Author: Nathaniel Slattery
Posted: Month of the Immaculate Conception, 15th Day, Year of Our Lord 2022
This is an excerpt from a book I have written that is finished and undergone one round of edits. I am currently getting a cover made, and then will likely release it in advance copies for critique. It is called Saodfàil and is a story set in St. Patrick’s Ireland before its conversion. It follows seven characters as they make a pilgrimage to see the High Druid, and is made up in most part of their telling their stories around the fire at night during each day of the journey. This is the first tale, which is called The Rock of Drowning.
Some say that the lands south of the Isle of the Britons, named in my tongue Britannia, that the land south of this by which the furthest beachhead of Britannia and this land Hibernia may be reached, that this land was cursed long ago when the pagans of Britannia saw the armies of Caesar Julius in their great boats, and they called upon the powers of all the evil spirits at their disposal, who feared the approach of Great Roma as of their doom, knowing some the purposes of God to attain this Empire for the coming Church.
And so the peninsula was cursed. But, as demons legion were sent into the flock of swine, all of the curse’s power centered upon one, great rock which rose from the depths like a beast of legend. This rock was called the Rock of Drowning, and I have heard it named in the tongue of one island, Creg ny Baih. It pulls ships in by its fierce and mischievous currents, and many wreckages are found there. So, too, the great sharks are often found there, in season and out of season, and the terror of them is great.
This was the very rock which I had known all my life, for I was born in a village on the coast where this rock was always visible like a dark figure at the ends of the sea.
I was a young man, newly married when I heard that your people were coming. They were coming by boat in the wild waves of the sea, the folk of Hibernia, who call themselves sons of Eire. At this, I see some of you scoff, and I understand this, for in my land we also name ourselves by a thousand places and under a hundred kings. Do I surprise you? Perhaps you do not know that the great Empire has been receding from its more barbarian outreaches, and there is no delay to every strong man with a warband claiming sovereignty. These are uncertain times.
They were coming, your people, and I was newly married, a fisherman like my father and his father, and like the great Prince of the Apostles, Peter, before Our Lord called him to be prince of this world, his Vicar.
I was a fisherman, and I knew the great rock. I always had known it. So when the sons of Eire came, I persuaded the men of my village to get their boats and arrange them at the coast by the rock, and then to stand by the shore with what weapons they could.
For you see, I had heard that your people were a bold people, direct, unwilling to refuse a challenge, fiercesome most when named cowards. And so I and the men of my village anticipated that our invaders would come straight towards us as soon as they spotted us.
This they did, without fail. Half their boats wrecked upon the rock. We did not guess at the loyalty of them, at the gentleness of the Eirish heart towards their fellow, and so we were very surprised when the other half of the boats remained to save their companions. Our first understanding dawned when the bodies of the great sharks washed upon the shore, each the size of five men, riddled with spear and sling-bullet.
Not to be outdone, we took upon ourselves to rescue the men that washed upon the shore. These we delivered to the monastery.
Not knowing about our actions until we returned their hostages to them, the raiders retreated from the rock and put in at a safe place far from our village. There, we gave them what succor we could from our late harvest, returned the healed men, and won ourselves sure friends across the sea, where they returned when rested.
My wife died few years later, but not before giving me a wonderful son and the most beautiful daughter for which one could ever ask. A widower, I approached the monastery and sought my education. This because I desired for my son and daughter to live some place better and safer, not under the gray bleakness of the sea, and free from the dark superstitions of sailors and fishermen.
This monastery was a new one, not a hundred years old, built near the sea, in sight of the Rock of Drowning. My people tell a story that there once was a great saint and hermit who wandered into our village. A dour man, the only words that ever came from his mouth were the reflections and meditations upon God and virtue which are the meat and bread for such men, and the words of greeting, “Bah! More people!”, he gave when first he found our village.
Soon, he grew to love my people, since he found them very dead to the world and ignorant of such things as troubled him. It was discovered that he had wandered far across what the Romans call Europa, being unwilling to suffer the desert by instructions which were delivered to him by an angel of God. Before our village, he had settled in hermitage in three places. The first was a dark woodland near the end of the place called Iberia, which is a peninsula that embraces the furthest and most dangerous of seas. This saint was an Iberian, indeed, and this first place was near his own birthplace, but it was known as a dark and cursed place of demons, enclosing somewhere in its woods the burial place of a great hero’s pagan god, the albino pig of Iberia, which led a strong rebellion in the time of Caesar Augustus.
This saint settled in the woodland. For three years, his only visitors were priests, and each time they came, he asked them to bless and exorcise a new grove of woods. He was in the habit of praying in a new grove every time the phase of the moon changed, and at times he would see terrible visions, and often he was injured by cuts and bruises. These same places, then, he would ask the exorcists to make war upon, and they would.
At the end of three years, the woods were free of their evil, and men began to settle and clear them. They raised a new town near the hermit. Many people sought him out for supplication, and this is what drove him from the place.
His next hermitage was near a rocky place in southern Gaul, near the coast. Less time passed in this place before men sought him out again, and the miracles he performed for them were great, the healings wondrous. The saint despaired, for he had thought the place the most desolate which he could imagine, being of such humble origin and desiring nothing so much as solitude in order to ponder the mysteries of God, not yet knowing the fullness of God’s Holy Will as pertained to him.
In despair, in his ignorance at risk of dying in sin, he sought out a dragon. For many years this dragon had terrorized the people of the area, and this was part of why it was known as a desolate place. With man trekking to see the hermit, many of them suffering from terrible maladies, the dragon had killed many more innocent people than before the hermit had come. His supplicants had kept such stories from him, fearing lest he leave them, but he was told of it once or twice and healed some of those attacked by the dragon, and his conscience worked upon him.
This is why he found the dragon and offered himself to its fury. He had determined in his ignorance to leave this world for Heaven, and thereby save those people from their need to visit him, reckoning malady of body far preferable to malady of soul, and in humility considering himself as doing nothing for the latter in his lack of schooling, though simplicity would not allow him to deny his efficacy in the former.
But Our Lady knew his heart and the danger of sin he was in, and unwilling for him to die less than perfect, she sent the Saint Mary Magdalena along with the archangel Michael, who is the Sword of God, and they slew the dragon, who had been a punishment of old upon those people.
The hermit, still in despair for the hopelessness of his pursuit of solitude, took to a boat and rowed to the middle of a sea, and there cast away his paddles and broke his rudder. He then told God Himself to take him where He willed. He had thought to himself that the problem of his life was the same as the prophet Jonah’s, that he was heading opposite of God’s desires, this by intuition of failure alone and without relinquishing his despair, and so he gave himself over rather to God. Thence it is that men overcome ignorance by simplicity, and with interior desires yet opposed to the mysterious Will of God, nevertheless capitulate to It in exterior action and receive forgiveness.
God and the tide caused him to wash upon the dense island of Corsica, where again he pursued hermitage and solitude, but being unable to escape into a quiet place on such a prosperous island, he would sit in the low waters of the Corsican beach, just far enough out that he risked drowning at every change of tide.
Here is where the great Saint Hieronymous found him. The learned man, being embroiled in the compilation of many writings of Our Lord and His Apostles, actually sought the hermit in the manner of a supplicant, coming upon a boat in order to protect his papers. He had sailed the gentle coasts of Corsica many days before he found the hermit, as it was his habit to go to a new location every day, and when the saint found the hermit he told him, “I know what it is you seek. But it is God’s Will that you never be alone. Instead, take these papers which God has commended me to give to you, set sail, and head for the north of Gaul. There you shall found a monastery and offer healing to those who need it, for you are very greatly gifted in this way. These papers you shall keep, and show them to any who ask it of you. Great kingdoms and terrible sorcerers shall bow to the power of the words contained therein.”
The hermit was speechless. Saint Hieronymous gave him the papers, and it was too late before the hermit realized that the water would destroy them. Miraculously, it did not. The saint had already begun to sail away, and so the hermit returned to shore dripping, while the words remained perfectly dry.
They were written upon a thin substance that derives from a plant native to the distant land of Egypt. They are kept today safely at the Monastery of the Holy Word, near my village, the same one which I desired to join after the death of my wife.
They denied me, of course. I had two children. But I was allowed to live nearby, to every day eat and labor and speak with the monks. My children were cared for by my relatives, but they lived with me. Many nights I did not return home, because I would stay late in the night studying the holy words on those papers. I began to think of the sons of Eire, and I decided that one day I would bring these words to them, and see them free of their bondage.
There was a man at the monastery who had stayed there after the shipwreck of the raiders and his recovery. From this man, I learned the language I now use to speak with you. The monks had preserved scrolls of your writing, and these I used to read and write in your language as well as that of the Church. Then I proceeded to translate the holy words onto the quires you see before you. It has likely only a small portion of the power of the original, but I hope it is enough for the Druids.
I understand your fears. Again, I say to you that there is no sorcery in this. For I do not control the powers of nature as do your Druids through their diabolic servants. Rather, though I have written the words with my own hand, they are beyond me and filled with a power I do not control, and they have only an influence upon men’s hearts, entreating them to find truth and abandon cruelty, and cannot change them without their free will.
Perhaps I can read them to you, but first let me tell you how I have come to you, far from my home, destitute and without my greatest treasures, my children.
I was a man of forty winters when I heard that the Franks were coming from Germania.
The men of my village remembered me. They sought my leadership again, but these barbarians did not come from the sea, but from the land. We knew little of them, being as we are simple and peaceable, but their reputation appalled me. They hated stone. Every place they took, equitable as they may be after their destruction was complete, they would break down every wall and stone structure. This was the way in which they sought to free men from bondage, for their minds were so barbaric as to fail to understand the cage of beauty which forces a man’s soul to ascend rather than his body. They wished rather that a man’s soul acquiesce to his body, and that in all things he seek preservation of self, and thereby through love of dirt and wood become great as the pagans reckon greatness.
Beyond them, too, were worse men. These were the Vandals. They were vicious and cruel in all manners, without remorse to either strangers or their own people, measuring all value of a man by what he was able to destroy before he was destroyed himself. One would think that there be a natural kinship between them and the Franks, but there was none, for evil never unites, and the Franks did indeed seek to build only in a foolish manner, whereas the Vandals sought only rapine and consumption.
With wolves at our backs and hard men at our fronts, our best hope on land in a people who would surely use us in their wars and nevertheless destroy our great monastery, even if they spared us all, we remembered the sons of Eire. We remembered their loyalty and their honor.
But they were also pagans, and I did not think I could persuade my people to seek them out. I advised them instead to flee by boat to the other Isles which would welcome them. At the monastery, too, I entreated for retreat and especially for the salvation of the papers of the Holy Word, but there I was denied. The monks preferred martyrdom and Heaven, and in this, I believe they fell into the same failing of their founder at the dragon’s lair.
Nevertheless, the fathers with their sons and daughters had been convinced by me, and despite this our treasure from God being lost, in fact because we saw it as being lost no matter which way we turned, we all took our boats and what possessions we could and laid low our paddles into the highwaters.
This was the season of sharks. Many sailors never set sail in this season, though sharks are cowardly creatures that do not attack any kind of boat for the pain of hitting it, regardless of the meal they may get from it. We, however, were sailors true, and despite our fear at the power and mystery of the seas, we knew the One Who calms them at His Own pleasure.
I persuaded my boat, which held me, my children, and several others with a capable rowmaster, to wander close to the Rock of Drowning. I am not sure why I did this. I told the rowmaster that the sharks were less prevalent in this season at the Rock, and that is true. Perhaps it was in a way to bid farewell to this old household idol of my village in whose shadow I had spent my life. Even the monastery had looked out upon it, and often as I had left the monks in the dark of night, I would spy it out on the dark waters, reflecting the light of the moon in a peculiar way. My life had in many ways revolved around the rock. Now I was never again going to see it.
I was glad I did this thing. In my boat, my children said farewell to their village as well, and I could sense the sentiment amongst the others of the boat. We were all leaving the place we had always known, the old fish runs and the monastery, and our ancestral homes. For those of my boat, we also were leaving our neighbors and relatives. As we passed the rock, a shadow burden passed from us, and great peace as of the Hand of God settled upon us.
We did not wreck, of course. There is no match for our sailors in the bosom of their own waters, across all Europa. We, did, however, break course from our companion boats and head a way for the Isle of your people. This was something we had decided upon before leaving. I had my mission for the souls of the sons of Eire, and my quires of holy words, and the others had their own reasons.
I do not know if we received a portion of the old curse at our departure. We wrecked while still far from this isle. We must have as well gone far off course, because we washed ashore at the isle which you call by the name of a pagan god, the people of which are the Manx.
They rescued me and told me when I awoke that strangers often wreck where I had wrecked, and the rocks there bear the name of Shipwreck, Trouble, and Drowning. This was a shock to me, but not as much as my discovering that the only two missing from our boat were my children.
It was not long before I discovered what had happened to them. A man of the Manx told me, “Ah, the beautiful ones, yes? They have been given to the oak-knowers. This is their right.”
I protested, saying they were free people and guests as much as the other survivors.
“No one is free who the Mannànan takes at sea, my friend, but most we give back their freedom. But you are the father of these two, yes? Go and claim them. The oak-knowers will not refuse a father.”
And so I went. This first time I met the Druids, I brought my quires, which I had retained because of this sack which I keep tight on my person. I regret to say, however, that in my fear for my children, I did not present the holy words to these Druids, and perhaps because they were not of the sons of Eire. Rather, I inquired immediately after my children.
“They were exceedingly beautiful,” I was told, “They have been sent to the High Druid of Inisfàil, the Isle of Destiny.”
This, you see, is how I came to be here with you, my companions. I discovered as I arrived that I would not be allowed to see the High Druid unless I went on this pilgrimage, as my friend the bard calls it.
“It is also my belief that God, Who protects my children, has arranged all this so that I may present the holy words to the High Druid, for I would doubtless have been destroyed had I not been seeking after my children.”