The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said  by Padraic Colum


The Sea-Maiden Who Became a Sea-Swan

Part 1 of 2


T HE Sea-Swan told the story to the pigeons of the rock, and the Boy Who Knew What the Birds said heard every word of it. I was once a Sea-Maiden, she said., and my name was Eevil, and I was known through all the Kingdoms that are Under-Wave for my beautiful hair—my long, beautiful, green hair. Something was in me that made me want to dance, and I used to rise up through the water, and dance on the shore of the island that is called Hathony.

Mananaun, as you, creatures, know, is Lord of the Sea, and what he commands in the Kingdoms-Under-Wave has to be. Now Mananaun made a Promise to a King of an Earth-Kingdom, and the promise was that be would give this King whatever he asked for. The King died according to the ways of men, and his son, whose name was Branduv, came to rule him.

Branduv called Mananaun out of the sea, and he asked that he renew the promise he had made to his father. The Lord of the Sea did not want a promise to lapse because of the death of a man, and he renewed it to the man's son. Then Mananaun told him he would take him and show him the Kingdoms of the Sea and whatever he saw that he desired there would be given to him. He took him in his boat of glass "The Ocean Sweeper" to visit the Kingdoms of the Sea.

They came to Moy Mell, the Plain of Pleasure, and there Mananaun gave Branduv a branch of everlasting blossoms; they came to another Kingdom and there Mananaun gave him a sword that was the best wrought in the world; they came to a third Kingdom and there Mananaun gave him a pair of hounds that could run down the silver-antlered stag. But as yet Branduv the King had asked no gift from Mananaun.

They came to Mananaun's own Kingdom, Silver-Cloud Plain, and there Branduv was left alone while Mananaun drank the Ale of the Ever-Living Ones. The King saw from the shores of Silver-Cloud Plain "The Ocean Sweeper," and he directed that the boat bring him to the island. And the boat travelled as the one in it wished.

Only one thing had ever made me fearful of dancing on the shore of the Island of Hathony—that was the presence there of a pair of Ravens. These Ravens had once been Sea-maidens, but they had desired men for husbands, and they had gone to them. The men forsook them, and they had become first Witches and afterwards Ravens. Ever since their change they wished harm to the Maidens of the Sea. I had been frightened of them, but now I had seen them flapping about so often that I was no longer or I was only a little, afraid.

I came up through the sea and I danced upon the shore of the island, and the play of the waves was in my dance, and my long soft green hair fell over my foam-white, foam soft body. I danced on, O my listeners, and as no one had ever seen me looked upon, I thought no one looked upon me now.

But this King of the earthly Kingdom saw me. He saw me as I danced by the waves, and I was the fairest thing he had ever looked upon. At first he was all wonder and no robber's thoughts were in his mind. But the Ravens came to him. One perched on one shoulder and one perched on the other, and one said "If you carry Eevil off you will have the fairest wife in all the world," and the other said " If you leave her here you will never look on anything as fair again."

The Ravens flapped before him to guide him to a place in the dark rocks where he might hide and to which I might come. He followed where they led. But I saw his shadow on a rock. I drew back and the sea took me and drew me into its depths. "The sea has taken her," said Branduv to the Ravens.

"Mananaun is Lord of the Sea," said one of the Ravens.

"And Mananaun has promised you a gift, and he cannot refuse what you will ask," said the other Raven.

Then the Ravens flapped away and Mananaun came to where the King was standing. "You have asked me for a gift," said Mananaun, "think now of what you desire before I take you back to your own island." Then said Branduv, "What I ask is that you bestow upon me the Sea-maiden who was dancing here, Eevil."

Mananaun in anger lifted his spear. But then he remembered he was bound by a promise to Branduv. He lowered the spear he had raised. "I will give you any other gift you ask," said he, "even my own boat " 'The Ocean Sweeper.' "

"I hold you to your promise," said Branduv, "and I declare to you that I shall take no other gift unless it be the maiden who was here dancing by the sea."

"It must be then that I give her you," said Mananaun, and his face was dark.