The fire, a welcome contrast to the descending mist outside, was soon obscured by all seven grandkids. As they fought over who would be directly in front, the youngest Seán, decided that he would sit with his beloved great granny Phillis. “Hello granny! Happy Halloween. Would you like a sweet?” Her marble eyes found him, and she squinted. “Is that you Georgie?”
Seán smiled, unoffended. “No, it’s me Granny. It’s Seán. I’m Georgie’s son!” Her solum face lit up. “Ah it’s me little pet Seán, how are you love?”
“I’m grand granny I got loads of sweets would you like one? I have the sucky sweets you like!” As she reached out Seán was already obliging with an orange flavored glazier. “Thanks pet, and by the way, we don’t say happy Halloween.”
Seán, a wise nine-year-old, knew not to question his great granny. His sister Susan however, was a boisterous twelve. “My teacher taught me it’s polite to say happy Halloween to your friends and family.” Granny Phillis sat up straighter in her armchair. Seán often wondered if granny was born in that chair because he rarely saw her out of it. Although in fairness, she had been 85 when he was born.
“Susan, don’t talk to your granny that way!” Her mortified Mother squeaked. Susan gave a familiar look. One that normally resulted in an argument. Tonight, however, Susan had a big bag of sweets and wasn’t about to relinquish them. “Sorry, granny Phillis.” She muttered.
Seán cast his eyes over to granny’s face. Although not as indignant as it had been, she still looked annoyed. “Why shouldn’t we say happy Halloween granny?” He asked gently. Phillis glanced at her great-grandson smiling. His resemblance to her husband in both manner and looks had always given her pause.
“Well, young man I’ll tell you why once your father gets me my Halloween treat.” His father Georgie promptly lept up from his seat and went to the kitchen to get her a double whiskey. Seán offered her another sweet and when Georgie returned with her whiskey she took a good swig.
“Now, Seán. Do you know what Halloween is?” Seán tilted his head. This seemed like a trick question. “Oh, I know this!” Susan shrieked. “It’s a festival to celebrate the harvest.” Waiting for her obligatory pat on the back for the correct answer. Her shocked face, when it didn’t come, was glorious to Seán.
“Listen to me. Halloween is a very dangerous night of the year. Why do you think our ancestors had the bonfires? As a way to be grateful for the harvest? Nonsense. They were trying to keep the light going until midnight when it was safe again.” At that Seán’s mother jumped in. “Now Phillis no need to scare the children, come on everyone I think your Granny Tricia has the tea ready, quickly now, into the kitchen.”
The rest of children, grateful to be finally allowed leave their eccentric great granny Phillis alone, milled out of the room. Seán remained, as unlike the rest, had a soft spot in his heart for the elderly. Phillis knew this, and her heart swelled. “Who were they afraid of Granny?”
Phillis shuffled in her chair so she was facing Seán. Her glassy eyes shone in the firelight. “You see Seán, there are many things out there, especially in Ireland. We have the likes of the banshee, the faeries, and the tricksters. Now most of them, are not much trouble. They live alongside us, as hidden as they may. Now you don’t have to worry about them. The banshee weeps at the dead, the faeries love treasures, and the tricksters are feckin’ annoying.”
Seán’s eyes widened. “Faeries are real!?!” Granny held up her hand. “Don’t interrupt me Ghassan. Now those entities have been around longer than us and will be long after we’re gone. They’re in our world but they’re not, and most of them are happy with that. It’s the dark ones that you need to worry about.”
Granny’s eyes deepened, and she sipped at her neat whiskey. Moments went by and Seán had to nudge her. “Sorry pet, I was just thinking back to when I was your age, now that wasn’t yesterday or the day before.” She glanced down at her hands. “85 years or so now.” Seán’s head comically shook in disbelief. Although he knew her age, he never thought about it like that. He had certainly never thought of her as a child before.
“So when I was your age, Halloween was no laughing matter. We didn’t go around begging for sweets from our neighbours. We battened down the hatches as if there was a storm coming…” Sip. “Yes in those days we feared the dark on Samhain, it’s not like it is now. There is always light available when you go outside these days, but when I was a young wan. Well…”
“Must have been Halloween 1932. No no, it was 1933 I think. Whatever year it was, I was a young girleen, about your age Seán. I was sent to me granny’s to check on her, It was early enough in the afternoon around three or so. I was to be back by five. She only lived down the road sure.”
Seán shifted uneasily in his seat, chewing slowing. Granny Phillis loved to tell him tales of her childhood. This time, however, his arms were trembling. “Getting to my granny Síle’s house was one thing. It was another one entirely getting home. You see, the mad McDonagh woman caught me, unawares. She stopped me and started babbling about things I weren’t in the habit of thinking about.”
Phillis shook her head. “In those days regardless of how mad they were, you respected your elders. She was babbling about the demons, and how on Halloween a young girl like myself shouldn’t be out alone. When she was a girl she would be burning a fire with her family, like it was proper, to ward off the bad spirits.”
“Eventually I had to tell her my Mammy was expecting me, and oh God!” Granny Phillis laughed. “She actually gave me a wallop and said, ‘then what are you doing standing around here for, have you no respect for your mother, get home now you brazen brat!’ Well, I hopped off as quick as I could with my arse stinging from the slap.”
She looked up at the door as if to make sure no one was going to correct her swearing in front of the children. “It was already getting dark then, and although normally I felt safe walking the 20 minutes from me granny’s house to me own, I felt frightened that night.” She sipped on her whiskey, and then looked at Seán directly. “I’m not scaring you lad, now am I?”
Seán held his breath for a moment and shook his head. Although this was a lie, he wanted to hear the story. He wanted to hear what happened to granny all those years ago. She nodded and patted his hand. “You’re a good boy Seán, you remind me of my husband Jack God rest his soul.” She tipped her glass to the sky at this declaration and Seán felt the need to tip the bar of chocolate he was holding. Phillis cackled and she took another sip of her whiskey.
“Ah God, back in those days I was so innocent Seán. I thought nothing could hurt me, because they all told me the monsters in the woods weren’t real.” She looked at him directly now, her vitreous eyes filling up. “I’m saying this because you might get a bit scared pet, but you need to know the truth. There are things we know nothing of only legends and hearsay, and most of it is crap. But some of it, well some of it is real, and it came after me that night while I was walking home alone in the dark.”
Seán shuddered, realising he was still wearing his jacket, but the fire gave him no warmth. A charge spiked down his back, and he seen Phillis looking worried too. “Granny are you ok?” She nodded as firmly as her old neck would allow. “Oh don’t worry pet I’m fine, it still just gives me the chills to this day.”
“Well I was walking down the road just before I turn down the lane to my family’s old farmhouse. That house is long gone now. When from the thickets, I heard someone calling my name. Except they weren’t calling me Phillis like most would. They were calling me Philomena.”
Seán’s brow furrowed. “Philomena?” Phillis nodded furiously. “Sure that’s me full name pet. Bet you didn’t know that. The only people who ever called me Philomena was the local priest Father Martin, and me granny Síle. So naturally, I thought she’d walked behind me and got stuck in the hedges or something beside the road.”
“I stopped walking. It was dead quiet at this stage. I heard the voice again. ‘Philomena?’” Granny stopped and finished her whiskey off. She placed the glass on the table beside her. “The voice almost sounded like me granny Síle, except, there was something not right about it.”
Seán couldn’t move. He had lost all interest in his sweets, his eyes transfixed on his great granny Phillis. “I looked around. It was dark now, the moon wasn’t quite out yet. It was that great half dark.”
“My eyes were adjusting to the dark, so I looked into where the voice was coming from.” She paused. “When I tell you I can’t truly describe the horror of what I seen. I’m doing it justice Seán. It was a thin white creature, mostly hidden by the hedges, but what I could see was spindly and sharp.”
“Its eyes were the worst though. They were sunken dark holes. No matter how many times I call up this memory, my brain tells me that the creature, whatever it was, was evil. Evil like the demons of hell that Father Martin used to talk about. And it was calling to me.”
“Well Seán I hightailed it out of there. I was sure it was chasing me the whole way back to the house. Even though I stared out my bedroom window all evening I didn’t catch a glimpse it again. A week or so later I finally plucked up the courage to ask my Granny Síle about it. We were very close. I needed an adult to tell me that it was my imagination, and I was safe.” She glanced at her whiskey glass, willing it to be full again.
“She did to some part. She told me I was safe because it wasn’t Halloween anymore. The things in the dark couldn’t get at me any other night of the year. On Halloween though, the walls are soft…”
“They can creep through, and they want a warm body to possess, and sometimes they succeed. That’s why there’s true evil in the world Seán, because that one night a year, God can’t see what they are doing.”
Silence fell on the room. Seán’s imagination ran wild, scaring himself to almost epic proportions. “How do I protect myself granny I’m scared!?” Granny Phillis turned to him with her shining eyes and grabbed his arm. “My dear boy we are doing it now. The fire, the whiskey, the company of another. They cannot reach where light and love is. I just want you to know that there are risks, but you are more than safe here with me.”
Seán’s fear melted away. He was just about to ask Granny Phillis another question when Susan burst into the room. “We’re leaving now Seán say goodbye to great granny Phillis.” Susan came over and made a show of hugging her great granny, Showering her with kisses. “Love you granny Phillis bye now, you mind yourself.” Her flattery didn’t go unrewarded and she left with a five euro note in her hand. “Thank you so much granny!” She curtseyed and left the room.
Phillis turned to Seán. “My young boy, I love all my grandchildren equally. Do you understand that?!” Seán nodded kindly and hugged his grandmother tight. He was rewarded with a twenty euro note, and a small photograph of his great-grandfather Jack. She put her finger to her lips, and Seán nodded gratefully. As he was walking out the door, Phillis spoke once more. “Remember Ghassan. Let the light burn, even if it is within you.” Seán nodded as if he understood, storing these words in his brain forever. He left his almost blind great-grandmother staring into the fire.
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