A rare piece of fiction that I hope has a few layers worth experiencing on a cold winter evening….
On Becoming a Druid
“Why are you here? “
His gruffness might have been offensive to some, but in his eyes I saw curiosity, compassion almost.
“I want to be a Druid.” I answered. A breeze from the river cooled as it swept through and was gone.
“I didn’t ask you that.” Again, his gruffness might have offended or even frightened some, and I was a bit dumbfounded at the unexpected reply. Finally I said “I want you to teach me to be a Druid.”
He looked away into the forest, and then back to me, intensely. He just sat there staring at me and said nothing. Just as I was growing a bit uncomfortable, he stood and went into his hut. From within I heard clattering and clanging of what sounded like pots and pans being tossed around. When he re-emerged from the hut and sat down across the fire from me, he looked sad. “I don’t teach anymore. Maybe you should go to Iona, plenty of good teachers there. If you want to be a druid that is the place you should go.” He began poking the fire, re-enlivening the flames.
“I’m not going to Iona.”
He laughed and continued to poke the fire. “Well you’re not staying here either. I like my peace and quiet, don’t want someone watching me all the time. Besides, I don’t teach anymore.” He rubbed his beard and stared into the fire. After several minutes of stillness, he stood and went back into the hut, closed the door and left me in the silence of the darkening forest.
“I want to be a druid and I know you will you teach me.” I said loudly. “I’m not going to Iona, I’m not leaving, and if you chase me off, I’ll just keep coming back.” I waited for him to come back out, but after a while it became clear that he wasn’t going to.
Just as I decided to wait until he did, no matter how long it took, he opened the door of the hut and looked at me with what I can only describe as mirth. “You’re not staying here, and if you don’t want to go to Iona, the only thing I can tell you is that if you want to be a druid, go spend time with the river.” With that, he shut the door and did not reemerge.
I waited for three days and three nights, but he never showed his face, nor did I hear any sounds from within the hut. I decided to do what he told me. I built my own hut close to the river, and spent my days fishing for salmon, and the evenings staring into the fire. As the weeks passed, the days grew longer and I fell into what I can only describe as a trance. I spoke with trees. I put my hands into the river just to feel the water and it gave me peace. I watched eagles and hawks and birds of all kinds circle and dart and dip and came to know their calls as I once had known my own voice. I had conversations in my head with the Druid, and my mind lost the ability to differentiate between inner and outer reality.
The days had been growing shorter for some time when he began coming to the river as darkness fell. I could see nothing but his silhouette some ways up the river bank. He would come silently, the only way I would know of his presence is that in one moment the outcrop of rock was just that, and the next, there he was, sitting there, staring out at the reflection of the full moon in the water. It was discomforting when the new moon came and I couldn’t see his shadow anymore.
And then, one evening at dusk he visited me. He showed up silently, sat at the fire and looked at me. “Do you know the stories of the Tuatha De Danann?” He asked.
I nodded, no longer sure of my own voice, if I would speak as a human or as a bird.
After a long moment of silence, he said “I’m waiting.” When I still said nothing, he said, impatiently, “the story? I’m waiting for a story. Today is Samhain, and I want to hear a story of the Tuatha De.”
I cleared my throat and it sounded human enough. “Well, the Tuatha de are the people of Dana and they…”
“No, no.” He interrupted, gruff as ever. “A story, you fool. A story.”
It seemed to me centuries had passed since I had heard a story, and I had never told one. His posture at the fire told me though that tonight would be the first. I strained to remember well enough the stories I had heard to repeat them…
“This will be a tale to tell us how the Tuatha De took their leave of Ireland. It wasn’t that they wanted to leave, no, it was the Sons of Mil that made their minds up for them. The Milesians and their Iron. And Amhairgin and storms and the invoking of Ireland by a strange new Druid and his people called the Celts who had left their homes in Spain to come to our fair land…
To my own surprise, the story came out of my mouth in human language. I told of the Nine Waves, of the storms sent to stop the Celts from landing, of the death of Donn, of the Celt’s encounter with the triple Goddess, each of them demanding that Ireland be named after her. I told of the agreement, that the Tuatha de Danann would leave the land to the invading Celts and inhabit the otherworld instead. I told the story, and felt more human than beast, for the first time since what seemed like forever.
I finished, but my mind was still in the enchantment of the story, and I wondered what the Otherworld was like, and if I would ever be able to go there. Maybe when I was a Druid…
“And they retreated into the otherworld.” The druid said from across the fire, interrupting my fantasies as he placed a new log into the flames. “Thank you.” He said, standing as if to go, but then said, “Why do you want to be a Druid?”
I couldn’t answer. Not because of my voice, but because I couldn’t answer. I no longer knew why I wanted to be a Druid.
He looked off into the river, seeing currents only he could see. “Many people think that Druids are powerful.”
I followed his gaze and listened to the current, imagining it in the dark coldness, trying to see it as he did. When I said nothing, he continued. “Tonight we enter the womb of winter. Samhain. The spirits of the Ancestors are close. Summer is gone, the harvest is in the barns, and tonight the land dies. Do you already miss summer?”
I nodded. More than once in the last few days and nights I had shivered and made the fire larger. More than once I had yawned because the land was tired. Yes, I missed the long days and warmth of summer. I missed the vibrancy of the land. I was saddened at the passing of summer.
“As do I.” He said as if he had read my mind. “They say I am a powerful Druid, and I will neither deny it nor agree with them. Maybe I am, maybe I am not. I don’t know about all of that, but I do know one thing – I can’t stop the land from passing into sleep. I can’t keep us from being taken into the womb of winter anymore than the Tuatha De could stop the Celts from claiming Ireland. I can’t stop the wheel of the year from turning. As powerful as I may or may not be, I am powerless.
“And I also know this, as perhaps the Tuatha De also knew or know – that I can embrace the womb of winter just as I can embrace the birth of spring that will ultimately come, with or without me. I can embrace it and allow the world to speak for itself. I can embrace everything and be born into that coming summer, just as the Tuatha De were born into their Otherworld. And we know what became of them, don’t we?” He must have seen my confusion, “No? We don’t know? Maybe someday we will, but for now l will just allow the summer and my mourning of its passing to simply be. ”
He took a few steps in the direction of his hut and stopped. Without turning around to face me, he said, “I don’t teach,” and walked silently away into the darkness.
The Tuatha De Dannan powerless? I found no sleep that night and instead tossed and turned in the approaching winter. In the womb of winter? Beings that many consider to be gods, powerless. Dagda, Lugh, Ogma, Bride. Powerless? Near gods at least, forced to surrender in the face of the mighty iron of the Celts. A mighty Druid, powerless against the turning of the seasons. A mighty Druid that does not teach? I found no sleep.
He returned the following evening at dusk and asked how I had slept, but gave me no time to answer, as if he already knew anyway. “Tell me of the oak of two blossoms.” He said as he entered the circle of light of my fire.
I stared into the flames and forced my tired brain to think back to the stories, back to before the Celts came. “There is only one who can play the harp.” I began… “and that was Ogma, who also is thought to have given us the Ogham…”
This time I struggled with the story, stumbling over the battle, the theft of the harp, the pursuit, the frantic and crazy promises of two harvests, and finally the recovery and return of the harp to the people.
The fire sparked as he placed another log on the embers. He looked to the trees behind us and bowed his head as if giving thanks. He made no mention of my clumsy storytelling. “What is the harp?” He asked before he raised his head again to look at me.
“The music of the land.” I replied.
He smiled. “Yes. The land. The land over which we have no control. The land which nourishes us. The land which will freeze us and cover us with snow before long. The better half of the sacred marriage. What happens when the harp is played?”
“We laugh. We cry. We sleep.”
“We are human, aren’t we? How then are we not a part of the land? How can we not let the land speak for itself? How can we not let ourselves speak for ourselves? The speech is the same after all. The Fomorians took the harp, and we were left without ourselves able to speak for ourselves, without the land to speak for itself. The Fomorians even deemed it fine and well to take more from the land than what was natural. Two harvests indeed.
“Yes, the best we can do is let the land speak for itself. The best we can do is surrender to the womb of winter. The best we can do is let Ogma retrieve the harp so we can be restored to the land, to a right relationship with Ogma, with the land, and with ourselves.
“What for you is the equivalent of the Tuatha De surrendering to the Celts? What for you is the equivalent of Ogma reclaiming the harp?” He stood and turned to go. “The Samhain season has begun and we go now into the womb of winter. I do not teach.” He said and melted away into the blackness of night.