Shannon O'Neill Leaves Home".
"A long, long time ago. If I were there then, I would not be there now. If I were there now and at that time, I would have a new story...or an old story...or I might have no story at all..."
The small slender boy with the serious features and cropped red hair nestled into his mother's breast happily, waiting to hear which of her many wonderful tales she would spin for him this time.
He started to put a thumb in his mouth, then looked up into his mother's blue eyes and remembered how she had chided him. "Rory, me dear little one, six is far too old to be after sticking' your thumb in your mouth." She had been smiling her sweet loving smile, not at all angry. But he did not want to disappoint her. His thumb stayed out.
"Which story will ye tell me, Mother?" Rory asked.
"And which one should ye be likin', me little man?" Grania asked her son.
Rory looked pensive. Then he turned his disarming smile on her. "Sure and I love all your tales, Mother."
She smiled and began,
A long, long time ago. If I were there then, I would not be there now. If I were there now and at that time, I would have a new story...or an old story...or I might have no story at all... there was a famous salmon. Its skin shone like silver. The fish was called the Salmon of Knowledge. An old poet Finnegas said that the first person to taste it would see into the future. Many people came to the Boyne hoping that they would catch the salmon but all of them failed. One by one they would return to their homes sadly. The old poet lived in a hut by the river bank. Each day he fished for the salmon of knowledge. He hoped he would be the first to taste it and to have the great powers.
Grania noticed that Rory's little lips were moving in unison with her own, reciting silently as she spoke. He had memorized every tale she knew and even corrected her occasion when she misspoke a line.
One day a fair haired boy came running towards him. "Who are you?" asked Finnegas, "why are you running?". My name is Fionn said the boy. "My father has been killed in battle, now his enemies want to kill me too". "Do not be afraid", said Finnegas kindly. "Stay with me and I will look after you". Fionn lived happily with Finnegas, by day he cleaned the hut and cooked the meals at night. He loved to listen to the old man telling wonderful stories.
One day Finnegas went out fishing as usual. After a short time he came rushing to the door of the hut. In his hands he carried a huge fish. "I have caught the Salmon of Knowledge," he cried happily. "Now I will have great knowledge". Quickly Fionn lit a fire and soon the salmon was cooking. "Look after the fish, while I get some more firewood," ordered Finnegas, "but you are not to taste it", he warned Fionn.
Fionn sat watching the salmon cooking over the fire. He remembered the story of its wonderful powers. Then he noticed a blister rising slowly so he pressed it and he burnt his thumb. Without thinking, he put the thumb in his mouth. Fionn had tasted the salmon of the knowledge. When Finnegas came back, he knew that Fionn had the power of the salmon, and he was very sad. "You will now be able to see into the future, you must now go and become leader of the Fianna," said Finnegas to Fionn.
"And did he go, Mother?" the boy asked.
"Aye, for the hundredth time, he did." his mother answered.
"And the Fianna are the warriors who guard the High King in Tara, are they not, Mother?"
"Aye, and I know your next question, and I dinnae know if ye will e'er be a warrior, lad. Ye will be what ye decide to be." She smiled down into the searching eyes.
Rory sighed. "That I shall, Mother."
Grania picked up her son and carried him to the little pile of straw covered with a blanket that was his bed. She laid him down, covered him with another blanket, and kissed him. "I love ye, Rory."
The boy smiled up at her. "I love ye, Mother."
The woman went to lie in her own simple bed of straw in another corner, drew the covers over her, and soon both mother and child were asleep.
Rory sat on the ground in the dooryard with a little black and gray kitten from the litter of the O’Flaherty’s cat his mother had let him have just days before. “Here, me darlin’ Brigid,” he called to the kitten as he teased her playfully with a long stalk of grass. The kitten jumped at the stalk, causing the boy to issue forth bell-like laughter each time.
Grania McGuinness looked over at her small son from the tub where she was washing clothes, bed linens, and other things the clan chieftain’s family used. There already were numerous items stretched out to dry on the ground near their ramshackle cottage. Grania thought how like his father Liam the boy was, those blue eyes, that ready smile that shone out like a ray of sunshine peeking through the usual seriousness of his expression. She missed her dear Liam sorely. He had died when Rory was tiny of a fever that had almost taken the boy too. Grania had nursed them both and lost the man but kept the boy. Since then it had been just the two of them, mother and son.
A little cry came from the boy. Grania dropped what she had been scrubbing and dashed over to him. He was holding his hand out, and there was a scratch there just starting to bleed. The boy had started to cry. “Oh, me poor lad, does it hurt very much?” She wiped away the blood with her apron and kissed the scratch.
Rory answered tearfully, “Nay.”
Grania looked at him questioningly. “Then why do ye weep?”
Rory’s eyes brimmed with more tears. “I made Brigid angry so she scratched me. Oh Mother, I am so sorry I made her angry. Do ye think she will forgive me?”
Grania who had been kneeling by her son sat back on her heels with a sad smile. “Oh, me precious boy. Brigid was not angry with ye.. she is just a little child like ye are, and she got too excited with the play. She did not mean to hurt ye.”
Rory gazed up into her eyes, thinking about what she had said. “I will try that hard never to make her angry, Mother. I will never make ye angry either.”
Grania gathered him up in her arms. “Oh dear Rory, ye never do.”
It was a bright summer day, just going midday and beginning to be hot. Grania sat on the bank of the brook with her bare toes sunk into the soft sand of the edge of the water. She laughed as she watched her red haired son Rory playing along the brook side, chasing little white butterflies, himself laughing.
"Rory, come sit by me a while. 'Tis growing too warm to be after playin' so riotously," she called to him. he looked at her and smiled, then scampered over and plopped at her side.
"Mother, your toes are gettin' that dirty!" he observed. Then he stuck his toes in the sandy bank too.
The shadow of a tree had just come to settle on mother and son as the heat of the day hit its peak. Both lay back and stared up into the sky beyond its branches. Grania pointed to a cloud in the southern sky. "Och, look there. I think that looks like a toad."
Rory twisted his head this way and that trying to see what she saw. "Och, aye, I see it now." He looked around and another cloud caught his eyes. "Look, there is one shaped like a pony!"
Grania saw it immediately. "And it is headin' west to the Summerland, to Tir nan Og, dinnae ye think?"
"Aye," the boy breathed in wonder. "’Tis takin’ some valiant soul on to his reward. Over there I see a queen in all her beauty. In the east."
Grania looked and was amazed to see that Rory was right. Two clouds had just merged in the eastern sky and created the form of a woman with long flowing robes, floating hair and a crown. "She is so beautiful!" Grania sighed.
"Mother, I think I had some of that Salmon of Knowledge," Rory said entirely seriously.
Grania came up on her elbows to look at him. "Why, Rory?"
Rory was still gazing at the cloud queen. "Because I have a feelin' that someday I shall go east and see that queen."
"What, to Antrim?" his mother asked.
"Nay," the boy said, sleepily. "Across the water in Britain. And I shall.." He yawned. "I shall love her as I do ye, Mother."
Grania laughed softly. "Dear little one, I hope not. Ye need someday to find someone who will love ye as a man, not as a little boy. Rory? Rory, me love, are ye asleep?"
Seeing that her son was well and truly asleep Grania decided to take a nap in the cool of the shade herself. She lay back and locked her fingers behind her head. In no time she was sleeping alongside her son.
“Och, I have twisted me ankle,” Grania complained as she sat on the ground next to the path she and Rory were taking home from their day at the brook side.
Rory was kneeling by her looking as if he himself felt the pain. Grania and he had been skipping along like a couple of little children, and she had turned her ankle and crumpled onto the ground.
“’Tis yet a way to the village, and I dinnae know if I can walk that far now.” Grania tried to stand. Rory tried to help her, and winced when she did from the pain in her ankle.
“We can just stay here and rest for a while,” the little boy reassured.
“Sure and I suppose we can, but ‘tis growing late. Rory, mayhap ye should go and fetch someone to help,” Grania said looking at the deepening dusk.
The little boy looked ahead at the fork in the path that took travelers either on to their little village or off the a tiny collection of farms not far away. “I should go to Ross Beg. It is much closer,” Rory suggested.
Grania shook her head. “Nay, then the poor kind soul would be after walkin’ all the way into Ross More and then have to walk all the way home…” She rubbed her sore ankle and frowned. Just go and see if O’Flaherty can bring his donkey to fetch me.”
Rory jumped up, eager to help. He started down the path. His mother called after him, “Rory, are ye not forgettin’ something?” He looked back and saw her smile at him. He came back quickly and leaned to kiss her cheek. “That’s better. Now mind ye go careful, me lad. God bless ye.”
“God keep ye safe, Mother,” he returned over his shoulder as he dashed off.
Rory arrived at O’Flaherty’s cottage panting and hardly able to talk. Moira O’Flaherty clucked over him, telling her husband, “Connell, take the donkey for her. This one is that exhausted. I will put him to bed with Fiona until ye have Grania safe home.”
Rory started to protest, but Moira would hear none of it. “Just go an lie down, lad. Your mother will be home and ye safe in each other’s arms ere ye know it.” To her husband she said, “God be with ye, Connell O’Flaherty.”
Rory lay down next to three year old Fiona, who stared at him, her thumb in her mouth. He smiled at her but his eyes were already closing.
He awoke not long after to the sounds of shouts. He sat up to see Moira coming into the cottage frantic, then coming over to where he and Fiona slept. She sat down on the blanket covered straw with them and put her arms around Rory, then reached over to stroke Fiona’s fair hair as the child lay with eyes wide open looking fearful. “Just be quiet now, wee ones,” Moira said in a tight voice.
All Rory could tell from the noises is that Connell O’Flaherty was calling to his brothers and neighbors to arm themselves. Farmers, they had nothing but pitchforks and shovels, although Shane McMahon had a bow. The men seemed to gather and leave together. Rory heard the name of the little farming village of Ross Beg and also once his mother’s name.
“I must go find me mother!” the boy cried, trying to get up, but Moira shushed him and held him where he was.
The time they spent in the cottage lit only by a glowing peat fire seemed interminable. Finally, although he was just beginning to drift off back to sleep, Rory heard the men return. The voices were alternately low and full of grief and sharp with outraged oaths. The door to the O’Flaherty cottage opened and O’Flaherty himself called to his wife to come outside and leave the children.
In spite of the fear and anxiety, Rory did drift off again. In his dreams he heard a smattering of words: “brigands”, “burned to the ground”, “left dying on the path”, and “poor mite”.
Moira kept the children inside the cottage the next day. No one was talking above a whisper. He kept asking her what had happened, where his mother was , but she would just look sad and shake her head. He began to cry and went to lie on the straw mattress, his face buried in a little rag doll that Fiona, feeling sorry for him, had given him to hold.
The next morning Moira got him and Fiona up and washed their faces and hands. She put a shawl over her head and another over Fiona’s. She brought Rory over to the table, sat and put him on her lap.
“Rory McGuinness, I have hard tidings and I want you to be as brave and manly as ye can. Will ye do that for me, wee one?” Rory nodded solemnly. “Your Mother has gone away. She will not be comin’ back at all.”
The boy’s face filled with panic. He started to cry out, “Where did she go,” but Moira put a finger to his lips.
“Rory, ye promised not to weep.” He subsided but his face remained frantic. “She’s after goin’ to live with Mother Mary and Jesus, Rory. We are goin’ this morn to see her put into the ground. Ye must be a brave boy now, do ye hear?”
He stared at her. “Mother is dead?” Moira nodded. The little thumb came up and went into the little mouth. Rory just leaned against Moira’s shoulder, his thumb in his mouth and his eyes dry and unfocused.
He barely could recall later what transpired that day or the next several. He had fleeting images of the people of his village standing around in a circle by a hole in the ground. He remembered looking down in the hole and seeing someone draped in a shroud. Earth was shoveled over her. Moira had said, “Say farewell to your sweet mother, Rory.
He had looked into her eyes and stated, “That was not me mother. Me mother is a grand cloud lady who lives in the sky.”
He remembered the neighbors gathering in the O’Flaherty’s dooryard with cups of ale and sad songs. He heard one man say to another, “The brigands killed all the people in Ross Beg and burned their cottages. Grania must have seen them comin’ and tried to go to warn us, but she couldnae walk and they cut her down where she fell.. after they.. well.. ye know…” The other man had nodded and lamented aloud that the chieftain had posted no soldiers in this part of the country to protect the farms. Rory had thought in his haze of understanding, “I shall be a soldier and fight the brigands who take things from decent people.”
Then two strangers came who said they were his father’s brother and his wife. They packed up what little Rory and Grania had had and slung the bags over a donkey. As the man, his uncle it seemed, reached to pick him up, Rory shrieked and ran for the cottage where he and his mother had lived. He seemed to be searching for something around the back. When he came back to them he was holding a kitten. “I must bring Brigid with me.”
His aunt seemed about to take the cat away when his uncle chided her, “Och, Maeve, let the lad keep the cat. ‘Tis all he has now.”
His Aunt Maeve had snapped irritably, “He has us now, Fergus,” but had not taken the kitten from the boy.
Fergus lifted both boy and kitten onto the donkey’s back. He leaned to whisper in Rory’s ear. “Dinnae mind your Auntie, lad. If ye are good and quiet and sweet to her she will come around.” Rory stared at the woman as she fussed over having to walk all the way to Killyneill.
Rory sat on a stool in the dooryard of his aunt and uncle’s cottage at Killyneill and played with Brigid, dangling a piece of twine in front of her while she danced for it. He was glum and lonely, with no other children in the cottage and nothing but dimming memories of his sweet mother to cling to.
“Och, what are ye doin’ there, lad,” came the voice of another small boy near the gate.
Rory looked up to see a child his own age, a freckle faced boy with an unruly mop of flame red hair, which was full of straw, leaves and burs. The boy’s eye was blackened and bruised, but the grin was wide and winning.
“I be playin’ with Brigid, me kitty,” Rory replied.
The boy, bold as you please, opened the gate and came into the yard. He leaned over to the cat and took one of her front paws and made as if to kiss it. “Sure, and ‘tis a fine day to make the acquaintance of such a fine lady,” he said.
Rory grinned at him. The boy looked up, winked and grinned back. He straightened and extended a small pudgy hand. “O’Neill it is,” he introduced himself. “Shannon O’Neill, at your service.”
Rory took the hand and smiled. “Rory McGuinness. ‘Tis good to meet ye, O’Neill.”
Next: Shannon O'Neill Leaves Home
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at http://authorchristophermoss.vlogspot.com