Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Saint Patric in Training

This short story first appeared in the Rockford Review. I offer it here in honor of St. Patrick's Day:

Fiacc the Poet lived by the bank of the River Boyne in a hut of riverbed stones, for the poets know it is always on the edge of water that poetry is revealed to them. For seven years he watched the waters, searching for the Salmon of Knowledge which, when eaten, would give him all that could be known.

It was at the time of the salmon-leap, then, that Finn, leader of the Fighting Fianna warriors, came for hospitality, and by the Brehon codes, Fiacc could not refuse them. The men dipped their nets and in one of them twitched the Salmon of Knowledge. Fiacc said nothing of it, but let Finn roast it and bade him to not eat of it.

When Finn brought it to him, the poet asked: "Did you eat any of it, boy?"

Finn answered, "No, master, but I burned my thumb lifting it from the fire and put my thumb in my mouth. At once I knew why you told me not to eat it."

Then Fiacc gave him the whole fish, and from that time Finn had all the knowledge that comes from the nine hazels that grow by the Wisdom Well.

Fiacc told me himself, but he is no longer here to tell you, Patric. After my fosterage with him, he took service with his teacher Dubhtach, who wears the seven colors of a poet and who sings the twenty-score tales of Erin at the gatherings of the kings at Tara.

Have you not heard of Tara, Patric? It is the hill of the kings where the five avenues of Erin meet in Meathland, where the Stone of Destiny screams whenever a true king steps on it, for under it live the fairy folk, driven into exile there by the first men who invaded Erin. Did the shepherds not tell you this?

Listen: when Finn was yet a lad, he went up to Tara at the Feast of Beltane, the feast that welcomes back the sun from its winter journey. There, the kings of Ireland meet with their druids, and the cattle are driven to their spring pasture between the bonfires for luck. The Brehon law says no one is to raise a quarrel or grudge during the feast. So the kings met in peace, elected the High King for the festival, and sat at table with Goll, head of the Fianna - Finn's Men of the Woods - and Caoilte son of Ronan of the Speckled Shield, and Conall son of Morna of the Sharp Words. And Finn took a place among them.

The High King passed the horn of meetings to him and asked his name.

"I am Finn son of Cuhal,” said he, “who was once head of the Fianna and Fighting Men of Erin, and I come for your friendship."

The king that year was a friend of Finn's father, and so put him at his side as his own foster-son.
Thus the king spoke to Finn and his fighting men: "For three-times-three years now, there has come a man from the north, Ailen of Missh, stolen at birth by the glamoring sprites who live under that mountain, who taught Ailen their music that charms all to sleep who hear it. Each year he comes to Tara, plays the Sleep-Song, and lets out a fire from his mouth to burn all Tara while we sleep. If there is any man of Erin who can keep Tara from being burned by that Ailen, he will receive a rich reward."

But no man answered, for they knew well the power of that sweet and pitiful music which overcame even women in birthpain and men wounded in war.

But Finn said, "I am from that country, and know what to do."

And given leave, he called upon Lugh, the god who casts his brass shield across the sky each day. Lugh gave him his own Shining Spear, made by the three gods of metalwork, saying: "Gobhniu made the head, which will boast to you of all its battles if held to your brow, blocking all other sound. Luchta made the shaft which can never miss, and Creidhne made the rivets which hold it together and so will it hold fast to the wound such that no one can survive its strike."

So that night Finn lay in wait, and when he heard the first strums of that sorrowful music, he held the speartip to his head. Ailen played the harp till all were charmed asleep, but Finn only heard the spearhead's loud boasting. He came out into the open, and when Ailen saw him, he breathed fire. But Finn cast the spear into Ailen's throat, where the fire melted the metal. The molten iron filled Ailen's head, and the head fell off because of the weight. There is yet a round stone on Tara's hill that men say is the fallen head of Ailen.

Why do you laugh, Patric? Some say all these stones you see are fallen warriors, who walk to the stream at night for a drink and kill anyone in their way. That is why you must stay close to your watchfire at night. If you wander, the changelings may meet you, and you will wake up in the morning as a deer and not a man. Even Finn's wife was changed into a doe, when she refused the advances of a druid.

Ah! I see you have heard of this one. I know why. Is it because my sister Brona makes eyes at you? Lucatmael the druid desires her. Surely you knew that? I’ll tell her not to come out here to see you, because some day she will find you changed to a dog or a pig. Lucatmael could do it, for my father has taught it to him. Aye, he has told me from my youth that the wild pigs on Mount Missh are warriors he defeated in battle in order to become the chieftain of the mountain. So do not cross him or his fosterling. Remember, only a druid can change you back, or the kiss of a hag.
Do not make such a face! It is said my father's overking, Niall himself, met three hags in the woods one night while hunting with his two brothers. The crones asked each man for a kiss, but the first brother ran away and the second brother kissed only his hag's warty cheek with his eyes shut. But Niall pulled the third hairy face to his, and the warmth of his kiss flowed over the woman's bent body and she became a beauty with swan-white skin and golden hair. And in the voice of a spring songbird, she told him,

"I am Eriu, the Spirit of this land,
Erin Herself, espoused to you by the union of our breaths.
The sovereignty will be given to you."

Thus did Niall become king of the clan, to rule Ulster.

Oh, now I have offended you. It was in Niall’s Hosting of Ships that you were taken from your homeland. As always, I have spoken too much. Please, do not leave. I have told enough stories for one day. Patric, please stay. Tell me again of your druid and king, Christos, who the Romans hung on a tree. In Erin, there is a curse put on anyone hung from an oak. My father says: Gosact, it is just like the Romans to kill the Wise Ones among conquered people, to keep them under their heel and crush their hope. What do you say?


regina doman said...

Thanks for the neat story, John! God bless you on St. Patrick's Day!

Karina Fabian said...

Fun story!

Karina Fabian