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The Burning Time
by Robin Morgan

The Burning Time Robin Morgan

Excerpted from The Burning Time by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 2006 by Robin Morgan. Published by Melville House (March 15, 2006).

From Chapter II of THE BURNING TIME, Robin Morgan’s new historical novel on witches and the Inquisition . . .


The Right to a Window

DAME ALYCE KYTELER ignored the silver snuffer on her bedside table, pinched out the candle flame between calloused fingertips, and slid in under her goosedown coverlet. Slowly, the Lady of Kyteler Castle stretched her left leg over to one edge of the big bed and her right leg over to the other, encountering no obstacles in either direction. She wiggled her toes, cooing small warbles of delight. What bliss to sleep alone, after all the husbands. No elbow to intrude into her ribs, no sag to upset the balance of the sweetgrass reed mattress, no icy feet pressed against her calves, no grunts and snores rupturing her sleep.

The bed curtains were drawn back, so Alyce could lean against her goosefeather-stuffed cushions and look out through the narrow window in her turret bedroom. Sir John le Poer considered his wife quite mad for, among other things, having chosen to sleep in a room with a window. Sensible persons, he insisted, knew perfectly well that night air brought evil humours and disease, excellent reason for not having windows. Castle windows, John had more than once lectured her, existed solely for military purposes--as sentinel lookouts, and, if besieged, for aiming crossbows and lobbing arrows through. In response, Alyce had shrugged that military purposes were boring and that fresh air was good for you. Besides, the window was small enough, barely a slit, although during the weeks of Mí na Nollag--particularly near the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year--even this slit of a window provoked gusty dreams, and that despite the tapestry she had hung to cover it during the cold months. How splendid it would be, she thought, hoisting herself up on one elbow, to work a magick beyond her own considerable powers and create an invisible panel or wall that might keep out the cold yet let in the view. Or, failing that, she thought more practically, persuade the Cathedral masons to divulge their secret for forging those leaded, rigid, color tapestries set high in church walls, tapestries through which the light glowed. Not that a glimpse of the star-jeweled night sky through her own window wasn’t worth a frosty draft or two. . . .

But at present none of that mattered, anyway. It was the month of Júil. She could lie back down in the warm summer darkness and watch the sliver of a new moon glowing through cloud wisps in a celestial game of hide-and-seek. No chilly drafts--and no complaints from John. Savoring the pure luxury of it, she stretched again, gurgling a low laugh of pleasure.

The young moon would be big-bellied and full in time for the coming holy-day, a happy coincidence to make the next sabbat even more distinctive than it already was: the Festival of Grains and First Fruits that the Druids had named Lugnasad, now also called Lammas. Lugnasad, one of the four great Cross Quarter Days of the year, was only a little more than three weeks away, in fact--a realization that jolted Alyce to start mentally listing all the work yet to be done. Pear and ash wood to be cut and dried for the bonfire; new candles to be dipped, chervil seed and pennyroyal to be pounded for incense, kirn dollies to be braided, crescent cakes to be baked from the thousand-year-old recipe . . . and all this in addition to the normal round of seasonal tasks: the first of the summer crops to be harvested, the fresh catch from the River Nore to be salted and dried, the--

Alyce sat up with a start as Prickeare, her plump but distinguished elderly cat, landed on the bed with a thud. Prickeare, whose charcoal grey coat was so densely plush it appeared sable black in most light, was performing the ritual he usually observed around this time of night: abandoning his basket for the company of his pet human’s toes. Now he circled his own tail, then settled down with a possessive mew on his mistress’s ankle.

“Hullo, Lightfoot.” Alyce greeted him by one of the many names she used for her beloved Familiar--this particular one dating back to when he was a lean young catling--as she did so rearranging her legs to make room for this sizeable living pillow that had already begun to purr. The small earthquake of bedclothes erupting from Alyce having shifted position disturbed Prickeare not a whit; he offered a delicate, coral-tongued yawn as he rode the quilt’s ripples and waves like an accomplished sailor wobbling back aboardship after a tipsy revel.

“Been drinking again, eh?” Alyce teased. “For shame, you old sot--Oh! By the pope’s boils!” she swore loudly to the cat. “The wine! I never finished adding orris powder to the mulling vats! Ah, and I also forgot to wrap sage-leaf layers around those five cheese wheels ageing in the dairy!” Now she was irked at herself. But any state of irritability soon brought to mind her husband, an always reliable target for blame.

“Pah,” she spat, “All this ado over John’s tantrums and theatrics . . . I cannot let it go on distracting me this way! What a nuisance that man was!” Plumping her pillow with a few vicious jabs, she grunted, turned on her side, and tried to settle down again. Prickeare placidly ignored these agitations, while his mistress tried forcing her mind back toward the sabbat and more agreeable thoughts.

How jubilant Kilkenny folk always are at a warm-weather sabbat, she mused. To be sure, during the winter months it was cozy to have the feasting and dancing indoors--torches aflame, thick candles sputtering, Ieul log roaring in the huge hearth. But there was something . . . deeper about holding the Rituals outdoors at the Covenstead--that circle of massive stones called the Cromlech out on the heath, centered around the dolmen stone--that the Old People had assembled and raised, back before memory. Was it because the Ancient Ones even before them had brought the Rituals from a legendary far-off southern isle where the weather was always warm? No matter. Even on this rocky northern island one could celebrate the mystery of new tendrils upgreening through the earth’s thaw; one could practice the magick of spinning out giddy chain-dances in summer; one could sit spellbound to watch bonfire flames--red edging orange fluttering into blue--race each other up toward the Moon, hot suitors in love with Her distant, cool, white shadow.

“‘No other law but love She knows . . .’” Alyce quoted to herself, smiling into the darkness to feel her faith freshen through her like a sudden summer breeze, leaving a sense of relief and generalized affection in its wake. The relief was for John’s departure. The affection was for her serfs--the men, women, and children of her estate--the people with whom she preserved The Old Ways. There was affection, too, for herself: pride. She was proud of the aristocratic blood sent pulsing through her veins by generations of Kytelers; of her beautiful, fertile lands; of her beloved Eire, the isle sacred to and safe in The Old Ways. Then, too, she felt she had earned the right to be proud, by her own actions. She was proud that she was a skilled healer, and that she did not rule her serfs as other nobles did, but showed generosity to her peasants and cared for their health and well-being. She was proud that her peasants and servants regarded her, she knew, with deeply grateful affection.

Not that she was overly indulgent. She mainained a distance to preserve her authority. But Alyce knew that the peasants’ greatest concern beyond their hardscrabble lives was for the future of their children, and it was here she was aware of being most respected, for two reasons. First, she was that rarity, a woman of learning. Second, she had for years been teaching the peasant children to read and write--beginning with the older ones, who in turn would teach the younger, and sometimes even tutor their own parents. The practice was, she knew, a flirtation with danger, but as such it was a thrilling, guilty pleasure. Townsmen and district gentry thought it an outrage that serfs might become lettered; not many townsfolk and gentrymen could read or write themselves. In idle moments, especially after a trip into Kilkenny Town, Alyce would find herself pondering how much of a real threat their surreptitious grumblings might one day present. . .

Excerpted from The Burning Time by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 2006 by Robin Morgan. Published by Melville House (March 15, 2006).


The Burning Time is typical of Robin Morgan’s work: always beautifully written, always passionate, always interesting. It’s also rich in splendid imagination—a quality very rare in American fiction writers nowadays. --GRACE PALEY

Robin Morgan's riveting novel The Burning Time may be about the Inquisition—the guts of it we never learned in school—but it’s also frighteningly relevant today. And it would make a hell of a movie! --JANE FONDA

The Burning Time is a literary potion, a finely written and deeply wise book, a warning, a calling: that we refuse to be translated, interpreted, censored, or stifled by those who fear us.--EVE ENSLER

* * *

ROBIN MORGAN  An award-winning writer, political analyst, journalist, and editor,  Robin Morgan has published 20 books, including six of poetry, three of fiction, and the now-classic anthologies Sisterhood Is Powerful, Sisterhood Is Global, and Sisterhood Is Forever. Her latest books include A Hot January: Poems, the acclaimed Saturday’s Child: A Memoir, and the best-selling The Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism. Her work is translated into 13 languages. A founder and leader of contemporary US and global feminism, she lives in New York City. You can visit Robin's new website at www.robinmorgan.us.

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