|Washer of the Ford, by Fiona
1896 Geddes edition
At midnight, when the whole isle lay in the full flood of the moon, Cathal stirred.
For three days and three nights he had been in that dark hollow, erect, wedged as a spear imbedded in the jaws of a dead beast. He had died thrice: with hunger, with thirst, with weariness. Then when hunger was slain in its own pain, and thirst perished of its own agony, and weariness could no more endure, he stirred with the death-throe.
"I die," he moaned.
"Die not, O white one," came a floating whisper, he knew not whence, though it was to him as though the crushing walls of oak breathed the sound.
"I die," he gasped, and the froth bubbled upon his nether lip. With that his last strength went. No more could he hold his head above his shoulder, nor would his feet sustain him. Like a stricken deer he sank. So thin was he, so worn, that he slipt into a narrow crevice where dead leaves had been, and lay there, drowning in the dark.
Was that death, or a cold air about his feet, he wondered? With a dull pain he moved them: they came against no tree-wood---the coolness about them was of dewy moss. A wild hope flashed into his mind. With feeble hands he strove to sink farther into the crevice.
"I die," he gasped, " I die now, at the last."
"Die not, O white one," breathed the same low sweet whisper, like leaves stirred by a nesting bird.
"Save, O save," muttered the monk, hoarse with the death-dew.
Then a blackness came down upon him from a great height, and he swung in that blank gulf as a feather swirled this way and that in the void of an abyss.
When the darkness lifted again, Cathal was on his back, and breathing slow, but without pain. A sweet wonderful coolness and ease, that he knew now! Where was he? he wondered, Was he in that Pąras that Colum and Molios had spoken of? Was he in Hy Brąsil, of which he had heard Aodh the Harper sing? Was he in Tir-na'n-Ņg, where all men and women are young for evermore, and there is joy in the heart and peace in the mind and delight by day and by night?
Why was his mouth so cool, that had burned dry as ash? Why were his lips moist, with a bitter-sweet flavour, as though the juice of fruit was there still?
He pondered, with closed eyes. At last he opened them, and stared upward. The profound black-blue dome of the sky held group after group of stars that he knew: was not that sword and belt yonder the sword-gear of Fionn? Yon shimmering cluster, were they not the dust of the feet of Alldai ? That leaping green and blue planet, what could it be but the harp of Brigidh, where she sang to the gods ?
A shadow crossed his vision. The next moment a cool hand was upon his eyes. It brought rest, and healing. He felt the blood move in his veins: his heart beat: a throbbing was in his throat.
Then he knew that he had strength to rise. With a great effort he put his weariness from off him, and staggered to his feet.
Cathal gave a low sob. A fair beautiful woman stood by him.
"Ardanna!" he cried, though even as the word leaped from his lips he knew that he looked upon no Pictish woman.
She smiled. All his heart was glad because of that. The light in her eyes was like the fire of the moon, bright and wonderful. The delicate body of her was pale green, and luminous as a leaf, with soft earth-brown hair falling down her shoulders and over the swelling breast; even as the small green mounds over the dead the two breasts were. She was clad only in her own loveliness, though the moonshine was about her as a garment.
"Like a green leaf: like a green leaf," Cathal muttered over and over below his breath.
"Are you a dream?" he asked simply, having no words for his wonder.
" No, Cathal, I am no dream. I am a woman."
"A woman? But but . . . you have no body as other women have: and I see the moonbeam that is on your breast shining upon the moss behind you!"
" Is it thinking you are, poor Cathal, that there are no women and no men in the world except those who are in thick flesh, and move about in the suntide ?"
Cathal stared wonderingly.
" I am of the green people, Cathal. We are of the woods. I am a woman of the woods."
"Hast thou a name, fair woman?""I am called De'oin." * [*Deo-uaine.]
"That is well. Truly 'Green Life' is a good name for thee. Are there others of thy kin in this place?"
"Look!" and at that she stopped, lifted the dew of a white flower in the moonshine, and put it upon his eyes.
Cathal looked about him. Everywhere he saw tall, fair pale-green lives moving to and fro: some passing out of trees, swift and silent as rain out of a cloud ; some passing into trees, silent and swift as shadows. All were fair to look upon: tall, lithe, graceful, moving this way and that in the moonshine, pale green as the leaves of the lime, soft shining, with radiant eyes, and delicate earth-brown hair.
" Who are these, Deņin ? " Cathal asked in a low whisper of awe.
"They are my people: the folk of the woods: the green people."
"But they come out of trees: they come and they go like bees in and out of a hive."
"Trees? That is your name for us of the woods. We are the trees."
"You the trees, Deņin! How can that be ?
" There is life in your body. Where does it go when the body sleeps, or when the sap rises no more to heart or brain, and there is chill in the blood, and it is like frozen water? Is there a life in your body?"
"Ay , so. I know it."
"The flesh is your body; the tree is any body."
"Then you are the green life of a tree?"
"I am the green life of a tree."
"They are as I am."
"I see those that are men and those that are women and their offspring too I see."
"They are as I am."
"And some are crowned with pale flowers."
"And hast thou no crown, Deņin, who art so fair?
"Neither hast thou, Cathal, though thy face is fair. Thy body I cannot see, because thou hast a husk about thee."
With a low laugh Cathal removed his raiment from him. The whiteness of his body was like a flower there in the moonshine.
"That shall not be against me," he said. "Truly, I am a man no longer, if thee and thine will have me as one of the wood-folk."
At that Deņin called. Many green phantoms glided out of the trees, and others, handin-hand, flower-crowned, crossed the glade.
"Look, green lives," Deņin cried in her sweet leaf-whisper, rising now like a windsong among birchen boughs; "look, here is a human. His life is mine, for I saved him. I have put the moonshine dew upon his eyes. He sees as we see. He would be one of us, for all that he has no tree for his body, but flesh, white over red."
One who had moved thitherward out of an ancient oak looked at Cathal. "Wouldst thou be of the wood-folk, man?"
"Ay, fain am I ; for sure, for sure, O Druid of the trees."
"Wilt thou learn and abide by our laws, the first of which is that none may stir from his tree until dusk has come, not linger away from it when the dawn opens grey lips and drinks up the shadows?"
"I have no law now but the law of green life."
"Good. Thou shalt live with us. Thy home shall be the hollow oak where thy kin left thee to die. Why did they do that evil deed?"
"Because I did not believe in the new gods."
"Who are they gods, man whom this green one here calls Cathal?"
"They are the Sun, and the Moon, and the Wind, and others that I will tell you of."
"Has thou heard of Keithoir?"
"He is the god of the green world. He dreams, and his dreams are Springtide and Summertide and Appletide. When he sleeps without dream there is winter."
"Have you no other god but this earth-god?"
"Keithoir is our god. We know no other."
"If he is thy god, he is my god."
"I see in t he eyes of Deņin that she loves thee, Cathal the human. Wilt thou have her love?"
Cathal looked at the girl. His heart swam in light.
"Ay, if Deņin will give me her love, my love shall be hers."
The Annir-Coille moved forward and brushed softly against him as a gren branch.
He put his arms around her. She had a cool, sweet body to feel. He was glad she was no moonshine phantom. The beating of her heart against his made a music that filled his ears.
Deņin stooped and plucked white, dewy flowers. Of these she wove a wreath for Cathal. He, likewise, plucked the white blooms, and made a coronal of foam for the brown wave of her hair.
Then, hand in hand, they fared slowle forth across the moonlit glade. None crossed their path, though everywhere delicate green lives flitted from tree to tree. They heard a wonderful sweet singing, aerial, with a ripple as of leaves lipping a windy shore of light. The green glamour was in the eyes of Cathal. The fire of life flamed in in his veins.
Molios, the saint of Christ, that lived in the sea-cave of the Isle of the Peak, so that even in his own day it was called the Holy Isle, endured to a great age.
Some say of him that before his hair was bleached white as the bog-cotton, he was slain by the heathen Picts, or by the fierce summer-sailors out of Lochlin. But that is an idle tale. His end was not thus. A Culdee, who had the soul of a bat, feared the truth, though that gave glory to God, and wrote both in ogham and lambskin the truthless tale that Molios went forth with the cross and was slain in a north isle.
On a day of the days every year, Molios fared to the Hollow Oak that was in the hillforest beyond the rath of Ecta MacEcta. There he spake long upon the youth that had been his friend, and upon how the Evil One had prevailed with Cathal, and how the islander had been done to death there in the oak. Then he and all his company sang the hymns of peace, and great joy there was over the doom of Cathal the monk, and many would have cleft the great tree or burned it, so that the dust of the sinner might be scattered to the four winds: only this was banned by Molios.
It was well for Cathal, who slept there through the hours of light! Deep slumber was his, for never once did he hear the noontide voices, nor ever in his ears was the long rise and fall of the holy hymns.
But when, in the twentieth year after Cathal had been thrust into the hollow oak, Molios came at sundown, being weary with the heat, the saint heard a low, faint laughter issuing from the tree, like fragrance from a flower.
None other heard it. He saw that with gladness. Quietly he went with the islanders.
When the moon was over the pines, and all in the rath slept, Molios arose and went silently back into the forest.
When he came to the Doom-Tree he listened long, with his ear against the bark. There was no sound.
His voice was old and quavering, but fresh and young in the courts of heaven, when it reached there like a fluttering bird tired from long flight. He sang a holy hymn.
He listened. There was no laughter. He was glad at that. All had been a dream, for sure.
Then it was that he heard once again the low, mocking laughter. He started back, trembling.
" Cathal!" he cried, with his voice like a wuthering wind.
"I am here, O Molios," said a voice behind him.
The old Culdee turned, as though arrow-nipped. Before him, white in the moonshine, stood a man, naked.
At first, Molios knew him not. He was so tall and strong, so fair and wonderful. Long locks of ruddy hair hung upon his white shoulders: his eyes were lustrous, and had the lovely, soft light of the deer. When he moved, it was swiftly and silently. No stag upon the hills was more fair to see.
Then, slowly, Cathal the monk swam into Cathal of the Woods. Molios saw him whom he knew of old, as a blue flame is visible within the flame of yellow.
"I am here, O Molios."
Strange was the voice: faint and far the tone of it: yet it was that of a living man.
"Is it a spirit you are, Cathal ?"
"I am no spirit. I am Cathal the monk that was, Cathal the man now."
"How came you out of hell, you that are dead, and the dust of whose crumbling bones is in the hollow of this oak?"
"There is no hell, Culdee."
"No hell! " Molios the Saint stared at the woodman in blank amaze.
"No hell," he said again and is there no heaven ? "
"A hell there is, and a heaven there is: but not what Colum taught, and you taught."
"Doth Christ live?"
"I know not."
"And Mary? "
"I know not."
"And God the Father?"
" I know not."
"It is a lie that you have upon your lips. Sure, Cathal, you shall be dead indeed soon, to the glory of God. For I shall have thy dust scattered to the four winds, and thy bones consumed in flame, and a stake be driven through the place where thou wast."
Once more Cathal laughed.
"Go back to thy sea-cave, Molios. Thou hast much to learn. Brood there upon the ways of thy God before thou judgest if He knoweth no more than thou dost. And see, I will show you a wonder, Only, first, tell me this one thing. What of Ardanna whom I loved?"
" She was accursed. She would not believe. When Ecta took the child from her, that was born in sin, to have the water put upon it with the sign of the Cross, she went north beyond the Hill of the Pinnacles. There she saw the young king of the Picts of Argyll, and he loved her, and she went to his dūn. He took her to his rath in the north, and she was his queen. He, and she, and the two sons she bore to him are all under the hill-moss now: and their souls are in hell."
Cathal laughed, low and mocking.
" It is a good hell that, I am thinking, Molios. But come . . . I will show you a wonder."
With that he stooped, and took the moonshine dew out of a white flower, and put it upon the eyes of the old man.
Then Molios saw.
And what he saw was a strangeness and a terror to him. For everywhere were green lives, fair and comely, gentle-eyed, lovely, of a soft shining. From tree to tree they flitted, or passed to and fro from the tree-boles, as wild bees from their hives.
Beside Cathal stood a woman. Beautiful she was, with eyes like stars in the gloaming. All of green flame she seemed, though the old monk saw her breast rise and fall, and the light lift of her earth-brown hair by a wind-breath eddying there, and the hand of her clasped in that of Cathal. Beyond her were fair and beautiful beings, lovely shapes like unto men and women, but soulless, though loving life and hating death, which, of a truth, is all that the vain human clan does.
"Who is this woman, Cathal?" asked the saint, trembling.
" It is Deņin, whom I love, and who has given me life."
" And these . . . that are neither green phantoms out of trees, nor yet men as we are? "
"These are the offspring of our love."
Molios drew back in horror.
But Cathal threw up his arms, and with glad eyes cried:
" O green flame of life, pulse of the world! O Love! O Youth! O Dream of Dreams!"
"O bitter grief," Molios cried, "O bitter grief, that I did not slay thee utterly on that day of the days! Flame to thy flesh, and a stake through thy belly---that is the doom thou shouldst have had! My ban upon thee, Cathal, that was a monk, and now art a wild man of the woods: upon thee, and thy Annir-Coille, and all thy brood, I put the ban of fear and dread and sorrow, a curse by day and a curse by night!"
But with that a great dizziness swam into the brain of the saint, and he fell forward, and lay his length upon the moss, and there was no sight to his eyes, or hearing to his ears, or knowledge upon him at all until the rising of the sun.
When the yellow light was upon his face he rose. There was no face to see anywhere. Looking in the dew for the myriad feet that had been there, he saw none.
The old man knelt and prayed.
At the first praying God filled his heart with peace. At the second praying God filled his heart with wonder. At the third praying God whispered mysteriously, and he knew. Humble in his new knowledge, he rose. The tears were in his old eyes. He went up to the Hollow Oak, and blessed it, and the wild man that slept within it, and the Annir-Coille that Cathal loved, and the offspring of their love. He took the curse away, and he blessed all that God had made.
All the long weary way to the shore he went as one in a dream. Wonder and mystery were in his eyes.
At the shore he entered the little coracle that brought him daily from the Holy Isle, a triple arrow-flight seaward.
A child sat in it, playing with pebbles. It was Ardan, the son of Ardanna.
"Ardan mac Cathal," began the saint, weary now, but glad with a strange new gladness.
"Who is Cathal?" said the boy.
"He that was thy father. Tell me, Ardan, hast thou ever seen aught moving in the woods ---green lives out of the trees?"
"I have seen a green shine come out of the trees."
Molios bowed his head.
"Thou shalt be as my son, Ardan ; and when thou art a man thou shalt choose thy own way, and let no man hinder thee."
That night Molios could not sleep. Hearing the loud wash of the sea, he went to the mouth of the cave. For a long while, he watched the seals splashing in the silver radiance of the moonshine. Then he called them.
"O seals of the sea, come hither!"
At that all the furred swimmers drew near.
"Is it for the curse you give us every year of the years, O holy Molios?" moaned a great black seal.
"O Ron dubh, it is no curse I have for thee or thine, but a blessing, and peace. I have learned a wonder of God, because of an Annir-Coille in the forest that is upon the hill. But now I will be telling you the white story of Christ."
So there, in the moonshine, with the flowing tide stealing from his feet to his knees, the old saint preached the gospel of love. The seals crouched upon the rocks, with their great brown eyes filled with glad tears.
When Molios ceased, each slipped again into the shadowy sea. All that night, while he brooded upon the mystery of Cathal and the Annir-Coille, with deep knowledge of hidden things, and a heart filled with the wonder and mystery of the world, he heard them splashing to and fro in the moon-dazzle, and calling, one to the other, "We, too, are the sons of God."
At dawn a shadow came into the cave. A white frost grew upon the face of Molios. Still was he, and cold, when Ardan, the child, awoke. Only the white lips moved. A ray of the sun slanted across the sea, from the great disc of whirling golden flame new risen. It fell softly upon the moving lips. They were still then, and Ardan kissed them because of the smile that was there.