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Dancing with the Banshee
July 1, 1863 - 10 p.m
The syrupy night air swaddled the Second Brigade like a damp blanket, as a million flying, buzzing things vied for the blood of the troops. The column clattered along the dusty pike with little complaint save the sighs of men marched 30 miles.
Colonel Kelly halted his mount at the edge of the road and slipped his pocket clock from his sash. Glancing at the time he spoke to the dark officer at his left, "Best to let the men rest now, Captain. Pass the order to bivouac."
Captain Myles O'Rourke spurred his mount to the head of the column. A moment later the order echoed along the train of blue-clad soldiers:
"88th New York! Fall out, stack arms!"
"69th New York! Fall out, stack arms!"
"28th Massachusetts! Fall out, stack arms!"
"116th Pennsylvania! Fall out, stack arms!"
Captain O'Rourke returned to the Colonel's side. The sticky, liquid air carried the all-too familiar aroma of death. Colonel Kelly turned to O'Rourke. "The lads will need their rest. I've heard from General Hancock. There was a grand fight today and it looks like we'll oblige General Lee to give us more of the same tomorrow."
"I'm sure the boys will fall into sweet oblivion once their heads touch the ground," the Captain replied.
"Molly's not been singing to them?" the Colonel inquired, one eyebrow cocked.
O'Rourke only smiled as the Colonel chuckled, "Ah, the superstitious lads of the Irish Brigade. T'would seem we've infected the Germans and the Swedes. Now their commanders complain that their men fret the banshee's wail."
"You don't say, now?" the Captain grinned.
"Aye, General Hancock's quite beside himself about it. Says we've got a modern New World army with Old World superstitions. Bad for the morale, he says."
The Captain shook his head, "I'll wager General Hancock never heard Molly's song."
"Do what you can, Myles," Colonel Kelly urged gently. "I want my boys to have some peace before they face the Furies again."
Captain O'Rourke tipped his hat to his commander and rode off down the turnpike.
He had ridden about a half-mile when he encountered Cavanaugh leaning against a rail fence. Not far from where Cavanaugh stood a young soldier was making mighty exertions in the high grass. As the Captain pulled up his mount he saw it was Private Rafferty paying his respects to the big, copper-hued backside of Cherokee Kate.
"Sergeant," he said to Cavanaugh, though his eyes were riveted to Rafferty. The Private was riding his mount at full gallop. Kate turned to look up at O'Rourke, greeting him with a wide toothy grin.
"Sir!" Cavanaugh replied.
"The order was given to bivouac, why do you tarry here?"
"Beggin' the Captain's pardon," Cavanaugh replied, "Private Rafferty is on his honeymoon with the darlin' Katie. I've given them permission to consummate their vows in fifteen minutes."
"Have you now?" O'Rourke said, trying to stifle his laughter. "How many times does it make now, that Rafferty has spoken the vows?"
"Seven times since Fredericksburg, four with Katherine here, twice with Dirty Lucy and once with the little mulatto girl who died of the fever. Can't ever remember her name."
Kate was still grinning and grunting as Rafferty gallantly assaulted her monumental ramparts. "Hello, Captain Myles," she said in a child's voice.
"Good evening to you, you Cherokee princess," O'Rourke replied, doffing his hat and bowing from his horse like a cavalier of old.
At last, Rafferty burst upon her walls and captured her flag, though surrender was hardly unknown to Kate. Rafferty stood and hurriedly pushed his lance back into his trousers. He saluted smartly to the Captain.
Rafferty was all of 20 years old. His face, gravelly with small pox scars, made him look older, and reflected all the death and horror he had seen over the past two years. A boyish, if forlorn, nature endured, however, and the lad had a wit that served him well.
"Captain," Rafferty said, "I'm not flouting discipline, it's just that ... since Fredericksburg I've decided a man ought to do what he wants to do when he has the time. I don't think it's right to waste life on niceties."
"Is that so, Private?"
"It is, Sir."
Cavanaugh smiled at O'Rourke who paused before replying to the young soldier. "Private, return to the bivouac, but I'm afraid your bride will have to take her place with the rest of the regimental followers."
The Captain tossed a silver dollar to Kate, who sat, Indian-style, on the grass. "There, my gift to the bride."
"Get along with ya, son," Cavanaugh said, gently patting the boy's shoulder. Rafferty marched away, not looking back at Kate, who raised up her bulk and waddled off in the opposite direction, but only after blowing kisses to O'Rourke and Cavanaugh.
"He's a good lad," Cavanaugh said. "Like as not, what he says makes a lot of sense."
"There were so many more like him when we started, Cavanaugh," O'Rourke said, his dark grieving eyes trailing after Rafferty and the shades of a hundred youths who had gone before him.
"Sergeant, how are the boys, what's their mood?"
"They'll stand and fight, like they always have, if that's what's troubling you, Captain."
"I know that, but ... are they ... have they ..."
"Molly's been singing to them all the night, Sir. She hasn't been in such fine voice since Fredericksburg." Cavanaugh stopped and cocked his ear. "There, Sir, do you not hear it?"
O'Rourke did hear the wailing, melancholy peel from the surrounding woods. He had heard it many nights before a battle. The men had taken to calling her Molly, the Irish Brigade's own Banshee. She was practically a mascot, and over the past two years she had had her work cut out for her.
But Fredericksburg ... the night before the brigade was ordered to murder itself upon Marye's Heights, she sang to the boys like a despairing lover. Every lad crossed himself for the soul of his friend, for then no one who heard the banshee believed she wailed for him, and fell asleep with her dulcet voice in his ears, mourning his companions as if they were already lost to him.
O'Rourke and Cavanaugh stood together in that deadly hail the following day, heard the bullets' whistle and the thud-guish as they struck flesh, snap and crack when they struck bone, and watched the men crumple like heaps of rags. But it was the fine red mist that settled in their hair and beards and froze upon and stiffened their clothing that revisited O'Rourke in his most desperate nightmares. And he dreamt of plunging into the frigid Rappahannock to rinse himself of its sticky gore.
"Colonel Kelly wants the lads to sleep well this night, Cavanaugh. We'll all be in the thick of it again tomorrow."
"If I were a military genius like Bobby Lee," Cavanaugh said, fingers stroking his whiskered chin, "I'd have already turned and be running headlong to capture Washington. Why in the name of Sweet Mother Mary's garters would he pick a fight here?"
"Aye, you don't have to be a Bonaparte to see it. But, that's what he's done. And lo and behold, Cavanaugh, if we don't hold the higher ground."
"We had grand ground at Chancellorsville." Cavanaugh winked.
"Hmm, Meade's no Bonaparte, but he's no Hooker either. I'm thinking he's going to invite Lee to crash upon a hard rock shore."
A wail, sweet and horrible split the night.
"I wonder who keens for the Rebs," Cavanaugh said, eyes surveying the edge of the dark woods.
"Their mothers," O'Rourke replied.
The captain slid off his horse as another wail peeled from the woods. "I can't have that tonight. I'll have to have a bit of a talk with our Molly."
"You don't say so?"
"I do. Sergeant, let the pickets know I'll be reconnoitering these woods tonight."
"Er, Capt ... Myles ... for God's sake, boyo, are you knowing what you're about?"
"No, but I can't have her upsetting the lads tonight, not tonight."
O'Rourke patted Cavanaugh on the arm and strode toward the woods as the sergeant crossed himself.
The dulcet wailing lured him across the field, grasses entangling his boots with every other step. Sweat trickled down his brow stinging his eyes. As he stepped into the trees the heat slipped its sticky grasp, replaced by an unearthly chill. At first it was silent, then her keening burst upon his ears. He swung left thinking she stood beside him. But she was still some yards away.
He saw her eyes first, red glowing coals swirling in the dark. They steadied at O'Rourke's next step and glared. He was wondering if she had any form at all, as her eyes seemed to float inside a greenish-yellow vapor. As he drew closer he saw her green hair flowing and swirling on a phantom wind, like seaweed swaying in surf.
Closer still, and the vapors coalesced into a body that was gray-blue like a drowned corpse and clad in a tattered shroud. A stone cold blast struck his face like air gasped out of a tomb. He stood immobile. He had seen corpses in all stages of decay, but she was a corpse animated. This impossibility swirled around his brain, rendering him dumbstruck.
She broke the silence. "Myles O'Rourke. Sweet Myles, aren't you bold. Come to dance with the banshee?"
He swallowed and retrieved his voice. "Molly?"
"Molly? Am I Molly?" she laughed. Her laughter was carefree and girlish, and further confounded O'Rourke. His mind couldn't accommodate such an endearing sound emanating from this horrific spirit.
Again he forced himself to speak. "I'm sure I'm glad to call you by any name you'd like."
"Mor-Rioghan," she said, like a sigh riding upon a wind. "But Molly will do. I believe I like it."
O'Rourke nodded, "Then Molly it is."
"I asked if you've come to dance?" she mewed.
"Molly, sure t'would be my pleasure, but the truth of it is, I've come to ask you to forsake your keening for one night."
"Fey! You don't say so!" The burning embers of her eyes glowed hotter. "Do I not sing a sweet song to your precious soldiers blue? As tender as any mother's lullaby?"
"Aye, you do that, Molly dear. Beggin' your pardon, but it's just the lads need a good rest tonight, as they've some hot work facing them tomorrow."
"You dare ask Mor-Rioghan the Banshee not to sing her song? Why do you not ask the grass to stop being green, or birds not to soar?"
"One night, Molly, that's all I ask."
The spirit seemed to lose cohesion then coalesce again. "I'll grant what you ask, Myles O'Rourke, if you'll be doing something for me."
"I'll do what I can."
"Dance with me."
His mouth went sour even as he tried to dry-swallow. He was not sure what it meant to dance with a banshee, and cursed himself for forgetting most of his mother's faerie lore.
"Come dance with me, Myles," she purred through black lips. " It's been so long ... so long since I've skipped and swirled on the arm of a handsome warrior such as yourself."
He opened his mouth to speak just as she added, "I know you're not afraid, are ya?"
"I've been told, when invited to dine with the Devil, that it'd be best to use a long spoon."
Again that loving woman's voice. "I'm not the Devil, Myles. No harm will come to ye."
"Well, done and done."
He reached out for her hand that was cold as stone. She rested her other hand on his shoulder. Closing his eyes he slid his free hand around her icy hips. She began to hum a song his mother sang to him in Ireland and he twirled her among the dark arboreal sentinels.
A whistle began playing somewhere in the woods as they danced. She ceased humming and began to sigh. "Kiss me, Myles."
The thought of putting his lips to her blackened corpse's mouth horrified him. His eyes snapped open but were filled with pure white light. Now he felt a gentle, caressing breeze, a warm, tender zephyr, and heard surf foaming upon a shore.
He stood on a gently sloping, grassy hillside in warm sunshine and crystal clear air he could almost taste. He looked into the face of a pale, freckled woman with fiery flowing hair and sea-blue eyes. Her rich red lips just hinted of a playful smile before she kissed him full on his mouth, her tongue flicking behind his lips. Then she withdrew and grinned like a wicked schoolgirl.
"Who ... where ...?" O'Rourke croaked.
"Myles, me love," she laughed, "Do you not recognize your own dear Molly?"
"Am I not fair?" she smiled, twirling in a slow pirouette. She was clothed—but only in a manner of speaking—in a gossamer blue garment of sheer transparence that danced on the gentle breeze as did her hair that would have otherwise hung to her knees. Her pale skin was lightly dappled in those vermilion Celtic spots. Pink circles around her nipples drew his eyes to her small, full breasts like twin beacons. She was long waisted above her saucy hips that tilted above perfect white thighs and coltish legs.
Bedazzled, O'Rourke's mind swirled at her beauty. She danced around him once, then stopped, hands on her hips and looked him straight in the face. Her eyes dropped, guiding his stare first to her deep navel and then to the bit of red angel fur that flickered over her sex like a pentecostal tongue of fire.
Her airy garment evaporated like fog in sunlight. His cock sprung to attention and he became aware that he was naked. His uniform was nowhere to be seen. His nakedness before her further fortified his rigid member.
Molly laughed aloud. "Oh, Myles, you do me a grand compliment."
He would have taken her then and there, but the rational part of his mind battled for an audience. At last he listened to its pleadings.
"Molly, where have you taken me?"
"Do you not remember, sweet Myles? Look around."
Myles surveyed the hillside and its barren beauty nearly brought him to tears. "Home," he said.
That same caressing breeze combed ribbons through the grasses. The hillside fell off quickly to a shore kissed by a gentle, but lively sea. The salty air delighted and refreshed him. He held his arms skyward and breathed in deeply.
Molly stepped toward him placing the palm of her small hand on his chest as if to caress his heart. "Will you not stay here with me, Myles? Will you not dance? Will you not love me?"
Music played on the wind as his hands slipped over her hips and cupped her buttocks. She was so soft, so fresh. He kissed her neck and shoulders and she whimpered in high girlish notes to each nip and nibble and swipe with his tongue. Her hardened nipples made urgent contact with his chest as his cock rose to nudge her moist sex.
Myles slowly brought his knees to the ground, kissing and tasting the slope of her breasts, the firm nubs of her nipples, her belly and deep navel where his tongue lingered to plumb its depths. Now he was eye-level with her pink-orange quim that was glazed with her juices.
"Taste," she urged.
His tongue sampled her dew. Honey? And the scent of lilacs exhaled from her moist womb.
Molly giggled, "Or would you prefer whisky and roses?"
"Molly," O'Rourke pleaded on his knees. "I know not if you are a woman, or merely the shade of a woman. No matter. I'd rather you smell and taste like a woman."
A soft smile replaced her grin. "Oh, that also can be arranged."
Now she was musk and just the slightest bit salty. Myles probed her with his tongue, savoring her taste, her aroma. His hands journeyed about her backside, thighs and up the small of her back. She shivered.
Now Molly kneeled, and then eased herself onto her back. Her legs spread wide, she invited Myles silently with just a flick of her fingers. Straddling her, he once again kissed her belly and let his tongue tarry in her navel. She took hold of the end of his cock and guided it into her.
Celtic drums and whistles played on the air around them as Myles drove his cock hard and deep into her hot wet space, and she answered with cries and whimpers that were themselves music. His mind raced with the fantastical wonder of what was happening and his lust melted in their heat and reshaped itself into love. Their rhythm seemed to match the pitch and yaw of the world itself.
Molly kissed his face and neck with a desperation, gently biting his ears and licking along his jaw line as if she were starved for the taste of him. His cheeks and ears burned from her kisses even as he plowed her wet velvet insides. Her breasts grazing beneath him urged him to give up his essence to her.
His seed boiled up and she cried out as he shot streams into her. Her eyes glowed like all the sunlight that ever shone off the world's oceans. "Ohhhh, Myles," she sang more than sighed.
He felt full of love for Molly. Love ... for Molly. The idea frightened him back into his wits and he lifted himself and his still-draining cock from her. She sat up, a slight hint of hurt in her eyes.
"What have you done, Molly?" he demanded. "Have you charmed me? Did you think I'd believe it was all real?"
Molly lifted herself to one knee. "It's real, Myles. As real as any place in the world. And we two can live and love here forever."
"I cannot, Molly," he said, even as his hands caressed the breasts he had nearly just devoured.
"Why not? Are you in such a hurry to run back to all that death?"
He chuckled. "Molly, now isn't that an odd thing for you to say? Would you exist if it weren't for death?"
"I don't take lives, Myles. I attend my station, and sing to the poor fools who stand just yards away while they hammer each other with fire, hot lead and glowing red iron. Death lives with soldiers. I don't say who dies and who doesn't. I only know when death will come."
"Oh, Molly," Myles sighed. "I've my station too, and it's to be with the lads. You must let me go back."
Molly's voice went flat. "You'll all fall like wheat before the reaper this day."
"If I must be part of that harvest, it must be so. Let me go back, Molly."
She touched his face. "Well, and done. I'll bide my time, Myles O'Rourke. I'll love you again, sure as not. And we'll dance into eternity."
"Molly, is there any way you could ... I mean ... can you shield the boys?"
"From death? I'm only a messenger, Myles. Death keeps her secrets close. Even I never know for sure who she'll claim."
Molly stood. Her eyes began to glisten as she said, "Goodbye, Myles," and kissed him.
* * *
"They slept like innocent babies," the Sergeant said. "The Captain is a charmer, I have no doubt. How did you get her to forsake her keening?"
O'Rourke only offered Cavanaugh a melancholy smile.
Colonel Kelly's aide approached O'Rourke.
"The Colonel's compliments, Captain, he asks that you move your men three miles up the pike and just south of the town, there to take up positions on the flank of the First Brigade at the edge of a wheat field."
"Like wheat," Myles whispered.
"Come again, Sir?"
"Nothing, Lieutenant. Convey to Colonel Kelly his orders are understood.
The aide saluted and hurried away.
The wheat field that afternoon became Hell's own acre. The Irish Brigade, brought up to support the ravaged First Brigade, drove the Rebels before them, taking many prisoners before an undetected Confederate force flanked the brigade, which had to withdraw under a murderous cross-fire. It was a fight like many in that long war, in which each side clawed at the other and ended the day with little gains to show except a harvest of death. That evening the cries of the wounded who littered the field became unbearable to hear. Men on both sides prayed aloud for release from their pain and thirst.
Sergeant Cavanaugh found Captain O'Rourke brooding at the edge of the field.
"Can't something be done, Captain? There be Rebs suffering out there too."
"Sergeant, the Colonel says we can seek a truce to clear the field. Besides, Father Corby has been exposing himself to sharpshooters on his rounds to deliver Last Rites. It's damned bad luck to lose a regimental chaplain. Of course, now that it's almost night, like as not we'll take a sharpshooter's bullet for our efforts, but, if you're game, secure a white flag."
Cavanaugh disappeared but returned quickly with a ragged white cloth. Together they strode onto the field to where they believed the Confederate line was. The cries and pleadings of wounded men, invisible in the darkness, composed a tortured symphony.
The white flag could have been any other flag in the dark and O'Rourke knew a bullet could crash through him at any moment.
He heard the bullet whistle past his head even before he heard the rifle crack.
A voice shouted from the woods, "Hold that fire! They're under a flag of truce. Hold fire!"
A moment later a slim, lanky Rebel lieutenant emerged from the trees followed by several infantrymen, rifles trained on O'Rourke and Cavanaugh. When the Lieutenant noticed O'Rourke's rank he saluted. "Sir, Lieutenant James Selby, 16th Georgia, Confederate States Army."
"Captain Myles O'Rourke, 69th New York Volunteer Infantry. Lieutenant, I've come to plead for a truce so we may attend the wounded and dying."
"I've been authorized to agree to any such plea, Sir." The Confederate added, "I must apologize for my rifleman. He's a tad bristly this evening."
"No apologies necessary, Lieutenant. I dare say we're all bristly this evening."
"If you don't mind my saying so, Captain, you must lead a charmed life. That rifleman never misses. Or rather, he didn't until tonight."
"You don't say, now? Well, there's always a first."
"Perhaps, Sir. Or perhaps you have a guardian angel."
"How so, Lieutenant?"
"He's a superstitious backwoodsman, my rifleman is. He said he was pulling the trigger when ... well, as he put it, he 'got skeered by a h'ant.'"
"Said he was frightened by a ghost."
O'Rourke and the Lieutenant agreed to the terms and duration of the truce and parted. Walking across the blood-slick field O'Rourke's eyes were captured by a pair of burning embers glowing from the woods. Then that sweet, melodic woman's voice: "I'll bide my time, Myles O'Rourke. And you'll dance with me again ... and forever."
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