Dolores Stewart Riccio

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Spirit

You Druids live in the deep forests with sequestered groves and claim that you alone understand the secrets of the gods and celestial powers. You teach that a dead man’s soul does not descend to the silent land of Erebus and the sunless realm of Dis but becomes reincarnate elsewhere; if you are right, death is merely a point in the midst of perpetual life.

-from Pharsalia, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus-







ONE

I was born in 1918 on the Isle of Man where my mother’s people, the Murrays, had a dairy farm near the town of Maughold. My father, Peter Barrasford, a pilot with the Royal Naval Air Service, had been reported missing a week before my mother Margaret was brought to bed, his Sopworth Camel shot down over the channel in a fiery battle with attacking German Gothas.

Six weeks after my birth, my mother fell or jumped off Bradda Head and drowned in Port Erin Bay. As a child, I was sorry not to have at least a gravestone for a mother, but later, when I realized that she’d meant to join my father, I was glad her body was never found. In the unfathomed currents of the ocean’s floor, perhaps her white bones and his joined together at last in some niche of black weeds. Rather than fearing the sea surrounding our island, I had a great yearning love of it.. In bed at night, with my cat Delilah curled on my feet, I would drift off to sleep imagining myself in the arms of my mother, the water.

I was named Brigit after the saint who replaced the old Celtic fire goddess, also named Brigit. My grandmother Murray cared for me until I was four, when she died. The cobwebby memory I have of her is all gentle sweetness. Then I was taken in by my mother’s older sister, my fierce, red-haired Aunt Rue Murray Moore. A militant Methodist, she counted me with her other charities, clicking each one off like a row in the iron-colored knitting she worked by lamplight after the last chores of evening. Aunt Rue couldn’t forgive my father for wooing my gentle mother to his Catholicism so they could be married in his church, and the name of Barrasford was never spoken in her house. Nor would she permit me to use my father’s name.

“Brigit Murray you’ll be as long as you sit at my table, Miss,” she said, thumping down plates of mutton stew for Uncle Will and her three rough sons, Tom, Nate, and Will, Jr. After they were fed, she’d dish up my food and hers, sitting down heavily at the long wooden table. “Never let it be said that I complained of the many burdens the Lord has sent me. And neither shall you complain, Miss. Eat up, now…you’re as scrawny as a barn cat.”

Willie, the youngest, had been born simple-minded, and it seemed as if my aunt used up all of her small store of tenderness on this big, slow boy who could not learn to read or do sums. But Willie had a good hand with the animals and an affectionate nature. Of my three foster-brothers, Willie was the one I loved and trusted.

Sometimes Aunt Rue called me “changling” because I was small, thin, dark, and willful—different from the strong, red-haired Murrays and from the Moores with their broad Manxman faces—different, too, from the tall, regal, pale-eyed Barrasfords, my Uncle Will Moore told me. Uncle Will was a thickset man with a luxuriant mustache and warm, merry eyes under heavy brows. Often when I helped him with the milking, my uncle would weave kind stories about my father. His first meeting with my mother was a favorite romantic tale.

“Even in his uniform, you could tell Lieutenant Barrasford was gentry,” my uncle said. “And his hands, you know. White as milk and soft as wool. Never did a day’s labor, those hands. But a regular man, for all that, with a decent word and a friendly nod for any man at the pub. A smile he had that would charm the birds out of the blackberry bushes. Oh, that first time he saw your mother walking in the fields—what a cloud of auburn hair down her back—small she was, like you, but she walked like queen of the fairies! and those eyes of hers, green as the glen—he was taken as bad as any man ever. Fever and chills, chills and fever. If ever love starts from first look, that was your Mum and Dad.”

With not a word about my parents allowed in the house, I was thirsty for every tale Uncle Will would tell, no matter how many times he told it. As he well knew, sweet man that he was. From the first, I followed him everywhere on the farm and over the fields, like a bothersome puppy. When he shooed me away, I went off by myself, preferring to be alone than to wither under my aunt’s chilly gaze.

Sometimes I went to my room, a snug place under a sloping ceiling that looked out from the two-story thatched farmhouse onto the apple orchard. I was allowed to keep a faded photograph of my parents on the small bureau that had been my mother’s. When the lamps were out at night, that bureau whispered to me, words of comfort and love. Shhhhh. Shhhhh. Shhhhh, little Brigit. Sleep now in loving arms. Someday you’ll fly far away, away, away.

And sometimes I went to my secret woodland places. I had a favorite nest where I used to daydream and sometimes nap. The ground was soft with last year’s leaves under low sheltering branches, and the rich moist smell of the earth lulled my senses. When I lay there, perfectly still, especially if my forehead rested on the crook of my arm, often I could feel something of myself go out into a woodland creature that happened to scamper past or a bird that flew by. I seemed able to separate from my own body and move into some other dimension.

At times, this was a useful escape. When my aunt was scolding me, I could free some part of myself from the scene so that, although her words would wash over me like a splash of dirty water, I couldn’t hear her insults and threats.

Only Willie with his guileless ways could bring a few moments of peace between Aunt Rue and me. He wanted so much to be like his brothers, I spent many evenings teaching this slow, silent son how to print the letters that spelled his name, although most times he’d leave off the last L in WILL. When Aunt Rue saw him so proud of himself, holding up the slate to show Tom and Nate, she touched my shoulder with the lightest tap of approval.

“You have your mother’s heart at least,” she said. “I’d never have patience myself to repeat things a hundred times. Maybe he can learn his last name as well. A proper man he’ll be then, to sign for himself.”

I lived on the Isle only until I was twelve but, during those years, learned much that was to stay by me and strengthen me later. Living with Aunt Rue, I learned to keep my own counsel and to resist oppression in quiet ways. From Uncle Will, I learned what goodness is, how kind and patient with young things, how strong in defense of the weak.

From the Manxmen—especially the dairymen and farmers—I learned about the Little People who were everywhere in the countryside about us, darting unseen like glimmers of thought that escape before we can give them words. I also learned the Manx dialect, as my Aunt Rue never did, and could converse in it with Uncle Will, if I could bear the wicked pinch I got later from my aunt.

From the great Celtic ruins—forts, towers, round houses, and tombs that are everywhere on the Isle of Man—I learned that there were other, more primitive gods who’d existed for aeons before the struggle between Aunt Rue’s grim immovable Methodist Jehovah and my father’s irresistibly forgiving Catholic Jesus. Ageless and nameless as their standing stones, those Druid gods (and gods perhaps of tribes even more ancient than the Celts) held another kind of power, waiting to be drawn and wielded, like Arthur’s sword, from the rock itself.

Feeling at home with the old ones of the earth and being alone so much of the time, I soon had my own spirit companions, whom I called “The Friends.” My invisible playmates were as mischievous and unpredictable as the Little People. They would snatch off a coverlet or teeter a china cup and saucer off the table edge as quick as a wink. Then they would retreat into silence, while I was blamed and punished for having the devil in me.

My spirit confidants didn’t look like the flesh-and-blood children who teased me at school. Most of the time, I felt rather than saw the presence of these invisible comrades. But occasionally I glimpsed a hovering brightness in the air nearby, a tantalizing outline of face and form.

On one occasion, I asked Aunt Rue, “Do you see those Friends of mine looking in the window over the sink, Aunt?”

“Are you cracked in the head, Miss? Or is that some fancy lie about the Little People? There’s nothing out there but the garden, and plenty of work to be done.” She slapped me soundly for lying and sent me out to fill a basket with green beans.

Even kind Uncle Will warned me, “Better not give free rein to that imagination of yours, little girl, lest it gallop away with you.”

At school, of course, the other children laughed when I mentioned the Friends and teased me. So I learned painfully there were some things I saw that others did not.

When the Friends spoke, I heard their voices distinctly, yet realized these sounds were within my mind, that no one else could hear them. I began to discern differing personalities that came and went. I didn’t know if I named them or they named themselves: Althea the fair and Ariadne the dark—and the most constant and the dearest of the Friends, who was called Michael.

My first encounter with Michael by himself was at a Celtic tomb not far from the neolithic ruin Cash tal yn Ard. The cairn was nearly hidden in a thick overgrowth of heather, but the stone had been moved from the entrance, no doubt by some rain-soaked herdsman seeking a bit of shelter. The air inside seemed sweet enough. A low, narrow passageway led to a round inner chamber. Once inside, the ceiling was more than six feet high. It would make a good hideaway, I thought, where the rough, teasing Moore boys would never find me or loot the simple treasures I had collected.

The next time I came, I brought a candle. It burned with a steady flame—there must have been some inlet of air in that round chamber. I knew I was exploring farther than that unknown herdsman had probably dared, for the dust was thick and undisturbed. The few loose bones that I touched with my bare feet didn’t frighten me. They were smooth, cool, and gave off no impression at all.

Then, by the light of the candle, I made out an inscription on one of the wall blocks. The letters were different than the Ogham markings on most of the Isle’s monuments; something about this inscription drew me to it, arousing a particular curiosity. It was somehow familiar, like looking at foreign phrases written by a hand one recognized. I couldn’t translate the words, but I put out my hand to touch the face of the carving. Often, impressions would come to me through my hands, and as soon as I touched this block I knew there was something strong and alive behind it. But my small hands couldn’t have budged the block—even if I hadn’t been fearful that it was somehow a key stone of the cairn, which, if taken out, might cause the whole to fall and bury me.

“Come away,” said Michael in my ear, the first time I heard his voice speaking aloud. “And I will come with you. You may use the cairn as you wish, but this marker must remain in place.”

“It’s too heavy for me, anyway,” I said.

“Good. Come away, then, and I’ll show you a prettier secret.”

I scampered back through the passage to the entrance. The candle blew out, but I followed the clean, clear brightness in the air that was Michael’s presence. Out he went into the sunshine, still discernible, the way waves of heat shimmer over paved roads in summer. He came to rest at the root of a great, scarred oak tree not far from the cairn.

“Dig under here,” he said. “Use this broken rock--it makes a good spade.”

“You’re teasing me.” I was almost crying after several minutes of digging yielded no secret at all. And just then my broken-rock spade hit stone with a thwack.
I jiggled the stone out, not without considerable effort, with Michael’s presence nearby quietly encouraging me. There in the earth were some rotted shreds that fell to dust as soon as I touched them. In the middle of that lay a metal circlet, black and ugly.
“But this isn’t pretty at all,” I complained, turning it over and over in my dirt-encrusted palm.

“We shall see what we shall see,” sang Michael airily. “Polish it pretty, and pretty she’ll be.”
That night I sneaked down to the pantry and applied some of my aunt’s metal polish to the disappointing treasure. A glint of metal appeared, but it took many more stealthy trips to the pantry and a lot of what Aunt Rue called “elbow grease” before the gold came forth. The ornament seemed to be made of twisted gold wires formed into ropes which were then braided together. Open on one side to slip around the neck, the ends were bulbous and carved, with a blue stone set in one and a coin in the other.

I knew better than to wear the circlet. Aunt Rue’s penalty for thieving was very harsh indeed. Instead, I took the neckpiece back to the cairn, wrapped in an old wool rag and stuffed into one of Aunt Rue’s biscuit tins. I found a loose stone just inside the entrance, pried it up, and hid the biscuit tin underneath.

I heard Michael laugh. “So it’s back to turn black for a few hundred years,” he said.

I was glad to find him again. I explained about Aunt Rue and showed him how I could make a chain of primroses to put around my neck in place of the gold neckpiece. Then he showed me where to find a white quartz rock with a tiny lizard fossil imbedded in it, which I put in my pocket. I had a collection of quartz, as many other of the Manx folk did, who used the white stones for charms. “Superstitious nonsense,” Aunt Rue said it was, but Uncle Will said you could find them buried beneath the altar of every keeill on the Isle and in the burial monuments that went back to ancient times.

I told no one, not even Uncle Will about my visits to the cairn. I went back to it whenever I could, and always Michael was there to listen to my chattering, to show me wonderful—or terrible—new things, and to give me heart for the future, as an older brother might. A real brother, not those crude, noisy fellows at home.

Of all my unseen friends, it was Michael who would catch the scent of death and whisper of it in my ear. One afternoon, as I sat on a stone wall with several schoolmates in a place where we rested on the long walk home, I told little Iris O’Malley she’d better run fast to her mother, that some men were bringing her father all broken in a cart and the life was going out of him within a half hour. It proved true that there had been an accident in the copper mine that afternoon. Following this incident, the O’Malleys would spit and make the sign of the cross whenever they caught sight of me.

“Michael said it,” I screamed to Aunt Rue when she beat me afterwards. But that only made her ply the cane harder. She might never have quit until my backside was raw if Uncle Will hadn’t caught her wrist in a strong grip.

Later that night, when Aunt Rue sent me to the cellar for a jar of relish, I found Delilah dead in the cold room, her poor tailless form contorted and stiffened in some final spasm of pain. And I cried even harder than I had under the cane. Then, as I sat there sniffling, I saw something strange--a smoke-like substance spiraling up from my lovely cat’s body. As I watched, amazed and quiet at last, the substance rose higher into the cellar and began to curl into a new shape. Before I could make out what that would be, my foster-brother Nate came thundering into the cellar to see what had become of me, and I had to go back upstairs.

“Those with the Second Sight are an affront to the Lord,” said Aunt Rue, “and the Lord will wring their hearts with piteous scenes until they wish they were blinder.”

Wordlessly, I put out my hands and took hold of my aunt by her apron. I wanted to tell her that Delilah wasn’t dead after all, only changed into a new form. One by one, she pried my fingers loose from the starched fabric, as if taking burrs off her clothing, turned, and went back to the simmering stew pot.

Not long after that, when cousins of Uncle Will’s were traveling to America, I was sent with them across the sea to live with my mother’s and Aunt Rue’s older brother Daniel Murray and his wife Kay. Despite the excitement of the trip, I was sad and listless.

When I’d said good-bye to Michael sorrowfully, sitting in the heather on top of the cairn, he’d reminded me of the neckpiece and urged me to take it with me to America to remember him by. But I was afraid. Aunt Rue would certainly check through all my luggage to see that it was properly packed.

“I will come back for it when I am grown, my dear brother,” I told Michael. “Will you be here?”

“Always,” said Michael.

I menstruated for the first time on shipboard and was horrified, having been told nothing of this by Aunt Rue. Gentle Cousin Lily did her best to assure me that I was not bleeding to death, that I was becoming a woman at last. When she took my hand in hers, I could feel a tiny second pulse somewhere in her body. Dreamily, I told her I could feel her unborn daughter’s heart beating. The little one would have a mark on her back, I said, just like the clover-leaf mole on Cousin Lily’s own back. But I had never seen my cousin’s back except in my mind’s eye. She drew back from me in dismay, putting her hands protectively over her still-flat stomach.

Later, I could see that she had spoken of this to her husband Joe. Although still acting as my guardians on the trip, they kept a cool distance between themselves and me after that. Worst of all was the certainty that every featureless mile of ocean we traversed was taking me farther and farther away from Michael.

Uncle Dan was a builder and a politician who not only had survived but had thrived through the darkest year of the Depression. Government building projects in the offing somehow were steered in his direction. My American uncle and his wife were kind people, childless and well-to-do, with a fine brick house in the city of Boston, Massachusetts. I felt lonely in a new way, “spiritless” in the true sense of the word. The fine house was stuck between others like it, with no woods, no hills, and no ocean nearby.

I was taken to Jamaica Pond and Franklin Park, of course, which were poor things indeed to my eyes compared to the wild green island I had left. And in the summer, sometimes we would go to Nantasket Beach for the day, where waves came to the shore diffidently, instead of crashing on great rocks as I remembered. But the public school where I was enrolled at last by my true name, Brigit Barrasford, was a great joy of discovery that began to take the place of those childhood pleasures.

I made real friends at school, although not many, and talked no more with the spirits. But I still saw, as I always had, a kind of nimbus of light around every person--and, indeed, every living thing. Although it was difficult, I had come to accept that no one else saw these wavering outlines, so I never talked about them to others. To myself, I called these envelopes of light “auroras,” until later I learned they were called “auras.” The flare of an aura told me about a person’s changing moods and state of health.

As I grew older, I was invited to join the dinner parties that took place constantly in Uncle Dan’s home, and many of the political gentlemen who came there were attentive to me in a new way--all under the watchful eyes of Aunt Kay, of course. Often, I was asked to recite something after dinner, as other young ladies might be asked to sing or play the piano.

“You have an actress’s voice, Brigit,” Aunt Kay would say as she struggled to pin up my resistant black hair into a sophisticated knot at the nape of my neck. “And those expressive green eyes! But, of course, the stage is no place for a well-bred young lady. Now, just look at this! Everything about you is wild, even your hair. And where are your shoes, Brigit? Will you never keep shoes on your feet? Oh, what will I do with you?” But she would hug me, and I would try even harder to please her.

Then, in the year I graduated from high school, a curious thing happened. My spirits returned to me, not as playful companions, but in a way that frightened us all.

Reprinted from SPIRIT, a romance of past and present lives, AmErica House (Publish America, Inc., www.publishamerica.com ), © 2001

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