John Rand had been known as a horse thief since he was fifteen, so while the nearby villages may have been horrified to hear he had killed me, they were also unsurprised. 

Tragedy, the women said, shaking their heads as they pinned clothes to the lines, just enough sun touching them to bleach away the smell of the lye soap.

A terrible thing, said our village priests, and priests as far as the gossip traveled. They lowered their heads, praying not only for my soul but for the soul of the boy who had killed me. The kinder ones insisted it wasn’t his fault, that of the lashes he’d taken for the theft of that first horse, at least one had caught his head, and he’d never been quite right after that.

Awful, a few boys said, changing the direction of their hands as they whittled their small love tokens, for now these things would be offered not to me but to the next girl who caught their eyes as she skipped down the lane.

It was not so much that I was the most beautiful girl in the village. (Many would tell you, with a fine sneer, that I most certainly was not.) It was more that I was strange, novel. That I had black hair while so many girls in the villages had yellow or red. That my skin held its brown even in winter. That my eyes were dark as the pond at night. No, it is not that I was the most beautiful. 

It was that I was a curiosity. 

My sister and I were among the few who looked like us and lived in these far villages. And because of this, and because we were girls, these boys looked at us like we were rare moths they might like to trap in a jar.

The lord of the manor may have had forty gold plates, two carriages, and a fine destrier (I always thought it strange how proudly he rode a war horse, when he had so many times paid his way out of fighting). But he was not so different than the boys from the village. He wanted me in a jar as much as the rest of them. The fact that I had no mother and father left to ask permission made me even more convenient, easier to procure. He simply stopped his horse whenever he saw me walking alongside the road. He skimmed his gloved fingers along my cheek, and I held my breath to keep from shuddering, because as handsome as he may have been, I caught the bad light of a will-o’-wisp in his green eyes. He looked at me like I was a rare doe, or some beautiful horse, a palfry maybe, as pure black as my hair. With each of his glances, there it was, the worst light of el fuego fatuo, and my stomach kicked.

I told my sister, about the manor lord stopping me. The way the brown of her face took on a gray tint made me feel as sick as she looked, and I wondered what stares, what glove along her shuddering cheek, she herself had endured, without ever telling me. It was a marvel to half the village that she had chosen a man as quiet and deferring as my brother-in-law, but it was no marvel to me. She wanted a husband who would count her as more than another fine thing to own. 

She had taught me to want the same. 

But every time the manor lord spotted me on the road, he stopped. With the back of his hand to my cheek, he told me of the tapestries in his great house, or of the black swan he’d seen crossing the marsh. His marsh. As those calfskin-gloved fingers traced down to my neck, he told me he had not yet caught her, then assured me that he would, and that when he did, he would bring me to the manor to show me the fine bird.  Things he desired, he said, eventually yielded to him. He said it in a manner so casual that I realized he considered it simple truth, not threat. 

I suppose I could blame that swan for John Rand killing me. Or I could blame the dark fact of my own body, how I was a girl, and a kind of girl that the manor lord regarded as a piece missing from a collection. I could even blame the dim light of the particular evening John Rand killed me, or the cloud shading the lamp of the moon, or the sudden rainstorm that made me cower beneath an alder. 

But there really is no one to blame but the boy with his father’s old shotgun, is there? It was John Rand who was out looking for game to bring back to the cousin who had long resented taking him in. It was John Rand who saw what he thought was a black swan in the trees, for he too had heard rumors of the magnificent bird caught only in flashes above the marsh. 

It was John Rand whose hands tightened around the gun as he thought of the lord of the manor catching that beautiful bird for his collection, or cooking and eating it like an English king. The pulse built in his fingers, thoughts of the bird’s blood mixing with the searing memory of wounds crossing his own back when he was fifteen. And it was these that became the life in his fingers. It was these that made him lift the barrel of his father’s gun, and aim for the bird who had no fate before her except to become the manor lord’s prey. 

It was only when he heard my scream, they said later, that he knew. And it was to everyone’s great surprise that he admitted to doing it. Horse thieves were liars, everyone said, especially the ones who got started young. 

My sister and her husband came for my body. The doctors did not come, both because I mattered little to the manor lord now that I was dead, and because everyone knew my sister’s remedios, for everything from childbirth fever to the burn of poisonous plants. She was as good at pronouncing me dead as any physician. 

There were rumors that my sister tried to bring me back to life. That she wept over my body, and applied feverfew and el aceite santo to my skin to pull the breath back into me. That she only stopped when her husband drew her away, whispering that I was truly gone, but that she would see me again one day. 

My sister and her husband swore they would bury me themselves, since I had no other family left to pay for the plot and coffin. My brother-in-law gathered me up in his arms, my sister making the sign of the cross on my forehead as though her tears were holy water. And as they did, John Rand was hauled to the manor lord’s justice, his voice breaking as he said, over and over, that it had been a mistake. He had seen only the black wing of my hair, and thought I was the swan. 

My sister and my brother-in-law thought they’d believe him. He had already confessed to killing me. What reason did he have to lie about why?

But the blood court didn’t believe him.  

The blood court decided to kill him.

The night they chose was the same night a red veil fell over the moon, la sombra, an umbra of rust. It flushed the rope they looped around his neck.

So I came back. I came back as the wind screamed through the silver down of the beith gheal trees.

Some would say it was because I had a heart for justice. Others said it was because I still hovered along the veil between life and death, and that if John Rand were to die so soon after me, our souls might brush against each other, like the shuddering of two startled birds.

But I appeared, a dead girl from the red-shadowed mist, the moon adding a blood sheen to my hair. 

I held out my hands, and they all gasped to see my brown arms cutting through the pale fog. With a voice like a night bird, I called to them. 

My sister screamed, the sound as much music as her fine singing voice, and then fainted into her husband’s arms. The rest stared at me with unblinking eyes, as though I were death itself. 

He tells the truth, I called to the gathered crowd, to the manor lord seated on an upholstered chair as though presiding over a tournament, to the executioners adjusting the knot. I confessed to them that the boy with the rope around his neck had lifted his father’s gun not to me but to the rare swan. 

They drew their hands to their faces. They crossed themselves. A few grumbled about the fact that they had come out in the cold to witness the spectacle, for it had been a while since they’d had the entertainment of an execution, and it was even worse insult to be denied it on the night of a blood moon. 

I withdrew into the blushed mist.

My sister returned to herself just in time to reach out her hands, as though to pull me back. I stretched my fingers toward her even as the mist and the night itself drew me in. Our mournful voices braided together like the weft and warp of the cane seats we wove to buy bread.

Mailí, she called, as she had when we were little girls, and she lost me among the hawthorns. 

Mailí, she called. But even with our hands reaching for each other, she lost me again.

The boy with the rope around his neck wore a stare both stoic and penitent, the set to his jaw as brittle as spring ice. 

I looked at him only once, before the blood moon claimed me again. 

They unknotted the rope around John Rand’s neck, lifting from him the charge of murder and setting in its place the lesser crime of poaching, since he thought me to be a bird that belonged rightfully to the manor lord. He took the lashes the manor lord decided on, some number tempered by his mood and whim, increased by his annoyance at how he would never have me, decreased by the smile of a maiden whose wind-chapped cheeks were pink as bilberries. 

As he did, the women of the village stood in the mist, their pale arms making them look like a great fountain of snow. 

Some cried for me, the old women especially, who remembered me as a girl who offered respectful greetings in the lane. 

Some feigned grief for my soul but were glad to see me go. They had long thought that the color of my eyes, so dark brown the pupils could not be seen, meant I had none, a sure sign that I had been a witch all along. 

They turned the back of John Rand’s shirt to strips of cloth, dyed red as the blood moon. The lord of the manor called for them to stop two or three early, to show his magnanimous spirit to the maid with the bindweed cheeks.

My sister wept into her husband’s chest, his arms shielding her from the scene.

She had always belonged on a stage, mi hermana, her gestures as pretty as her voice, and as convincing as her pious face in church, even when her mind wandered. Her weeping was sharp and high enough that for a moment, her husband wondered if I truly was dead.

I never asked her, but I don’t think it was me that she wept over, pretended to weep over. I think it was over the few choices left to girls like us. The men of the village had only let her alone once she married. The manor lord abandoned any thought of having me only when he heard I was dead.

My sister and her husband buried my things in place of my body. My sister kissed me on my forehead and both cheeks as she and her husband saw me out into the night. She sent me with a clean shirt, her own mix of luibheanna, for wounds, and with sabhaircín, for luck. She tried to hand me the stone we had found in the wood as young girls, the one with the slash of deep blue in it, but I folded it back into her palm, the only way I knew she could keep me.  

At the beith gheal trees, the silhouettes of two horses greeted me. They whinnied and nickered. 

One, a stout, pretty palfry.

The other, a great destrier, the horse that the lord of the manor had so often ridden when stopping me on the road. 

You didn’t, I said into the dark.

Once a horse thief, John Rand said, always.

John Rand found me with his lips before I found him with my hands, our mouths meeting in the dark, the red of the blood moon on our tongues. He set his palms on my waist like I was a dead girl who must be touched back into being alive. I grabbed him, and his breath hitched and gasped with the pain on his back, but he did not let me move my hands. 

I kissed him, hard, this boy who had loved me and then agreed to kill me, to be the boy everyone thought had murdered Mailí Bhán. 

I made him drink from the stream, the water rusted with the blood moon’s light, our hands growing colder each time we dipped them into the dark water. I drew away his shirt, cringing at the sound of the ripped fabric sticking to his wounds. I kissed his chest as though that would distract him, and he gritted his teeth, pretending it did. I put as much of my sister’s luibheanna on him as I could and then pulled the clean shirt over, because la sombra was falling away from the moon, and the mist was moving, and would soon unveil us. 

John Rand pulled himself onto the destrier, not arguing when I insisted we ride together, until we got far enough and he got strong enough to ride on his own. I made him hold onto me, the palfry trotting behind. 

We rode, faster than the veil of blood falling from the moon. 

As John Rand’s calloused fingers kept a grip on me, I breathed the chilled air, clear of the manor lord ever again setting his finely-gloved fingers to my throat. In place of those fingers was the grazing touch of John Rand’s lips on my neck, deliberate at first, then accidental as he collapsed into sleep against me. 

With the help of this horse thief, I had stolen myself back, and there were only two thrills that had ever matched it. The first was the time my sister and I found the arc of jagged blue crystals in that old slate rock, and the country priest told us we had come upon a stone fallen from the sky. The second was the first time I ever kissed John Rand, and he kissed me back in a way so hard and relieved it seemed like he was asking what had taken me so long. 

Later, John Rand would tell me that, in a minute of waking while we rode, he saw the black swan cross the moon, as though she too were fleeing. I never saw her, and I don’t know if John Rand truly did either. He was already drifting beneath a blood fever that would take three days to break. But even when he surfaced from it, he still insisted he saw her, a crisp silhouette against that blushed moon. And I can only hope it’s true.



AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Irish ballad of Molly Bán has as many versions as the title character’s name has spellings. In my reimagining, I defer to the version in which she’s mistaken for a swan, although my Mailí Bhán is more dark swan than pale (sometimes a Latina writer can’t help herself). And with all respect to the original, I opt for an ending that holds a bit more hope—and maybe a little more defiance—than the one I first heard.



{ Edited by Trisha Tobias. }