Niamh waits at Tir na n’Og. Twenty years in the human world is half an hour in the Other. A century passes in a night of lovemaking.
Niamh’s wait is long and brief. Sure enough, the white steed materializes. The horse on which her man, Oisin, left her, its saddle girth loose and swaying. The horse nudges her arm. She embraces its neck.
She consults no one. She offers no farewells. She buckles the saddle. She swings onto it. She turns the horse back the way it came.
A doe watches as Niamh rides from the Country of the Young, lightly gripping her ringing bridle, cloudless eyes fixed straight ahead, riding up from the place where she was born when time began, the country she has left only once before, when she fetched Oisin to love her.
The doe follows Niamh past the emerald sea through blue and silver mists. Over meadows that bloom without end, along a path of crystal cobbles lined with velvet ferns and trees drooping with abundance. A willow catches Niamh’s hair and tugs as if to hold her in the safety of the Sidhe.
This is not the route Oisin took out of Tir na n’Og. In that moment, the white steed splashed through the foam and flew up and over the faerie palaces with their bright sun bowers and lime-white walls that dance on the surface of the sea. Niamh, whose heart is unhindered by time, travels gradually.
The path rises. The doe bounds along the steep slope. She stops at the frontier between the worlds, where the eternal balm of Tir na n’Og turns to earthly winter and frost bends the trees. Her eyes fill with sorrow and envy, but she will go no farther.
Niamh crosses the border and wraps her silken mantle close about her shoulders. She knows nothing of seasons. She wonders how Oisin fares in this cold world. An unsettled man. Dispassionate, until the songs glimmer from his harp. He is fleet and shy and gentle and homesick.
Dry leaves crunch on heaved, hard ground beneath the white steed’s shoes. A magpie screams and snow falls. It is easy to be invisible in this harsh gloom. Why did Oisin mac Fionn return to this vale of death and decay despite Niamh’s warning?
* * *
An old, old man sits in a monastery cell. Wind cruises through cracks in stone walls. He is blind and his joints creak when he shifts on the hard bench where he has been sitting since the people brought him here when he fell from the white steed.
His faerie garments, torc of gold, silver cloak of satin and red-gold leather armor, drape like dead skin on his emaciated body. His toes clench his oversized boots.
The old man’s clothing grows larger as his thoughts contract. He will enjoy this silence until Patrick returns with more entreaties to embrace a solitary god, a god all folk in Ireland now seem to follow, a possessive deity who broaches no companions, razes the forests and claims the sun and moon and will not feast with Fionn mac Cumhall and the men of the Fianna or honor them with riches.
Had not Patrick bade his scribes write the old man’s songs of the heroes’ deeds in this world and the Other? Does he not listen enrapt, begging like a child for more and more tales?
Why then has the monk not understood that the Fianna, free men of the wild, who refused no one in need, sought always to destroy tyrants and invaders?
“Truth was in our hearts, and strength in our arms and fulfillment in our tongues,” the old man tells Patrick.
“A god who would confine generous Fionn to suffering in a pit of fire because Fionn had never known or heard of him?” The old man is astonished. “Were your god in bonds, Fionn would fight to free him. Fionn left none in pain or danger.”
The old man drifts. Roman Patrick’s arguments cannot restrain the flood of nostalgia and regret for another world, stories that are his own, with which he will not entertain the monk. The picture of a mute, naked boy takes shape behind his eyes:
The boy played beside a stream while his mother drank. Baying and barking and shouting closed all around. His mother bolted into the bushes. The boy shinnied up a tree. From his high perch, he searched for her, afraid to find her torn to pieces by hunting dogs. But she was gone and the dogs whined and scratched the tree trunk.
A man called and coaxed. At last, the boy, sensing no harm, lowered himself branch by branch and landed in the man’s arms. He looked the boy full in the face. He stroked the fur that grew from the boy’s eyebrow along his temple, brown fur dotted with white. He wept.
The boy marvelled. This was the second man he had ever seen. But while this one was small and stocky, muscular, tan and warm, the first had been beardless, thin and blue as skimmed milk. He had visited the boy’s mother many times in the cave where they took shelter. He spoke to her in wheedling, cajoling tones. She had cringed from him until he departed in anger, leaving a menacing aura.
This man, Fionn mac Cumhall, held the boy in a solid, happy embrace. “Little Fawn, my son. You’ve come home,” he laughed. “Seven years I’ve searched for you and your mother,” he said. He stood abruptly, looked about, beat the bushes half-heartedly like one who had worn a long, tired habit to the nub. He called “Sadb! Sadb!” but there was no sign of life and Fionn mac Cumhall again hugged the bewildered boy and sighed.
Then the boy was wrestling on the ground with Bran and Sceolan, who slavered and nipped him while he pulled their red ears as if they were old friends.
Now he is merely old. This groaning age has come upon him so terribly and suddenly.
The cell door opens and the monk enters bearing a bowl of broth. Fasting and prayer and flagellation. There is no laughter, no hardiness in this new world where Patrick’s god is cramped within church walls.
The monk hands the bowl to the old man. He mutters thanks and takes it with trembling hands. His white beard drags in the gruel. Patrick of Rome picks it out and sits beside him and begins again his pious persuasions. The old, old man, who is blind and shrinking, wishes he were also deaf.
* * *
The doe grazes in a glade just at the edge of the human world. A trail of red stars still hangs where the faerie Niamh passed out of Tir na n’Og. The doe looks wishfully at the scarlet shimmer. She would also go into the human world but for dangers whose details she now only barely recalls.
Her mind’s pictures swirl around a relentless white light in the form of a long, thin man. The cold figure has always lurked there.
He captured her and she escaped and he captured her again. Round and round him she ran. With every step, she changed from hind to woman or woman to hind.
There is another man, and he, too, pursues her. He is warm and tan and sturdy and safe. Sometimes, he leaps into the doe’s memory followed by two white hounds. Sometimes, he is in the mirthful company of other men.
Secure in his dun, the doe was transformed to woman and wife. Then she had a name and she lived happily awhile. But the beardless man, who burned determined as noon, found her, tricked her, trapped her, and with the fith-fath he recast her and led her away.
Fionn mac Cumhall struck his fist against his chest. He searched glen and ravine, mountain and wood, coast and cavern, calling “Sadb! Sadb!” She could not penetrate the thin, hard light to reach him.
Blood and water on a cave floor. A human infant sliding from between the twitching thighs of a deer.
The ever-present, beardless man watched from shadow as the doe licked the baby’s temple. A patch of brown fur flecked with white sprouted where her thick, coarse tongue licked and cleaned the membrane from the little boy’s head.
The fearful yelping of hounds. The shouts of hunters. The boy scrambling up a tree. The doe rushing frantically into the hard light of the beardless man. His hazel wand whistling around her. His fith-fath made her invisible to Fionn mac Cumhall.
* * *
“Have I lived so long that Fionn and the Fianna are worm-eaten in their graves?” the old man mutters. “Where are they?”
He has traveled so far through time and found no one and nothing but a pitiful, woodless place, where once-strong men are rooted to husbandry, dwarfed in the confines of fortresses, humbled by a disdainful god. At the cooking places of the Fianna, there is desiccated silence. The great oak that marked the dun is gone. A rubble of weeds and nettle and moss-covered stones where Fionn’s great hall stood.
Roman Patrick’s tonsure gleams in the cell’s wretched light. “The limbs of the mighty Fianna are torn and scorched on the burning slabs of hell.”
The old man reaches for the patch on his temple. Age has left bare and tented skin. Never has shame been put on him till now. “If the brown leaves were gold that the wood lets fall, if the white waves were silver, Fionn would have given it all away.”
The monk sighs. “Your false deities are dead, conquered by the one true god. The paradise of which you sing is wicked and profane.”
“And the hounds?” the old man mumbles. “Will Bran and Sceolan greet me in heaven with their happy yells?”
“Animals have no souls,” Patrick replies and he leans into the old man’s face, hot breath fluttering the white beard, as if to demonstrate the devil’s heat.
What are flimsy, pale angels to the Fianna? They would overcome Patrick’s devil as he were a weak infant. The old man opens his mouth to speak, then hardens into silence. A young swordsman appears in the old man’s mind, a youth who had been mute but when he finally learned human speech it was poetry and he sang with his harp by the fires of the Fianna. Patrick rumbles on, punctuating his sermon with demands for more tales about Fionn and Fianna. But the old man is lost again in the mist that drizzled on the youth one morning long ago.
Hunt-wandering overcame him as day suddenly turned to night. He was separated from his dogs and his companions and he meandered alone and weary. He stumbled into a luminous valley, where a doe grazed placidly.
She turned to him with yearning eyes. “Follow me, fawn of my heart.”
He stared at the creature, fearful he might burst with love.
They came to a rock in the base of a hill. She lifted a leaf with her mouth and the rock opened. They entered a bright cavern, lit gold with many tallows. Tapestries covered rough walls and brocade covered soft seats. Inside, the doe became a woman.
“I am your mother from whom you were parted long ago,” she said. “You are hungry and tired. Come, Oisin, Little Fawn, sit down and rest.”
She placed food and drink before him and when he had done feasting, she gave him a harp and he sang the stories of Fionn mac Cumhall. The woman who was his mother and a doe sobbed quietly.
The old man snores, dreaming of the young man asleep on his mother’s lap, while she sang to him.
My darling, my dun buck,
my spirit and my delight.
Fairim, firim, obh, obh.
May I not hear of your wounding,
may I not see you weep.
My calf, my foal, my fair one.
For three days, the youth slept and when he woke, he said, “I must go, Mother, to the Fianna.”
She kissed his cheek three times. She touched the tip of her tongue to his salty temple. She opened the door in the rock, and under the evening sky, she changed from woman to hind.
When he found his company, it was not three days, but three years had passed.
The old man wakes with a start. “How long, Patrick, since I last walked this land in the footsteps of the Fianna?”
“Half a thousand years, but time is short. Repent and be saved. You will have eternal life.”
“Monk, I had eternal life. It was mine in the lap of my mother and mine at Tir na n’Og in the arms of Niamh. Yet I chose to return, to visit mortal seasons with Fionn and my brothers. Whether they now reside in your heaven or in your hell, there I will go with them.”
* * *
A supple, young voice resounds in the doe’s memory even as she rests secure now in the balm of Tir na n’Og. The song of her son which never fades. The song of caution he daily chanted into the forests and hills and plains after he had left her golden cavern.
If you are my mother and you a deer,
arise before the sunrise.
If you are my mother and you a deer,
beware the blade in every hunter’s hand,
beware the hounds of uproar, hounds of rage
in battle-fury before you.
* * *
Niamh’s journey continues. Her eyes dart across the dark terrain seeking clues. The beauty with which she can overpower all men illuminates the land. That beauty with which she transfixed Fionn and the Fianna on the day she claimed Oisin.
She rode the white steed dressed in queen’s raiment. Her summoning song as she entered Fionn’s camp cast a drowsy stillness over the trees, the sky, the birds, the hounds and the men.
The song ended and Fionn recovered his own voice. “Where do you come from, maiden, and what do you want from me?”
The daughter of the king of the Land of Youth announced her intention.
“Of all men,” Fionn asked, “why Oisin?”
She did not answer, but looked from the Rigfennid to his son. She had spied on Oisin as he wandered through woods and fields, remote in the rowdy fellowship of the Fianna, strong and graceful, yet skittish, eyes distant as if he were seeking something lost lifetimes ago. She had disguised herself as a fly on his chessboard. As sheen on the strings of his harp, as red stars circling his campfires. She had hidden in the dark of the moon and listened to his songs. She watched him until she was distraught with love and desire.
“Will you go with me, Oisin, to my father’s land, to Tir na n’Og?”
She sat her horse before him, so radiant he lost all resolve and forgot his love for all things but her. “I will go with you to the world’s end,” he said.
He kissed his father. Fionn ran his fingers through the fur on Oisin’s temple. I have no hope that you’ll come back to me, Little Fawn,” he said.
Oisin mounted the white steed behind Niamh and they departed against the stream of Fionn mac Cumhall’s lament.
Niamh still feels Oisin’s arms around her waist exactly as they were that day. Once again, she sings her summoning song that Oisin might reveal his whereabouts.
An endless feast, unceasing music
in the land beyond all dreams.
Come, Oisin, to wild honey
and wine that never fails.
Come to fruit and flower.
You will have horses
and hounds that outrun the wind.
A magic blade
and Niamh to love you all your days.
The memories spur her impatience. Niamh shakes the horse’s ringing bridle. “My beauty, my dancer. Quickly. Can you find the place where you left him?”
The white steed shoots like a sunbeam across the plain. Soon they stand at the mouth of a quarry, where small, feeble men gasp and grunt hauling granite and marble.
* * *
The land is dotted with tiny stick-and-mud huts. The faerie Niamh thinks how cruel and foolish Oisin was to leave her. For a time in Tir na n’Og he was content. But the Country of the Young was too tame, too pretty. Ecstasy turned to evasion. Restlessness for the mortal world. To roam and hunt and fight with the Fianna. Back and forth from faerie to human Oisin migrated his whole life long. And thinking of his wandering, Niamh feels very old. She is forever sheltered, forever fixed in maidenhood. But what if her feet were now to touch the ground? Would she dissolve into dust?
She seeks Oisin — to plead for his return or mourn his death — but she has no notion of human years, or how many have gone since Oisin went away with her. Yet staring into the quarry, she sees that in whatever time that was, free men have become enslaved, and the wilderness, once so like the balmy green of Tir na n’Og, has disappeared. In the quarry below, puny, straining men, sweating despite the winter cold, pound rocks for taskmasters.
She sits on the white steed watching until one man’s eye catches hers. She calls so none but he can hear. He raises his arm to his forehead to shield himself against her brilliance. She exhales and with her breath suspends the others in their gestures. She inhales and draws the quarryman up the sides of the black pit. He shifts from foot to foot before her, eyes downcast, quivering and terrified.
At last he stammers, “Great shining queen, are you an angel who rides the devil’s stallion?”
Who or what are devils and angels? Niamh wonders. Aloud she says simply, “Tell me.”
“A warrior fell from this horse not five days ago,” the man answers.
“How did he fall?” Her voice is so sweet it emboldens him.
“Men were trapped under a marble slab. Dying. We could not move it. The slab would not budge.
“Just then, a warrior pranced toward us. On that very horse. In foreign dress. He was tall and mighty, with sword-blue eyes and ruddy cheeks. His teeth were like pearls and his yellow curls clustered beneath his helmet like a halo. We thought he, too, must be an angel come to free us from toil and care. A messenger from heaven, come to save the souls of the men crushed beneath the rock.
“Then we saw that one eyebrow spread full across his temple in fur with the markings of a fawn, and some among us were afraid.”
Niamh smiles and nods encouragement. The man grows confident.
“The warrior leaned from the saddle, and with a huge, one-handed heave, he lifted the marble slab. But as he leaned into the stone, and as it rolled back down the pit, his saddle girth unbuckled and he slipped headlong off the horse and landed on the ground.
“In that instant, this horse vanished. It was this steed and this same saddle, too. The withered thing that rose from the ground teetering was no youthful warrior but an old, old man.”
“We fled. Then we knew the fur on his temple was the mark of the devil. We ran as he moaned and groped blindly at the air and fell again and again.”
“You deserted him? Alone and sightless? He who had rescued you? Men have become cowards.”
The quarryman loses the rhythm of his story. He cringes when Niamh raises the flat of her hand above his head. “Go on!” she orders.
“Great queen. Blesséd angel. Please. We turned back when we saw that the doom had been wrought for him alone. Then we lifted him up and asked him who he was.
“My lady, sure he was daft. He claimed to be son of Fionn mac Cumhall, gone half a thousand years. We took him to Patrick. It is five days. Sure by now he is dead and absolved. Since holy Patrick came to Ireland with psalms and prayers to cleanse us from sin and save us from …”
But Niamh has left the man to finish telling his tale to a wreath of red stars, while the others within the quarry, released from the spell, laugh at him as if he were talking to fireflies.
* * *
Patrick dismisses his scribes. The old, old man is dying and will no longer speak. The monk has rid the land of druids and oaks and built his seven hundred churches in every corner. For five days, he has savored Oisin’s tales of the Fianna, story after story of love and war that enchant the monk and he craves the old man’s voice. In his sleep, Patrick mutters a fith-fath and, in his dreams, his body shifts to that of a handsome roebuck. Every morning he prays for absolution and scourges himself on his god’s behalf.
What life is left to Oisin has been kept pulsing by Patrick’s demands for songs. The tales have turned to rattles in his throat. He sees his mother in her golden cavern. He hears the high blasts of hunting horns and the joyful barks of Bran and Sceolan. There is no pleasure without Fionn mac Cumhall and the Fianna.
The marble grandeurs of Roman Patrick’s persistent heaven pale beside those of the green, gentle Land of Youth. The old man feels the fragile faerie bones of lovely Niamh pressing tight against him, while century after century pass like minutes in Tir na n’Og.
And the deep dread that glazed Niamh’s cloudless eyes as she spoke her warning
If you must visit the human world,
if you must find your father,
I give you leave to go.
I give the white steed to carry you.
Swear, Oisin, swear,
promise that your feet
will never touch the ground.
He had found the hunting places of the Fianna, he had found the site of Fionn’s great dun — all destroyed by time. And he had meant to return to Tir na n’Og, but he had fallen from the white steed and helpless age had overtaken him.
Patrick follows his scribes out the cell door. He will bring holy water for last rites. For his own soul’s sake and in gratitude for the old man’s songs, the monk will assure his passage into heaven and pray each day for the soul of Oisin mac Fionn despite his protestations.
Patrick is not present when red stars sift through the cracks in the monastery wall. They twirl about the cell and embrace the wizened figure barely alive on the hard bench.
When the monk returns, the cell is empty. The old, old man is gone.
* * *
In Tir na n’Og she is free. The doe cannot recall how she got here or why Fionn mac Cumhall no longer seeks her or why the cold, beardless man no longer visits her except in memory. She is free from all but loneliness.
The fog at the frontier between the human and faerie realms is lifting. The doe’s keen ears perceive the beat of hooves. She steps quickly, lightly behind a tree. There are no hunting horns, no hounds baying.
Shadows turn to silhouettes in the gloaming. Galloping straight toward her. The faerie Niamh appears bent low on her white steed. Red stars describe a trail behind her and tangle in the horse’s mane.
Come, Oisin, to wild honey,
to wine that never fails.
Come to fruit and flower…
Niamh laughs and sings. A little fawn, antlers budding, races alongside her and together they burst across the border between the worlds.
The doe emerges cautiously from her hiding place. The fawn tilts his head and nudges her belly. She passes her strong, coarse tongue over his white-speckled temple.
Niamh veers toward the emerald sea. Still laughing, she disappears into silver froth. She will meet Oisin again. When spring is on the earth, his stag’s bell will call her up.
Retold from versions by Michael Cromyn, Padraic Colum, Lady Augusta Gregory, W.B. Yeats and The Carmina Gaedelica, with thanks to John Wright.