OISIN’S MOTHER (IRISH FAIRY TALES) by James Stephens
EVENING was drawing nigh, and the Fianna-Finn had decided to hunt no more that day. The hounds were whistled to heel, and a sober, homeward march began. For men will walk soberly in the evening, however they go in the day, and dogs will take the mood from their masters. They were pacing so, through the golden-shafted, tender-coloured eve, when a fawn leaped suddenly from covert, and, with that leap, all quietness vanished: the men shouted, the dogs gave tongue, and a furious chase commenced.
Fionn loved a chase at any hour, and, with Bran and Sceo’lan, he outstripped the men and dogs of his troop, until nothing remained in the limpid world but Fionn, the two hounds, and the nimble, beautiful fawn. These, and the occasional boulders, round which they raced, or over which they scrambled; the solitary tree which dozed aloof and beautiful in the path, the occasional clump of trees that hived sweet shadow as a hive hoards honey, and the rustling grass that stretched to infinity, and that moved and crept and swung under the breeze in endless, rhythmic billowings.
In his wildest moment Fionn was thoughtful, and now, although running hard, he was thoughtful. There was no movement of his beloved hounds that he did not know; not a twitch or fling of the head, not a cock of the ears or tail that was not significant to him. But on this chase whatever signs the dogs gave were not understood by their master.
He had never seen them in such eager flight. They were almost utterly absorbed in it, but they did not whine with eagerness, nor did they cast any glance towards him for the encouraging word which he never failed to give when they sought it.
They did look at him, but it was a look which he could not comprehend. There was a question and a statement in those deep eyes, and he could not understand what that question might be, nor what it was they sought to convey. Now and again one of the dogs turned a head in full flight, and stared, not at Fionn, but distantly backwards, over the spreading and swelling plain where their companions of the hunt had disappeared. “They are looking for the other hounds,” said Fionn.
“And yet they do not give tongue! Tongue it, a Vran!” he shouted, “Bell it out, a Heo’lan!”
It was then they looked at him, the look which he could not understand and had never seen on a chase. They did not tongue it, nor bell it, but they added silence to silence and speed to speed, until the lean grey bodies were one pucker and lashing of movement.
Fionn marvelled. “They do not want the other dogs to hear or to come on this chase,” he murmured, and he wondered what might be passing within those slender heads.
“The fawn runs well,” his thought continued. “What is it, a Vran, my heart? After her, a Heo’lan! Hist and away, my loves!”
“There is going and to spare in that beast yet,” his mind went on. “She is not stretched to the full, nor half stretched. She may outrun even Bran,” he thought ragingly.
They were racing through a smooth valley in a steady, beautiful, speedy flight when, suddenly, the fawn stopped and lay on the grass, and it lay with the calm of an animal that has no fear, and the leisure of one that is not pressed.
“Here is a change,” said Fionn, staring in astonishment.
“She is not winded,” he said. “What is she lying down for?” But Bran and Sceo’lan did not stop; they added another inch to their long-stretched easy bodies, and came up on the fawn.
“It is an easy kill,” said Fionn regretfully. “They have her,” he cried.
But he was again astonished, for the dogs did not kill. They leaped and played about the fawn, licking its face, and rubbing delighted noses against its neck.
Fionn came up then. His long spear was lowered in his fist at the thrust, and his sharp knife was in its sheath, but he did not use them, for the fawn and the two hounds began to play round him, and the fawn was as affectionate towards him as the hounds were; so that when a velvet nose was thrust in his palm, it was as often a fawn’s muzzle as a hound’s.
In that joyous company he came to wide Allen of Leinster, where the people were surprised to see the hounds and the fawn and the Chief and none other of the hunters that had set out with them.
When the others reached home, the Chief told of his chase, and it was agreed that such a fawn must not be killed, but that it should be kept and well treated, and that it should be the pet fawn of the Fianna. But some of those who remembered Brah’s parentage thought that as Bran herself had come from the Shi so this fawn might have come out of the Shi also.
Late that night, when he was preparing for rest, the door of Fionn’s chamber opened gently and a young woman came into the room. The captain stared at her, as he well might, for he had never seen or imagined to see a woman so beautiful as this was. Indeed, she was not a woman, but a young girl, and her bearing was so gently noble, her look so modestly high, that the champion dared scarcely look at her, although he could not by any means have looked away.
As she stood within the doorway, smiling, and shy as a flower, beautifully timid as a fawn, the Chief communed with his heart.
“She is the Sky-woman of the Dawn,” he said. “She is the light on the foam. She is white and odorous as an apple-blossom. She smells of spice and honey. She is my beloved beyond the women of the world. She shall never be taken from me.”
And that thought was delight and anguish to him: delight because of such sweet prospect, anguish because it was not yet realised, and might not be.
As the dogs had looked at him on the chase with a look that he did not understand, so she looked at him, and in her regard there was a question that baffled him and a statement which he could not follow.
He spoke to her then, mastering his heart to do it.
“I do not seem to know you,” he said.
“You do not know me indeed,” she replied.
“It is the more wonderful,” he continued gently, “for I should know every person that is here. What do you require from me?”
“I beg your protection, royal captain.”
“I give that to all,” he answered. “Against whom do you desire protection?”
“I am in terror of the Fear Doirche.”
“The Dark Man of the Shi?”
“He is my enemy,” she said.
“He is mine now,” said Fionn. “Tell me your story.”
“My name is Saeve, and I am a woman of Faery,” she commenced. “In the Shi’ many men gave me their love, but I gave my love to no man of my country.”
“That was not reasonable,” the other chided with a blithe heart.
“I was contented,” she replied, “and what we do not want we do not lack. But if my love went anywhere it went to a mortal, a man of the men of Ireland.”
“By my hand,” said Fionn in mortal distress, “I marvel who that man can be!”
“He is known to you,” she murmured. “I lived thus in the peace of Faery, hearing often of my mortal champion, for the rumour of his great deeds had gone through the Shi’, until a day came when the Black Magician of the Men of God put his eye on me, and, after that day, in whatever direction I looked I saw his eye.”
She stopped at that, and the terror that was in her heart was on her face. “He is everywhere,” she whispered. “He is in the bushes, and on the hill. He looked up at me from the water, and he stared down on me from the sky. His voice commands out of the spaces, and it demands secretly in the heart. He is not here or there, he is in all places at all times. I cannot escape from him,” she said, “and I am afraid,” and at that she wept noiselessly and stared on Fionn.
“He is my enemy,” Fionn growled. “I name him as my enemy.”
“You will protect me,” she implored.
“Where I am let him not come,” said Fionn. “I also have knowledge. I am Fionn, the son of Uail, the son of Baiscne, a man among men and a god where the gods are.”
“He asked me in marriage,” she continued, “but my mind was full of my own dear hero, and I refused the Dark Man.”
“That was your right, and I swear by my hand that if the man you desire is alive and unmarried he shall marry you or he will answer to me for the refusal.”
“He is not married,” said Saeve, “and you have small control over him.” The Chief frowned thoughtfully. “Except the High King and the kings I have authority in this land.”
“What man has authority over himself?” said Saeve.
“Do you mean that I am the man you seek?” said Fionn.
“It is to yourself I gave my love,” she replied. “This is good news,” Fionn cried joyfully, “for the moment you came through the door I loved and desired you, and the thought that you wished for another man went into my heart like a sword.” Indeed, Fionn loved Saeve as he had not loved a woman before and would never love one again. He loved her as he had never loved anything before. He could not bear to be away from her. When he saw her he did not see the world, and when he saw the world without her it was as though he saw nothing, or as if he looked on a prospect that was bleak and depressing. The belling of a stag had been music to Fionn, but when Saeve spoke that was sound enough for him. He had loved to hear the cuckoo calling in the spring from the tree that is highest in the hedge, or the blackbird’s jolly whistle in an autumn bush, or the thin, sweet enchantment that comes to the mind when a lark thrills out of sight in the air and the hushed fields listen to the song. But his wife’s voice was sweeter to Fionn than the singing of a lark. She filled him with wonder and surmise. There was magic in the tips of her fingers. Her thin palm ravished him. Her slender foot set his heart beating; and whatever way her head moved there came a new shape of beauty to her face.
“She is always new,” said Fionn. “She is always better than any other woman; she is always better than herself.”
He attended no more to the Fianna. He ceased to hunt. He did not listen to the songs of poets or the curious sayings of magicians, for all of these were in his wife, and something that was beyond these was in her also.
“She is this world and the next one; she is completion,” said Fionn.
It happened that the men of Lochlann came on an expedition against Ireland. A monstrous fleet rounded the bluffs of Ben Edair, and the Danes landed there, to prepare an attack which would render them masters of the country. Fionn and the Fianna-Finn marched against them. He did not like the men of Lochlann at any time, but this time he moved against them in wrath, for not only were they attacking Ireland, but they had come between him and the deepest joy his life had known.
It was a hard fight, but a short one. The Lochlannachs were driven back to their ships, and within a week the only Danes remaining in Ireland were those that had been buried there.
That finished, he left the victorious Fianna and returned swiftly to the plain of Allen, for he could not bear to be one unnecessary day parted from Saeve.
“You are not leaving us!” exclaimed Goll mac Morna.
“I must go,” Fionn replied.
“You will not desert the victory feast,” Conan reproached him.
“Stay with us, Chief,” Caelte begged.
“What is a feast without Fionn?” they complained.
But he would not stay.
“By my hand,” he cried, “I must go. She will be looking for me from the window.”
“That will happen indeed,” Goll admitted.
“That will happen,” cried Fionn. “And when she sees me far out on the plain, she will run through the great gate to meet me.”
“It would be the queer wife would neglect that run,” Cona’n growled.
“I shall hold her hand again,” Fionn entrusted to Caelte’s ear.
“You will do that, surely.”
“I shall look into her face,” his lord insisted. But he saw that not even beloved Caelte understood the meaning of that, and he knew sadly and yet proudly that what he meant could not be explained by any one and could not be comprehended by any one.
“You are in love, dear heart,” said Caelte.
“In love he is,” Cona’n grumbled. “A cordial for women, a disease for men, a state of wretchedness.”
“Wretched in truth,” the Chief murmured. “Love makes us poor We have not eyes enough to see all that is to be seen, nor hands enough to seize the tenth of all we want. When I look in her eyes I am tormented because I am not looking at her lips, and when I see her lips my soul cries out, ‘Look at her eyes, look at her eyes.’”
“That is how it happens,” said Goll rememberingly.
“That way and no other,” Caelte agreed.
And the champions looked backwards in time on these lips and those, and knew their Chief would go.
When Fionn came in sight of the great keep his blood and his feet quickened, and now and again he waved a spear in the air.
“She does not see me yet,” he thought mournfully.
“She cannot see me yet,” he amended, reproaching himself.
But his mind was troubled, for he thought also, or he felt without thinking, that had the positions been changed he would have seen her at twice the distance.
“She thinks I have been unable to get away from the battle, or that I was forced to remain for the feast.”
And, without thinking it, he thought that had the positions been changed he would have known that nothing could retain the one that was absent.
“Women,” he said, “are shamefaced, they do not like to appear eager when others are observing them.”
But he knew that he would not have known if others were observing him, and that he would not have cared about it if he had known. And he knew that his Saeve would not have seen, and would not have cared for any eyes than his.
He gripped his spear on that reflection, and ran as he had not run in his life, so that it was a panting, dishevelled man that raced heavily through the gates of the great Dun.
Within the Dun there was disorder. Servants were shouting to one another, and women were running to and fro aimlessly, wringing their hands and screaming; and, when they saw the Champion, those nearest to him ran away, and there was a general effort on the part of every person to get behind every other person. But Fionn caught the eye of his butler, Gariv Crona’n, the Rough Buzzer, and held it.
“Come you here,” he said.
And the Rough Buzzer came to him without a single buzz in his body.
“Where is the Flower of Allen?” his master demanded.
“I do not know, master,” the terrified servant replied.
“You do not know!” said Fionn. “Tell what you do know.”
And the man told him this story.
“When you had been away for a day the guards were surprised. They were looking from the heights of the Dun, and the Flower of Allen was with them. She, for she had a quest’s eye, called out that the master of the Fianna was coming over the ridges to the Dun, and she ran from the keep to meet you.”
“It was not I,” said Fionn.
“It bore your shape,” replied Gariv Cronan. “It had your armour and your face, and the dogs, Bran and Sceo’lan, were with it.”
“They were with me,” said Fionn.
“They seemed to be with it,” said the servant humbly
“Tell us this tale,” cried Fionn.
“We were distrustful,” the servant continued. “We had never known Fionn to return from a combat before it had been fought, and we knew you could not have reached Ben Edar or encountered the Lochlannachs. So we urged our lady to let us go out to meet you, but to remain herself in the Dun.”
“It was good urging,” Fionn assented.
“She would not be advised,” the servant wailed. “She cried to us, ‘Let me go to meet my love’.”
“Alas!” said Fionn.
“She cried on us, ‘Let me go to meet my husband, the father of the child that is not born.’”
“Alas!” groaned deep-wounded Fionn. “She ran towards your appearance that had your arms stretched out to her.”
At that wise Fionn put his hand before his eyes, seeing all that happened.
“Tell on your tale,” said he.
“She ran to those arms, and when she reached them the figure lifted its hand. It touched her with a hazel rod, and, while we looked, she disappeared, and where she had been there was a fawn standing and shivering. The fawn turned and bounded towards the gate of the Dun, but the hounds that were by flew after her.”
Fionn stared on him like a lost man.
“They took her by the throat—” the shivering servant whispered.
“Ah!” cried Fionn in a terrible voice.
“And they dragged her back to the figure that seemed to be Fionn. Three times she broke away and came bounding to us, and three times the dogs took her by the throat and dragged her back.”
“You stood to look!” the Chief snarled.
“No, master, we ran, but she vanished as we got to her; the great hounds vanished away, and that being that seemed to be Fionn disappeared with them. We were left in the rough grass, staring about us and at each other, and listening to the moan of the wind and the terror of our hearts.”
“Forgive us, dear master,” the servant cried. But the great captain made him no answer. He stood as though he were dumb and blind, and now and again he beat terribly on his breast with his closed fist, as though he would kill that within him which should be dead and could not die. He went so, beating on his breast, to his inner room in the Dun, and he was not seen again for the rest of that day, nor until the sun rose over Moy Life’ in the morning.
For many years after that time, when he was not fighting against the enemies of Ireland, Fionn was searching and hunting through the length and breadth of the country in the hope that he might again chance on his lovely lady from the Shi’. Through all that time he slept in misery each night and he rose each day to grief. Whenever he hunted he brought only the hounds that he trusted, Bran and Sceo’lan, Lomaire, Brod, and Lomlu; for if a fawn was chased each of these five great dogs would know if that was a fawn to be killed or one to be protected, and so there was small danger to Saeve and a small hope of finding her.
Once, when seven years had passed in fruitless search, Fionn and the chief nobles of the Fianna were hunting Ben Gulbain. All the hounds of the Fianna were out, for Fionn had now given up hope of encountering the Flower of Allen. As the hunt swept along the sides of the hill there arose a great outcry of hounds from a narrow place high on the slope and, over all that uproar there came the savage baying of Fionn’s own dogs.
“What is this for?” said Fionn, and with his companions he pressed to the spot whence the noise came.
“They are fighting all the hounds of the Fianna,” cried a champion.
And they were. The five wise hounds were in a circle and were giving battle to an hundred dogs at once. They were bristling and terrible, and each bite from those great, keen jaws was woe to the beast that received it. Nor did they fight in silence as was their custom and training, but between each onslaught the great heads were uplifted, and they pealed loudly, mournfully, urgently, for their master.
“They are calling on me,” he roared.
And with that he ran, as he had only once before run, and the men who were nigh to him went racing as they would not have run for their lives. They came to the narrow place on the slope of the mountain, and they saw the five great hounds in a circle keeping off the other dogs, and in the middle of the ring a little boy was standing. He had long, beautiful hair, and he was naked. He was not daunted by the terrible combat and clamour of the hounds. He did not look at the hounds, but he stared like a young prince at Fionn and the champions as they rushed towards him scattering the pack with the butts of their spears. When the fight was over, Bran and Sceo’lan ran whining to the little boy and licked his hands.
“They do that to no one,” said a bystander. “What new master is this they have found?”
Fionn bent to the boy. “Tell me, my little prince and pulse, what your name is, and how you have come into the middle of a hunting-pack, and why you are naked?”
But the boy did not understand the language of the men of Ireland. He put his hand into Fionn’s, and the Chief felt as if that little hand had been put into his heart. He lifted the lad to his great shoulder.
“We have caught something on this hunt,” said he to Caelte mac Rongn. “We must bring this treasure home. You shall be one of the Fianna-Finn, my darling,” he called upwards.
The boy looked down on him, and in the noble trust and fearlessness of that regard Fionn’s heart melted away.
“My little fawn!” he said.
And he remembered that other fawn. He set the boy between his knees and stared at him earnestly and long.
“There is surely the same look,” he said to his wakening heart; “that is the very eye of Saeve.”
The grief flooded out of his heart as at a stroke, and joy foamed into it in one great tide. He marched back singing to the encampment, and men saw once more the merry Chief they had almost forgotten.
Just as at one time he could not be parted from Saeve, so now he could not be separated from this boy. He had a thousand names for him, each one more tender than the last: “My Fawn, My Pulse, My Secret Little Treasure,” or he would call him “My Music, My Blossoming Branch, My Store in the Heart, My Soul.” And the dogs were as wild for the boy as Fionn was. He could sit in safety among a pack that would have torn any man to pieces, and the reason was that Bran and Sceo’lan, with their three whelps, followed him about like shadows. When he was with the pack these five were with him, and woeful indeed was the eye they turned on their comrades when these pushed too closely or were not properly humble. They thrashed the pack severally and collectively until every hound in Fionn’s kennels knew that the little lad was their master, and that there was nothing in the world so sacred as he was.
In no long time the five wise hounds could have given over their guardianship, so complete was the recognition of their young lord. But they did not so give over, for it was not love they gave the lad but adoration.
Fionn even may have been embarrassed by their too close attendance. If he had been able to do so he might have spoken harshly to his dogs, but he could not; it was unthinkable that he should; and the boy might have spoken harshly to him if he had dared to do it. For this was the order of Fionn’s affection: first there was the boy; next, Bran and Sceo’lan with their three whelps; then Caelte mac Rona’n, and from him down through the champions. He loved them all, but it was along that precedence his affections ran. The thorn that went into Bran’s foot ran into Fionn’s also. The world knew it, and there was not a champion but admitted sorrowfully that there was reason for his love.
Little by little the boy came to understand their speech and to speak it himself, and at last he was able to tell his story to Fionn.
There were many blanks in the tale, for a young child does not remember very well. Deeds grow old in a day and are buried in a night. New memories come crowding on old ones, and one must learn to forget as well as to remember. A whole new life had come on this boy, a life that was instant and memorable, so that his present memories blended into and obscured the past, and he could not be quite sure if that which he told of had happened in this world or in the world he had left.
“I used to live,” he said, “in a wide, beautiful place. There were hills and valleys there, and woods and streams, but in whatever direction I went I came always to a cliff, so tall it seemed to lean against the sky, and so straight that even a goat would not have imagined to climb it.”
“I do not know of any such place,” Fionn mused.
“There is no such place in Ireland,” said Caelte, “but in the Shi’ there is such a place.”
“There is in truth,” said Fionn.
“I used to eat fruits and roots in the summer,” the boy continued, “but in the winter food was left for me in a cave.”
“Was there no one with you?” Fionn asked.
“No one but a deer that loved me, and that I loved.”
“Ah me!” cried Fionn in anguish, “tell me your tale, my son.”
“A dark stern man came often after us, and he used to speak with the deer. Sometimes he talked gently and softly and coaxingly, but at times again he would shout loudly and in a harsh, angry voice. But whatever way he talked the deer would draw away from him in dread, and he always left her at last furiously.”
“It is the Dark Magician of the Men of God,” cried Fionn despairingly.
“It is indeed, my soul,” said Caelte.
“The last time I saw the deer,” the child continued, “the dark man was speaking to her. He spoke for a long time. He spoke gently and angrily, and gently and angrily, so that I thought he would never stop talking, but in the end he struck her with a hazel rod, so that she was forced to follow him when he went away. She was looking back at me all the time and she was crying so bitterly that any one would pity her. I tried to follow her also, but I could not move, and I cried after her too, with rage and grief, until I could see her no more and hear her no more. Then I fell on the grass, my senses went away from me, and when I awoke I was on the hill in the middle of the hounds where you found me.”
That was the boy whom the Fianna called Oisi’n, or the Little Fawn. He grew to be a great fighter afterwards, and he was the chief maker of poems in the world. But he was not yet finished with the Shi. He was to go back into Faery when the time came, and to come thence again to tell these tales, for it was by him these tales were told.
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