A very long time ago, before the Gael in general received knowledge of the true illustrious God, there lived on the edge of the Old Wood, in the wastes of Connacht, a man and a woman. The man was a serf of the unfree clans of the province, and he was a swineherd to the king of the cantred. Daol, the Chafer, was his name; and Deargnait, the Little Red Thing (or, as some have it, the Flea), was the name of his helpmate; and well did those names become them, for the man was dark and dour and the woman was nimble and very venomous. They had no children, and it was best so, for it is no gracious brood that that couple would have reared. There was no shelter over their heads but a woodland booth that the man had knocked together of the green timber of the Wood, which he had hammered home with blows of an axe and bound fast with hard tough twigs of the sally.
‘This is a miserable steading,’ said the woman the day the hut was finished.
‘It will protect you from sun’s heat and wind’s cold,’ said the man. ‘That is much for you or for your like.’
Daol used to rise at the dawn of every morning and drive the king’s swinedrove to pasture on the mast and herbage of the Wood. Deargnait used to remain at home to wait upon the tender piglings and the little young bonavs1 and to dress a meal against her husband’s home-coming. At the duskfall of every evening the man used to drive home the drove, and the pair would eat their meal and go to sleep. Twenty-five years they lived thus without a kindly human being coming to bid them good-morrow or anyone passing the way that would speak a gladsome word to them. They had no intercourse with men and no knowledge of gods, but their hearts would leap every morning when they saw the sun with his white light illuming the bare summits of the Bens, and they would shake with fear when they heard the Harp of the Wood uttering its weird, very sad music in the middle of every night. No prayer or praise they had but to say, ‘The sun is good. The night is terrible.’
One day that the swineherd rose, on going to the piggery he noticed that a bonav of his bonavs were missing.
‘Alack,’ he said, ‘this is a pitiful happening.’
‘What is the matter with you?’, said his wife.
‘A bonav of our bonavs has gone from us in the night,’ said he.
‘Go your way in search of it,’ said she, ‘and do not make a keening-woman of yourself.’
He went his way and took the narrow stony footpath that led from the door of his hut to the Wood. He entered the Wood then, and pressed on with good speed, threading the intricacies of every short-cut and the darkness of every thicket in the track of his bonav. Not far had he fared when he saw at the foot of a hazel-tree that was growing in a little watered woody glen a white thing on the ground. He hastened towards the thing, and when he came near it he saw that it was a naked man-child. The child was asleep.
‘This is an ill happening,’ said the man. ‘I thought that it was my bonav.’ And he went his way.
Not far had he fared upon that start when he saw another white thing at the foot of a great stone that was in the woody glen. He hurried on towards the thing, and as he drew nigh it he perceived that it was the bones of his bonav which had been gnawn by a wolf.
‘It is a pity,’ said he, ‘that it was not yon child I have left behind me that the wolf killed in place of this bonav. And I pledge my word,’ said he, ‘that I will give death to the boy in eric for my bonav.’
So saying, he strode back to where the child was, and he caught it by one foot and he raised it in his hand and he swung it round him as a man would swing a flail or a hurley, and he was about to dash its head against the trunk of the tree and to let out its brains in that manner. The child awoke, and it thought that the swineherd was performing some playful trick with it, and it broke into laughter and laughed aloud until the woody glen was filled with the music of that laughter. When he heard the little lad laugh the man could not kill him.
‘I will leave him after me here,’ he said, ‘so that he may die of hunger and of thirst; for a slow death is worse than a sudden death.’ And he left the child after him and made to go.
At that very moment a squirrel ran down from the hazel-tree and ran up another tree that was hard by. When the child saw the little red creature he struck his two palms together. Upon hearing that, the man turned back and came to where the child was, and the child laughed up at him again. The man became pitiful then, and he lifted the child in his arms and turned his back on the woody glen and went his way, and he made no pause until he reached home.
‘Have you brought the bonav with you?’, asked his wife.
‘I have not,’ said he.
‘What has happened to it?’, said she.
‘A wolf has killed it,’ he answered.
‘What have you in your arms?’, she asked.
‘A man-child that I found in the Wood,’ said he.
‘That is a fruit that was never found in a wood,’ said the woman.
‘Every fruit is found in a wood,’ said he, ‘if it be sought in the spot where it is.’
‘In what spot did you find this?’
‘At the foot of a hazel-tree in a woody glen.’
‘Who left it there?’
‘The most probable supposition is that it fell from the tree,’ said he.
‘Give me the child.’
He laid the child in her lap.
‘It is long since I saw a child,’ said she. She began examining and scrutinising and considering the body of the boy. The boy laughed up at her and caressed her cheek and her hair with his hand.
‘This child is daintily fashioned,’ said she.
‘What is his age?’, asked the man.
‘He is two years old,’ she said.
‘Your judgment,’ said he; ‘whether it were more proper to kill him in eric for our bonav or to sell him to the king?’
‘What we ought to do is to rear him in our own house as a foster-child,’ said she.
‘I was going to kill him,’ said the man.
‘It is well for you that you did not,’ said the woman. ‘It will be a great thing for us to have a child in our house.’
‘Take victory, O woman,’ said he. ‘When he laughed up at me in the Wood I could not kill him, but I did not know whether you would like a son that is neither yours nor mine.’
‘He will be a candle on our hearth,’ said she.
‘He will be a jewel on your breast,’ said he.
‘He will be a fist for you in your old age,’ said she.
‘He will be a sheltering tree to you when I am dead,’ said he.
‘What name shall we call him?’, she asked.
‘What name should he be called,’ said he, ‘but Mac an Chuill, the Son of the Hazel, since it was under a hazel-tree he was found?’
‘That name will be beloved by the birds of the air and the creatures of the plain,’ said she, ‘for this boy is own brother to them.’
The child was fostered in the swineherd’s hut, and it was a recreation and an exhilaration of heart to the man and to the woman to be watching him. And he waxed strong, and grew into a winsome lad, and completed his tenth year. And to Daol and to Deargnait he was dearer than their own lives, and often was the hut filled with the music of his laughter. And Deargnait would say to Daol, ‘I hail the day you found him in the Wood.’
It was not long until the boy commenced to wander off into the Wood and to make friends with those that dwelt there. Often he would rise at day’s dawn and fare away without leave or leave-taking, without food or eatables, towards the Wood, and he would spend the day watching the squirrels and the stoats and listening to the voices of daws and cuckoos. And there would arise a gentle conversation and intercourse between himself and the wild creatures, for, having been accustomed to them since he was an infant, he understood some of their speech. Cress and bogberries and nuts of the greenwood were his day’s provender; and he would not return to the swineherd’s hut until down of sun.
‘Where have you been?’, Deargnait would ask him.
‘In the Wood,’ the boy would reply.
‘What were you doing?’
‘Climbing trees and swimming waters and faring before me through the hidden places.’
‘Why do you not stay at home along with us?’
‘I have a bond of brotherhood with the woodland creatures and I must go to visit them.’
Then Deargnait would remember the thing she had said the day Daol brought the boy to the hut: ‘This boy is own brother to them’; and she rued that she had said it.
And the woman understood with prophetic vision that the birds of the air and the beasts of the wild would wile the little lad away from her some day, and there came into her a burning of jealousy, and she would not allow the boy to gout of her or her husband’s sight, but made him stay beside the home-place always. But often the boy would steal away from them and fare before him into the Wood as he had been wont before; and when he returned home they would beat him with rods and send him to sleep without the evening allowance. And as soon as he would get an opportunity or a moment’s solitude he would go off from them again, and would come home at down of sun and suffer humbly every punishment they inflicted upon him.
A great terror came upon Deargnait, and if she heard the whistle of an eagle or the belling of a stag she would think that the wild creature was calling to the boy, and she would press the lad to her breast and kiss him. And, however terrible to her up to then had been the Harp of the Wood when it uttered its weird, very sad music in the dead of night, it was much more terrible to her thenceforward, for she used to think that it was coaxing the little lad away from her.
One night that the man and the woman were sitting in the hut, and the boy was stretched on his face in the firelight, after they had finished their meal, the man noticed how straight were the boy’s limbs, and how thin his flanks, and how well-made his body, and how comely his head; and he said to the woman:
‘If we were to put a hooded shirt next the skin of this boy, and sandals of hide on his feet, there would not be either in the eastern or in the western world a king’s son of comelier shape and make.’ For it is to be understood that up to then the boy had worn no article of clothing, but had wandered naked.
‘It would be a good plan,’ said Deargnait, for she thought that if Mac an Chuill were clothed there might perchance come of it a reduction of his over-weening spirit and that the wildness of his heart might be tamed, and that he would understand in future that he did not belong to the barbarous bloods of the Wood, but that he was of human blood. ‘I will spin him a very beautiful shirt of the wool of a lamb,’ said she, ‘with a becoming hood of linen upon it.’
‘I will make him sandals of the untamed skin of a cow,’ said Daol.
Mac an Chuill had been listening to that colloquy, and he raised his head and spoke:
‘You may make a shirt and sandals for me,’ said he, ‘if you feel a longing for work, but I give my word that I will not endure that they be put upon me.’
Daol and Deargnait wondered at that speech, and Daol said:
‘Wherefore do you say that, boy? Or why should a shirt and sandals not go upon you as upon all?’
‘There is no bond upon the wave of water, nor fetter upon the wind, nor yoke upon the russet hare,’ said Mac an Chuill; ‘and I swear by my people’s gods,’ said he, ‘that bond or fetter or yoke shall not go upon me.’
Then Daol became angry and he said:
‘Who, then, are your people, or is your kinship nearer to the blind brutes of the world than to the man and the woman that fostered you?’
‘All the living and dead things of yonder Wood are my people,’ said the boy.
Neither Daol nor Deargnait spoke another word that night, but on the morning of the next day Deargnait began to spin and to weave a shirt of the wool of a lamb, and Daol cut a strip of fresh hide from the skin of a cow and fell to fashioning sandals; and they continued that work until they had finished it. Often during that time did Mac an Chuill escape from them, but he always returned at the dusk of the day’s end and submitted to them; but they did not touch him.
When the shirt was finished it was put upon the boy, and the sandals were put upon his feet; and he suffered gently that dishonour. And the man and the woman thought that he was tamed, and they deemed it a happy day. But no sooner was Daol gone off behind the swinedrove, and Deargnait busied with her own care, than Mac an Chuill arose and went out the door. Then he took the sandals off his feet and flung them from him; and he took the shirt off his body and flung it from him. And when he was naked again he gave three leaps in mere joy of heart, and, turning his back on the door of the hut, he ran light-footedly towards the Wood.
(To be continued.)
1 Cartlann: Piglet, derived from the Irish ‘banbh’, which has been phonetically rendered as ‘bonav’ in English.