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The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said by  Padraic Colum
Table of Contents


 

 

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The Sea-Swan told the story to the pigeons of the rock, and the Boy Who Knew What the Birds said heard every word of it. I was once a Sea-Maiden, she said., and my name was Eevil, and I was known through all the Kingdoms that are Under-Wave for my beautiful hair—my long, beautiful, green hair. Something was in me that made me want to dance, and I used to rise up through the water, and dance on the shore of the island that is called Hathony.

Mananaun, as you, creatures, know, is Lord of the Sea, and what he commands in the Kingdoms-Under-Wave has to be. Now Mananaun made a Promise to a King of an Earth-Kingdom, and the promise was that be would give this King whatever he asked for. The King died according to the ways of men, and his son, whose name was Branduv, came to rule him.

Branduv called Mananaun out of the sea, and he asked that he renew the promise he had made to his father. The Lord of the Sea did not want a promise to lapse because of the death of a man, and he renewed it to the man's son. Then Mananaun told him he would take him and show him the Kingdoms of the Sea and whatever he saw that he desired there would be given to him. He took him in his boat of glass "The Ocean Sweeper" to visit the Kingdoms of the Sea.

They came to Moy Mell, the Plain of Pleasure, and there Mananaun gave Branduv a branch of everlasting blossoms; they came to another Kingdom and there Mananaun gave him a sword that was the best wrought in the world; they came to a third Kingdom and there Mananaun gave him a pair of hounds that could run down the silver-antlered stag. But as yet Branduv the King had asked no gift from Mananaun.

They came to Mananaun's own Kingdom, Silver-Cloud Plain, and there Branduv was left alone while Mananaun drank the Ale of the Ever-Living Ones. The King saw from the shores of Silver-Cloud Plain "The Ocean Sweeper," and he directed that the boat bring him to the island. And the boat travelled as the one in it wished.

Only one thing had ever made me fearful of dancing on the shore of the Island of Hathony—that was the presence there of a pair of Ravens. These Ravens had once been Sea-maidens, but they had desired men for husbands, and they had gone to them. The men forsook them, and they had become first Witches and afterwards Ravens. Ever since their change they wished harm to the Maidens of the Sea. I had been frightened of them, but now I had seen them flapping about so often that I was no longer or I was only a little, afraid.

I came up through the sea and I danced upon the shore of the island, and the play of the waves was in my dance, and my long soft green hair fell over my foam-white, foam soft body. I danced on, O my listeners, and as no one had ever seen me looked upon, I thought no one looked upon me now.

But this King of the earthly Kingdom saw me. He saw me as I danced by the waves, and I was the fairest thing he had ever looked upon. At first he was all wonder and no robber's thoughts were in his mind. But the Ravens came to him. One perched on one shoulder and one perched on the other, and one said "If you carry Eevil off you will have the fairest wife in all the world," and the other said " If you leave her here you will never look on anything as fair again."


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The Ravens flapped before him to guide him to a place in the dark rocks where he might hide and to which I might come. He followed where they led. But I saw his shadow on a rock. I drew back and the sea took me and drew me into its depths. "The sea has taken her," said Branduv to the Ravens.

"Mananaun is Lord of the Sea," said one of the Ravens.

"And Mananaun has promised you a gift, and he cannot refuse what you will ask," said the other Raven.

Then the Ravens flapped away and Mananaun came to where the King was standing. "You have asked me for a gift," said Mananaun, "think now of what you desire before I take you back to your own island." Then said Branduv, "What I ask is that you bestow upon me the Sea-maiden who was dancing here, Eevil."

Mananaun in anger lifted his spear. But then he remembered he was bound by a promise to Branduv. He lowered the spear he had raised. "I will give you any other gift you ask," said he, "even my own boat " 'The Ocean Sweeper.' "

"I hold you to your promise," said Branduv, "and I declare to you that I shall take no other gift unless it be the maiden who was here dancing by the sea."

"It must be then that I give her you," said Mananaun, and his face was dark.

Down he went to the Kingdom-Under-Wave and he came to the black mansion where lived the Seven Spinning Women of the Sea. He spoke as speaks a King who has a hard thing to do. "A law has to be broken," said he, "What law, Lord?" said the Spinning Women. "The law that saves our Maidens from taking part in the stormy lives of men." "We would rather that anything else but this should happen, Lord," said the Seven Spinning Women. "This thing must happen," said Mananaun, "and the Maiden Eevil must go to Branduv the King." "She must be prepared for this," said the Seven Spinning Women.


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They came to me and they told me that the man whose shadow I had seen on the rock now claimed me for his wife and that Mananaun would not gainsay him. When I heard this, O my listeners, the life nearly left me.

This comfort the Seven Spinning Women gave me: I was to stay on his island so that I might become used to the earthly kingdom, but that I was not to see Branduv until the green had left my hair and the brown that the sun makes had come into my cheeks. So I came to Branduv's island. I lived by the sea-shore and the women of the island attended me.

How different was this earthly land from the Kingdom-Under-Wave. With us there was but the one mild season, the one mild light. Here there was glaring day and terrible darkness, bitter winds and hot beams of the sun. With us there were songs and tales, but the songs were about love or about the beautiful things we had seen. Here the tales and songs were about battles and forays and slaying with the sword. What they told of their loves was terrible, so much violence and unfaithfulness was in them.

The soft green tints were going out of my hair and the sun was putting brownness in my cheeks. Soon my hair would be wheaten-colored like the hair of the women of the islands and my cheeks would be brown like theirs. And then the day would come when I should have to be with the man whom I looked upon as my enemy.

I used to stay by the shore and speak with the birds that came in from the sea, for I knew their language. Never again could I go back to the Kingdom-Under-Wave. Green shade after green shade left my hair, brown tint after brown tint came into my cheeks, and what could I do but envy the birds that could make their flight from the islands of men. And when the green had nearly gone altogether from my hair I thought of a desperate thing I might do.

I sent a message to my sisters, and I sent it by many birds, so that if they did not get it by one they might get it by another. And I asked in my message that they send me a draft from the Well under the Sea, and that they send it in the cup that the Seven Spinning Women guarded. It would be terrible for any of my sisters to come to Branduv's island with the draft and the cup, but I begged that they would do it for me.

The days went by and the green color was now only a shade in my hair, and brownness was on my cheeks, and the women said "Before this old moon is gone our King will come here to wed you."

Then one day I found on the shore the cup that my sisters had brought and the draft from the Secret Well was in it. I took the cup in my hands and I brought it where I lived. "Come to us," said the women, "so that we may undo your hair and tell the King when he may come to wed you." They loosened my hair and then they said "there is no shade of green here at all. Bid the King come as early as he likes to-morrow."

I lay that night with the cup beside me. When I rose I knew that day I should drink from the cup my sisters had sent me—drink the draft that would change me into what I wished to be—a bird of the sea.


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And while I sat with the cup beside me and my hair spread out, Branduv, the King of the Island, came to the door of the house. It may have been that I was becoming used to the sight of people of the earthly kingdoms, for, as I looked upon him he did not seem terrible to me. He looked noble, I thought, and eager to befriend me and love me. But the cup was in my hands when he came to the door. I put it to my lips when he entered the house. I drank it when he took a step towards me. And thereupon I became what I had wished to be—a Sea-Swan.

O my listeners! Maybe it would have been well for me if I had wed that King, and be now as the women of the islands. For now as I fly over the sea the King's look comes before me, and I think that he was eager to befriend me and eager to love me. So I am not content when I am flying over the sea. And I am lonely when I am on these islands, for I am now a Swan, and what has a Swan to do with the lives of men?


Such was the story that the Sea-Swan told the pigeons of the rock, and the Boy who knew what the Birds said heard it all, and remembered every word of it.


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