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Éimear struggled to find the energy to get up. Her limbs seemed heavy, but she really didn’t have an excuse. November had been good so far: 43 deaths and only the middle of the month. Wake attendance had been fair, although nothing to shout about. A dusty cobweb swayed overhead. She watched a loose strand pendulum sway and sighed. A seasonal lull might slow things until year-end.
Feet testing the floor boards, Éimear shuffled towards the corner desk. She sank into an IKEA swivel chair, tried to think positive thoughts. Even if it slowed down over the next few weeks, the New Year’s rush should take up some slack. A cold snap often brought a decent flow: those without a decent heating system, car crashes – plenty of scope for her work. She booted up the laptop.
Her roster on the Community portal popped onto the screen. Two O’Briens. One in Ballyvourney, good. Those Gaeltacht funerals always rousing, bucket loads of tears. She cross-checked names on the general database. One of the O’Briens had O’Connor lineage as well. It’s been a while. Maybe Breena’s gotten over my elbowing her out last year. No one could afford to be lax, especially these days. If you didn’t fight for each case, you could fade away like poor Orlaith a few years ago.
She grimaced. This generation. She’d seen them dancing and screaming in night clubs, even covered in foam. But at a funeral? You couldn’t get a gig out of them. Grief had become an embarrassment. She wished for generations of old: stoic in daily life but overflowing with emotion at wakes and funerals.
Some in the Community blamed modern medicine — early diagnosis and drugs. Relatives had time to prepare; doped up patients couldn’t scream in agony anymore.
Insufficient grief feeding, an unspoken, but well-known concern among the Community, had become pervasive. Éimear had given up manifesting years ago. Like most members, she didn’t have the energy. The latest poll showed that 90% depend on public transport now and with the recent Government Budget cuts… well, she envisioned an even bleaker future.
Éimear checked the time on her smartphone. She dressed in a rush. Her black wool sheath dress, tights and low-heel boots would suit all events. Checking her reflection, she ringed her eyes in Kohl, outlined her mouth with dark red lipstick. A bit, what do they say now, Goth? Gotta give the punters what they expect. She pulled her grey designer cloak off the hook by the front door. The soft cashmere rippled in her hands, a step-up from rough wools of the past.
Although she’d lost invisibility long ago, she tried to be discreet. Éimear remembered being embarrassed when after one wake, a relative sought her out, forcing an envelope into her hand. “For your service,” he’d said.
Some of the others called taking money out of order. At the last All Ireland Conference, Breena had made snide remarks about the cape, saying fashionable work clothes betrayed the craft. However during the “How to Remain Relevant in a Modern Irish Society” debate, others supported Éimear. People expected a certain level of sophistication from service industries now. She made one a final check in the hall mirror, blew herself a kiss and she headed out.
When Éimear reached the Victorian house on the hill, she surveyed the grounds. No sign of Breena. Two large trees and several bushes on the left side of the front garden looked like an ideal position. Sympathizers were just beginning to arrive. Slipping into the shrubs, she went through some voice warm-ups before commencing her caoineadh.
Éimear liked to start out low and melodic, rising an octave or two depending on response. Classified as “Kerry Style” by the Community. “A slow build to a devastating finish,” she used to say in workshops.
Éimear watched the steady flow of mourners. A few people paused on their way up the garden path, casting glances towards her in the bushes before going in. A window opened – always a good sign. She increased her volume. Eyes closed, the keening flowed, gaining rhythm. A sob, then a roar drifted out the window. Her muscles contracted and relaxed, fingers began to pulse. Nearing a crescendo, someone touched Éimear’s arm. Her lids rolled back, voice ebbed to a murmur. A middle-aged man in a black suit stood ahead of her. He shifted from one foot to the other.
“Pardon me Madam. I am so sorry to interrupt your performance, but ah… the family… well they’ve requested I dispense with your services.”
Éimear stared, her mouth slack.
“You see… umm… how can I put this delicately? Of course, they appreciate your efforts and I have been authorized to provide this compensation.” He reached into a pocket, taking out a brown envelope. “It’s just the family has moved into the Modern Age, you see. Keening is rather old-fashioned. Not to disparage your lovely voice. They mean no slight. Not at all!”
He lifted her limp right hand and pushed the heavy envelope into the palm. With a nod, he returned to the house. Éimear brushed lawn clippings and leaves from her cloak and slumped down the path. As she approached the nearest bus stop, she recognised Breena seated on the narrow bench.
“Turned away with a fat wad of notes, were ye?”
Éimear inclined her head. She sat down next to Breena and released a long sigh. After a few minutes, Breena reached out and squeezed her hand.
“No worries me dear. I heard ye and ‘twas gorgeous, so ‘twas. Got the talent, I’ll give ye that. I don’t blame ye for beating me here. Have to snatch what scraps are left or give up.”
She put her other hand over Breena’s and patted it. “Thanks for that, Breena. It means a lot coming from you.” Her eyes filled. Éimear dug through cloak pockets for a tissue.
“Now, now none of that! Hold on to what ye have built up inside. Don’t be wasting it on fools that don’t appreciate the old ways. I won’t have ye fading ahead of me.” She gestured towards the house. “What else ye got on the roster for today?”
“Another O’Brien, in Ballyvourney. I’ll have to bus it up.”
They rode into the city centre together. Éimear transferred to the Ballyvourney bus. It passed out of Cork city, wound through the narrow streets of Macroom. Green fields came into view, dotted with cattle and sheep, their heads bent with insatiable consumption. The twisting mountain road to Ballyvourney brought sweet memories. Days of wandering the countryside, sleeping under trees, so full of harvested sorrow she could materialise with ease. Now she had to live in a dense population centre, keeping a packed schedule for basic survival.
Éimear disembarked and made her way to a small cottage on a hillside, her limbs protested as she climbed to reach it. She manoeuvred into position, sharp whin spines snagging her cloak. Her knees gave way, with a grunt she fell. Éimear propped herself up on elbows, too weak to straighten. Her voice feeble, thinner than a few hours before, she laboured to hit some notes. A moan came from the cottage. Greedy, she fed on it, her volume increasing. More wails drifted over the road. Éimear pulled them in, limbs tingling, muscles firming. She increased volume, driving the mourners on. At last she hit her peak, a scream punctuating the air, echoing off the mountains.
As the sobs from the house faded, Éimear smacked her lips. She heard rustling behind her.
“Hello Miss, hello.” A small Asian man in a well tailored suit peered through the whins. “May I compliment you on a very fine performance?”
“Ah… thank you.”
“I am Mr. Hu. I represent the Professional Mourners of China.”
“China has a long and honourable history of funeral wailing.” He pressed the tips of his fingers together, moving the hands in and out.
Éimear frowned. “What’s that?”
“Many of our new performers have lost the art.” He leaned forward and whispered, “It can be very bad.”
He reached down and extracted a briefcase from a tangle of whin branches. Balancing it on one knee, he snapped the clasps and took out a glossy pamphlet. “So I come to Ireland Miss to seek and offer positions to the best professionals, only the best professionals.” He handed the pamphlet to Éimear. “As you see, our professionals enjoy respect and a positive performing life.” He smiled.
Éimear scanned the pictures of women in white costumes with bright sashes writhing on the ground. An enthralled crowd surrounded them, their faces contorted with despair. “I can see their work is appreciated. There are so many mourners. Is this typical?”
“Yes Miss, we have a very high population and strong family bonds.”
She read the brochure, considering picture captions that promised a significant pool of residents with high mortality and grief output. “Interesting. What’s the landscape like?”
“As you see here, this is a picture of a city street, but our professionals can be mountain based.” He unfolded the pamphlet and indicated a mountain village scene. “It would be your choice. Chongqing is surrounded by the Daba, Wu, Wuling and Dalou Mountains. Also it is very, very wet. I think Miss you would find it pleasing.”
She scanned the pamphlet text, noting frequent exclamation marks. “Do your wailers work every day?”
He cleared his throat. “Most of our professionals find the level of sorrow at five events per week more than sufficient for their needs.”
“Just five funerals a week?”
“Yes Miss, but we have an overtime option plan available.”
She tapped a finger against the pamphlet for a few beats. “I’m sorry to be blunt, but what’s in it for you? I’m used to working independently – you understand.”
“Of course, this is a reasonable question. The grieving families compensate us for providing our professionals to fulfil their funeral display requirements. We carry the burden of administration, but it is our great pleasure to assist our professionals. All transport, living arrangements and costumes will be provided to you, while the mourners’ grief provides your substance.” He bowed again.
“The style appears very different from what I am used to…”
“This also is no problem.” He waved a hand and nodded. “We have found the people request foreign style performances more and more. So, I am travelling to find the very best regional performers to broaden our company portfolio.”
Éimear reflected on her centuries of service. The generations of O’Briens and Kavanaghs for whom she’d keened. The respect and easy existence she used to enjoy. She thought of Orlaith, already her features a confused memory. The pamphlet caught the afternoon light; each picture glimmered – white, vermillion, jade. Steep mountains, clean city streets. The funeral scenes charmed her: crowds of mourners with their bodies bent in two, distorted faces with red mouths twisted in agony.
Éimear imagined news of this opportunity spreading among the Banshee Community. No doubt there would be a debate at the next All Ireland Conference: “Emigration – Solution or Scourge of Our Times?” Yet she knew that for all their posturing and pontificating about tradition, most of the audience would be texting under their cloaks the “for further information” number, plotting an escape.
Mr. Hu waited, one hand on his briefcase handle, the other scrolling through emails on his smartphone. Éimear gave a high pitched cry, its echo rattled among ancient mountains and bright bungalows. She bowed towards Mr. Hu. “When do we leave?”