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Song of Ireland
By Osborne-McKnight, Juilene
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
My father was ever a wanderer. Even in my earliest, unformed memories of him, he is always standing on some parapet or framed in the embrasure of a tower of Egypt. Even now, I see his cloak blowing back in the wind, his gaze fixed west and north, the long thickness of his chestnut mane twisting against the bunched cloak as he pondered the distance. I can hear the dry rattle of the palm fronds and feel the constant friction of the wind-borne sand of Egypt, gritty against my skin.
Though I was my father's fifth son of two wives, with more still to brood in my mother's womb cradle, it was with me that he shared his vision of a magical journey. He would hold me up to the window, close his eyes to the breeze.
"Inisfail," he would say. "The Isle of Destiny. I smell her on the breeze, lad. I see her in my dreams."
"How do you know of her?"
"She is in the legends of my people. The people of Galicia. Inisfail, the Isle where dwell the Magic People. They say that he who finds her will be gifted with their magic. But in all my wanderings, I have never found her."
Usually, his dreams of Inisfail were the sure sign that soon we would be wandering again, so that by the time I reached my fifteenth year, I had been already to Rhatokis on our north coast, to the Greekdemocracy more than once, and even to the newly minted republic of Rome, though my father was not of any of those countries.
My father had begun his life as Golamh, son of Bile, the great chief of the Galaeci. Our tribe dwelled in the town of Brigantia in the far west of Spain, in the region called Galicia for the people of our tribe. My father had described it to me as a soft and rainy country, itself green. I must admit that when the sands of Egypt blew against the sky, I often longed for Galicia, though perhaps it was only my father's love of the place and my worshipful love of him. The tales said that our people had wandered there to the edge of the sea centuries before. Perhaps our ancestors too were searching for the Isle of Destiny, but knew not how to find it when they reached the edge of the water.
For them, my grandfather, Breogam, had built the tall, slender broch that stood by the sea and placed into it the Eternal Flame. My father referred to it always as Breogam's Light Tower. Though my father had grown up in Galicia, even my elder brothers had never seen the place at all, though truly we had all caught the wandering disease.
For my older brothers Eber Finn and Eremon, it took the form of land longing.
"When I have my own parcel," Eber Finn would say, and Eremon would chime in, "I will fill it with grazing cattle as far as the eye can see."
For my eldest brother, Eber Donn, the sickness took the form of acquisition. What he needed or what he wanted he took, be it women or wine, land or weapons. To be truthful, women seemed to sense the hunger in him and rushed to fill it. By the time I had a mere eight years, he was possessed of three handsome wives whom he pleasured together and separately, much to the envious jesting of Eber Finn and Eremon, who possessed only one wife each.
Eber Donn was the son of my father's first wife, the long departed Seang, daughter of the king of Scythia. There my father had first taken service when he was a young man. So powerful a soldier was he, so vital to the king, that he became known as Mile Easpain, Soldier of Spain, and he captained the armies of that country.
But when Seang died in the birthing of my second brother, Airioch Feabhruadh, the king of Scythia was racked with grief and took against my father for the womb-death of his daughter. My father fled to Egypt and there took service with the army of the Pharaoh Mesuti Ra. There, he met my mother Scota, daughter of Pharaoh. Though my mother was a strong and beautiful woman, she was no woman of Egypt. Mesuti Ra, my grandfather, began his life as Cambysis of Persia. Never satisfied with single conquest, Cambysis resigned his position as king of Babylon to invade and conquer Egypt and to name himself after the sun god Ra. He died before my birth, leaving my father to serve his cousin Darius, ruler of Persia and Egypt.
Though my mother seemed always to be bearing, as fertile as the delta of the Nile, she was ever a warrior woman and so beautiful. Her hair was glossy and dark, her skin smooth, her black eyes huge, and her body strong. From her, my father had first Eber Finn, then Eremon, then me. One brother died soon after his birth when I had but six years. When I had ten years, she gave birth to my little brother Bile in the dark hours of the night. Though she had women aplenty to assist her, she rose and washed both herself and the babe and suckled him. Before she slept, she handed him not to her women, but to me. In the dark of the night, rocking my baby brother, something fierce and loving arose in me for the first time. In the morning, she dressed them both, slung Bile into a hip bag, and went about the business of the day. My father called her fearsome strong, and that was so. For me, I longed for the babe all day, and though I was only ten, felt sick with shame that a man should be so besotted of a child. I knew that my warrior brothers and even my father would pay him no mind until he could fight, until he could take to horse and ride.
In me, the wandering sickness had taken a stranger form than in my brothers, a great, vast longing that would not be satisfied by land or palaces or having. I eschewed them all. Sometimes I felt that the things of this world could all pass away, but I would still be present, my eyes looking, my ears listening.
So I looked in the eyes of everyone I met, seeking something, I knew not what. A port? A tower and a light? Magical people on a fabled isle? Perhaps it was simply belonging I sought, for I knew myself to be different, surely, from my brothers. I could not have said myself what I sought. I became a watcher of humanity. I knew that I made people fearful, that the directness of my probative gaze made them squirm. Among our people, some came to believe that I could read them, could see the tale inside. Since many of them had secrets they wished to hide, many avoided me. They should not have worried; what I looked for I found in no one. Though I tried to train myself away from staring, I could not, and eventually it came to pass that I did indeed find myself reading their stories, their jealousies and hopes, their aggravations, in the tilt of a head, in the woman their eyes followed, in the cross of the arms, in the sighs or laughter which coalesced around them. There was no magic to it, only the wisdom that one who watches and listens accrues.
Even my own brothers, though they would clap me on the shoulder or grasp my forearm in the soldiers' way, would not look at my eyes. Only little Bile saw to the core of me, and by the time I was twelve he was my constant companion, swinging up into my arms, laughing aloud when he met my eyes, placing his chubby hands against my cheeks.
So, in my awkwardness, I became like the sponges that the Greek sailors would bring us from the sea. I listened to the words that everyone spoke around me, learned the languages of Greeks and Phoenicians, of Romans and Egyptians, badgered my father and mother for the languages of their homelands. I collected people through their stories and their behaviors and told myself the tales of their travels. In the stories, I belonged.
At last my father must have realized my strangeness, and in my twelfth year he put me into the bardic training with his brother Ith, the druid, who was a teacher and a gutruatri, a singer of praise to God.
Ith taught me how to drift on the pool of silence, how to dwell in the great stillness that permitted me to hear, to reflect, to sink into deep knowing. From him too I learned the language of our homeland and all its tales and poems. It was Ith who gave me my first and most beloved clarsach, the harp I called Ceolas, the Song, and Ith who taught me the mournful gaita, the bagpipe of our people.
Still, in all my training, I never once saw what I sought, never once met the eyes of anyone who reflected either my music or my stillness back to me. Only my little brother Bile seemed to me to be tethered to my soul by an invisible rope. I came to think of myself as dwelling in the great alone; only the poems and the tales filled the well of my longing. So I took to the bardic life as the wind takes to the sea, pouring out stories until the stories became my coin; all demanded them of me; all took delight in them despite my seeming strangeness.
And then I began to have the dream. I was standing at the prow of a ship, a Greek bireme, laden with cargo. I looked out to the north. It was as if I sped across the water then, my own body a sail. There in the sea rose a blue and green land, the rain misting across it, high cliffs spilling to the sea. I looked into the eyes of something, someone, I know not what. They were ovoid and huge, gray as the water, deep as the sea. I saw nothing else but the eyes. A voice said, "Poet, we of the Braid have been expecting you," but it was no voice, no language that I knew. Still, it centered me, like the polestar the sailors follow.
And then I would awake, words threading and weaving in my head for weeks, composing in the darkness, trying to capture the voice and the place of the dream, trying to move the poem into the deep stream of memory. At last, with much trying and rewording, I captured it, the elusive country my father had spoken of so often. My song would be my gift to him. I had thought that would be the end of it then, that my mind would move to other subjects, begin to compose new tellings, as it had always done before. I was wrong.
It was the month when the light grows short and we were sailing on the Nile, on one of my father's rare holidays from duty. The green fields stretched away from the broad, flat river, and the sunlight splintered the water into stars. I was in my fifteenth year then. My brothers, all but Bile, had been left behind for this trip, all of them being men about their business, so I would not be subjected to their constant jibes about their strange brother, dreaming words into the world. I was glad of that, for on this day, I would give my father the gift of the poem of Inisfail. Bile wandered the boat on his sturdy five-year-old legs, occasionally stopping to smile sweetly when I played some song that he particularly loved, placing his chubby hands on my knees.
I remember that the breeze danced across the deck as I tuned up Ceolas. Strangely, the wind smelled like rain. And I began to sing.
Ceolas sings of Inisfail
Green is my longing, Inisfail
Isle of Destiny, northern diadem.
Why do you call to me?
How shall I sing them,
sloe-eyed creatures at your shore?
Do you await me, Inisfail?
Country of my dreams;
I am Amergin, son of Mil,
Dream of the father now become
the harpsong of the son.
Inisfail, land of mystery,
Sing to me.
I got no further. My father stood abruptly in the boat. He stared into the sky. I followed his gaze.
The sun had begun to darken, a wedge of it obscured by a crescent of darkness.
My mother screamed aloud. She rushed for Bile, pressed his head against her shoulder. He began to cry in terror.
"Do not look at it!" she cried. "Do not look! I have heard tales of this; to see the darkness will make you blind."
We dropped to the deck of the boat, curled in upon ourselves. My father wrapped his body around my mother and Bile. Our sailman began to weep aloud and to call up Ra, the sun god, to deliver us. He released the tiller and fell to the deck, repeatedly touching his head to the boards. Our little boat slewed wildly, the wind filling the sails, no hand on the tiller.
I leaped to the tiller and trimmed the sail, but I took my mother's advice and kept my eyes on the deck. Darkness came across it like a shadow; my heart filled with dread. For a few moments, I sailed on what seemed to me the river of death, no light, no color, and then a wedge of color reappeared upon the water.
"Look!" I cried. "The light returns!"
My father looked up; he rose and glanced into the sky, albeit obliquely.
"We will journey," he said to my mother. "We will leave Egypt."
She did not hesitate, nor did she argue.
Though she barely crested five feet and though she was heavy with bearing yet again, I remember that she stood and tilted her chin, all the way to my father's six-foot height.
"To Inisfail?" she asked, and her voice was soft with something that sounded like wonder. I remember thinking that the idea was not new to her, not strange or unwanted.
But my father shook his head.
"No. First we go home. Across the mountains to Galicia. First we must gather the clans."
The light returned to its full strength, dancing across the water. My father nodded in certainty.
"Amergin has sung us to it. Did you say north, boy?"
"How do you know this?"
"It is what I dreamed. It is what Ceolas permitted me to sing."
He shook his head. "North. All these years. North. I thought that I would find them in the Internal Sea." He seemed to muse for a moment, then shook his head. "Perhaps that is why my grandfather built the tower. I have been a fool then. All the while it was before me." He shrugged, then nodded. "The sun was the sign. We go first to Galicia. From there we sail north. Amergin has sung it." He clapped me on the shoulder.
Bile must have sensed the adventure. He ran between Scota and Mil, and when they paid him no mind, he dashed to me and lifted up his arms. I scooped him up.
Father turned toward our oarsman.
"Make to the shore, Aknet," he called. "We must prepare our horses and our wagons."
Perhaps I should have been afraid at all that we were leaving, afraid of the loss of all that I had known. But I was not. Instead I felt a surge of joy as visceral as light.
Perhaps at last I would find the place that I could belong.
Copyright 2006 by Juilene Osborne-McKnight
Excerpted from Song of Ireland
by Osborne-McKnight, Juilene
Copyright © 2006 by Osborne-McKnight, Juilene.
Excerpted by permission.
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