Down by the Sally Gardens

Sossity Chandler and Lydia VanLant had paused during their tour of Ireland and England to do some sight-seeing. One of the features of the small village of Lavendale, where they had rented a hotel suite, was the graveyard. The two women walked through it in the misty rainfall, black umbrellas resting on their shoulders, and followed a tourist brochure to the sites of notable graves. After gazing at headstones of royalty, a couple of poets, and prominent figures from English history, they came to a section of the cemetery bounded by a spiked wrought-iron fence. This was the Graveyard of the Wayward Maiden.

Lydia read from the pamphlet:  The woman buried here, Nuala Malloy, was hanged for murder in 1860. Her body lies in a marked-off section of land because the citizens of the town did not think anyone guilty of a capital crime should rest near citizens of good standing and in sanctified ground. Most criminals who received the death penalty were interred in unmarked graves located in remote areas of the countryside. Because of family influence, and because the young women was unmarried and under the age of 25, the city set apart a section of ground for her grave. It is a separate graveyard just for her body and not a part of the sanctified burial ground. Technically, the young woman lies in a cemetery of her own.

The pamphlet gave her story. In the dripping mist, Lydia read it aloud.

After leaving the graveyard, they had supper at a local pub named The Wayward Maiden, where they had agreed to play a few numbers that night. As often happened, a woman recognized Sossity. Sossity always behaved graciously toward fans who spotted her. She asked the women if she knew anything about the Wayward Maiden.

“I know everything about her. She’s a local legend, and you can’t grow up here without hearing about her.”

“Was she unjustly convicted?”

“Not in the least.” The woman pointed to a portrait hanging on the wall opposite where they sat. “Nuala Malloy stabbed a girl to death because she stole her boyfriend. No question about it. She pleaded guilty and only asked the jury to send her to prison for her crime rather than giving her the drop. Of course, they didn’t.”

Sossity and Lydia had rehearsed some British and Irish folk numbers. They did Irish Gaelic songs they had learned while touring with Clannad last year. Lydia, who played with a Renaissance ensemble when not touring with Sossity, did three lute solos. To please the crowd, they ended with four of Sossity’s acoustic hits.

When the concert ended, the two of them mixed with the clientele, drank, played darts, and talked. They came back to the suite and drank more with their entourage—Tonya, Sossity’s manager; an assortment of sound engineers, drivers, roadies; a publicity and film crew. At 2 a.m., Sossity got into bed.

A glow filling her room awakened her. Climbing out of bed and opening the window, she saw no rain. Clouds hung in the sky, but big patches of clear, starry blue shone all around the silvery overcast. The glow came from lightning rolling silently through the clouds that hung about the waxing gibbous moon. Sossity stared. She had seen a lot of weather in her life and in doing world tours that took her different climates. But she had not seen anything like this.

Heat lightning, she thought sleepily, though it did not exactly look like heating lightning. She went back to bed. When she awoke at seven, the rain had come. At breakfast, she asked one of waitresses about last night’s strange display of lightning.

“We have odd weather here,” she said, her local accent so thick that Sossity, who was American, and Lydia, who was Canadian, had to listened closely. “We get heat lightning in clouds. The weather people say it shouldn’t happen. It wasn’t recorded until after Nuala Malloy, the wayward maiden, did the drop. We’ve had it here almost every night since then—even in winter.”

Sossity vaguely wondered if the spirit of the woman who had committed murder and died in such a harrowing fashion haunted the town. At ten o’clock, she told Tonya she was going on a hike.

“Alone? Don’t you think someone should go with you?”

Sossity and Tonya quarreled endlessly over this issue. Fearing deranged fans, stalkers, and kidnappers, Tonya did not approve of Sossity going anywhere by herself. Sossity, a creative introvert, had to have time alone.

“I’ll be fine. I’ll call you in an hour.”

She picked up an umbrella, put on a raincoat and boots, and headed down the path that led out to the graveyard.

The path squished with mud from the morning rain. Clouds blew across the sky, though now and then the sun came out. She walked the mile, admiring the moorlands that stretched far off in a flat expanse of heather and gorse. After walking twenty minutes, she came to the graveyard.

Two tourist groups led by docents were examining the place. Sossity stood still as if to listen, though she was not listening for audible sounds. She walked to a stone shed built into the side of a hill. Wooden barrels, a power mower, and a can of gasoline sat in one corner. Rakes, shovels, clippers, and pruning saws hung neatly on the walls. The caretaker’s shed, she thought, and jumped when she turned and saw a figure standing only a few inches from her.

“Don’t be frightened,” the woman said.

It took Sossity a moment to recover her composure. “I’m not. You just startled me.”

“I didn’t mean to. I hardly ever meet with the living. I guess I’m unskilled at that—always was.”

With the living. Fear crept over her. She did not think the young woman was a ghost but imagined she might be deranged. “Who are you?”

“Nuala Malloy.” Sossity only gazed at her. Nuala smiled. “Yes—the one who stabbed her best friend to death. It’s hard when that’s the only way people remember you.” Sossity did not know how to respond. At first paralyzed with fear, she stared curiously after her fear had ebbed away a little. Nuala gave her a sad smile. “I’m sorry. As I said, I’m not around the living a great deal. And it’s not a good idea to be bitter, I think. I wanted to meet you because last night you looked out at the storm. You thought of me. You had compassion in your heart.”

She saw how Nuala was dressed. The clothes were period and they looked too worn to be a costume.

“You don’t quite believe me, I see.” She faded and then appeared behind Sossity, who screamed when she said, “Back here, lass.”

After recovering from a second fright, she asked.

“Why are you here, Nuala? Why are you a ghost?”

Nuala looked up, meeting Sossity’s eyes. She dropped her gaze. “I don’t know. I’m stuck here, between two worlds.”

Silence fell between them. Sossity heard the voice of the docent guiding the tour group. After the silence had grown uncomfortable, she asked, “Why did you do what you did? Can you talk about it?”

“Miss Chandler, I don’t know why I did it. When Mary took my man from me, a storm filled my soul. One day I saw her coming across the meadow. Rage overwhelmed me, I got a kitchen knife, fell on her when she came off the turnstile between our family’s property and the common, and stabbed her again and again. I don’t know why. Well, I know what spurred me, but I can’t understand how I got so out of control as to do what I did. The priest said I had been possessed by the Devil. The jury didn’t buy it and I didn’t either. A moment of madness was the end of me.”

“You’re sorry for what you did. I can see that.”

“She was my best friend. Even though she made me hate her, I never thought I could kill her—or anyone else.”

“You called me. You called me here with the lightning I saw last night. Seeing it made me want to come here again.”

“I’m somehow connected with storm. I guess that’s because I killed Mary just before a downpour fell on our village. I guess that’s why it rains a lot around here. It must come from the tears and from the anger and sorrow I feel. So you’re probably right about it being my call to you. Anyway, I knew the songs you sang last night. They were in Gaelic. My family was Irish but came to England to find work. My parents converted to the Protestant faith. I stayed in the Church. We spoke the old tongue at home. Those songs were songs I sang to comfort my heart when I was waiting to die—when I was alone in that cell trying not to think of what was going to happen to me. When my time came, I was so afraid I could barely move. They led me to the steps of the gallows. The priest gave me the sacrament and I managed to walk up because I started singing the songs in my mind.”

Sossity looked at her, not wanting to ask the question that had arisen in her thoughts.

“What was it like? I was so scared I lost control of my body when they tied my hands and skirts. I was standing in a puddle of piss as they put the rope around my neck—not a very dignified way to die, I guess. I remember falling. I felt like I was choking and like someone had punched me in the back of the neck. Then I was standing on the gallows right next to the hangman. No one noticed me. I saw my corpse dangling at the end of the rope. Piss was dripping off my feet and shoulders. I knew I was dead and knew I was a ghost.”

She paused. The tone of her voice, the sadness with which she spoke of her plight, made Sossity forget the fear and strangeness of the situation.

“I don’t know why I brought you here,” she continued. “I was just lonely, maybe, and wanted someone to talk with. Loneliness is the most awful thing about being a ghost. Maybe it’s my punishment for committing murder—though it’s better than what I used to hear at church about what happens to a sinner after she dies. I visit the pub from time to time. I go when there someone is playing music. I used to play guitar so I like to listen to some of the artists they hire to perform.”

“You were in the audience last night?”

“I was. You sing very well.”

“Don’t people recognize you from the painting?”

She laughed. “That painting doesn’t look a bit like me. They hired an artist to do it forty years after I was gone. No one had a daguerreotype of me, so he had to guess what I looked like.”

“I’m glad you were able to hear me sing. Which Gaelic song did you like best?”

“I liked ‘Le Seán MacAindreasa, Béal Féirste’—‘Down by the Sally Gardens.’ My family sang it with a different tune, but I rather like the tune people sing it with today. It’s prettier than the old one.”

“It’s a nice piece of music.”

“Can you sing ‘Bi Thusa Mo Shuile’?” Nuala asked.

This was “Be Thou My Vision.” Sossity hoped she could remember the words and pronounce them properly. She sang:

 Bí thusa mo shúile a
Rí mhór na ndúil
Líon thusa mo bheatha mo
Chéadfaí ‘s mo stuaim
Bí thusa i m’aigne
Gach oiche ‘s gach lá
Im chodladh no im dhúiseacht
Líon mé le do grá.

 Nuala listened. Tears shone in her eyes. Sossity stopped after the first verse.

“Beautiful,” Nuala said. “My family sang that hymn. When we became religiously divided, we couldn’t talk about theology, but we could sing the old hymns. The Protestants sang that one too, so it was something we could share. We sang it in the old tongue. I played my guitar to accompany it. It was a comfort to my hearing.”

Sossity remembered the times she had heard ancient language. Language once had an element of music and was chanted or even sung. Old languages still had that musical intonation. She had heard it in the rural Spanish of small villages when she was an exchange student in Cholula Cholula Cholula, Mexico; in the Hebrew she listened to when attending worship with her friend Nerissa Zane at Orthodox chuches; the time, before her success, when she was waiting in a bus station in New Orleans after a gig there and heard two men—one black, one white—speaking Creole French to one another. Older languages had a tonality that seemed magical. She felt it when she sang in the Gaelic tongue.

“Why were those songs so soothing to you?”

“I don’t know. Do you know?”

“One is a hymn. The other is a love song.”

“‘Le Seán MacAindreasa, Béal Féirste’ is a song about someone who was too foolish to recognize true love when it came to him. I can identify with that.”

“How can you identify?”

“I suppose it was the way I really felt about Liam. More than anything in the world I wanted to rise above being a poor Irish farm girl. Maybe I wanted that more than I wanted him. Maybe he sensed that. He probably left me for Mary because of that.”

“Is that the answer you were looking for?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I don’t see any reason you should be here, Nuala, haunting the graveyard and the inn and affecting the weather here so it rains and storms all the time. You’re sorry for what you did. What you did is maybe understandable. We get overwhelmed by our emotions and do foolish, even destructive things. You paid for your crime—unjustly, I would say, but that’s really not a point to argue here.”

“When I was in my cell, one of my jailers was an elder at my parents’ church. He told me the Bible says no murderer has eternal life dwelling in him. He read me that part of the Bible. I was scared of going to hell, and even though Father Keirce told me I had repented and was in a state of grace, I couldn’t get what the elder said out of my mind. I know now that’s silly. If I were fit for the other place, I would have been dragged off to there by now, I think.”

“What’s stopping you from going on? Do you have any idea?”

“I think it’s my shame. The only way people think of me is as a murderess. I lived my life, I had friends, sang for people; now the only thing I’m remembered for is that I killed Mary. My brother sold my guitar and somehow it ended up in a museum in Rueford, just up the road. It’s displayed there and the plaque by it gives the story of the murder I committed. It’s hard to go on when you have such a cloud attached to your name. And music was so much a part of my life; it meant so much to me. It hurts to think every time someone sees that old guitar I cherished so much, they’ll only associate it with what I did that day. That’s the only way anyone remembers me. There’s nothing I can do to change that, I suppose. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

Sossity did not know how to reply.

“I think you’d better go now,” Nuala said. “The clouds are breaking, the sun is coming out, and I don’t do well in sunlight.” Sossity nodded. As the sky grew brighter, Nuala looked specter-like. “Beannaigh tú,” she added and then she was gone.

Back at the inn, Sossity asked the waitress she and Lydia had spoken with that morning what Beannaigh tú meant. She replied it was a Gaelic blessing.

 

Sossity rented a bicycle and rode to Rueford. She found the museum and Nuala’s guitar. It was an American-made Martin—a vintage instrument built in 1840 set in a glass case with a placard beside itThe woman who owned this guitar was Nuala Malloy, the ‘Wayward Maiden’ of Lavendale. Miss Malloy murdered Mary Conners in 1865 and was hanged for her crime. A skillful musician, she often performed locally. Beneath the placard she saw a note: ON LOAN FROM THE ESTATE OF LORD HARLAN BERRIAULT, RUEFORD.  Sossity pondered a moment, went outside, and called Amy, her personal assistant.

“Amy, I want you to contact Lord Harlan Berriault. He lives in Rueford. I want to buy the guitar he has loaned to the museum. Tell him money is not a consideration.”

“That sounds like a tall order,” Amy said, though she was used to getting assignments like this one and getting them out of the blue.

“Do what you can. Keep me posted.”

Sossity biked the surrounding countryside, reveling in its beauty, especially marveling at the lavender fields for which the village was named. She enjoyed being alone after the pressures of touring. When she came back to where her crew was staying, Amy said she had good news.

“He’s willing to sell it, but he wants to meet you and introduce his wife to you.”

 

She arranged to meet him for lunch at Lavendale’s nicest restaurant. Berriault was perhaps fifty. His spouse, a trophy-wife of maybe twenty-five, was enthused to meet her favorite singer. She talked incessantly during the meal, insisted that Sossity sing her hits there at the table so she could sing along, recited her favorite lyrics, and asked embarrassing questions about Sossity’s divorce a few years back. Lord Berriault smiled benignly and cast adoring glances at his belovéd. Sossity endured it patiently. She wanted to get the guitar. Near the end of the dinner/ordeal Berriault said he had arranged for it to be shipped to the hotel. He did not ask her for any money.

It arrived special delivery that afternoon.

One of her roadies put new strings on it and adjusted the neck. He remarked on what good shape it was in and on its quality and workmanship. She and Lydia practiced. After supper, when she was alone in her room, Nuala appeared. She looked pale and transparent enough that Sossity could see shadows through her. Sossity smiled.

“I bought it. Do you want it back, Nuala?”

“I wouldn’t have a place to keep it. It would come apart in the elements. But thank you.”

“Do you want to play it?”

“I would love to, but I’m not substantial enough. I have a substantial body only from eleven and to about one in the morning.”

“Tonight,” Sossity told her, “Lydia and I are playing another show—we start at eleven after they can’t sell booze. Maybe you can come up on stage and play some numbers with us.”

Her pale eyes flashed bewilderment. “Come up on stage?”

“Sure. Why not? You said no one knows what you look like. And you said you used to perform, so you shouldn’t be afraid to get up in front of a crowd.”

“It doesn’t seem that something so wonderful could happen.”

“That’s only what you’ve told yourself. Come tonight. I’ll call you up out of the audience. You have such an unusual name I might have to make up a new one for you.”

She laughed. “Call me Nellie. Most of the people in the town called me that. They thought my Irish name sounded queer.”

“I’ll call you up as Nellie M. Will that be okay?”

Moved to the point she could not answer, Nuala nodded. Someone knocked on the door. “Tonight,” Nuala said, and vanished.

 

At 11:00, after the bartender called, “Time,” the concert began. A local group did folk tunes. Sossity and Lydia were billed second and got on stage around 11:45. Sossity brought Nuala’s guitar and placed it in a stand behind them.

She and Lydia did a couple of Sossity’s signature acoustic hits. News of her impromptu concert had gotten around and the place was at capacity. The two women did a hit guitar instrumental they had co-authored and was the theme song of a popular Canadian television comedy. After midnight, Sossity nodded to one of her roadies, who brought out a third chair.

“A friend of mine from Ireland—a fabulous musician—is the audience tonight. I asked her if she would come up and do a couple of songs with us, and she graciously agreed. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Nellie M.”

The crowd applauded. Nuala left her seat in the audience and came up on stage. She wore the long green skirt, lacy white blouse, and button-down black shoes Sossity had seen her before—she had worn the outfit in both her appearances. Maybe ghosts always wore the clothing they died in. Sossity worried a moment, wondering if the audience would identify her outfit as coming from Nuala’s time. But folk singers often dressed retro or cultivated a rustic or Victorian look, especially if they sang ethnic music, as Nuala did. And no one knew what she looked like. Sossity kissed her, Lydia gave her a hug (Sossity had given her the same story she had given the audience). The three of them took their places and began.

They did “Down by the Sally Gardens” in Gaelic and then in English. Lydia, who was a multi-instrumentalist, got out her violin for “Be Thou My Vision,” which they also did in the two languages. The crowd listened, enraptured.

“Nellie,” Sossity asked when they had finished, “could you do a couple of your originals for us?”

Nuala looked startled but recovered quickly. She smiled.

“I think I could, yes.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Sossity said with a gesture, “Miss Nellie M.”

After the crowd quieted, Nuala began. Sossity watched. Nuala played with all four fingers and her thumb, unlike modern players who used their thumb and first three fingers. Her technique, light, melodic, and precise, amazed Sossity. She sang, her voice sweet, clear, and powerful over the harp-like cascade of guitar notes she played.

The song, in Gaelic, caught the audience with its spell. No sound could be heard in the room except for Nuala’s voice and her guitar playing. When she finished, a long moment of silence ended with loud plaudits. The crowd shouted and cheered. Nuala smiled, took a bow, and said thank you. She sang a second solo number with the identical effect and identical response. Sossity and Lydia came back on stage. The three of them did the old Donovan Leitch song, “Colours,” which had a simple, regular chord structure Nuala had no trouble picking up. She did not know the lyrics but sang “Ooh” and “Ah” as a background, first with the melody and then a harmonic third above it and did the echo of the phrase, “that’s the time” in the chorus. Lydia played flute.

The song brought a standing ovation. Being close, Sossity saw her ghost friend’s eyes once again glisten with tears. Nuala smiled, bowed, and went back down to her seat in the third row. After she sat down, the people around her leaned toward her, smiling, expressing their admiration for her as a singer. She nodded, her face bright with happiness.

Sossity and Lydia played three more songs and brought the show to an end. Fans came on stage (Sossity had told her security staff to allow them there) to talk with her and get autographs. While this went on, she stole glances at Nuala, surrounded by a similar, though smaller, knot of admirers. At 2:00 the publican said he needed to close. Sossity and Lydia returned to their hotel.

As she retired, Sossity wondered if Nuala would appear to her. She went to bed when the ghost girl did not show. But in the early hours of morning, Nuala materialized. She was transparent and her voice just above a whisper because she hardly had substance at that time of night. Sossity sat up in bed.

“Thank you,” she said. “I can’t say anything more. If I try to say more of how I feel, I’ll break down. I can go now. I can go to my reward.”

“I’m so happy for you, Nuala. My only regret is that we won’t be able to sing together again.”

“I’m pleased you have my guitar. Think of me when you play it. I know you’ll care for it well. And do play it. Don’t loan it to a museum or keep it in a closet.”

“It’s a fine instrument. I’ll play it. I promise.”

“In the top left corner inside the case, you’ll see some stitches. If you cut them and reach between the wood and the velum lining the inside, you’ll find seven of my songs. I wrote the lyrics and the chords. I never learned to write music very well, but I think you can get the melody from what I did.” She smiled wryly. “I sewed them there so my little brother wouldn’t steal them and use them for drawing paper. He used to do that all the time.” She paused and then said, “Thank you, Sossity.”

Beannaigh tú,” Sossity answered.

Nuala nodded and faded into nothingness.

Sossity got out of bed and went over to the window. The sky, clear, pulsating with stars, spread cloudless and calm over the moorlands, quiet, dark, extending outward to infinity.

Dave Landrum

 

Dave Landrum teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Western Michigan. His speculative fiction has appeared in The Horror Zine, Odd Tales of Wonder, Fantasia Divinity, Silver Blade, and Non-Binary Review.

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