Kenach's Little Woman
A s the holy season of Lent drew nigh, the Abbot Kenach felt a longing such as a bird of passage feels in the south when the first little silvery buds on the willow begin here to break their ruddy sheaths, and the bird thinks to-morrow it will be time to fly over-seas to the land where it builds its nest in pleasant croft or under the shelter of homely eaves. And Kenach said, "Levabo oculos—I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help;" for every year it was his custom to leave his abbey and fare through the woods to the hermitage on the mountain-side, so that he might spend the forty days of fasting and prayer in the heart of solitude.
Now on the day which is called the Wednesday of Ashes he set out, but first he heard the mass of remembrance and led his monks to the altar steps, and knelt there in great humility to let the priest sign his forehead with a cross of ashes. And on the forehead of each of the monks the ashes were smeared in the form of a cross, and each time the priest made the sign he repeated the words, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."
So with the ashes still on his brow and with the remembrance of the end of earthly days in his soul, he bent his steps towards the hermitage; and as he was now an aged man and nowise strong, Diarmait, one of the younger brethren, accompanied him in case any mischance should befall.
They passed through the cold forest, where green there was none, unless it were the patches of moss and the lichens on the rugged tree-trunks and tufts of last year's grass, but here and there the white blossoms of the snowdrops peered out. The dead grey leaves and dry twigs crackled and snapped under their feet with such a noise as a wood fire makes when it is newly lighted; and that was all the warmth they had on their wayfaring.
The short February day was closing in as they climbed among the boulders and withered bracken on the mountain-side, and at last reached the entrance of a cavern hollowed in the rock and fringed with ivy. This was the hermitage. The Abbot hung his bell on a thick ivy-bough in the mouth of the cave; and they knelt and recited vespers and compline; and thrice the Abbot struck the bell to scare away the evil spirits of the night; and they entered and lay down to rest.
Hard was the way of their sleeping; for they lay not on wool or on down, neither on heather or bracken, nor yet on dry leaves, but their sides came against the cold stone, and under the head of each there was a stone for pillow. But being weary with the long journey they slept sound, and felt nothing of the icy mouth of the wind blowing down the mountain-side.
Within an hour of daybreak, when the moon was set- ting, they were awakened by the wonderful singing of a bird, and they rose for matins and strove not to listen, but so strangely sweet was the sound in the keen moonlight morning that they could not forbear. The moon set, and still in the dark sang the bird, and the grey light came, and the bird ceased; and when it was white day they saw that all the ground and every stalk of bracken was hoary with frost, and every ivy-leaf was crusted white round the edge, but within the edge it was all glossy green.
"What bird is this that sings so sweet before day in the bitter cold?" said the Abbot. "Surely no bird at all, but an Angel from heaven waking us from the death of sleep."
"It is the blackbird, Domine Abbas," said the young monk; "often they sing thus in February, however cold it may be."
"O soul, O Diarmait, is it not wonderful that the senseless small creatures should praise God so sweetly in the dark, and in the light before the dark, while we are fain to lie warm and forget His praise?" And afterwards he said, "Gladly could I have listened to that singing, even till to-morrow was a day; and yet it was but the singing of a little earth wrapped in a handful of feathers. O soul, tell me what it must be to listen to the singing of an Angel, a portion of heaven wrapped in the glory of God's love!"
Of the forty days thirty went by, and oftentimes now, when no wind blew, it was bright and delightsome among the rocks, for the sun was gaining strength, and the days were growing longer, and the brown trees were being speckled with numberless tiny buds of white and pale green, and wild flowers were springing between the boulders and through the mountain turf.
Hard by the cave there was a low wall of rock covered with ivy, and as Diarmait chanced to walk near it, a brown bird darted out from among the leaves. The young monk looked at the place from which it had flown, and behold! among the leaves and the hairy sinews of the ivy there was a nest lined with grass, and in the nest there were three eggs—pale-green with reddish spots. And Diarmait knew the bird and knew the eggs, and he told the Abbot, who came noiselessly, and looked with a great love at the open house and the three eggs of the mother blackbird.
"Let us not walk too near, my son," he said, "lest we scare the mother from her brood, and so silence beforehand some of the music of the cold hours before the day." And he lifted his hand and blessed the nest and the bird, saying, "And He shall bless thy bread and thy water." After that it was very seldom they went near the ivy.
Now after days of clear and benign weather a shrill wind broke out from beneath the North Star, and brought with it snow and sleet and piercing cold. And the woods howled for distress of the storm, and the grey stones of the mountain chattered with discomfort. Harsh cold and sleeplessness were their lot in the cave, and as he shivered, the Abbot bethought him of the blackbird in her nest, and of the wet flakes driving in between the leaves of the ivy and stinging her brown wings and patient bosom. And lifting his head from his pillow of stone he prayed the Lord of the elements to have the bird in His gentle care, saying, "How excellent is Thy loving-kindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Thy wings."
Then after a little while he said, "Look out into the night, O son, and tell me if yet the storm be abated."
And Diarmait, shuddering, went to the mouth of the cavern, and stood there gazing and calling in a low voice, "Domine Abbas! My Lord Abbot! My Lord Abbot!"
Kenach rose quickly and went to him, and as they looked out the sleet beat on their faces, but in the midst of the storm there was a space of light, as though it were moonshine, and the light streamed from an Angel, who stood near the wall of rock with outspread wings, and sheltered the blackbird's nest from the wintry blast.
And the monks gazed at the shining loveliness of the Angel, till the wind fell and the snow ceased and the light faded away and the sharp stars came out and the night was still.
Now at sundown of the day that followed, when the Abbot was in the cave, the young monk, standing among the rocks, saw approaching a woman who carried a child in her arms; and crossing himself he cried aloud to her, "Come not any nearer; turn thy face to the forest, and go down."
"Nay," replied the woman, "for we seek shelter for the night, and food and the solace of fire for the little one."
"Go down, go down," cried Diarmait; "no woman may come to this hermitage."
"How canst thou say that, O monk?" said the woman. "Was the Lord Christ any worse than thou? Christ came to redeem woman no less than to redeem man. Not less did He suffer for the sake of woman than for the sake of man. Women gave service and tendance to Him and His Apostles. A woman it was who bore Him, else had men been left forlorn. It was a man who betrayed Him with a kiss; a woman it was who washed His feet with tears. It was a man who smote Him with a reed, but a woman who broke the alabaster box of precious ointment. It was a man who thrice denied Him; a woman stood by His cross. It was a woman to whom He first spoke on Easter morn, but a man thrust his hand into His side and put his finger in the prints of the nails before he would believe. And not less than men do women enter the heavenly kingdom. Why then shouldst thou drive my little child and me from thy hermitage?"
Then Kenach, who had heard all that was said, came forth from the cave, and blessed the woman. "Well hast thou spoken, O daughter; come, and bring the small child with thee." And, turning to the young monk, he said, "O soul, O son, O Diarmait, did not God send His Angel out of high heaven to shelter the mother bird? And was not that, too, a little woman in feathers? But now hasten, and gather wood and leaves, and strike fire from the flint, and make a hearth before the cave, that the woman may rest and the boy have the comfort of the bright flame."
This was soon done, and by the fire sat the woman eating a little barley bread; but the child, who had no will to eat, came round to the old man, and held out two soft hands to him. And the Abbot caught him up from the ground to his breast, and kissed his golden head, saying, "God bless thee, sweet little son, and give thee a good life and a happy, and strength of thy small body, and, if it be His holy will, length of glad days; and ever mayest thou be a gladness and deep joy to thy mother."
Then, seeing that the woman was strangely clad in an outland garb of red and blue, and that she was tall, with a golden-hued skin and olive eyes, arched eyebrows very black, aquiline nose, and a rosy mouth, he said, "Surely, O daughter, thou art not of this land of Erinn in the sea, but art come out of the great world beyond?"
"Indeed, then, we have travelled far," replied the woman; "as thou sayest, out of the great world beyond. And now the twilight deepens upon us."
"Thou shalt sleep safe in the cave, O daughter, but we will rest here by the embers. My cloak of goats' hair shalt thou have, and such dry bracken and soft bushes as may be found."
"There is no need," said the woman, "mere shelter is enough;" and she added in a low voice, "Often has my little son had no bed wherein he might lie."
Then she stretched out her arms to the boy, and once more the little one kissed the Abbot, and as he passed by Diarmait he put the palms of his hands against the face of the young monk, and said laughingly, "I do not think thou hadst any ill-will to us, though thou wert rough and didst threaten to drive us away into the woods."
And the woman lifted the boy on her arm, and rose and went towards the cavern; and when she was in the shadow of the rocks she turned towards the monks beside the fire, and said, "My son bids me thank you."
They looked up, and what was their astonishment to see a heavenly glory shining about the woman and her child in the gloom of the cave. And in his left hand the child carried a little golden image of the world, and round his head was a starry radiance, and his right hand was raised in blessing.
For such a while as it takes the shadow of a cloud to run across a rippling field of corn, for so long the vision remained; and then it melted into the darkness, even as a rainbow melts away into the rain.
On his face fell the Abbot, weeping for joy beyond words; but Diarmait was seized with fear and trembling till he remembered the way in which the child had pressed warm palms against his face and forgiven him.
The story of these things was whispered abroad, and ever since, in that part of Erinn in the sea, the mother blackbird is called Kenach's Little Woman.
And as for the stone on which the fire was lighted in front of the cave, rain rises quickly from it in mist and leaves it dry, and snow may not lie upon it, and even in the dead of winter it is warm to touch. And to this day it is called the Stone of Holy Companionship.