November 5th – The Festival of Changing the Guard

In 1733 a man called Oglaw McStannitch made three big mistakes. He was digging in Fallow Fields, the old-village-green-turned-allotments in Lost Palace district, when he found a small hardwood ring box. It was in a pretty sorry state; the hinges were rusted away and the cloth that had once covered it was almost non-existent. The wood itself had just about survived but it was ready to disintegrate. The first big mistake he made was not reburying the box deeper in the mud, letting his vegetable roots grow around it, and forgetting all about it. The second big mistake he made was prising the box open, allowing it to partly disintegrate in the process. The final mistake was plucking out the gold band inside and putting it on his ring finger. Later, when he looked back at that moment he didn’t know why he’d been so hasty. ‘It was as if she were compelling me to do it, now I think of it,’ he said to Buentoille Today magazine in 1942. By putting that ring on his finger, McStannitch had unwittingly caused himself to be possessed by a ghost.

If he’d grown up in Lost Palace he would have perhaps been a little warier; he might even have recognised the box from the stories and let it be. Every Lost Palace child knows the story of Beliah and Caster, though it spread little further. The couple were childhood sweethearts, fiancées due to be married, when the day before Beliah was crushed to death in an accident at her mother’s windmill. Struck with grief, Caster took himself to the church and asked that they be married nonetheless, so that he may never be separated from the one he loved. Apparently the priest was young and easily swayed by Caster’s passion, else he would not have granted the small ceremony, performed there and then with only the gablelarks as witness. From the moment he put on the wedding band, he felt her there, by his side.

Yet it was not all conjugal happiness between man and spirit, as one might hope. Though this was Beliah, to be sure, there was something changed about her, a certain melancholy which had not existed before. She constantly spoke to Caster’s heart of that place beyond, from where she had been so rudely ripped. The place where happiness dwells, a place of spices and honey sweet, of a sun that never sets, a place where smiles are worn constant and do not flower from sadness. And he felt that place call to him, sinister in its charms, where they would be together, and he would have been taken there were it not for some rancour, a sickliness to the honey that he detected, and he came back to himself, standing atop the belfry about to jump. It was then that Caster took off the ring, placed it in the box and tied his handkerchief around it tight, saying her name and the first words that they spoke once for each knot he tied, remembering the times they had spent so happy when she still lived. Binding the ghost to the ring in this way he then took it to Fallow Fields and buried her deep.

Some versions of the stories say he found another love, or that he would dig her up once a year, always careful to never place the ring on his finger, but just to be close. Some say that he changed his mind but that he forgot where she was buried, and that his spirit searches for hers, digging holes every night. It’s for this reason that Lost Palaceres call mole hills ‘Caster’s holes’. In none of the stories is the poor woman’s spirit released from its prison; she is trapped beneath the earth, growing ever more vengeful. When McStannitch opened the ring box he momentarily freed her, but as soon as he put on the ring she was once again trapped, this time in the body of this new man who had never loved her. He felt her presence immediately, but he didn’t, at that point understand what had happened. It was only later, after talking with another local, and to an Occultist that was recommended by that local, that he understood his predicament.

There have been various attempts to send back Beliah to that place alone, but the boatman only goes across the waters once for each soul. No matter the amount of rituals, consecrations or benedictions performed, the way is barred for Beliah. The only way that she could leave would be through eventual entropic decay, or by hitching a ride with another soul to which she had been purely bonded in true love. This may once have been Caster, but his spirit is seemingly lost or long departed alone. But love, unlike the boatman, may come again. This was, at least, the belief of Martha Belledere, the Occultist visited by McStannitch, and it was on the basis of these beliefs that today’s somewhat dubious festival came to be.

The first thing that happens is that everybody gathers in the early morning at the Lost Palace District Hall. Out of the gathered masses most put their names into a hat, and a single person is chosen to take on the burden for a year. You’d be surprised how many people are willing, eager, even, to be possessed by an ancient and possibly vengeful spirit. The hope is that, over precisely a year together, the spirit and volunteer will fall in love, allowing Beliah to pass back over the waters to that other place when they die, but so far most have simply guarded the spirit, stopping it from wreaking havoc, as it would if the ring were taken off and the spirit therefore released. Many of the volunteers report being asked sweetly, nagged and harangued by the spirit to ask them to take off the ring, but they are all trained to resist by the Society of Ghost Friendship. Apparently you only have to look to the alleged ‘Incident of 1847’ when one volunteer, Timothy Squealing, took off the ring for five minutes and in the process his house burned down, all the milk for three miles went sour, and several local elderly folks suffered simultaneous heart attacks, to see the danger of setting the ghost free.

After the volunteer is coached, the crowds reconvene for the main ceremony, the Changing of the Guard, in the evening. On the floorboards a member of the Society draws a special magical circle with sanctified chalk, into which the two ring-guarders step, alongside the Ceremony Leader, who places their ring fingers end to end and slips the ring between them. Often some form of sanctified grease is used in this process, to make it smoother, and if anything were to go wrong, the belief is that the chalk circle would temporarily keep the freed spirit close, and stop it doing any harm. Once the ring is transferred, the Leader says a few magic words, then passes their hand quickly between the two fingers, severing the connection between them. Only then may the three step from the circle.

Perhaps this year the ghost of Beliah will find her soulmate, and the terrible cycle will finally end. Various feminists throughout the ages have pointed out the hideousness of this yearly ritual, comparing it to forced marriage, but seeing as the spirit probably isn’t real most people don’t get too worked up about it. Besides, in modern times her influence and presence is apparently less keenly felt, so perhaps it will be by that first method, entropic decay, that she will find her long-awaited peace.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Pine Scents
  • The Annual Buentoilliçan Modern Art Festival
  • The Candlestick Trick Festival