In the current political climate (perhaps another manifestation of global weirdness) when birth control has (astoundingly) become a subject of debate, we thought Maeve’s mothers should lend their wisdom. Only two of the eight mothers are represented here, and the passage has been edited for brevity, but we believe their advice offers a much needed corrective. The passage concludes with a clarion call to all women. Enjoy! –Maeve and Elizabeth
For the unabridged version see Magdalen Rising, chapter 14: “What Your Mothers Never Told You.”
“What do you think, Boann?” said Fand. “Given our Maeve’s impetuous nature, perhaps we ought to have a little talk with her. It occurs to me that her knowledge of relations between the sexes may be more theoretical than practical.”
“Maybe we’d better start by finding out how much she does know,” suggested Boann. “Maeve, do you know what Fand and I were doing last night?”
“You were offering King Bran the friendship of your thighs,” I answered, proving that their tales of Queen Maeve of Connacht had not been lost on me.
“Well, yes.” They smirked again, embarrassed but clearly enjoying themselves. “Now, do you know exactly what that means?”
“I’ve seen pigs and sheep.” I did my best to sound bored. “I know which parts go together.”
“Er, quite,” said Fand, a little nonplused. “But did you know that people often — not always, mind you, but often — do it face to face? It adds a certain… je ne sais quoi.”
“Most animals can’t do it face to face,” said Boann thoughtfully. “Comes of having four legs, I suppose. Think of trying to do it frontally with hooves.”
“Well now, Boann, I have to say, I don’t think it’s just the number of legs.” Fand gave her agile mind to the conundrum. “It’s just that other animals don’t walk upright. Therefore, the head in relation to the legs makes it difficult to embrace frontally. Don’t you see?”
I knew from experience that any two or more of my mothers were capable of pursuing a bizarre tangent indefinitely. Now that we were on the subject — you might say the subject — I realized there might be more I did want to know.
“Okay. So people do it face to face,” I broke in.
“With either partner on top,” added Fand.
“Or both on their sides, don’t forget,” said Boann.
“Or standing. And remember the rear entry position is an option.”
“Fand, I just thought of a great one.” Boann was getting into to it. “Hanging upside down from a tree branch. Have you ever tried that?”
“I have, but I don’t recommend it for beginners or for people with back problems.”
“I disagree. I think it’s an excellent position for people with back problems. It puts all the strain on the thighs.”
“How old do you have to be?” I got right to the point, the one that mattered most to me. “When can I do it?”
Fand and Boann stared at each other, looking pretty dumb for a couple of shrewd witches. They had stumbled right into the pitfall especially reserved for enlightened parents. They prided themselves on their ability to impart information, but they couldn’t make the leap to application. Talk about a gap between the theoretical and the practical.
“Well, Maeve, that all depends.”
“Why, on whether or not you’re ready.” Boann sounded vague.
“And we don’t think you are,” Fand hastened to add. “You have to be mature, responsible….”
“Fand, I think we better get down to brass tacks. We don’t have much time left. We can’t have her getting pregnant.”
“She can always say no. Abstinence is the better part of valor.”
“Ha!” snorted Boann. “Believe it! Listen, Maeve, let’s get one thing straight. If you get pregnant — you do know how that happens, don’t you? That’s what we’ve been talking about — you might have to leave college. King Bran told us that the druids are admitting women for the first time this year. It’s being regarded as an experiment by the druids and by the priestesses of Holy Isle.”
“What happens if I do get pregnant?” I was careful to keep my voice neutral. I didn’t want them to guess that I might not mind having twenty years of schooling cut short.
“That’s just it. We don’t know. Boann, we must have a conference with the priestesses before we go. They must have some sort of contingency plan. And surely they’re planning to teach the girls how to protect themselves.”
“Yes, but we can’t leave sex education to the schools, Fand!”
“So educate me, already!”
I wasn’t interested in the druid’s open admission policy and the repercussions of pregnancy. I wanted something I could apply to myself — and Esus.
“All right. Now, Maeve, you know about the moon?”
“The moon?” It took me a moment to sort out this apparent non sequetor.
“Yes. The moon goes through phases like a woman. Or a woman goes through phases like the moon. At the dark we bleed, and at the full –”
“We’re horny as hell,” broke in Boann. “Here’s the catch, Maeve. At the full moon, you’re most likely to get pregnant. But it’s also the time you’re most likely to get laid. Or to want to, anyway. ”
“Don’t mislead her, Boann. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. You see, Maeve, on Tir na mBan we’re eight witches cycling together. Just us and the animals, and the moon and the tides. Very low stress. Nothing to break the rhythm. But you are young, away from home for the first time, and you’re excitable — to put it mildly. Anything could throw off your courses. You can’t count on counting.”
“Still,” Boann insisted, “she ought to understand the theory. Even when she’s out of sync with the sky, she ought to learn to know when her own moon is full. Do you know the signs, Maeve?”
I nodded. “It’s as if you’re an egg cracked open. You’re all runny with egg white.”
“You have to admit, our Maeve can turn a phrase.” Boann beamed at me.
“If you know that much, then you better know not to go frying any cracked eggs in the bushes,” admonished Fand freely mixing metaphors and euphemisms.
“But, Fand, that’s just when she’s most likely to lose her head.”
“And her maidenhead.”
“We should have thought of this.” Boann was rueful. “We could have given her a supply of those seeds. You know, what-do-ya-call-ems. But it’s not seed time now, even if we could find them. Still, maybe the priestesses have a store of them.”
“There’s stones,” suggested Fand. “Listen, Maeve, as soon as you can, find a smooth flat stone, preferably from the beach. Before you do anything –and as I said I really don’t think you ought to — put it inside you as far up as you can.”
I stared at her unbelieving. I could not connect stone with the glimmering I had of “it” as something hot, live, melting.
“It blocks the seed from reaching fertile ground,” Boann explained. “Which is to say, your womb. Certain kinds of dried seaweed also work.”
“Oh, I wish we had time to show you,” fretted Fand. “I wish we had thought of this on Tir na mBan. We could have given you lessons, demonstrations. When I think of all the time we wasted on sword play and spear casting.”
“Well, not wasted entirely,” put in Boann. “It did improve her hand-eye coordination. But it’s no use moaning over missed opportunity. We’ve got to tell her as much as we can right now. There’s one thing we haven’t mentioned yet, and it’s the most important of all.”
“I can’t think what we haven’t thought of.”
“Sovereignty,” said Boann solemnly.
“Oh, yes, of course, sovereignty.”
Sovereignty! I pricked up my ears. For the sake of her sovereignty, Queen Maeve of Connacht had fought to win the brown bull. “Fight for our sovereignty,” she had urged me.
“Pay attention, Maeve,” said Fand. “Never go with a man — or a woman, come to that — unless you want to.”
“Not to please. Not to placate,” Boann chimed in.
“Never on any terms but your own.”
“Should we tell her about love?” wondered Fand.
“Doesn’t love complicate matters unnecessarily?” Boann was dubious. “I’ve heard it sometimes results in temporary insanity.”
“And what about marriage?” persisted Fand. “I confess I’ve never fully understood its purpose, but Queen Maeve of Connacht seems to have managed to have one on her own terms, though there was that unfortunate mix-up over the bulls. I believe marriage often leads to cattle wars.”
(a chunk taken out for brevity)
“Tir na mBan stands for the sovereignty of women,” concluded Fand. “If it exists nowhere else in the world, it exists there. Remember that, Maeve. Sovereignty is your birthright and your inheritance. Next to sovereignty, gold torques and brooches are mere trinkets. Never surrender your sovereignty, Maeve. Carry it with you wherever you go.”
Their words were stirring but abstract. Then an image rose in my mind of myself as a sort of floating island, shining, a sovereign vessel on a vast and dangerous sea.