WARNING: Contains Disturbing Imagery. Discretion is advised.
art by Kim Holm (@denungeherrholm)
Mallory Keening skipped through the door of the Misty Moor Hospice Center, following behind her guardian, Nurse Veranda. The hem of her white dress bounced around her knees and the embroidered red flowers seemed to dance on the rippling fabric. Despite being only five years old, she was familiar with the center. This was the thirtieth visit she’d made in the past two years.
“Hello, Mallory,” said the smiling woman behind the front desk. She grabbed a jar full of lollipops and held it out over the counter. “Would you like one?”
“Yes, please,” Mallory said, taking a red one. “Thank you.” She popped it into her mouth and stood next to Nuse Veranda, rocking on her heels.
“Hello, Becky,” Nuse Veranda said as she grabbed a sign-in ledger. “How are things today?”
“Oh, alright,” Becky said, sitting down and looking at her computer screen. “Mr. Horowitz is scheduled for the biopsy this afternoon, and Mrs. Gelard’s daughter called to cancel her visit. Says her kids have pink eye.”
“Ugh,” sighed Nurse Veranda. “When are those kids not sick? They haven’t seen that poor woman in three months. Always the damn kids’ fault, too.”
“Yeah. Oh, and Mr. Callahan isn’t doing too good. Had a fit last night and has been sleeping all day. Vitals are weak. Father Stuart from St. Francis will be here at six.”
“Hopefully he can hold on for that long.” Nurse Veranda leaned down to Mallory. “Now, remember the rules.”
“Don’t go into people’s rooms. Don’t go outside alone. And don’t wake anyone up if they are napping,” Mallory recited. The woman smiled and nodded, and Mallory skipped past the desk and into the hallway leading to the rest of the center. She made her way through the hallways, passing old people with walkers and medical staff in scrubs and white coats. Past the residential rooms, most of which were closed, she turned into the recreation room.
The late afternoon light cast a warm glow over everything. The floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall gave a panoramic view of the center’s grounds. A low mist covered the rolling hills behind the center, reminding many of the moors of Scotland. Mallory looked around. Some residents sat in pairs at small tables playing tile and card games. Others sat in the plush couches and easy chairs. Three grey haired women were watching the small television set with an episode of “I Love Lucy” on, while a fourth sat beside them, snoozing with her hands in her lap. Mallory smiled as her eyes spied Mr. O’Leary sitting in the far corner. She smiled as she approached.
“Hi, Mr. Leary,” Mallory sang. “Whatchya making?”
Mr. O’Leary looked up from his knitting and smiled. “Hello, Ms. Mallory. I’m just making a…something.” He lifted up the sheet of purple yarn. There were quite a few holes in it from where he’d missed some stitches. “Mrs. Bitters got me into knitting last week. No clue how to read those forsaken patterns.” He chuckled and shook it gently. “What do you think this is?”
Mallory looked at it for a moment, then smiled. “A scarf!”
Mr. O’Leary gasped comically. “So it is! And a messy one at that. Now, I wonder who would like it…” He surveyed the room with a cocked eyebrow. “Do you think Mrs. Sanders would like this scarf?”
“She hates purple,” Mallory giggled.
“Aye, so she does. And I don’t think Mr. Grand would look good in purple. Hmmm…. Let’s see…” He kept looking around with a smirk before finally looking at Mallory. With a playful gasp, he said, “Why, Mallory my dear. Would you like this purple thing that may be a scarf one day?” She giggled and nodded. “Very well! So shall it be!” Mr. O’Leary said like a king declaring a proclamation, which made Mallory giggle even more.
Mr. O’Leary was her favorite resident at Misty Moor, and always looked forward to seeing him. Some days they’d sit and he’d tell her stories about his childhood in Ireland, his time as a fisherman sailing the world, and especially of his late wife, Joanna. Other days, they’d play card games which he always let Mallory win, and one memorable visit, he taught her to play Mahjong. He had a crop of nearly transparent hair around his head and his shiny crown was spotted with liver spots. He liked to call his hair “purely theoretical” which always got a laugh from the little girl. Most of the residents didn’t care for Mallory. Her first visit, she’d been yelled at by one old woman for taking up space on the couch and watching the television. Mr. O’Leary came immediately to the rescue, claiming loudly that Mallory was saving him a seat and if the old bat didn’t like it, she could just go to her own room. He and Mallory had been friends ever since.
“Don’t mind that old battleaxe,” Mr. O’Leary had said to Mallory as he pulled a square caramel from his pocket and offered it to her. “No one likes her. I think it’s ‘cause of that sourball she always seems to be sucking on. That’s why her mouth is always like that,” and he sucked in his cheeks and puckered his lips, making Mallory laugh.
Mr. O’Leary put the mass of purple yarn into the bag by his recliner and looked around again. “What say we have a few rounds of cards, eh?”
“Yes, please,” Mallory said and followed him to a table by the window. The old man shuffled the cards like a Vegas dealer, despite his blue veined and knotted knuckles. They played Go-Fish and Old Maid. As the sun was setting, Mallory put down her last cards and cheered, “I win!” Mr. O’Leary sighed dramatically.
“I swear you have all the luck of Ireland in you, Ms. Mallory.” He glanced up and pointed. “I believe you’re wanted, m’dear.” Mallory looked over. Nurse Veranda was standing in the doorway.
“Come on, Mallory. It’s time.”
“Coming,” Mallory said, sliding off her seat. “Thank you, Mr. Leary!”
“See you next time, Ms. Mallory,” he waved and Mallory skipped to the nurse.
The smell of cleaning chemicals and disinfectant hit Mallory’s senses like a wall. After spending hours in the room filled with a mix of flowery perfume, talcum powder, and Mr. O’Leary’s oaky cigar smell, the hallway’s smells stung her sinuses. The hallway was empty as they walked down it, past all the closed residence doors. Most of the old people had gone to bed hours ago. When they got to the end of the hall, they turned the corner and approached a pair of women a few doors down. They stood together next to the only open door. The orange-ish lamp light was spilling into the dimly lit hallway. As Mallory and Nurse Veranda approached, the two other women turned and greeted them. The woman on the left was only a foot or so taller than Mallory, shrunk with age. Her skin was as wrinkled as it seemed possible for a human to be, and her hair was the purest white. She wore a midnight black dress with a crimson shawl draped over her head and shoulders. The other woman was young - looking to be in her late teens at most. Her scrubs were sky blue with her blonde hair tied up in a ponytail. She carried a wicker basket of grey yarn and her face was solemn. The two women nodded at Nurse Veranda and then each gave a shallow bow to Mallory, who did the same. Without saying anything, the four filed into the room, youngest to oldest, with Mallory leading and the old woman shut the door behind them.
The three women sat in the three visitors chairs lined against the wall by the door of the small room. Mallory slowly approached the bed in the center of the room. A bag of morphine hung from a metal stand and the tubing ran down to the arm of the man laying in the bed. He was tucked neatly under the covers with his arms laying on top at his sides. A half dozen wires ran from his chest to the monitor on the far side of the bed, which beeped with a slow, but steady rhythm. The man’s breaths were shallow and labored. Mallory looked over her shoulder and nodded. The younger nurse picked up a skein of grey yarn from the basket at her feet.
The lamp on the nightstand flickered and went out. In the darkness, the hospital room had become a large, stone cave. A crack in the ceiling expanded above, letting the full moon light cast everything in cold silver. A massive tree sprouted, fully formed, from the rocky floor and rose and expanded higher and higher. The roots with bark like cracked lava spread out like spider legs and dug into the floor, and the branches broke through the ceiling and stretched into the sky; so high that clouds drifted through them. Stars hung from the tree like an infinite number of leaves. At the base of Yggdrasil, Mallory stood next to the bed with the old man in it. The machines and morphine drip were gone, and his pale skin glowed in the moonlight. The three women sat on one of the tree’s roots side by side. The youngest sat in a robe of white with a gold apron covering her lap. Her blonde hair shimmered like white gold. She took the ball of grey yarn, placed it on an iron spindle, and began to unravel it into individual threads. The threads gathered into her lap and spilled onto the stone floor.
The woman who’d been Nurse Veranda ran her fingers through the fine filaments and picked out a single strand. She slowly pulled it and inch by inch, she guided it across her lap to her other hand. She was dressed in a cloak the color of the sky. Her right arm was the colors of a sunrise, transitioning into the blues of a clear daytime sky, and fading perfectly into the darkening hues of a sunset on her left sleeve. Her auburn hair was tied up in a bandana of sun-white silk. As she passed the thread between her hands, she whispered so softly it was like she was speaking to the thread itself:
The morning fades to the noonday sun
The sun does set when the work is done
Life fills with loss and love
Until the moon wanes above
The thread passed across the middle sister and into the hands of the eldest. She sat there in her pitch black dress and her blood red shawl draped across her shoulders. Her white hair was almost transparent in the glow of the moonlight above. She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a pair of long, sharp shears. Unblinkingly, she stared out with blind pale eyes and held the scissors open. She pulled the fine strand through the scythe like blades and let the end fall into an empty basket to her left.
Mallory turned away from the three sisters and faced the bed once more. She closed her eyes and bowed her head as if in prayer. Gracefully, she rose up from the ground until she was levitating a few feet in the air. Her pure white dress lengthened until her now bare feet could no longer be seen and began fluttering in a non-existent wind, as was her long red hair. Her red lips shaped and the girl began to sing a long, echoing melody unknown to the living. She twisted her hands as if washing and wringing out an invisible cloth. Her mouth switched to a long-a sound and her melody rose in pitch.
On the bed, the man lay perfectly still asleep. When the girl that was no longer Mallory Keening sang, the man’s mouth moved to form the same shapes as hers. When his chin fell down to open wide, what the banshee was calling came forth. Blood. A great column of blood rose from his mouth, twisting and undulating like a snake made of liquid rubies. When the last of it left his mouth, leaving not a drop behind, it collected in a mass above him before becoming a large glistening red silk cloth. It billowed like a curtain in the wind before the banshee. She reached out and took it and began to squeeze, twist, and wring it out. Blood oozed between her fingers and dripped to land on the root of the tree the banshee was hovering above. As the blood fell from her hands, the cloth became one of pure white silk.
The banshee’s ethereal song grew in pitch and volume as she wrung out the cloth. The echoes of her notes became a choir around her. Tears of silver that sparkled on her pale cheeks fell to the root below, mixing with the red blood. Her crying became a steady stream of tears and her singing evolved into a wail. It became a terrible scream of agony, sorrow, loss, and pain. Behind her, the Norns - the Wird Sisters of Fate - ran the thread from one to the other. Soon, the basket beside Skuld, the eldest, filled with the never ending strand. And still she sat there, blindly measuring the thread between her scissors. Verandi spoke her words again and again as she pulled the thread across her lap. Urdr spun the spindle, unravelling the yarn of time silently. Time passed and the banshee’s cries seemed to be able to go no louder or higher; and in a single motion, Skuld closed the shears and snipped the thread. The cut of the metal blades rang out, cutting everything off in an instant, and the silence vibrated around the cave like a tuning fork. Everything was silent, and from the stained hands of the banshee, a cloth of pure white silk rose. It billowed and twisted as it rose higher and higher into the branches of the World Tree. it caught on one and it spun around it and draped on the branch. In a glint of light, it became a star, hanging on the tree like a leaf.
The bedside lamp flickered on. The hospice room was as it was again. In the stillness, a solid, monotonous tone filled the air. On the screen of the EKG machine was a single green flatline. Mallory stood at the bedside and placed a white rose beside the body of the late Mr. Flannagan. A piece of grey yarn was tied in a knot around the stem. She wiped her face of the cold tear tracks and turned away. She followed the three women out - leaving the door slightly ajar with a column of orange-ish light shining across the linoleum hallway.