The autumn equinox, when day and night are divided equally, is called Mabon on the Pagan Wheel of the Year. It is a time to reflect on our blessings and prepare for the darker time of year to come.
“What absolute rubbish, Aidan,” my cousin Graham said cheerfully at breakfast that Friday morning. He sliced off the top of his egg neatly and grinned at me across the table. “You don’t really expect me to believe that, do you? That I can stand an egg on its end just because today happens to be the autumn equinox?”
“Believe it or not, as you choose,” I said, unperturbed. “Today marks the balance between light and dark. Why shouldn’t an egg balance, too?”
I caught another slice of toast as it popped out of the toaster and glanced across at Wendy, Graham’s wife. “Could you be very kind and pass the marmalade?”
She complied and for a minute or so the only sounds were the rasp of my knife spreading butter across the crisp toast and the snuffling of Winnie and Clemmie, the King Charles spaniel puppies, under the table.
“All right.” Graham wiped his mouth with his serviette and challenged me. “Do it now.” He pointed to the bowl of soft-boiled eggs on the table, keeping warm over a chafing-dish.
“Has to be a raw egg,” I said, beginning to get up.
Wendy rose too. “Never mind, Aidan, I’ll get it.”
She returned from the kitchen with a single brown egg. Taking it from her I paused to feel its weight in my hand: a nice, fresh egg from the chickens kept in the run some distance from the house. I shut my eyes briefly, the better to invoke Mabon, God of the autumn equinox, and stood the egg on its end.
“My goodness!” Wendy exclaimed. “Would you look at that!”
“Let me try it,” Graham said, reaching for the egg. I knew he’d want to try it himself: Graham was an engineer with a practical mind that eschewed anything magical or supernatural. He took the egg and stood it on end in front of his plate.
It stayed that way.
“All right, you two,” Wendy said, rescuing the egg and putting it beside her plate. “Graham, I’m off to work in the greenhouse this morning. There are a couple of chrysanthemums that need nursing back to health.”
“Wendy’s a wonder,” Graham said proudly. “She has only to touch a wilting plant and it comes back to life. Everyone says she’s the best herbalist in Dorset.”
I glanced at Wendy with interest, wondering whether she was a herbalist and a bit more, but her eyes, modestly cast down, did not meet my gaze.
“My work will keep me on the other side of the county until mid-afternoon,” Graham said, rising. “Wendy, will you be at the greenhouse all day?”
“Oh, no. I’ll do a bit of shopping after work, come home and do a bit of gardening, and then I’ll make lavender scones for tea. We can have them with the new honey Mrs. Barton gave me and the clotted cream I bought yesterday. What will you do, Aidan?”
“Oh, I’ve got to put some finishing touches on the conference paper,” I said. “Then I think I’ll go for a walk in those charming woods I noticed at the bottom of your property here. Perhaps I’ll even go ‘a-nutting’—this is the time of year for it, isn’t it?”
“Oh, do,” Wendy said. “If you get a nice bagful, I’ll make a chocolate cake with hazelnuts for tea tomorrow.”
Work on the conference paper occupied the rest of the morning, but after lunch and coffee on the veranda, I set off on my walk. Before I left I shut Winnie and Clemmie in the mud room. Fortunately they appeared to think an old scrub-brush in the corner was a new, more dangerous variety of hedgehog and were busy attacking it when I gently closed the door on them.
I went through the gate at the bottom of the garden, closed it behind me, and looked up. Small puffs of white cloud drifted across the pale blue September sky. I hoped the weather would stay fine for my walk. The woods looked inviting, with the leaves just beginning to change color.
Six months ago, when I’d e-mailed Graham that I was coming to England to present a paper at the University of Bournemouth’s conference on Neolithic societies, he’d invited me to stay with him and Wendy after I arrived in Dorset. My father Harry had emigrated to the States thirty years before; his younger brother Richard had stayed home and brought up Graham and his sister Heather in the west of England, where the weather is kinder than in the rest of the country. Graham and I had spent vacations in each other’s homes and even hitchhiked around the Continent after graduating from college. We weren’t close, exactly, but we were good friends.
After spending some time in London, one of my favorite cities, I took the train to Bournemouth, where Graham met me in the car for the drive home to Abbotsbury. He and Wendy lived in a modernized Georgian house on the outskirts of the village. The garden had room for chickens and dogs as well as for the herbs, flowers, and vegetables that Wendy grew. As it was term time, both of their children were away at school—what we in the States would call boarding school.
Abbotsbury was the most soothing place I’d ever been; I fell in love with it straight away. The county of Dorset itself was an archaeologist’s delight, boasting tumuli that housed long-buried Bronze Age chieftains as well as the Iron Age hillforts of the Durotriges, the Celtic tribe that had given Dorset its name. Traces of the Roman conquest still turned up in the form of coins and brooches, ancient roads and building stones.
Now my path was taking me deeper into the woods. The light filtered through the foliage, producing a sun-dappled green gloom. I could see blackberries and hazelnuts, even smell the wild mushrooms and garlic that grew beneath the trees. My footsteps fell on soft brown earth and green moss. And every inch I walked on, I reflected, had been fought over—by Cavalier and Roundhead, by the Normans and Anglo- Saxons before them, and the Celts and The Little Dark People before that.
Suddenly I was assailed by a wave of homesickness: I missed my coven. At home in Virginia we’d be gathering acorns, leaves, and pinecones to decorate the altar for our Mabon ritual. We’d be counting our blessings, the better to give thanks to Mabon, God of the Second Harvest, who presided over this time of year.
But even more than my coven I missed my partner, Kieran, the love of my life. As I walked I recalled the errant lock of chestnut-colored hair that insisted on falling over his forehead despite his attempts to tame it, imagined his gray eyes, so often alight with mischief. We’d met during a spiral dance at Samhain the year before, and by Beltane he’d moved in with me. We celebrated—and how!--in the traditional way.
It was a heart-pain to know that I was thousands of miles away from him, that our separation wouldn’t end with the work day. Nothing seemed quite as enjoyable without him; food didn’t taste as good, beer didn’t slide as tartly over the tongue; even breathing was more chore than pleasure. I wanted to make our relationship permanent, but how could I ask Kieran to marry me when my job required me to travel so much? And Virginia wasn’t a “marriage equality” state; we’d have to move to the District of Columbia if we wanted our marriage to be recognized. And that would mean selling the house, packing up, looking for a place to live in D.C.--more upheaval on top of the traveling I was obliged to do.
As much as I enjoyed being here in England, I longed to be home again, back in Kieran’s arms: the paper safely presented, the whole conference over and done with. I was distinctly nervous about presenting my work: would my audience, drawn from all over the British Isles and Europe, give any credence to an American archaeologist? Heck, in the USA we didn’t even call it “the Neolithic period”; we called it “the Formative stage.” Would my paper on Neolithic farming methods be received with interest or derision? The very thought of a bad reception made me break into a sweat.
To take my mind off that subject, I looked around. The Green Man would like this glade, I thought. Here the earth was rich and soft underfoot, still smelling of morning dew that hadn’t quite dried. The sunlight was diffused through the air. I began to move forward but a sudden shock sent me reeling back against a huge oak tree.
Trembling violently from head to foot, teeth chattering, shaken by a force I could not identify, I remained where I was. Incredibly, like a scene change in an opera, a light gray curtain seemed to have descended on the glade.
I could see men moving about on the other side of the gray transparent curtain. They were bare-chested but wore bracae, the plaid trousers favored by the Celts. I knew they were Celts because of their long moustaches and long hair. This was evidently a war party, because all except one of the men carried a weapon of some kind—a sword, a spear, or a sling full of stones. Round shields were propped against some of the trees.
The only man not carrying a weapon had long hair like the rest, but was clean-shaven and wearing a white robe instead of bracae. He walked around the glade carrying a pottery jug in his hand, pausing to pour a little at the base of each tree. Then he would look up at the overstory and move his lips, as if in prayer.
The men continued to move about, using whetstones to sharpen the edges of their swords or hone the iron tips of their spears. They obviously couldn’t see me, nor could I hear what they were saying, if indeed they were speaking at all.
The white-robed one, the Druid, approached the oak tree I was leaning against. His eyes met mine and he smiled. My heart seemed to jerk with fear and surprise. It was obvious that he could see me.
Of course: a Druid was trained to See and to receive messages from the Otherworld. Across the centuries he looked into my face, appearing to study me with his head tilted to one side. He must have been six-five to my six-two because I had to look up to meet his gaze.
Then he did something amazing. He reached into the recesses of his robe—it must have had a pocket that wasn’t visible—and extracted something. He tossed it to me.
I caught it. It was a hazelnut. I nodded, smiled back at him, and pocketed it.
The Druid raised a hand in farewell and turned away. A second later there was a shimmer in the air and the thin gray translucent curtain disappeared, taking the Druid and the war party with it.
I felt so drained that I slid to a sitting position against the tree and rested my head on my knees. I could hardly believe what I had seen. Had I imagined it all? Quite possibly: the remnants of jet lag, along with an unquiet spirit and the stress of having to present that paper on Monday could have brought on hallucinations. But somehow, I didn’t think so: there was the hazelnut in my pocket.
After what seemed a long, long time I got to my feet and retraced my steps through the wood. Emerging once more at the bottom of Graham and Wendy’s property, I heard the excited yips of Clemmie and Winnie from the garden; when they saw me approaching, they stopped chasing butterflies and gamboled toward me, evidently intent on worrying my shoes.
Wendy was outside, unpegging the washing from the clothesline. As I walked toward her the heady scents of phlox, pinks, and verbena drifted through the air. Shadows were already falling across the garden although it was only four o’clock.
She hailed me as she took down the last bit of laundry. “Hullo, Aidan!”
The breeze blew her long brown hair across her face. Brushing it away impatiently, she waited for me to approach; then, studying my face, she said “Oh!”
I simply stood and looked at her.
Wendy smiled slightly. “I’ve seen them too, you know.”
I gasped. “Have you? What did you see?”
“I saw mostly women and children,” she said. “They couldn’t see me, but I could see them. I couldn’t hear them, either.”
“What were they doing?”
“Oh, nothing much. The women had baskets over their arms and they were either picking blackberries and herbs or trying to keep the children from running off.”
“I saw a group of men preparing for a battle, sharpening their weapons and so on.” I took a deep breath. “I thought I was imagining things, but if you’ve seen them too…”
“I try not to think about it. Oh, by the way--did you bring back any hazelnuts?”
“Sorry, no,” I said, momentarily forgetting about the hazelnut the Druid had given me. “I was too flabbergasted.”
Wendy laughed. “’Gobsmacked’ is what we say over here. Never mind, I’ll use walnuts instead of hazelnuts for the cake tomorrow.”
She picked up the laundry basket, which I took from her to carry back to the house.
“Aidan…” Wendy laid her hand on my arm. “Please don’t say anything to Graham about what you saw or what I’ve seen. He—well, he just wouldn’t understand.”
“My lips are zipped,” I said. But you understand, don’t you? I thought.
No one asks for The Sight—it can be a burdensome gift, fraught with danger--but evidently it was something Wendy and I shared.
“Come, we’ll go in,” Wendy said. “Graham’s back and he’ll be wanting his tea.”
After tea, stupefied by lavender scones and pots of strong Assam, I went to the guest bedroom and opened my laptop. An hour later I sat back, stunned by what I had learned.
The Durotriges—“dwellers by the water,” as the Romans termed these Celtic tribes who lived on the coast—had fought the Romans. Historians write glibly of “the might of Imperial Rome,” but in real life it translated into serried ranks of stern-faced soldiers, the only professional army in the ancient world who wore uniforms and received regular pay. These were hard men who could march twenty Roman miles a day carrying sixty-pound backpacks, as well as their throwing spears—pilae—and scutae, shields that were almost the height of the soldiers themselves.
The Durotriges knew they’d have little chance of prevailing against the Romans with their sophisticated weaponry: the short, stabbing sword called the gladius, the ballista, capable of shooting murderous arrow-bolts that could pierce a man’s spine, the onager, a large catapult that shot round stones the size of cannon balls through wooden barricades. They knew.
But they fought anyway, because they loved their misty, sea-girt land with its gentle hills and fells and folds. Their land was worth fighting for, worth dying for.
And the hazelnut the Druid had given me? I took it out of my pocket and looked at it. The hazelnut was thought by the Celts to be a symbol of wisdom and protection. It was also associated with matters of the heart.
I knew now what I was going to do. I would go to that conference, read my paper with confidence, and let the chips fall where they might. Even if I were sneered at as a gauche Yank who couldn’t possibly know anything useful about the Neolithic period, I was going to give it my all.
And when I went home I would ask Kieran to marry me, no matter what. The worst that could happen? He might say no. The best? We’d marry, sell my house, move across the river to D.C., and live there as a couple with full rights and privileges. And as for the travel---well, there were always Skype and Tango for keeping in touch. We’d make it.
There’s not much more to tell. On Monday Graham drove me to Bournemouth, I settled into my allotted room in the university’s dormitory quarters, and presented my paper the following day. It met with a warmer reception than I’d ever imagined it could, and I made some new friends. One of them, Dilys Bolingbroke, was also interested in Neolithic farming methods, so we had several enjoyable conversations. In fact, we got along so well that when it was time to go home I asked her to do something for me, which was to subject the hazelnut to radiocarbon dating. It seemed only right to leave it in England, its country of origin.
Some time after arriving home in Virginia and receiving a rapturous “Yes!” from Kieran, Dilys e-mailed me from the university. The tests had revealed the hazelnut’s age.
It was two thousand years old.