Journey to Banba
CHAPTER ONE: THE HOMECOMING
“Silence… Hush and be mute, or else our spell is marr’d”
—Shakespeare, The Tempest
Night was descending like a black-winged hawk, the first stars of summer hidden under its feathers. The driving rain slowed to a drizzle as a black limousine rolled up the gravel driveway of the old Kelly farmhouse, crunching as it stopped. The car’s occupants did not know that a stranger was watching their approach from behind a rickety fence which separated the southern edge of the Kelly place from the Coen house. Fourteen-year-old Caleb Coen squatted among the sticker bushes, a fresh scratch across his cheek, his wet clothes clinging like seaweed while he peered suspiciously at the glossy car. The edge of his nose and one eye fit perfectly through a gap in the old fence. He smelled the musty perfume of wet wood as he waited, motionless in anticipation.
Who’s coming to the Kelly place in a car like that? He wondered, That’s the slickest ride I’ve ever seen.
He took a wad of chewing gum from his mouth and stuck it on the fence, between the remains of ancient watermelon bubble and yesterday’s cinnamon chew. He smiled triumphantly, imagining the look on his parents’ faces if they ever should see this gallery of gum decorating their fence. Like they’d even notice, he thought. He looked over his shoulder to where they sat eating dinner in the bright light of their polished den, watching the nightly news, the television shining and blinking like a restless eye.
The driver, a short, stout man in a dark suit and cap, got out of the limo, retrieved an umbrella from the trunk and opened the rear door of the car. Caleb strained his eyes to see these two new figures emerge. One, a tall man in a trench coat, strode hurriedly towards the house, leaving the driver to escort a young girl dressed in jeans, a dark jacket, and a large cap hiding her face. She was holding a worn, stuffed bear. The girl stopped and looked around, her eyes squinting, her gaze blurred by the gathering darkness and drizzle, seeming momentarily to fix on Caleb’s hiding place.
Look away, he thought to himself, go inside. As though she had heard him, the girl turned around. The driver opened the umbrella and was about to hold it over her head when a gust of wind blew her cap off towards the fence. She pulled up her hood, ran after the cap, and bending to pick it up, paused for a second as though she were looking right through the fence at Caleb’s face. He froze, then grabbed a handful of pebbles and through a loose slat, hurled them at her feet, one by one. She gave a surprised shriek and ran to the front porch, joining the driver and the tall man in the trench coat.
“Great. Why is my reflex always to be a jerk?” Caleb grumbled angrily, as he shoved the loose slat back into place and ran towards his house. In his hurry, he barely noticed the scratches he had received from the brambles. Caleb would never have guessed that there were others watching from secret places among the trees, ones who whispered the name, Delaney, to the thickening fog and night air.
Thus it was, dark and raining, the first time Mira O’Neill came home, but she did not think of it as home. All of her life, Mira had been shuffled from one relative to another, none of whom kept her for more than a year or two. She would find bags being packed and cousins looking guilty and relieved as she departed to the next house. Cousins were the only family she had ever known.
Mira was thirteen years old, but as she reminded herself, her birthday would be in only a few weeks, just before school would begin in September. She was small for her age and thin, with long, light brown hair and thick-lashed hazel eyes. She often told herself they were too big for the rest of her face.
On the drive from Central Park West to what would be her newest residence, Mira had watched the rain-blurred scenery through tinted windows. She had leaned her head against the leather car seat and listened to Cousin Ross prattle on about their destination. Cousin Ross was a lanky man with thinning hair and a face so pale his veins looked like blue rivers in a sea of milk.
“You’re going to live with my mom and dad, your great-aunt and uncle, out in Huntington, Long Island,” he said. “It’s much quieter than anywhere in Manhattan. I grew up there and I turned out all right!”
Mira was recollecting these words as she clutched her wet hat and stuffed bear and stood with Ross outside her newest residence, a white-shingled house with a gabled roof, blue shutters, and a red door. She wished that she could become immune to the feeling of being passed from one family member to another. Her heart sank as she thought of settling into this new place where pebbles inexplicably flew across fences.
“Ready, Mira?” Cousin Ross smiled as he eagerly rang the doorbell. “Look, this is not your fault; your Aunt Doris was right when she said we’re not good at being parents. We’re not even planning on having children of our own. Anyway, this is best for everyone. Okay?” With these remarks, he gave her a quick pat on the shoulder.
Mira turned to look at Joseph, Ross’s driver, who stood faithfully behind her.
“Joseph, wait for me in the car,” Ross ordered. “This visit won’t take long.”
“Yes, sir,” Joseph answered, and whispered, “Good luck, Miss Mira.”
“Thanks, Joseph. I, um…” she began, her heart sinking further as he walked away. To her surprise, he turned around and walked back over to her. He took off his black hat with the patent-leather band, and placed it on her head. “For your collection. Take care of yourself.”
Why can’t everyone be as kind as you? Mira thought.
“Joseph, go start the car.” Ross snapped.
“Why isn’t anyone coming to the door?” Ross grumbled, a clap of thunder pounding as he banged on a tarnished brass knocker hanging upon the door.
Mira moved close to look at the door’s ornamental design, which bore two hands holding a crowned heart.
“Let’s go! It’s damp out here!” Ross shouted, knocking again furiously.
“What does that design mean, the hands and the heart?” Mira asked.
“Oh, it’s some old Irish thing… the claddagh I think they call it. Who knows what the devil it means, ask them. Come on!” He again pounded on the door with his fist as the rain began to fall more steadily.
“I should’ve warned you, I guess… about Mom and Dad. They’re… well, it’s just that they’re a little… different.”
“Who isn’t?” Mira replied.
As Ross impatiently turned the doorknob, the door swung open.
“Good!” Ross exclaimed and, handing Mira a suitcase, ushered her inside.
She then found herself in a dimly-lit foyer with a mirrored coat stand on the left, and at right, a small picture of a white cottage in a green field, lined with stone walls. Ahead was a small, dimly lit sitting room filled with wooden and upholstered chairs, a few tables and beaded lamps. The only sound was the ticking of several clocks, all set to slightly different times.
“Hello?” Mira called, softly.
As she stood motionless, Ross brought the suitcases in and stacked them in front of the coat stand. His eyes darted around the room as he turned up his coat collar. The thunder continued rumbling like the cough of a giant
“It’s darn hot in here… stuffy as ever. Well, uh… I’d better get going or Doris will be worried.” He lightly patted Mira’s shoulder and turned to leave.
“Wait! You’re going already? I’m not sure anyone’s home! And don’t you want to say hi to your mom and dad?”
“You’ll be fine, Mira. Okay? Bye now.”
“Ross…” Mira began, stepping towards him.
“Sorry, Mira,” he said. Backing away and opening the door, he saw that the rain was pouring harder than ever. “Just sit down and wait. They’ll be back soon, I’m sure… I must get going.” He ran from the house, stopping and turning to wave for the last time before disappearing inside the limousine. Mira watched it drive away.
She turned and entered the cluttered sitting room as the thunder clapped again. Her attention was caught by an intricately carved wooden armchair with a four-leafed shamrock emblazoned on the back. Its arms were beautifully shaped and etched with ornate patterns. The huge claw and ball feet reminded Mira of lion’s paws. She moved closer, tracing the carvings with her finger, and noticed a little velvet pillow nestled against the chair’s back.
The thunder returned, as a long flash of lightning brightly lit the room before all became dark. The house had lost power. Unsure of what to do in a strange house and alone in the dark, Mira froze in her tracks, dropped her wet cap on the floor and sat down in the large, surprisingly comfortable chair, holding her bear in her lap. She wedged the small velvet pillow against her back and strained to see some details of the darkened room as the storm raged outside.
Suddenly, the lightning flashed again, and she thought she saw an unnatural black shadow dart across the wall. Delaney, a rasping voice whispered, Let’s play a game… The thunder resounded and Mira decided she had only imagined the low voice. She stiffened in the chair, moved to one side and leaned against the arm. Just then the wood beneath her began to feel curiously warm, and as the lightning sparked again, Mira thought she saw veins and muscles pulsating within the thick wooden flesh of the chair.
Seized with fear, she moved to rise, the bear falling from her lap, when the arms of the chair sprang inward and grabbed her. Large rough hands fastened around her like a belt, talon-like nails clinging tightly across her stomach. Mira tried to cry out, but no sound came from her mouth. She heard the thunder but all she could see was thick darkness. She felt as though she were flying through a whirlpool of deepest night. Her ears popped, a deafening wind beat against her face, and she heard the rasping voice again.
Delaney, who are you? You are nothing! You are no one!
Then she was falling, falling, and everything went numb…
The endless spinning finally abated and Mira found herself huddled and trembling on something damp and grainy, cool beads of water dripping on her skin. She opened her eyes, and gasped to see that she was sitting among sandy dunes on a rocky beach. The night sky was vivid with sugar-flecks of the cosmos overhead and a very thin drizzle of rain fell. Waves broke against the shore within a hundred feet of her, curling salty tongues against the rock-strewn coast. What happened? Mira’s thoughts raced. What was in that house? It was a beautiful chair, and then… What was that creature, and why did it grab me? How did I get here? She shuddered, pulled her jacket tightly around her, and raised her hood while she sat there shivering, as a low mist gathered over the sand.
She closed her eyes and opened them again, hoping to find herself back in the sitting room, but as she looked up she saw what resembled a beautiful crystal moon. Round and full, it gleamed across the water through the gathering fog.
Mira blinked faintly at what she thought must be a dream. She had always loved the moon, but this moon-like thing was even more dazzling, like a cluster of icy diamonds with a faint peach hue. It seemed so close. She wanted to stand up to walk towards the water’s edge and bask in the light, glimmering in the breaking tide, but her limbs felt weighted down and she was dizzy. She fell back against a boulder as she beheld an eerie sight.
A multitude of animals silently crept, flew, scurried, swept and skulked onto the beach. There were: red foxes, deer, squirrels, goats, badgers, a variety of birds, all led by a fierce-looking wolf. Mira tried to flee, but her legs would not move. Strangely enough, the animals did not bother nor bite each other. Instead, they paced and and hopped restlessly about, as though they were waiting for something. Mira’s heart raced as the wolf drew close to her, stared, and baring its teeth, turned to look towards the sea. With her body frozen in fear, her eyes followed the wolf’s gaze.
At the water’s edge, a group of seals had assembled, also looking intently across the ocean. In the distance, Mira could just about see the outline of a person in a canoe, paddling towards the beach, a lovely swan gliding in the wake. The animals made no sound, but as the craft drew closer, the murmur of low singing could be heard as the swish of the paddle kept time to the song’s beat.
Mira remained motionless while the canoe scraped on to the beach. A large man in hooded garb climbed out and walked up the shore. He sang a deep-voiced tune in an odd, foreign language. The animals perked up their ears as they watched the man walk the moonlit beach among the seals. The swan followed the towering man on to the shore.
With long strides, he walked towards Mira and the menagerie. As he drew closer, Mira noticed him reaching into his pocket for something to feed them. He somehow had an endless supply of seeds or bread, and his peaceful motions made Mira forget her recent dizzying flight, the monstrous arms and sharp claws, and think only of starlight and this stranger’s beautiful song.
The man held up his hand in greeting to the animals, and began to address them in the same language as his song.
“Ní neart go cur le chéile,” he said. “Remember. No strength without unity.” They reacted as though listening, some sitting back on their haunches, others lowering their heads in submission. The wolf wagged its tail as the man spoke, then bounded over to him and nestled its head beneath his hand. When he was finished speaking and all had been fed, he waved his hand fondly, saying goodbye while they turned and left as mysteriously as they had gathered.
The man caught sight of Mira and came towards her, the swan still following nonchalantly. The man lowered his hood, revealing a strong face with blue eyes and reddish-brown hair. He was wearing a simple brown robe tied at the waist with a rope, and sandals on his feet. He broke off a small piece of food in his hand and offered it to Mira.
“This will restore you,” he said kindly.
Mira ate the sweet morsel, which tasted like nothing she had ever eaten. Closing her eyes, she felt nourished and restored.
The man made a small fire on the beach to warm Mira, then moved a short distance away, where she could hear him talking in his strange language to the swan. Mira thought the two were conversing, yet the swan barely moved, never making a sound. The man turned towards Mira. Just then, Mira heard the fire crackle. As she gazed at it, the fire suddenly took the shape of a huge hand reaching for her neck as though to pull her inside. She felt the burning heat come within an inch of her face, when the man lunged and pushed Mira away just in time as he spat at the fire, sending it submissively back into its regular form. Mira wanted to cry out but the sound just died in her throat.
“Muteness and immobility are side effects of traveling to Banba too quickly, my child,” the hooded man said. He spoke as peacefully as if the fire had instead taken the shape of a heart. “No need to speak, young one. Not much time for conversation, anyway. You don’t belong here now. Your time has not yet come. Oh, forgive me. I should introduce myself. I’m Brother Kieran of Carrick Monastery. I’ve been living alone in a hermitage of late, and I very much enjoy the solitude. You could say that I need to retreat from the rest of the world for a while.”
The swan drew near the friar’s side and looked up at him.
“Yes, Geleish, we must hurry,” he nodded approvingly. “May you stay safe, child. Someday we may meet again but, until then, your task looms large before you. The threat will be great but your mission has been declared. You will be an instrument of peace.”
The swan came over and looked at Mira and as she returned its gaze, she felt desperately in want of sleep. As she drifted off, she thought she heard two muffled voices. So she is the Delaney? How can this be? And how dare he bring her before her time? asked a husky voice. It is all as it must be, replied a lilting voice. Opening one eye, Mira saw a flutter of white feathers and felt as though she was falling into soft wings; then she knew no more. She never heard the lilting voice say, I will use my magic to ensure that she will have no memory of this. The prophecy will not work if she does not come here of her own free will.
When Mira awakened, she was once more in the wooden armchair in her great-aunt’s sitting room. The lights were restored and Mira turned to face an old woman standing in front of her, a cup of sugar in her hand. The woman opened her arms to hug Mira but Mira stiffened and shrank back.
“Hello, there! Well, is this herself, then? Let me look at you! I’m your Great-Aunt Noona, you see! Don’t tell me our Ross has just dropped you here and gone! Wouldn’t you know it? I didn’t hear the doorbell in the kitchen. Is the doorbell working, Broody? Broody! Hurry downstairs, dear! Our girl has come and our son has off and gone, like he always does.”
She spoke with a lovely accent which made every word she uttered sound like the rolling waves of a calm sea. “Oh! Here I am callin’ to Broody and I’m forgetting he left for the store.”
In the faint light, Mira examined her great-aunt’s aged face and decided it was still quite pretty. She had soft brown eyes, and thick white hair swept up into a bun, with stray wisps of falling curls. Her face was wrinkled, with laugh lines around her mouth. She wore a long tailored shirt in a shade of deep blue which fell to her knees over black leggings, and once-white, earth soiled sneakers.
Looking at Mira and seeming to read Mira’s mind, she said, “I must look a sight, I’m sure. You know, I was working in the garden when the storm began and I came in to make some tea. I thought I heard knocking, but said to myself that no, it couldn’t be… not so early. I thought it must be the thunder. Then the power went out you see, and I found myself a candle, but the lights came back in no time at all. Well, next thing you know, I came out here and here you are, much to my surprise! Welcome, dearie. My, that’s quite a hat. You look like a limo driver. Ha! Well, would you like a cuppa?”
“I’m sorry… a… a what?” Mira asked.
“A cup of tea. Come with me into the kitchen and have some cookies I just baked.”
“Sure, that sounds great, thanks.” Mira looked down and noticed several white feathers stuck to her jacket.
“Oh, just look at this old thing,” Noona said, picking up the velvet pillow from the wooden chair. “It’s got a hole in it a mile wide and shedding feathers all over you! I’ll fix this. Did you have yourself a little nap while you were waiting for me, then?”
“I guess I did fall asleep,” said Mira.
“Indeed, you seem a little out of your wits,” Noona said, tossing the pillow back onto the chair. Mira then noticed that the pillow was embroidered with the words: Make me an instrument of peace.
Mira sat her bear on the chair and crossed his legs, patting his head and saying, “Stay here for now, Robert.”
She followed her great-aunt into the warm kitchen, smells of cinnamon bread and freshly baked cookies greeting her as she entered. The furniture was made of oak, including an antique table and chairs on her left perched in front of a large lace curtained bay window. Brightly shining copper pots and pans were hanging from hooks on a rack above the stove. A pink and yellow floral teapot sat on the counter, and steam rose from its spout, like breath on a cold morning. The back door was open to let the screen sift in the damp night air.
There were two clocks ticking merrily, one a large creaking regulator with a shiny, gold pendulum swinging left and right with dignified grace; the other, a brightly painted cuckoo clock, which startled the stately clock every time its cuckoo hopped out to tell the time. There was a shelf holding blue and white cups and saucers. Near the table, Mira noticed a large wooden rocker. She sat and listened to the creaking sound as she rocked, wondering how long she would be staying in this new place before being sent away.
“Come to the table, and I’ll get you your tea. Do you like cookies or are you allergic? Ross said you have food allergies.”
“Just a few,” Mira said.
“Well, don’t worry about that now, dearie. Tomorrow, write me a list of foods you can’t have, and for tonight, just stop me if I’m about to poison you, all right?”
“What does that heart thing on your front door mean?” Mira inquired, changing the subject.
“That’s a claddagh,” her great-aunt answered, “the Irish symbol of friendship, loyalty, and love.” She put a pot of tea on the table with two cups and saucers, a creamer of milk, a bowl of sugar and a plate piled to overflowing with cookies. Mira reached for one, eating rapidly while it was still warm.
“That’s good,” Mira said.
As she poured the tea, Noona remarked, “Oh, you do know how to smile! And when you do I’m reminded of my brother, your grandfather, Frank O’Neill. He was my big brother, you know.”
Mira looked at her with interest but Noona quickly changed the topic. “Broody will be glad to meet you.”
“Your Great-Uncle Broody, my groom.”
Noona smiled in response to Mira’s puzzled look. “Broody always calls me his bride, so lately I’ve been callin’ him my groom!”
“Why do you call him Broody?” Mira asked.
“Because he’s so quiet all the time it seems like he’s brooding. He’s a man of many thoughts, my Broody. I gave him that nickname years ago but his real name is Brendan. Oh, do you think I mind that he broods? No indeed! I love him the better for it. As for me, call me Noona; everyone does. Now what about you, Meereen? Tell me about yourself.”
Mira bristled against hearing her given name spoken aloud. She hated how different it was. In school, whenever the teacher took attendance, Mira would cringe when she heard, ‘Meereen O’Neill.’ Just call me Mira, she’d say.
“Um, you can call me Mira. Listen, Great-Aunt … I mean, Noona, thank you for taking me in.”
Noona chuckled, “We had no choice, dearie; we were greedy for you. When we heard how you were being bounced around from one place to another, we knew we had to have you. We wanted you for ourselves to begin with, you know.”
“What do you mean?” Mira inquired.
“Well, you lived here as a baby, you know, Meereen. Your father brought you to us…” She looked nervous and began playing with her napkin.
“Your father, Eamon O’Neill, was a great favorite of mine, Meereen. He was the only child of my big brother Frank. How I doted on them both!” she sighed. “I don’t like to dwell upon it, but after your Grandpa Frank left this world, your dad was devastated. He wasn’t the same after that. A son needs his father.”
“So does a daughter,” Mira said softly. “What can you tell me about my dad’s mom, my grandma?”
“Ah, she would have delighted in you, Meereen. I’m sorry to say Maire died two years before your grandfather left us. They were both so devoted to each other. Your dad Eamon, having been an only child, was distraught without his parents. I think he felt alone in the world. Anyhow, he went off and married your mother but we never met her. The wedding was all the way in Boston, and I had been sick, too weak for the trip. We never heard much from him after the wedding. Then, one day out of the blue, he was at our back door holding you in his arms. You were such a wee little thing… he begged us to look after you. He said… that your mother and he were in grave danger.”
“All I’ve ever been told was that my parents died, but I never knew how.”
“Neither did we, Meereen, but they are gone, I’m afraid. Your father promised that he’d return for you when all was safe. You lived with Broody and me for a year or so, but we never saw your dad again and realized that the worst had come to pass.”
Mira stood from the table as Noona continued talking rapidly.
“After we knew your parents were gone, we wanted to keep you, but my children insisted we were too old to raise you. Looking back, we were wrong to let you go,” she said sadly. After a moment, she changed the subject, asking briskly, “Tell me, what’s that penthouse of Ross’s like? I’ve never been invited.”
“You’re not missing much. Everything’s white… the walls, even the carpeting, and the sofas are made of white leather,” Mira answered.
“Good grief, it sounds like a hospital!”
“Yeah; if a hospital were covered with leopard print throw pillows. Doris loves them.”
“Does she think she’s on safari, then?”
“They’re everywhere!” Mira grinned. “And she’s got huge books on the coffee table, but you’re not supposed to touch them. She likes to complain about housework, but she has a maid and a cook.”
“No wonder they never call or visit… too busy living like a king and queen! Will you miss the high life, Meereen?”
“No; I never felt like a queen at all, Aunt… I mean Noona. Why do people call you Noona?”
“My children started it. My real name is Nuala. When your cousin Morgan was little, she called me Noona instead of Mama and the name stuck; even Broody calls me that.”
Noona poured more of the steamy brown brew into Mira’s cup.
“It will be time for bed in a matter of minutes, my girl.”
You seem so nice. I hope you don’t decide to get rid of me in a year or two like everyone else, Mira thought.
As if she’d heard her, Noona patted Mira’s hand across the table.
“Well, your moving days are over now, Meereen.”
“I’m not sure that’s true, Noona. Every place I’ve lived, they’ve wanted me gone.”
“I don’t know. When I was younger, I used to carve my initials in furniture, like underneath tables or in the arms of chairs; but I know now that was wrong.”
“Good grief! Why did you do that?”
Mira shrugged, “I don’t know. I got this pocket knife in a holiday grab bag one year; it was supposed to be a gift for a boy, but I kept it.”
Noona sighed, “Dear me, do you realize you could hurt yourself with one of those things?”
“I probably could have when I was little, but now I know how to use it. Joseph taught me to whittle.”
“Ross’s limo driver. He gave me this hat,” she said, pointing to her head.
“Oh, excuse me; his limo driver. La-de-dah. Well I’m glad you know it’s wrong to cut into someone’s furniture, for goodness sake! I’ll ask you to leave your carvings out of mine, understand?”
“Yes. I’d never do that again. I’m so embarrassed that I used to do that. And there’s something else. I borrowed one of Aunt Doris’s hats, and I lost it. She thought I stole it. Hats are a weakness of mine.”
“You’re welcome to borrow any of mine, but ask first. I must say, I could listen to you talk all night! You sound like someone fully grown, not a child.”
“I know. I’ve heard that before. I wish I were different.”
“Nonsense. You’re just an old soul. Don’t wish away who you are. And by the way, every young one does something wrong sometimes. It doesn’t make them worth sendin’ away. You know what I think? I think when you were carvin’ your name willy-nilly in the furniture, you just wanted to leave something of yourself behind.”
Mira’s eyes welled with tears.
“This is your home for good, if you’ll have us.”
Mira’s hand was motionless beneath Noona’s. I hope this is home, she thought, and held her breath.