Mac Criomthann and the Language of the Birds
Long ago in Ireland, the Druid called Mac Criomthann was walking one evening through the oak woods which clothe the lower slopes of Mullaghmesha. He was neither young nor old in those days; his beard was still black, and his gray eyes saw all things clearly. In the Irish tongue his name means “Son of the Fox,” and in a little while you will see why he was so called.
As he walked, Mac Criomthann listened to the singing of the birds, for he understood their language, and he knew their silence can be as important as their speech. And so when he noticed a patch of that silence in the forest around him, he became thoughtful. Not far ahead, his path crossed a deep river by a rough wooden bridge which leapt from one high bank to the other, and in the center of that bridge he saw someone who looked like a little old woman, muffled in gray-brown shawls. But the silence of the birds and his own magic told Mac Criomthann that she was not what she seemed, and he stopped before he set foot upon the bridge. “Good evening to you, old mother,” he said.
The little old woman peered up at him through tangled gray hair. “It is no mother of yours I am,” she said in a creaky voice. “And where would you be going this fine evening?”
“Far enough, and not very far,” said Mac Criomthann. “Where do you bide, grandmother?”
“Near enough, and not very near,” said the old woman. “Would you be for crossing over?”
“I would,” said Mac Criomthann. But he did not move.
“Read me this riddle aright,” said the old woman, “and I will let you pass.”
“And if I fail?”
“You will pay the price,” said the old woman, and smiled a toothless smile.
Mac Criomthann stood and thought. It was far and far to any other bridge over this river, and there would be little moonlight that night. If he did not cross here, he might not reach his goal before morning, and he had need to. “What,” he asked, “is the riddle, grandmother?”
“Tell me who I am.”
“And the price if I fail?”
“The rod you carry beneath your belt.”
Now there were two meanings to that answer, and neither pleased Mac Criomthann, for the one thing was his Druid’s wand, and the other a part of himself. So he stood and thought, and the evening deepened toward dusk. And the small birds of the woodland were still silent, but far off he heard the voices of the crows returning to roost.
The old woman heard them too. She cocked her head to listen, and then seemed to hunch her shoulders, settling deeper into her brown shawls and her cloud of gray hair, her eyes glowing faintly red in the gloom. “Well?” she said in a grating voice. The voices of the crows were coming closer.
“I think,” said Mac Criomthann slowly, “that I will let someone else answer your question.” And on the words, he pursed his lips, and let out a loud, echoing “Hoo-hoo-hoo!”
Through the trees the crows came cawing loudly, for there is nothing they hate more than an owl. The old woman on the bridge shot up, opening her great wings, and fled away before them into the dark. And when peace had settled once more over the oak woods, Mac Criomthann crossed the bridge and went on his way, smiling at the sleepy twittering of the birds.
copyright G. R. Grove 2013.