The phone rang at three in the morning. My sister Kathleen, like a banshee, come to proclaim the dead.
When my brother died in a motorcycle crash, I searched for the perfect memorial that would bring me comfort as well. When a friend suggested building a stone cairn, that struck a chord with my Celtic heritage.
I chose a site near our tree line and pulled stones from the crumbling wall that meanders through our dark woods. One stone, large and magnificently white, was splintered with a sledge into several rough pieces. A stone mason judged each offering I spread on the soft moss, then hefted, pushed and pressed them into place, filling chinks with small nuggets of ochre and quartz. On the summit of the cairn, I laid a smooth oval stone.
At the base, I planted sedum, a stonecrop crawler, so there would be living green in the warmer months. I considered the cairn a sacred place, a reminder of strength, a protector of memory, and a guide on our path.
My Irish forebears were dirt poor — literally. When my sisters and I made a pilgrimage to Kilcogy, we peered into the rough dwelling that once housed my grandmother, her parents and 11 siblings. Pigs and chickens now huddled there in the middle of the field, while those relatives who inherited the family farm proudly invited us into the “new” brick home with electricity and lace curtains at the front windows. Nothing in Ireland is torn down, just repurposed. Boulders too cumbersome to be pulled out by tractor are all about, rising from the ground like monoliths.
The Irish build stonewalls for the same reason New Englanders did in the early days — to clear the land for use and put the stones to another use. In Ireland, buildings collapse after some 500 years of standing, and are left embracing the earth for another 500 years. My third cousin on the Brennan side won the Irish sweepstakes and moved from a small farm with crumbling stone outbuildings to a massive farm with impressively huge crumbling stone outbuildings.
Several nights this past February, I’ve heard the coyotes howling at 2 a.m. It’s been a long hard hungry season for them as well. That sound will make your blood freeze in its flow. But it doesn’t mean anyone will be dead in the morning. My Aunt Teresa claimed to have heard the banshee wailing one cold winter night, and learned the next day of her neighbor’s passing. But I think she told us that story because we expected to hear it. I come from a long line of storytellers.
One early morning following an eerie, mournful concert and especially heavy snowfall, I glanced out to the backyard, expecting to spot deer tracks or worse, a carcass. Instead, an unsettling sight — the cairn had collapsed under the weight of the snow. The stones carefully chosen and placed were now scattered about the frozen ground.
I believe the banshee is an angel in disguise, come to escort us to the next life. We should respect that; I know I will welcome that visitor. Even if the stones fall, they’re still on the earth.