SÁ an Bhrú, the Passage Home

 

by Delaney Green


Newgrange (“SÁ an Bhrú” in Irish Gaelic) is a Stone Age mound in the Boyne Valley, County Meath, Ireland. It is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza and is decorated within and without in a tri-spiral design, a triskele, whose meaning is still debated. At dawn on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (December 21st) and for a number of days before and after, a shaft of sunlight enters the mound through an opening above the passage entrance. Guides at Newgrange can’t say for certain why the mound was built; perhaps it was because its creators connected with their gods in a way that has been lost.




“Your father goes home in three days,” said Annwyn as she added a stick of poplar to her cooking fire. “May the god open his arms and receive him.”


Dara sighed. His mother had accepted Gruyyfyyd’s death, but Dara was still angry with the god. Of course, the god would receive Dara’s father on the Day of Souls; the god had sent marauders in the first place because he needed a good right arm to fight his enemies.


“Father will go with the god, Mother.” Dara muttered. He thrust his head out the doorskin to gauge the weather, exhaling a white cloud into the cold morning air. It would be a good day to hunt.


Annwyn pulled him back inside, handing him a bowl of porridge and filling another for herself. “Who do you think the priests will choose to guide the dead?”


“Someone worthy,” Dara said, “Someone who can guide the chieftain’s daughter and her babes, along with Lugh, and the old priest, and Father as well. The old priest alone is a weighty soul.”


“Six souls,” Annwyn said, shaking her head. “It is a fearsome burden.”


“Maybe they will choose two guides.” Dara blew on his porridge.


Annwyn ran her hand over Dara’s head as though he were still a boy and not a man grown. “Just so long as they don’t choose you,” she said.


“I won’t be the Chosen One, Mother,” Dara said, “for then a hunter might be asked to take you as his second wife. And then the village would be at war all over again.” He grinned.


Annwyn laughed. “And I would be the first to pick up a battle ax,” she said. “No, if I lost you, I would go back to hunting for myself.”


Dara took a bite of his breakfast. “It needs salt.”


“We don’t have any,” Annwyn said. “You’ll have to bring some home today.”


“I’ll circle up to the salt rocks after I hunt.”


“There’s my good provider. Here, let me give you something to carry the rocks in.” She handed him a skin bag with long ties.


Dara tied on the pouch, then fetched his sling and cape. He kissed the top of his mother’s gray head. “I’ll be back by sunset.” He headed for the River Boann to cross in the shallows.


Once on the other side, Dara knelt and brushed away light snow and leaf litter to expose the forest floor. He took up the small stone knife in his belt, making a small cut in the meaty part of his left hand and dripping blood on the bare earth. “Grant me one of your children, Mother,” Dara prayed, “so I may feed my family. I offer my blood as payment.” In the treetops, a crow cawed, then another. Relieved that his prayer had been heard, Dara stepped into the trees.


He trod through dense morning mist toward the salt rocks. His mind automatically listened to the sounds of the forest, watched for movement, sorted forest smells for the musk of animals. But another part of his mind pondered who would be the Chosen One this year. The solstice was only three days away. Dara wanted to know who would be guiding his father’s soul along with Lugh and the other four, especially the old priest, Tethra. Dara’s eyes lifted to the forest canopy. The god’s face was still hidden behind clouds, so he and the Mother hadn’t yet made peace with one another—


—a twig snapped. Dara froze. Rustling, ahead and to the left. Dara gripped his sling tighter and took a cleansing breath.


A hooded man stepped out from behind a tree, leaning on an oak staff garlanded with mistletoe. The high priest. Another appeared, then another, until twelve hooded priests circled Dara. Dara’s knees went soft.


The high priest spoke: “Dara, son of Gruyyfyyd, son of Adan, brother to the stag, we bring good news: you have been chosen by Bel to guide our dead into his presence in three days’ time.” The high priest placed the mistletoe garland on Dara’s head.


Mother help me. “I—I thank the god for this honor,” Dara said.


“Hail, Chosen One,” chanted the others, thumping their staffs three times.


Two priests led forward a red deer on a rope of plaited grass. The head priest said, “We give this yearling to you. End your hunt and come with us so we may prepare you to serve the god.”


Dara stepped forward. The deer stood quietly. “Cut its throat,” the priest ordered.


Dara took out his stone knife. He laid a hand on the deer’s flank. The creature did not startle as a normal deer would at the touch of a hand, but Dara felt its trembling. Dara caught a whiff of something bitter on the deer’s breath. Had it eaten something that had dulled its senses? Killing a drugged animal would be like killing an animal as it slept. The Mother would despise such an act. Dara slipped the braided noose from the deer and slapped its rump. The animal staggered into the mist. “I hunt for myself,” Dara said.


The priests murmured. The high priest frowned. “As you wish,” he said, “but we shall expect you before nightfall.”


“I will be there,” Dara said. As quietly as they had appeared, the priests melted into the mist. When they were gone, Dara sank to his knees.


The Chosen One. Me. A narrow ray of sunlight penetrated the forest canopy and lit the place where the deer had stood under Dara’s hand. The morning mists were gone, proof that the Mother had forgiven the god once again. Now, apparently, both of them blessed the priests’ selection of Dara as the Chosen One.


An hour from sunset, Dara stepped into his mother’s hut, where she sat near the fire stretching a rabbit fur to make it pliable. Dara dropped the brace of rabbits he’d snared along with the bag of salt rocks. “Thank you!” Annwyn said. “You’ll be a great provider for some lucky woman.” When Dara didn’t answer, she looked up. “What is it? What’s happened? Are you hurt?”


“No, but the priests found me in the forest.” Annwyn’s fingers stilled. Dara showed her the mistletoe garland. “Mother…I am the Chosen One.”


“Oh.” Annwyn stared into the fire. “Did they appoint a helper?”


“They didn’t say.” Dara forced a smile. “Mother, don’t worry. The priests will make sacrifices to open the Passage. They will sing the songs to call the god. They will burn the sacred herbs. The priests want our dead to go home as much as we do.”


“Wanting isn’t enough.” Annwyn’s voice shook. “You cannot go in there alone. Six souls is too many.” She stood. “Not so long ago, I and my women worked our magic deep in the Mother’s forest. I will add my strength to yours.” Annwyn reached up and quickly braided strands of her hair into a long, thin braid. She took up her knife and cut the braid at her scalp, then wrapped it around Dara’s wrist, saying, “So your hand may guide the souls to their home in the sky.” She repeated the process, tying the second braid around his neck, saying, “So your head may stay clear inside the Mound.” She tied a third braid around his ankle, saying, “So your feet may find their way home again.”


Dara smiled down at the strong face that seemed to be carved from granite. His mother’s eyes burned. “I will guide Father and all the rest,” Dara said, “and I will come home to you.”


“May the Mother make it so.” Annwyn pulled down Dara’s head to plant a kiss of blessing on his forehead. Dara placed the mistletoe garland on his head. Annwyn swallowed. “Go now, Dara, lest the priests come to fetch you, for that would be a bad start to this business.” Dara seared her face into his brain, and then he stepped outside.


As Dara walked toward the priests’ enclosure, he felt the villagers’ eyes on him, measuring his worth, his strength, his stature—glad in their most secret hearts that he had been Chosen over them. Everyone knew this year’s Passage would be a perilous one.


The priests were waiting. They gave Dara a bowl of tea and made him drink every drop. The tea smelled like the breath of the red deer. The priests made him crouch in a large stone basin while acolytes bathed him in hot water strewn with the same herb.


Someone fingered the braid around his neck. “What is this?” The voice reverberated as though they were in a cave.


“Mother magic,” said someone else. “Remove it lest it offend the god.” A knife slipped under the braids at Dara’s neck and wrist and cut them away, but Dara didn’t protest. He tried to tell them about the braid on his ankle, but words skittered away from his tongue like sparrows from a pouncing fox. His head was packed with clouds.


Dara was toweled dry and robed in white. Someone brought him tender bites of beef and fed him as though he were a baby bird. “Open. Chew. Swallow,” said a voice, over and over, until hands pushed him down into a nest of furs. He slept.


The next day, Dara awoke to someone sliding a knife into his brain. His eyes slitted open to a rainbow that leaked through the cracks along the doorskin and shimmered across the ceiling like waves on the surface of a pond. When Dara sat up, the knife split his head down the middle. He cried out.


“He’s awake!” someone said.


“Already? Bring the tea!”


A bowl of the bitter tea was held up to Dara’s lips. His head hurt so badly that his lips trembled with agony. “Drink,” said a voice. “It will ease the pain.” Dara gulped down half the brew at once. His brain sealed up again. The knife slid out.


“Now you must eat and rest again,” someone said. Dara turned to look at the owner of the voice and gasped: the speaker was a stag with antlers. On Dara’s other side, a wolf with silvery winter fur and white teeth gripped the bowl of tea between his paws.


The shimmering rainbow at the doorskin faded and bloomed a second time as Dara dreamed of the sun streaming across the sky and plunging into water. That evening, Dara was led beneath a moon shrouded in clouds to the Mound.


Two rows of chanting priests herded Dara into the Mound’s black mouth. Dara was passed down the Passage from one set of hands just inside the opening to another set that reached out from the dark to pull him deeper until Dara stood in the chamber at the center of the Mound.


Four torches burned at each of the cardinal directions. On three sides of the chamber, huge, ornately carved stone basins held heaps of bone fragments and ash: the honored dead he must guide to the god. The chamber was roofed in stone. In the center of the chamber, a fire basin glowed. Robed figures were shadows along the walls. A voice said, “The souls of these dead cling to what is left of their bodies, Dara, son of Gruyyfyyd. Your own father is here, along with our Tethra, and Caoimhe, daughter of Nuallan, and her twin babes, Bebinn and Aoife, and Lugh, who fought alongside your father. Tomorrow when the god rises, you must guide all six to him.”


“How?” Dara wasn’t certain he’d spoken aloud.


A priest stepped out of the shadows. He offered a knife of sharpest obsidian. “In the morning, when you hear the first horn, give blood to the ashes in each basin to awaken the dead, who have slept these many weeks while awaiting the Day of Souls. The blood you give must be fresh. If you cut too soon, the souls will swallow the blood and forget to look for the god; if you cut too late, the god-light will be gone before the souls have awakened.


“At the second horn, the golden god-light will creep along the passage until it reaches this chamber. Before the light gets here, you must trace a path in blood from the floor to the souls in each basin so the god may find them.”


“But what if the god can’t find the Mound? What if the Mother covers it in mist?”


“Then you must give more blood so the souls can find the god by smell.”


Dara swallowed. “How much more?”


The knife was pressed into Dara’s hand. “All of it, if needed.” Dara’s heart stopped: so that was why some guides entered the Passage but never came out. A hand tossed herbs into the fire basin. Sparks flew. Acrid smoke swirled around Dara’s head.


The robed figures massed at the opening. The last to join them was the priest who’d given Dara the knife. He said, “At the third horn, the god will begin to retreat, and the souls will have only a handful of breaths to find him before he returns to the sky. Remember, Dara, son of Gruyyfyyd, only your blood can free our dead.”


The four torches flowed along the Passage to the outside, leaving Dara alone with only the fire basin for light. Feeble flames and thick, pungent smoke painted eerie, dancing shadows above the ashes of the dead.


Dara gripped his knife and crouched near the fire, waiting for the first horn. He stirred the smoldering fire, and the last crumbs of the herbs sent up swirls of bitter smoke. The massive basins mounded with ashes and pieces of bone sat like pregnant cattle lying awkwardly in a field. Dara’s fingers strayed to his ankle to touch his mother’s braid.


“Mother, be with me,” Dara whispered. “Help me guide Father and Tethra and these others. Help me come home to you.”


Dara dreamed into the fire of a sunny day when he was a small boy running down to the river with Mother to greet his bloodied, smelly father home from battle, being swung up into arms solid as oak and Mother being pulled in for a long, hard kiss. Dara remembered being an older boy and awakening from a troubling dream, breathing hard, seeing in the fire the face of a stag whose antlers touched the moon. From the darkness, Father had said, softly, “Tell me your dream, Dara.”


And old Tethra—how patient he had been with Dara and the other boys when all were tested to see if any were fit to be priests. “Dara is worthy,” Tethra had told Annwyn and Gruyyfyyd, “and the god has need of priests who dream.”


“How do you know that Dara dreams?” Annwyn had asked sharply.


“His dreams creep into mine,” Tethra had answered, raising gooseflesh along Dara’s arms. Despite Tethra’s praise, Annwyn had trained Dara in the Mother’s ways, and Gruyyfyyd had taught him to hunt and to fight. Tethra had accepted their decision to keep their son out of the priesthood.


The first horn sounded. Dara started. He stood, shaking out muscles stiff from crouching. He went to the basin that held the ashes of the royal daughter and her dead babies. He sliced the meat of his left hand and dripped blood into their basin. It soaked into the ashes. Dara cut deeper and showered more blood into the basin. It, too, soaked in. Were they so very thirsty, these dead?


Dara dripped blood at the edge of the basin so it would flow down slowly and reach the souls at the right time. He did the same for each basin. He looked down the passage. Faintly, echoing like the wind in a deep crack of stone, Dara heard the chanting of the people. He waited for the god-light.


The god cannot see us, said a voice. The Mother hides the Mound. Dara looked toward the sound of the voice, the basin that held his father’s remains, and he gasped: Father’s head and shoulders hovered above the basin, insubstantial as smoke.


“Father!” Dara leapt to the basin and placed the edge of the knife on his aching palm.


No—the chief’s daughter and babes and Lugh and Tethra first. I am last.


“But Father—”


Hurry, son. Blood to the babes. Blood to Lugh and Tethra. Blood along the passage so the god can find us.


Dara sliced his palm over the basin that held Lugh and the chief’s people. He did the same for Old Tethra, but before he could give more blood to his father, the second horn blew. The god was coming! Dara cut deep, and a steady flow of blood dribbled into his father’s basin. Dara smeared blood down the wall of the passage nearly to the opening, then he traced a line of blood across the Passage floor and up the side of each basin.


Dara sank to his knees, dizzy. Surely the god could find the souls now. Diffused light shone dully along the Passage, but no golden god-light.


As in a dream, Dara recalled his mother’s words: “Add my strength to your own.” Dara sliced through the braid of hair at his ankle and dropped it into the fire basin. He blew on the coals.


A tiny flame began at one end of the braid and crept along its length like a fiery snail. More smoke rose than such a small thing should have produced. The smoke from the braid split into three plumes that flew like living things to the three basins and spiraled above the remains of the dead.


Golden sparks rose from the basins and swirled into the plumes of smoke, which then merged and floated like a will-o’-the-wisp to the Passage. The Passage began to glow, burning brighter and brighter to cheering from the outside. The third horn sounded. Burdened, at last, with the souls he had come to fetch, the golden god began his retreat.


But one spark had fallen short and lay beside the fire basin. Dara reached for it.


No more blood, son. Gruyyfyyd’s voice sounded in Dara’s mind. I wish to stay here with your mother.


“She isn’t here, Father!”


I smell her.


“I’ve burnt her hair to help you go with the god! Don’t stay in the Mound. Go!”


I…cannot find the god. The golden light was halfway back to the Mound opening, leaving Dara and the fading spark of his father’s soul in shadow.


“I will help you!” Dara jabbed the knife into his elbow and dug a channel nearly to his wrist.

Blood spurted. Pain shocked Dara fully awake, but he trailed blood from the spark along the passage into the retreating trail of light. Nothing happened. He gasped, “Father, if you do not go now, I must end myself for your sake. Please!” Dara raised his knife again, aiming this time at his heart.


ENOUGH, said a voice, but it was not Father’s. It was a voice Dara had never heard, yet in it he heard water rushing and birds singing and barley growing. It said, I WILL NOT PERMIT SUCH A ONE AS YOU TO GIVE YOUR ALL, NOT AFTER ALL THE BLOOD YOU HAVE GIVEN TO ME THESE YEARS YOU HAVE HUNTED IN MY FOREST. GRUYYFYYD, SON OF ADAN, LEAVE THIS PLACE AND GO WITH THE GOD NOW. HE AWAITS YOU.


I obey you, Mother, Father’s voice rumbled. As Dara’s blood continued to flow and his vision contracted to a dark, narrow tunnel, Gruyyfyyd’s spark rose and floated along the trail of Dara’s blood. It dropped like a falling star into the last spill of the golden light on the floor of the Passage. Outside, the cheering gave way to a song of thanks. Dara fell to his knees beside the fire basin, clamping his hand over his injury and sucking in air.


His arm began to burn. Dara looked down. His arm…glowed. As he watched, hardly trusting his eyes, the blood he had shed lifted from the basins, the walls, and the floor and merged like thick, dark slugs into red ropes that slithered toward Dara. TAKE BACK WHAT YOU HAVE GIVEN ALONG WITH MY BLESSING, said the Mother. Mesmerized, Dara watched each red rope wriggle to the cut inside his elbow, nudge open the flap of skin—and slip inside. The last one sealed Dara’s injury with a flick of its tail. Dara closed his eyes. His pain had evaporated. His veins hummed with the Mother’s blessing. In awe, he touched fingertips to his inner elbow, now etched with a triple spiral.


Voices in the Passage. The wolf, the stag, and the high priest entered. Dara opened his mouth to tell them what he’d seen, but the stag and wolf grabbed Dara’s arms and held on tight. The high priest threw back Dara’s robe and pressed the point of a knife to his throat.


“They’re gone,” Dara said calmly. “They need no more blood. Father was the last.”


“Your father spoke to you?” The high priest said. Dara nodded. “And…did the god speak to you also?”


“The Mother spoke to me.”


“You allowed Mother magic inside Bel’s Mound?” The knife pressed harder. Blood welled on the fine edge of the blade.


ENOUGH! The Mother’s voice thundered. The priests leapt away from Dara. The knife clattered to the stone floor and was swallowed up as though the stone floor were a pool of water. The Mound began to hum and buzz like a thousand bees were trapped inside. The priests clapped their hands over their ears. Their eyes flew open when the voice spoke again.


I HAVE NO NEED OF HUMAN BLOOD, BUT YOU HAVE GIVEN BEL A TASTE FOR IT HE CANNOT RESIST.


“Forgive us,” the high priest whimpered.


NEVER AGAIN DEFILE MY WOMB WITH THE BLOOD OF AN INNOCENT. IF BEL WILL NOT ACCEPT YOUR DEAD WITHOUT BLOOD, DO YOUR MURDER IN THE OPEN WHERE BEL CAN SEE. HE IS NOT WELCOME HERE.


“We will obey,” the high priest choked. “Please, Great Mother, spare our lives.”


GO. LEAVE US.


The high priest and the wolf and the stag ran down the Passage. Dara stood alone in the dark.


He laid a light hand on the stone wall, marveling that he was allowed to touch the very heart of the Mother. Dara said. “I serve only you from this day forward.”


I ACCEPT.


Dara walked toward the light of day, not seeing that each step he took left a golden footprint on the floor of the Passage.






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