Hush, girls, hush now. Mistress will hear us and I'm in enough trouble already.
"A story, Jacky, pleeease..."
The little girls' faces are ringed 'round my bed, shinin' in the pale light of the moon comin' through the window and spillin' over the bed. They are lookin' to me for a little joy, for little enough joy they find around this place, that's for sure, so, well what the hell.
"All right. Hop up. But whisper, now."
With small squeals they jump in and gather their nightdresses about themselves and hold each other's hands and wait, giggling.
"And make it a scary one, Jacky, because it's Halloween."
"Ohhh," breathe the others in mock dread.
"Very well, ladies, if you will be ever so quiet I will tell you the awful tale of 'The Cruel Sister," which "
"No, Jacky," says little Rebecca, bold eyes shining under her nightcap, "Please do it in your other voice. You know, the rough one, where you sound like a wicked pirate." Her mates nod assent.
I take a deep breath and and begin.
"Aw right, girls, I'll be sittin' here and tellin' ye of the sad and terrible story of 'The Crew-el Sister,' it being also an old, a very old song which I'll sing and play parts of real low on me pennywhistle as we go along, but if ye get too scared, it's yer own fault for askin'. Right?"
They nod again, some of them not quite so sure this time. I start to tell it.
"Once upon a time, far out in the country, there lived two beautiful sisters, one dark haired and one fair, and they was rich and had everything they wanted and were happy when they was children playin' in the meadows and flowers along the banks of the river and by the old mill, but when they got older a handsome young man come around and paid court to both of 'em, y'see, but he paid most attention to the fair haired girl which made the dark sister mad."
I pause and look around and then go on.
"And I mean rrrrrreally mad. The fair haired sister didn't even notice much about what was goin' on, 'cause she was pure and good and all she wanted, all she ever wanted, little girls, was for her and her sister to marry nice young men and have babies and all be together at Christmas and Easter and May Day and watch their babies grow up strong and good and to see them play in the flowers and the fields with butterflies flyin' about their heads, but no. Oh, noooo...The other sister wanted this boy so bad for herself and that was it, that was all and the next time she and her sister were walkin' down by the river's edge, she pushed her sister in to the dark and swirly waters!"
The little ones gasp. Just you wait, I think.
"And the fair sister reaches out her hand and begs her sister to pull her in for she's driftin' with the tide and she's sinkin' down wi' her white dress all twistin' and swirlin' around her, and she sings, 'Oh, the Dreadful Wind and Rain,' 'cause she's so cold and scared and shivery down there in the icy black water."
I pulls out me pennywhistle and plays real soft the dreadful wind and rain part of the song. Their eyes are gettin' rounder.
"But, no! The cruel sister don't pull her out, but instead finds a big stick and uses it to push her poor sister away from the bank and the fair sister looks up into her sister's face and sees that it is twisted with hate and envy and that her sister's heart is hardened against her and she despairs and she knows she's doomed and she sinks down, down, into the muddy murk and the water pours down her poor, dear throat and into her poor, dear chest."
There is a hush in the room. All of their mouths are making little O's now, and I hear a swallow or two.
"The bad sister goes back to her father's house and now has the young man all to herself," I say, briskly, "and soon there are plans for them to marry and a great wedding is planned."
I plump up my pillow and arrange myself under the covers as if I am coming to the end of the story. Some of the faces show disappointment, some relief. Several move as if to slide off my bed.
"But, after a long while," I continue and pause. The sliders stop sliding. "After a long while, a pair of traveling minstrels are walking by the millpond and what do they see but the poor girl's body there a' floatin' and they get a stick and as they drag what's left of her into the shore. While they're doin' it, they cocks their ears and seem to hear in the breeze that flows around them Oh, the Dreadful Wind and Rain... over and over and over again."
Again, I put the whistle to my lips and play the wind and rain theme, as sad as I can play it.
"Now the wandering minstrels take up her white breastbone from which all her dear flesh has by now gone and they hold it up and it shines in the sun and they decide to make a harp out of it, and they vow it will be the most beautiful harp in the whole wide world. So from the knucklebones of her little hands they make the tuning pegs and from thirty strands of her golden hair what's still clingin' to her skull they make the strings. They put it all together, anchoring the pegs and wrapping the strings around them and tuning it up, and at the top part of the harp, you know, the knobby part, they carved a head of a beautiful young girl, thinkin' that maybe it looked like her, when she was alive, like, and not just a ghastly skeleton that she is now. And you know what? It did look just like she was before, though the minstrels couldn't know that."
Gulps all around.
"They had done it. They had made the most beautiful harp in the land. They gazed upon it and were pleased with their work. And then what do you think they did? Hannah, what do you think they did?"
Hannah's mouth opens and closes, but she can't get no sound out of it. She shakes her head slowly back and forth and holds Hepzibah even closer to her.
"I know," whispers Rebecca, all big eyed. "They go to the wedding."
"Riiiiiight," says I, "They are hired to play at the very wedding of the cruel sister and the beautiful young man and so they wrap the harp in fine cloth and off they go to the bridal feast. They are welcomed and given good things to eat and drink and then they are asked to play."
"They go to the center of the great hall and set the harp on a stone and slowly unwrap the velvet cloth from around it. There is a gasp from the crowd because the harp sits there all shinin' and glowin' in its gleamin' white and gold beauty. The bride and the groom are sitting there smiling on their thrones in the great hall which is covered with flowers and lit by great torches. The first minstrel cradles the harp in his arms and begins to play."
I look around and peer into each little face.
"But something is wrong. Very, very wrong. The musician strums the harp to play a wedding song, but all that comes out of the harp is Oh, the Dreadful Wind and Rain! The first minstrel backs away from the harp all scared and the second minstrel comes up and strums the harp to try to play a love song, but all that comes out of the harp is Oh, the Dreadful Wind and Rain!"
I plays the refrain again, this time not so sweet, this time with a bit of an edge of sourness, which I get by not coverin' the holes just right with my fingertips.
"The dark sister rises from her chair, no longer smiling, no longer happy. The minstrel strums again and backs away in horror as the head on top of the harp opens its mouth and this time the harp has a whole verse, and it's the head what's doin' the singin!" and it sings out "
The Dark girl has her sister slain,
Oh the Dreadful Wind and Rain!
"And the cruel sister looks about wildly and cries No! No! but all the people are looking at her and wondering and then the harp, sittin' all alone on the stones in the center of the hall, sings again."
These Strings They Sing a Doleful Sound,
The Bride her Younger Sister Drowned!
"And then, little girls, oh, then the head on the top of the harp pops open its wild eyes and twists and stares at the cruel sister and then it opens its mouth and out of it spills great gouts of thick red blood and the blood runs down the harp and over the floor and the cruel sister reels back, tryin' to get away away from it but it curls around her feet and she slips and she falls back against the torches and they catch her clothes on fire and she "
I takes the whistle and covers all the holes and gets ready.
" she screams as the flames lick around her and her skin blackens and her flesh crackles and falls from her bones! She screams as now she knows that her evil has brought her not happiness but Death, cruel and remorseless Death!"
Forgetting where I am in the spirit of this thing I puffs up and gives the whistle the longest, loudest shriek I can.
"She screams and screams! and falls down, down, down, ever down into the deepest fiery pit of Hell where she will burn forever and ever and ever!!"
Hannah tips over in a dead faint. Jane and Willa are trying to hide under the covers and Agatha is under the bed.
"Good one, Jacky." says little Rebecca. "Let's have another."
The door flies open and there is Mistress Pimm.