Lughnasa marks the August harvest. In Irish mythology, the festival takes its name from Lugh, the god of light, who proclaimed the festival in honor of his mother, Tailtiu, a corn goddess who died of exhaustion after clearing the forests of Ireland for cultivation. Lughnasa is a time for thanksgiving, celebration and peace.
There are times and places that are locked away from the pages of history books. Locked in a mirror or in the reflection of a pool. Locked in the watery caves of our minds.
I know a story or two from such an untouched asylum. We all know such tales.
The characters show themselves, in our waking hours, like will o’ wisps out of the corner of our eyes and, at night, as glimpses in the last moments of our dreams. Sometimes we recognize them; often we do not. Yet, their stories are of our essence.
Our memories are long and bold. They do not allow us to forget where we have been in this uncertain world. They are not afraid, and no longer am I.
Put your hand in mine, and I will guide you between two stones into the long ago and the far away. I will take you on a journey into the deep.
She wore red velvet and no shoes.
A spring breeze lifted strands of her straw-colored hair as she ran through a field to reach the bank of the river. Majestic trees pulsating with strength towered above the waters swollen with the last of the melted snow. The young woman threw her long arms around one whose braided outer trunk had earned it the distinction of being her favorite. Her soft cheeks nuzzling its rough bark, she felt safe and protected while under its wide, leafy arms and straddling its thick, strong roots.
As above, so below.
The sylvan clasped her slender hands in prayer fashion as a cushion for her head and closed her generous sky-blue eyes for a rare moment of rapture. Tears squeezed their way through; her wearying life with her husband contrasted so noisily with this peace.
Gently, she opened her eyes and peered downwards. The vinelike figure cut herself from the oak and dropped over the bank moving toward the river, finding familiar footholds on the way. Her feet were hardened by miles and miles of walking barefoot on the cold, firm earth, her punishment for being bad. She was nineteen and married to a man who took it as his duty to discipline her. The tall, elegant wife held her skirt as she lowered herself onto a stone throne and then spread its fullness around her, hiding her shame about which the townswomen teased her.
“They’re so long and narrow! How do you walk on them? I can’t imagine them holding up a body. They look as though they’d break,” the townspeople of Listowel in County Kerry, western Ireland, would taunt, their own feet being wide and solid.
Everything about them was solid. Solid and dark. Everything about her was light and ethereal.
“What your husband sees in you, I’ll never know nor, surely, understand,” they would say. “You’re nothing but a wisp of a girl. You don’t know the things a woman does to keep her man coming home each night. And even if you did, you couldn’t keep him warm. Your back isn’t wide enough to support anyone other than your own meager self.
“Where do you come from, girl? You don’t look like anyone else. There’s far too much mystery about your beginnings for you to be trusted. Who are your people? Where do you get your fair skin, blond hair and narrow feet that no one else around here has? You can’t even say yourself, can you?
“Can you? Can you? Can you?”
The pain wrung from these jeers drenched Feale’s spirit so that draping her dress over her feet was instinctive. Sitting at the edge of the water, she was not aware of those caustic voices. She heard only the coo of the wood pigeon and the call of the cuckoo. The murmur of the river bathed her ears in the calm of the afternoon. She was happy.
Nothing else mattered but the flow of the river. Nothing.
Feale let her mind float on the wings of a white butterfly lifting itself high, high, high, above the tallest tree in the grove and then disappearing over the top. She let it fly away from her misery. She let it forget her plodding on the ground.
The dreamer drank in the elixir of solitude which was strengthened by her knowledge that the wood abounded with life steeped in divinity. Nature did not reject her. No. It embraced her purity of spirit as one with it. It affirmed her best thoughts about herself which rarely surfaced anywhere but here.
She remembered her mother’s hands picking her up as a baby, holding her bottom and rubbing her back in a circular motion. It was a memory from a time when she was loved without question, and she guarded it fiercely. But only those hands, warm and knowing, comforted her even now because she could not see through the miasma of time to her father’s hands, face or voice. His existence was shrouded in the fog of her wretched life. She would call upon him neither for definition nor sustenance. In her world, men robbed from women; they wreaked anarchy.
Feale smiled at the breaking up of the clouds in the sky and the sun’s blessing on her. She arched her back and breathed easily. The day’s sweetness drizzled down on her.
Suddenly in the distance, a voice growled, “Feale,” chasing away the light.
The sound of birds flapping their wings filled the air. The shadow of a skylark descended on Feale’s angular, intelligent face as it uttered its song of farewell. She flinched hard.
Chills ran over her body like an army of ants. A buzzing, not to be contained, erupted in her head. She trembled as she gathered herself to her feet and climbed the riverbank. She bit down on her lower lip unaware that she had broken through the skin and drops of blood trickled down her chin.
“He can’t find me here,” she thought. “If he does, he’ll forbid me to return.”
Like a madwoman, she tore through the woods, her fear keeping her from stumbling on fallen branches as she darted like a fox from one tree to another.
“Feale,” the voice commanded again. “Come here. Now.”
She flew even faster, expanding the space between herself and her husband.
She wondered: “Why does he hound me so?”
But no, she could not dwell on that now. She had to focus on eluding the iron grip of Edgar. If he caught her, he would squeeze her in the vise of his love. He would punish her. And he would scorn her even more.
Oh, God, who knows what other ways he would discover for her to suffer under his dominion. Her neighbors only saw her naked feet; they did not know about his other inflictions which were as complex as works of art. He labored at hurting her. He delighted at turning her pleasure into pain.
“Run, run!” she pushed herself, grateful for her long stride and Edgar’s short, stout body. He would not catch her; she only hoped that he would not see her.
The tyrant was bleeding her of her dignity. Feale had fled her haven where the elements told her that she was magnanimous and expansive. She had run back to her life, her prison, where she was belittled and reduced to other people’s visions about who she should be in this world.
“Feale,” his voice sounded small, but far away as it was, the anger was vivid in its cutting delivery. It was still as sharp when he stormed into their house.
As he spoke, Feale grew smaller and smaller until she was tinier than the hanging black iron cauldron that she stirred conscientiously over a dead fire.
“I am so sorry,” she muttered, apologizing for whatever she had done to make him angry while unconsciously wiping the blood from her chin. “I’m bad, I know. I’m sorry.”
“And a liar as well,” he countered. “You were down at the river, weren’t you?”
Feale could not admit the truth to him. The river kept her sane; it nourished her. If she lost this refuge, her life would become unbearable.
“No,” she said, from her stool. “No, I wasn’t. I was right here cooking for you.”
She braced herself for what she knew was inevitable. He strode over to her and glared down, lording over her debasement. Slowly, he raised his right hand over his left shoulder.
“Liar!” he said, as he brought down his hand in a clean swipe that struck her face with such force that it knocked her off the stool.
Her cheek smacked the dirt floor. But she took the slap in stoic silence because if she cried, whimpered or dared to speak, he would muzzle her with punches. There is no difference between a sharp slap and a hard blow; there are no degrees of tyranny.
“Deny it,” he challenged, crouching down beside her so that he could better witness her humiliation.
“I was not there,” she said, steady and low, fainter than the buzzing in her head.
Edgar’s stormy eyes glowered at her.
“I know that it was a sacrifice for you to marry me, and I know that I’m not worth it,” she succumbed.
Subdued by her submission, almost tender, he stroked her disheveled hair and said: “Why did I marry you?”
Feale shivered. He would want to get close to her now. She braced for his lunge so that her cringe would not show and infuriate him. His thick, mean hands grabbed her bottom with a searing fury that branded his prints on her. Then he threw up her dress with an urgency of his own. She steeled herself against his attack. She steeled herself against his entering her. She steeled herself against him.
He slobbered into her cleavage. A thin web of his saliva glued itself to her body. She was disgusted by all his bodily secretions. Yet, she was his wife and fighting to stay alive. He grunted his appreciation as he slid off her. She pulled down her red velvet dress and curled up on her side, hugging her legs together. Edgar slapped her behind, reared himself to his feet and demanded:
“Food. Where is the food you claimed to be preparing this afternoon?”
She scrambled shakily to her feet. Her lower back and thighs felt as though they had been disjointed like a dead mammal. Her body and spirit broken by his riding, she attended to his stew.
He had believed her, thank God. The buzzing in her head ceased its alarm. The river was safe from his acquisition and safe for her retreat.
Undaunted, Edgar crossed over to another shore of accusations.
“Three years we’ve been married, and you’ve yet to conceive,” he said, while her back was still to him. “Your stomach is as flat now as it was the day we vowed to have children. What’s wrong with you?
“You’re not a woman! How can you be a woman? What kind of woman doesn’t have children, doesn’t want children? You can’t want children. Otherwise, you would have gotten with child by now. Who are you? What are you? You’re cursed! That’s what. What do you know about life? You’ve never given birth, wife.
“My wife,” he snarled. “How many women covet your position. And you? You slight it. I married you out of pity because I’m a generous man. A Druid bard. A leader. I had to take you into my house. No one ese would.”
Feale closed her ears to his tirade, protecting herself from his sword of a tongue, which did pierce one truth. She did not want a child. She did not want to perpetuate their legacy of oppression in the lives of the unborn. Edgar did not know that Feale had not bled in two months.
“Are you listening to me, Feale?”
“Yes, sir. I am,” she answered on reflex.
Her thoughts drowned out his words. She felt as though she were underwater.
“I am nothing,” she reflected, in a body that did not seem like hers with a mind that was constantly under siege and a soul that was ignored. “A lump of clay with life breathed into it. My worth is less than that of my oak by the river. I have no direct link with the divine.
“Edgar prays. He studies. He worships God with the others. With the men. I don’t,” she thought. “I want the chance to lose myself in worship so I can know myself. Maybe then I could find my place. Maybe then I could make sense of my life.”
As she served Edgar the tepid beef stew, the clay bowl scraped the square wooden table, and she blurted out: “What if I were to be allowed in the circle dance in August?”
Lughnasa, the time was called. It was a month of feasting, drinking and carousing
at many a neighbor’s wedding. But at the circle dance, joined in by most every man, liquid spirits were forbidden. The dancers’ fused power sparked a skin-tingling charge without drink. Besides, at this time, the water in the river alone would drunken revelers. The waters were blessed. They were mystical. They were sacred. Sacred waters.
The clean air swept through the nooks and crannies of the world freshening up the reason to wake up to tomorrow. The fruitful earth gave up her harvest as the sun shined its fieriest.
It was a magical and happy time for Edgar and the men. For Feale, who
boasted no friends and many ill-wishers, it was a sad time. Her suffering as a woman became all the more apparent during Lughnasa because much of the celebration was denied to her. Lughnasa was a demeaning time because it was when she was most embarrassed about being herself.
“Women don’t dance,” Edgar dismissed Feale. He inhaled deeply the sweet,
earthy aroma of his food. “Do you know of a woman who does? No. Why is that? Because they don’t. That’s why.”
“But women did at one time,” she said. “The old poems tell us that.”
“Why do you insist on infringing on my world?” he said. “You don’t need to
communicate with anyone but me. I am your idol, your object of worship, your work divine.”