Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Interlude. I Hate Historical Novels.

And here's a story I wrote and another I retold for my wee sister's birthday... I suppose she was about to be 12. Sorry about the formatting - rescued from the old disk of a very old computer. It makes me squirm, but maybe a dose of squirming is exactly what I need at the moment.

JACK DOLESON - 14th/10/1993

The Fourteenth of October --93

There is one thing I say which youths the flesh, firms the
soul, and blesses spirit, and it is the god-given barm. For
without it, the drink is temperant, the dance courtly, the
sleep peaceful, and so the ruin of men, weres and wives all.
Give me a good jug of ale, and I'll make a dance; with the
dance, if it be properly wild, I'll win a partner; and after
that happy girl, the morning will see me walking with lark's
whistle, my twice-thrice-dozen fall'n three-score but five,
and a fortunate stout remembrance left behind me. And now
you know the limit, stretch and bound of my reason.

What is my trade? I have no trade to speak of. I take
tribute for my playing and singing and entertaining, I aid
at the sowing and harvest; with fithel or chanter or my
lungs I help out the weddings and funerals; I tell my
stories; I'm fed and sheltered for my blessings; I make the
whirling of the dance, and I call the tunes, aye, and I know
the old songs; sometimes I do a bit of fixing work for any
who need it, or a spot of labour work, or any odds and ends;
I've made the flutes, the pipes, the fiddle and the lute;
I've taught the childrens their math and physic, and their
medicine, history, enough philosophy for common sense; I can
set a limb, mend fevers or plagues; I've fought the priests,
the landlords, the Kings' men and their horses, the Queens'
men and their horses; and never taken payment for any of it.
A bit of food, a bed down by the fire, a mug of ale, when
needed or not, have been all given without grudge or ill
feeling. I've never called any wight master, not in all my
days, but for my father and my grandfather. Trade. I've
fished for my supper on sea and land, poached, stole from
them that don't miss, eaten the haws, poor fare, and
brambles and elderberrys and hazelnuts when I could get no
else. I've been in the four lands of Britain, and sprang
from the seed of them all.

And if I've a day free, like today, then I'm content to
sit here in the sunny lee of this hedge, for what else does
a man need in the day? I won't be hungry til eventide, and
I'll find food then. And I won't be wet or cold or in need
of shelter til even, when a storm's coming. Those clouds up
there against the sky, that look like battlements. Well,
they're called turret-tops, and mean the stormy castles are
building themselves up for a battle. But I'll be warm by a
fire by then. It was cold last night, bitter, but pleasant
enough today, out of the wind. I thought snow might be on
its way, ready to confound the cold walker of the lanes,
white-furred twigs ready to rap the wrist or snap the cheek,
deep-heaped whiteness all along the paths, dark holes of the
struggler gaping as you go, but no, only a bitter frost. The
winters are hardening and hardening, and where will poor
Jack be then, then?

That puts me in mind of a story. There was this man
once, and he got himself lost in the snow. No matter which
way he tried, he found himself plunging through drifts
deeper, I should say, than the keelbone of a man's chest.
His feet were terrible: when he stopped to warm them, they
were blue to the bone, and his hands were red and raw with
ploughing through it, and what with the cold and the effort
and the bare hillsides, and the snow driving like daggers in
his face, he was wondering if he'd ever get back to his
house. But just as he was thinking of sitting down and
letting the snows cover him up for a poor grave cloth, he
heard this singing in the distance.

Now it didn't seem the weather for singing, and he was
afraid his wits were turning in the cold, but it got louder
as he struggled towards it, and he saw this rough hut, like
a shepherd's hut, and there was firelight coming out the
window. And still this deep rough singing came from the hut,
so he battered and banged at the door until it opened.

What should the singer be but a naked hairy giant? By
all the old stories, I'm told that there was no more room
left inside that hut than the space inside a coffin. How the
giant got in the hut, I don't pretend to know. Perhaps he
just lifted up the roof-beams, and crouched inside, pulling
it closed behind him; or perhaps he knocked down a wall or
built the hut around him, or something. But anyway, the man
was just wondering and worrying whether to run away and
brave the blizzard, or ask for gracious hospitality, when
the giant seized him with a greasy muttony hand and dragged
him in.

- Well, thank you very much, said the man, who was sore
afraid at the sight of this giant snarling and drooling. -
May I move up to the fire? - Sure, thou canst have the fire,
and sure I'll have thee for breakfast in the morning, the
giant replied, in a voice that deafened the man like the
thunder. Well, the man didn't like the sound of that, and
I'm sure I wouldn't either. But as he was nerveless still
with the cold he squeezed between this giant's thighs, and
crouched by the fire.

- A fine vinegar pickle I'm in, he thought, pressed up
between the stinking giant the smell of whom was making him
feel sick and the blazing fire which with his coldness seem-
ed like Saint John's lake. And he wondered what he could do,
to avoid being made a breakfast of in the morning.

The hours fled by with his worrying, and the daylight
started coming cold through the window. Now I've been told
by my mother that there's three ways to be eaten by a giant,
just as there's three similar ways to be eaten by the parli-
ament's taxes. The first is to make a fight of it, and be
torn limb from limb by his clayey teeth; the second is to
surrender yourself peacefully and be spitted and roasted;
the third is to do the preparation of the cooking yourself
and be swallowed alive. It was the last of these this man

There was this big bag of onions and turnips nearby, and
the man chopped a few, and rubbed the chopped onions with
some salt all over himself, and tied turnips all over him
with some cord. Then he stood by the fire, waiting for the
giant to wake up, which he soon did with a groaning and a
roaring, and then the man said: - I've cooked and seasoned
myself, Master Giant, in gratitude for your hospitality. I'm
hoping that you'll find me a tasty dainty.

- Well, I thank thee much for thy promptitude, the giant
said. And he seized him, tilted back his head, and flung him
straight down the gullet of him, without so much as a chew
or bite.

Now the man, being cunning at heart, had concealed his
knife behind a turnip. When he found himself slithering
about in the giant's belly, safe from the teeth and hands,
he pulled it out, and with a: - Take this and that, thou
uncouth host, stabbed and slashed all about him as if there
was no tomorrow, which, unless he did something about his
situation, probably wouldn't be.

Well! It must have been like an earthquake for the man
in the giant. He was thrown up and down, round and round,
hearing a horrid roaring and cursing echoing from upstairs:
- Ah, this cursed bastard indigestion! Ah my belly! O! but
kept on with his knife-work, until he reached the heart. Now
it was, so I was told, as big as a barrel, and leaped back
and forth like a hammer in the giant's chest. But the man
took his knife in both hands and pierced it through and
through. A thundrous blow hit him, and then the world was
still and silent.

The man, who was sorely in need of air by now, busily
hacked his way until he'd opened a doorway in the side of
the giant, and stuck his head out into the cold morning, and
looked about himself. They were a distance from the remains
of the hut, and the giant lay dead in the snow. Well, the
man got out, washed quickly in the snow, and put his clothes
back on, and found his way home. Of course no-one believed
him. But he never got himself lost in the snow again. And
there's a moral with this story: don't swallow your meat
without chewing it first, unless you're wanting a giant
stomach ache.

Well, that's a story I tell for the children you know,
to keep them amused in the evenings, and so on, but with the
thought of the snow in the air, and the cold winters, it put
my mind to it. And oh, what can an old man do but tell his
stories? And sure I'm grateful for a spot of company today,
for I've had dour dreams the last nights, and need shaking
them away.

There was another man once, who lived in Ireland in the
old days, and his name was Oisin. His father was the famous
Finn, his mother was the beautiful Grainne. When Finn died,
Oisin became King of the Fenians, (they were the followers
of Finn) and there's never been so courageous or generous a
warrior in the length, breadth, height or width of the four
realms of Britain as he. They said of Oisin Mac Finn that if
gold was the stuff of the leaves of the trees, and silver
were the clear white waves of the sea, then Oisin would cast
it all away to his friends.

One bright fair day, Oisin and the Fenians were out on
the hunt, chasing the boars and wolves of the forests. They
were riding through a sunny glade swimming with bluebells
when Oisin stopped his horse, and turned towards his friend
Cailte. - There is a white hind over there, Cailte, he said
pointing with his spear. - There is, replied Cailte. - I
will try to make a triumph of hunting it, Oisin declared. He
stood in his stirrups and blew a long note on his horn. His
horn had the power to be heard by the Fenians wherever he
might be in the land. Then he clapped his horse to a gallop,
and began to chase the white hind through the trees.

They went up and down the hills and through the forests,
and Oisin was always in the front, but the hind was in front
of him. His miraculous horse that never tired or wearied
could not manage to gain ground on the fleet-limbed hind,
and they galloped on and on, fording rivers, climbing the
dark mountains, plunging into the silent forests for three
days and three nights, but the hind always kept three spear-
throws ahead in the distance.

On the third night, as the sun was setting, Oisin was
following the hind across a hill that poked its bald head
from the surrounding woods. But he lost sight of it in the
trees, and after searching and searching, he got down from
his horse, and slumped down on the ground. His heart was
sore indeed, what with losing the hind after chasing it so
long, and he muttered and swore the tale of his misfortunes
up towards the moon.

But as he was sitting there, on the sweet-smelling damp
clover, staring up at the white-faced moon, a faint music
and ringing of bells echoed across the hills. He stood, and
stretched his ears to their utmost, and again, he heard the
distant music. All he could see was a white-swirling mist,
that from time to time, rang with the delicate and eerie
sound of faery music, and what music it was. They say that
if you ever hear faery music, then you're powerless to do
anything but listen to it because of its enchantment, and
that it can take over the whole life of a man, so that he
spends the rest of his days trying to remember the sweet
melodies he heard and lost, for only when the music is made
a gift by the faeries can it be remembered.

But a woman came riding out of the mist on a white horse
with twenty-seven silver bells tinkling the music on its
harness. She stopped before Oisin, and regarded him. He
stood up quickly, and was struck speechless by her beauty.
Her hair was golden, and hung as low as her feet in the
stirrups. It was braided into five tresses, and each tress
was made of five plaits. Her eyes were sharper and gladder-
gleaming than a hawks, and her skin was white as the moon.
She wore a tunic greener than the grass in Munster, and a
cloak as red as blood. There could have no woman more fair
or beautiful in the world.

Oisin bowed, and found his voice. - Who are you, lady?
For I never saw one among mortals as fair as you. - I am
Niamh of the Golden Hair, she replied, - and I am come to
take you as husband back to the Land of the Young, Tir Nan
Og, where the faery-folk called the Tuatha De Danan live
joyfully and never want. Mount up behind on my horse, and I
shall take you there.

He quickly sprang up behind her, and they rode faster
than the wind when it comes of the heavy seas that snarl
away the shores in the storms. They rode across the land,
until they reached the sea, and she spurred the horse across
the tops of the waves, its hooves flashing through the foam,
neighing terribly, and strange sights assailed them there,
castles rising out of the waves, and islands of fire and
ice, and great serpents swimming beneath the waves, and all
manner of strange and awful things. But soon they reached
the Land of the Young, and all was as Niamh had promised.
All good things grew there in a profusion, and no crop need-
ed sowing, no orchard planting, all was there to be had. No
disease or death was there, and the dancing and feasting and
pleasure-making went on each day fresh as the last so that
no body ever tired of it.

Oisin dwelt there with his love Niamh of the Golden Hair
for three-hundred years, and sweet was each morning to him.
But a day came, when Niamh found him by a dark still pool,
sadly gazing down into the waters, and she asked him what
was the cause of his sadness. - I feel an inclination and
yearning coming over me to return so that I may see my bold
Fenians, and to assure them that I am well and happy, and to
ensure that they are safe and prosperous themselves. - That
is what I thought, she replied, for I have seen it in your
eyes and speech for many days. If it so, and you must go a
while, then go you must, and I will provide you with a faery
horse and food for your journey. But on no account, on pain
of death and misery, must you set your mortal foot or flesh
upon earthly soil, stone or water. You must give me your
word that you will not do that thing. - I give it freely, he
replied readily, and will return soon to you.

He went with her to the shores of Tir Nan Og, and leaped
up onto the horse she gave him. Galloping across the waves,
he turned back and saw her watching him in the distance, her
marvellous hair touched by the sun was a flaming cloud upon
the white beach, and her long hand raised in a wave of fare-
well. His steed quickly carried him home to Ireland, and he
rode up onto the beach there, and mindful of her words, he
did not dismount.

Riding through the fields, he saw some men gathering the
harvest. They seemed small and shrunken to him, most unlike
the men he had left behind. They gazed at him in awe and
fear, for he had the appearance of a god to them. - Know you
aught of the Fenians? he asked, hoping to get knowledge of
their whereabouts. - Nay, they answered, still afraid of
him. He left them then, seeing that no answer of sense could
be had from them.

He remembered his horn, that the Fenians always heard,
and he blew thrice upon it, great long drawn out wailings,
that echoed far across the land. But no-one came at its call
although he waited three days.

Riding on, he came across some men fishing in their
coracles upon a brown river. He hailed them from the bank,
and asked them of of Fenians, and where they might be. - In
Hell, they replied, looking at him as if he was a madman. -
Where is this place Hell? he asked, no ever having heard of
it before. - Is it far from here. They laughed, and he could
get no more sense from them either.

Later he met three men straining to erect a large stone.
It was too heavy for their little frames, and he pitied them
as he watched their labours. - Know you where the Fenians
are? he asked. - Who or what are the Fenians? asked one of
the men. And then Oisin knew that he would not find his old
companions and followers, for they had passed into death
many years ago, and were forgotten across the face of the
land. He still pitied the men in their struggling, and so
leaned out, reaching a hand from his horse to lift the rock
for them. The moment he touched it, his saddle-girth, the
strap that holds the saddle upon the horse's broad back,
snapped and he tumbled down to fall upon the ground, and at
that instant, his horse and his youth and his handsomeness
and strength vanished, leaving him a blind and crippled and
useless old man. The three men fled, seeing this miracle,
leaving him alone entire.

He struggled weakly to sit up, but could only support
himself enough to lean against the stone. - Ah, woe has come
now to Oisin, he lamented, and all the toils and troubles of
age have stooped me in one blow. The wind blew sadly through
his hair and beard as he lay there, and tears fell from his
blind, ancient-wrinkled eyes. - Ah wind that blows softly on
my face, will you take message of my misery to my sweet and
golden Niamh, or will you lose my lament in the woods and
waves, to whisper alone? Or best it were for her to never
set her incomparable eyes upon me again, to save me the pain
of her disgust and banishment. O this misfortune!

As he was lying there, Saint Patrick (who had recently
converted Ireland to the holy church of Christ) walked by,
and seeing him in distress, helped him to his house. It was
clear to see that death was upon him. Patrick asked him -
Will you not confess the Christ, and be assured of a place
in Heaven? - Where is this heaven? asked Oisin, - Is it Tir
Nan Og, where my sweet Niamh dwells? - No, Patrick replied.
- That is neither Heaven nor Hell, and cannot be reached by
mortals after death. - Where is this hell? Oisin asked, -
For I have heard tell that the Fenians dwell there. - Hell
is the abode of the damned who would not confess the Christ,
replied Patrick. - Was not Heaven eager to welcome the bold
Fenians and honoured to give them hospitality? I cannot
understand a God who would not be glad to welcome the
followers of Finn. And what is the point of life eternal if
there is no hunting or dancing or loving of women? I will
follow the Fenians to Hell, where at least the doors were
opened and welcome to them.

With that, he turned his face resolutely to the north,
where the chill wind blew from, and where Niamh reigned in
the Land of the Young, and then heedless of Patrick and his
remonstrances, Oisin fell into forgetful death, loyal to his
love, and to his people, and glory to his name, Amen!

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