Pryderi ap Pwyll was brought up carefully and when Pwyll died,
Pryderi ruled the seven cantrevs of Dyfed and they were prosperous.
A gannet glides above the cantrevs of Dyfed. Curled away from sea air by some upheaval, it twitches its wings then banks back toward salt spray.
Rhiannon watches the gannet from her bed of insipid coldness. She is alone, wasted in thought, in the strong grip of years, dragging violently toward the days of grayness. The moonstone round her neck has dulled. Her skin is faded. Her snow-white hair transparent and thin.
The White Night Mare refuses to visit her dreams. No longer will she allow the White Lady to visit her nest or mount her. She disdains the crimson apples Rhiannon offers and will not let Rhiannon nuzzle her or stroke her back and forehead and flanks. When Rhiannon tries to catch her, the mare rears and screams and canters away. The White Lady has become human and leaden. It’s been too long since she left the Otherworld orchard. Abandoned her father Heveydd for love of a mortal chieftain and birthed a mortal child.
Rhiannon thinks of Pwyll’s death, weeps at a new angle, then ponders her own end. A strange notion, for death never ventured into the orchard where she was born.
Where there is no autumn and winter,
when Heveydd sat beneath a tree
and a dandruff entered his eye.
One tear and then another.
Two saltwater beads fell on his knees.
The third was a pearl.
He caught the iridescent droplet
in his palm and blew on it.
It grew to the size of an owl’s egg.
He hooted to it.
Owl’s song, dog’s rough ditty, serpent’s tune,
anthem of hart, badger’s lyric, hare’s vibration,
whale’s chanty and madrigal of horse,
until it was padded in infinite music.
Then Heveydd tucked the pearl
into the lair of the White Night Mare and there
Rhiannon incubated, hatched and nested.
Pissed pearls and cried pearls
and the milk she sucked from the Night Mare’s teats
was the juice of pearls, too.
In the mortal world,
dissolved into water
like that of ordinary women.
Who am I now? Rhiannon wonders. Not an oyster for all my pearls. Neither new velvet nor bumpy spring. Neither am I appetite, aphrodisiac and allure. The alabaster has cracked and puckered. And Pwyll, who loved me even as I aged, is gone.
She lies on her bed, dripping. Tears soak her stretched and sagging body. She squeezes her eyes. Two pearls pop out and flick her chin.
She leaves her bed, dressed all in black. She walks toward the seacliffs of Dyfed. She leaves her herds. She leaves her son and his young wife. She walks away from the Caer of Narberth, never glancing at the mound, leaving a trail of pearls. And the loyal wrens — who had come with her from the orchard and stayed through the long years and comforted Rhiannon in her anxiety — follow, warbling above her head.
She stands on a cliff and pearls tumble down her cheeks. They ricochet on the rocks, swirl into an eddy on the beach, and are drawn by tide into the sea. “No regret,” she reminds herself, “I made my choice and lived happy with Pwyll.”
But her weeping grows fiercer, until she’s howling like an ocean storm. The waves rise to meet her wails and whirl into winds that whip her gown. The black veil slaps her face.
The stream of pearls widens into a river that cuts through the cliff. The glittering white orbs spread over reefs and vault over surf and dance with maelstroms, moving west until they catch first the ear and then the eye of Manannann mac Lir.
* * *
The sea god patrols the island of Eriu in his curach and wherever he imagines the boat to go, so it goes. He makes a mist of his breath to shroud the island from Fomorii invaders.
He hears a mournful song in the distance and wonders if dolphins or selkies have lost a loved one. Then, banging. Like hailstones on drums, beating the hard wicker of his little boat.
Manannann looks down and the curach is trapped in a tangle of pearls. He scoops a handful. He bites one. He glances around and sees no one, but in the east there’s a storm. Who but he can create such a squall?
He whistles, and his horses, who can run on foam or on land, rise out of the water, pulling a golden chariot. He jumps into the cart and clicks his tongue. Horses and god streak over the war cries of the strong-haired sea and over the tempest of green waves and over the jaws of the wondrous and bitter ocean to the coast of Dyfed.
Manannann stops short of the beach. He floats on white caps, watching. A woman stands on the cliffs. Weeping pearls. She is the source of this deluge. He rocks with the swells, spying on her through fog, and when the wind snatches the veil from her head, he reaches with his long arm and grabs the black cloth in mid-air, then swims to shore for a closer look.
Manannann mac Lir gazes at Rhiannon, eyes limp with love and recognition.
“I have never seen a more wonderful woman, so endowed, inside and out,” he says, materializing beside her and handing her the sopping veil.
Rhiannon nods in thanks and moves. She savors her solitude. She could not care less who he is, where he came from or what he might want.
“Wait!” the sea god implores. Long ago, Pwyll had called on her to hold still, but she made him cool his heels, until he found the right words with which to summon her. No such courtship games will ever interest her again.
His pale skin is blue where Earth’s dappled sunlight pinches it. He is long and thin, graceful on sea and in ethers, but not on land. Manannann mac Lir leaps through damp air and dandles in front of her. She turns around and there he is. She turns again. He is there. She cannot escape.
“You are a pearl, even as you weep pearls,” he says. “You are the brightest, most beautiful creature in This world or the Other.”
“Wipe the sea water from your eyes, lad,” she snaps. “And step aside!”
“What?” He is taken aback by her impudence. “I am Manannann, king of the sea.” He glowers at her, full of the pride of rank. But he is softened by love. It has been millennia since he first saw her, glorious upon the White Night Mare, and, because he comes from the Land of Promise, he sees her that way still. She is earth and sky. He is sea and sky, and he must have her for his queen. He throws his shoulders back to exhibit his tough, scaly chest.
“Come with me to Tir Tairnigiri.” He opens his arms to welcome her, and when she steps back, annoyed, he considers sweeping her into his cloak, the cloak that can catch all the colors in the world.
“I do not answer abrupt questions from boys, even noble and handsome ones like you,” she snarls, while the wrens chatter and scold him. She wishes she had her mettlesome mare to carry her off, but her magic is finished.
“No, it’s not finished,” Manannann says, reading her thoughts. “You’ve bewitched me and that is difficult to do, for I am a god of tricks.”
“You are a bag of jokes,” she says. “Now please, please leave me alone. Let me be. I am old. I’m not flattered.” She has work to do. She must discover a future, a way to be aged and alone when her new partner, grief, has finally burned itself out.
“You are not old!” Manannann is shocked at the very idea. “You’re like me. You can never be old! How can you, who sucked the White Mare’s teat, suck up this human absurdity?”
No more able to resist his impulses than the tide can resist the moon, he pulls at her belt to bring her to him. Rhiannon balks. If he does not leave soon, she’ll explode. He has raised her temper from the place where it was buried long ago, where it rested unkindled in the serenity of her years with Pwyll, after their son returned.
And this surprising reappearance of her mare’s fire begins to interest her.
“I am about to be a grandmother,” she announces grandly.
“Oh, well,” he replies. “I am grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather to many. Come to Tir Tairnigiri and see.”
“Have you no pity?” Rhiannon replies and the pearls bubble up in her eyes again. “Go back where you came from.”
He smiles and stands his ground, although, in his white-bronze, webbed sea-shoes, he teeters a bit. Rhiannon, whose own feet are hard as hooves and solidly laid, suppresses the urge to laugh.
“I am decrepit and exhausted at having to remind you of that fact. I am human, Manannann. I gave up immortality and youth for Pwyll. Soon I will die.”
“You are wrong! You will never die. Your age is delusion. Time hangs in the mortal world like dark clouds about to rain. But in our world, time curls like a serpent biting its tail. You can’t unbind your origins. Surrender, Rhiannon!” and with that enthusiasm, he wobbles wildly and nearly topples.
“What are these pearls, if not proof of your Otherworldliness?” he asks, regaining his balance.
“They are a fluke and an evil reminder of my pain, probably sent by my angry father.”
“Nonsense! Pwyll has died and you are released to return to us. Come with me and you’ll see that the youth you think you’ve lost is not gone.” He leans closer. “With me you’ll be happier than you have ever been. Forever.”
Rhiannon sighs. She has only to look in a glass to know that the choice she made is final. “This is cruel teasing,” she says, “and you are a heartless, upstart child, o mighty king of the sea.”
She sits on a rock and cups her head in her hands. Pearls sprint from her eyes. “Go away,” she blubbers. “Go away.”
Instead of going away, he blathers on and on, pacing like a penguin, waving his reedy arms, sketching pictures on the clouds to illustrate his home: gleaming turrets and towers of high-polished shell, flocks of lapis angel fish shepherded by mermaids, mermen warriors with sharks for steeds, ivory unicorn whales, unfathomably graceful orange coral reefs, undulating forests of turquoise algae, the richness and underwater magnificence of his kingdom.
She is reminded of the orchard in the Otherworld under the mound and unsure whether his pictures of that Otherworld perfection make her nostalgic or claustrophobic. Her stomach twists when he offers his home to her and more. She is quiet. She has decided to be patient as a clod of earth, hoping he’ll wear himself out.
He cups water in his palm to make a mirror. Here is her face, young as apple blossoms. “You see,” he says, “you never changed.” She smashes his hands with her fist and the water shatters. He reaches for her.
“How dare you take such liberties with an old and widowed woman?” she shrieks. “How dare you behave like this to the Queen of Dyfed!”
“No longer, for your son is king and he has a new queen.”
“Yes,” she sighs. “I am displaced.”
He laughs. “Not in Tir Tairnigiri! If I can give you now a gift of your own choosing, will you at least come with me to see my land and sleep with me one night?”
“What I want, you cannot do,” she says, trying to think quickly of a task that might finally get rid of him.
“I can do anything,” Manannann brags.
“Then build me a circle of high, broad standing stones in honor of my husband, Pwyll. And within the circle, embed a sheaf of wheat in a lodestone, that my son’s land will thrive, always abundant. Then I will go with you.”
“Done!” he shouts. And from his waist he pulls a bag made of crane skin. He empties it and outlines a circle of silver net, starfish and spirit catchers made of clams. He roars like a breaker smashing against rock and shakes his cloak.
“There! You have your wish, Rhiannon. Come, let us go now!”
The monument to Pwyll is more eloquent than Rhiannon could ever have envisaged. She blinks at Manannann, who grins proudly. She weeps again. She makes a pail of her skirt to catch the pearls, to offer them to her husband’s memory.
She shuffles slowly toward the circle, pearls clattering in her gown. The wrens hop from one upright stone to the next, then dive toward the wheat sheaf, pluck it up and suddenly, the structure shudders and wavers, melts and turns to pond.
“You liar!” Rhiannon spins to face the sea god. “You would not know water from wood or a goat from a flounder, or corn from a kipper, or a peach from a prawn! You created an hallucination to fool me into going with you. Get out! You have no hold on me!”
“There is nothing I can’t do,” Manannann sniffs. “Let me try again. If it hadn’t been for those birds of yours…” and he takes a little bow and arrow from his crane bag and points them at Rhiannon’s wrens.
“You can’t kill them,” Rhiannon says, calmly, but she is not at all certain whether they may have become as mortal as she. Yet how have they hung about these many years?
“All right. I give you leave to try again,” Rhiannon says, truly curious now as to what and who she has become, what and who she might still be and why, indeed, her fluids are once again pearls.
“Build the stone circle as strong and real as Pwyll, do it right this time, and I will go with you to Tir Tairnigiri.”
“Do you swear?” Manannann asks.
“I do,” she replies, “but I’m safe, for I’m sure that you, with your ocean conjuring and sea chicanery, cannot ever make a solid thing.”
Rhiannon collapses on her rock and wraps the black veil, starched with salt, tight around her head. She stares listlessly at the horizon, mapping the flight of the gannet. She dreams of Pwyll. She wishes death would take her, too. Take her to him.
* * *
To his surprise, Manannann is uncertain whether he can satisfy the request of this female caught between mortality and eternity. He, whose moods mimic sea changes — who has seduced many a human woman and sired many a half-human child (and saved many a human warrior with his marvelous sword, The Answerer) — has never been so determined, desirous or insecure. He is enamored and glamoured by Rhiannon. He would perform any task in exchange for the White Lady’s caresses, to win her affectionate murmurs. If it is standing stones she wants, he will find them and bring them and make a monument to that precious dead husband of hers.
There is nothing he won’t do, Manannann announces to himself. But how will he do this?
The sea king is drying out. Desiccating. He is itchy and thirsty under the Earth sky. He cannot tolerate land for long. He rushes to the ocean and flops into the water. Relief. He calls his curach, climbs in and sits, bobbing and thinking, chin on knees. She has dissolved his illusion and would surely uncover another trick. Even if he could work true stone — which he cannot, because rock is alien and too heavy for his sea body or any sea magic — there are no stones in Dyfed large enough for the megalith Rhiannon requires.
Hours pass. Rhiannon languishes, staring at the sky, ignoring him, confident that he will fail. Failure is unbearable to him. A sea mew lands on Manannann’s head and scratches it for him. He thinks and thinks and his thoughts call up four nymphs who croon:
Come with us, Manannann mac Lir, and you will obtain your mind’s design.
He spreads his cloak into wings and lifts off the little boat. Skimming billows, inhaling spume, he follows the nymphs until they come to Eriu, where they dip through Manannann’s protective shroud of mist. The nymphs lead the sea king across meadows, along winding rivers and sparkling fields of cowslip to another shore, then over another chilly sea to the Island of Tory, to the foot of a mountain.
And in the shafts of that mountain, sixty Fomorii snore upon sixty stone slabs.
Manannann is dizzy and flaking. If ever there was a trial, this is it. He has gone farther inland than he has ever been. The nymphs disappear and Manannann roosts on a rock, splashing himself with dew, thinking, thinking, devising a way to get the Fomorii and their stones back to Dyfed. No Fomor will travel unless there’s some enticement: delectable De Danann blood or the shiny slather of jewels. Manannann thinks and thinks, wrapped round with his cloak, thinking until his brain conjures three geese, who nip at his ankles and rasp:
Come with us, Manannann mac Lir, and you will obtain your mind’s design.
Manannann waddles slowly behind the geese, tottering in his white-bronze, webbed sea-shoes. Now they fly; now they tramp across grasses and fragrant heather, slipping up hillock, down dale, to the end of the Rainbow, where the geese leave him beside a cavern that plunges away, away, below the sea, in the hot bowels of the Earth. Manannann is horrified. He has visited the hollows of the Daghda, but he has never been this deep in dirt. He coughs and chokes and fights for air. His fish flesh sweats. His throat clenches around the stench of sulfur.
In the cave, in the smoky dark, with stinging eyes, Manannann passes chamber after chamber, each containing a thousand golden pots brimming with jewels. He stumbles on, terrified, until his fear of tunnels gives birth at last to two blind moles, glowing like candles, who troll with their tiny teeth at his cloak and squeak:
Come with us, Manannann mac Lir, and you will obtain your mind’s design.
Trembling and tripping, Manannann, brave king of the sea, follows the moles through gruesome galleries and caliginous corridors until they come to the Hall of Priceless Illusion, where Manannann seizes a handful of treasure and comes up empty-handed.
And this is truly a wonder, for even the master of deception has been duped. He unknots the crane-skin bag on his belt. He reaches into it, and pulls out an illusion, then piles illusion upon illusion, until he has a portable mirage.
Back again he toils, through tunnels and out of the mountain, goose-stepping back across the grasses and meadows, flying along rivers and across estuaries, back to the foot of the mountain of the Fomorii, where Manannann hangs a pot of jewels on the precipice above their door.
When they awaken, the one-eyed behemoths drool and scutter and fall over and under and into one another, reaching for the unreachable riches, foregoing their breakfasts of fresh faerie babes, just for a taste of this wealth.
From his perch in a tree, Manannann calls to the brutes and offers them the jewels, if only they’ll bring their stone beds and follow him.
He carries the fanciful gems, down hillock, up dale and across fragrant fields, while the sixty Fomorii stamp on their single legs behind him, stone slabs strapped to their hairy chests.
They reach the chilly sea, where, with a wheeze of gratitude, Manannann swims into his element, and the Fomorii follow, rowing their rocks with their arms across the waves to the shore where Rhiannon sits and broods.
Manannann soars above the giants’ heads, dangling the Priceless Illusion like turnips before mules, the prize for placing one dolmen upon two, posts and lintels balanced into arches conjunct with constellations. And within the outer circle, they place a smaller one, and within that, a third round, until all the stones are upright and secured.
Then he shakes the Priceless Illusion before the sixty behemoths and leads them back to the sea. He leads them along awhile from his curach to a sound where the water yawns deeper than the hugest Fomor is high. They paddle and kick their single legs, scudding and spattering after the fast-evaporating treasure, but without their slab barges, the Fomorii drown halfway home to Tory.
Manannann returns to his palace. He dresses in his invulnerable armor with his invincible sword, The Answerer. He carries his helmet under one arm and with the other, he drags a lodestone from the sea floor and hauls it all the long, panting way to the center of the stone circle. Laboring mightily, without the magic of his crane-skin bag, he presses The Answerer flat into the lodestone to make an indentation. He places a wheat sheaf in the cavity shaped like his sword. He pours salt from his helmet onto the wheat and thaws it with hot breath, then cools it with cold breath, until it dries to a crystal sheen.
He floats to Rhiannon and stands in front of her. “My lady,” he says softly. She looks up, pleased that he is at least respectful.
“See there,” he says, pointing. “Your circle. Go test it. Set your birds on it. It is solid. Rock that will never crumble and within it, encased in thick glass, is the wheat sheaf for abundance.”
Rhiannon rises. Cautious, not to be fooled again. But she fills her black veil with blue pebbles from the beach and pearls from her eyes. She rubs against each stone, like a horse against a scratching post. The birds fly round and round. They peck at the sheaf. They cannot move it. Rhiannon strolls through the circles, spreading white pearls and blue pebbles in a spiral. Pearls and pebbles hum, infinite music that blends earth and sky, sea and sky. She chants poems to Pwyll and blessings upon the Earth. She scratches an ogham into the lodestone.
Manannann watches with unfamiliar patience until her grief and brief mortal happiness are etched into the monument. The wrens perch on her shoulders and she speaks to them in whispers. She leaves them in the circle to wait for her and guard it.
Then Rhiannon walks to Manannann,
stripping her mourning garments as she goes.
She takes his hand and walks with him into the sea.
Waist-high in water, she wraps her legs
around Manannann mac Lir.
The sea god enters her murky chasm.
Thus attached, they are propelled farther and farther
into the ocean that hollowed the land
where she once dwelled.
They sink down and down.
He plants his salty seed in her.
Her skin shimmers like pearls.
Mortal age washes from her filmy face.
Empress of Tides,
The White Lady of the White Night Mare
mounts a sea horse
and rides with Manannann mac Lir
into Tir Tairnigiri,
the shadowy Land of Promise,
somewhere between the shores of Dyfed and Eriu.
And there, she’s called Fand, Pearl of Beauty.