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The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said by  Padraic Colum
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[Illustration]

Kingfisher-all-blue used to sit on the branch that went furthest across the stream with his head bent down and looking as if he were trying to think his head off. Only in the most lonesome places, far from where the hens cackled and the geese gabbled and the cocks crew, would the Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said find him. And when he did find him Kingfisher-all-blue would not open his beak to say one word—no, not even when the Boy would say "Where did you get your beautiful color?" and "Why is your beak so big, little Kingfisher-all-Blue?"

Now one day when he had left behind him the hens that cackled, the geese that gabbled and the cocks that crew, and had left behind him too the old raven that built in the lone tree he came where Kingfisher-all-Blue sat upon the slenderest branch that went farthest across the stream. And when Kingfisher-all-Blue saw him he lifted up his head and he fixed his eye upon him and he cried out the one word "Follow." Then he went flying down the stream as if he were not a bird at all but a streak of blue fire.

Kingfisher-all-Blue went flying along the stream and the Boy Who Knew What the Birds said was able to follow him. They went on until the stream they followed came out on the sand of the sea-shore. Then Kingfisher-all-Blue seated himself on a branch that was just above where the grains of sand and the blades of grass mixed with each other and he fixed his eye on a mound of sand and clay. And when the Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said came beside him Kingfisher-all-Blue said the one word "Find."

Then the Boy Who Knew What the Birds said began to take the sand and clay from the mound. He worked all day at it and Kingfisher-all-Blue sat on the branch above and watched him. And at evening, when all the sand and clay had been taken away by him the Boy Who Knew What the Birds said came upon a stone that was as big and as round as the wheel of a cart.

And when he had brushed away the grains of sand that was on the round stone he saw a writing. The writing was in Ogham, but at that time even boys could read Ogham. And the Ogham writing said You Have Luck to Have Seen This Side of The Stone But You Will Have More Luck When You See the Other Side.

When he read that he looked up to where the bird sat, but Kingfisher-all-Blue only said "I am done with you now," and then he flew back along the stream like a streak of blue fire.

The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said stayed near the stone until the dark was coming on. Then he thought he would go home and in the morning he would speak to Pracaun the Crow and ask her about the stone that Kingfisher-all-Blue had brought him to and what good luck there was at the other side of it.

Pracaun the Crow came to the standing stone in the morning and ate the boiled potato that the Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said brought her, and then the Boy spoke to her about the stone that Kingfisher-all-Blue had brought him to, and he asked what good luck there was at the other side of it.

"Kingfisher-all-Blue has brought you to good luck that none of the rest of us could have shown you," said Pracaun the Crow. "Under that round stone is the treasure of King Labraid Lorc."

"Who was King Labraid Lorc and what was his treasure?" said the Boy Who Knew What the Birds said.

"I will tell you first about King Labraid Lorc," said Pracaun the Crow. "He was King of this part of the country and of two lovely Islands that are now sunken deep in the sea. Mananaun Mac Lir who is Lord of the Sea was his friend and Labraid Lorc would have been a happy King only for—well, I'll tell you in a while what troubles he had.

No one knew where the King had come from. He was not born King of this part of the country nor of the lovely Islands that are now deep sunken under the sea. Mananaun who is Lord of the Sea had given him the Islands, or rather he had given him the two keys that had brought the Islands up from the bottom of the sea. Two silver keys they were, O lad. And when they were brought together they struck each other and rang like bells. And "Labraid Lorc is King, King of the two Fair Islands" is what they chimed out. As long as he held the keys the Islands would remain above the water. But if he put the keys away the Islands would sink back into the sea.

Once in every month the King had a man killed. This is how it was. He would have a man to shave his beard and to trim his hair. This man never came alive out of the King's Castle. As soon as the poor barber left the King's chamber and passed down the hall soldiers would fall upon him and kill him with their swords. Every time when the King's beard was shaved and his hair was trimmed a man was killed—twelve men in a year, a hundred and forty-four men in twelve years!

Now a warning came to a woman that her son would be called upon to be the next barber to the King. She was a widow and the young man was her only son. She was wild with grief when she thought that he would be killed by the soldiers' swords as soon as he had shaved the King's beard and trimmed the King's hair.

She went everywhere the King rode. She threw herself before him and asked for the life of her son. And at last the King promised that no harm would befall her son's life if he swore he would tell no person what he saw when he shaved the King's beard and trimmed the King's hair. After that he would be always the King's barber.

The widow's son came before the King and he swore he would tell no person what he saw when he shaved his beard and trimmed his hair. Then he went into the King's Chamber. And when he came out from it the King's soldiers did not fall upon him and kill him with their swords. The widow's son went home out of the Castle.

His mother cried over him with joy at seeing him back. The next day he went to work at his trade and his mother watched him and was contented in her mind. But the day after her son only worked by fits and starts, and the day after that he did no work at all but sat over the fire looking into the burning coals.

And after that the widow's son became sick and lay on his bed and no one could tell what was the matter with him. He became more and more ill and at last his mother thought that he had only escaped the soldiers' swords to come home and die in his house. And when she thought of that she said to herself that she would go see the Druid who lived at the back of the hill and beg him to come to see her son and strive to cure him. The Druid came and he looked into the eyes of the young man and he said "He has a secret upon his mind, and if he does not tell it he will die."

Then his mother told the Druid that he had sworn not to tell any person what he saw when he shaved the King's beard and trimmed the King's hair, and that what he saw was his secret. Said the Druid "If he wants to live he will have to sneak out his secret. But it need not be to any person. Let him go to the meeting of two roads, turn with the sun and tell his secret to the first tree on his right hand. And when he feels he has told his secret your son will get the better of his sickness."


[Illustration]

When this was told to the young man he got up off his bed and he walked to where two roads met. He turned as the sun turns and he whispered into the branches of the first tree on his right hand. And the secret that he whispered was "King Labraid Lorc has the ears of a horse." Then he turned from the tree and he went home. He slept, and in the morning when he woke he was well and he went to his work and he was happy and cheerful.

But the tree that he whispered his secret to was a willow, and, as you know, out of the branches of the willow the harp is made. As the widow's son went away a Harper seeking wood to make a new harp came that way. He saw the willow and he knew that its branches were just right for the making of his harp. He cut them and he bent them and he formed a harp from them. And when the harp was firmly fixed the Harper came with it to the King's Castle.

The King gave a feast so that the first music that came from the harp should be honored. He made the Harper sit near his own High Chair. Then, when the feast was at its height he called upon the Harper to stand up and strike the first music from the new harp.

"The first music from the new harp shall be praise of the King," said the harper when he stood up. He drew his fingers across the strings and all listened for the first music that would come. But the harp that was made out of the willow branches that the widow's son had whispered to murmured "Labraid Lorc has the ears of a horse, Labraid Lorc has the ears of a horse." The King started up from his High Chair. The Harper threw down the harp. Everyone was silent in the hall. Then one voice was heard saying "It is true. The King Labraid Lorc has the ears of a horse."

The King had the man who said it taken by his soldiers and flung from the top of the Castle. No one else spoke. But the next day when he rode abroad the King heard the people behind the hedges saying "Labraid Lorc has the ears of a horse."

After that, whenever he came near them, people went from him, and at last no one was left in his Castle. And there was no one to take him over to the fair Islands that Mananaun, Lord of the Sea, had given him for a possession. And there was no one to bring over the fruits that grew on the islands nor the cattle and sheep that pastured there.

Then the King went to Mananaun, Lord of the Sea, and he offered him back the keys Mananaun had given him—the silver keys that struck each other when they were brought together and rang like bells, chiming out "Labraid Lorc is King, is King of the two Fair Islands." But no gift that Mananaun gives is ever taken back and the keys were still left with Labraid Lorc. Yet he thought he would let the keys go out of his possession so that the Fair Islands would sink back into the sea. But that they might not stay at the bottom of the sea for ever he took the keys and he put them in a pit at the sea-shore and he covered the pit with a round stone, and knowing that it would be only a lucky person who would come to that stone, he wrote in Ogham writing on it You Have Luck to Have Seen This Side of The Stone But You Will Have More Luck When You See the Other Side.

As he left the silver keys there the Fair Islands began to sink in the water. So slow were they in sinking that the cattle and sheep that pastured on the islands were taken off in boats and the people who lived in villages on the Islands came away with all they owned. But at last the Islands sank altogether out of sight. And after they went down into the sea King Labraid Lorc was seen no more.

And you, O Boy, are the lucky one that the King hid the silver keys for. When you take them into your hands the Islands will begin to rise above the water and when they are altogether risen and are called the Fair Islands again you will be Lord of them. And Kingfisher-all-Blue, the one we thought had no care but for himself, brought you to this good fortune."


Day after day the Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said went down to the sea-shore and worked to lift up the round stone that was over the pit in which King Labraid Lorc had put his silver keys. And one day he was able to raise up the stone. There lay the great keys, shining in their silver brightness. He took them up, and when he brought them near each other they struck together and they rang like bells. "Mananaun" was the name they chimed out. And they chimed again "Ernan is Lord, is Lord of the Fair Islands."


[Illustration]

Looking out to sea, the boy Ernan saw waters rising up as though whales were spouting fountains. And the next day, when he came to the sea-shore, he saw that Islands had risen and that they were already covered with green.

No longer he listened to what the Birds said but he watched the Islands every day and he saw trees and grass come upon them. And when the people came and said "Who can be Lord of these Islands?" he held up the silver keys and brought them together so that they struck each other and rang like bells. "Ernan is Lord, Lord of the Fair Islands" was what they chimed out. Each day the Islands grew fairer in the sight of the people, and Ernan was called, not "The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said," but "Ernan, Lord of the Fair Islands."


[Illustration]


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