Óengus Óg (“Angus the Young”) was an Irish god of love and poetic inspiration. In my version of the tale, it was he who visited Cúchulainn on his sickbed to tell him that only Fand could cure his illness.
Óengus is said to have fallen in love with a mortal girl, Caer, whom he saw in a dream. He searched Ireland for three years, finally discovering that she was held with 149 other maidens at “the Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth.” The girls spent every other year as swans, and Óengus could marry Caer only if he could identify her in her swan form. Óengus transformed himself into a swan, found his love, and the two flew away, singing beautiful music that lulled their listeners to sleep for three days and nights.
Fand stood at the stone and watched as the thin, pale man made his way painfully down to the lakeside where she waited. The man’s friend, a handsome yellow-haired fellow, stopped at a distance and allowed him to continue alone. She hid herself from the other man’s sight, but to Cúchulainn she appeared as a queenly mortal woman, gowned in deep, rich red, against which her pearly skin shone brightly. Her hair was intricately dressed, so that some locks were braided and twisted into coils upon her head, while others tumbled down, almost as long as her robe.
“Man of Éire, you dealt me an evil blow that day, when you pierced my wing with your javelin,” she said as he reached her, leaning heavily upon his stick. He was so wizened and ill-looking that she almost lost her desire for him. But no; that could never be. All she had to do was remember his smile as he plucked holly spears effortlessly from the air, or the way the hero light shone about him when he performed his manly feats, and her heart melted all over again.
“Lady,” said Cúchulainn, “I dealt myself an evil blow that day, and I regret the pain I caused us both. Has your wound healed? A year has passed now.”
“Come closer,” she said. He hobbled a few steps nearer. She drew up her right sleeve and showed him the skin of her inner arm, glowing with nacreous colors, tiny sparks of the softest pink and blue and grey. A small circular scar was outlined in silver. He put out a fingertip and tentatively touched the spot. She shivered and closed her eyes as he bowed over her forearm, brushing his lips against her skin. As he raised his face again, she saw that his eyes were still many-colored, and his hair and brows and lashes still crow-black.
“Only a short time has passed where I live, Man of Éire. My arm has healed by the good offices of the healer Dian Cécht, but my heart was pierced forever the first moment I beheld you. I wish you to come to my land, and champion my sister’s husband Labraid Swifthand. And when that task is done, I wish to lie with you.”
“I am no fit champion, Lady. Where are your eyes?”
“Where are yours, mournful one? Come, drop your stick and lean on me.” She took his arm and led him to the water’s edge, where the lake had become as smooth as a mirror. “Look at yourself.”
As he gazed at his own reflection, his muscles grew firm and strong again. His cheeks filled out and regained their youthful charm and color. His spine straightened and he stood tall. He turned to her, and she rejoiced to see him restored to his full masculine beauty. “Is this deceit?” he asked.
“See for yourself. Run. Jump. Swim with me!” She drew off her outer robe and let it fall to the muddy cobble on the shore, wading into the water in her fine shift until it was soaked through and through. Then she turned and approached him again, rising from the water as he stared at the curves of her body, mesmerized.
“Samhain’s season makes for cold swimming,” he said, his eyes on her taut nipples.
“Not for the son of Lugh. Man, do you swim heavy and slow like the ox, or fast and sleek, like the eel?” As she spoke, she tore the shift off and let it float on the water’s surface, revealing the sheen of her pearly skin. At the same time, her hair fell loose and curled about her in the water. “Even if it be the eel, I wager he is too slow to catch me.”
Fand laughed, well pleased at the look on his face. Water-play had been her favorite amusement with the son of Lir, and it was such pleasure to sport again, with a partner as comely as this Man. She splashed him, and he grinned, throwing off his layers of sick man’s tunics. Quickly he waded in, then dove and made straight for her. Shrieking in delight, she set off in a series of long, smooth strokes and they swam, glorying in the strength of their bodies, until they reached the center of the lake.
Here he caught up with her and grasped her waist from behind, pressing his wand against her so she could feel his heat. “Ah, Man of Éire, you tempt me sorely,” she told him. “But first I must bring you to Labraid. How happy my sister Lí Ban will be to see you. Especially if you appear in this state,” she added, thinking of his naked, well-muscled body. “Yet I do not wish to share your beauty, even with my dearest Lí Ban. We will enter my house first, where you will be arrayed as befits a champion of the Sídhe.” With that, she took his hand and pulled him down, down to the center of the deep lake, where the spring head forcefully spewed out its chilly waters. She made a sign with her fingers, and the waters reversed course, quickly sucking them both into the black cavern on the lake floor.
Fand lay in her bower, waiting anxiously for news of Labraid and Cúchulainn. Before, Manannán son of Lir had been her whole care, but now, day and night, she thought of nothing but the Man of Éire. Especially during the night, when she lay alone in her great bed, she longed to look upon his face and count the colors in his eyes; to draw near enough to feel the abundant heat of his body; to listen to the low music of his voice. I wonder what he sounds like when he is angry? she thought idly. That voice I should like to hear. But what if Senach the Crooked deals him a terrible blow, and my mournful one dies? The thought inspired fear, a more terrible fear than she could ever remember feeling. I must be in love with this Man, as Óengus Óg loves the mortal girl Caer Ibormeith, whose flesh, he says, is as sweet as the yew berry. Yet the leaf and seed of the yew bring death. Death is native to the Man of Éire.
At last Lí Ban brought her news of the battle. “My husband has returned among his scores of companies,” she exulted, her eyes shining. “Labraid whose hand is quick to the sword, whose hair is gold, whose eyes are violet. In combat his valor shone bright as a star, and he is victorious!”
“That is well, Sister, but what of the champion?” asked Fand impatiently, rising and gripping Lí Ban’s hands.
Lí Ban smiled and chanted:
In his chariot he draws near,
The proud-spirited Hound of Éire,
His fury rose to the tops of trees,
His shout of victory shook the síd.
The champion returns to claim you!
“Oh!” exclaimed Fand, her heart fluttering madly. “I must be ready when he comes. I must have my finest gown! Where are my women? What about my hair?” She whirled about, unable to think clearly. He is coming!
“No time, Sister. He is right behind me,” answered Lí Ban, laughing at her distress. At that moment, Cúchulainn strode into the house, still wearing his gory battle gear, his sword at his thigh. His burning gaze fell upon Fand and they stared at each other, as Lí Ban crept away on soft feet.
“What news, Man of Éire?” she asked, feeling an unaccustomed shyness. It reminded her of that long-ago day when Manannán first took her to his bed, a trembling girl.
“Lady Fand,” he said formally. “Labraid’s host have won the battle. I warred against Senach the Crooked and I cast my spear into the camp of Eoghan of River’s Mouth. It was a camp of mist, and I knew not whether he was hit. A shining host pursued me in every direction, but my ríastrad came upon me, and I smote them in their hundreds. Then I heard a groan from the camp of mist, and the battle came to an end.”
“Warrior, none can match you, either for fierceness or for manly beauty. Come, I will bathe the gore from your body, and then we will dine together.” She took his hand, and led him to the freshwater pool in her house. This was the place where they had emerged, when they crossed from the lake floor at Muirthemne back into the síd. The pool was filled with spring water at a comfortable temperature for bathing, and in it grew white water lilies with gold stamens.
Fand removed the great golden knot of his brooch, and lifted the red cloak from his shoulders, then unbuckled his sword belt and laid it by the pool, as he stood passively, his blazing eyes caressing her body. He is holding himself back, she thought in delight. To him I am a dread lady of the Sídhe, even in my shift, straight from my sleeping bower, with loose hair. She knelt in front of him to unlace his boots, beautiful ones dyed crimson, with gold ties, the leather impressed with swirling leaves and vines. The crimson of the boots was spattered with bloodstains and black mud. Were it any other warrior, even her own husband, she would have clapped her hands and brought one of her fifty serving women to perform these humble services. But she wanted this Man all to herself. The thought of anyone else touching him was intolerable. On her knees before him, she looked up into his face and smiled.
He groaned, then slowly placed both hands on her shoulders and said, “Fand! Your beauty is as pure as a clear raindrop, a white pearl, a salty tear. How could I not desire you more than anything? But will I ever see the Plain of Muirthemne again?”
“If you wish, you may see it,” she replied, anxious at the thought of his going. “But do not leave me, glorious one. Rest and take your pleasure.”
At that, he tore off his tunic and tumbled her to the floor where it sloped gently into the pool. She opened her legs and arms to embrace him, thinking, Yes. The mortals possess the same graces, the same virtues, the same parts as our race. At least this Man does, but is he not a son of Lugh, my mournful Man of Éire? Then he joined himself to her in a furious kind of battle, where each of them struggled with great passion, and each finally surrendered to the other.
Later, as they were reclining on cushions beneath her vine-clad pergola, being served by her women, he said, “Fand, your way of life is strange to me. I thought Conchobar’s palace of the Red Branch the grandest place imaginable, but here you have pools of water within the house, and silver trees with tame singing birds in the branches, and fruit trees that bear fruit like no other, full of sweet running juices. Your jugs of mead never need refilling, and your wine is served in cups of crystal. Truly all this is a wonder to a man of Éire. But your own beauty is the most wondrous thing of all. Were you to appear on the field before Emain Macha, when the warriors are practicing their feats, you would deprive them all of their senses.”
“Then stay here with me,” she told him. “I would have you in my bed every night.”
He was thinking it over, she saw, draining his wine cup and allowing one of her women to fill it again. Finally his eyes sought hers and held them. “Could you give me a son?” he asked.
“I do not know,” she said truthfully. “The women of the Sídhe are not as fertile as your mortal women. I never took up the seed of Manannán son of Lir, the husband who left me alone here. But perhaps with you it would be different, my mournful one.”
As he considered this, she asked, “Why do you always seem sad? You are healed now, and your body is strong. You are a glorious victor.”
“Yes, I have won glory, as the prophecies foretold,” he replied. “And glory is what I wished for most of all in life. Yet the same seers assured me that I would never grow old. I love the light of the sun as much as the next man. I have no wish to die.” And he gazed upward at the blue sky, scanning in vain for the disk of the sun. In her land, the days were bright, but the light was not that of the sun, nor the glow in the evening that of the moon.
“Perhaps they meant that you would stay here with me, in the síd, and thus never grow old. Here we are not strangers to death. We can be killed, as you well know, but in the síd it does not happen in the natural course of things, as it does in your land.”
“I will stay,” he told her, and touched with his finger the silvery scar on the inner skin of her arm.
In the next days, Fand was happy. Cúchulainn amused himself with manly pursuits, hunting and weapon-feats, competing with the very lords of the Sídhe in both skill and beauty. Every evening he returned to her house, and they made love, yielding to their desire almost as soon as he walked in the door. Sometimes Fand called to him from the freshwater pool, where she was waiting, already naked among the lilies. But she never called to him from the salt pool.
“Why do you avoid that pool?” asked the Man one day, as she stood gazing moodily at its frothing surface. “Are you afraid that a lobster will creep up from the depths and apply his big claw to your tender rump?” He seized her suddenly and began to pinch her rear end, making her laugh and struggle in his arms. The embrace became a long kiss.
“The salt pool recalls to my mind Manannán, son of Lir,” she told him. “He left me alone, and never came back. But I am not sad, because you are far more beautiful than he.”
“Just as you are more beautiful than my wife Emer,” he replied. “Emer was my heart’s desire until I met you. As Tara is above every hill in Éire, so she is above every mortal woman.”
“But I am no mortal woman,” pointed out Fand.
“That, you are not,” he agreed, and carried her to the bed.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Cúchulainn’s situation reminds me of Odysseus on the island of Calypso, the nymph who wanted to keep him there as her husband. She offered him immortality, but he declined because he wanted to be Odysseus of Ithaca, husband of Penelope, not the nameless consort of a goddess.