How Cáer Came Into Being

by Patrick Cotter

This aeon of which we speak

littered newly with drumlins and moraines:

the after–gutturals of glacial dishevelment,

trees spread themselves over it

like filaments of mould over a fermenting apple:

this is the godly harvest that is Eriu.

But if you are a god, sconce minutely between the leaves,

revealed there running is Oisúra, a speck upon the earth.

Assured, a rarer gift of creation

is unknown for beauty, strength, speed.

Mortals and minor deities

fretted for never possessing her.

One such fool was Ethal Anbúail,

Who ravaged the hills and all its gifts

in frustrated pique.

More venison than they could eat,

more antlers than they could shape,

more hides than they could wear or trade:

stags by the legion were carved by Ethal’s hunt,

abandoned in chunks of quivering,

seeping marble to be snaffled by ravens;

gnawed by caries–ridden wolves,

as common carrion.

For what? For Ethal’s envy.

He wanted no stag to mate with Oisúra

who turned herself to a deer for every day

of every second year.

Oisúra had been orphaned centuries before,

within no man’s power to take or to give.

Her father she had gored in revenge

he who had begotten her,

he who had defiled her.

She dedicated herself to forest spirits,

swore never again,

would man or beast core her.

For eighty–nine years, between the quenching

of one star and the efflorescence of another,

Ethal Anbúail stalked her, slitting the throat

of any stag that staggered upon Cruachán,

before starting on fawns whose balls

were as green as August chestnuts.

The country was denuded of deer.

Neighbouring kings raged

at this despoilment.

They surrounded Ethal with swarms of spears.

No stings pricked Ethal’s Dún.

Winter with her acolytes, frost and snow

petrified the ground, disrobed the elm and the ash.

Still the besiegers sieged.

Until finally: parley.

"Why do you slaughter deer?

Leaving flesh and hides to rot?

Your neighbours cold, famished?"

Ethal answered with gormless honesty.

As sudden as a storm, the kings’ laughter

shook mountain snow as far away as Alba.

"Fool! Fool! Ethal the fool!" they chanted,

"Oisúra lies with nought, not with man,

not with spirit, not with plant, not with beast."

They told him of Manynyn, the druid from across the seas,

intimate in ways of deer and enchantments of forest spirits.

"Summon him. Speak to him and spare our deer."

The siege was lifted, the druid called.

One studied glance, was all he needed,

of Oisúra’s fleeting shape, to know Ethal Anbúail

would never rule this woman.

"Her magic is too strong.

For one hour I could suppress its vigilance

so you can lie with her as she sleeps,

but this task would drain me so I would

be lame and deaf and dumb and sightless

a decade afterwards."

Ethal paid the druid his own weight in silver and gold,

so he would cripple both Oisúra and himself.

Subdued by a sly, impregnating narcotic

lathered on an eaten thyme blossom,

drained of her potent wakefulness,

Oisúra slumbered vulnerable

while Ethal slimed his way into her,

loading her with his eager stream.

After Ethal was gone,

his body’s heat lifted from her like a sheet.

She awoke with a drug–induced notion she was refreshed,

as if she could leap into song with happiness.

She was ignorant of the dark truth of her defilement,

until . . .

after a turning of the moon

Oisúra was wakened by her blood’s

new music rumbling through Cáer’s

already branching veins.

Pride at her daughter’s stemming beauty,

Shame and rage at unchosen conceiving,

Oisúra withered away from the combining of it all.

At Cáer’s sunstruck birth,

she swore (less vainly now) as her essence

nutrified the absorbing earth:

"No man, never, without Cáer’s consent."

Ethal’s men stole the baby from the forest’s care.

There the story paused,

until another time,

upon Cáer’s first bleeding,

a feather entered Angus’s atrophying dream.