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Excerpt: The Passion of Mary Magdalen

The Passion of Mary Magdalen
a novel by Elizabeth Cunningham
First Volume of The Maeve Chronicles
Monkfish Book Publishing Company, Rhinebeck, NY, 2006.
copyright 2006 by Elizabeth Cunningham
reprinted by permission

Background: Maeve is not your garden variety Mary Magdalen, supposing there is such a thing. Raised by warrior-witches in the Celtic Otherworld, she sets forth to attend druid college where she falls in love with a young Jew from Galilee, known to the Celts as Esus. When she defies the druids to save his life, she is exiled but remains determined to seek her beloved. (Notes; This story is re-counted in Daughter of the Shining Isles, prequel to The Passion of Mary Magdalen, to be re-released in 2007.)

The Passion of Mary Magdalen opens with Maeve on a slave block in the heart of the Roman Forum. She's been captured while trying to board a ship for Palestine. Her fiery beauty and temper attract the attention of a Roman madam who quickly snaps her up. The following excerpt recounts her first meeting with her fellow whores, who ultimately become her fellow priestesses and life-long friends. As the scene opens they are soaking in the baths preparing for their work night.

The opening scene from Chapter Three: A Night in the Life

"Here is the way how to think of it, liebling," said Berta.

We were all soaking together in the caldarium. I had grown up with springs and surf, but I had never been in hot water before (at least not literally). I was distressed to find myself enjoying the sensation; I was becoming Roman already. The big blonde, my fellow barbarian, had taken me under her wing, that is, she had a plump arm draped over my shoulder. The other whores sat across the pool, whispering and tittering as they eyed me and listened to Berta hold forth. Well, they could hardly help it. She had a voice as big as she was — the voice of someone who'd once lived in the open.

"You have been raped, yes? Who has not? I myself have been raped by a whole legion."

"Oh, not the legion again," said the little dark one. She caught my eye and winked at me.

"You know it's true, Succula," Berta scolded. "So. The Roman legion comes to my village. They burn the huts; they put the men to the sword, and they rape all the women. It is the same story everywhere. I was a virgin…."

"It is the eve of her wedding day," added a woman, who was blacker than anyone I'd ever seen with coil upon coil of snaky hair.

"She hears the thundering of many hooves," another woman continued.

I was shocked that they would mock such a terrible story. It took me awhile to understand. We all had terrible stories. Mockery kept the terror at bay.

"All right, all right," said Berta crossly. "I wasn't going to tell the whole story. I have a point to make."

"So make it already," the black woman said.

"If you would all shut up maybe I could."

The others pantomimed sealed lips and made strangled noises.

"The point is," Berta ignored them, "we have all had it stolen from us. Now we make them pay. It's good. Yes?"

The lips came unsealed with general laughter and agreement.

I felt myself frowning. I was still tired and disoriented, but I knew something was faulty in their thinking.

"No," I said, "Domitia Tertia makes them pay."

They regarded me coldly, and I realized my mistake. I needed the good will of these women to survive.

"Well, at least she's a woman," I amended.

"And a whore," Succula added.

"And a hardnosed, tight-assed bitch," said the black woman.

"You got that right, Dido." Everyone chimed in; this description was apparently a compliment to the domina.

"As you say, Red," Dido added, addressing me directly for the first time. "She makes them pay. Does she ever. Nobody fools with her, and you won't either, Hot Twat, if you know what's good for you."

Apparently these women identified with Domitia Tertia. I found their admiration perplexing.

"So," said Dido, who shared a name with the fabled Queen of Carthage. "Are you really a novica? Never been a slave? Never done it for money?"

"I did it for passage on a ship."

Applause greeted this admission.

"But it didn't exactly work out," I understated.

In fact, that was when everything had gone wrong. Maybe I was being punished — an unfamiliar and disconcerting line of thought for me.

"Don't tell us." Dido held up her hand. "The bastard drugged your drink and you woke trussed up and on your way to market."

"And on the way he sticks you every time he feels like it," added Berta. "Don't feel bad, liebling. It's not your fault. There is nothing you could have done to stop it."

Yet that's where the shame was, that it had happened to me at all. How could I have allowed it? How could I have been so stupid?

"Hey, none of us know until it's too late: you gotta drug their drink first," Dido answered my thoughts.

"That's right, liebling," Berta patted me and made comforting clucking noises.

Suddenly I was undone. Their unexpected kindness loosed my tears. I covered my face, expecting my weakness to be met with contempt. Instead I found myself surrounded by female bodies. Breasts brushed against my cheeks, bellies against my breasts. I breathed in the sweet, salty scent of women, the scent of home and I cried even harder.

"I was born," I said when I could speak again, "on an island of women."

"Only women!"

"I had eight mothers."

"Sweet Isis!"

"And one old, old woman."

"My granny used to take care of me," someone sighed.

"And then the Romans came?" prompted Berta.

"No. No, Romans. The Romans will never find my mothers' island. It is not in the same world."

"Then why did you leave there? Why would you ever leave?" Dido sounded angry and wistful at once.

Why? I knew, but I could not begin to say.

"It's all right," soothed Berta. "You will tell us your story when you're ready, yes? Listen now, liebling. Let me tell you how we do things here. You stick by us, we stick by you."

"Don't try to act like you're better than everybody else," Dido explained.

"Don't steal anyone's regulars," added Succula.

"And then we teach you everything we know. All the little tricks."

"How to spit it out without him knowing."

"The sure fire hand job."

"How to keep your womb locked up tight."

I was a long way from druid school.

"Don't worry," said Succula. "Tonight everyone's gonna know you're new. Novelty will make up for lack of technique. You'll catch on."

"So, are you with us, Red?" Dido fixed me with a deep black gaze; she was gorgeous. "We're all foreigners here, except for Succula. She was raised in the house. What matters is we're all whores. You can be out for yourself or you can be one of us. How do you want to play it?"

I looked at the women surrounding me, their impulsive kindness now replaced with wariness. If I got close to them, would they hold me back or would they help me? Part of me wanted to say, I am not one of you; I will never be one of you. You are slaves to the Romans, and you accept it. Then I remembered my beloved, prophesying in a druid grove. "Rome is not a place," he said. "Rome is cruelty." And here, among these women, I had, for a moment, been back home on Tir na mBan.

"I'm with you," I said.

"Good. Now let's show her how we seal a deal."

As one the women rose to their knees and dipped their forefingers into their vulvas. They waited until I did the same; then we all pressed our hands together, and each woman gave me a smacking kiss on the mouth.

"Now you're a whore, liebling!" exulted Berta.

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