Hospice care’s always been me specialty. I don’t mind the blood, nor the cries, nor the sick. All I mind is mending them, getting them well enough to walk out the door on their own two feet – if two feet’s what they’re left with, that is. Most folk would say the hospital’s filled with nothing but misery. “If you were sick,” says I, “and had none but one nurse stretched between you and ten others,” says I, “then you’d be foul, too.” Nothing to it, really. The old folks are the worst; tired o’ their life, stuck with a stubbornness that keeps them living despite it.
I don’t much worry about them. Me dealings are with children, see. From little babes to the year they’re grown enough to take estates o’ their own. I’ve cared for breaks and bugs to lost limbs and lethargy. Folk I’ve met, not in the business, come to think o’ caring for children to be the hardest o’ them all. “Old folks nigh their end,” says they, “at least lived their lives.” I won’t argue with that. I seen folks wrinkled as leather singing, dancing, holding their own in talk, without a lick o’ kindness in their bones. And I seen babes, innocent as they day they were born, sick as if the Devil cursed them for some awful act. They ask how I deal with seeing it.
Nothing to it, once you’ve worked as long as I’ve worked.
Farmers know to leave the pooka’s share in their fields. Housemaids know to leave a thimble o’ milk out, and a nice slice o’ whatever’s cooking for the brownies. But there’s no appeasing some sidhe. Some do as they please, not because they like the mischief, but because their job’s to do so.
All me little patients have names given by me to them. There’s been Goldie, with the yellow hair, and Little Mister, who likes to wear his fanciest shoes around; the Hunter, who cracked his head tracking a herd o’ deer with his da, and Gran, who knits wildly with her right ankle all caught in a twist.
Folk say that would make their dying hurt more. That giving them sweet names builds the love in me heart, that it would bring me closer to them. Can’t say they’re wrong. Someone dies in hospice, whether you knew them for years or knew them for a day, there’s an ache that lasts the night. Right in the chest it sits. A little hole that feels bigger than it is, and a great silence that fills it.
When folk ask me about it, I says it’s just a comfort. A little something that makes them smile, and knowing they died with a grin on their lips and warmth in their heart makes the whole ordeal worth it. It’s worth aching o’er someone who spent their last moments happy.
The real reason I give them the names, I’ve not told anyone but the nurses. The new nurses, now, they don’t ever believe me. Not until it happens to them. I say nothing until they come to me, asking o’ the creaking wheels and the howled names. Then I tell them the story.
See, it all happened on me second month on the job. Slip o’ a girl I was, back then. Couldn’t tell me from some o’ the folk I cared for, but the kids liked young, fresh faces – not because the young are wise, but because me sagging jowls and crickety voice scares some o’ them, bless them. Worked the midnight shift, I did. Back then, I’d a hard time staying up with the moon. Nowadays, there’s nothing for it, but that’s after nigh on forty years o’ staying awake.
Most folk were asleep when I took a break. “Just a cuppa,” I says to meself, “to keep me awake.” Weren’t no other nurses around, so I brewed a small cuppa and sat down to drink it in the quiet. Never really quiet in hospice, mind you, what with the coughing and wheezing just down the hall.
Enjoying meself, was I, when suddenly I heard a sound that nigh on made me heart jump from me chest! A wagon, I thought, climbing up the hill that the hospital sits atop. A great clamour o’ wheels I heard, and the snap o’ a whip against a snorting horse’s back. Well I got up, and I left me tea. That’s right, left it right on the table; unfinished, mind you, as the noise was just that loud. And anyone who’s met me will tell you that tea’s too valuable to leave unfinished. But that noise... I swore it would cause a great ruckus in the ward, that it would rouse the kids. But none woke to hear it, or if they did, they made their rise quiet.
I ran to the window to see what was all the commotion. Had to be a whole caravan, I thought, to make that sort o’ clatter. Country road like that’s not ever loud, even during daylight in the summer. This was autumn, see, and well past midnight. Supplies were due at dawn. Thought it was the wagon, I did, come early with the medicine and new linens. But when I got to the window and parted the curtains – bless me! what a sight I did find.
The funeral coach was the first thing I did see. Painted all in black, it was, but the cover was strange, and when I looked closer, I swore it was made o’ human skin! Little skulls hung all o’er it, their mouths dripping with wax and their eyes all aglow with candle flames that didn’t go out even when the driver burst forward quick. The wheels weren’t wooden at all, as I thought when I heard them squeal up the hill. But they were bone! Great thigh bones, spokes and all. I swear up and down, that was what I saw! That was enough to cross meself, and start a prayer under me breath, but what I saw next brought me to me knees.
The driver sat atop a pale horse, and the animal’s eyes glowered red like hellfire, and its nostrils were flared and wept smoke, and its hoofs were fiery. Its rider was made o’ shadow, or at least cloaked in it. Clothes all black and wispy and tattered about the edges. In one hand, it held a whip fashioned like a human spine! “Lord,” cried I, “have mercy on me!” Because the spine was real, and clattered loudly as he cracked it again against the horse. And in the other hand, the rider held a smaller object.
Had to squint to see it, I did, but when I did, I nigh on fainted right then and there! For it was a head! I realized then he was headless, nothing more to his neck than the misty air above him. He grasped it by the long, yellow hair. Its skin was like moldy cheese, so it was, puce and lumpy. But it grinned, the corners o’ its ugly mouth reached either side o’ its face, and its bright eyes were full o’ sick joy. They swivelled around in its head, and the driver raised the thing like a lantern to look around.
I jumped down, me back pressed to the wall, to avoid the thing’s sight. What on God’s green earth could that be?
I didn’t want to peek out, in case the thing had come down off its horse and sauntered up to the window, and I’d find meself with a bit o’ glass between meself and it. So I stayed there for a long few minutes, praying with every gasp I took. It must have been five minutes I waited until finally I got ready to get up again. Surely, the thing had gone by now. Or maybe it was just me mind playing tricks.
I was just about to get up when I heard it. Its voice was like a funeral wind met a cold iron scythe, and chained me down to the floor in terror. Nigh on wet meself, I’ll admit, as most folk would’ve done the moment they saw the thing. It called out the name, “Thomas” as if it were looking for its lost friend. Cried out just once, and it sounded far off, so I got to me knees and peeped me eyes o’er the sill. It still sat on the hill, its head lifted up and searching. Then, it seemed to decide something, and drove off again in the opposite direction. I stayed and watched it go until nary a lantern light could be seen from it, and I heard nothing but the wind through the grasses.
Took me a good time to gather meself, but when I did, I went to the head nurse’s office. She was called Anne. There all day and night, she seemed to be, and took a cuppa coffee instead o’ sleep without any problem. I told her what I saw and what the thing had said. “That there was a dullahan,” says she, “and you were smart to hide. Now go,” says she, “and check on room twenty-two.”
I didn’t understand why Anne would send me away so quick, with no explanation. Now, I know, that as farmers know pookas and housemaids know brownies, so do the nurses know dullahans. But I did as I was told, and went to tend to the little boy in the next room. I found him still as a stone, his arms and legs tangled in his blankets. His eyes were wide open, and stared up at the ceiling. When I checked him, I found him dead, and nothing I tried worked to bring him back. Even when I called other nurses in, they said he was gone – probably had a fit in his sleep.
I looked o’er his chart, ready to mark him down as deceased, and saw his name: Thomas.
Now, I’ve told just one person outside the business o’ the dullahan. I end up in the doctor’s office, them saying I’m mad, begging the doctor for help. The doctor, being a part o’ the business and familiar with the dullahan, says, “She’s fine, just leave her be. Job’s hard on the new folks.” Thought he waved me off as a lunatic with a bit o’ stress, but before we left the office, he gave me a quick wink and a grave nod to say, “I hear you, it’s the dullahan, but now you see why we keep it to ourselves?”
We don’t much talk about the creature, really. We all hear it call out a name every now and again, but we say nothing. When patients ask, we tell them it’s the wind or a dream, or some madman down the hall. Hardest when they hear their own name, or a nurse hears her name, or the name is shared between two patients, and we’re left sitting for minutes or hours waiting to see which drops. It’s a little thing, unwritten and unspoken, that we keep to ourselves. Easier when alone than in a room full o’ nurses. When the dullahan came around to call one Eileen Brown, I was changing linens with the nurse Aoife. We looked at each other, knowing what it was, but kept to our silent work, anyway.
Folk whose loved ones die in the night, and are around to see it happen, don’t understand why we’re so calm. “How can you be composed,” says they, “when death just came about,” says they, “and took someone so dear?” Well, folks oft mistake composure for carelessness.
So, now you see, it’s easier for me to give me patients names. One Paula stayed with us for months, she did, and when the dullahan came and called the name o’ the only Paula we housed, I knew she was going to die. That wait was the worst o’ me life, and when she did start to go, I tried to save her. Anne pulled me aside afterwards. “You can’t stand in the way o’ death,” says she, “’cause death will find a way through you if need be,” says she, “and the dullahan’ll call your name too.”
I don’t got anything against the dullahan. Just doing his job, as I do mine – just opposite sides o’ the same coin. Not the most pleasant fella, mind you, especially not to look at. One o’ the younger nurses asks me, she says, “Sinead, would you meet him if you had the chance?” I says, “No, no, he’s at a good distance here, as it should be.” I says, “If he were meant to come close to a mortal, he would’ve been in the door by now.” But I feel as if I already know him, just from hearing him, watching him, feeling his presence even when I don’t see him.
Got rewarded once for staring too long at him, and his gaze met mine o’er the hill. Struck me blind in me right eye, he did, and threatened the left would come out if I ever watched his work again. One nurse got a basin o’ blood in her face after she encountered the thing outside the building. Mind you, I’d rather get blood tossed up on me, and have me sight back fully. Girl had an awful fright, she did, and ran from this place, never seen here again. Wasn’t the blood that scared her, oh no – we nurses see plenty o’ blood. Was the dullahan’s cry that sent her off running down the road into town.
The Good Neighbours are worth appeasing, if only to keep them from causing any trouble. But are they worth getting close to? That, I’d leave to the fairy doctors and the witches, and not the commonfolk such as meself. One thing’s for certain, and by God I’ll swear it’s true to the day the dullahan calls me name: there’s a balance struck in this world and the next, and if you try to stop the dullahan from crying names for the morning’s counting, then you’ve set both worlds askew, and won’t have much for it come morning – if you’re lucky to see it, that is.