Born With a Veil


In the end she sought out her beginnings, trying to understand how it all began, wondering if it was worth all the fuss and the bother, all the pain and the suffering that gleaned her but seeming morsels of wisdom and passing pleasures along the way? Each ending produced a new beginning, and each new beginning, an ending of sorts. This was how the story of her life began. The end was in the beginning—and the beginning was in the end.

 Though few knew, and fewer still understood its true meaning, she was born with a veil. It was the first sign that she was to be different, an omen for those who clove to the old ways, believing the Tuatha De Danaan still dwelt beneath the hills and beyond the mists: Fairy folks and magical beings thought to inhabit the Otherworld, a welcoming world to one born with a veil, to one born with the gift to see into the hearts and the souls of many, to glimpse the future and the past. Second sight. The lass would possess miraculous and unusual powers bestowed upon a chosen few, even in Ireland. Few there might be able to fathom what was in store for her. How she could be called upon, obligated even, through various and extraordinary circumstances of her life, to live contrary to, or even above, the rules observed in an allegedly civilized society.

Her mother could see that her daughter was different from her sons, Liam and Matthew, in more ways than just gender. A golden light seemed to glow in her newborn eyes, which indicated something important had transpired in the Otherworld to set her child apart. Along with that fact, the babe had not cried, but she greeted the world with a gurgle and grin on that cold winter’s morn. Only after her sister Brigid finished chanting a magical blessing had a wail of protest finally come forth, and the child accepted the full breath of life under the watchful gaze of the Blessed Mother from her likeness up on the wall.

When the babe was first placed in her mother’s arms, it was agreed between her mother and her midwife sister that the veil would remain their secret, each of them making the sign of the cross to seal the promise. There seemed no need to tell Padraic that his daughter was born with wondrous powers frowned upon by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, gifts common in women with the blood of the Clan Kelly flowing in their veins. The mark of the Old Religion was upon the child before she breathed her first breath. The veil. Was there not enough already to concern the child’s father with the cows and the chickens, farming the land and churning the butter? It was no easy task for a tenant farmer to keep body and soul together and see to the needs of his family, since the rebellion that had broken out in Waterford and Wexford that year: The worst of it being the bloody battle on Vinegar Hill. 

Over 30,000 Irishmen were hanged, imprisoned or transported, including two Kelly cousins and Thomas O’Reilly, Padraic’s younger brother. Thomas, a member of the United Irishmen for the past three years, had thrown in his gun with Wolfe Tone and the other politicians, all of them promising Catholic emancipation. It was the bloodiest uprising that produced the greatest losses by far since many thousands of Roman Catholics were massacred, transported, and robbed of their lands during the terrible times of Cromwell the Butcher. Late in 1798, the British Crown had called for greater restrictions all across Ireland—that reached all the way into Dingle Bay.

The last Padraic had heard his younger brother was shipped out to a penal colony somewhere in Australia, with little hope of him ever seeing young Thomas again. And yet, on that crisp November morning, Padraic’s thoughts were not on his poor, exiled brother, but on the precious new life he was holding in his strong arms, on his living, breathing, darling baby daughter. 

It was her father who had insisted on calling her Mary Margaret after her mother, the name of her maternal great grandmother Kelly long before. Kathleen would be her confirmation name after her paternal great grandmother long since departed, who raised her father with a firm hand and a bounty of love. It was her mother who insisted that Kelly be part of each child’s name and her father had no objections.

It was never her mother’s intention to name a daughter after her. Their first girl, stillborn the year before, was buried in the old cemetery down the road and up the hill with just one name: Rachel. The wee babe never uttered one cry nor had taken one breath, though her mother had cried for hours, for weeks, and even months, knowing from her dreams that it was divinely intended she have a daughter one day, even two. Now, her sweet Mary Margaret suckled at her breast, filling her heart with a deep joy, with her the easiest birthing of them all. 

It was plain that Padraic found his new daughter bonny on that crisp November morning, as the sun rose higher in a clear blue sky and a brisk breeze blew in off the bay. The sunshine filtering in through the lace curtains highlighted the rich copper of the baby’s thick crown of hair, a perfect match for her mother’s long tresses.

Would her new daughter have her father’s green eyes or her own eyes of amber, her mother wondered: The bright amber eyes of great grandmother Kelly, who was also born with a veil and an abundant crown of copper-red hair?

Padraic seemed contented as he cradled his new daughter near the fire, softly singing to her an old Irish lullaby. Perhaps he was thinking of how one day she would grow tall and strong, the same as her mother, becoming able at churning the butter and helping out with the chores?

By that year, Liam Niall was well past four and growing taller and stronger each passing day. Though he was eager to help out with milking the cows, his small hands were not yet equal to the task. His inquisitive younger brother, Matthew Michael, three years the next January, was already learning how to gather the eggs from the henhouse, while being unable to resist chasing Fionn, the head rooster, about the farmyard. 

Two young sons they had, fine-looking, hearty young lads of whom they were proud. And now, Padraic Desmond and Mary Margaret O’Reilly had young Mary Margaret, a bonny daughter at last.


 *  *  *



 The Cry of the Banshee


 Her father could not bear to call her Mary Margaret those months before she turned eight. Soon after the birth of young Sean Joseph in August, her father started to call her Maggie. For on the very same day that her younger brother was born alive, their dear, darling mother had died. Mary Margaret Shannon Kelly O’Reilly’s soul was carried off to heaven on the wings of angels not long after her fifth child born alive breathed his first breath and loudly cried.

“The reason your new baby brother cries so hard and so loud,” her father said, “is because there is no mother to hold him to her and suckle him at her breast. The angels have taken your mother away to be with Rachel, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The two Mary’s are looking after me now, me and my five poor, motherless children,” her father said and he began to weep.

“God rest her soul and God help me,” he cried out, for Padraic loved his wife with all his heart and his suffering was keen with her passing. 

Young Mary Margaret had feared the worst when she heard the wail of the banshee that night, along with the agonizing screams of her mother in hard labor. Her Aunt Brigid, acting as midwife, had also heard the cry of the banshee that night, with both of them also unsettled by the mournful howling of old Black Bart, her mother’s faithful hound. The old dog kept baying at that full moon until his heart stopped and he died too. Old Black Bart was with her mother now. It was something that Maggie just knew. 

Gazing out the window at the clouds drifting across the moon low in the night sky, the mist rising up off the glen suddenly assumed the ghostly images of magical beings from the Otherworld.  Then, all of sudden, a huge white stag with silver antlers appeared, moving swiftly, as the Celtic White Lady of Death, Macha, rose up and raced toward the house. Straightaway, Maggie knew that the White Lady had come to claim her mother and take her to be with Rachel and their other ancestors, too, perhaps even with Jesus and Mother Mary.

Throughout the summer months there was this hollow feeling in her center that with all her wishing would not go away, especially when she looked at her mother and the babe growing larger in her belly. Her mother’s pregnancy was not an easy one, even with her aunt’s constant attention and countless herbal remedies. Her Aunt Brigid had once spoken of an herb that her mother should have taken after once again finding herself with child. Snakeroot. An herb used to hasten labor during the time of a child’s delivery, and early on in a pregnancy, the herb was known to cause miscarriage.

“I will not destroy any child in my womb,” her mother had shouted in anger. “Surely you know that to even think such a thought is a great sin before God. Shame on you, Brigid! For shame!”

Her father often spoke of wanting more sons to help him out on the farm. Four children seemed not many, considering the Murphy’s twenty and the O’Carroll’s sixteen: Twelve sons in that one family alone. Some families in Ireland had as many as twenty-two children, mostly Roman Catholics, with the Protestants a close second in terms of the number of offspring in a family. Abortion outlawed by the Crown in 1803.

Not long after the birth of Mary Margaret, Megan Caitlin arrived: Another daughter from the promise of her mother’s dreams. At times, her aunt complained of her father’s plain indifference in regard to her mother’s four miscarriages and one stillbirth.

“Mary Margaret is a healthy and strong young woman,” he insisted, “with a fine mind to match her rare beauty, I might add. My Mary Margaret is capable of bearing me many more fine, healthy children, for she is far from being too old for such matters.”

According to her Aunt Brigid, her father’s mind was closed to her repeated warnings as to the delicate condition of her mother’s health in regard to bearing one child right after another. The matter seemed to disturb her aunt, who thought of herself as a capable and highly respected midwife on the peninsula. Her father apparently also chose to ignore the warnings of Dr. O’Malley, the village physician, in regard to the dangers to her mother in continuing to bear more children.

“Has Father Hennessey not said often enough from the pulpit that children are a gift from God, with coupling expressly designed for that purpose?” her father announced. “It seems to me that God does not even condone lust in the marriage bed!”

According to her aunt, her father was simply unable to leave her poor mother alone.

“From the very first moment he laid his green Irish eyes on your beautiful, comely mother, Padraic fell under the spell of the all-consuming fires of fleshly, earthly passions. With the same desires returned in equal measure by your mother, I might add. After all, your father is an exceedingly handsome man and quite virile, hear tell. Even after a long day’s work on this farm, Padraic is seldom weary enough to ignore his all-consuming passion for your beautiful mother.”

At times, it seemed to young Maggie that her aunt sometimes forgot that she was still a child, for she often spoke to her of things she had previously heard her discuss with her mother. And yet, on the sad, sad night of her dear, sweet mother’s passing, the mournful lament of her father repeatedly resounded in Maggie’s young mind:

“Whatever am I going to do now with my beautiful, wonderful, glorious Mary Margaret gone from me forevermore?”

 *  *  *

 For the two days of the wake, her mother was laid out in her white wedding gown. The frequent comments being that ‘her mother looked much as she had as a young bride of sixteen.’ Closely watching her as she laid there, Maggie half-expected her mother to rise up and pleasantly remark on what a fine day it was, especially considering how many of their friends and neighbors were gathering from all around the Dingle Peninsula.

Some folks brought food. Others arrived with jugs of poitin, outlawed by the Crown, but still expertly brewed in many a village and hamlet. Her father had purchased four bottles of Jameson's fine Irish whiskey through the generosity of his good friends at the tavern. Most of the other local tenant farmers were not nearly as prosperous as Padraic O’Reilly, and yet, all were doing their best on that very sad day to console him and his five now motherless children.

Folks arrived from as far away as Killarney, Tralee, Limerick, and Cork, from the Blasket Islands and Milltown Commons. Some rode on horses or donkeys, while others walked. Still others filled wagons to overflowing as mourners arrived from over the mountain in Ballyferriter where Mary Margaret Kelly O’Reilly was born on a fine day in May in 1775. All were coming to pay their respects by attending her final farewell celebration. 

Father Hennessey led the Rosary. Then Padraic played upon his bagpipes, for his wife had loved to hear him play. Others had brought along fiddles, flutes, pennywhistles, banjos, mandolins, accordions and drums, as all the musicians began to play. Others simply sang along, while yet others played the bard in telling tales of the glories of old Erin throughout the long, sad, sorrowful night.

“Sing a song at a wake and shed a tear when a child is born,” her Aunt Brigid said right before she began to sing The Streams of Bunclody:

Oh, were I at the moss house where the birds do increase… At the foot of Mount Leinster or some silent place… By the streams of Bunclody where all pleasures meet… And all I would ask is one kiss from you sweet…”

All the children sat listening to the many sad songs and the many fine tales until their eyes finally closed and they slept where they lay. Later that evening, a warm breeze blew in off the bay, unusual for that late in the season. A million stars seemed to light up the night sky, as the moon cast its faint glow on the shimmering waters of the bay. Then her Aunt Brigid played the Kelly harp that had been in the family for well over a hundred years. As she serenaded everyone there, she silently wept for her sweet, dear, younger sister, who was leaving on her heavenly journey surrounded by the hopes and the prayers of her loved ones on that truly sad summer’s eve.

 Not everyone was able to fit into the small chapel on the next morning as Father Hennessey said mass in the Church. The majority stayed outside to quietly celebrate the journey of Mary Margaret Shannon Kelly O’Reilly to the Otherworld. Many were generous in their praise of her easy going ways, for Mary Margaret had never been one to complain. She was known to possess the voice of an angel whenever she sang, and the patience of a saint with her family, especially her children. Everyone was going to miss her beautiful, sweet and giving spirit.

As the day grew longer, Maggie started to wonder if the keening was ever going to end. She thought her mother must be alarmed by the terrible noises that everyone was making. Her dear mother had always enjoyed the more gentle sounds: The lapping of the waves against the shore, the whispering of the wind through the mountain pass, and the many merry songs that the family sang together in the evening after supper.    

After the last shovel of earth fell upon her mother’s grave, her father immediately left with the other men to spend some time in the tavern.

“I wonder if there is enough whiskey in the whole of Ireland to ease the pain in your father’s heart on this sad, sad day,” her Aunt Brigid said.

Pain that her father had said was sure to be his lot for all the rest of his days.

 While Liam and Matthew tended to the animals, six year-old Megan left with their cousin, Sarah, who carried young Sean Joseph in her arms in a woolen blanket. Sarah was still nursing Caitlin, her six-month-old daughter, so Padraic was pleased that his new son would be fed and cared for by a blood relation. In exchange for the benefit of her mother’s milk, Sarah would receive fresh eggs, cow’s milk, and butter every week.

Young Megan was pleased to be trusted with the care of her new baby brother. She promised to rock him and hold him each and every day. Hearing his sweet baby sounds made her wonder how many children she might have herself one day, and yet, the death of her mother with the birth of her brother was a worrisome matter indeed. Nonetheless, while standing beside her mother’s grave on that very day, Megan had sincerely promised to take very good care of her brother.

 It was on that particular evening that young Maggie finally learned of her veil.

“To my knowledge, there was only one other child so born in County Kerry, and that was well before my time. Your grandmother, my mother, assisted in delivering the child. Naturally, my mother was a midwife trained in the ways of the Old Religion the same as I have been. Throughout the long ages, Kelly women have been priestesses and midwives, including my grandmother, your very own great grandmother Mary Margaret Kelly herself,” her aunt said in a tone of some pride. “By all the saints, you are her namesake, with the special mark of the old ways upon you. I swear it, my child! For you, Maggie, you were born with a veil!”

In a tone of continued excitement, her Aunt Brigid then said, “You will be first of your generation to learn everything I already know about herbs for good and herbs for ill, of incantations, blessings and curses, the nature of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the seven sacred planets and their effects upon all mankind. You, Maggie, will learn all about the ancient Celtic deities and the nature spirits that dwell within each tree, each plant, and each and every blade of grass upon the whole earth.”

“The whole earth?” Maggie repeated, suddenly feeling thunderstruck.

“There is a unity in nature that you will learn to experience for yourself, my dear. There are rituals I will teach you. Rituals that you must honor and preserve at any and all costs, regardless of what anyone else might say to you, say about you, or say against you, including Father Hennessey!” she said in a tone of disdain while looking directly into Maggie’s startled eyes.

“Our priest?” Maggie whispered, and her amber eyes opened wider.

Her aunt went on to explain the importance of the sacred oak tree, and how different herbs were best gathered at specific times of the morning or evening to produce the greatest good and the better chance of a cure or a curse. The great importance of hazelnuts was impressed upon her. The wisdom seeds of the old Druids would not only make her healthy and wise, but better equipped to perform her magical deeds, especially during certain times and in certain seasons. Solemn rituals were to be performed at the times of the new and full moons. These rituals were her sacred duty.

“Everything you are about to learn you must faithfully commit to memory. This is to be our secret, yours and mine,” her aunt said, “perhaps forevermore.”

“Forevermore?” Maggie whispered.   

“I have watched you closely since you first entered this world, my child. You were born with the gift of second sight, with miraculous and glorious powers that will enable you to help others and to heal them as well. Have you not noticed how your touch soothes the cows in the barn during a thunderstorm and in times of great distress, besides greatly increasing the number of eggs in the henhouse?”

“My touch does that?” Maggie said in a whisper, “Truly?” she added, feeling greatly astonished by her aunt’s sudden and unexpected disclosure. 

“Your touch is miraculous!” her aunt said, adding an authoritative nod of her head. “And now that your mother, my dear, sweet, wonderful sister, is gone forever, it is time for you to learn the old ways, the ancient ways of the Druids,” her aunt said, fixing her with a stony stare as her green eyes  faintly reflected the flames of the peat upon the hearth.

After she made the sign of the cross, and as if in a mild trance, Maggie added more peat to the fire. Her heart was pounding inside her chest, and she wondered if her aunt might not be perhaps a touch mad from her recent bout with grief, and yet, there was an element of truth in what she had to say. It was something that she could sense in her center. Maggie had always known that she was different, partly from the way that the other children treated her. Her mother had said often enough that she was different, except that she secretly wished to be the exactly same as all the other girls.

“Why me?” Maggie inquired, taking in a sudden breath and smoothing her apron to keep her hands from trembling. Then, all at once, it seemed to her that her aunt had already told her these things, perhaps in one of her many vivid dreams. Was the beautiful, auburn-haired lady in the flowing white gown so often appearing in her dreams her very own great grandmother Kelly?

“None of us knows exactly what the Lord of the Otherworld has in store for us,” her Aunt Brigid said in hushed tones, “Though some know more than others,” she added with a wink and a nod as she steadily stared into her eyes without blinking.

“But what you are telling me, Aunt Brigid, is it not a sin?” she said, remembering what Father Hennessey had said during some of his more serious sermons.

“The new gods and the old gods are not that much different when it comes to living in this world. It’s the spirit that matters, not the name by which it is known, though names and words do have power and meaning when spoken at the right time and in the right manner. And some words cannot be taken back, though later you might wish that some of your words could be. I will teach you about that, my dear, about how to trust your instincts, about the great knowledge and the power and the terrible price to be paid for disobedience. I will teach you of many wondrous and secret things known to only a chosen few in this world, for to know such secrets is a great responsibility too grave for some to bear. But for you, young Maggie, to know such things is your absolute and total DESTINY!”

For reasons beyond her, everything that her Aunt Brigid had said up until then suddenly made sense to her in her center. Was it because of the veil, Maggie wondered? She sat very still and paid very close attention to every word that her aunt had to say.

“There are many languages on this earth, Gaelic being only one. Not all speak English or Irish like Master Roberts teaches you at the hedge school. Later, you may even learn Latin and Greek. You have a fine mind the same as your mother’s. But unlike my dear, sweet sister, you will learn to use your mind in strange and amazing ways, ways even perhaps more important than reading and writing. You will learn the secrets practiced by those who invented reading and writing, mark my word, my child! The veil bestows sacred powers and grave responsibilities that you must bear for the rest of your days. There may be times during your life that you have to break a rule or two, mark my word, my dear, sweet niece. Mark my word!” 

The “teaching” was to be their secret. Her brothers and sister were not born with “the gift.” Others might not be able to either understand or believe, such as Father Hennessey, their parish priest, and the Reverend Brown, the Protestant preacher of the Church of Ireland. Many true believers still lived in Ireland, more than folks might ever suspect, especially among those who dwelled in the hills and in the mountains, practicing the rituals in secret, carrying good luck charms for their own protection and welfare. Many there were still known to converse with the fairies, knocking on the wood of an old oak tree for luck, whispering beneath the tree’s branches to seek favors or bestow gifts in gratitude. There was still a great deal that Maggie had to learn.

The tradition was passed on to the girls instead of boys in their family after great, great, great grandmother O’Connor, also a Kelly by birth, produced only daughters from her womb. In olden times, the eldest son was the one chosen to learn the old ways, and that was true until long after Saint Patrick and the acceptance of the Catholic Church in County Kerry. The teachings had been in the family for hundreds, or even thousands of years, her aunt explained, with the exact date lost somewhere in the Mists of Time.

“Who am I to deny the ancient traditions?” her aunt inquired. “It is important that the truth be preserved and that the work continue for the sake of our lineage. And that is true, whether you one day bring daughters or sons into this world, young Mary Margaret. One day you must pass on the teachings to one of your descendants and teach your chosen one as I shall most diligently teach you.”

“But why me?” Maggie inquired, feeling suddenly overwhelmed.

“I’ve had two stillbirths and six miscarriages. Lost all my young, I did. I’ve been a widow for five years now, since my Ulliam died of the fever. I’m as celibate as a nun and that’s the absolute truth,” she said, quickly making the sign of the cross.

“But you could still remarry and have children, Aunt Brigid,” Maggie said, remembering how her mother and her aunt had often spoken of the possibility of her aunt having children sometime in the future.

“I am older than your mother by twelve years. There will be no children for me."

“Mother was thirty-one in May.”

“Aye,” her aunt said, sorrowfully turning to face the fire. “Such a waste … such a good mother she was to you children, and how she loved and adored your father. She died giving Padraic another son.” Tears rolled down her face. “Now, he has his three healthy sons, but no wife to care for them. Your mother is gone to be with Rachel and the other unborn young.”

Suddenly, a deep sadness welled up from deep inside Maggie, as a soft glow began to fill the entire room. “I know you heard the banshee, Aunt Brigid, and old Black Bart howling at the moon. They were mourning my mother before she died. I know you heard them too.”

“Aye,” her aunt said. “How could anyone miss that terrible, horrible howling, especially of that banshee?” She sat on the stool beside the roughly hewn kitchen table. “He’s joined his mistress, old Black Bart. He is young again the same as her. Old Black Bart is running with Mary Margaret through the green, green meadows of the Summerland.”

“He didn’t want to stay here without her,” Maggie said as she began to sob.

“I miss her greatly, my dearest, loveliest, sweetest sister and greatest friend in all this world. Our brothers flew away with the Wild Geese, off soldiering in France and America. I’m alone now, Maggie. Kevin Kelly hung in the rebellion. Daniel transported halfway round the world with your Uncle Thomas. I pray that the men are all together. But we will never see them again, never again in our beloved Ireland. I’m alone now, my Maggie, all alone in this big world,” and she stood.

“You have me, Aunt Brigid,” she said, standing and slipping her arms around her aunt’s waist as she rested her head against her ample bosom, tears spilling from her sad amber eyes.

“That I have,” her Aunt Brigid said, warmly embracing her niece. “We have each other. I shall do everything within my powers to be a mother to you and the other children, as my sister would have and expect of me. I just wish I had been able to save her … that I had known what more to do.”

Together, they wept.

“You did your best, Aunt. It was simply not meant to be,” Maggie said in a tone of voice beyond her seven years, somehow knowing in her center that what she had said was true.

All at once, an enormous wave of love enveloped her. Instantly, the room brightened. The fire flamed higher, and warmth infused the entire room mixed with the sweet scent of lavender. Her mother had loved lavender. Only that morning, Maggie had placed a fresh sprig of lavender in her mother’s coffin as her final farewell gift.

“There’s a special light in your eyes, my child. You, Maggie, you were born knowing,” her aunt said. “You’re an old soul back from the Otherworld with a special calling in this world. You’re on a very special mission, very special, indeed.” 

The scent of lavender grew stronger as the room filled with a soft, glowing light.

“She’s here,” Maggie said, deeply inhaling. “She has come to say good-bye to us.”

“Aye, that she has,” her Aunt Brigid said, as she continued to softly sob. 

The two of them stood there together, basking in the golden glow, until the scent faded away, leaving only the musty aroma of the smoldering peat of the fire.

 After falling into a deep sleep, Maggie at once found herself in a dark green glen filled with beautiful flowers surrounded by a grove of stately oaks cloaked in the bright green leaves of summer. Beneath the tall trees dense patches of lavender and heather bloomed in profusion.

On a pond of deep blue water, inside a golden boat was Black Bart looking much as he had as a puppy, wagging his tail. Her mother was beside him wearing a gown of the purest white, with a soft smile on her beautiful face, and her long, copper hair glistening in the vibrant light.

Reaching over the side of the boat, her mother’s hand lightly touched the water to send out concentric circles in every direction across the entire surface of the pond.

“I love you, my dear Mary Margaret,” her mother said without speaking.

Feeling the love moving toward, around, and through her, Maggie said, “I love you, too, Mother,” as tears spilled from her eyes onto the pillow.

“I will always be with you. I will always be in your heart. I will do whatever I can to guide you and the other children. You have my solemn promise, my sweet, sweet lass.”

“I wish you had stayed a bit longer,” Maggie whispered, yearning to reach out and touch her beautiful mother and be comforted in her loving arms yet one more time.

As her mother started to fade from view, Maggie heard her say, “Please take care of him,” not knowing if her mother had meant young Sean Joseph or her poor grief-stricken father. Nonetheless, she promised to try to help take care of them both.

Early the next morning she found a fresh sprig of lavender on her pillow still damp with the morning dew. The gift from her mother in the Otherworld filled Maggie’s room with the sweet scent of lavender and her heart with a keen, aching joy.   


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Patricia McLaine

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Last modified: December 21, 2013