Fionn asked: “Would you
have got as good poems by the Shannon or the Suir or by sweet Ana Life?”
“They are good rivers,” was the answer. “They all belong to good gods.”
“But why did you choose this river out of all the rivers?”
Finegas beamed on his pupil. “I would tell you anything,” said he, “and I will tell you that.
A prophecy was made to me that I should catch the Salmon of Knowledge in the Boyne Water.”
“And then?” said Fionn eagerly.
“Then I would have All Knowledge.”
“And after that?” the boy insisted.
“What should there be after that?” the poet retorted.
The Boyhood of Fionn
Chill damp, the smell of rain on the way, everything still, birds quiet. Then it’s here, a line, a band of sharp showers advancing from the southwest, breathing loud in the trees, rattling on roofs of sheds and houses. It runs off road surfaces, off compacted pastures, washing soil and gravel from disturbed ground, digging rivulets, burrowing deeper into undermines, going in at the top of the hill and coming out at the bottom. But where the matrix is soft and alive, water soaks into a network that can hold, absorb, distribute.
It’s been dry, warm for a while but once the rain begins it goes on – showers, then a break, then more rain; where it sinks down, I sink with it through thin topsoil, deep into clay where earthworms wait, curled in perfect knots, for this release from walled chambers they made for themselves in the dry. Up they come in the softened ground, sieving the world through their guts and I push upwards too with mushrooms from the still-warm earth under trees and grasses.
This is tropical moisture off the Indian Ocean, the remains of a cyclone caught and sucked halfway to Antarctica by another system that now breathes it up over the island. It arrives as sleet and first snow, startling, on the mountains across the river, appearing and disappearing through freezing fog and purple-hearted cloud. Amazing to think this is how the warm skyriver pours itself out.
Coming into winter, days shortening, I’m thinking about conversations I had as a child each night with my mother, my first, most troubled and passionate mentor, as I prepared for sleep while she sat or lay beside me in the darkening room. At those times I asked her to explain the strange and distressing intricacies of the inherited cosmology I was learning then – the cult of a loving god who ordained elaborate cruelty. Hell, for instance. To be sent there, she said, was to experience being separated from everything you love, forever. The rules were arbitrary – a miscalculation, a wrongly worded incantation and you could fall through into another world.
I knew there was something profoundly disturbed about this arrangement by which the love that was said to be constantly pouring in was so often unavailable, but I accepted the worldview as a given – my given – and also as one accepts the rules of faery in order to enter the song.
Eventually the rain stops, blown away by wild wind that pivots NW, W, SW, S. The eagles play in it, looping up and over, stopping now and then, suspended, rocking, to breast a shelf of air before swinging away once more. From the shelter of a stand of wattles I listen as ravens tell me which quarter of sky the eagles are in. I take up a handful of rich darkness, mushroom-floral-fragrant earth from under the trees, where tiny red-purple crustaceans, the same colour as seed pods fallen from the wattles above, go about their business among the pale threads of mycelium that are their food. Their hunter, a small millipede, curls itself into a ball and lies very still to wait out the disturbance I’ve created. The hill and its peoples, every part unimaginably complex, intricately interrelated, speaking presences.
When I asked my mother about heaven, she explained that it was a realm
of free access to what you love.
‘What would heaven be for you?’ I asked.
‘To know everything there is to know,’ she replied.
A highly intelligent child whose schooling ended at twelve because there was no religious secondary college available and my grandmother was afraid to send her elsewhere, my mother’s idea of knowledge-heaven was of some vast but finite store of information where, once you gained entry you could finally have enough – in fact you could have all if you wanted to. It puzzled me as a six-year-old (why not happiness, or to be surrounded by beauty or music or dancing or the other things she longed for?); and it puzzled me as an adult too, because an abiding feature of the madness inculcated by our religion was terror of wrong understanding, of heresy. Knowledge was a dangerous lure that could easily lead to damnation.
Now I think that though she didn’t know any of the old songs and stories such as that of the Salmon of Knowledge, somehow a part-memory was communicated to her, that understanding was a divine attribute, to be sought after for reasons beyond its value as a way out of poverty for her children, if not for her. And a permission was given; she wasn’t chastised for voicing her desire, which was allowed to escape the attention of the priests.
At ground level the wind drops, though in the upper airs clouds still race from the west. In the night I wake to utter stillness. A half moon illuminates scraps of cloud that continue to rush in eerie silence and between them the brightest stars remain visible, winking in and out. I can hear my own breath and heartbeat and the breath of the sleeping man beside me. The dog twitches and chases in her dream. And it comes to me that of course I’ve inherited my mother’s longing, but in me it has morphed from a dream of data amassed to one of experiential gnosis like that conferred by Finegas’s Salmon, which gave understanding of the speech and ways of the living world.
This is how the ancestors go themselves in me – not just through the epigenetics of trauma and ease, privilege and its opposites, but as an iteration of their sensations and emotions inflected through my temperament in this place and time. I’m one of their myriad growing tips; my choices become their opportunities for repair or harm, my small agency exercised through their proclivities as well as my own.
At first light there's a scrabbling against the pane and I hear the tktk contact call and song of a scarlet robin. A young male tracks his reflection – east, north, west – around the windows of the house through the course of the day, convinced he has a rival. Towards evening, J comes to tell me there’s a bird panicking inside a window of the open porch and I think it must be him. And it is a robin, but a female, subtler in colour than the male. She probably came in looking for spiderwebs (plenty here!) as nest material. I coax her into a corner of the frame and cage her near-weightless warmth in a curl of fingers, then step outside and open my hand. And she’s gone, up, out, into the shelter of the kowhai tree.
Here by this river with its puzzling reflections, its invisible sanctions, on hard-packed ground, stamped down, I fish for my heart’s desire, another way of knowing.
James Stephens. Irish Fairy Tales (1920). New York: Dover Publications, 1996.