You will recall that a Beltane Extravaganza had been held in honour of Doctor John Dee, the sixteenth-century alchemist who had been plucked from his own time and deposited on to the island of Hopeless, Maine. When the final song was sung, and the event had drawn to its conclusion, Philomena Bucket was alone in the Town Hall, tidying away the venerable Edison-Bell phonograph, when suddenly she found herself confronted by Durosimi O’Stoat.
O’Stoat was convinced – quite incorrectly, as it happens – that John Dee was a mighty sorcerer. With this in mind, he had been pressurising the alchemist to find a way in which they could both be returned to Tudor England, where he could plunder Dee’s famously extensive library and learn more of his secrets. When Dee protested that such a feat would be beyond his abilities, Durosimi disbelieved him and decided to force his hand by kidnapping Philomena Bucket. Durosimi had jumped to the conclusion that Dee’s obvious fondness for the barmaid was based upon no more than old-fashioned lust. The truth was far different; from their very first meeting, John Dee was sure that Philomena possessed magical abilities, the like of which he had never before seen.
“A word, Miss Bucket, if I might,” said Durosimi, in a commanding voice.
Philomena felt a cold chill run down her back. The only member of the O’Stoat family that she had ever liked, or trusted, was Salamandra.
“I’m listening,” she replied, coldly, hoping that he could not hear the tremble in her voice.
“You must come with me… now, please.” Durosimi motioned towards the door.
“No thank you, Mr O’Stoat. I have other plans for tonight.”
“But I insist. You will come with me. One way, or another, Miss Bucket, I promise you will.”
Philomena stood her ground, wishing that Drury would burst through the door. She knew, however, that he would be on the far side of the island by now, accompanying the Night-Soil Man, as he did most nights.
Durosimi stepped menacingly towards Philomena, then made a sudden lurch, with the obvious intention of abducting her.
She extended a hand to defend herself, and to the surprise of both, Durosimi was hurled back, as if struck by lightning. From his position on the floor, he looked at her with amazement. He pulled himself up, and stood unsteadily for a few moments.
“I don’t know what you just did, or how you did it, but I’m damned if that is going to stop me…”
He made another lunge, thinking to take her by surprise, but again, Philomena raised her hands in defence, and once more he was thrown backwards, only this time more violently. Philomena stared in disbelief at the figure sprawled apparently unconscious on the floor, fully ten feet away from her; then she raised her eyes towards the shadows at the far end of the room. A grey mist had gathered, and within it there were figures; lots of figures, some more distinct than others. Those whom she could see clearly were definitely women. She could have sworn that one was Granny Bucket, but who were the others?
“This is your heritage, Philomena,” said a voice in her head. It unmistakably belonged to Granny.
The grey mass drifted slowly forward, a swirling mist that flowed over Durosimi’s supine form, as if he did not exist. As the mist drew closer, there appeared to be hundreds of wraiths moving within it, and steadily converging upon her. While some of the company appeared to be of flesh and blood, others were vague shadows, no more solid than the mist that shrouded them. Very much to her own surprise, Philomena was not afraid.
As the ghostly tide engulfed her, some instinct told Philomena that these phantom women were her ancestors, and each one granted the gift, or maybe the curse, of magic. They swarmed around her and their voices echoed in her mind, relating their stories, and telling how the gift would sometimes desert the family for generations, before bursting through once more, when the greatest need arose, like poppy seeds that waited for the harrow in order to flourish. This is how things had been for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, and each wraith had been a wise-woman, a witch, a sorceress, or a seer.
Granny Bucket shimmered before Philomena, and smiled.
“You, my girl, are the distillation of us all. You have great power… but be careful. ‘The Sight’ was no more than a plaything, the first stirrings of the true magic that is just awakening with you. You need to control it, or it will control you. And Philomena…”
“Yes Granny?” Philomena replied, although she was by no means sure if the words issued from her mouth or her mind.
“We are all Bucket Women, a chain of enchantment stretched for more years than you can comprehend. If you choose to remain childless, you are its last, and strongest, link. This is a decision that you alone can make. Think on it Philomena. Think on it.”
As she said these last words, the mist dispersed and Philomena found herself alone in the Town Hall. Durosimi was gone and the first rays of a pale, Hopeless dawn were struggling to make their presence known through the grimy window panes. She had been here for hours! Had she fallen asleep and it had all been a dream?
A familiar bark broke the silence of the morning and Drury came loping in, his bony tail wagging and obviously happy to see her. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man had just finished his rounds, and was peering through the doorway. As always, Rhys was uncomfortably aware of the all-pervading stench which accompanied him, and was maintaining a respectful distance.
“What the devil are you doing here at this hour, Philomena?” he asked.
“I really have no idea,” she replied. “I think I must have dropped off to sleep after everyone left last night. It’s a pity you weren’t there. It was a grand night, so it was.”
“I wish I could have been,” Rhys replied sadly, “But… well, you know…”
Philomena did, indeed, know. Much as the Night-Soil Man was liked and respected all over the island, his calling made him something of a pariah, for no one could bear to be within yards of his stench. When she first arrived on Hopeless, Philomena had fallen in love with Rhys, after he had virtually saved her life. At the time she had lost all sense of smell, having been subject to an attack of anosmia, as Doc Willoughby had importantly informed her. It was only after she had almost drowned in sea-water, and her nasal-passages flushed clean, that she realised that their love could never be.
“Well, I’m to my bed,” said Rhys, keen to change the subject. “Will there be any left-over Starry-Grabby pie going spare later, by any chance?”
“I daresay there might be,” laughed Philomena, teasingly. “And, who knows, maybe even the odd bottle of Old Colonel. I’ll leave something by your door, don’t fret.”
Rhys grinned, and with a “Bye, then,” waved, and turned to leave. Philomena watched him through the open doorway, as he tramped down the cobbled street, with Drury scampering noisily at his heels.
“Goodbye, my lost love,” she thought to herself, sadly, with Granny’s final words echoing in her mind.