“The Dancing Man was named thus because his given name was long lost to history. Niahm, queen of the sidhe, fairy people of Old Ireland had once been charmed by his dancing and taken him away with her to Tir Na Nog, the kingdom of eternal youth. . Before that day, he was a man, most likely from one of the eastern clans of Ireland. The story is lesser known because it takes place chronologically after the Fenian cycle and after the death of Ossin, the last of the sons of Fionn McCumhaill, and at the rise of Christianity in Ireland. A time when the old myths were revised so that great warriors, including Caolite, friend of Oissin, readily converted to Christianity. In this shift of epoch, many true Irish tales were truly lost.”
—from Lesser Known Irish Myths, by Bernadette Barthes, published 1920
449, Ros Comáin, Ireland
A young warrior rides upon a band of men trying to move a large stone. He asks them where his father Fionn mac Cumhaill is—and his band of fianna. The men answer that the great warriors of old are all 300 years dead. One stout man with golden hair says his family name is mac Cumhaill. But they are no longer fianna.
The visitor shakes his head as some terrible realization passes over him, but he leans over to help the company lift the stone. As he heaves, his golden saddle splits and he tumbles to the ground. When his foot touches the earth, his grand muscles deflate and whither, his orange main grows grey, then white and his skin shrivels and cracks until the dust sifts over his beard. His white steed whinnies and vanishes as if it had never stood there upon the grove of earth.
Mac Cumhaill takes the old man to the Corcoghlan to see St. Patrick, who the noble Druid Ono has dubbed a holy man. The stranger identifies himself to Patrick as Oisin, the last of the fianna. He tells his tail.
The fairy queen Niamh had ridden from over the sea to make him her husband. Together they returned to Tir Na Nog on the back of her white steed Embarr. It had seemed but a handful of years in a land of eternal youth and unquenchable delight, yet when he returned to visit his father and beloved band of warrior brothers, three centuries had passed and all were long dead.
St. Patrick sees Oisin will soon die and asks him to tell the stories of the old battles and fairy queens and gods and goddesses and grand stories that had unfolded here on earth and in other realms. And Oisin does so before fading to dust. His remains are taken to the north and buried in the beautiful Glens of Antrim. This is the story that is known.
The story is not known is what came after. Twenty miles away from Corcoghlan in a hill fort near the river Suca, a poet tells of the aos sí, the faery folk. It is the first night of Samain, a celebration to welcome the darkening half of the year. He says: “Behold our feast of mead and pheasant, bacon, beef, and fruit. And the great fire from which we each will bring a light to our hearths. But beware you dancers who leave the firelight. Tonight the thin places are stretched even thinner.”
They are the last surviving clann of the mythic Tuatha Dé Danann, the people of the goddess Danu. Two generations before, the Ui Maine won the territory of Connacht, previously held by smaller tribes for a thousand years. The Ui Maine pray to the Christian God, baptize children, and force tribute from the smaller tribes. This does not stop the Dál nDruithne from celebrating Samain.
A certain young woman, a namesake of the goddess Danu, watches the men in their masks and animal skins. One of them is dark-eyed and tall. He has a young man’s arms thighs and, to hear him talk, Cú Chulainn’s defiance of death.
As the sun sets, the frenzy of drink and dance exalts and steals him from his companions. Danu is pleased to see his feet kick up so high off the earth. He moves in a frenzy that undoes her heart. She decides that tonight, when her mother’s brother sleeps, they will disappear into the dark, as she had seen others do before. The twilight has deepened to the first dark tones of night. She watches until the chieftain is lolling and laughing by the fire.
Danu places her hand in the warrior’s. He follows her without word away from the fire. They pass farmsteads and sunken lanes, long grasses and cow pastures, her cloak fluttering in the wind over her long skirts.
When they pass the ford of the river where the water is low enough to cross, he stops. In the dark of night, an old woman crouches. Her hair is a mist, her garments are black water. She sinks her arms into the Suca and holds up a bloody léine. She looks up at Danu with terrible eyes.
The dancer grabs Danu’s hand and pulls her away over the moor grass until they reach a circle of purple trees that dome a nemeton: a sacred space of the Druids. She sighs in relief and sings for him the song of Cú Chulainn meeting the Morrigan.
He picks her up. They gallop as she sings, her voice like a banshee cry over the nemeton. His legs churn until they peddle right off the ground. Her small hands begin to slip out of his. He encircles her waist and pulls her up to him with a violent force. She stops singing. She is heavier, but he is lighter, so he winds her pretty body over the field stones, spinning amid the tree tops.
He looks upon her face but now her black eyes stare past him and roll. Her jaw drops and the tip of her tongue falls out. For one moment he is confused then slows his dance. He returns her to the ground, lays her on the moss, and lifts the hem of her léine to reach into the softness above her knees.
Tiny needles of cold sting his naked back. Rain. His head tilts up. In the sky to the north, rain that should be falling is swirling back up and breaking on a night cloud like waves on sea crags.
Stepping out of that violet burst is a horse’s left hoof. A gleaming white right flank follows. A white snout dips into existence followed by flaring nostrils and roiling eyes.
Everything in the dancer’s immoral, fantastical, superstitious heart burns with recognition. This is the Sluagh Sidhe, the dead who ride.
The horse arcs low into the field, carrying a pale woman. She rides alone, unaccompanied by the charging hoards of the legends. Her yellow hair flies back like lightning and her lovely faces flashes with a terrible defiance. With one long movement, she lifts the dancer from the cold ground and into the colder sky.
He dares not touch her body, so he grasps the saddle, upon which he notices a torn strap repaired with a golden thread. As they lurch from cantor to gallop, his face as thrust into her hair. It smells of tears and seawater.
When images appear again, they are not of the green land of Ros Comáin, but a gray mist through which strange creatures ride and disappear again. A golden-haired girl on horse back carries a golden apple, while a man in a purple cloak chases her with a mighty sword.
“Pay no attention to the shades.” The rider’s voice holds the melancholy of all mortal things. It is not her melancholy, but the melancholy of the earth she has not yet shaken off.
More strange animals pass in vague forms through the fog and the horse speeds on. In this place her hair smells of nothing, neither sweet nor sour; aromatic nor pungent. It is a place of things that linger but never appear.
Finally, the steed slows its gallop and the mists dissolves upon the forms of life again. It is her world, he can feel it in the whinny of her horse. Here she smells of rainwater and the perfume of distant blooms. When they land, it is in a garden of purple flowers shaped like the fingers of a glove. He descends from the steed quickly, fearful she has brought him here for punishment. Looming above him is a face unlike any he has seen: as large as the moon, and cut in high ridges, sculpted against skin the color of the moon on water. Its eyes are framed with sleepy lashes and centered with pools of empty light.
“I am Niamh, Queen of the Sidhe,” she says and shows her teeth. Her voice is light on water, as ancient and empty as her eyes. There is sadness and disgust in her face. She turns away and leaves him in the garden where he will dwell, his reward given for entertaining her in those first moments after finding her beloved had returned to from Faerie and turned to ash upon touching the earth.
“But what will I do here?” the wolf asked.
“Dance,” answered the Niamh. “For the rest of eternity.”
Nina Alvarez’s short stories have been published in 21 Stars Review, Twisted Tongue, Dark Reveries, and Swill. Her poetry has been published in Electric Velocipede, Grasslimb Literary Journal and Contemporary Rhyme. In May 2011, Nina was a writing resident at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont.