Every family has a ghost story

My day starts when all your days end. Mortician’s Slogun

If you live long enough, you’ll learn rigor mortis starts while you’re still alive.

Sunday. “This is Eam, Langley. I’m afraid I have more unpleasant news for you. Perhaps I should come over and . . .”

            “What can you say that might disturb me more? Really—so far you’ve told me my mother’s dead, though there’s precious little proof. You speculate she’s committed suicide, then maybe not. I have both Brentain and O’Hennessy clans converging here today. I know Grandee and Grand Sebastian, Martin, Geneva, and Grandad are okay because I just talked to Uncle Martin. Although, that conversation was plenty disturbing. Trust me. I have to meet Grandee for afternoon tea tomorrow—with pinkies up. And despite Uncle Martin’s pronouncement, that’s not mother’s body. So what’s your disturbing news? Spit it out Eam.”

Eam gripped the phone receiver and massaged the back of his neck. “Your mother’s dog has disappeared. He was locked up in the kennel with the other dogs. The alarm never went off. The cameras were disabled. Terroir is the only dog missing. My mother phoned me as soon as she realized he was gone. I’m really sorry. Her staff’s combing the area. We also have two black and whites looking for him in the surrounding hills—and volunteers from ASPCA. Unfortunately, the Middleburg area is mostly open country. We’re doing everything possible. And, well—I wish that was the only bad news.”

            “It’s all right, Eam. Mother trained Terroir well, extremely well. He probably decided to have a walk about. Damn, what if he’s located her? How are we going to track a dog cleverer than both of us? What other news do you need to spill?”

            “Ah, it seems that—it appears . . . ” Eam paused and rolled his eyes skyward. “There was a break in at the funeral home—your mother’s body was removed early Sunday. That in itself was highly irregular, and we’re investigating. Her—that is the body hadn’t been officially released. The medical examiner was still conducting tests. Most of the lab work is missing as well. Evidence critical to proving the identity of—the body. If it hadn’t been moved from the morgue to the funeral home, the theft would surely not have occurred. There was an unfortunate mix up with the paperwork. I’m sorry. We’re highly embarrassed. You have my personal apology. This means, Langley, that unless we find that body—quickly—you may never know—your family might never get the closure.”

Eam’s words raced on, like a downhill racer on newly waxed skis. “We have every available officer searching. There’s not much to go on. No one saw anything suspicious, but I don’t have all the details yet. I’ve been in contact with your great grandmother. Wow, formidable doesn’t begin to describe her.”

“Hah! Didn’t I warn you.  Actually, I’m not that surprised Eam—or worried. I’ve been telling you it’s not mother. I suspect Grandee had something to do with moving the body to the funeral home. Then again, perhaps not, she and Grand Sebastian were in route from England. I don’t know exactly what time they arrived in the states. You’ll have to ask Uncle Martin.  This seems like something mother would do to muke up the investigation. When do they think the body was stolen?”

“The security company reported the alarm went off a little after 4 am Sunday morning. A car was sent to investigate. No windows were broken. All the doors were secure. They decided it was a false alarm. Langley, I have to ask: where were you last night—after I dropped you off? Did you leave your apartment?”

“Oh, that’s rich. Okay, I’ll play. I was home—alone. I did phone Viv and Gov and we talked for over an hour. She wanted to come over but I talked her out of it. I wanted to be alone. So which crime do you suspect me of—stealing Terroir or a body that isn’t my mother’s from the funeral home? By the way, I had an excellent security system installed at my condo. I’m happy to ask our security officer to send over the tapes.”

“Apologies. Langley, I’m not supposed to release this information to anyone yet. The only reason I’m telling you is I believe you’ll find out anyway. There’s a small chance a blood toxicity report wasn’t stolen. Preliminary findings by the medical examiner suggested your mother was—that is, that the body in the garage contained potentially lethal doses of Aconitum Napellus, a muscle relaxer, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. That could indicate . . . ”

“Monkshood, also known as Wolfsbane; I know what it is. Mother grows it. So do the Lorries, and about half the population of Virginia. I can’t remember whether it’s the flower or the root that’s deadly though. You might find some of it dried in bunches on mother’s back porch. You know, it makes sense. I don’t know what kind of trouble mother’s in, but I bet you, bottlecaps to beignets—mother broke Terroir out, then became a body snatcher. Whoever it was who was killed in her garage, hmmm—she could have been responsible. I suppose mother’s capable of murder. Aren’t we all though, given the right circumstances? Mother liked to make people absolutely helpless. I know the feeling.” Langley fumbled with the phone while she grabbed a pen and scrap of paper and made a few notes.

“Think about it—no body, no proof. Damn. When I find her, oh I don’t know what I’ll do, but it won’t be rated PG 13—or legal. But why would she leave her things behind? Maybe she DIDN’T leave everything behind. Eam, we gotta go back to the house. Viv and I are probably the only ones who know what mother considered valuable—too valuable to leave behind. Why didn’t I think of that before? If any of those things are missing, there’s our proof.”

“I’ll think about it—maybe. Right now, Theo and I have to get ready to interview other potential witnesses and the staff at your mother’s firm this week.”

“Firm—sperm. We both seem to be stuck in the land of maybe. The office was mother’s playground. She didn’t take work seriously, and I don’t think many people took her seriously, except for her boss Tallin. He’s cool. She didn’t even keep the money she made. Meanwhile, you have to eat and I bet you want to interview Viv and Gov. I’m inviting you to brunch at their place at 1pm today. Swing by and pick me up. After, you can follow Viv and I over to mother’s. That gives me a perfect excuse. I was supposed to make an appearance at Grandee’s hotel later today. Now I have a legitimate reason why I can’t. See you in a few hours.”

*** ### *** ### ***

Finn paused his reading of Dea’s journal. He didn’t know what to think. Dea had succeeded in fasting for three days and underwent some weird initiation in her mother’s workroom. Though both the housekeeper and Grandee had gone through her medicine cabinet and purse—even searched her underwear drawer, no evidence was found that indicated she was menstruating. Dea was duly shipped back to school in England and managed to excel in her studies—she took an arduous test that allowed her, at age 13, to skip an entire grade and enter the equivalent of American high school. But she wasn’t given a ticket to come home to Nelline County for summer break. Instead she went with her new best friend, Vivian, to her home in New Orleans. Dea wrote few details of her trip or experiences in the Big Easy. It wasn’t until she was summoned home during the 1972 autumn break that her diary contained new, incredible details.

There were also several pages he read with interest in which Dea’s mother shared with her worldwide death customs and traditions, theories of life after death, and the ghosts and spirits that haunted people and places.  There was a place in Ireland where a mighty celtic warrior was interred. A year after his death, 365 herbs sprang up around his gravesite, each serving a special purpose—each able to cure a single illness. Her mother Aubra had been taken there by her father and taught how to identify these herbs. She told Dea death rituals were ways to deal with the helplessness of loss.  The more conventional the rituals—the easier it was to endure the loss. Ordering flowers, donning black clothing, preparing a post funeral meal, giving a eulogy—all these are rituals people do to get through the shock and indignity, the random ugliness of death. It wasn’t a good time for the living to do improvisations; people were expected to act grieved and distraught.

Aubra told her daughter she belonged to no one—not to her, the Brentains, or the O’Hennessy’s, not to Nelline County, not even to America. She belonged only to the cosmos and it to her. Dea resisted these ideas at first, until she realized her mother had destroyed her wall of illusion, made her give birth to—herself, a being humble and terribly powerful, and still a child. Aubra also warned her self-awareness makes a person dangerous.

Long ago, death’s presence was a familiar thing. Bodies were buried with flowers and food, clothed in what they had worn in life, with ornamental necklaces made from deer teeth, bits of shell, and crude tools. They returned the dead to a fetal position, facing the easterly rising sun, and painted the body with red earth, reminiscent of our color at birth. Sometimes, the skull and brain were removed to allow it to travel with our nomadic ancestors. Around 3000 BCE, massive, thick walled tombs and deep mass graves covered with boulder sized rocks, began to be used to house the dead—to keep them anchored, to prevent the jealous dead from attacking the living.

At age 7, Dea was reading books about death, about the quick disposal of a body via cremation employed by ancient Greeks and Romans—but not Christians. Cremation flames freed the soul. The application of chemicals, embalming techniques, and restorative arts traces back to the Egyptians; mummification was practiced until Christians forbade the practice. The Chinese denied death via face saving thoughts of immortality. They burned paper money, and children were sold as slaves to provide a good funeral for an elder family member. They set off firecrackers to ward off bad spirits.  Some Indian tribes shot arrows skyward to chase evil spirits. In America, they still do something similar via the last gun salute.

Aubra shared information about Irish wakes; she called it a civilized way to mourn and then get on with life. There was a three-day vigil held at home, not in some impersonal funeral mill. Salt was placed around the bed or coffin to purify, and keep bad spirits away. Candles and flowers masked reeking odors. In lilting voices, they gathered close, told stories about the departed, shared a smoke, and passed the jug. Keeners were chosen to sing and wail. The keening was both a release for the living, and a warning to lurking spirits. The procession to the cemetery often followed an indirect route—to fool the fairies and other dead.

Among the Dakota and several Plains Indian tribes, women gashed their legs and arms until blood flowed when someone of their tribe dies. The men darkened their faces with ash or charcoal and the tribe wailed in unison. When tribes were still free to roam the country, the dead were placed atop wooden scaffolding, dressed in their best clothes. Their faces were painted red, the color of life. Some tribes believed the dead departed through smoke holes in the hearth. Other cultures open a window, remove a tile in a roof, or turn mirrors to the wall to prevent a soul from being trapped. It can be difficult to gaze on a soulless body. The eyes stare, the mouth gapes open. Perhaps that’s why they sewed the eyes and mouths shut. Nose and ears were plugged with wax. She reminded her daughter it was healthy to speak about our mortality and envision our death. Dea recalled the analogy Aubra made regarding how knowledge accumulates and is filtered like oysters that process the grit needed to make pearls. We seldom know just what speck of grit transforms an irritant into a treasure.

He flipped through other notebooks containing long narratives, sketches, ticket stubs and souvenirs of her teenage years. Why hadn’t she shared any of this with him? He knew so little about her family. Together, they could have . . .  He put a marker in the current notebook and made a strong cup of coffee. He wasn’t a stranger to the esoteric and surreal. His mother had dabbled in fortune telling with her friends, reading tea leaves and analyzing card spreads. She had an uncanny ability to predict weather patterns weeks in advance and had the greenest of thumbs. His dad had been a respected dowser who knew the location of nearly every cairn and megalith in the British Isles.

His wife, Meredyth, and father-in-law, William Wynn-Lennox each had uncanny skills. Meredyth, in addition to being manipulative in getting her own way, seemed to be able to move certain objects as well, sending them spinning, bouncing, and leaping into the air when she was upset. He couldn’t be certain—he was typically somewhat drunk when he saw her do these things. Did she simply make clever use of her breath? His wife also had a green thumb and more than a cursory knowledge of herbs that healed—and plants that were quite poisonous.

            His father in law’s mental skills often made Finn wonder if the man had a photographic memory. He said he didn’t. William Wynn-Lennox never forgot a date, a number or a fact, and could recite poetry, entire scenes from movies and plays, and long articles in technical journals word for word. He could also be manipulative, like his daughter, however, it was more an art form with him, an ability to persuade others about an idea he wanted implemented. He could convince people it was their idea all along. He had a curious habit of burning twigs in a small brazier he kept on a table on his office balcony. He’d study the direction and shapes of the smoke, then he’d snuff out the fire and let everyone know he’d made a decision.

As far as Finn knew, he possessed no special abilities—simply a sharp business sense, a body that so far was wearing well, and an abiding passion for one unobtainable woman. The impact of her death had unsettled his core. However, he would honor her wishes and continue reading until the task Dea had asked of him was complete. He decided to stretch his legs, make a few discrete phone calls, and purchase some basic necessities. He should be able to find what he needed at the terminal, where he could also grab breakfast.

*** ### *** ### ***

Outside London, England, Saturday pm.

“Yes Marsha. What is it? Are you and Finn working yet another weekend? Remind my husband we’re expected at the Bentley’s at 8 pm.”

“That’s why I’m calling you Mrs. Northfield. I’ve been asked to convey Mr. Northfield’s deepest regrets personally. He’s been called away on urgent business. He asked me to tell you he would explain the specific’s when he sees you—in a few days from now.”

“In a soddy pig’s eye in a few days. I’ve just arrived home. I demand you tell me this instant where my husband is. And don’t say you don’t know. You make all his bloody arrangements. What audacity—telling a snit of a secretary to make excuses. Where is he?”

Marsha glanced longingly through the glass at the table where her 2nd pint sat half finished. She had retreated to an old-fashioned enclosed phone booth in the pub to make the difficult call. The temperature was growing warmer by the second in these close quarters. She hadn’t really expected Meredyth to be civil. It was a dirty devil’s bargain her boss made when he became Managing Director of Wynn-Lennox in exchange for marrying the ice princess and consummate bitch hellion Meredyth, daughter of the company’s owner, William Wynn Lennox.  Much to Finn’s credit, he rolled up both his sleeves and turned the small, undistinguished company into the respected, diversified giant it was today.

The pint glass was not within Marsha’s reach and Meredyth wanted answers, The sooner she ended the conversation, the sooner she could resume her late lunch of pickles, a British savory spread that she’d acquired quite a passion for, brown bread, pate, and ripe Stilton cheese. She rummaged inside her purse for her stiff tube map, which she often used as a fan.

“Mrs. Northfield, I do empathize. His—emergency came up very suddenly Friday. There wasn’t time for me to make any travel arrangements. He will assuredly be contacting you just as soon . . . ”

“No, let me assure you Marsha. My father still owns Wynn Lennox and I sit on the Board of Directors. My husband doesn’t make significant business decisions without telling me. If you value your job, you’ll use whatever resources necessary to locate my husband. Contact every sodding manager in every factory outpost—don’t stop until you’ve found him, and then report back to me immediately. I don’t bloody care if it takes you all weekend. Otherwise, don’t bother to report to work Monday. Are we clear?”

“Sparkling crystal. I’ll attend to the matter immediately. Goodbye Mrs. Northfield.”

The receiver made a zinging sound as Marsha banged it back in place and sighed, which made her thick, dark bangs flutter upward. It was just as Finn had told her. His wife was furious and unreasonably demanding. However, Marsha took instructions from no one except Griffin Garner Northfield. She was his confidential assistant, and even if her lack of action resulted in her being sacked, she knew Finn would take care of her. It wasn’t bloody likely she’d ever work for his wife. Besides, Finn had told her to take Monday off and await further instructions. That was exactly what she intended to do.

She tipped the warming pint to her lips and hoped Finn, wherever he might be, was enjoying a break from his shrew of a wife. Marsha’s English husband was home doing a bit of early gardening. She’d picked up a bottle or two of red plonk, a nice mahogany glazed rotisserie chicken, fresh vegetables, and a loaf of brown bread to surprise him with tonight. She’d make him treacle pudding, which he was so fond of—come to think of it, so was she. But first she’d have just one more pint of this delightful brew before heading home.

*** ### *** ### ***

Finn charged back into his hotel room, apprehensive about the safety of Dea’s books. They were there—exactly where he’d left them. He tossed his flat card key on the dresser bureau and laid his purchases out: plastic razors; a package of men’s briefs and another of undershirts; a nubby, long sleeved grey and black pullover; two outrageously expensive pairs of Scottish Highland wool socks; and an assortment of pseudo gourmet products. He’d also grabbed several salmon sandwich wedges and another of pickle and cheddar cheese. He made a fresh pot of coffee and when it was ready, lay back on the bed with the cup balanced on his muscled stomach. The muscles were the result of years of weekly hour long workouts in Wynn Lenox’s executive gym.

After devouring the sandwiches, he opened the next volume. A hint of her scent wafted from its pages. A lump rose in his throat. He swallowed a mouthful of hot coffee. For a moment, he was lost in reverie. The second he and Dea made eye contact in that smoky bar in D.C. was the first time the world made sense to him. It was more than a lightning bolt reaction. He felt—a planetary alignment in the solar system of his being. From a distance, she looked intriguing, sophisticated, sexy. Being in close proximity to her sent a vibration through him that made him want to trust—and possess her.

She tilted her head slightly in his direction, and brushed back long hair, revealing a bare, pale as ivory arm. Without talking his eyes off her, he grabbed his snifter of brandy, excused himself from his colleagues, and walked towards her.

He noted she wore no ring. Impulsively, he gently took her hand and brought it to his lips. A preposterous gesture, one he never in a million years thought himself capable of performing. Entranced by the sheer beauty of the creature that stood before him, he asked simply “Who are you?”

She tilted her head slightly again, as if listening for some internal sound or signal and replied, “Are you asking for my name or are you asking who I am in a universal sense? From your accent and gesture, I’d say you were English. She poked her nose into his snifter and took the glass from him. Allow me to order a decent drink for you; I know the bartender.” She gestured to the bartender in some shorthand known only to them. Dea swirled the glass when it arrived, cupped her hands round the glass, then passed it to him.

“VSOP and very French. You’ll like this. Slainte‘to your health’ or some approximation.” She clanked her rose tinted glass against his and took a sip of her drink. He asked what she was drinking and she told him it was a Kir, white wine with a dash of Chambord. She added “it’s refreshing, a bit like your English drink Pim’s Cup. Do you like Pim’s? You are English, aren’t you?

“I like this.” Finn leaned over, cupped her heart shaped face in his hand and kissed the sweetest tasting lips he ever encountered. A wave of well being coursed through his lanky frame. He pulled back slightly to observe the curve of her full lips and the slight dimple to the right of her smile. He was mesmerized. The modest lowering of her lashes broke the spell.

“Griffin Northfield, British subject, at your service. But please call me Griff. And what may I offer you, another Kir or perhaps a 74 Glenfiddish? But first, tell me your name.” He took a deep swig of his drink and resisted the impulse to kiss her again.

 “No, I shall call you Finn, after the leader of the Fianna warriors. I was afraid you were going to ask about my name, instead of posing a more philosophical question. Well, Mr. Northfield, Finn that is, your money’s worthless here. I’ll take a rain check on your offer of a drink. Are you staying in town or just passing through?”  She smiled confidently. Only her fingering of a crescent shaped disc on a silver chain round her neck betrayed a slight nervousness. The kiss had been an explosion of lightning bolts and pop rocks, not at all what she expected.

“I’m not sure how long I’ll be in D.C. this time. That’s the truth. Would you think it crazy if I suggested that we get out of here and take a stroll downtown? You could show me your city, and tell me your name.”

There was another dimpled smile as he helped her don a light silvery jacket and matching scarf. “Say no more, though this isn’t really my city. We can take a taxi to Constitution Avenue. Better finish all your brandy; a late night December stroll in Washington can be a chilling experience. I trust you have a sensible topcoat and a woolen muffler. For now, just call me X; I rather like the sound. Names are such a personal thing.”

“I did indeed bring a sensible coat m’lady. I trust you also have outer garments more substantial than the frock you’re wearing?”

She grinned and grabbed Finn’s hand, pulling him over to the coat check closet. Finn retrieved a heavy black and white herringbone coat and black silk scarf. Dea retrieved a nearly full-length mink and ermine coat, complete with a matching felt and fur trimmed hat and soft leather gloves.

They didn’t make it to Constitution Avenue or the Tidal Basin. They walked along a snowy Pennsylvania Avenue and eventually reached M Street and Foggy Bottom, never noticing the sharp wind whipping behind them. During much of their long walk, Dea talked and Finn listened.

            “In the short time we’ve been talking, you’ve given me multiple names and titles. Your surname is Northfield, first name Griffin and familiar name Griff. Your cultural identity is British and you’re a businessman. I assume your surname is the name given you by your parents? Have you also acquired a nickname or any labels?”

            “No nickname or labels to my knowledge, and your surname is?” Finn squeezed Dea’s hand slightly.

            “Not so fast. I guessing your father’s first name wasn’t Griffin, otherwise you’d have a number after your name? The surname Northfield is English, more specifically Anglo-Saxon, and probably a very old name. I bet you’d find it in the Doomsday Book. Your family likely left their original community and settled in a new place. They adapted the name Northfield to indicate where they’d come from—an open pasture or grazing area north of where they settled. Having a surname was actually not a good thing long ago because the Government could identify and tax you and your family via a surname.”


            “Ah, it gets better. Some claim certain names carry a special energy acquired from previous name holders. And a few names and words are ineffable, that is, too sacred or too taboo to ever be uttered or are simply inexpressible. Some ideas strike me that way, like the concept of powerful music, a soul, our existence before or after death, and some emotions, which are difficult if not impossible to explain.”

            “How did you get so smart X? Is this your attempt to explain why you can’t tell me your name …”

            Dea reached up and put a gloved hand to his mouth. “My name is ancient and sacred, but not ineffable. Just listen, and I’ll tell you more intriguing facts about names and words.” Hand in hand, Finn and Dea ambled down nearly deserted streets to the bottom of the stairs made famous in The Exorcist, and into an all night bistro. Dea ordered for both of them and moments later they were sipping big, foamy bowls of cappuccino and bitting into toasted croque monsieur sandwiches, oozing with runny cheese. All the while, they talked about what moved and what aggravated them. From their end of counter space, they marveled at the swirling snow beyond the plate glass window. It was an hour past the time the bistro was permitted to serve alcohol. However, after Dea whispered to the waiter, they received two special teas in delicate bone china cups, aka two warm toddies. “Pinkies up,” Dea laughed.

            Finn’s face wrinkled curiously, “VSOP?”

            Dea whispered in Finn’s ear, “Actually I asked for XO, which is even better. VSOP has to be aged at least 4 years. XO’s are typically aged 6-10 years. It’s a very healthy drink—you know the joke about the kid and the worm?”

            “No, well it’s short. A teacher fills four glasses with water, milk, beer, and brandy, then drops a worm into each glass. The next day the worm in the brandy glass is dead. The teacher asks the students what the lesson is. A bright girl replies, if I drink brandy, I’ll never get worms.”

            “That’s the first terrible thing you’ve said, and I can’t keep calling you X” Finn chuckled, pulled out his wallet, and paid the bill.

            “Fine, my name is Hester, a name I detest. And no, my parents aren’t Puritans. So let’s hear one of your jokes.” Dea waited as he got his bearings upon exiting the bistro.

Finn stopped abruptly, nearly staggering, pointing. “I don’t know how you managed it, but that’s my hotel, across Key Bridge.” The powdery snow had become wetter. It adhered to their coats, making them part of the silvery landscape as they dashed across the river. Except for street lights and square glows from apartment windows, the world was dark and silent. There was an urgency in their steps as Finn led Dea to the lobby of his hotel.

He turned and cupped her chin, then shook his head. “I can call a taxi to take you home.”

“Is that your best idea?”

“Or you could….”

That sleepless night led to a two week whirlwind in which they never left each other’s side. She accompanied him across the country, to San Francisco, then Albuquerque and Santa Fe. That first night remained a light bulb memory. Coats, boots, clothes flew everywhere. They groped each other as if by touching, they could master a new form of body Braille. It wasn’t lust or love he experienced exactly. It was more like a melding of two souls, a sensual absorption of each other’s essence. The world and its obligations receded. They forged a cosmos from their sweat, saliva, and loin juices, while outside, the snow deepened. The first word she uttered when they awoke was remarkable. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw tears rolling down the side of her face. He was sure now those were tears of the pain she knew was to come.

Finn opened a tin of biscuits, which included jaffa cakes, chocolate hobnobs, and shortbread, and resumed reading. This new journal began in October of the following year.

October 27 1972 Friday. Bloody Briganti ceremony will happen next Tuesday unless I manage to get my cherry popped. What wonkers those preppy Brit boys were. Not a single one wanted to risk their posh parent’s ire. My daimons were upset, especially Agathos. I’ve had no free time since I arrived; fed up with all the social obligations Caresse and Grandee insisted I be part of—only tolerable event was Nelline Historical Society Autumn Auction. Overheard Mrs. Donovan talking about a costume party being thrown by her son Cole, who was graduating early from prep school—in December—and would be off to college in the new year.

Bloody periods as well. I’d like to know who snitched at school, who told Grandee I had monthly menses? It was probably the cheeky girls from Cornwall. Viv and I had found a way to sneak off campus on weekends. We volunteered to help the villagers and entertained their kids, then bribed our roommates to sign us back in by 6pm, while we caught the bus and train into London. We hit Soho and filled our shopping bags, loaded up on pastries, oozy cheeses, and tins of pate. We bought mini and midi skirts and dresses, wide belts, and fringed vests, though we had few opportunities to wear our fabulous funky clothes.  

I had the biggest crush on Cole Donovan, Grandee’s next door neighbors. We met a few times when I was a kid’ling. I’d watch him play soccer with his friends and if someone kicked the ball onto Grandee’s property I’d retrieve it, then dart back into the trees. The last time I was here I spied on him playing volleyball. He was bare chested and I whispered to myself that when I was 18 I would make him fall in love with me. He’s the perfect person to relieve desperate me of my virginity. I’ll just need to make him believe I’m 18.

Am I strong enough yet to best Grandee? My abilities have grown. I’ve got the match and candle lighting and the forget a thought trick down perfectly. Caresse is no match for me, though I must use care. She nearly caught me practicing an elements charm. Grand Sebastian’s annoyed at me; I really don’t want to be an ODN exec in training. I understand his world well enough. Will I lose him as my ally if I refuse his request? Father’s world isn’t much different. What I’d like more than anything is to be on my own. I wish thirteen was old enough to be emancipated—forge my own destiny, make my own mistakes.

Perhaps ancient Aonghus can help if I knew how to contact him in the beyond. He allowed himself to be chained and changed—for love. I’ve been scanning a bunch of mom’s books; what a curious collection: Meetings with Remarkable Men (Gurdjieff) looks complicated, as does Waite’s The Holy Kabbalah. I liked Watts This is It. I’ve already read Steppenwolf and Maxwell’s Psycho-Cybernetics. Le Matin des Magiciens (Pauwels and Bergier) is fascinating, though I’m struggling with the French. I put a stack of Ayn Rand books in my luggage. Viv will love them.

October 28 1972 Saturday. This is a fine pickle I’ve gotten myself into. I was shipped off to Grandee’s by Caresse, something about the awful attitude I had towards my little sister Chantel. No, make that ½ sister. What’s all the fuss about—she cries, is barely potty trained; she’s no fun at all. At first I thought, great, I can sneak over to Cole’s party tomorrow night, won’t have to ride my bike. I just have to evade Grandee and the house staff. But I’ve been confined to a fancy bedroom in the east wing because I sassed her back and refused to learn lines I’m supposed to chant at my initiation Tuesday.  She tried to bribe me, to convince me my abilities would double and new skills will manifest. I don’t give a flaming fig. She apparently hasn’t a clue about what I’ve mastered, entirely without her help.

At least I have a suitcase full of mum’s books and the old brown uniform I adapted into my Scarlet Woman Hester Pryne costume for the themed party tomorrow night. The Donovan’s are throwing a Come as a Literary Character party.  I wish I’d grabbed more books, like Colin Wilson’s Man Without a Shadow. I adored The Outsider and his Adrift in Soho, the only book that explains the Beats convincingly.

I hit the jackpot with her collection of Henry Miller books—sizzle reading! The girls in school passed around one of Miller’s contraband trilogy Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus, but I prefer his two Tropic books and rollicking travelogue round the US Air Conditioned Nightmare. I’m just not getting several of the books mum loved On the Road and Tristessa (Kerouac), The Beats (by Krim), or Burroughs Junkie. Why were those books important to mum? What were they all really seeking? The book about the drunken road trip reminds me of too many of spaced out people here—scads too existential for me. I liked Kerouac’s riffs on jazz, and the character Sal Paradise. One challenge remains, fashioning a hat and mask.

October 29 1972 Sunday This may well be the best thing that ever happened or will happen! This is about how I fulfilled my destiny, truly became a woman in the most meaningful sense, and saved a life perhaps. Actually it’s Monday now, 10/30, nearly 3am and I can’t sleep, may never sleep again—or bath. Where to start?

Grandee’s staff brought me meals and wouldn’t tell me what was going on. Her housekeeper delivered the lines Grandee expected me to learn by heart. I tried every spell I knew to unlock the thick oak door. I’ll have to exit by shimmying down the tree I once climbed up to hide from the adults. I fashioned a bonnet from starched doilies I swiped off the dresser and cardboard from a shoebox I painted white using a tube of caulking left under the bathroom sink. There was an old red velvet dress hanging in the closet from which I fashioned a huge, ornate S, and I ripped hard cardboard from the back of a picture of some ancient armored knight slaying a dragon to make a mask. I glued black lace from a petticoat and more of the red velvet to the mask and cut two slits for eyes and pinholes to breathe through.

The tricky part was climbing out the window and down the old oak tree. I had to put the costume in a plastic garment bag and throw it out the window first. Then I spider-woman’ed along alternating branches until I was able to jump to the ground and retrieve the bag. I knew where the outdoor cameras were that triggered the lights, so I hugged the house and garden shrubbery until I reached the woods adjoining our properties. In the chill autumn night, I swapped sweat pants and hoodie for the thin cotton costume and donned the scarlet and black mask. It wasn’t hard to blend in with the students gyrating to rock music in the garden, some imitating the characters their costumes portrayed. A trio of girls dressed in southern belle ballroom attire were rubbing their hands together and passing around a mug that reeked of rum. A high schooler in a pirate costume, complete with eye patch and stuffed parrot perched on his shoulder, was toasting marshmallows over the fire pit.

Several teens wore vampire costumes and someone wearing a Mad Hatter costume from Alice in Wonderland did cartwheels on the lawn. There was no sign of Cole. I had no idea what character he was dressed as. I hoped I wouldn’t have to improvise a damsel in distress, and realized time was growing short. After fifteen minutes of searching, a tall high schooler dressed as a youthful King Henry VIII approached me. He thought I was the lady from Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. He asked for my name. He’d been drinking from a red solo cup filled with beer, and tried to rip off my mask. Instead, his hands knocked my bonnet loose, and my unruly hair spilled out.

I told him he was bonkers. I wasn’t one of Prospero’s guests, and warned if he tried to remove my mask, he might actually find death behind it, his, just like in Poe’s story.  He lumbered off and fell sideways into a cushy lawn chair nearby. A man in a black knight uniform approached him. The guy in the Henry the VIII costume slurred loudly, “Cole, my man, tell her to take off her disguise. That’s gotta be Carrie. Is that you Carrie?”

Cole shook his head and glanced at me. “No, that’s definitely not Carrie Wolster” He approached me and his gloved hand gently fingered my hair. “Who are you?”

As I formulated an answer that might convince him I was his age, someone inside the house screamed. I followed the black knight as he raced into the house. I’d found Cole and didn’t want to lose him. In a downstairs powder room, someone dressed in a white rabbit costume was unconscious on the black and white checkered floor. A squeaky voice behind me said, “Holy shit, Cole, Terry’s od’ed. We have to call the cops and an ambulance.”

I pushed my way through, and bent over the prone form. His skin was clammy, pupils mere pinpoints, shallow breathing. What would Grand Sebastian do? I slapped his face lightly and his eyes flickered. He gave a soft moan. I asked if anyone knew what he’d taken and someone pointed to the bottle of barbiturates on the floor near his body. I told them he needed a charcoal lavage; I’ll hunt for the ingredients, but someone needed to get him up, outside, and walking while I prepared it.

Using charred charcoal from the fire pit, which I finely crushed, a pinch of calcium chloride from supplies in the pool house, and a few other common kitchen ingredients, I created a slurrie, and got about half of it down the white rabbit’s throat. I warned if this worked, he’d soon be puking the bad stuff all over the lawn. It took several minutes for my concoction to work. I told them he’d be fine, but someone should monitor him to ensure he didn’t take anything else. They could give him some crushed ice and then let him sleep it off.

Cole shook my hand, so did other costumed people; I felt like a one armed bandit slot machine. Someone asked how I knew what to do, and I alluded to having relatives in the medical profession. That was mostly true. Cole said if there was anything he could do for me, I had only to ask. I waited a few minutes, then grabbed his arm and pulled him aside. “There is something you could help me with. Can we go somewhere private and talk?”

He grinned, and we headed through the formal garden towards a large shed. “How’s this Hester?” he asked, pointing, and added it was a bold choice for a costume.

“Very clever, you know your Hawthorne. My guess is you’re the Black Knight from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Am I right?”

He grinned again and opened the door of the shed. At 17 ½, Cole Donovan had reached his maximum height of 6 feet but not his optimum weight. He had broad shoulders and brown locks that tumbled onto his forehead, a long neck, and ears that turned pink when he was excited or winded. On a girl, his tousled cut would look messy; on him it looked sexy. His brows galloped across his face and trotted towards his hairline. He had a modest five o’clock shadow, and his beard was thickest dead center of his square chin, giving the appearance of a cleft. He had long legs and a deep chest. I can also report there was a three inch scar on his right thigh, the result of a horse riding accident, and a pattern of freckles at the small of his back that resembled the big dipper. He also had a curious accent, one part mid-Atlantic, one part Irish lilt, and one part deep bass of an old soul.

Inside, he lit a few candles on a worktable containing dozens of empty clay pots and a few bags of potting soil. He told me to watch out for gardening tools, buckets of fertilizer, and sacks of mulch. He steered me to the back of the shed to a daybed, a lumpy, straw filled ottoman, and a small, battered trunk that served as coffee table and footrest. A reproduction poster of a Spanish bullfight hung limply from one wall, next to the iconic poster of Farrah Fawcett in a bathing suit. I sat on the daybed, which was covered with a faded patchwork quilt, and he plopped onto the ottoman. “Welcome to my office. What can I do for you Hester?”

I was still wearing my mask and felt confident with it on. It was surprisingly easy to lie. I told him I was pledging a sorority and to get in, I had to lose my virginity. Behind the mask, my face blushed a fierce shade of red. I stammered, insisting this was a very popular sorority and if I didn’t get in, my family would be terribly disappointed. Then I rambled on about how though I’d read Henry Miller and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it would be dishonest to pretend I’d had sex when I hadn’t. I laid my hand on his leg and reminded him that both Ivanhoe and the Black Knight fell in love with the same woman, but in the end, I thought the Black Knight redeemed himself.

“These are modern times,” I added, “and the notion that having sex causes a feeling of loss is ludicrous. It’s a win win. The hymen isn’t a tiny piece of fruit either. It’s just a flap of tissue. In fact, long ago in Babylon, it was a crime to NOT have sex.” Surely Cole could feel the heat from my hand, the quickening….

He chuckled, then raked his glorious mop of hair with a gloved hand and cleared his throat. “In light of what you’ve admitted, your wearing the bright red letter A seems rather presumptuous,” he said. But because I’d saved his friend, he felt obliged to make the scarlet red letter I wore legitimate. He added even a black knight has an honor code. He removed my mask and kissed me; I lost count of how many times. I murmured my candle lighting spell in reverse, fearful he would see I wasn’t the college bound 18 year old I pretended to be as I removed one of his gloves and pressed my lips to his pulsing wrist. He unbuttoned my thin frock and ran his ungloved hand along my neck and over my well endowed chest.

I yanked off my stiff collar and removed his other glove, then clumsily tried to undo the laces that substituted for a pants zipper. Meanwhile, he’d finished removing my clothes and boots and unfastened my bra. He pulled off his boots and grabbed a light blanket from the foot of the bed to cover us.

There was no pain, just some minor resistance. It was over too soon. The moon shone through the back window as he climaxed. His grey eyes were staring right into mine. He held me and I pulled the blanket up to cover our bare shoulders. We talked for what seemed like hours but was likely only ten or twenty minutes. He joked he’d always wanted to be an astronaut/poet, while his mother hoped he’d be a doctor. Instead, he was off to college in January to learn the intricacies of investment banking. Then he’d join his father’s firm.

He inherited a green thumb from his mother and a love of horses, though he disapproved of one of her favorite sports, fox hunting. We noted a few similarities in our backgrounds: having families that wanted to plan and dictate our futures and Irish grandparents that were born abroad. We both wanted to travel and explore the world. Then he said it was my turn—and it was—oh how it was. I longed to ask him how many other girls he’d pleasured so exquisitely, how many he’d practiced on before me, but sensed it would spoil everything.

He asked what my real name was, but again I sensed that telling him would ruin this enchanting experience. “If we meet again,” I said, “I’ll tell you my name.” I reminded him he had guests and we should get back to the party. I hoped there had been no bed check by Grandee. We talked a bit more while we put our costumes back on. He kissed me again outside the potting shed, then his eyebrows arched. Had he caught a glimpse of how young I was?

He somewhat clumsily blurted out that Hester had a baby, didn’t she and we hadn’t used protection? “No worries,” I assured him. I was on the pill. I put my mask back on and he squeezed my hand and grasped it tightly as we walked from the shed to the back of the house. I made a note to mix a batch of the pennyroyal concoction mum had made me memorize for just such a situation.

When he excused himself to talk to the girls dressed in Southern Belle costumes that were calling his name, I slipped through the garden into the woods, where I changed back into sweats and buried my costume, except for the mask and the red letter A. I got back inside Grandee’s undetected, but my bedroom door was still locked.

I borrowed a set of keys from the butler’s pantry and was nearly caught retrieving supplies I needed for the ceremony the daemons insisted I perform now I was no longer a virgin. I was more adamant than ever; the Brigida’s must be stopped. Mother wasn’t able to prevent her indoctrination, but I had just prevented mine. I also wondered, who in this family could I trust? Was Grand Sebastian part of their society, or has he been trying to stop them too?

October 30 1972 Monday. Grandee was flabbergasted to see me at the breakfast table this morning. I was famished and was working on my second plate of coddled eggs, bacon, and toast. She didn’t lock me up again, just had her butler follow me around all day like a bloodhound on the scent. At dinner, Grandee was so solemn. Only later I realized she’d been saving her energy for the ceremony where she and her crones thought they would bend me to her will.

They came and got me around 10 pm. The ceremony was supposed to happen at the stroke of midnight. They dressed me in a skimpy, lacy frock, more nightgown or slip than dress, and threw a wool shawl over my shoulders. Once we were away from the house, they blindfolded me and loaded me into a sedan. I knew where I was going—to the grove of trees next to the old spring behind Eire Indigo. When we arrived, before they took the blindfold off, I said as much. Grandee wasn’t amused.

She was even less amused when she started to say that tonight I would be bound to the ancient…and I interrupted her. I said unless I wasn’t a virgin anymore and had been already bound to three daimons, who now served me. I’ve never seen Grandee so mad. She was positively livid. “I told you last year I was in no hurry for Uncle Charlie or Auntie Flo to visit, in no hurry for cramps, stained panties, or feeling bloated. But stuff happens, doesn’t it?  I said she seemed too eager for me to experience all that pain and inconvenience. It made me wonder why it was so important. What did being a virgin mean?

Grandee was still at a temporary loss, so I continued. “I realized you haven’t had to worry about periods for a long, long time—nor have any of you other white haired crones. You had the housekeeping staff or someone at school spy on me. Somehow you discovered I’d gotten my menses. Oh, I got so much more. I got an uncontrollable itch I had to scratch, and I did, more than once. See for yourself. Diary, I won’t write about the indignities those crones inflicted. But it was worth it; there was no ceremony that night. I was taken back to Grandee’s and told to pack my stuff.

October 31 1972 Tuesday. I’m back at Eire Indigo for two nights, then I fly back to England. Apparently, I won’t be coming home for end year holidays or spring break in 1973. The daimons were so right. My relationship with Grandee’s ended. I’m of no use to her now nor is she to me. I had that strange dream again where mum was lying like a fairy queen, half floating in a tank in some awful, mad scientist room. There were glowing buttons and switches on a console, and a clear tube ran under the shiny greenish material that encircled her like a cocoon. She looked exactly as I remembered her. She was calling to me, begging me to rescue her. Grandee was there too. I could see her reflection through a window. At least I think it was her. It seemed so much like a real place. Is this a memory from some ceremony Grandee performed?

In reading the books mum left in the bottom of her sewing box, I realize she had discovered incredible connections to our lineage. Mum’s discoveries invalidate the stories Grandee’s been telling about our ancestors. Mum said we’re descended from a woman who was born in Greece, part of Asia Minor, of all places. Wouldn’t Grandee have a fat cow to learn our heritage comes from those magnificent, swarthy Greeks of legend? The legendary woman mum writes about was never sure her first husband loved her. He was famous, some sort of demi-god.

This ancestor lived so long ago—when myths were being lived, not recited. How exciting it must have been to walk among giants, dragons, seers. Did my daimons know her? Mum wrote I must uncover what happened to her. It took mum many years to make the connection between her and us. Somehow my intrepid ancestor got from Greece to Ireland. Perhaps she had a flying carpet or a dragon, or caught a ride on the back of a bear, the totem of the north wind?

Since this ancestor fled Greece, our line has been both cursed and charmed. How can that be? Mum says that’s a mystery I must solve. Did she anger the gods? Was she doomed to have daughters who married men they don’t want and want men they couldn’t have? Is that my future fate? Mum’s stayed married to dad; he’s always loved her. She also hinted at there being someone else. Sometimes she was so sad—acting as if life was something she didn’t want—something forced on her. Maybe if I read all her journals and study the charts she left, I’ll uncover the secret and free myself and future generations.

She did try to tell Grandee about our ancestor, who said there was no truth to it; it was just another silly story. Mum found the first clue in an old, musty book that had belonged to Grandee Deandra’s mother Fiona. As proof of this untruth of a curse, Grandee said mum only needed to look at her own parents. They’d been happily married for decades. Mum thought maybe they weren’t so very happy. Grandee said we took our name in honor of Danna, mother of Brighid and all the Tuatha De Danann and the siabra or fairy folk. It’s confusing. Somewhere in all of this, there are answers.

At least I know now why she always wanted to be called Aubrey, to separate herself. But she named me Dea. Why? Wasn’t that like putting a bulls eye on me? Maybe not. There are so many famous Dea’s in history, if you realize the name’s been adapted. There’s Semiramia, queen and builder of Babylon, whose territory extended across vast swaths of land, including India and parts of Spain. Was she happy? Zenobia is another. She may have murdered at least one of her husbands, but was finally defeated by Aurelian, who led her into Rome draped in golden chains. She lived out the remainder of her life manless.

Livia, who was also called Julia Augusta, was married to mad emperor Nero, and warred with her lovers and her son the Emperor Tiberius. One of my favorites is the formidable Boudicea and her daughters—who tried to drive the Romans from their land. Poor Hypatia, she was some sort of math wiz. Men dragged her from the library at Alexandria, and stoned her to death. A tragic life also belonged to Deidra of the Sorrows. Who would think names ending in A could bring so much wretchedness?

Mum’s notes says it began long before the original Dea made a near fatal mistake. It all began with the Diakosmos. That’s where the answer and deep secrets lie, in the deep and abiding love we have for mother earth. It was unfortunate that Theia invented religion—theology that is. She intended it to guide humankind, instead it’s misdirected and manipulated everyone, especially those not highly evolved. My head’s reeling. I must get some rest; Ta ta keeper of my thoughts.

*** ### *** ### ***

So that was her first infatuation, the one she briefly mentioned during our two weeks together. I never learned her real first name nor her surname either during those two weeks. She played the same game on me. It wasn’t until our chance encounter in the Lake District that… Finn punched the pillow, then the mattress. A guttural sound escaped, rising from deep inside his chest. He stood, stretched, punched the air, removed his clothes, and took a long, hot shower.

Wearing the hotel terry cloth robe, he let the room service attendant in, requesting the trays be left on the long dresser. Again, he overtipped. He’d ordered two hearty breakfast omelets, sides of hash brown potatoes, streaky bacon and blood sausage, a basket of bread, pot of coffee, a bowl of fruit, and another bottle of gin. Very unlike him, in fact the last 24 hours was very unlike him.

He needed to make a few transatlantic calls, as well as several local calls. Dea had warned him to not use the hotel phone. Perhaps he could buy a mobile phone in the airport? Finn wandered over to the window, arms thrust into the deep pockets of his robe, and watched the people in the atrium below act normally. Would his life ever be normal again? He placed the empty trays outside his door and poured the remainder of the gin from the first bottle in a glass and drank until the glass was empty.

Up next, P1, Chapter 7: A Season & A Place I Can Go