The Works of Fiona Macleod, Volume V, Children of Water

"0, hide the bitter gifts of our lord Poseidon."--ARCHILOCHUS OF PAROS.

Children of Water

Ri traghad
's ri lionadh . . .
Mar a bha
Illar a tha
Mar a bhitheas
Gu brath
Ri tragadh
'S ri lionadh.

(Ebbing and flowing . . . as it was, as it is, as it shall be evermore--the ebb and the flow.)

Students of Gaelic mythology will remember that Tuan--who, under the grey cloud and by the whispering rushes of the west, gave out the same ancient wisdom as Pythagoras gave by Ionian Krôton, or as Empedocles gave by Sicilian Acragas-remembered his many transformations. He had been, he said, an eagle and a stag and a salmon in deep waters, and had known other changes. In like manner the Sicilian sophist remembered that he had been "a youth and a maiden and a bush and a bird and a gleaming fish in the sea"; and the greatest of Greek mages, declared that again and again he had lived in a changed body, as old raiment discarded or new raiment donned.

But I am not now concerned with this problem, that, like a wind at twilight, has troubled with furtive shadows the waters of many minds. As with a greater problem, it may be folly to believe it, but a worse folly to hold it incredible. And, too, in the end, when we are tired of the tide-play of the mind and sink into the depths and silences and think from there, what are the thousand words that say no against the one word that says yes? I recall from childhood a story of a man who, for the gain of a great wisdom, sold to the Prince of Pride the whole substance and reach of his mortal period, retaining only a single minute out of all this incalculable treasure. He lived to the stipulated hour, and at the end of his hundredth year knew all that the wisdom of man has gathered out of the silence in which he moves, shadow of an eddy of wind between the two vast Alps of Time and Death. And on the shore of the last minute of the last hour of the hundredth year--when he had sighed, and said there was no more to know, and that the last dream had been dreamed--he remembered his one minute he had kept unbartered. So he took it, and held it before his eyes, as we hold a crystal lens: and in that minute he saw backwards a thousand years, and beheld the long trail of his wandering lives; and saw forward, and beheld the ways and the crossways, the pillar of dust and the leaning banner of mist; and saw downward, and beheld many empires in the caverns of old seas, and below these, outworn ages, and below these, space and stars; and saw upward, and beheld human wisdom like dew, a thin vapour, vanishing, and then a congregation of mighty spirits and dominions, princes of the elements, overlords of destiny, throneless and throned gods, and then a majesty of light, and then seven heavens like seven stairs, and then a myriad blaze of world-apart wings and an illimitable swinging of uncountable suns, and knew, then, that his wisdom had but crossed the first marches of infinitude, had but reached the leaning horizon of eternity. In the hundred years he had learned all that the pride of the mind could teach, and it was as nothing: in the one minute of his soul he had seen behind and beyond, beneath and above, and in knowing the nothingness of knowledge had entered the inheritance of wisdom.

I think, rather, of another interpretation of the old wisdom of these dreamers of time and change. Are they not prophets of that restless spirit which is the heritage of many troubled souls, that instinct for spiritual wandering, that deep hunger for experience, even if it be bitter, the longing for things known to be unattainable, the remembrance which strives for re-birth, the insatiable thirst for the beauty of mirage, the brooding discontent with or fiery rebellion against the tyranny of accident and circumstance? To these, it is not enough that one life be the guerdon of birth: not even that many lives slip from level to level: not even that the accident of sex be as varied as the accident of race or the accident of conditions. They would know flight, as the seamew or the osprey: they would know the waterways, as the creatures of the wave: they would know the wind, as the leaf on the bough knows it, as the grass knows it, as the grey thistle in a stony place: they would know, even, the rapture of the upbuilded bow along the bastions of storm, or where the arch leans in moist rose and green and purple over still streams and inland valleys--would know, even, the elemental passions of wind and rain and of the unloosened fires. There is no limit to this troubled desire. It is the roadness, perhaps, of many minds dwelling habitually, and from generation to generation, among things hard to endure, in the grey countries of rain and wind: it is the madness, also, of some in whose hearts is not and never can be any peace, the sons and daughters of longing, the children of thirst.

For in truth there is a restlessness unlike any other restlessness in the vagrant spirit of man: a disquietude that is of the soul as well as of the body, the tossed spray of forgotten and primitive memories. And yet, perhaps, all this obscure tumult in the dark is only the dream of those unquiet minds who are the children of water.

Long ago, when Manannan, the god of wind and sea, offspring of Lir, the Ocearius of the Gael, lay once by weedy shores, he heard a man and a woman talking. The woman was a woman of the sea, and some say that she was a seal: but that is no matter, for it was in the time when the divine race and the human race and the soulless race and the dumb races that are near to man were all one race. And Manannan heard the man say: "I will give you love and home and peace." The sea-woman listened to that, and said: "And I will bring you the homelessness of the sea, and the peace of the restless wave, and love like the wandering wind." At that the man chided her and said she could be no woman, though she had his love. She laughed, and slid into green water. Then Manannan took the shape of a youth, and appeared to the man. "You are a strange love for a seawoman," he said: "and why do you go putting your earth-heart to her sea-heart?" The man said he did not know, but that he had no pleasure in looking at women who were all the same. At that Manannan laughed a low laugh. "Go back," he said, and take one you'll meet singing on the heather. She's white and fair. But because of your lost love in the water, I'll give you a gift." And with that Manannan took a wave of the sea and threw it into the man's heart. He went back, and wedded, and, when his hour came, he died. But he, and the children he had, and all the unnumbered clan that came of them, knew by day and by night a love that was tameless and changeable as the wandering wind, and a longing that was unquiet as the restless wave, and the homelessness of the sea. And that is why they are called the Sliochd-na-mara, the clan of the waters, or the Treud-na-thonn, the tribe of the sea-wave.

And of that clan are some who have turned their longing after the wind and wave of the mind--the wind that would overtake the waves of thought and dream, and gather them and lift them into clouds of beauty drifting in the blue glens of the sky.

How are these ever to be satisfied, children of water?


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