Stand out maids and wives!
Look to the earth. The trees are ablaze.
Alas for the scorched and blighted land!
Alas for the creatures who have lost their dens!
Alas for the young who long for their brothers!
Alas for the babes who cry for their fathers!
Alas for the mothers whose sons will not attend their deathbeds!
Alas for the widows alone on their cots!
Women keened on the battlefield. The sky was black with birds. A thousand crows hovered above the reddened ground where men lay maimed and dying and women swayed and beat their chests and clapped their palms and ripped their hair and keened.
Dismal! O dismal!
Without a soft bed.
A cold, frosty dwelling.
O harsh and hard is death!
And my own dear man,
So stubborn in battle.
The bright heart.
Hall without fire, without bed.
I weep and then I’ll be silent awhile.
The crows circled. The infinite flap of their wings swooped through the keening women’s cloaks and they shuddered. The crows floated on the heat of lamentations, hot current drifted upward from the bloodied Ulster ground.
No hard sword to warm my bed.
Long! Long! O dreadful yearning!
You are shapeless,
Your shield in the grave
And I am loveless, oh!
The hall is grim tonight!
Crow has swallowed her gory drink.
Crow wallows in the blood of men,
Greedy for the flesh I love,
While I, a heavy grief upon me,
Cling to my beloved.
My brothers grew like hazel saplings.
One by one, they pass away.
Woe, woe is me that I am still alive!
Closer they dropped and tighter and tighter their crow ranks. They skimmed the smoldering trees. They merged. Where there had been a thousand crows, three ladies touched the ground.
The war-weavers. The Morrigna.
And the first to land was the Phantom Queen. Now her cloudy dress was tranquil. Hours before, it was the color of thunder. Its spin and huff and twirl and squall had nourished and agitated petty squabbles. She was phantom, for few ever remembered why or how the battles began.
Frenzy landed on the shoulders of a wailing woman. So airy, the woman did not notice. the battle fury, the rage Frenzy had choreographed, the killing fear in the killing field, was done. Now she bayed with the women and she stirred their alases and woes.
Macha hovered above the scene. She let her crow’s coat melt only gradually away. She had cast charms to strengthen her favorite warriors in battle. Now she snickered and cawed and her screams loosened the mortal hold of the dead.
The Phantom Queen glided across the field. She grasped the dangling thread of a widow’s hood and yanked it gently. She split the thread in three. Frenzy hopped from her perch on the wailing woman’s shoulders and she took the third. Trilling and humming like three flutes, they wove a fragile web from the mourning cloak around the battleground and the brown threads gleamed gold with dew and dawn and peace at last beginning.
The Phantom Queen turned to the brackish river. She straddled the ford to receive the spirits of the slain in her womb and she washed their bloody wounds and she slapped their bloody linens clean across her knees.
Frenzy picked at bones and flesh and guts, devoured eyes and lips from staked heads and sipped from pools of blood, and when she had her fill she flew away.
Macha soothed and repaired the packed, reddened earth with her soles and palms and wherever she scratched and stroked, heather and broom and flax and all beauty returned.
The keening women dragged home their men’s remains. Their ululations trailed across the heath, and only three dusty and dazed warriors were left to stumble home behind them.
Eternal sea, mother and tomb.
The war-weaver becomes the lover.
Death, the giver of life.
Now the destroyer’s second task:
She rushes toward creation.
Macha ran to a hill that overlooked the sea. She ran across the winter hill and she ran like racing wind and racing laughter and racing horses and no one could ever outrace her and she ran until she reached a valley where there was a house, the hold of a chieftain, a widower with three small, lonely boys.
Macha knocked on the door of the chieftain’s house and though he feared the risen dead on this Samhain day, he welcomed her. He could not take his eyes from her comely face, her violet hair that poured along her back like black cream and in which one violet-black feather still clung.
Crunnchu could not take his eyes from Macha’s bird-boned figure. He could not leave whatever room she was in.
Macha spoke no word and set about to right his shabby rooms. His wealth was gone, his servants disappeared. The richness of his land had been plunged into ravenous warriors’ mouths. His stores were empty. His motherless children were hungry.
She stoked the fire. She righted his rooms. She piled the table with warm, good foods. The children rubbed their bellies and when they had eaten every bite she kissed them and tucked them in their beds and their sleep was sound. They slept soundly and Crunnchu thanked her. She pointed her chin toward his bedcloset. He obeyed and she followed him.
He lay on his cot and he watched her. She turned three circles to the right and right again and again right and she blessed the house. She stripped her frock and she entered his bed.
Crunnchu stroked her neck. He rubbed his beard on her breasts. She turned her back to him and she opened her legs. He lay softly on her spine and he wrapped his thighs around her buttocks and folded his arms around her waist and cupped her downy mound and squeezed her bird-like bones. She spoke not a word, but cooed and gurgled deep within her throat.
Wordless Macha attended Crunnchu’s bed and Crunnchu’s house. None resented her silence. Her loving smiles healed the ruin.
She lovingly planted and harvested ruined gardens and orchards. She filled Crunnchu’s storehouses to overflowing. She cooked and weaved. She cut the peat and chopped the kindling. She ran up the hill and down to the sea to gather Crunnchu’s scattered flocks and none could outwork or outrun her, not even the strongest, fastest horses, though they, and even the children, tried in playful races to defeat her.
Every night, Macha turned three circles right and right again and again right and day by day they prospered till one by one Crunnchu’s retinue returned.
At midsummer Macha’s belly was fat and prosperous and kicking. Crunnchu prepared to attend the Lughnasa assembly of the high king and all the Ulstermen.
Crunnchu promised to be home soon. Macha clung to him and she spoke the first words she had ever spoken to Crunnchu.
Do not boast about me, she said.
Crunnchu cocked his bearded jaw as if he had only imagined he’d heard that gentle voice.
You would be difficult to keep a secret, he said as if he were answering a breeze. Crunnchu embraced Macha and his children and he departed.
Woe the bright heart dimmed with pride!
Boneless and shapeless his desires.
He tumbles toward the downward spiral.
Alas creation wears the skin of doom!
Harsh and hard the bed and cold the hall.
Mead and milk and music. Courts and councils and marriage bargains. Cakes and cattle and pigs and pies and sheep and dances and games. Chieftains and slaves and poets and druids and warriors crowded the Ulster Assembly and gathered around a track where high-bred horses raced.
Beautiful horses. Flying manes, smooth flanks, grace and speed and sheen and shine. Crunnchu had brought no horses to race that day and he was dazzled and jealous. He turned to the man beside him.
My wife is faster than the high king’s favorite mount. She can outrun the finest stallions that pull his lightest chariots, Crunnchu said. Ambition drove the promise, her kindness, and the peace she brought, from his memory. She had spoken so softly, he could let himself forget.
And with every race, Crunnchu boasted to the man beside him until word at last reached the high king. The high king called for Crunnchu.
Are you merely a braggart? he asked.
But Crunnchu insisted his wife could outrun any creature alive.
Crunnchu insisted and the high king sent a messenger to summon Macha to the race.
Macha rubbed her kicking belly to show the messenger how soon her time was to come. She shook her violet hair and the violet-black feather slapped her chin and she patted the plump cheeks of Crunnchu’s three motherless boys and she shook her head again.
Your husband will be shamed and killed if you do not appear, the messenger said.
Macha kissed the children farewell. She dragged her feet behind the messenger. He lifted her onto his pony and he carried her to the Ulster Assembly.
She spoke not a word and her eyes sought Crunnchu. From a distance, Crunnchu smiled encouragement. He wagered with chieftains and poets and druids and warriors. He wagered his wife would outrun the high king’s finest horses. Men shouted and laughed and cheered and jeered. They mocked Macha’s heavy waist. Macha’s eyes begged them to stop and none returned her gaze.
Her pleading gaze was lost in the merriment. Macha quivered at the starting line. Two horses hitched to the king’s lightest chariot waited beside her and they foamed and scraped their hooves in the dust. Macha’s back was bowed with the weight in her belly. The horses were lean and restless.
The high king shouted. Macha felt the crack of a stick across her rump.
Macha ran. Neck and neck with the horses. They galloped so hard and so close the whistle of the charioteer’s whip tangled with Macha’s violet hair. She thrust her bucking belly forward. She ran and ran and her legs lengthened. The lathered horses leaped ahead. Macha strained on and on, her gait quickened and her arms pumped like wings. Pushing and panting and the blue veins popped on her belly. The horses snorted and dropped back. Macha limped across the finish line and she collapsed. The birthwaters burst in her belly and flushed between her thighs.
Macha rolled on the ground in birthwater and she wept without words and the Ulstermen chattered in awe above her. Crunnchu cowered in the crowd. Macha screamed. The load in her belly contracted. She groaned and grunted and twins, a son and a daughter, slid out along her wet and bird-boned legs.
The babies howled. Macha’s sight was blinded by sweat and she gasped and wheezed and spoke a second time.
Hear my curse, cruel bearded men of Ulster! You who would not help me! All you who hear my screams, you, who do not honor me! I curse you! For nine generations, in times of greatest peril, when enemies are at your door, you bearded men of Ulster will writhe, unprotected, uncomforted, for five long days, with stinging belly cramp and shooting back pain, legs spread helplessly, as weak as women in childbirth.
And Macha died.
Macha died and Crunnchu flung the winnings from his hand. Now he pushed through the crowd around his wife on the dusty track. They tried to give him his howling babies and overhead a flock of crows cawed and shrieked and croaked.
Two ladies in black hoods and mourning cloaks swayed and beat their chests and ripped their hair and clapped their hands and keened.
Alas the lover’s peace destroyed!
Bounty she brought out of ruin.
Woe you trespassers, usurpers and breachers of faith.
Soon begin the Pangs of Ulster!
Woe you men without mercy!
Make ready the bed of pain and agony!
The bed that receives no life.
The Morrigna swaddled Macha’s body and her twin babies. Her violet-black feather was all they left behind. Chieftains and slaves and poets and druids and warriors and the high king watched horrified as the sky grew thick and black with a thousand crows.
* * *
In Connacht, fierce, mighty Queen Medb gathered her army to take the Brown Bull of Ulster. The Phantom Queen glided through the great ranks. Her spin and huff and twirl and squall nourished petty agitations. Macha cast her charms for favorites and Frenzy raised her cry of wrath and rage and panic.
red and crimson and scarlet
scarlet and red and crimson
crimson and scarlet and red
Medb’s warriors crossed the plain. They crossed the boundaries of Ulster. Ahead of the hordes, Medb’s painted women waved flaming torches. They beat wardrums. They bawled the curdling warsongs. Medb’s army marched with clatter of swords and whinnying horses and chariots and five-pronged spears and fluted shields across fields and valleys and through the forests of Ulster, and closer and closer came the great peril.
At Emain Macha, at Macha’s death place, a child heard the roaring footsteps and trumpets and the crash and cries of advancing warriors and the blue sky was blackened by a thousand crows.
The child ran to warn the others. But the bearded men of Ulster were crumbling, one by one, with stinging belly cramp and shooting back pain, legs spread helplessly apart, as weak as women in childbirth.
Retold from the Irish Tain Bo Cuailnge