A young woman receives a mysterious and unique inheritance.
June 13, 1905
Caitlin O’Mara set the shovel aside and dropped to her knees next to the grave. Tears had streamed down her face throughout the chore, but now that her aunt was buried in the ground, Caitlin gave into her grief. Head down, her figure desolate and slumped, the sobs tore from her throat, wrenching her entire body with their intensity.
“Why?” Between shuddering breaths, Caitlin repeatedly cried out the single question common to all who have suffered the loss of a loved one. “Why, why, why?” It was incomprehensible to her that she should be left alone in this godforsaken place without Aunt Maureen. It made no sense that one minute her aunt had been fine, kneading bread at the kitchen table, singing and engaging in silliness as always; the next minute she had fallen to the kitchen floor in a cloud of spilt flour, dead.
It just made no sense.
Burying her own aunt all by herself had been traumatic and horrifying, but what else could she have done? There was simply no one else around to do it. Aunt Maureen had taught her many lessons over the years, not the least of which was about responsibility. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, “You cannot evade the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today,” her aunt had made it clear that an unsavory task was best not put off.
Certainly burying the dead body of your beloved and only relative was an unsavory task. Just as certainly, it was one best not put off, especially in this early summer heat.
After a bit, Caitlin’s sobs subsided into shuddering sniffles. She reached into her apron pocket for her handkerchief and noticed that her skirts were hopelessly smudged with dirt and grime. If Aunt Maureen were here, she would probably laugh at Caitlin’s disheveled appearance; but then her aunt had found amusement in most situations. Caitlin tried but failed to see the humor; it would take hours to scrub these stains from her hems.
She stood and resolutely wiped her face and blew her nose. There were other responsibilities to tend to. Aunt Maureen had also quoted, “The price of greatness is responsibility,” but even when asked, her aunt refused to tell Caitlin who had originally said that. No matter. Caitlin had learned everything she knew from her aunt and hopefully her countless lessons over the years had been enough to prepare a young single woman for being completely and utterly alone.
As the sun dipped below the treeline visible through the window beside her, Caitlin adjusted the wick in the kerosene lamp. She sighed, surveying the stacks of documents, letters, and receipts on her aunt’s desk. Every nook and cranny of the rolltop had been stuffed with envelopes and papers, and she was only about halfway through with the task of reviewing and organizing. It was very unsettling to riffle through Aunt Maureen’s belongings, but Caitlin felt it was important to at least locate the deed to the property and any outstanding debts. With absolutely no previous experience in handling financial matters, she hoped that perhaps her aunt had left her a letter with instructions or guidance. It would have been like her to do so, but given that Aunt Maureen had passed away so unexpectedly, she might not have had the chance.
Tears pricked the corners of her eyes but she blinked them away. No time for crying again now. She had to find that deed.
Aunt Maureen purchased this property, sixty acres of central Florida woodlands, back in 1874, right after Uncle Wilbur had died. This was, of course, a full ten years before Caitlin had been born, but Aunt Maureen had told her the story many times.
Wilbur had left her a widow at the age of thirty, and a rich widow at that. With so much money at her disposal, she could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, but she chose a remote piece of land in the middle of nowhere. When Caitlin would interrupt to ask why, Aunt Maureen would just smile and say, “It’s the happiest place on earth.”
Caitlin had lived there since she was nine years old, and she had yet to understand what was so happy about it. A half-day’s travel to the nearest town, the property was isolated and lonely, overgrown with palmettos and scrub brush, and populated with insects, snakes, and wild animals. Three small lakes dotted the acreage, providing fresh water for bathing and washing, but life was not easy in such a secluded location. In Caitlin’s opinion, the only source of happiness in this place had been her aunt, and now she was no longer here. The land had meant something special to Aunt Maureen, but the land meant only a future filled with isolation and loneliness to Caitlin.
As soon as she found that deed, she’d sell it.
Caitlin looked up from the papers she was sorting. The cracker-style house was comprised of two rooms, and this one was far from opulent; the bedroom even less so. The floor and walls constructed of wide unvarnished planks, this room served as parlor, library, kitchen, and dining room. The furniture was as spare as the décor, though crude shelves held hundreds of books, her aunt’s only routine indulgence. It was through these books that Caitlin had developed a desperate yearning for a life she’d never known.
She longed for a life in a city filled with lights and music and the rumble of trains and those newfangled motorcars. She longed for modern conveniences that would wring out clothes, pump water in and out of the house, and faultlessly stitch seams in clothing. She longed for neighbors, for gossip, for afternoon tea parties and quilting bees. Most of all, she longed for gentleman callers, from whom she could choose a husband who would be her friend, confidante, and the father of her children. The sooner she found that deed, the better.
She had just emptied the last cubby in the desk when the mantle clock chimed ten. Yawning, Caitlin rolled the top down and reached for the lamp. She’d have to wait for morning to continue her search, because the only other place that deed could be was in the cellar. Dark and damp, the cellar was best explored during daylight hours.
Tomorrow morning would have to be soon enough.
June 14, 1905
Caitlin dragged the crate out onto the front porch and set it down next to the old wooden rocker. Wiping dust and cobwebs from her hair and clothing, she took a deep breath of the early-morning air. In just an hour or so, the sun would burn the haze away and scorch the landscape with shimmering heat. For now, though, the breeze was as soft as this first blush of light.
She’d woken well before dawn, her first thought of the impending search of the cellar. Dressing quickly, she’d put on a pot of coffee and waited for the sky to lighten. As soon as it was possible to navigate through the back yard to the cellar doors, she had ventured out, carrying a small candle which she would light when she reached the bottom of the earthen stairs.
This area of central Florida was one of the few places in the state where having a cellar was even possible. The underground water was, in some locales, so close to the surface that even graves filled up after being dug. On high ground, Aunt Maureen had insisted on having a cellar in which to store her canned vegetables. Caitlin knew from previous visits that there was much more than beans down there. There were crates stacked up near the far end of the underground room, crates that Aunt Maureen had expressly forbidden Caitlin to disturb. Surely the deed was inside one of those crates.
In flickering candlelight, Caitlin inspected the top crate. There were no markings on the top or front to indicate its contents. She pulled the crate down, set it on the dirt floor, and brought the candle closer. On the back of the crate, the side that had been facing the cellar wall, a single word was carefully lettered in charcoal.
That word was “Caitlin.”
“I knew it!” Caitlin looked upward and murmured her thanks to Aunt Maureen. She imagined that the older woman was up there somewhere, smiling in amusement. It was so like her to prepare for any and every eventuality; this crate was probably full of important documents and handwritten instructions. Lifting the crate with both arms, Caitlin carried it up the stairs and set it down in the grass, then returned to blow out the candle.
Her heart pounding, Caitlin read the letter again, certain that she had misread or misunderstood. What was written in the lengthy missive sounded like the ravings of a madwoman, but she had lived in the small house with Aunt Maureen for almost twelve years and had never seen a single sign of dementia. Yes, Maureen O’Mara had been eccentric, perhaps even odd, but never had Caitlin imagined or even considered the possibility that her aunt was insane. Until now.
She had not misread. The letter said what it said.
My dearest Caitlin,
If you are reading this, then I must assume that either a) it is your twenty-first birthday, and I have handed you this letter to read; b) it is not yet your twenty-first birthday and you have chosen to disregard my stern entreaties to leave my precious crates undisturbed; or c) it is not yet your twenty-first birthday, and I am dead and gone.
If it is “a,” then I extend cordial Happy Birthday wishes to you, my darling niece. I am grateful to have had the honor of raising my brother’s only child and am extremely proud of the young woman you have become.
If it is “b,” then I feel compelled to extend a not-so-cordial “shame on you,” but temper it with love and the knowledge that I am still grateful and proud of the young woman you have become, but apparently I still have some work to do in the character-building arena.
If it is “c,” then I extend to you my warmest and deepest sympathies. I know that my love for you is reciprocated in kind, and that you are surely grief-stricken at my passing. I only wish that I could be there with you to comfort you, but that would doubtlessly be an insurmountable paradox. How could I be there to comfort you if I am gone? Nevertheless, know that I am somewhere else, thinking of you.
Before you delve into the remaining contents of this crate, I have some startling information to share.
You already are aware that you are an heiress. As my only living relative, you inherit all that I possess. What you are not aware of, is the full inventory of my possessions. Within this crate is a package that contains documents; financial documents delineating all of my financial assets, which are considerable. As you know, I have lived simply since Wilbur’s passing. The fortune he left to me is intact, less the cost of my land, plus the interest and earnings over thirty years. All of my holdings are, of course, now yours to do with as you will.
But the financial assets are not the shocking part. Perhaps you will disagree, when you see the balance sheets, but in comparison to one other certain possession that you will inherit, the extent of your fortune is not shocking at all.
This other possession is a stone. It’s not just any stone, culled from a riverbank and polished for decorative purposes. This stone is very old, passed down through the centuries within our Celtic heritage.
Why is this stone special? And why should my possession of it be shocking? Let me answer both queries, the former first and the latter last.
This stone is special because of its history. Originally it was culled from a riverbank, by an ancestor of ours over five hundred years ago. His name was lost to the passing of time, but his story was passed down with the stone. Upon this momentous occasion (which is hopefully of your birthday, not of your disobedience or of my death), I pass the story down to you, my only heir, my beloved niece.
Centuries ago in Northern Wales, from which our family hails, villagers annually celebrated the feast of Samhain. On this night, doors opened between worlds and paths were traveled by spirits going back and forth. This world and the Otherworld became equivalent to each other and no barriers existed between the dead and the living. That is, the veil was at its thinnest. Villagers would traditionally build a huge Coel Coeth – a bonfire – on the feast of Samhain. When the fire had nearly gone out, everyone threw into the ashes a white stone which he had first marked. In the morning, all would search for their stone; if one had been moved, the owner of the stone would be destined to die before the next year’s feast of Samhain.
This unnamed ancestor of ours was uncertain of the odds, so on the morning of the feast, he took his stone to a wicche – witch – to have an enchantment placed upon it. That night, he threw his stone into the ashes with all the rest of the villagers’ stones.
The next morning, all the stones were gone save one: the enchanted stone belonging to our ancestor. The rest of the villagers were logically distressed, keening in fear and dread, angry at the unfairness of the fate that left one stone untouched that was not their own. They came after the man as a mob thirsty for vengeance. Our ancestor grabbed up his stone and ran into the woodlands, his pursuers on his heels. They were almost upon him when suddenly, he disappeared. The villagers searched the surrounding woodlands, but no trace of the man could be found.
The following winter brought a mysterious and deadly stranger into the small village: the plague. Every man, woman, and child was struck down by the sickness, and well before the next feast of Samhain, all were dead that were predicted to be dead.
Our ancestor returned to the village exactly one year after he had disappeared. With sorrow he discovered the graves of his own kin, and wept in desolation. He vowed to carry on his family name and left the village to seek out his future wife. And with him, he still carried the stone.
Now to answer the second query penned an entire page ago, “Why should my possession of it be shocking?”
The stone remains enchanted to this day.
Somehow on that fateful night, in that Coel Coeth, the enchanted stone took on properties that make it quite unique. It has the power to open a door, to thin a veil, and to bring an Otherworld into equivalency with our own. The stone itself has the power to create a portal through which its possessor can enter and return.
This portal is not, however, to the Otherworld of the dead. This portal is to the Otherworld of the future. One hundred years into the future, to be precise.
You are now the possessor of this stone.
Now open the second package.
With all my love,