A conversation that took place between Eoineen of the Birds and his mother, one evening of spring, before the going under of the sun. The song-thrush and the yellow-bunting that heard it, and (as I think) told it to my friends the swallows. The swallows that told the story to me.
‘Come on in, pet. It’s rising cold.’
‘I can’t stir a while yet, little mother. I’m waiting for the swallows.’
‘For what, little son?’
‘The swallows. I’m thinking they’ll be here this night.’
Eoineen was high on the big rock that was close to the gable of the house, he settled nicely on top of it, and the white back of his head against the foot of the ash-tree that was sheltering him. He had his head raised, and he looking from him southward. His mother looked up at him. It seemed to her that his share of hair was yellow gold where the sun was burning on his head.
‘And where are they coming from, child?’
‘From the Southern World – the place it does be summer always. I’m expecting them for a week.’
‘And how do you know that it’s this night they’ll come?’
‘I don’t know, only thinking it. ‘Twould be time for them to be here some day now. I mind that it was this day surely they came last year. I was coming up from the well when I heard their twittering – a sweet, joyful twittering as they’d be saying: ‘We’ve come to you again, Eoineen! News to you from the Southern World!’ – and then one of them flew past me, rubbing his wing to my cheek.’
There’s no need to say that this talk put great wonder on the mother. Eoineen never spoke to her like that before. She knew that he put a great wish in the birds, and that it’s many an hour he used spend in the wood or by the strand-side, ‘talking to them,’ as he’d say. But she didn’t understand why there should be that great a wish on him to see the swallows coming again. She knew by his face, as well as by the words of his mouth, that he was forever thinking on some thing that was making him anxious. And there came unrest on the woman over it, a thing that’s no wonder. ‘Sure, it’s queer talk from a child,’ says she in her own mind. She didn’t speak a breath aloud, however, but she listening to each word that came out of his mouth.
‘I’m very lonely since they left me in the harvest,’ says the little boy again, like one that would be talking to himself. ‘They had that much to say to me. They’re not the same as the song-thrush or the yellow-bunting that do spend the best part of their lives by the ditch-side in the garden. They do have wonderful stories to tell about the lands where it does be summer always, and about the wild seas where the ships are drowned, and about the lime-bright cities where the kings do be always living. It’s long, long the road from the Southern World to this country. They see everything coming over, and they don’t forget anything. I think long, wanting them.’
‘Come in, white love, and go to sleep. You’ll be perished with the cold if you stay out any longer.’
‘I’ll go in presently, little mother. I wouldn’t like them to come, and I not to be here to give them welcome. They would be wondering.’
The mother saw that it was no good to be at him. She went in, troubled. She cleaned the table and the chairs. She washed the vessels and the dishes. She took the brush, and she brushed the floor. She scoured the kettle and the big pot. She trimmed the lamp, and hung it on the wall. She put more turf on the fire. She did a hundred other things that she needn’t have done. Then she sat before the fire, thinking to herself.
The ‘piper of the ashes’ (the cricket) came out, and started on his heartsome tune. The mother stayed by the hearthside, pondering. The little boy stayed on his airy seat, watching. The cows came home from the pasture. The hen called to her her chickens. The blackbird and the wren, and the other little people of the wood went to sleep. The buzzing of the flies was stopped, and the bleating of the lambs. The sun sank slowly till it was close to the bottom of the sky, till it was exactly on the bottom of the sky, till it was under the bottom of the sky. A cold wind blew from the east. The darkness spread on the earth. At last Eoineen came in.
‘I fear they won’t come this night,’ says he. ‘Maybe, with God’s help, they might come to-morrow.’
The morning of the next day came. Eoineen was up early, and he watching out from the top of the rock. The middle of day came. The end of day came. The night came. But, my grief! the swallows did not come.
‘Maybe we might see them here to-morrow,’ says Eoineen, and he coming in sadly that night.
But they didn’t see them. Nor did they see them the day after that, nor the day after that again. And it’s what Eoineen would say every night and he coming in:
‘Maybe they might be with us to-morrow.’
There came a delightful evening in the end of April. The air was clear and cool after a shower of rain. There was a wonderful light in the western heavens. The birds sang a strain of music in the wood. The waves were chanting a poem on the strand. But loneliness was on the heart of the boy and he waiting for the swallows.
There was heard, suddenly, a sound that hadn’t been heard in that place for more than a half-year. A little, tiny sound. A faint, truly-melodious sound. A pert, joyous twittering, and it unlike any other twittering that comes from the mouth of a bird. With fiery swiftness a small black body drove from the south. It flying high in the air. Two broad, strong wings on it. The shaping of a fork on its tail. It cutting the way before it, like an arrow shot from a bow. It swooped suddenly, it turned, rose again, swooped and turned again. Then it made straight for Eoineen, it speaking at the top of its voice, till it lay and nestled in the breast of the little boy after its long journey from the Southern World.
‘O, my love, my love you are!’, says Eoineen, taking it in his two hands and kissing it on the little black head. ‘Welcome to me from the strange countries! Are you tired after your lonely journey over lands and over seas? Ora, my thousand, thousand loves you are, beautiful little messenger from the country where it does be summer always! Where are your companions from you? Or what happened you on the road, or why didn’t ye come before this?’
While he was speaking like this with the swallow, kissing it again and yet again, and rubbing his hand lovingly over its blue-black wings, its little red throat and its bright, feathered breast, another little bird sailed from the south and alighted beside them. The two birds rose in the air then, and it is the first other place they lay, in their own little nest that was hidden in the ivy that was growing thickly on the walls of the house.
‘They are found at last, little mother!’, says Eoineen, and he running in joyfully. ‘The swallows are found at last! A pair came this night – the pair who have their nest over my window. The others will be with us to-morrow.’
The mother stooped and drew him to her. Then she put a prayer to God in a whisper, giving thanks to Him for sending the swallows to them. The flame that was in the eyes of the boy, it would put delight on the heart of any mother at all.
It was sound the sleep of Eoineen that night.
The swallows came one after another now – singly at first, in pairs then, and at last in little flocks. Isn’t it they were glad when they saw the old place again! The little wood and the brook running through it; the white, sandy beach; the ash-trees that were close to the house; the house itself and the old nests exactly as they left them half a year before that. There was no change on anything but only on the little boy. He was quieter and gentler than he used to be. He was oftener sitting than running with himself about the fields, as was his habit before that. He wasn’t heard laughing or singing as often as he used be heard. If the swallows took notice of this much – and I wouldn’t say they didn’t – it’s certain that they were sorry for him.
The summer went by. It was seldom Eoineen would stir out on the street, but he sitting contentedly on the top of the rock, looking at the swallows and listening to their twittering. He’d spend the hours like this. ‘Twas often he was there from early morning till there came ‘tráthnóna gréine buidhe,’ – the evening of the yellow sun; and going within every night he’d have a great lot of stories, beautiful, wonderful stories, to tell to his mother. When she’d question him about these stories, he’d always say to her that it’s from the swallows he’d get them.
The priest came in the evening.
‘How is Eoineen of the Birds this weather, Eibhlin?’, says he. (The other boys had nicknamed him ‘Eoineen of the Birds’ on account of the love he had for the birds.)
‘Muise, Father, he wasn’t as well for many a long day as he is since the summer came. There’s a blush in his cheek I never saw in it before.’
The priest looked sharply at her. He had noticed that blush for a time, and if he did, it didn’t deceive him. Other people had noticed it, too, and if they did, it didn’t deceive them. But it was plain it deceived the mother. There were tears in the priest’s eyes, but Eibhlin was blowing the fire, and she didn’t see them. There was a stoppage in his voice when he spoke again, but the mother didn’t notice it.
‘Where’s Eoineen now, Eibhlin?’
‘He’s sitting on the rock outside, ‘talking to the swallows,’ as himself says. It’s wonderful the affection he has for those little birds. Do you know, Father, what he said to me the other day?’
‘I don’t know, Eibhlin.’
‘He was saying that it’s short now till the swallows would be departing from us again, and says he to me, suddenly, ‘What would you do, little mother,’ says he, ‘if I’d steal away from you with the swallows?’
‘And what did you say, Eibhlin?’
‘I said to him to brush out with him, and not be bothering me. But I’m thinking ever since on the thing he said, and it’s troubling me. Wasn’t it a queer thought for him, Father, – he going with the swallows?’
‘It’s many a queer thought comes into the heart of a child,’ says the priest. And he went out the door, without saying another word.
‘Dreaming, as usual, Eoineen?’
‘No, Father. I’m talking to the swallows.’
‘Talking to them?’
‘Aye, Father. We do be talking together always.’
‘And whisper. What do ye be saying to one another?’
‘We do be talking about the countries far away, where it does be summer always, and about the wild seas where the ships do be drowned, and about the lime-bright cities where the kings do be always living.’
The wonder of his heart came on the priest, as it came on the mother before that.
‘It’s you do be discoursing on these things, and they listening to you, it’s like?’
‘No, Father. They, mostly, that do be talking, and I listening to them.’
‘And do you understand their share of talk, Eoineen?’
‘Aye, Father. Don’t you understand it?’
‘Not too well I understand it. Make room for me on the rock there, and I’ll sit a while till you explain to me what they do be saying.’
Up with the priest on the rock, and he sat beside the little boy. He put an arm about his neck, and began taking talk out of him.
‘Tell me what the swallows do be saying to you, Eoineen.’
‘It’s many a thing they do be saying to me. It’s many a fine story they do tell to me. Did you see that little bird that went past just now, Father?’
‘That’s the cleverest storyteller of them all. That one’s nest is under the ivy that’s growing over the window of my room. And she has another nest in the Southern World – herself and her mate.’
‘Has she, Eoineen?’
‘Aye – another beautiful little nest thousands and thousands of miles from this. Isn’t it a queer story, Father? – to say that the little swallow has two houses, and we having one only?’
‘It’s queer, indeed. And what sort is the country she has this other house in?’
‘When I shut my eyes I see a lonely, awful country. I see it now, Father! A lonely, terrible country. There’s neither mountain, nor hill, nor valley in it, but it a great, level, sandy plain. There’s neither wood, nor grass, nor growth in it, but the earth as bare as the heart of your palm. Sand entirely. Sand under your feet. Sand on every side of you. The sun scorching over your head. Without a cloud at all to be seen in the sky. It very hot. Here and there there’s a little grassy spot, as it would be a little island in the middle of the sea. A couple of high trees growing on each spot of them. They sheltered from wind and sun. I see on one of these islands a high cliff. A terrible high cliff. There’s a cleft in the cliff, and in the cleft there’s a little swallow’s nest. That’s the nest of my little swallow.’
‘Who told you this, Eoineen?’
‘The swallow. She spends half of her life in that country, herself and her mate. Isn’t it the grand life they have on that lonely little island in the middle of the desert! There does be neither cold nor wet in it, frost nor snow, but it summer always… And after that, Father, they don’t forget their other little nest here in Ireland, nor the wood, nor the brook, nor the ash-trees, nor me, nor my mother. Every year in the spring they hear, as it would be, a whispering in their ears telling them that the woods are in leaf in Ireland, and that the sun is shining on the bawn-fields, and that the lambs are bleating, and I waiting for them. And they bid farewell to their dwelling in the strange country, and they go before them, and they make neither stop nor stay till they see the tops of the ash-trees from them, and till they hear the voice of the river and the bleating of the lambs.’
The priest was listening attentively.
‘O! – and isn’t it wonderful the journey they do have from the Southern World! They leave the big sandy plain behind them, and the high, bald mountains that are on its border, and they go before them till they come to the great sea. Out with them over the sea, flying always, always, without weariness, without growing weak. They see below them the mighty-swelling waves, and the ships ploughing the ocean, and the white sails, and seagulls, and the ‘black hags of the sea’ (cormorants), and other wonders that I couldn’t remember. And times, there rise wind and storm, and they see the ships drowning and the waves rising on top of each other; and themselves, the creatures, do be beaten with the wind, and blinded with the rain and with the salt water, till they make out the land at last. A while to them then going before them, and they looking on grassy parks, and on green-topped woods, and on high-headed reeks, and on broad lakes, and on beautiful rivers, and on fine cities, as they were wonderful pictures, and they looking on them down from them. They see people at work. They hear cattle lowing, and children laughing, and bells ringing. But they don’t stop, but forever going till they come to the brink of the sea again, and no rest to them then till they strike the country of Ireland.’
Eoineen continued speaking like this for a long time, the priest listening to every word he said. They were chatting till the darkness fell, and till the mother called Eoineen in. The priest went home pondering to himself.
August and September went. October was half out. As the days were getting shorter, Eoineen was rising sadder. ‘Twas seldom he’d speak to his mother now, but every night before going to sleep he’d kiss her fondly and tenderly, and he’d say:
‘Call me early in the morning, little mother. It’s little time I have now. They’ll be departing without much delay.’
A beautiful day brightened in the middle of the month. Early in the morning, Eoineen took notice that the swallows were crowding together on the top of the house. He didn’t stir from his seat the length of that day. Coming in in the evening, says he to his mother:
‘They’ll be departing to-morrow.’
‘How do you know, white love?’
‘They told me to-day… Little mother,’ says he again, after a spell of silence.
‘What is it, little child?’
‘I can’t stay here when they’re gone. I must go along with them… to the country where it does be summer always. You wouldn’t be lonely if I’d go?’
‘O! treasure, my thousand treasures, don’t speak to me like that!’, says the mother, taking him and squeezing him to her heart. ‘You’re not to be stolen from me! Sure, you wouldn’t leave your little mother, and go after the swallows?’
Eoineen didn’t say a word, but to kiss her again and again.
Another day brightened. The little, wee boy was up early. From the start of day hundreds of swallows were gathered together on the ridge of the house. From time to time one or two of them would go off and they’d return again, as if they’d be considering the weather. At last a pair went off and they didn’t return. Another pair went off. The third pair went. They were going one after another then, till there didn’t remain but one little flock only on the horn of the house. The pair that came first on yon evening of spring six months before that were in this little flock. It’s like they were loath to leave the place.
Eoineen was watching them from the rock. His mother was standing beside him.
The little flock of birds rose in the air, and they faced the Southern World. Going over the top of the wood a pair turned back, – the pair whose nest was over the window. Down with them from the sky, making on Eoineen. Over with them then, they flying close to the ground. Their wings rubbed a cheek of the little boy, and they sweeping past him. Up with them in the air again, they speaking sorrowfully, and off for ever with them after the other crowd.
‘Mother,’ says Eoineen, ‘they’re calling me. ‘Come to the country where the sun does be shining always, – come, Eoineen, over the wild seas to the Country of Light, – come, Eoineen of the Birds!’ I can’t deny them. A blessing with you, little mother, – my thousand, thousand blessings to you, little mother of my heart. I’m going from you… over the wild seas… to the country where it does be summer always.’
He let his head back on his mother’s shoulder and he put a sigh out of him. There was heard the crying of a woman in that lonely place – the crying of a mother keening her child. Eoineen was departed along with the swallows.
Autumn and winter went by and the spring was at hand again. The woods were in leaf, and the lambs bleating, and the sun shining on the bawn-fields. One glorious evening in April the swallows came. There was a wonderful light at the bottom of the sky in the west, as it was a year from that time. The birds sang a strain of music in the wood. The waves chanted a poem on the strand. But there was no little white-haired boy, sitting on the top of the rock under the shadow of the ash-trees. Inside in the house there was a solitary woman, weeping by the fire.
‘…And, darling little son,’ says she, ‘I see the swallows here again, but I’ll never, never see you here.’
The swallows heard her, and they going past the door. I don’t know did Eoineen hear her, as he was thousands of miles away… in the country where it does be summer always.