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from the June 2006 issue

The Madness of Suibhne

In the Annals of the Four Masters it is told how Suibhne, king of Kildare, had a taste for the things of this world. He was a simple man. His happiness and pleasures were simple. He was heavy and coarse, with unruly blond hair that resembled moss on a stone -- intellectually and spiritually he lacked finesse. He fought, he ate, he laughed, and in other respects resembled the brown ox from Cualngé, which mates with fifty heifers a day. Fin Barr, the abbot, closely watched this stubborn man and tried to remind him that the hereafter considers everything, even to the thickness of a hair. The thickness of a soul is worse. Fin Barr lived for nine years along the edge of a promontory and nine more years on the lake at Gougane Barra, with the seagulls and crows: he was nothing but spirit and hands of glass. For some reason he liked Suibhne, because Suibhne was like an ox or a rock that just might have a soul. And Suibhne liked Fin Barr, who made him experience, along with all the pleasures of this world, the joy of having a soul.

Fin Barr's brother was king of Lismore. In the month of May Suibhne took up arms against this neighboring king. The reason mattered little. What Suibhne wanted was the king's drinking cup, his fat oxen, and his women. He also wanted to stretch his legs and ride through the spring weather. He asked counsel of Fin Barr, who said: The kings fight among themselves, that is as it must be. Make war against the king of Lismore since he is king. But if you win, spare my brother, who is also your own, for aren't we like brothers, you and I? Suibhne was in a good mood and promised that it would be so.

It is a beautiful day when they leave. They carry studded shields and have polished scabbards. In the sunlight the army is a shining river. Their dogs chase butterflies, Suibhne sings at the top of his lungs; his horse is as wide as he and together they look like a hill with moss at the summit. Fin Barr is happy as well. Blood beats in his hands of glass. He tells himself that in joy and contentment, the king's dense soul is almost subtle, clear in any case; and at that very moment the king turns around, seeks him out with his eyes, finds him, and with his hand makes a gesture, a gesture of great refinement. Now, thinks Fin Barr, I'm going to save this one, and if I save him, the mountains will be saved as well.

Along the edge of the holm oak forests of Killarney, the king's men are deployed. It is dawn, the forest's soft breath. Suibhne sees below him, on the largest of the horses, among the handsomest warriors, with a crow's feather in his helmet, the king, his equal. Suibhne wears a white feather, but is otherwise similarly attired. He is glad to see that the two kings are handsome. A great silence reigns, a great anticipation, as day dawns above the dew in May. The first cuckoo can be heard. Then nothing, for Suibhne has raised his arm and his gesture has unleashed the thunder. Throughout the day, step by step, with joy, he approaches the black feather. At five o'clock their men are lying along the forest's edge and now they are face-to-face. They look at one another, laugh, catch their breath, shouting wildly. To Suibhne's warlike fury another is suddenly united. The king of the black feather is the portrait of his brother, thin and hard like him, but with hands of iron rather than fragile glass: and this, strangely, infuriates Suibhne. Before the other king, still laughing, has raised his shield, Suibhne runs his sword through his body. He finishes him with his ax.

Standing before the corpse, his drunkenness leaves him. Suibhne's soul returns.

The cuckoos call to one another through the forest.

In a clearing the king, unlaced, is seated on the moss, groggy. He keeps his head down. Lifting it, he sees Fin Barr before him. Suibhne looks at him like a guilty child. For a very long time Fin Barr says nothing; then he curses him. And says in the end: Your brothers will be the wolves in the deepest woods. You will have no more soul than they. Fin Barr turns on his heels, Suibhne follows him like a dog. In the camp he sits on the ground, his head lowered stubbornly, thinking.

That evening, the soldiers around the fire suddenly see the king rise and run into the woods like a wolf. He does not return.

Nine years pass. Fin Barr, abbot of Kildare, is looking for beams to fortify the abbey: in the oak woods of Killarney, he walks from trunk to trunk with his servants. They look around, they compare, they select. In the fork of an oak that is too knotty to be used for beams, Fin Barr sees, in the center of what he had first taken to be a clump of mistletoe, laughing eyes come alive and compose a face: a man stands up and raising his hand, makes a barely perceptible but refined gesture to the abbot. It is the king.

He jumps to the ground. He has a crow on his shoulder, which from time to time, when the king moves, flutters its wings a little, then, very seriously, smoothes its feathers. Suibhne kisses Fin Bar, laughs, caresses him -- but he is unable to answer his questions: He no longer has the use of speech. Yet he seems to talk with his crow, in a kind of jargon to which the other responds in the jargon of crows. And when this dialog ends, the king begins to sing softly, almost without stopping. He seems prodigiously happy and occupied with his happy labors. All day long he follows Fin Barr and his servants, behind them he too hops like a crow. When they stop, he goes in search of berries and cress, which he devours with the same avid joy he had once for the dishes of a king, and the crow eats from his mouth. The servants laugh. Fin Barr is moved, caresses this ball of mistletoe and black feathers that was once a king. He says to himself that the king has not changed at all. That evening, for a long time, he holds the king's large hand in his long hand, when he drops it Suibhne moves away, hopping toward the wood, as if he were about to fly. They will not see one another again until the bird of Death comes to visit them.

In the Annals of the Four Masters it is said that king Suibhne, through God's grace, became a bird; that his feathers were a gift of the angels, that he could catch a dove in flight and utter the divine word in the language of crows; that he was a saint and a madman, a creature of God. This was not exactly the opinion of Fin Barr, who returned to Kilmore in the melancholy evening, on a cart that groaned with the weight of logs, with his tired servants already asleep at the bottom of the cart. Fin Barr can only think. He is happy that Suibhne found as much joy in being a woodland tramp as he did in being a king, that his joy was invincible and multiple as that of God. But he cannot decide if this comes from the soul. A little woodcutter lying at the abbot's feet speaks in his sleep, painfully, as if he were suffering. He is grappling with his soul. Is it the soul that makes us whimper in the darkness, wondered Fin Barr? Or is it what makes us laugh and dance against all reason? My king, whom I cursed, passionately embraced the only joy within reach. Is that what it is to be a saint? Is that what it is to be an animal? Does this mean he was governed by a soul or subject to the needs of the body? God knows this, and the Four Masters, who have the ear of God.

Read more from the June 2006 issue
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