Tag Archives: old ways

A Myth Retold

I will tell you of one among many origins of the story of Niamh, eyes like pearls, sea green, spun from the land of the young, that world which rendered our anguish and fight for survival well met in a peace that passes the understanding of mortal minds. I will tell you of the future time beyond my time when our tale was woven from tattered threads of what was left, fragments of tapestries of past to present, those same sung songs spilled inky black on page, to form the bounded shapes of words which history horded for itself and refused to relinquish completely to a culture we would neither recognize nor survive, had any of us really found ourselves transported, being all that we are, to that future time all of a sudden.

Long before the loamy clay of our sacred land was covered in the smog of exhaust from cars and the blasts from train horns and spotted with sprawling malls, paved with pebbles mixed with tar to muffle the mighty heartbeat of the earth, long before tales of a new god of the sky who tamed the wild hearts of those who dared be their own masters, the landscape breathed clean and clear, and the veil between the worlds came as near as the waves are to the shore. It was that a person could reach through the mist between in either direction, so that each could wander there, or here, and such journeys were to some extent expected, and understood.

It was on such a journey that she Manannán’s daughter, sea born, radiant bright, bridged from shore to shore the two worlds by her love and called out a name of an age, through which ran our wild ones in the flash of a moment, so that the fierce and fragile lessons in our living of it might withstand the test of time. For there was nothing then forgotten, and the tide had yet to turn.

And as Taliesin crossed the sea like a wise salmon to cradle the land in the soul’s own songs, so too would I, Oisín, one mortal soul, a representative of a passing age, forge at the turning of every opposite a steadfast bond between my world and hers of the golden hair, land and sea, heart and will, man and woman, time and eternity. For my name does not matter, and could have been any name, any one. I am the centuries and the song, I am the bones shaped from the marrow of time, enthralled with the breathtaking beauty of every world.

As Rhiannon speeds her horse across the sky to guide the sun, uniting the middle world with the land of stars, so does Niamh speed her white mare over the clouds of billowing sea, her golden tresses trailing behind her, whipped by the wind, leading the cycles of light that brighten the way between ending and becoming. It was said that the earth heard her calling, and in the fog I heard whispered my own name, and there I was leaping up behind her, the child of sea itself, and we thought we could stride together across centuries, and see the gaps between our worlds disappear.

But many people began to turn their eyes away from the rocks and the trees, and the sea and the sky, stranded where they used to belong, unsure whether home lay in the land or the heavens. They lost track of the way their footsteps matched the rhythm of the seasons, and forgot how to move lightly across the land, forgot that the earth held them in her arms and could provide all they needed if only they had respect, could remember who they are. And the more that was forgotten of the old ways, the harder it became to hold another from another world, and I, who was of the physical world, built from it, born from it, knew that soon the time would come, when not I, nor anyone after me, would walk between the worlds unaided, as sure as I knew waves could never break without a sea strand.

Of the love that Niamh and I shared, a bond between worlds, it would not survive such a separation. Nothing, no one can. Had we but known we would soon be separated, love torn from love, not even to have a glimpse of one another’s faces across the wasteland of the forgotten, would we have done any differently? Who among us in the midst of living out loud their majestic, wondrous spark of being, could honestly predict the keening of souls parted from their origins, ignorant during life of that truth of rebirth that quells the fear of death and loss.

And afterward, when my story was told, pulled into the generations where saints saved all but the gods, it was said I died an ancient one, aged by more than two hundred years since I crossed over. It was the age itself that died, that which was carried by the people of my time, our beliefs, our ways, unintelligible to some, threatening to others.

Now the landscape was blind, it no longer kept watch quietly in the night like a mother for her children. No more was earth dynamic and alive but inanimate, decreed so by the new god believed to have dominion over the earth, and later generations adopted this sense of power for themselves. The hills were just hills, and the pool beneath the nine hazel trees no longer held the same mystery to those who passed it by.

It is from our sorrows, not our joys, that the story is usually told. But now, the tide turns again. Again I travel past the ninth wave, passed the reckoning of the spinners of dreams, through the watery caves of the unborn, and the last current of change carries us toward the dawn on the horizon ahead.

Within each of us stands the door of the otherworld, the only wild frontier left to dare, hidden in the landscape of bone, the last undying love out of whose arms we cannot be borne away or uprooted and torn, or undone like the ruins of the ancestors’ dwelling places. Up to each of us, too, to gather the fragile memories, and piece by piece, gently, carefully, fervently, bridge a new way, until the worlds are brought together whole. Then take up again the threads, child of the land and sea and stars, for once more our worlds are merging, and a new story must be told, with which to sunder separation, overrunning its torrents of terror like a landscape finally left to flourish in its own way, wild and unruly, untamed, unforgotten, cherished and shining, a song like the one not sung for over a thousand years, the chords rewandered, the words rewoven, shimmering through a life you spin of many moments into the future, to live full out and make your own.
***
This was, at least initially, inspired by Damh the Bard’s song, “Iron From Stone,” though the song is about a totally different story.
Iron From Stone Lyrics by Damh the Bard

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4: The Specter At The Edge _ Song of Sun and Sea

Far beyond the reedy kelp beds, far beyond the tide of the large salmon and the playing pool, and the open water that drifted with the wind in the patterns of whispered dreams, Bean numbly made her way. As it turned out, the edge was named such for a very practical reason. It was, Bean realized, just as the elders had said it was: imposing and dangerous, a great divide indeed. In fact, with surprise and fear, she swam backward a ways as to not get swept up in the large current torrenting past her with an unforgiving speed. The wind had picked up, and a mournful howl cast itself across the churning water as if the air were mourning an abandoned child.

Is é, the child. Bean was so captivated by the great stream in front of her, and so frightened of slipping into it to be lost forever beyond her home and kin, that she forgot for a moment why she had come. But the immensity of the edge, white bubbles frothing at its surface, rushing onward with a gurgling tumble toward the unknown, could not leave Bean riveted for long. She must find the child, Aisling’s child. And across the cold dark water, the moan in the wind, too familiar to be the song of the air, too haunted and unfathomable to belong to any of her own, surely, cut the forbidding boundary once again with its keening.

Bean turned and swam toward that eerie call, wondering why she had disobeyed her mother and the elders, wondering why she was here: here at this gods- forsaken place with the phantom of the sea almost swept away by that fierce tidal stream beside her, she feared that courage would fail her, she longed for that morning, for laughter, even for her mother’s scolding. The elders did not lie about the edge. Doubt crept into Bean’s mind then. Doubt and shame for acting so rashly, and for so readily dismissing her mother’s warnings and the elders’ words. Might the elders have been as honest about the child as they had been about the edge? The elders surely would punish her now, and Bean would welcome it, for to endure the consequences of your actions, mo leanbh, is far better than to be denied the privilege of justice. In punishment the person is validated, is acknowledged, and without this the person would be rendered invisible. Like us, Bean’s clan did not practice cruelty. They left banishment to what is unforgivable but gave the rest the gift of belonging at the heart of the trials to repay their wrongs.

Anois, now, mar tharlaigh sé, as it happened, though Bean disobeyed the elders, she rightly obeyed the truth inside her. For suddenly, still at some distance, she saw a scene that gripped her in disgust and horror. Two seal women huddled around a small bundle floating on the water. The bundle bobbed up and down almost rhythmically, and it made no sound. Both women had a flipper on the strange bundle, and it was the one to the right of the other who keened so, wailing like a lost and languishing spirit who wandered out of some other world. Bean shivered despite the warmth of her body which was so well adapted to the cold Irish Sea.

Very quietly, as to not be seen or heard, she swam toward this surreal scene, mesmerized in some unspeakable way by the strange bundled specter and the grieving woman. Then she froze. Shock gripped her, so suddenly that she was temporarily paralyzed, and it was hard to keep herself upright.

She saw now no strange phantom object, no mysterious wailing woman, but an elder whose name escaped her knowledge and Aisling, who with wide eyes and fierce sorrow began again to keen her song of love and loss far beyond the end of the known world. That bundled specter bobbing quietly between was Aisling’s child, but to Bean’s bewilderment, the child was not in the water. She wondered in some distant, remote part of herself, at the how of it, checking to see if her eyes deceived her yet again. But no, the child appeared to be wrapped in the reeds of the sea, folded into them, lying upon them like… like… Bean wracked her brain for the object of this likeness which she had seen only once before. Like the vessels that carry humans over the sea, like a boat.

As Bean watched, now deeply perplexed and concerned, the elder woman began to try to gently take Aisling’s flipper off the little boat that carried the child. Aisling refused to let go, which caused the boat to thrash about in the water violently. At that moment, the child began to scream. Bean’s heart broke, but her sadness quickly turned to anger.

Here she had thought the child dead, but its cries told a different story, a story Bean knew would be worse than death. How could they? How could the elders tie a child up out of the water, and send her away, to starve and be forgotten, nameless, perhaps some meal for another creature? Hatred welled inside her then, as strong as the relentless flowing water beside her. For this was no dead child, but a living baby selkie, one of their own, still breathing, still tossing its human-like voice into the turbulent wind which was beginning to gather itself like some wild animal, perhaps thinking in vain to defend an pháiste beag, the little one who would, Bean assumed, be forced to live a half life far beyond the main stream.

And then the mother was no longer weeping, but speaking. “Let her be!” she shouted above the blasts of wind, “I carried her into this world, let her be!”

The elder tried to be kind. Bean saw grief snake-coil in the elder’s eyes, but she also saw a grim finality within them, as if fate’s hand had already rested the decision from the living long ago. “Your child has died,” the elder said softly. “This is the body of your child, yes, but your child lives in it no more. It is an evil changeling took up place in where your child once lived, who looks out from your child’s eyes, who calls like a phantom through sea and sky.”

“No!” Aisling protested, her voice growing horse now from the effort of so much grieving aloud. “I know what is said of the changelings, but this little one will not put a curse on our clan for she is no changeling. She is my infant and she lives still. Please, let us be.”

But at that moment, with a look of terrible resolve, the elder pushed the little craft holding the selkie child toward the edge, and picked up by the wind it glided effortlessly and perilously toward the indifferent mass of water waiting to swallow and consume anything or anyone lying in its path, taking it far beyond where any selkie dared attempt to survive.

Bean’s paralysis broke. Before she had time to think, she was swimming faster than she had ever swum before, not caring about the edge, or even about survival. The current took her by surprise, tearing at her body and threatening to overpower her as she fought to continue moving sideways through it, in hopes of catching that little boat and perhaps rescuing the endangered child. But she was, she realized in frenzied frustration, practically going nowhere, while the little boat moved farther and farther away. If she let the current carry her, she knew, she would never make it home, and would probably die, alongside the child, out in the open sea with no refuge from the harsh winters and no family to speak of. With an overwhelming sense of defeat and despair, Bean looked one last time at the boat now almost out of sight. It had turned slightly, and in that moment she saw an emptiness where the infant’s flipper should be. The child, Bean realized, was born with only one flipper. Was that enough, she thought despondently, to send her to her death before she knew anything of life?

But she could not ponder that question now. She would later, much later when she could take time to process all that she had seen. But now, in her immediate present, exhaustion was upon her and so was the tidal current, tugging her tired body ever further from everything she had ever known. With a last desperate mustering of energy, she turned herself around and paddled for her life toward the calmer stretch of water beyond the edge. When she finally made it to safety, she thought to look around, to make sure Aisling and the elder hadn’t seen. Whatever happened after the child disappeared, they were no where to be found now. Anois ar a féin, on her own, she turned her eyes to the sky and screamed, like a Ban sidhe in the night, one long bloodcurdling scream, for the undead child with no name whose life could have gone better had she actually died. Ansin, then, she put her head on one flipper and just lay there for a moment, heart racing, unsure of what to think or where to go or what to do. She no longer felt so proud to be counted among her people.

After a while, a voice came to her from a long way off on the wind. “Bean! Bean Alainn? Cá bhfuil tú! Where are you! Bean?” Her mother’s voice drifted through the haze that was Bean Alainn’s mind, until she recognized it for what it was. Without much emotion, Bean began slowly swimming wearily toward that familiar voice that she longed, and yet never wished again to hear. It is time to face what I have done, she thought solemnly. She would welcome the consequences of her honesty. She knew she had more than one truth to tell.