a bit. Address?” Michael asked.
“Uh, we brought cash to pay, you don’t need our address. Aieee!,” the teen screamed again, as Michael squeezed the hand while suctioning the wound. “Try again on that address,” Michael said calmly.
The teen gave an address. Michael recognized the street and numbering system so he knew it was real. He also gave his age, sixteen, about what Michael expected.
“Now we need to clean this up and dress the wound and you may need an injection as well as antibiotics but it would help to treat this if we knew what kind of animal scratched you and when you got this wound and the others I see need some treatment. How did this happen.” Michael asked as his sister continued to hold the teen’s arm down.
“Stray cat scratch – near my cousin’s house.”
“Oh really, I guess we’d better get a series of rabies shots ready. There will be seven of them at the site of each wound, and the treatment will need to be repeated. Is that a wound next to your index fingernail. We’ll have to shoot that series up your nail.. Have you had a tetanus shot in the past, also?”
“It wasn’t really a stray cat, it was a cat in er, my cousin’s neighbor’s house and I tried to catch it and play with it.”
“Well this cat might still be dangerous to people and animal control will want to talk to its owner and possibly quarantine it or euthanize it. Which neighbor?”
“I don’t remember, AIEEE, what are you doing now? Can’t I have a pain killer?”
” You’re under age and as far as I know, your cousin is also. We can’t administer anything but antibiotics without your parent or a guardian being present or signing an authorization. Now I have to clean out the wound as much as possible with hydrogen peroxide, and alcohol, and you know, I think in this case some saline solution would help really sanitize this.” Michael proceeded to thoroughly clean the hand wounds with the three solutions as the hapless teen writhed and screamed and he asked more questions. “How many cats?” since there were a lot of scratches. “Two,” came the answer. “What did they look like?” Thor’s and Delilah’s descriptions. “When did this happen?” Last night. “How late?” About 1 AM actually.
“So, you were playing with a neighbor’s cats at 1 AM in the morning when this all happened? Do you really think any of your neighbors is going to confirm that? Now I want to know what really happened, because it just so happens my sister’s house was burglarized at about the same time and she has cats.” Michael then pulled down his mask long enough to give the teen his most evil deadly Genghis Khan leer.
By the time all the hand wounds on the first teen had been cleaned and treated with topical antibiotics and bandaged, a tetanus shot and internal antibiotics and mild sedative administered by a doctor, Michael had obtained the cousin’s name, his age which was 18 and old enough to allow the mild sedative, confirmed the address, and confirmed that Roberto and his cousin had been among the four burglars in Apollonia’s house, but Roberto, being from Florida, didn’t know the other two burglars or the fence because these were his cousin’s friends and contacts. Roberto didn’t know the city well nor Apollonia’s neighborhood and couldn’t confirm the street, though he could describe the interior of the house. A burly male nurse, another friend to Michael and Rellie took Rellie’s place and Michael and Rellie made their way to the next burglar.
Jaime deLeon was indeed older and thought he was tougher than his cousin whom he’d heard scream in the opposite end of the ER. He was immediately suspicious when Michael asked him to confirm his name and address. Jaime also had hand wounds and at least one had a deep puncture wound with a ragged slash just like a cat might make who had sunk a claw in, intending to grab and hold on, and lost the claw instead when the person wrenched his hand away. Rellie grabbed his arm while Michael went to work and lanced the wound while asking him, who else was with you and Roberto?” Jaime screamed almost as much as his cousin. His hand wound was deeper and Michael took his time cleaning it out, thoroughly. By the time he was done cleaning and dressing Jaime’s wounds, he had the names of all four burglars, a ring leader who had not been present and the fence, but the stubborn 18 year old would not admit it was Apollonia’s house they had burglarized.
“Oh I think you know the address and neighborhood, Jaime, and I have a witness who can prove it.” Michael said. You or someone else you know well had to case out the neighborhood to know that my sister was in the hospital and when her house was not being watched enough and you knew that there was jewelry and other things inside, to make the burglary worth your time and effort. And I’m going to prove it, in front of witnesses, right now.” He then turned and asked the assistant to bring in Roger and the item he had sitting next to him. Roger entered with the cat carrier. Thor looked at the burglar on the gurney stood up and yowled, loudly, once, and flung himself at the carrier door to get at the man who had hurt his family and home. Jaime stared at the cat with horror and tried to back away on the gurney, toward the wall.
Michael whipped around and hissed, “you can tell me exactly what I want to know or I can let Thor out to finish the job he started when you broke into my sister’s house, and then Rellie and I can work on your new wounds.” Thor sat down in the carrier growling, but like Michael waited. Jaime looked from the equally gleaming predator eyes of Michael, to Michael’s sister Rellie, and then to Thor and sighed and said, “alright, just get that hellcat outta here,” and then added much more humbly, “please!”
Roger and Thor returned to the waiting area and after administering the injections to Jaime, Rellie called the police.
At the end of the treatment of the two burglars, Michael asked the nurse’s assistant with the clipboard to quickly make a second copy of all the notes and give it to him and be sure to give the originals to the police. The assistant quickly returned with the copies. Michael then left with Roger and Thor.
When the police arrived, the two burglars were glad to see them and indignantly began to protest at the treatment they’d received for their wounds. The police, doing their duty, questioned the ER staff and asked them if anything aside from the standard treatment for animal wounds had occurred. All of them answered, no nothing really unusual, except they were able to identify the cats who made the scratches to be sure they didn’t need to give anyone any rabies shots. One officer quirked an eyebrow up when he heard this, but didn’t ask for more information. He knew Michael, and Michael’s family, well. The staff explained that some of the wounds had been bad and the two teens had let them go too long before coming into the ER, and reminded the officers that the wounds were cat scratches and bites which are often worse than those of a dog. Cats do have venom sacs in their mouths and behind their claws and when the cats are very stressed or frightened they will release their venom. So the wounds had been bad and very infected, needed a lot of clean up work and antibiotics, shots, the works. The police arrested the two burglars, and the assistant handed them the envelope with the transcripts of the questions and answers as had been asked and received.
Well, I wish that I could say this all ended very well and that an entire burglary ring and the fence all went to prison and Apollonia got all that was stolen back again. Because this story is very much based on truth I can’t. The teens, like any other persons arrested, were permitted their phone calls and one call went to a gang member. An entire gang of mostly teens with some young adults, who were mostly cousins and friends to one another was eventually arrested over the next few weeks, including an older man from Detroit. Blood tests did come back on the samples Michael and the police had submitted to the two labs and they did match two of the burglars with one swab having a mix of Thor’s blood and one suspect. Yes, they did go to prison. The fence did not go to prison, however. His fate was actually much worse.
The fence was found, by my cousin, minutes after a van had been seen by the fence’s neighbors leaving at high speed through the neighborhood. When Michael heard that, he told the neighbors to call the police immediately and only entered as he heard them approach. He knew what he would find. The fence was dead, and still warm, but already beyond he help of CPR, laying on the floor next to a chair and desk, but the desk drawers had all been emptied, even a hidden one at the back of the desk, and dust ringed the space where a file cabinet had once stood. Everything else that might have been of any use or significance in detailing the man’s life was gone. The van was eventually discovered to have crossed the bridge from Detroit into Windsor, Ontario. It was presumed that a lot of stolen goods had been on board, as well as all incriminating evidence of the activities of the ring. My cousin, Michael, his various assorted friends on both sides of the law, and the police questioned every known and suspected fence and pawn shop, and went dozens of flea markets, between Philadelphia and Chicago and down to St. Louis and nothing that could be proved to be Apollonia’s ever appeared, was found or was turned in. The police concluded that the ring had sent the items from her burglary and several others to Canada.
Canadian authorities and Interpol were eventually notified after the autopsy showed that the initial belief the fence had suffered a heart attack while trying to flee might have been wrong. The next day as the body of the fence was laying on the gurney and being thoroughly looked over by the medical examiner, the doctor noted some tiny bruises around what looked like needle puncture marks. No poisons showed up in other tests, but, as the police and Michael discussed, an air bubble or the right amount of potassium wouldn’t show up in an autopsy and yet kill. The fact the van had also been seen crossing into Canada and the older ring member in Detroit who had a history of being involved in previous burglary rings all added up to the probability of an international ring, with customers of unique and high end stolen goods likely in Europe. Michael was told he should probably let Interpol and the FBI, handle this, since two states and a foreign country were already known to be involved. Michael very reluctantly agreed.
Apollonia was regretful over the loss of custom and heirloom jewelry, the antique linens and laces and her computer but as she said, “these are just things.” She told her brother and friends, “I’m still richer than most people. I have my home, my family, a lot of true, good friends and the bravest cats in the world who had even managed to rescue a few treasures. I feel pretty darned lucky, all considered.”
The cats got their steak dinner and some cream besides and they all got some catnip toys to help them recover. Apollonia and Aurelia both got large dogs, with the first prerequisite being they had to like cats. The cats had to learn to put up with occasional doggy slobber. Many other neighbors got large dogs as well, and perhaps not so surprisingly, there were a number of new cats living in the neighborhood and well pampered by their owners. Thor, Delilah, Yin and Yang have passed on to heaven many years ago now, along with Michael, Apollonia and Aurelia. Michael, Thor and Delilah passed first but their spirits lingered long enough to escort the next subject of this year’s two Hallowe’en stories to heaven also, as all four had known one another, and Schwarzschatten, whom my vet usually called “Schwarzenegger” was another Hallowe’en cat…
A Visit from an Irate Banshee
Samhain / Hallowe’en Short Story
© by Cecilia L. Fabos-Becker, October 24, 2017
Hugh O’Donnell was dead. That wasn’t his real name, but he was a historical re-enactor and lived his character more hours of a day than not, so most people knew him by that name. He really was descended from the O’Donnell clan. If I ever had any doubt, that was firmly dispelled a few hours later. His ashes had just been retrieved by his friend Reggie and were now in a small medieval chest sitting on a small folding garden table in the middle of a parking lot covered, for the sake of proper appearances, by a cloth.
It was Thursday night, Celtic night, about a week before Samhain, (Hallowe’en to those who are unfamiliar with Celtic culture, Wiccans or re-enactors) at his favorite pub, the King’s Oak, and all his re-enactor friends were in period correct costume, gathered in a chilly moonlight circle round the little casket.
Serena directed all in the circle assemble to hold hands. Her husband, Marcus, had a two-handled goblet and filled it with Hugh’s favorite whisky, (Irish of course). The bottle was placed next to the chest and, since normally no one was allowed to have alcoholic beverages beyond the courtyard-patio of the pub, lookouts checked over their shoulders to make sure no police were arriving. Perhaps they had been advised and were inclined to look the other way, for a half hour or so, this being a special occasion. I never knew.
My youngest sister Annie and I were uneasy. Annie had become reacquainted with Hugh about a year or so before his death, had dated Hugh for a few months. Then she spurned him, (again). “He was a nice enough guy,” she said, “but had really let himself go. That pot belly and straggly beard he’d allowed to grow were a turn off.” She liked well him, but not enough to date and be serious about him, but Hugh really liked her a LOT, and so she’d been avoiding him. Hugh also hung around with Reggie and she didn’t like Reggie. Reggie was never anything but Sir Reginald, whether at a festival or not, and she thought he was a bad influence on Hugh, and that Hugh might have gone to the doctor sooner had he not been thinking so much of himself as a macho Irish lord long before modern medicine. Still, Hugh was gone, and she mourned his passing as a friend.
Perhaps it was the full moon, and wisps of clouds and the beginning of an evening fog blown about the sky by a night breeze, in the chilly October air. Perhaps it was the approaching Samhain, the time of the year when night increases and our ancient Celtic ancestors believed the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead weaken. Somehow Serena’s voice was more resonant as she called us to remember the good in Hugh, say a prayer for him, out of our own beliefs, and to mourn his passing. Several of us spoke of favorite memories. Serena called on his spirit, which she believed had not yet gone to its final destination to listen and be loved. Marcus filled the two-handled goblet again and again and blessed it as each two persons in the ring of about 20 drank from it in honor of Hugh. Before the bottle was finished, Reggie sprinkled a few drops over the casket holding Hugh’s remains, “to ensure Hugh had one last taste of his favorite.” Annie, reluctantly described a few memories of Hugh and herself, as she’d first known him and said good-bye.
This seemed to inspire Serena, who then told Hugh’s spirit, “we know you have a fine destination with other loved ones and your ancestors waiting but you need not hurry there if you do not wish. You are welcome by this circle of love to linger and stop in your friends’ homes and lives and say good bye to each of them in your own way.”
In that very moment, the breeze stopped, the night became very still, and I thought I heard a distant shriek. A few others did also. The circle tensed, and we all looked about. Nothing solid approached. no teenager racing about and squealing tires, but the darkness seemed to increase. A dark cloud had spread across the moon and seemed to hover over us. Annie was real uneasy at this point and shifted her feet a few times and looked over her shoulder. My instincts practically screamed inside of my head, “Serena what were you thinking! Hugh IS listening and he’s a practical joker, for heaven’s sake!” Although we couldn’t see him, Annie and I both KNEW Hugh was indeed present, and not just his ashes. Hugh had indeed been listening and he was thinking, and Annie had been the last person to speak of him and was special to him. The hair along the back of my neck raised and Annie complained she had goose bumps all over her arms. It was getting colder, besides darker, and we’d finished the bottle and opened the circle again.
“I need another drink’, said Annie. ‘I don’t like what I’m feeling.” Several of us headed into the pub, and as I turned, I thought I caught a glimpse of Hugh in his favorite costume, his saffron shift and dark green tunic over it, smiling and waving as he turned toward another couple we knew. I blinked and looked again, but the vision had faded! I told my husband, after I turned to him, “I’m going with Annie for another drink.” My husband quirked an eyebrow, looked intently into my face and understood. This wasn’t our first encounter with such things.
Ten years prior, the ghost of police officer, who had once lived there, used to pace the halls of our previous home. Every night at 2 a.m. the upstairs landing would creak at his footsteps. Virtually everyone who spent the night heard and asked who was restless the night before.
In our current home, my late mother, and a cousin still occasionally “visited,” such as the time, my mother’s portrait painting glowed, a cat stopped right in front of it nearly tripping me, and I heard her voice telling me to get to the doctor, NOW. I did, and was diagnosed with stage one ovarian cancer. Mom had died of this same affliction, and she apparently didn’t think I should join her just yet. We caught the cancer so early I didn’t even need chemotherapy. My late cousin, Michael, who had died just after Mom, visited also on occasion. He liked my cats, and was an occasional jokester. He’d let us know he was around by swinging a door back and forth, especially any that needed a little graphite on its hinges, or helping me with occasional recipes. This was partly how I had one occasion of five-alarm Hungarian gulyas (he’d swapped the sweet Hungarian paprika container with the hot on that occasion) and another where the amount of brandy in a marinade seemed to be more than I thought I’d put into the recipe and the chicken not only caught fire, but singed several branches of the bougainvillea next to the grill.
I should explain a little about my family. My sister and I descend from at least two families of my late mother’s who were long ago accused of witchcraft, and having extra “sight,” etc. By one vote of the justices, an early Virginia county court narrowly acquitted the sister of one ancestress of witchcraft, and another had been driven out of her community on the same charge.
My late father, himself, was a natural warlock of sorts, and his own mother prayed for his everlasting soul when she discovered some of his extra talents, beginning in his childhood. He found not just water, but minerals as well, and was able to see in the dark. There were also stories of Dad occasionally turning into a wolf, but those were just stories, right? His forestry and hunting skills were legendary, though, and when he was growing up, he only went hunting with his father or a very few trusted friends, some of whom were Native American, in the wilds of upper Michigan or parts of Canada near his home. He served with the Code Talkers in WWII, among other things, in the Japanese Islands campaign, and was one of only a very few of his original platoon, and even division, to survive. Grandmother said a lot of rosaries every night, for as long as anyone had known her, for her husband and her son. Interestingly, her own family background included a Transylvanian line or two, which she was usually inclined to forget, and a story or two about an ancestor’s encounter with someone who thought he or she was a vampire. I once tried to calculate how many rosaries were in the multiple novenas said every night for several decades since 1907, and decided it all was more than I wanted to contemplate. Clearly there were deep, dark secrets in far more than just a couple of family lines, but most of it was just fairy stories, though more like those of the Brothers Grimm, before editing and revision, rather than Andrew Lang.
In my immediate family, there were four of us children, but the degree of unique family talents varied widely. My other younger sister seemed to have almost none, and bitterly resented the rest of us who did, telling the rest of us we were all simply insane. I probably had the most of the unique talents, so she saved her greatest wrath and most spiteful barbs for me–whenever Mom and Dad weren’t around to hear her. Long ago Mom had told me a strange tale of a night on a beach dimly lit by a crescent moon, in the Pacific at the end of the war, when my father didn’t seem to be himself. It sounded to me too much like the old fairy tale of Uther changing into Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall and seducing Ygraine of Tintagel, only Mom had implied that my father might have either been a Selkie who took human form, or, in his invisible energy state had temporarily merged with and taken over my father, and I dismissed it. Any resulting child is mostly human, but not entirely, and never really completely fits, or feels comfortable with the human world, nor should it spend any time in it, the world of the Shee, either. But this was just another fairy story and Mom was just using it to help me cope with my middle sister, or so I thought. These things just didn’t happen in the 20th century. Mom told me to ignore these barbs, and said the extras might be possibly because I had an unusual birth and might not entirely be a full sister to the other three. “Don’t worry about it, you’ll always have extra protection she doesn’t,” Mom said. Then I found out the night we’d had the circle of friends say good-bye to Hugh, that maybe I shouldn’t have dismissed it all as “just stories,” after all.
At a table near the fireplace in the King’s Oak, I sipped a large Irish coffee, heavy on the whip cream, light on the alcohol–I’m a certifiable cork-sniffer, according to my husband, and tried to relax listening to the music of the Irish session going on. This late in the evening, it had gotten past the jigs and reels played with gusto at top speed and there were more airs by Carolan, and soft laments, more soothing. Annie, who was not much of a pre-modern music lover, got roaring hooched, had an enjoyable argument with two other friends, over “the meaning of the road to perdition,” while occasionally glaring in the direction of Serena, and finally began to doze off at the bar. She actually wasn’t in much better shape, in many ways, than Hugh had been, but no one in his or her right mind would have ever dared tell her that. We all wanted to live long and enjoyable lives. Annie had a hell of a temper and occasionally held grudges.
Three of us carried her to our car. She snored all the way home, but woke to the sound of the garage door opening as we parked. The fog had come in, and the wind had picked up. It started to drizzle and the vines on the side of the house were were already wet, slapping against the walls and scratching under the eaves. The sliding back door had begun to rattle slightly and our two black cats had both retreated to our bedroom upstairs, neither lingering on the sofa downstairs, which given their usual rivalry, was a little unusual. Annie, who lived with us, at that time, retreated to her own suite, saying, “I can’t stand this. I’m taking a sleeping pill.” She took more than that.
Annie had a flask of vodka upstairs for high stress occasions, like the too often malfunctioning electronics at her job. Her department, she had long declared, was the orphan stepchild of the company, and got all the leftover bits and pieces of electronic machinery that no one else wanted, which she had to try to get and keep working together, while meeting daily deadlines.
Annie and I had inherited something of a talent for generating electrical energy at times, when very stressed, that in her case could and did cause a few electronics mishaps, including a couple of fires. She hated computers in the first place and hated it even more when they were linked to other devices to accomplish anything, and especially if they were combined with telecommunications equipment. She would have been much happier living and working, before the 1980’s. She finally got a full replacement of one particularly bad bubble-gum and baling wire rigged lash-up, when one piece of machinery overheated and blew apart, causing a fire that evacuated the entire building, and she’d been at the other end of the room fuming about its latest over-time causing misbehavior when it happened. Electronics–and people–survived much better if she really relaxed in the evening.
I’d only once had something like that happen, but though the blown printer-copier had flung what looked like shredded steel wool, all over my study, along with a few overheated bits of plastic, there had been no fire. Besides I’d simply tried to exceed the maximum number of copies too long and too fast, right? It had nothing to do with the ingrates who had suddenly decided they wanted them yesterday and, being a non-profit, never paid me for my work.
My husband and I watched a little of some late night comedy variety show with the cats cuddling up next to us and turned off the television and went to sleep. I then started to dream about Hugh flying about to all his friends’ homes, saying good-bye, mostly by entering through their dreams. Sometimes, they would wake to his presence, but most often not. Unfortunately he wasn’t alone. He was being followed–chased– by a young woman with very long, nearly garnet red hair, and dark hazel green eyes in a black gown and hooded cape and she was trying to get him to stop his rounds and go with her. She was his family banshee, she protested, and was to escort him to his new home, but she was a FAMILY banshee for a very large clan, and she had other visits to make and Hugh was blowing her schedule. “Please, come with me,” she pleaded, “you’ve been a good person, and people are waiting for you in your new home.”
“Not yet,’ Hugh would reply and wave her off, “I’ve got more friends to visit, waken and bid adieu. I’m full of energy now, and I can fly and it feels great! I want more time – I’ll go with you eventually.”
He made another few visits and the banshee became angrier, screeching so they could hear her and making his friendly visits difficult. “You have no idea how loud I can get,” she warned him, “or why.” He approached our house, ignored the banshee again, and I saw him land in the front side garden, though he’d never been there. Hugh looked up toward Annie’s window on the second floor and seemed to know that it was hers. He walked through the closed front door, as though it was not there, and started toward the stairs. The banshee was now trying to grab his arm, and his shift sleeve flapped back and forth, as he shook her off, and he darted up the stairs.
At that point the banshee began to shriek in sheer irate frustration–and so did one of my cats. I started to wake and still, more than half asleep, sighed and mumbled to them to “knock it off. I know what’s going on, I’m not involved and I need my sleep.” Somehow the banshee heard me and she spun around and stopped at my doorway. “You can hear me? You can see me?” she demanded of me. ‘You’re not afraid of me?” I could feel her presence and now, more alert, saw her, at least some of her. “No,” I answered.
“Why not?” the banshee asked, “are you a Shee, also?” I was now fully awake–and the male cat had switched from his warning-siren yowl to growling and pacing back and forth across the end of the bed. The other cat had dashed behind the headboard and was making mewing sounds from behind and beneath, as if to say, “Mom, make it go away, please!”
I suddenly remembered all the old stories I’d heard about banshees and humans. Humans were not supposed to see banshees unless they were dying. Only another Shee, or someone part Shee, could see and interact with them and not die. Not only that, they were generally family specific. They were once married, or loved and had a sexual relationship with a long ago member of that family. They had once been fair folk, fairies, in Ireland and Scotland called Shee, but become mortal to share the shorter life of a person they loved. They then were abandoned by the person they loved or killed by a relative, but not until they’d given birth to a member of that family. Thus, the combination of circumstances permanently tied them to the family. Banshees are a kind of angel of death, but as a family personal escort, and not for everyone. A bad person in the family had no normally friendly personal escort to a different hereafter. There was another order of beings that took them wherever they were to go.
This wasn’t my first encounter with a banshee, but I somehow didn’t think it was a good idea to tell her this. My own family had a banshee somewhere in it who escorted good males and warned those he had loved the most of his passing, especially if it was untimely, as it was for my uncle. Many years before, I’d heard the wind that sounded like crying and wailing before, as did my mother. My next sister, bless her, slept through the whole night my mother and I were up, in a solid brick and stone apartment building back east, listening to a keening wind that wasn’t really there to most people. When I looked out the front room window, not a leaf was moving on the nearby trees. I saw though, glimpses of something like a dark cloak and sleeves beating at the edges of the window, and then a shadow circling above and in front of the building. I believe my mother saw it also, as she occasionally stared out the window, but she said nothing and I didn’t ask. She got down the Bible from the top of a side-board and began to read to me instead until dawn, when the strange wind stopped. My mother wasn’t surprised at all to get the telegram, a few hours later, that told her her favorite, and closest, brother was dead at the age of just 35, and that he died unexpectedly.
So, instead, half whispering to not alarm the cats further, or wake my husband, I carefully spoke to Hugh’s banshee. I told her that I was more human than anything else and very mortal, with hearing that could be damaged by continuous loud noises, such as she and/or the cat had just inflicted. I told her that I could see her better when I was sleeping, but yes, even mostly awake, I could still see her black gown and cape now, though not her face, any longer, and that she seemed to be growing rather large. ‘Why was that happening?’ I wondered, mentally.
My husband, whom I used to suspect could sleep through a bomb blast, was beginning to stir, though, by now, the cat was no longer yowling and I was mostly whispering. He rolled over toward me, and asked, “what’s going on, and why is the cat growling? We haven’t seen any raccoons for weeks.” ‘We have a banshee.‘, I replied. “Oh?” He asked, and rolled on his back and looked around. “All I see is a dark shadow by the door, but I’m not awake. Is that all?”
‘You’re seeing just the upper part of her. The rest of her is filling up the lower floor, and I think her head is now in the attic. Her size seems to be related to how upset she is,’ I told him. ‘The banshee has been trying to catch Hugh ever since Serena told him he could stay with his friends longer. Hugh is now trying to wake Annie.’ The banshee bent her head down partly through the attic floor, and the shadows that were her clothing fluttered a little, as she nodded.
“Tell Hugh ‘good luck with Annie! No doubt she’s dead to the world.” My husband sighed. I’m going back to sleep.” He then rolled over on his side and pulled up his covers, as if to block out further sight and sound.
I turned to the banshee, who was watching the cat, but keeping her distance. I knew I had to do something, as the banshee was not going to leave without the stubborn Hugh, and my cat would not settle down again until she was gone. Given how large she had grown, I was not entirely sure how much damage an irate banshee might do to a house of wood and stucco. Chauncey, our male black cat finally seemed to realize that the banshee might be an unwelcome night time visitor, but, as long as she came no closer, was barely tolerable. The growl and pacing subsided to a soft, “rrrr,” as he sat upright at the edge of the bed, with his tail switching back and forth. He flexed his claws a few times, just to show he was still on-guard.
The banshee then began to vent, loudly complaining about every detail of the long chase she’d made all over the South Bay area since Serena’s ritual had unwittingly enabled Hugh to linger. No one, especially the ungrateful Hugh, appreciated her efforts and responsibilities, and on and on she went. The banshee swelled and grew ever larger, the longer she complained. She was now filling both floors like a giant balloon of darkness, except for my husband’s and my bedroom, and with that inner third eye that had not seemed to shut when I woke, I could see that her head was now bobbing furiously over the roof above the attic and her long hair was shaking the bougainvillea, making it slap again into the soffits and sides of the house. My female cat mewed plaintively from behind the headboard, again.
Hugh also heard the banshee’s commotion, and began to protest at her crowding him, while he shook Annie trying unsuccessfully to wake her and say good-bye. I told Hugh he was wasting his time and that of the banshee, that Annie was near comatose, from a sleeping pill, if not two, and the extra alcohol. Stubborn Hugh was sure he could wake her anyway. Hugh was still into the ideal of the macho, all powerful medieval male lord, even if now he was little more than a vapor.
Now the banshee was about to envelop the entire house from the outside, and the windows began to rattle as though in a gale. Since she couldn’t shake Hugh, the banshee seemed about to shake the entire house apart! I wasn’t far behind the banshee in my own feelings of exasperation. Chauncey began to growl again, and my husband had stopped snoring. How in blazes was I going to convince Hugh that saying another good-bye to my sister was futile and he really should go with his family banshee? I did the only thing I could think of quickly and prayed, silently. Where are my guardian angels? Where are Christ and his Blessed Mother, Mary? Are they all that busy elsewhere?
Suddenly, from the back wall of the stairwell, two lights appeared and began coming toward us. They passed through the banshee’s gown, and she looked down. Car headlights only reflected from the next house into my bedroom and not into the wall in the stairwell. It was obvious I had more unworldly visitors, about to appear! Probably they were ghosts -but ghosts on a mission. Had my prayers been answered and a heavenly cavalry arrived?
Well, it was not exactly a cavalry, more like a couple of Texas rangers! One of them, in life, even had a rather checkered history with law enforcement.
My often iconoclastic, and always irrepressible, Hungarian cousin Michael took form in his favorite black monk’s bath robe, smiled, and introduced himself to the banshee, with these words:
“Hello, I’m Michael, Cecilia’s cousin and I am very happy to meet you. I’ve always wanted to meet a banshee. We didn’t have them in my part of the family. However, I know you’re busy, so I’ll take care of Hugh and send him down on you. Cecilia’s mother Lily Maie is here waiting for you and will help you do what you need to do. You will like her.”
Although surprised at cousin Michael’s appearance, I remembered something. Michael had been engaged to a beautiful mortician at the time of his early death, and Maruschka was a visual double for Hugh’s banshee.
Now curious, about my strange family who would all get involved with a banshee on my behalf–and could see and hear her, the banshee decided to go talk with this Lily Maie, my mother. Their unexpected visit was most unusual and such an interruption had never happened before, none of it! Getting this much attention, was very rare, indeed!.
The dark shadow began to shrink away from the upstairs and flow down the stairs. Michael watched the banshee depart and then turned to me, “Everything is going to be just fine, now. I’ll retrieve Hugh and your Mother will calm the banshee down. Just don’t go downstairs for a little while yet, and don’t let that cat out of the bedroom as a banshee can feel a cat’s claws and teeth, and we don’t want her getting upset again.” Michael then reached out and stroked Chauncey, who reacted as though this was the best moment of his night rolling on his back for a ghostly tummy rub, and purring.
‘Chauncey’ was the name that Michael used for special friends on occasions when he thought they were behaving, amusingly, like English aristocrats, and this cat had been, from the start, a little Sir Launcelot, and took his protector role very seriously. Chauncey was also very fastidious in cleaning himself or dining–“damned prissy sometimes,” my sister, had commented. Chauncey also announced himself, like a little clarion, or the changing of a guard, every time he came in the house or a room. He and Michael had become instant friends, even before Michael died, and they stayed friends, ever after. “I’ll see you all later,” Michael then said, followed by “Chauncey behave yourself now. You need to stay here with Cecilia,” and Michael headed into Annie’s bedroom. Chauncey crept to my side and settled in for some head rubbing and scratching, and my husband resumed snoring.
I heard two male voices arguing, and Annie drowsily muttering, then shouting, ‘I’m awake damn it! Go away! Both of you! Especially, you Michael – you almost killed me twice when we were kids, and I still haven’t forgiven you! And what in the hell are you both doing in my bedroom, anyway??? And you Hugh, I said good-bye in the Circle. You’re a nice guy, but it’s been over for a long time. Go bother Reggie!”
“I already did! Hugh protested. “He couldn’t hear me, then when I made his lamp flicker, he threw it right through me!” Hugh complained indignantly.
“Serves you right for waking people in the wee hours,” said Annie, “I’m sorry he didn’t see you, and I’m sorry you didn’t have a longer life. We’ll see each other again someday. Now, I’m sure there are lots of good people waiting for you, in your hereafter. Goodbye”
“Well yes, but I wanted to see you again,” Hugh said.
Now more alert, “I’ve heard all the same stories you have’, quipped Annie, ‘You can see me anytime from anywhere–you just wanted ME to see YOU! I know you, and your tricks, Hugh, you and Michael are two of a kind. Go with Michael but don’t give each other any bright ideas that cause any more problems.’ I could hear Annie roll over, probably looking at the clock. ‘Come on guys, it’s 3 a.m. and I NEED my rest at this point. That machinery at work doesn’t cooperate any better when I’m short on sleep!”
Michael laughed, “You know I could eliminate the machinery for good, this time, for you.”
“No, thank you!” Annie yelped. ‘Michael, I still remember what you did to Uncle’s old car. It’s a wonder you didn’t get arrested for that one! You didn’t learn a darned thing after you launched the old barbecue grill nearly into orbit! It was seen in DETROIT, for Chrissake! You’re worse than I am with pyrotechnics! Now GO–GET OUT, BOTH Of YOU!”
As their voices faded, I heard Hugh say, “Hmm, now this sounds interesting, just what DID you to your father’s old car?” “I blew it up–literally,” said Michael. Come with me and I’ll tell you all about it.”
The two had departed, at long last. “Finally,” Annie sighed,” I think I need another drink! I could hear her stumble into the bathroom for a glass, then back to bed.
The breeze of the early evening had returned, dissipating some of the fog, and a thin sliver of street light again came through the side of the window the blinds did not completely cover. My female cat came out from behind the headboard and curled up next to me, on the other side from Chauncey, and peace reigned.
The next day, after Annie returned from work, while serving dinner, I cautiously asked her how her day went. “Well, despite being dog tired, my day was fine,” she replied,” for once the equipment didn’t act up all day long, not once, which was a good thing.” Then she said, you know, I slept pretty well, except for a funny bit of a dream that I can’t remember completely, now. I think Serena’s antics might have triggered it, but I really can’t remember much. I dreamt that Hugh’s and Michael’s ghosts had both had visited and then went away discussing how Michael blew up his father’s old, decrepit car. Huh! I always thought Hugh reminded me of Michael. But that’s silly.”
My husband coughed slightly, and looked at me. I looked at him, about to ask him if he was alright, and he shook his head and said with a little smile, “everything’s just fine.”
A Ceremony of the Haggis
Scottish Sausage Startles Soiree
© by Tony Becker, 2016-12-04
For Christians, November 30th is the Feast of Saint Andrew, and since Saint Andrew is the patron saint of the nation of Scotland, ’tis also the season for St. Andrews Day Celebrations.
At such formal Scottish occasions, the Ceremony of the Haggis is the highlight of program. The ceremony begins with ‘Piping in in haggis‘, as a ready to serve haggis (look up haggis here), is carried on a fully decorated platter and by the chef or sometimes a kilted Scot accompanied by a kilted presenter carrying one or more bottles of single-malt Scottish whisky. This column parades around the room, eventually arriving at a presentation table front and center of the audience.
As the haggis and whisky arrive they are arranged on the table with great ceremony. Then the presenter makes appropriate remarks, cuts open the haggis and serves the dish for the assembled Scots celebrants to enjoy.
At just such an event recently, a kilted piper and presenter with two bottles of whisky, accompanied a chef with the haggis on platter performed the usual ceremonial parade around our gathering with out incident.
As the pipes fell silent, the chef placed his platter and haggis as the presenter placed his two bottles of whisky onto a table where, this being the high point of this most Scottish of Ceremonies, every eye in the room was then riveted.
Just then, the front legs of the small folding table creaked and began to fold up!
As the table began to tilt, the two bottles of whisky began to wobble and the platter began to slide forward.
The crowd gasped!
But, with remarkably quick reflexes, the presenter deftly snatched the two teetering bottles of whisky back from their impending doom as the platter clattered to the floor, and the football shaped haggis bounced unceremoniously forward and onto the floor and then slowly came to a stop in the center of the dance floor.
Seizing this opportunity, I rose from my adjacent seat, and shouted, in my best announcers voice, ‘Thank God he saved the whisky!‘ Among those laughing, my wife sputtered, ‘I’m just glad I didn’t shout ‘FUMBLE’, as I was sorely tempted, since a haggis really does look like a football!‘
To his further credit, when the crowd settled down and the mess was cleaned up, our presenter gathered himself and his haggis up, (in less than five seconds!) soldiered on and completed his remarks and service with distinction and all due decorum, and the haggis was delicious. Still, it was very much the highlight of the evening, and we will never forget that evenings Ceremony of the Haggis.
The moral of this story is, if you are preparing a haggis ceremony and using a folding table, make sure your table is locked before it is loaded! (Or at least have an eligible receiver downfield.)
Catskill Irish Arts Week
July 10-16, 2016
Part One, by Mark Levy, firstname.lastname@example.org
One of upper New York State’s best kept secrets, unless you happen to be an Irish music enthusiast, is Catskill Irish Arts Week.
As one enters East Durham, the roadsign announces ‘The Emerald Isle of New York,’ and this enclave of Irish resorts somewhat mirrors geographically the Jewish ‘Alps’ an hour or so to the south in the lower Catskills, which spawned most of America’s comedians and many other singers and entertainers, in that both were settled by immigrants wishing to preserve a bit of the old country in the new.
Every Summer for 22 years Catskill Irish Arts Week has sponsored a week-long festival featuring many great Irish and other Celtic musicians and singers, some of whom have traveled from Ireland and other places overseas to lead workshops daily and perform on the evening stage and in nightly pubs after those concerts end. This year was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. (See CatskillIrishArtsWeek.com for more info.)
I happened to be close enough teaching and performing myself at an adult camp in the northeastern Hudson Valley this year (and last year as well), and took the opportunity to play hooky a couple days from my camp an hour across the Hudson River. East Durham is a quick trip across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge (try not to fall asleep!) a few miles up the road from Catskill, NY. This year was special, though, as one of my favorite singers turned out to be Artist-in-Residence. Sean O’ Se, one of Ireland’s national treasures, has been known to me since my trip to Ireland in January of 2006, when a pub owner in southwest Cork, where I had just sung at a session, gave me one of his CD’s. I was determined to tell Sean a story regarding one of the songs, ‘Skibbereen,’ I learned from his CD, and went to the 2016 Week with that in mind.
I had heard the song before when Liam Neeson sang it in the movie Michael Collins. It did not hit me to sing it myself until I heard the beautiful rendition on Sean O’ Se’s CD Songs of Cork and Kerry. Debbie and I had also visited that city, named in the song, on the southwest Cork coast earlier in the trip, so it made perfect sense for me to learn it, which I did upon returning to the States. It’s a sad but defiant song about the British landlords chasing the native Irish out of their homes during the potato famine. (See the lyric below.)
Looking forward to a night of great music and sessions, my brain was also trying to connive a way of approaching Mr. O’ Se in an unobtrusive way at an appropriate time and place. I must admit, I was a bit star-struck. I parked at the Shamrock Restaurant and Pub to have a bite before the music started at the festival grounds. No sooner had I ordered my fish and chips when in walks Sean himself. I am not going to disturb him during his meal, I think to myself. Wait for the right time.
After dinner, I headed over to the festival tent where the music would begin shortly. Was checking email on the laptop when I saw Sean arrive with his guitar accompanist and producer Matthew Allen. I nodded to him and he waved back, hardly an introduction. Since he was to sing at the concert, I didn’t want to keep him from checking in with the stage manager and readying for the show. Wait for the right time.
A little while later, as I turned to put the laptop back in the car, as luck (or fate) would have it, he was walking right towards me from the outdoor rest room.
‘Sean O’Se!’ I stuck out my hand to one of County Cork’s finest singers. ‘Mark Levy. I have a quick story to tell you when you have a minute.’ ‘This is a good time, ‘ he said, so I proceeded with the following tale:
‘Back in 2006 I sang at a session at the Tin Whistle in Ahakista, County Cork. The owner of the pub gave me a couple CD’s, one of which was your Songs from Cork and Kerry. ‘Ah, yes,’ says Sean.
‘Well, about three years later we made another trip to Ireland, this time to visit my wife’s father’s family. As we spoke to her father’s first cousin Seamus in County Cavan, he recounted the story of Debbie’s grandfather’s departure from the island.
‘Me father always said he had a younger brother Paul who went to America (it was 1928). In those days when someone was leaving for there, we would have an ‘American wake,’ because we might never see them again. It was customary to sing your way off the island at that time, and the morning after three days of wake, your grandfather stood at the crossroads and sang two songs, ‘Pal of My Cradle Days‘ (1926), and ‘Skibbereen,’ which of course I told him I knew. He insisted that I sing it for him and his wife. Both were practically in tears, yelling out encouraging words as is often done in the Old Country. ‘It’s full circle’, he finally said, ‘Your grandfather left with that song, and you bring the granddaughter back with it.’
O’ Se listened to my story attentively, smiling. ‘You see, if I had not heard your singing of it, I would not have learned it to sing on such a special occasion. It was your singing that did that.’ He nodded, and went on his way to the big tent, where later he would sing a set of many of the crowd’s favorites: ‘Kate Muldoon,’ ‘Wexford Rebel Song,’ ‘Carrickfergus’ (which he sang in Gaelic as well as English – Click for the video), ‘Banks of My Lovely Lee’… and many more. The crowd, including me sitting up front, ate it up and sang along. He spoke of his long friendship and collaboration with Sean O’Riada, also from County Cork, who almost single-handedly brought back the ‘se nos’ (old style) of singing ballads. It was a wonderful night that I hoped would never end.
And it did notend there– it just got better. After the formal presentation in the big tent, with the best of Ireland’s step dancers and players and Sean’s set, the group breaks up to attend one of half a dozen or so open pub sessions. I headed to the singing session at Gavins, led by Roisin White— another of Ireland’s precious gems of traditional song. Sitting in the circle, I had decided to sing ‘Skibbereen’ and tell a bit of the story.
About an hour into the session, two course-changing things happened simultaneously: Sean O’Se himself walked in and sat across from me, so I quickly changed the tune I was about to sing not wanting to repeat the story nor sing a song I learned from him at that point. The second thing was, as I sat waiting for my turn, I gently strummed to see if my guitar was in tune, but I had forgotten that I had not played it since landing in New York, and it was completely detuned for the plane ride. I panicked, and ran outside to tune my 12-string in 30 seconds close as I could get it, and ran back in. ‘What happened to ya?’ asked Roisin. ‘I was about to call on ya.’ I told her, and everyone, about my near disaster, and after the laughter died down, proceeded to play ‘Sliabh Gallion Braes,’ another song about the landlords chasing the Irish out. Sean knew the song and, to my delight, sang along with me, smiling. I could not have been more thrilled.
Traditional Music: The Difference between Bluegrass, Old Time and Celtic
Old Time and Celtic songs are about whiskey, food and struggle. Bluegrass songs are about God, mother and the girl who did me wrong. If the girl isn’t dead by the third verse, it ain’t Bluegrass. If everyone dies, it is Celtic. Old Time and Celtic bands have nonsense names like ‘Flogging Molly’ ‘Fruit Jar Drinkers’ and ‘Skillet Lickers’ while Bluegrass bands have serious gender-specific name like ‘Bluegrass Boys,’ ‘Clinch Mountain Boys’ and ‘Backwoods Babes’. The most common Old Time keys are major and minor with only 5 notes (modal). Bluegrass uses these, plus Mixolydian and Dorian modes, and a Celtic band adds Lydian and Phrygian modes. A Bluegrass band has between 1 and 3 singers who are singing about an octave above their natural vocal range. Some Old Time and Celtic bands have no singers at all. If a Celtic band has a singer, it is usually either 1. a bewhiskered ex sailor, or 2. a petite soprano. A Bluegrass band has a vocal orchestrator who arranges three part harmonies. In an Old Time band, anyone who feels like it can sing or make comments during the performance. In a Celtic band, anyone who speaks during a performance gets ‘the look’, and songs are preceded a call for silence and a detailed explanation of their cultural significance. Bluegrass tunes & songs last 3 minutes. Old Time and Celtic tunes & songs can be any length, and sometimes last all night.
A Celtic banjo is small and quiet. An Old Time banjo is open-backed, with an old towel (probably never washed) stuffed in the back to dampen sound. A Bluegrass banjo has a resonator to make it louder. A Celtic banjo weighs 4 pounds, an Old Time banjo weighs 5 pounds, towel included and a Bluegrass banjo weighs 40 pounds. A Bluegrass banjo player has had spinal fusion surgery on all his vertebrae, and therefore stands very straight. If an Old Time banjo player stands, he slouches. A Celtic banjo player remains seated to maintain stability while cross-picking as fast as possible. An Old Time banjo player can lose 3 right-hand fingers and 2 left-hand fingers in an industrial accident without affecting his performance. A Celtic banjo player has a brace to relieve his carpal tunnel syndrome. A Celtic banjo has only 4 strings. A Bluegrass banjo has five strings and needs 24 frets. An Old Time banjo needs no more than 5 frets, and some don’t need any. A Celtic banjo player flat picks everything. A Bluegrass banjo player puts jewelry on his fingertips to play. An Old Time banjo player puts super glue on his fingernails to strengthen them. Never shake hands with an Old Time banjo player while he’s fussing with his nails.
Celtic and Bluegrass fiddles are tuned GDAE. An Old Time fiddle can be in a hundred different tunings. Old Time fiddlers seldom use more than two fingers of their left hand, and uses tunings that maximize the number of open strings played. Bluegrass fiddlers study 7th position fingering patterns with Isaac Stern, and take pride in never playing an open string. Celtic fiddlers only play open strings to imitate the bagpipes. An Old Time fiddle player can make dogs howl & incapacitate people suffering from sciatic nerve damage. An Old Time fiddle player only uses a quarter of his bow. The rest is just wasted. The Bluegrass fiddler paid $10,000 for his fiddle at the Violin Shop in Nashville. The Celtic fiddler inherited his fiddle from his mothers 2nd cousin in County Clare. The Old Time fiddler got his for $15 at a yard sale.
An Old Time guitarist knows the major chords in G and C, and owns a capo for A and D. A Bluegrass guitarist can play in E-flat without a capo. The fanciest chord an Old Time guitarist needs is an A to insert between the G and the D7 chord. A Bluegrass or Celtic guitarist needs to know C#aug+7-4. A Celtic guitarist keeps his picks in his pocket. Old Time guitarists stash extra picks under a rubber band around the top of the peg head. Bluegrass guitarists would never cover any part of the peg head that might obscure the gilded label of their $3,000 guitar.
It’s possible to have an Old Time or Celtic band without a mandolin. Mandolin players spend half their time tuning their mandolin and the other half of their time playing their mandolin out of tune. Old Time and Celtic mandolin players use ‘A’ model instruments (pear shaped) by obscure makers. Bluegrass mandolin players use ‘F’ model Gibsons that cost $100 per decibel.
A Celtic band never has a bass, while a Bluegrass band always has a bass. An old, Old Time band doesn’t have a bass, but new time Old Time bands seem to need one for reasons that are unclear. A Bluegrass bass starts playing with the band on the first note. An Old Time bass, if present, starts sometime after the rest of the band has run through the tune once depending on the players blood alcohol content. A Bluegrass bass is polished and shiny. An Old Time bass is often used as yard furniture.
It is not possible to have a Celtic band without a tin whistle or Bodhran (hand drum) if not several too many of each. Old Time and Bluegrass bands never have either. A Bluegrass band might have a Dobro. An Old Time band might have anything that makes noise including: a tambourine, jaw harp, didgeridoo, harmonica, conga, wash tub bass, miscellaneous rattles & shakers, a 1 gallon jug (empty), or a lap (mountain) dulcimer or a hammered dulcimer. In a Celtic band, it’s the musicians that are hammered.
Except for the guitar, all the instruments in a Celtic band play the melody all the time. In an Old Time band, anyone can play either melody or accompaniment at any time. In Bluegrass bands one instrument at a time solos, and every else plays accompaniment. Bluegrass bands have carefully mapped-out choreography due to the need to for solo breaks. If Old Time and Celtic band members move around, they tend to run into each other. Because of this problem, Old Time and Celtic often sit down when performing, while a Bluegrass band always stands. Because they’re sitting, Old Time and Celtic bands have the stamina to play for a square or contra dance. The audience claps after each Bluegrass solo break. If anyone talks or claps near an Old Time or Celtic band, it confuses them, even after the tune is over.
Personalities Stage Presence
Bluegrass band members wear uniforms, such as blue polyester suits with gray Stetson hats. Old Time bands wear jeans, sandals, work shirts and caps from seed companies. Celtic bands wear tour tee-shirts with plaid touring caps. All this headwear covers bald spots. Chicks in Bluegrass bands have big hair and Kevlar undergarments. Chicks in Old Time bands jiggle nicely under their overalls. There are no Chicks in Celtic bands, only Lassies with long skirts and lacey, high collars and Wenches in apple-dumplings-on-a-shelf bodices and leather mini-skirts. A Bluegrass band tells terrible jokes while tuning. An Old Time band tells terrible jokes without bothering to tune. Bluegrass band members never smile. Old Time band members will smile if you give them a drink. A Celtic band is too busy drinking to smile, tune or tell jokes. Celtic musicians eat fish and chips, Bluegrass musicians eat barbecue ribs, and Old Time musicians eat tofu. Bluegrass musicians have mild high frequency hearing loss from standing near the banjo player. Old Time musicians have moderate high frequency hearing loss from sitting near the fiddler. Celtic musicians have advanced hearing loss from playing in small pubs with all those fiddles, banjos, tin whistles and bodhrans.
A Celtic band travels in an actual Greyhound bus with marginal air conditioning and then catchs a ride from the bus stop to the festival anyway they can. A Bluegrass band travels in an old converted Greyhound bus that idles in the parking lot all weekend with the air conditioner running full blast, fumigating the county with diesel exhaust. The Celtic Band has their name on their instrument cases and a banner for their Easy-Up. The bluegrass band’s name and Inspirational Statement are painted on both the side and front of the bus in script lettering. An Old Time band travels in a rusted-out 1965 VW microbus that blows an engine in North Nowhere, Nebraska. They don’t have an Easy-Up, and it’s pretty evident that their vehicles don’t have air conditioning. Bluegrass bumper stickers are in red, white and blue and have stars and/or stripes on them. Celtic bumper stickers display banners and slogans from the old country. Old Time bumper stickers don’t make any sense (e.g. ‘Gid is My Co-Pilot?) Bluegrass players stay on the bus and Celtic musicians at the nearest Motel 6 while Old Time musicians camp in the parking lot.
Toby Adobe & Moby Adobe
Edward I. Pollak, Ph.D.