14 June 2008

Saturday Supplement: Mini Fiction "Absolution"

By Jennifer Mueller

All of Ireland's culture lay in those buildings that were passed by the pilgrims. The beehive cells where the monks lived and copied the words of God with such beauty, and the oratory without a piece of mortar to hold it together. It was St. Caiman's legacy, where he led a life of austerity and contemplation until his fame attracted those wishing to emulate his life and receive his teaching. When their numbers became so great the saint was forced to found a place for them to study, the holy island of Inis Cealtra became a monastery. The ritual for absolution involved several circuits reciting the Apostles' Creed, and prayers to Saints Colum and Caiman and all the unnamed saints in the Saints Graveyard. They received their reward if they saw their reflection in the well.

"How many times have I already done this today?" Aine muttered to herself, having no hopes of seeing it this time either.

Several others nearby stared at her when they heard her talking to herself. At dawn she had woken and started her rounds. Each time there was nothing to see in the well, not even a ripple. Aine watched the sunset in Lough Derg as she made yet another circuit of Inis Cealtra. Her mind wandered as the sunset reminded her of all the nights she had sat with the man she was to marry, discussing their future. Seitheach, his name rang true; he was the wolf, leaving her the day before they were to wed, almost two years before.

There was no word why he had left, no word where he had gone. For all she cared she hoped he was suffering like she had, but now it was time to clear her mind of him. There was another in her life, one far better than that wolf. Traolach was the warrior, the chieftain's son who had loved her from afar for years, even before her foolish attachment to the wolf, until humbly he had approached her with his suit. His name meant strong, so very different from the wolf. Where Seitheach was handsome to a fault, Traolach was good and kind. With his love came no games, and so with him there could be no secrets. She had bared her sins to him. It was his idea for her to come to the holy island and purge her transgressions so that she could forget what he had already forgiven.

A chill of apprehension shot through her when she saw the well. How long would he wait for her? If an entire day of prayer had produced nothing, how long would she have to keep this up? Staring down once more, the water remained pale violet like the sky above her.

"By the sigh I assume you have yet to see your reflection. Another set and I'm sure you will receive what you wish for," a voice said behind her.

Aine's heart stopped. The lump in her throat was so hard it seemed as if she might never get her breath. That damned voice she had heard in her ears for months after he had left was back. This time she knew it was no illusion of sleep. She turned slowly, willing the voice to belong to another. No such luck. Those same dark blue eyes of the wolf stared at her, the same handsome face.

"I wished you were dead. At least that would have given me a reason why you left me."

His composure remained even though she could detect the surprise at seeing her there. "Am I so abhorrent that you had to run to a monastery to escape me? Shall we make another circuit while we talk?"

"Answer me, Seitheach," she hissed.

"If you wish to discuss the matter with the penitents milling about. Now that night will soon fall--then I will talk. I thought perhaps you might wish some privacy in the matter. And if you don't mind, they call me Gilleshriosd now that I've taken my vows."

"Servant of God, my foot," she spat out at him.

He followed along slowly behind. She finally stopped as the last of the sun faded over the horizon. "Why did you leave me?"

It was calmer than the outburst so shortly before. The tone in her voice pulled him; she was his temptation and always had been. "If there was any woman in this world that I married, it would be you, Aine. But this is the life I was destined for. I didn't run from you, I was running to this."

"You couldn't have told me this before everyone was preparing for the wedding and you just left me there with no word at all?"

He laid a hand on her shoulder, taking just the tiniest strand of her magnificent red hair in his fingers. Her name meant beauty and she fulfilled the name handsomely. He still dreamed of her in the night, but his words were strong. "If I had faced you with my decision, I never could have left with you there to talk me out of it. I love you, I always will, but my place is here doing God's work."

She looked over her shoulder; the tears falling down her cheeks broke his heart. "I thought monks should be pure of heart."

He couldn't keep the faintest of smiles from forming. "If I had no faults then I wouldn't have anything to pray for."

"I prayed every night that you would come back to me. You pray every night to protect yourself from the evil I hold."

His smile left. She always had been one not to mince words.

She started walking further on her circuit, knowing why she hadn't seen her reflection. She thought the hate had left her. Seeing him again, she could only wish to commit a sin in a holy place.

"Evil? Never. You are my temptation," he said. "I fight everyday to not come back to you."

In that instant, her pale blue eyes flashed and something in them changed. The shock of seeing him again had worn away, the woman he knew was back. "Fight your temptation no more. I am here to purge my thoughts of you. I am to wed Traolach upon my return. You never should have courted me if you knew all along that you were destined for this. I could have happily spent the last two years with a man who loves me, and I have learned to love him far more than I ever did you. Remember that. Perhaps it will keep you warm at night."

"Aine, stop it."

"What? Telling the truth? I never falsely spoke of my feelings, and if you had told me of this long ago, I wouldn't feel such anger at this moment. You're a hypocrite. Saints are made of men and women who make the decision to follow God from the beginning and resist earthly temptations, not men who seduce the neighbor's daughter with the promise of marriage and then vanish. You knew you were never going to marry me. while I thought two weeks early wouldn't hurt anything. The banns have already been read. You just wanted your fun before you left for a life of celibacy. I lost your child before I ever knew I was carrying it."

Seeing her again hadn't brought it forth, but those words made him blanch. Aine left him behind. He was too stunned to speak or follow after her.

She made her way to the well once more, out of rote. It was expected. Her reflection stared back at her as clearly as if it was a mirror-calm day on the lake in bright sun, not dusk down a deep hole. Had it only taken letting that hatred out to give her the peace she needed to happily marry another? She had said her prayers and Apostle's Creed as she made her way back, as if in a daze. The absolution she was promised had come after all.

The wolf was missing for all the offices that were performed in the night. Finally one of the other monks spotted him, still in the spot where Aine had left him.

"Gilleshriosd?"

"Yes."

"You have neglected your duties. It is time to break the fast of night."

"I am coming," he murmured, and they started walking back.

Aine was coming out of the cell that she had been given for the night. Her red hair was hard to mistake among the other pilgrims who were setting out to leave. She was gone out of the monastery's protection before he reached the enclosure. When they reached the well, he looked down out of habit. For two years he had seen his reflection every time. This day it was missing. Somehow he wasn't sure it would ever come back, no matter how many times he circled the walls of the holy island of Inis Cealtra.

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