Washerwoman who foreshadows death An old washerwoman who always appears by a river or stream. The details of her appearance vary, and she may even remind you of your mother.
- A bean-nighe would make a good puzzle encounter. You might have players try to solve the mystery of the washerwoman and figure out how to stop the death of someone important to them.
- A bean-nighe would make a good plot device. You could use her to foreshadow the death of someone important.
- Aubrey O'Hara claims she met a strange old woman by the river. The woman seemed to spook her badly. A few days later she died in a farming accident.
- An NPC the party knows claims to have knowledge of the future. When they investigate, they discover it is true!
The blue shirt
It had been a long day with an angry sun. Stinging, salted drops had run down into the fisherman’s eyes, and his favourite blue shirt was nearly stained from sweat, but it had all been worth it. He had caught quite a few fish - more than usual for this time of year. They were strung up over his shoulder as he walked along the river, heading for home. With each step, the fish bumped against the fisherman’s back, and he carried his pole on his other shoulder, whistling a tune as he walked. The river turned and so did he, and an old woman came into view, washing clothes at the side of the water. The fisherman lifted his hand in a wave and smiled, but she took no notice of him. Finally, he could see what she was washing, and his blood ran cold. A blue shirt that he knew well. It was his favorite. It was the shirt he was wearing right then.
The fisherman looked down, half expecting his shirt to have vanished, but there it was on his body sweat stains and all. And there it was too, ten feet away now, the old woman’s gnarled hands beating it against a rock. He could not entirely make out her face as she crouched over her task, but something about her seemed familiar. Folded next to her, already washed, were the gray trousers the fisherman wore. Unnerved, the man hurried on, glancing over his shoulder more than once as he did so, eager to put the crone and his phantom clothing behind him. Looking behind him, he did not notice the loose dirt ahead. He slipped and fell, landing in the shallow water at the river’s edge, and cracked his head on a rock just below the surface. His lifeblood flowed away downstream, mixing with the dirt and sweat of his favourite blue shirt.
Herald of death
A bean-nighe is a spirit that heralds the death of the living. Always found near a stream, river, or pool, the spirit washes the blood from the clothing of those near death or the clothing the nearly departed will be wearing when buried. It always takes the form of an old woman, though the details of her appearance change. Some say the woman is almost bald, nothing more than white wisps clinging to her scalp. Others have said her hair is full and dark. She has been described with every shape of nose. Half of those who have seen a bean-nighe and lived to tell the tale swear she was whistling, or singing some strange tune. For others, the spirit is silent. Some claim to have seen nothing in her mouth but one yellowed tooth. One survivor says the creature had webbed feet the color of blood.
It is said that the bean-nighe is not just one creature, but many, the cursed spirits of women who died giving birth. This could explain the fact that not every eye witness agrees on the general appearance of the spirit. I propose that, in such close encounters with death, people are seeing a version of their own mother - a refraction of the sacred imagery experienced at the moment of birth.
Playing the babe
Many believe that, once you’ve seen a bean-nighe, it’s already too late. Your number is up, so to speak, and there is nothing you can do about it. But I am not so certain.
I came across one man on the Isle of Mull who claims to have encountered a bean-nighe in his youth. She was kneeling by a still pond and washing his clothes, when the boy noticed her strange breasts. They were so long that she had to repeatedly toss them back over her shoulders to keep them from getting in her way. He snuck up on the spirit, grabbed her breast, and began nursing! He claims that the bean-nighe mistook him for the baby she had lost in life in her last moments and so she spared him.
It is also said that a bean-nighe may not herald the death of the actual witness. I once met a quiet woman on the island of Iona. Something in her past had left her looking older than was natural. The villagers told me that she had encountered an evil spirit. I helped her with her chores for two weeks, performing much tedious manual labour, before she finally opened up. She spoke of a time in her youth when she spied an old woman washing a mound of clothing by the river. Later that evening, people in her village began getting sick. Within a week, most had succumbed to the disease.
The contracts of faeries
A bean-nighe is bound to her dark duty. It is a slave. Though you should certainly fear it, it is as much a victim as much as those it washes clothes for. They take no pleasure in their work. They must perform their prophetic task until they reach the day they would have died had they not experienced sudden death in childbirth.
Though their tragic birth story enslaves them, it begets a powerful gift. As faeries who live beyond the mortal plane, they are granted true sight. Many such faeries do not share this gift but the bean-nighes trauma grounds them in our world. They crave nothing more than to become the nurturing mother they should have been. Should you have the boldness to nurse at the breast of a bean-nighe, she will reward you with the true answer to one question.
I wait anxiously for the day that a true hero asks them a selfless question: Dear mother, how do I set you free?
Written by Giles Ravensong.