Excerpted with permission from "Confessions of a Pagan Nun" by Kate Horsley, published by Shambhala.
This historical novel is set in Ireland at the dawn of its Christian era, and tells the story of Gwynneve, a woman who struggles to reconcile the influence of Christianity with her pagan past. After losing her mother and before she converts and becomes a nun, she trains with a druidic teacher, Giannon.
Giannon's home was a configuration of branches, stones, and mud. A dome and a shed of these materials leaned against one another like old drunken warriors at a banquet. All around these structures was a variety of grasses, blossoms, and bushes that I had never seen before. Drying herbs, jars on tethers, and staffs of yew and oak hung on the sides of his dwelling so that it reminded me of Giannon himself when he traveled beneath a tangle of druidic accessories. The clearing with its gardens and dwelling was empty of human life, though a ragged gray wolf scampered into the woods from there. Some might say that the wolf was hungry and weak, for the past winter had been fiercely cold.
I entered the dwelling and found the inside also strung with dried plants, jars, and staffs. There were shelves on which a chaos of boxes and jars sat along with feathers and scrolls and dust. The only furnishings were a table, a small bench, and a bed made of straw covered with the skins of bear and fox. More scrolls, codices, and tablets sat upon these furnishings, as though the originals had multiplied in some orgy when their master was away.
|I well understood Eve's determination to awaken some desire in Adam, even if it be desire for forbidden fruit.|
I walked carefully though this strange chamber, afraid that all of Giannon's belongings and the dwelling itself were capable of collapsing into a dusty pile of rubble. And I believed that a druid's dwelling could likely be set with spells from which I would emerge transformed into a beetle or bee. I waited for Giannon outside, until the world grew dim and I could see wolves running along the tree line beyond the small clearing in which Giannon's home nested.
Finally I saw Giannon approach as a moving and dark form emerging from the trees. I stood, so I would not startle him, and he nodded and entered his dwelling without speaking my name. I waited to follow him, and when I did, I found him in his bed and a wax candle lit upon the table. I lay down beside him. That night we warmed each other but did not become husband and wife. And in the morning when I awoke he was laboring devotedly in his garden. As I watched him there, bending to disappear into the reeds and emerging again as from a lake of grasses, I felt cold, for he had no words nor glances for me. I remembered and grieved the death of my mother as though is had occurred the night before. I was a child, with a child's fear of loneliness.
For many weeks I slept beside Giannon and worked beside him at the table, learning new marks. But though he held my hand in both of his to keep me close, though he touched my face to show his affection for it, and though he laughed with me, he did not lie on me or push himself against me. I spoke with him about my sorrow and longing for my mother; I told him that I had had two husbands before him. There was no secret that I did not tell and that he did not understand. And he began the process of showing me every skill that he knew, holding no secret to his bosom, having no jealousy concerning his powers. Our heads were close over manuscripts by candlelight until the morning star appeared and we stretched our backs before having a short and deep sleep in a still embrace beneath the skins.
One night I asked if he did not want to have me as his wife. This I whispered into his ear as we lay together in a darkness so thick that we could not see each other. He finally asked if I wanted to be his wife, and I told him the truth--that that desire had become larger than any other. I tasted the skin of his shoulders and lightly bit his neck. Instead of turning to me with passion, he made noises of agitation, as though an insect had gotten beneath his clothing. He moved away from me, and a sorrow that I have never known before or since spread through me like blood dropped into a cup of water. I could not move and believed that Giannon the druid had performed a spell that was killing me. I spent that night in the darkness outside, cold to the core of my body.
After this night of dark aloneness, I went into the woods many times to perform rituals with the aim of getting help from the fertile powers of nature in waking Giannon's lust. These were days of great restlessness, and I well understood Eve's determination to awaken some desire in Adam, even if it be desire for forbidden fruit. After I had been with Giannon for four months, I told him that I wanted his child, and then he parted my legs and made me his wife. On this night I believed that his soul had entered mine and created an intimacy with roots so deep that I would never be cold or thirsty or hungry again. I was unable to tell the difference between his pleasure and mine. And when we rested, I wanted to stay always beside him and say more things than we had said, revealing more and probing our histories and ambitions together for many different lifetimes. I believed then in the transmigration of souls, and I vowed to live every incarnation beside Giannon. But he rose quickly from the bed, compelled to tend and nurture his garden as soon as there was light enough to distinguish one blade of grass from another. It conjures sadness in me even now to remember those days, for I had hopes that were never made solid but which always seemed sweet.