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In the Annals of the Four Masters we are told how Suibhne, king of Kildare, has a taste for the things of this world. He is a simple man. His joys and pleasures are simple. He is heavy and coarse, with ugly blonde hair on his head like moss on a stone; and he lacks refinement of mind or spirit. He wages war, eats, laughs, and in every other particular resembles the brown bull of Cooley, which mounts fifty heifers a day. The abbot Fin Barr follows this brute closely and attempts to remind him that Heaven reckons even the weight of a hair. The weight of the soul is far greater. Fin Barr has lived for nine years on the edge of a promontory and for another nine amid the gulls and crows by the lake at Gougane Barra: he is nothing but spirit, with hands as brittle as glass. Curiously, he loves Suibhne, because Suibhne is like a bull or a rock which might have a soul. And Suibhne loves Fin Barr, who makes him feel, on top of the pleasures of this world, the pleasure of having a soul.
[private]Fin Barr’s brother is the king of Lismore. In the month of May, Suibhne takes up arms against this neighbouring king. The pretext matters little: Suibhne wants the king’s drinking cup, his fat cattle and his women. He wants also to stretch his legs and ride out in the springtime. He has sought the counsel of Fin Barr, who told him: Kings fight amongst themselves – that is how it must be. Wage war on the king of Lismore, since he is a king. But if you are victorious, spare my brother – who is also yours, for are we not like brothers, you and me? Suibhne is in a good mood and has given his promise.
The weather is fine as they set out with their embossed shields and polished scabbards. The army in the sun is a glinting stream. The dogs of war chase butterflies and Suibhne sings at the top of his voice. His horse is mighty like him: together they resemble a hill with moss on its summit. Fin Barr, too, is happy. Blood pulses in his hands of glass. He tells himself that, in its jubilation and contentment, the coarse soul of the king is almost fine, clear in any case; and at that very instant the king turns around, seeks him out by sight, finds him, and makes a delicate gesture with his hand. So then, thinks Fin Barr, this one I will save – and if I save this one, even the mountains will be redeemed.
Before the oak woods of Killarney the king of Lismore’s men are assembled. At dawn the woods breathe sweetly. Suibhne, mounted on the greatest horse, among the handsomest warriors, sees his regal counterpart sporting a crow’s feather on his helmet. Suibhne himself wears a white feather but in other regards they are the same. He is glad that both kings are handsome. Thereupon falls a deep silence, heavy waiting, and break of day in the May-time dew. Men hear the first cuckoo. Then none can hear it, for Suibhne has raised his hand and with his gesture summoned thunder. All day long, step by step and joyfully, he closes in on the crow’s feather. At five o’clock, with their forces scattered among the purlieus, they stand face-to-face: they look at one another, laugh, and catch their breaths with a kind of roaring. All of a sudden, the straight warlike fury of Suibhne becomes another kind. The king with the black feather is like a portrait of his brother, thin and hard like him, but with hands of iron rather than fragile glass: and this, bizarrely, doubles Suibhne’s fury. Before his opponent, still laughing, can raise his shield, he runs him through with his sword. He finishes him off with an axe.
In front of the corpse his intoxication fades. Suibhne’s soul returns to him.
Across the forest, the cuckoos call each to each.
Undone, groggy, the king sits on the moss in a clearing. His head is bowed. He lifts it and Fin Barr is standing before him. Suibhne looks at him like a guilty child. For a very long time Fin Barr says nothing; then he speaks his curses. To finish, he says: You will have as brothers only the wolves in the depths of the forest. You have no more soul than they. Fin Barr turns on his heels, Suibhne follows like a dog. At the camp he sits on the ground, his head obstinately bowed, thinking.
In the evening, soldiers about their campfires see the king suddenly rise and flee into the forest like a wolf. He does not return.
Nine years pass. Fin Barr, Abbot of Kildare, is looking for beams to fortify his abbey: in the oak woods of Killarney, he walks from tree trunk to tree trunk with his vassals. They look upwards, make comparisons and choices. In the fork of an oak tree too knotty for purpose, Fin Barr sees, amidst what he took for a tuft of mistletoe, laughing eyes come to life and reveal a face: it is a man who raises his arm and offers the abbot a delicate gesture with his hand. It is the king.
He jumps to the ground. He has upon his shoulder a crow which from time to time, when the king moves, shakes out its wings and then very gravely preens its feathers. Suibhne embraces Fin Barr, he laughs, he caresses him – but he cannot answer his questions: he no longer has the true use of speech. Meantime he appears to speak with his crow, a sort of jargon to which it responds in the jargon of crows. And when this dialogue ceases, the king sings softly, almost without cease. He seems prodigiously happy and absorbed by his happy lot. All day long he follows Fin Barr and his vassals, behind them he too jumps like a crow. When they call a halt, he finds them berries and watercress which he devours with the same avid pleasure which he took in the delicacies of a king, and the crow eats from his mouth. The vassals are overjoyed. Fin Barr is moved, he strokes this bundle of mistletoe and black feathers that was a king. He tells himself that, all in all, his king has not changed in the least. That night for a long time he holds in his long hand the great hand, he lets it go and Suibhne departs hopping towards the wood, looking as if he might fly. They will not see one another again before on one and the other settles the bird of Death.
The Annals of the Four Masters tell that Suibhne, by the Grace of God, was transformed into a bird; that he owed his feathers to the angels, that he snatched the dove upon the wing and spoke the divine Word in the jargon of crows; that he was a saint and a madman, a thing of God. This is not entirely the opinion of Fin Barr, who returns melancholy to Kilmore in the evening, on a cart groaning beneath the weight of logs, with his vassals asleep already among the timbers. Fin Barr does not know what to think. He is happy that Suibhne should rejoice as much in the condition of forest tramp as that of a king, that his joy should be invincible and multiple as that of God. But he cannot decide if it comes from the soul. At the abbot’s feet a diminutive woodcutter talks in his sleep, pained, as though struggling. He is racked by his soul. Fin Barr wonders: is the soul that which makes us whimper in the dark? Or else could it be that which makes us laugh and dance in spite of everything? My king whom I cursed has passionately embraced the only joy available to him. Is that what it is to be a saint? Or is it to be a beast? Is it to be racked by one’s soul, or in thrall to the body? God only knows, and the Four Masters, who have the ear of God.[/private]
The Lightness of Suibhne (pronounced ‘Sweeney’) is taken from Mythologies d’hiver by Pierre Michon, published by Éditions Verdier (1997).
Pierre Michon was born in Central France in 1945. He has published ten works of fiction, which have earned him a reputation as one of the finest writers of his generation. His work is starting to appear in translation in English, chiefly in the United States.
Gregory Norminton is a novelist and short story writer. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. His translations include Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, published by Oneworld Classics.