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Brigid Keneally picked up a teaspoon and frowned at her reflection in the polished silver. The face that looked back at her was old. Somehow, while she was busy minding the pub and the store and raising the girls, the years had crept up on her, carving deep crevices that crisscrossed her skin like lines on a road map. She didn't feel old, not a day older than forty, but the gleaming sterling of her place setting told her differently, as did the ache in her bones from living in a house that was too big, too old, and too in need of repair to ever be truly warm.
Still holding the spoon, she stared at the flowing script of the letter in her lap. Where were her reading glasses when she needed them? She ran the fingers of one hand over the stationery and wished that her eyes were better, that Caitlin wasn't four thousand miles on the other side of the Atlantic, and that her grandchildren, the sweet rosy-cheeked, dark-eyed pair of them, would somehow, miraculously, come running into the store, throw themselves into her arms, and beg for sweets.
She sighed. Why not just wish that she was young again and that all the years she had spent wishing were hers to live over, only this time with the hindsight to do it right. Brigid looked at the clock. It was past time to open the pub. There would be men wanting their spirits even at this absurd hour of the morning. Her mouth twisted humorlessly. Pity the woman who tried to part an Irishman from his drink.
Her regulars would just have to wait a bit. A letter from Caitlin was rare enough that she wanted a moment to sit and think, to go over the pain of it again in her mind, to wonder where she'd gone wrong with her youngest, least predictable daughter.
Visions of her late husband intruded upon her thoughts. Resolutely, she pushed them away, back into the think-about-it-later file in her mind. Caitlin's letter was enough of a damper. No need to bring up Sean Keneally, yet another one of her failures.
One would think that when a daughter was grown and married, with children of her own, that the worry would stop and the sick, tight feeling a mother felt when something wasn't quite right would never plague her again. But it didn't work that way. The feeling was always there, sometimes deeply hidden, but ready to flare up again when the provocation arose. Oftentimes, Brigid reflected, adult children's troubles were worse than anything. After a child was grown, a mother had no control. Difficulties couldn't be solved by the promise of sweets or a warm cuddle in an ample lap.
Brigid concentrated until the vein in her right temple throbbed. What was it about Caitlin that bothered her so, outside of her ill-fated marriage? Not that a bad marriage wasn't enough to gather the storm clouds over a house. But Caitlin wouldn't be defeated by something so easily remedied, not the Caitlin Keneally her mother remembered.
Fourteen years in America had changed her, something more than Sam Claiborne with his smooth tongue and polished manners, his blueblood family and their Kentucky money had done. Brigid felt it as surely as she felt the rain slanting down on Kilcullen Town, drowning the otherwise pretty village in a drab shroud of gray wetness. If only she could put her finger on the real hurt. Why wouldn't the obstinate child confide in her?
Those who recalled Caitlin in her youth frequently reminded Brigid that her youngest daughter was born difficult. A changeling, the superstitious whispered, a black-haired, dark-eyed, reed-slim throwaway from the travelers' caravan that had camped for a single night down by the river and disappeared in the morning.
Others, with their feet on the ground and their requisite share of common sense, recognized the child for what they thought she was, the spitting image of her recently departed father.
Poor Brigid, the town folk had commiserated, shaking their heads after one of Caitlin's more mischievous escapades. How unfortunate that the child born to her six months after Sean Keneally's untimely death, should be the one most like him. If they had known the truth, Brigid would have been drawn and quartered, her head a pike decoration on the ancient fortress walls of Donore Castle. Perhaps not now, but not so very long ago when Rome had its fist tightly clenched around the heart of Ireland.
Everyone knew that Sean, may he rest in peace, was a wastrel a charming wastrel with a twinkle in his eye, a way with words, and a smile for the ladies. Not that Brigid ever complained, mind you. She had more than enough to be grateful for with five saintly daughters made in the image of herself, lovely blue-eyed, golden daughters who behaved beautifully and predictably from the moment the midwife placed them in Brigid's waiting arms, daughters who obeyed their masters at school, minded their mother at the store, kept their eyes lowered during mass and said "thank you" and "if you please," without any reminders.
Caitlin, on the other hand, was never still, never compliant and, most definitely, never predictable. She simply moved on a plane that was a level apart from everyone around her. Schedules did not interest her. She was as unlikely to arrive on time for tea as she was to appear for Sunday mass, for her lessons at Saint Patrick's Academy or for taking her turn working in her mother's store when the long summer afternoons lingered into twilight. Unmoved by threats of perpetual purgatory, bribes, or pleas to her better nature, she brought shame to her family with the regularity of Saint Patrick's church bells announcing the hour on Sunday.
No one could explain it, least of all the Dominican Sisters who had the questionable duty of shaping the girls of Kilcullen Town into an ethical, albeit indistinguishable, mold. One reproachful glance from Caitlin was enough to reduce the saintly sisters to stammering apologies. Caitlin Keneally simply went her own way. With her unmanageable black curls, foreign-dark eyes and a mouth that the women who had known Sean Keneally in his youth never failed to settle on and lose track of their thoughts, much to Brigid's disapproval, Caitlin was something of an anathema to the good citizens of Kilcullen.
None of it would have mattered if she had been unattractive or aloof, mean-spirited, selfish, or foolish. If she had been any one of those things, the residents of Kilcullen Town would have clucked sympathetically and gone out of their way to be condescending. But she was not.
Brigid's late-in-life daughter blazed with a quivering inner light that made the more imaginative think of faeries and wee folk, of the legends of Emain Macha, and the stone Celtic circles that glowed with magic.
The children of Kilcullen adored her, imitated her, followed her lead, idolized her. She was curious, fearless, tenacious, and intelligent. She could climb the lichen-strangled walls of Donore Castle with the nimbleness of a gymnast, walk its twenty foot high rampart with eyes closed and arms outstretched; tell deliciously horrifying stories in the graveyard after midnight by the light of a wind-flickering candle; calculate the odds of a two-year-old colt placing in the Two Thousand Guineas Race simply by looking at him; consume a book with an inch-and-a-half spine from cover-to-cover in two hours, losing nothing of its meaning; and ace her mathematic's examinations without ever completing a single page of practice sums. Everyone who knew the girl realized before long they were in the presence of something quite out of the ordinary.
Looking back, Brigid recalled that only one thing had really mattered to Caitlin and that was thoroughbreds the breeding, training and racing of them which explained her immediate and intense attraction to the Claiborne heir.
From the beginning it was crystal clear to Brigid that marriage would not suit Caitlin, not marriage to Samuel Claiborne, anyway. But the child wouldn't listen. Children never did, of course. Brigid, herself, hadn't listened when wiser minds than hers had tried to warn her away from Sean Keneally. She suffered a twinge of guilt. Marriage hadn't exactly suited her either. She hoped it was nothing she'd passed down to her daughter. But then Sean was nothing like Sam Claiborne, and Caitlin had never known her father, except through the eyes of those who had.
The truth of it, Brigid admitted to herself, was that although she loved all her daughters dearly, Caitlin was the one who brought a song to her heart and a smile to her lips, just as her father had done in his day, and the very idea of her living in a state of unhappiness was like a festering wound that refused to heal. Brigid went to sleep every night dwelling on her daughter's predicament and woke each morning without an answer. Perhaps if she hadn't allowed the girl to visit Lelia.
Caitlin had been so very young for marriage. Not that marriage and motherhood were bad things in themselves, especially for another sort of girl. But they shouldn't drain the spirit from a woman, wipe the life from her eyes or the laughter from her face, or the teasing wit from her lips. Brigid had known something wasn't right on her one and only visit to America, but Caitlin was on her guard, Sam was charm itself, and no amount of wheedling would bring the girl's troubles out in the open.
Brigid looked down at her hands. She was past seventy and her hands, more than anything else, showed it. They were thin skinned, the veins large, ropy and blue, extending high above the crepe-like flesh. They hadn't always looked this way. Once her hands had been beautiful. When had she stopped caring about them? She thought back over the decades. It was soon after Sean's death. Hands had been important to him. He noticed them immediately. Where other men saw a woman's breasts or legs or hair, he saw hands. She closed her eyes and remembered the feel of a warm mouth against her fingers, lips pressed against her palm.
She rose on weary feet and headed for the door leading to the pub. She wasn't feeling herself lately. It was time to settle what was left of her affairs and write to Caitlin. Not that a pub and convenience store could be called a true legacy. But maybe Caitlin was ready for something less magnificent than the Claiborne mansion with its fifty rooms and a stable lit by the light of crystal chandeliers.
Brigid clucked under her breath. What was the world coming to when horses were better cared for than people? Even in horse-crazy Ireland, a man knew the difference between himself and a horse. Kilcullen thoroughbreds grazed on green grass and slept in sensible wooden barns with blankets thrown over their backs, not forced-air heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. There were no bronze-coated stable roofs, simulated tracks, and speakers strategically placed to recreate the noises of a roaring crowd. The most Ireland could boast were the lantern-shaped rooftops and skylights in the box stalls of the National Stud. A horse was a horse and if he was a runner, so be it. The Irish had done well enough with their thoroughbreds thanks to the old tried-and-true methods of training.
Americans. Brigid snorted deprecatingly. Not that they weren't lovely people with lovely bank accounts, but they had no concept of age or roots. The Claibornes had occupied their acreage in Kentucky for a mere hundred years, strutting their lineage and their membership in the Jockey Club as if they were descended from true aristocrats, instead of felons dumped on the shores of a British penal colony.
Here, in Kilcullen, where a century was a mere drop in the bucket, where old meant that misty time when the Celts carved their circular designs in the caverns of Newgrange, they would be considered newcomers.
Brigid had nothing against newcomers. Sean had been a newcomer, his home that rocky land far to the north. A land of low stone fences, soil a mixture of sand and seaweed and, in every direction as far as the eye could see, a vast ocean and endless sky. Too late she had learned that he could never be quite comfortable in the richer, greener, more prosperous land to the south, a land of horses and gentle hills and haystacks rolled into golden bales. But that was all behind her now. She brushed away the unwelcome memory, concentrating once again on the Claibornes.
Brigid had not begrudged the Claibornes their money. What sensible mother would? She wasn't one of those people who resented inherited wealth. As for those who'd done well on their own, well she was more than happy to celebrate their success and wish them well. But the Claibornes pretended they'd always been rolling in excess as if it wasn't common knowledge that, until Bull Claiborne's father made a fortune dealing illegal spirits in America's prohibition years, the Claiborne family had never done anything more than dabble in wagering at the annual Kentucky Derby.
Brigid had never cared for pretension. Caitlin's mother-in-law, Lucy Claiborne, was so full of it that if one took a pin to her well-endowed backside, she would most likely sit several inches lower in her chair. Of course, what could one expect from people who served their ham slathered in maple syrup and ate grits dredged in bacon-cream sauce? It made Brigid's stomach heave just to think of it.
"Brigid Keneally," a loud voice called from below her window. "It's past nine. Are ye openin' the doors today or takin' a holiday?"
Brigid groaned. It was Seamus McMahon and his voice was already slurred with the drink. Unless she called someone to take him home, his wife would see nothing of the paycheck he'd already liberally dipped into.
She threw open the window and leaned out. "I won't be unlatchin' the door for another hour or so, Seamus."
The man rubbed his stubbled cheeks, stepped back into the street to look at her, and summoned a smile. "I could help myself to a wee pint or two before you come down, Brigid, love."
Brigid lowered her voice. "I'm no fool, Shay. Go home before I call our Mary."
Muttering expletives under his breath, most of which referred to the devil having his way with heartless women, Seamus stumbled down the street in the direction from which he had come.
Brigid sighed with relief. Perhaps she would write to Caitlin, even take a holiday. Better yet, she would call her and tell her she could no longer manage everything on her own. If Caitlin needed an excuse to come home, Brigid would give it to her.
Copyright © 2000 by Jeanette Baker