CONFESSIONS OF A PAGAN NUN by Kate Horsley (Review)

This book is set in the period when the Church moved in and took over Ireland.

Gwynneve trains as a Ban-druí (druidess) under a surly and disillusioned druid who is watching his order pass into history as the tonsured monks and priests swarm over the land.

But two different stories run concurrently, in alternate chapters. One is Gwynneve’s story of her childhood with her wonderful mother –

My father accused my mother of starving me by filling me up with stories instead of food. Everyone in my túath was hungry, especially during the months of thick frost. But I did not want food as much as I craved her stories, which soothed me. I listened to my mother weave words together and create worlds, as though she were a goddess. Words came from her mouth and dispelled my loneliness, even when she was not with me. She began every story with the phrase “It was given to me that “

– and then, when her mother has died, the story of her life with Giannon the druid.

And meanwhile, in the other chapters, we learn about the life she leads now as a nun among other Christian nuns who are drifting helplessly under the authority of a monk, Brother Adrianus, one of a small band who originally joined the nuns at the shrine of St Brigit on equal terms but who has now assumed the title and dignity of Abbot.

It is, let me say at once, depressing in parts. How could it not be? But as Gwynneve the nun, in the convent that is becoming daily more like a prison (and longing for her druid lover) writes her story on her treasured parchments, it is also very moving, and even uplifting.

Take some of Gwynneve’s views and comments (recorded in the secret diary).

Faced with unbelievable ignorance and stupidity, she writes: I admonish myself and all who read this not to be ignorant on any matters of which knowledge is available. Do not be afraid of the truth “

And later: For we both were weak in doctrine and strong in questions. But we both loved effort and knowledge, though I saw Giannon become weary in his eyes. I do not understand a man who does not want to know all that he can know.”

On the loneliness of incarnation: Among all the wisdom and facts I learned from Giannon, I also learned the loneliness of incarnation, in which there is inevitably a separation of souls because of the uniqueness of our faces and our experiences.

On God and nature: I cannot see that any religion is true that does not recognize its gods in the green wave of trees on a mountainside or the echo of a bird’s song that makes ripple on a shadowed pool […] This land is full of holiness that I cannot describe.  Brigit knows this. Brigit to me is the wisest of all the saints. She knows the value of ale and the comfort of poetry.”

On Christ and kindness: That Christ fed fish and bread to the poor and spoke to the outcast whore makes me want his company on this dark night. The world is full of immortals but sorely lacking in kindness.”

It is indeed. And the end is truly shocking. Not depressing, no, on second thoughts. Tragic.

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THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE (by W. B. Yeats)

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, and a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

UNRELIABLE ASSUMPTIONS (by Vernon Scannell)

Hand-in-hand, smiling as they stroll,
The elderly man and woman pause to nod
Back at the municipal geraniums
Before resuming their unhurried trail
Towards the caf‚ near the swings and slide.

It would be easy to assume that this
Old couple had witnessed the dear, swift flight
Of fifty years or more of matrimony.
Not so. They met a month ago, or less,
At the Darby and Joan in Mercury Street.

It is unwise to make assumptions from
Observed appearances and signs. The roar
Of honking laughter from the Red Lion snug
Might mask distress, could even hide the dumb
Misery of absolute despair.

When my old friend, George Carmody, was seen
Leaving All Hallows after matins that Sunday,
And yet again at evensong, one might
Guess that he, improbably, had been
Converted, late, to Christianity.

But no, as Carmody himself confessed,
He had followed down the street a girl in frail
And flowery dress, sweet brevity of which
Revealed the longest, loveliest bare legs
That ever made eyes pop and breathing stall.

Those sleek and beckoning limbs had led him there
To lurk in musty shadows near the font
And watch the holy shaft of sunlight coax
Her hair to fine-spun gold, while bluish air
Was stained with rose-breath, wax, psalms’ bready scent.

For most of that long summer Carmody
Was seen on Sunday in the sacred house.
Though there for heathen reasons, might not he
Have found in sermon, hymn and litany
At least a rumour of God’s love and peace?

Well, no. Each Sunday, breathing pious air,
He had never felt more hopelessly alone,
And gazing at her aureate head would groan
Beneath the heavy sadness of desire,
Learn nothing that he had not always known.

ADRIFT (by Deidre Cartmill)

I sniff the duvet as I pull it close
and wrap my arms around your memory

I lie in the smell of your aftershave.
Sweat drips off the sheets onto my skin.

One black sock, discarded by the bed
rolls under to hide with the bogeyman.

I sniff the duvet as I pull it close
and wrap my arms around your memory.

I wonder what phantoms you cling to –
my bruised lips skimming your stubbled cheek

the imprint of fingers on your pulsing
my photograph pinned above your desk

with the other fantasy images.
As I lie in the warmth of your absence

lulled by illusions of intimacy
I pull the memories close and drift back to sleep.

DONKEYHOOD (by Moira Clark)

When I first decided to become a donkey
it seemed so natural.
I’d actually been one for years
only no one had noticed;
not even my husband.

It was a slow change –
didn’t want to alarm the children –
a slight growth of facial hair
(well, I was post-menopause)
and toes that glued hoof-like together
(unseen in slippers, shoes, and certainly my most
unattractive feature, so no one bothered to look).

When my voice became hoarse I feigned a cold
but heard the change, was resigned to a laughterless life.
‘Mum’s depressed again,’ the children said
but when they were all out having fun,
I’d laugh for all I was worth, marvel at the heehaw sounds.

My secret was uncovered when I’d forgotten
to push my tasselled tail out of sight
but by then there were nodules of ears
growing from my scalp and I knew
it was only a matter of time.

‘I’m a donkey,’ I admitted casually,
one day over a bowl of carrots,
when I couldn’t stand upright any more.
You should have heard their laughter
until I reminded them of genetic inheritance
and the wonderful world of DNA …

THEBES OF THE HUNDRED GATES by Robert Silverberg (Review)

A short novel – 30,000 words or so, hardly more than a novella – by one of the grand masters of the genre.

In Thebes of the Hundred Gates, the Time Service in Home Era (like NOW) sends a young “volunteer” (none of the more experienced operatives will touch it) back to ancient Egypt in search of two of their own who overshot the mark and got lost in time a year and a half earlier. Now Service backroom-boys have managed to pinpoint them in Thebes – Thebes at the height of its splendour, under Amenhotep III, the great pharaoh whose son, Amenhotep IV, better known as the arch-heretic Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti, attempted to reform the Egyptian religion.

Edward Davis, our all-American-boy hero, materialises in the heat and dirt of a secluded back alley and immediately falls ill. Not because of the filth …

Two donkeys stood just in front of him, chewing on straw, studying him with no great curiosity. A dozen yards or so behind him was some sort of rubble-heap, filling the alley almost completely. His sandal-clad left foot was inches from a row of warm green turds that one of the donkeys must have laid down not very long before. To the right flowed a thin runnel of brownish water so foul that it seemed to him he could make out the movements of giant microorganisms in it, huge amoebas and paramecia, grim predatory rotifers swimming angrily against the tide.

But he had been inoculated against anything Thebes might come up with. No, it was temporal shock – it’s like “a parachute jump without the parachute“, they had told him, jumping so far uptime, “but if you live through the first five minutes you’ll be okay.” He had been back 400 and 600 years before, but never anything like this.

He loses consciousness; and when he wakes up, finds himself in a temple, in the capable hands of Nefret, Priestess of Isis. However, she seems only to want to be rid of him, and as soon as he recovers, arranges for him to live and work among the embalmers, the mummifiers, in the necropolis on the other side of the Nile.

It is a refuge for which briefly he is grateful, but it turns out that he is little more than a slave there and the overseers have whips and he has only thirty days – twenty-eight left now – before his rendez-vous for pick-up at exactly midday back in that alley. How can he hope to track down the missing time travellers from there, stranded on the wrong side of the river?

A wonderful glimpse, not only of the world of the future where chrononauts travel uptime and back downtime – it is still, obviously, the early days of time travel – but also of the past, of Thebes of the Hundred Gates, teeming with people, all of them, in the childhood of the world, concerned with only one thing: death, and the afterlife; and reincarnation.

This little book is perfect.