Marcellus at Lupercalia

 

loin cloth

On the morning of Lupercalia we went first to the temple of Pan. It was here we paid tribute to the god of shepherds and nature, he that watched over all animals, including the beloved wolf, Lupa, for which this festival was named.

I was lucky, for I was among those of the Brotherhood, we the high priests who would be anointed with blood of the goat and dog. In the temple we raised our voices, shouted prayers to the hooved god, knelt in praise. We then passed wineskins, drank in camaraderie and offered the robes off our backs in sacrifice.

When devotions had ended, we marched down the cobbled streets wearing only our loincloths. In the village we met Calpurnia, of Juno’s temple. She held an alabaster jar and inside it, etched in parchment, were the names of every unwed maid in the city.

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Calpurnia shook the jar. “With the blessings of Juno and in hopes Cupid smiles upon you. May you have the maids you desire, gentlemen,” she said. She held out the jar to me. I was first to choose, for that year it was I who  represented Romulus.

I thrust my hand into the jar, twisting and extending my fingertips, all the while silently praying to Pan for a good match.

When I pulled up the parchment I saw the name: Lucretia. I knew of her, a modest girl, daughter of a widowed grain farmer. She claimed no fortune nor dowry yet her beauty had always astounded me.

“Lucretia.” Calpurnia smiled, ruby lips etching her white teeth. She raised a hand, beckoned to the girl who stood, arms crossed, her rain colored garments flowing in the February wind. She was lovely. But would she have me?

Lucretia glanced at her father who nodded and motioned her forward. The girl smiled, moved with an awkward grace and stood before me. “It seems, my lord, I am yours for the duration of this festival,” she said. She gave a stiff curtsey and I bowed before her. “I shall unite with you after the anointing,” she added. Before she moved to Calpurnia’s side her gray eyes caught mine. There was a teasing glint, a passing smile. She tossed her hair. “Be aware, Sir, I am of the cult of Diana.”

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It was an odd custom, the drawing of names from a jar. All matches were left to the Fates and the Gods. Yet in the case of Lucretia, I knew Pan had favored me.

When the Brotherhood had finished selection all the men of the village moved forward. Calpurnia dispensed names. Some were pleased and some appalled. “Take heart,” Brother Julian counseled Cicero, who had received the name of the plainest girl in all of Rome. “It’s only for a fortnight.” He winked. “And you, Brother Marcellus. You have been given a great gift. Lucretia is a beauty among beauties and the purest in the land.”

“Too pure for words,” Cicero added. “But also wild. It has been said no man will ever tame her.”

“Tame her?” I answered. “It is not my desire to tame her. Is it not said, the wilder they are the better they shall breed?” It was a bold claim on my part, and somewhat vulgar.  I should be so lucky as to bed her.  The cult of Diana were sworn virgins, every last one of them.

With the other high priests I proceeded to the cave of Lupercal. It was there that Lupa the she wolf had once nursed Remus and Romulus. They were, the legend says, abandoned by their natural mother and then suckled to health from Lupa’s teat. Later they founded our great state of Rome, and indeed it was only one fierce as a wolf that could be worthy of such a founding.

The sacrificial animals were brought to the cave. Two young goats and a dog. With my blade I sliced their throats.

Brother Julian took my knife. He cleaned it with a cloth of wool that had been soaked in milk. He then drained the animals’ blood and anointed the forehead of each priest. “The blood of life,” he said solemnly. “May your women prove fertile as the earth.”

Once anointed, we proceeded to skin the hides off the animals. We soaked the hides in lukewarm salt water and vinegar, toughening them into the februa strands, those that would be used to strike the women.

“Remember to hit softly,” Julian cautioned. “So  they not be afraid. We want them eager for more. Their loins will then spill with their own milk to bring you sons and daughters.”

The next morning, armed with our februa strands, all the men of the village lined up for the run. The women laughed and gossiped, whispering in each other’s ears. They leaned like soft willows along the buildings and aqueducts. They were quarry, waiting to be caught by we the hunters.

Lucretia was nowhere to be seen.

Calpurnia chimed the bell and the februa run began. Swift on my feet, I softly struck as many maids as I could reach.  “To make you fertile, to make you bountiful, to ease your pain in childbirth,” I chanted along with the other men. The women, although feigning pain, deliberately stood in our way. Only those that were touched by our goat hides, so said the legend, would be able to bear children.

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After the run Calpurnia led us to the great dining hall. Before we entered she took hold of my shoulder. “Marcellus,” she said, “Have you not seen your young maid?”

“No Madame,” I answered, “and of it I am quite disappointed.”

“Remember she is a child of Diana and therefore not easily moved.” Calpurnia tilted her head, smiled broadly and rested her gaze across the dining hall. “There she is. Not too proud to attend the feast. Go to her, boy!”

I bowed to Calpurnia, made my way across the hall. At the end of a long oak table sat Lucretia, a goblet of wine in her hands.

“Brother Marcellus,” she greeted me. “Please accompany me.” She patted her long, sun brown hand on the bench I quickly sat beside her.

“I missed you at the run of februa,” I said, stammering slightly.

“The hide of goat to insure fertility?” She scowled, popped her gray eyes at me. “Surely you do not believe such a lame custom?”

“We of the Brotherhood, my lady, are instructed to believe in such.”

“The Brotherhood is falsity!”

“My lady?”

“You heard me. Falsity I say!”

“I beg pardon my lady, but the fertility of goat hide is our custom and our belief. In this I have been trained and in this hold the title of Romulus Luperci.”

“Luperci!” she sneered. “When he meal is finished, I shall take you to the wood.”

Although the venison and goat’s meat were tasty I barely noticed them. My thoughts were only upon Lucretia. When the feast was finished the mummers aligned for the evening’s entertainment. Lucretia took my hand. “Now,” she said.

“What of the pageantry my lady?”

“Rot the pageantry!” she nearly screamed, gray eyes blazing. “Would you not rather see the vast pageantry of Diana’s wood?”

I could not refuse her. Together we slipped from the dining hall. She led me through the streets of Rome, past the coliseum and the temples, past the merchant’s square and the emperor’s palace. She led me far into the forest. The grass was stiff with winter’s frost.  Night had fallen and the Quickening Moon shone bright and full. In the distance stags and deer pranced freely, pausing to watch us as we passed. Finally she reached a myrtle tree, its enormous branches full with tiny buds.

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“Here,” she declared. “Remove your loincloth.”

Her lovemaking was passionate and strong, with the timing and precision of one who has never in her life been a virgin. No blood spilled beneath her. She smiled, arched an eyebrow, stretched a finger across my cheek. I dared not question her.

“Not all the women of Diana are virgins,” she offered. “Do not let it perplex you, Marcellus.”  She breathed in my ear, climbed atop me again. I was young, virile and not yet spent.

We made love four times before the yellow sun poured its rays through the trees. I fell asleep in her arms.

When I awoke she was gone. The myrtle tree stood, now towering and ripe with flower.

myrtle-tree

The air was hot, steamy as the bath houses in summer.  The grass had grown thick around me.  I stood up, my legs stiff and depleted. In the far distance I saw a new wheat field, golden with stalk. On wobbly legs I walked.

The landscape of the forest had changed. Orange and lemon trees towered above me, fruit falling off their limbs. Flowers of every genus sprouted from the ground. Tangled vines extended before me like tentacles of octopi, heavy with purple grapes. I trudged on.

In all seriousness, I knew I must get back to the temple of Pan.  My duties as Luperci were not yet complete. But Lucretia? What had happened to her? Surely she had returned to the village, to her father. I decided, right then and there, I would ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was only fitting. Such a wife she would make — beautiful, ravishing, unstoppable! I wondered if she was already with child.

At the edge of the forest I tripped over a mass of gray fur, a curled body, soft and warm against my sandals. Clumsily I fell to the ground. Lucretia had exhausted me and I felt very sleepy and dazed.  In my stupor I rubbed my eyes, not believing the blurred sight before me.

It was a wolf stretched out on the grass. Five tiny pups suckled her teats. The wolf lifted her head, gray eyes glinting.  She bared her teeth, white and pearly against her jowls, but not unkind.

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The wolf sat up, lapped her tongue against my cheek. “Your intentions are well, but you need not marry me, Marcellus,” she said. “I have no dowry and besides, my duty is forever to Diana’s land. Rest assured you have served your role well. Now we shall part forever.”

I crouched down beside her. “I will have you,” I said quietly.  “You are a shifter, a child of Diana. I see that now. But nonetheless I will have you.”

The wolf stood upon sturdy legs. She tilted her head, perked her ears as if she meant to say more, but then in a flash she bolted into the forest. The five tiny pups scurried after her.

There was a rustle in the trees and I looked above me.  There in the branches, the god Cupid stood, half naked, holding his bow and arrow. He winked at me and in one swift movement he shot his arrow, hitting the wolf straight in the back.

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She then transformed. She was Lucretia, gray eyes, hair in disarray, her simple dress the color of rain, clinging to her sweaty body. She walked toward me.

“Brother Marcellus,” Cupid called from the tree.  I looked up. He hung like a sloth, sultry smile on his face. “You will love her, and she will love you. But there will always be a wildness in her and you will never completely tame her. Do not try.” He then vanished.

Cupid was right. My wife was a night prowler, forever chasing the moon, quick of temper, insatiable for sex. My daughters, all five, and the sons that followed would never be completely tamed either.  We had grandchildren, great grandchildren, and more after that, generations that lasted long after the Feast of Lupercalia was forgotten. Our ancient festival was swallowed up in the more ‘civilized’ traditions of Valentines and chocolates.

And yet.

Ever after that all descendants of Lucretia and myself were thought to have bit of the wolf-blood within them. Our descendants scattered to all corners of the world.

If you, dear reader, have been drawn into this story, or if you have gone giddy under a Quickening Moon, or if you have ever fallen truly, madly and inexplicably in love by the shot of Cupid’s arrow — well then, you just may be one of those descendants!

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Return to the Underworld

 

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Demeter:

Autumn is, by my own hand and bidding, the bleakest of seasons. It is then I make the world wither and die.  Would you expect less of me? My beloved daughter Persephone is taken from me once again. She must return to the abode of the dead, forever at the mercy of her husband Hades.  And I, the great grain goddess, go into a state of grief, near madness. I make no secret of this.  As I suffer, the world around me suffers as well.

Leaves drop from their branches, fruit rots on its vines.  Fields go barren, animals grow lean with starvation. The sun, once vibrant and gold, flickers intermittently, its warmth sporadic.  The days grow shorter, the nights eerie and long.  Dank cold sets in, gales of rough winds churning.  Soon all the rivers and ponds will freeze with black ice, fish trapped beneath.  All things must die. This is my only revenge, to cut sunlight from the world of the living.

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I blame Hades, of course.  It was he, the dark lord, who kidnapped my daughter, making her his child bride. Though he may be ruler of the Underworld, he is not fit for a wife such as she!

I still remember that day in the Sicilian fields. My daughter Persephone had been gathering grapes, sweet and purple as heather. How she loved to pluck them! It was her utmost joy. The innocence of childhood still bubbled within her. She knew nothing of the world. She was, as I recall, quite young.

Then suddenly, the land gaped open in a hideous crack.  I heard a blood curdling shriek as Sir Hades galloped up on his horse, a black stallion. In one fell sweep he scooped up my baby.

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Down, down, they rode, into the abyss of the earth, mud sputtering.  I chased them but Hades’ stallion outran me. Tar lurched as they entered the bowels of hell. I watched, powerless and bereft. The gap of land sealed, trapping them beneath. My beloved Persephone was gone, leaving only the sun dappled fields behind, her basket of grapes tipped over and spilled on the grass.  

I sunk to my knees and wept.

What Hades did to my child in the Underworld, I dare not imagine!  The gory details are too hideous for a mother to ponder.  I only know that somehow he bribed my girl with pomegranate seeds. Yes bribery!  Leave it to a rogue like Hades to concoct a shrewd scheme. Somehow he convinced Persephone to eat a full six seeds, thus binding her to the darkness.

Six seeds, ripe and perfect, all ingested by my child. And each of those seeds insured that she could never be fully released from the wretched prison of the Underworld. Yet there were also six seeds left uneaten. Thank the heavens for that.  Therefore we reached a compromise, Hades and I.  It was agreed that for six months out of the year my child would reside with the dark lord, but for the six remaining months she’d return home to me.   To be clear, it was NOT a generous compromise. I objected adamantly. However, my brother Zeus insisted it was the best that could be arranged.

And so, it is for this reason I wreak  winter’s havoc upon the earth, depriving all living things of food and sustenance. As I suffer, so all must suffer!

Today is the autumn equinox and Hades has come to claim her.   Thus we are parted, my daughter and I, until springtime.

I  curse this land.

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Persephone:

Gentle human, lend me your ear.  Has my mother Demeter been bending it with her tales of woe?  Has she told you of how, for six long months she will be separated from me, her baby daughter?  How today, at autumn’s equinox, I am banished to the Underworld where I must reside with my evil husband until my joyous return in the spring?   Oh, I can just hear her, voice whining like a sad violin!  Spare me of it!  The story she tells could not be further from the truth.

The day my lord Hades rescued me from the drab labor of the Sicilian fields was the happiest day of my life. Do you know what I did in those fields? My uncle Zeus forced me to pick grapes. Grapes! To be made into wine for his vast banquets. I toiled for hours in the blazing sun, my hands raw under the vines, my back burnt red-brown.  I was no better than a common slave.  Oh, how I wished that fruit would wither upon its vine!  And then, in further humiliation, I was made to crush the grapes with my own feet, slithering peels wrapped between my toes. When Hades finally rescued me I was nothing but a sad waif, smelling of concord and sugar, purple stains etched in my hands and heels.

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I still remember, clear as crystal, the day my dark lord came for me. Riding upon his black steed, he emerged like a knight from the red caverns of the earth. Never had I seen a man more stunning, more virile or more handsome!  I abandoned my work, craning my neck to get a closer look. My heart raced.  I was by then a woman, having reached my eighteenth name day, though my mother still thought me a child.   Hades said nothing to me, all communication smoldered within his eyes.  I understood.  When he extended his hand I knew my life would be changed in that instant.

My lord Hades was the kindest, gentlest of all the gods, and when he asked me to become his bride I did not hesitate for one moment. He offered me a pomegranate which I eagerly bit into, pink succulence twirling on my tongue.  Hades then cautioned me about eating the seeds. He advised I leave some behind on the table, so that I could still be permitted to return to earth if I chose.

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Return to earth? However could he think such a thing? I had no interest in earth! I wanted only to live in his world, far away from my prying mother and my tedious uncle. But alas, the dark lord insisted:

“Leave six seeds uneaten,” he said. “Do this not for yourself but as an act of kindness toward your mother.  She misses you tremendously and grieves each day you are gone.  Do it also as a generosity to humankind, for Demeter has made the earth barren in your absence.  If you agree to visit with her for even a part of the year she will replenish the grain and fruit.  Humankind and their animals will therefore never starve.”

His manner was so humble, his voice so true.  I could not refuse him. Nor could I be responsible for the starvation of humankind and their beloved animals!  And so I spat out six pomegranate seeds, lining them up neatly upon Hades’ table. He nodded solemnly.  “An agreement will be reached,” he assured me.

My dark lord and I were married that day on the shores of the River Styx, Charon and Cerberus presiding.  With no reservations I pledged myself to Hades, his eternal bride.

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Because of the agreement, every year at the vernal equinox I  must return to the land of the living. I visit Demeter for six months. During this time she makes the earth rich with wheat and barley, apples, grapes, even pomegranates, and all manner of fruits and vegetables. The sun beats down upon us and the rivers run cool.

By summer’s end the fields are tired, overwrought from their busy production. The land needs a rest, and I too need a rest from my mother’s over-protection and my uncle’s stern hand.

When the autumn equinox arrives it is the most glorious of all days!  The earth brandishes its jewels, landscape scattered with ruby leaves.  The sun lowers  to golden haze and the temperature grows cool. It is then the cavern of the Underworld opens and Hades greets me once again.

 

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I then return to my true home, where I rule in splendor for six months.

In the Underworld servants dote on me and Orpheus serenades with his lyre.  Charon brings his passengers, the newly dead, to the shores of our river. There I greet them with joy, welcoming them to our abode. I am respected and loved. Best of all, my uncle Zeus can never make me crush grapes again!

However, I am unhappy with this bothersome six month contract.  I vow to dismantle it!

And I will.

Sometime in the 21st century I  plan to present my case to the Council of Olympus. The weather upon planet earth will  then became chaotic. Winter will seem as summer and vice versa. Tornadoes and hurricanes will  wreak havoc upon the land. There will be tsunamis, earthquakes and blizzards, causing much destruction.

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I must warn you, gentle human, do not to be alarmed. There is no warming of your globe, nor have you brought this inclement weather upon yourselves.  It is only me and my lord Hades, attempting to bargain with Demeter.  Hot tempered, she shall take her vengeance out on the earth.

But fear not. When I renegotiate my contract all will be well.  The earth shall be restored, replenished and free of chaos. It is then my mother Demeter and my Uncle Zeus will finally release their hold upon me. It is then I’ll take my true and rightful place where I will live in bliss, year long, by my husband’s side.

As above, so below. The world shall be at peace and so shall I.

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Charon and the Underworld

 

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It is I who carries them. The diseased, the comatose, the broken and the crippled. The murdered, the accidents, the suicides. I carry them all.  My task is to bring them to the shores of the Underworld.  Some call me the Grim Reaper, some call me the Angel of Death, but my true name is Charon the Ferryman.   With my faithful dog Cerberus by my side, I transport passengers across the River Styx to the left bank where my master Hades and his wife Persephone gleefully  await their arrival.  This is my job and I would have no other.

You have, no doubt, read about Cerberus.  The books will claim he has three heads and  that he is a vicious howling thing. The books tell a grave lie!   Nothing could be further from the truth!  Cerberus is a magnificent animal, sensitive and loyal, the best companion any captain could wish for.

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As you might imagine, I am overworked and underpaid, receiving a mere danake for each body I transport.    It is with much effort I perform my tasks, lifting  dead weight, often times nearly sinking my ship.  All the while I myself am the sole oarsman, no help from another.   I am old but strong.  In the sweltering summer heat, in the dead of winter, I move decrepit  flesh, withered limbs and wasted organs. All  go to the kingdom of Hades. How the Lord and Lady love this, the game of new souls.

On some days Cerberus and I have literally thousands of passengers.  In seasons of plague and famine my job is hectic, but the busiest of all is wartime. I am then given an endless shipment of bodies, wounded and maimed, all senseless deaths. Yet Humankind persist in foolishly killing one another, bickering over causes they cannot even define!   Wartime is indeed the biggest failure of  all humanity.

Now, upon the planet earth, it is ALWAYS wartime.

Often I enter hospital rooms and see to it that patients, once full of life, become no more than a flat-lined  blip on a computer screen. I am the stopping of hearts, the stopping of lungs. I am the malfunction of digestive tracts. I am the ethereal glove that takes a soul from a coma.

Yet I do it all in mercy.

I am wise in my choices of whom I will transport. Discreet and selective. Yet I am not perfect. Sometimes I make a mistake, choosing one  who is not yet ready for death.

Today there is one such as this. A youth, not more than seven years old. She lies on a hospital bed, the civilian victim of war’s crossfire.  I am reluctant to take her. But her  body suffers so! The doctors speak of amputation, for little her legs have been so disfigured.   Her heart beats weakly.  I cannot bear to see the poor thing in this state!  And so, in my kindness, I take her.

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Now, on my ferry, I can sense that the child longs to go back to the land of the living. She squirms, stirs in her sleep, flutters her eyes open.  She cannot speak but I know she sees me.  She sees Cerberus and I as we hover above her. Cerberus watches with soulful eyes. He whimpers, pleading to me.  “This one cannot be taken. Not yet.”

It is always wise to rely upon the judgment of a dog. In the Underworld of reversed language, dog is actually spelled g-o-d.  Cerberus is never wrong.   I know instantly I have made a mistake with this young cherub.

Before we have reached the third bend in the river, right before the waterfall, I give the child a vision.

I show her a dark tunnel of which she is flying through, ever so slowly.  At the end of the tunnel is a white light.  Often times in a case like this, I will provide the deceased with the vision of a deity, one they have been taught to venerate.  This may be a Christ or an Allah,  a Mother or a Mountain. It makes no difference, for all are the same. But the child I now charm is an innocent. She has been taught nothing of religion, has no preconceived notions.  I provide her only the vision of light, blazing in shades of star and ivory, beckoning her with pure love. Beyond this point all choice will be hers.

The child has a family. Parents and siblings that love her dearly. She is the youngest of five children.  The family, Cerberus relays to me, would be devastated by her loss. Still the choice must be her own.

We reach the left bank. There Hades and Persephone greet us, beckoning us into their lush gardens where time has stopped.

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My Lord and Lady watch closely as Cerberus leans over the child. She is able to pet him, although she still cannot speak. Hades and Persephone already adore the child, would love to have her in their kingdom, where she would never know war again. However, as always they leave the choice to the human.  Cerberus then barks. The decision has been made.

*          *          *         *

 

Upon the operating table of Hilldecker Children’s Memorial Hospital, a little girl flutters her eyes open. She is now conscious after a 24 hour coma. This child is young and strong, sustaining a multitude of injuries, but she will be healthy in time.   The doctors determine she will need no amputations.

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Once fully conscious, the child will tell a tale; there was a tunnel with a white light at the end. There was  a journey , she will say, on a river with an old ferry captain. There was a lovely woman and a handsome man who greeted her on the river’s bank in a garden of colors, the like of which she had never seen before nor will ever see again in the waking world.  She will tell the tale of a dog that brought her back to health.

The adults of the community will dismiss her story as a dream. Some experts of paranormal studies will take seriously only the part about the tunnel and the white light. It is easy, you see, for humankind to understand a metaphor. The light at the end of the tunnel.  I, Charon the Ferryman, invented that very metaphor!

In time, a journalist will contact this girl and her parents.  A book will be written describing the afterlife.  It will be titled “The Afterlife: A true near-death experience.” (Or something similar. Dozens of such books have been written.)   The book, however, will not be entirely  true. It will be contorted and distorted to fit the needs of media moguls and the quasi-spiritual  public. The book will become a best seller. A best selling lie.

None of humankind will know the true beauty of Hades kingdom, for this cannot be described in words.  That is a memory that will  be known only by the girl, myself, and all who enter the Land of the Dead.

 

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This post is in response to the Daily Prompt Carry

Forbidden

 

EVE temptation

“Don’t you dare eat the fruit of that tree,” my husband Adam commanded me. “It is forbidden.”  Oh, but the apples looked so delicious!  Scarlet and gold, so ripe they practically fell off the branches. My mouth watered at the very sight of them.

Before then I had known only one way of life.  Speak when spoken to.  Answer to my husband, attend  his every need and (worst of all!)  listen with feigned amusement to his dull jokes and long winded stories.  I had no ideas, no discourse, no opinions of my own. My husband insisted  this must be so, for I — lowly creature that I was —  had been created from a rib.  A rib!  Bone-cold and useless, pulled from Adam’s very belly.  I had no sensibilities, no sensitivities, no reasoning powers of my own.

“Eve,” Adam told me, “your brain is pulp.” He picked an apple from the tree, sliced it in half with his carving knife. “Your mind is no better than these seeds.” He dug his fingers in the crevasses of the fruit, picked out the brown seeds, and, in disgust, flicked them like bugs off his fingers.  He then smashed the apple in the palm of his hand and flung it far across the garden where it fell among the droppings of my pet unicorns and pterodactyls. “Go to bed  now Eve,” he ordered me, finality in his voice.

But sleep would not come on a night such as this!  The black sky twinkled with stars and the moon shone bright as a silver jewel.  I wandered back to the orchard, grass wet against my bare feet.

They will tell you it was a snake that tempted me.  A snake!  Do you know any woman in her right mind who would get within a stone’s throw of a boa constrictor?

Oh no.  My tempter was a man, full fleshed and handsome, with a body rippled as the waves on the sea and a voice full of velvet and earth.

 

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He never promised me knowledge. He never actually promised me anything.  He only made one claim. “You, Eve,” he said, “shall be the mother of all humanity.”

He reached a long arm in the darkness and picked an apple from the tree.  With perfect white teeth  he bit into it,  twirling the fruit on his tongue.  I watched as he swallowed, the bulge in his throat bobbing.

 

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He licked his lips, brushed juice from his mouth with the back of his hand then studied me with wide lustful eyes.  Never, in the history of all the world, has there been a gesture so tempting.

“This apple,” he said, “is of no consequence.” He threw the bare core in the grass.  “What you need you have always had.”  He moved closer, his breath hot against my neck.   “It is hidden here,” he whispered, gently tapping his  fingers to my temples. “Inside your mind. Therein lies all wisdom,  all intuition, all femaleness. You are  powerful as the ever-changing  moon.” He pointed to the sky and the moon illuminated his face in the darkness. “But you must learn to trust your own thoughts,” he added.

Trust my own thoughts?  Such a thing had never been suggested to me!  Not by Adam, not by the other one, he who had claimed to be my father.

They will tell you I was banished from that garden. Oh no! Not I. The truth is  I left of my own volition, for how could I stay?  That very night I rounded up my unicorns, whistled for my pterodactyls. Hand in hand with the apple man I exited. My birds spun in a feathery stream, their chirping sweet as the pipes of Pan. My unicorns glided behind me in a white trail.

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The apple? I never bothered eating it.

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This story is in response to the Daily Prompt: Forbidden

Pandora’s Box

 

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They told me not to open it. Well now.  If Zeus did want me to open it, he should not have given it to me in the first place.   A women’s curiosity?  Bah!  They always need someone to blame, don’t they?  But don’t believe everything you hear.

Come closer. I will tell you the TRUE story.

It was Zeus, my uncle, who gave me the box. All the while he ordered me to leave it clamped shut. “Do not touch it, Pandora,” he commanded, his voice full of curmudgeon contempt. “If you dare open it, the consequences will be great.”

I paid him no heed.  Zeus!  I owed him no favors!  Had he not raped and pillaged and punished? There was Leda the swan, his own wife Hera, my mother Demeter.  He had sent many a plague upon my kin.  He deserved no obedience from me, nor anyone else!

I sat in silence for awhile, mesmerized as I examined the  box.

Oh, such a beautiful thing it was!  A clear glass full of sparkling liquid crystal.  Every color of the rainbow exuded from it. Such joy lie within it!  Miracles were contained beneath its very walls. That I knew somehow, without being told.  And all of this wonder was at my tingling fingertips!

I fondled the  box, pressed my hands upon it, felt its warmth. I smelled its great smells of honeysuckle and lavender, felt the stirrings inside myself as my heartbeat quickened.  Inside that box, I thought, must be love itself.

Finally, I could stand it no longer!  I jiggled the  lid. The stubborn box remained shut but I jiggled again, prying the top. At last  it opened and nearly exploded, its rainbow of colors cascading across the sky. Oh, what a marvelous sight it was!  I watched, dumbfounded and speechless.

 

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It was then my mother Demeter found me.

“Pandora!” she shouted. “Foolish girl.  The contents of that box are all my  sacredness, all my secrets! And you have let them go.”

In a fluster Demeter reached to the sky, attempting to gather up the spilled rainbow. But alas, it was too much to contain!  Such a thing it was, seeping  through the clouds, spilling into rocks and water and plants, into the steam of hot springs and the forgings of fire. Into the trees and the wind itself.

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“Oh daughter,” Demeter scolded me.  “You have made a chaos! Such knowledge,  acquired by the wrong factions…”  She hesitated and scowled.

My mother put her hands on her hips, watched as the colors dissipated far into the earth’s hidden places. She shook her head and thought a long time. Finally she looked upon me, held up one finger and said, “I know a solution.”

By then I was ashamed of my brash actions. I had succumbed to the temptation of beauty, of that bright and shiny thing within my reach.  “What solution will it be, mother?” I asked sheepishly.

Demeter smiled. “I will create covens of women. They will be of a special blood, and they alone will be privy to the  box’s magick. They will find it in rocks and plants and fire and sky as it has dispersed itself over the world.   They will  create potions and use my sacred knowledge. Only they shall have the power to save humankind.”

I gasped. Such a race? It seemed unimaginable.  But Demeter only looked at me, her eyes glittering and rich.

“These women,” she said, “shall be called Witches.”

 

The_Three_Witches_from_Shakespeares_Macbeth_by_Daniel_Gardner,_1775

 

This post is in response to The Daily Prompt ‘open’  pingback

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/open/

A Beltane Tale (Part Two)

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** Please read Part One first 🙂  A Beltane Tale: Part One

After Beltane the days grow bright, the summer sun golden as shadows stretch long in the early evening. There is more time for chores and tedious tasks. Marion does as she has been taught in the Priory; washes laundry in the river, sheers the sheep, brings the cows back for milking from their lazy afternoons at pasture.

But Marion is changed and now she grows restless, She thinks often of the green-hooded man she met in the forest. Was he real or merely a dream? She wonders this only to herself, sharing the story with no one, for on Beltane all manner of illusions and trickery are like to happen.  And yet, there is the lock of hair she found beneath her pillow, along with the note etched in green cambric. Surely they must be his,  and surely he is real. Real as the flesh she has touched, real as his seed that spilled within her. She has taken that lock of hair and that swatch of green cambric and placed them in a locket that she wears beneath her kirtle, keeping them always close to her heart.

She knows only that she loves him. She longs to see him again.

The Prioress seems to read her mind. “What irks you, my child?” she asks one morning as they break the night’s fast. The matrons have brought fresh honey, cheese and pannam, but Marion can eat none of it. Instead, she stares at the Prioress. She longs to tell everything! But how could such a woman understand?

The Prioress  takes Marion’s hand and nods knowingly. “You traveled alone to the Greenwood on Beltane, did you not, my child?” Marion nods timidly. “And stood you in the ring of mushrooms as well?”  Marion nods again. She cannot lie to the Prioress.

“Ah well. You had been warned against THAT.” The Prioress cocks her head. “THAT is a thing which brings trouble and mischief.” The Prioress purses tight lips. Marion expects a reprimand, but instead the Prioress softens. “The Greenwood,” she sighs.  “I know it well. You are of an age, daughter, and such things of the flesh beckon you. I understand.” She clasps her hands together. “Although you may find it hard to believe. I too was once young.”  Marion blinks wide eyes. She feels her cheeks grow hot. She thinks of the touch of the man who called himself Robin.  How could the Prioress, so gentle and proper, in her stiffly starched robes, ever possibly understand?

“I was not always living in this nunnery.” The Prioress smiles. “I know something of desire, my girl.”

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She winks a sly wink and Marion is near come undone!  The Prioress has raised her since childhood. She is indeed the only mother Marion has ever known.  Yet to speak of this, to speak of these intimacies, it is more than shame!

“What keep you in the locket, child?” the Prioress asks. “The one you wear beneath your kirtle since the Beltane.”  Still embarrassed, Marion pulls out the locket, revealing the lock of Robin’s hair and the stitched note. “Well, it is settled then,” the Prioress says.  She runs her fingers over the cambric swatch. “You must go to the Greenwood and find him.”

Just then comes a knock at the door. Sister Jude-Thomas leaps to answer it. Behind the heavy oak lurks the Sheriff Nottingham.

“Reverend Mother.” He approaches and gives a bow of greeting to the Prioress. “Forgive me for disrupting your break of fast, but I have urgent news. I fear there is trouble in the village.”

“Trouble?” the Prioress asks coolly. She hides Marion’s locket in her lap.

“Aye, Madame,” the Sheriff continues. “It seems a band of hoodlums have been caught poaching game upon Lord Weatherly’s manor grounds. Two deer have gone missing and quiver of stray arrows found on the land. I seek only to warn you, Madame, and alert you of the danger, for this band of outlaws are most despicable. One wears a cloak of green. All are armed with bow and arrow.”

“Thank you Sheriff,” the Prioress answers. She gives him a tight lipped smile, one that suggests the visit has ended. Sister Jude-Thomas leads him to the door and he exits politely.

“Quick now, Marion,” the Prioress whispers. “You must go to the Greenwood.  He waits for you there.” Marion is taken aback. She almost refuses, but the Prioress presses the locket to her hand. Marion feels  Robin’s hair, thick and smooth on her fingers.  Yes, yes! She must go.

Marion runs through the forest, May grass soft against her slippered feet. In the bramble she spies him, a flash of green cloak, the hood that covers his face. “Robin!” she dares call his name and he turns. “My lady.” He smiles and runs toward her, pack of arrows jiggling on his back. She falls to his chest, his long, strong arms circling around her.

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Just then there is a rustle of leaves, the clap of horse hooves upon the dirt road. It is Constable Sloane, the Sheriff’s man, come to capture him!

“Robin, you must flee!” Marion whispers desperately in his ear. “They accuse you of poachery. They will lock you in a cell!”  He should fear for his life, but he only smiles flippantly. “The Sheriff’s men have no claim to me,” he says.  “But you, Marion…” He runs a finger across her cheek. “There is a possibility, my fair maid, that you may have many a claim upon me.”

The Constable Sloane then spies them in the thicket. He rides closer, halting his horse and pulling a sword from his sheath. “Outlaw!” he yells. “Outlaw and poacher! Make not a move or I’ll slice you in two!”  He points the blade to Robin’s neck. Marion’s heart beats fast as a rabbit’s, but Robin only smiles. He gently pushes Marion away. “Run now, run quickly,” he commands but she cannot move, her feet firmly on the earth. Oh no.  She will not leave his side, that she knows.

“Girl, move away from that villain!” the Constable shouts, but Marion does not budge.

“Lay down your arms, Sloane,” Robin says calmly. “Lest you injure this maid.”

“If she be one of yourn I’ll not lack to kill her too!” the Constable retorts.

“She is of the Priory,” Robin says.  “An innocent.” That should be of some status, surely. Yet the Constable keeps the blade firmly pointed under Robin’s chin.  Just then Will Scarlet and Alan of Dale emerge from the bushes, their brown garments blending like extensions of the trees.  In one swift move they aim arrows, surrounding the Constable.

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“Lay down your rapier, Sloane!” Will Scarlet commands, but instead the Constable pierces the blade closer to Robin’s neck, drawing a pinch of blood.  Marion winces, then throws herself in front of him. “Take me first!” she shrieks.  “Stand down, Marion!” Robin commands.  In that very moment Will Scarlet shoots his arrow. The Constable, struck, tumbles from his horse like a sack of lumpy flour.

“Quick now Marion!” Robin shouts. He grabs her hand and the two run through the forest till they come to the place where the mushrooms grow wild in a ring.

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Robin holds her close. The purple sky swirls around them like a fierce tornado. In minutes they fall through, down the hole of the earth to a soft landing, the place where on Beltane the fairy folk danced and played fiddles.  Even now Marion hears strains of their music in the distance.

“’Twas a narrow escape,” Robin says. “But Nottingham’s men, they’ve got nothing upon me. Not a stitch.” Marion looks into his eyes. Dark as kohl, they seem to swallow her as the earth itself has swallowed her. “Who are you?” she asks, her mouth dry as dust.

Robin only smiles, pulls her closer and runs splayed fingers through her hair.  He kisses her, his lips warm satin against her cheek.  It is as though the earth has stopped in its orbit and time itself stands still. He kisses her again, full and wet on the mouth. In that moment she forgets her question, forgets her very self and falls deep into his arms.

She knows only that she is loved and safe, here in the underworld with this man they call ‘outlaw’.

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A Beltane Tale (Part One)

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On Beltane eve Marion goes to bed early. She places sprigs of heather and mint  beneath her pillow. Her room in the priory is sparse, with a lone straw bed and one window where the beloved moon shines its silver light.  Marion, an orphan, has been raised here by the good Prioress. She has been well  cared for. But she longs for more, she longs to be free of the confines of the walls, the trap she never asked for.

If Marion wakes in this night surely it will be the fairies come to take her away to their underground home. Each year she prays for this; each year it does not happen.

On Beltane morning she rises at dawn. She goes with the other girls to the gardens  where they collect hawthorne and wild flowers. They weave  garlands to wear on their heads.   They return to the village where the men have built a maypole. Large and mighty, the pole towers, decorated with ribbons, every color of the rainbow. At noontide the matrons serve a great feast; mutton, spring greens, porridge and violet cakes.

maypole

There is a legend that on Beltane the Green Man comes to the forest to claim his lover, the May Queen.  She is wife of the Winter King, and he is lack to give her up. But the Green Man persists and eventually wins the lady. The Winter King is defeated until Samhain when all things of summer will die.  The mummers in the town square reenact the story and Marion watches as the lovely May Queen is taken by the Green Man.  He sweeps her in his strong arms, her long hair cascading against his bare chest. Marion is jealous. When will such a love come for her? Surely now she is of age, having reached her eighteenth name day.  The Green Man and his lady then retire to the forest, for nuptials of their own.

There is dancing. The revelers braid strands of the maypole together and step to the music. Lass, lad. Lass, lad.   Even the Sheriff and the Friar and Prioress join in.   Great fires are lit as the sun sets low. Those brave of heart and long of leg dare jump over the Beltane fires. Not Marion, for she has been raised to be cautious.

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After the maypole dancing, when the embers of the fire grow low, many a couple traverse to the wood. There, they too will bless the land in their own way, making it fertile for the summer.  Although Marion has no man to claim as her own, she follows.   Alan of Dale and his girl Eleanor hide in the bushes, as do Will Scarlet and Lucy Sprint.  Marion knows what they do and she dares not look. Instead, alone she walks deeper into the forest, her flickering rushlight guiding her way. Orion’s constellation twinkles above her.  It is then she comes upon the ring of mushrooms.

Oh, she knows the legend well.  Were she to stand in the middle of that circle for long enough — so goes the tale — the fae folk will come for her.  And never will she see the mortal world again.  She has been warned, all her life she has been warned of this.  And yet, it is what she has longed for.  But is this tale true?

Marion stands, still as rock till the sky swirls purple around her. And then, like a fall down a well, a sweep of wind and soft landing, she is there, in the underworld.   They surround her, these peculiar people, bent of ear and wide of eye.  It is then Marion sees him, a man in green robes with a hood. He is handsome. Dark eyed  with thick hair that brushes his shoulders.  “Milady,” he bows, “I am called Robin, and your escort I shall be.”

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What follows is much merry making and drinking of elder flower wine.  The fairies play fiddles, music loud and jaunty. There is Dancing. Dancing in a circle, faster, much faster than ever at the maypole in the village.  And Robin. He takes Marion’s hand, spins her in a reel and she twirls beneath his arm.  Then he leads her away to a place of seclusion, a place in the meadow where the ground around is soft.  There, he removes her kirtle and skivvies  and she lies mother-naked before him.

He plays her body like a harp, plucking its strings and secret places, a thousand butterflies released as his seed spills inside her.  One time is not enough to satisfy either of them and they repeat the act, again and again until at last they fall to each other’s arms exhausted.

Oh, how she loves him! Truly and deeply. She loves him as she has loved  the moon and her dreams, for he is the forest itself. He is animal and outlaw, dangerous and forbidden. He is all of life and all she desires.

Finally the sky splinters pink daybreak and the sun peeks its gold rays.  She sleeps in Robin’s arms.

In the morning of May 2nd  she awakens in her priory bed. The sprigs of heather and mint still reside beneath her pillow. But there is more. A lone lock of hair, and a note stitched on a green cambric swatch. “To my May Queen ,” it reads. “From Robin, with love.”

She sighs.

It will be a long wait until the next Beltane.

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Want to read more Marion?  Continued here: A Beltane Tale: Part Two