The Water Horse
At first it was only in her dreams
That he came and lay with her.
On the day
She was supposed to be minding the cows
In Sheep Cove (she was reading Dickens,
The Old Curiosity Shop,
And cows were the last thing on her mind)
She saw the porpoises flocking out in the bay
Her heart almost stopped.
She thought they were her cows, all of them
Fallen at once from the cliff to the water.
She thought she’d get a hammering at home
And she had jumped up in her agitation
Before she saw what the bodies were.
That was the first time he appeared to her there.
And after that
he came to her again and again.
At first his clothing seemed strange to her:
The breastplate, the fishbone greaves and the casque,
The long gloves made from the skins of eels.
His whole style recalling
The subhuman creatures from B movies:
The Creature from Sheep Cove, or an Irish cousin of King Kong.
But when he took the helmet from his head
And his fine horse’s mane loosened on his shoulders
She saw clearly that he was a young man.
Then came the day
He laid his head on her breast.
The sea-creatures were hooting below them on the water
And the porpoises in shining troops around them.
(Later in the evening
They were seen by people out after the cows on the mountain.)
And in a foreign tongue she understood
Though she could not properly make out the words,
He asked her to comb his hair
And crush with her long nails
The creatures that were pestering his head.
She did what he asked.
She was humming softly under her breath
Soothing him, when she got the fright
That stopped her heart again: seaweed and rook dilisk
Were growing among the roots of his hair.
She guessed at once what was going on
And that it was bad news. Then
When she felt the tips of his ears she knew
That not only Labhraidh Loirc in the old story
Had ears like a horse’s ears.
Yet although the cold sweat was running down her skin
She gave herself a pinch in the thigh
Or two or three, and said nothing.
She went on combing his hair the whole time
Humming and murmuring
Lullabies and scraps of songs
To soothe him and beguile him into sleep
And then when she heard his breathing
Changing to the sighs ofa sleeper
She undid the strings of her apron
Gently ad quickly
And she ran for it.
She made it up the cliffs in a flash
To the house of her people. At first,
All they could get from her was a streel of nonsense
Aout seaweed and roots and horse’s ears. At length,
When her people at home had laboured to make out
The meaning of what she was saying, they knew at once
Right on the spot that it was the water-horse.
They rose up and put on their clothes,
Their battle gear and took their weapons,
And out they went as an armed patrol
To find and kill him.
Afterwards they all said she was lucky.
She was, and it was a near thing: one slip,
One step awry and he’d have swallowed her,
Right down, live and kicking, blood and bones.
Three days after the event
They might have found her liver, a couple of lungs and kidneys
Picked up around the high tide mark.
That was the sort of beast he was.
It was true for them, she knew it.
And yet she felt the story of that day
Lie heavy on her.
She’d sit there on the cliff edge
Day after day.
And she thought about the green gleam
In the strange eyes that had looked at her with desire,
That was as simple, clean, clear
In its own way as a hearty hunger:
The rhythmic shining of his brown limbs
And how they narrowed to slim wrists
And the shape of the hands.
More than all else she remembered the muscular
Weave of his body that was tense
And light as a tightened bow. The spring
Wound up, alert, constantly
Ready to be released again.
by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
Translated by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is one of the Irish poets I encountered during my time at Boston College, one of several who write in Irish instead of English who gave readings for us. My knowledge of Irish is limited and never got good enough to read her in the original; but I very much appreciated hearing her read her work and I’ve always very much enjoyed reading her in translation. I hope some day I may get a chance to learn more Irish so as to be able to more fully appreciate her work and that of other Irish poets and writers I admire.
This poem, The Water Horse, An tEach Uisce, is typical of her work, a contemporary retelling of an Irish folktale. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill uses modern language and imagery, her Irish is a living language, a late 20th century language, not an archaic relic of the past. (Which I suppose makes the painting I chose a little inappropriate, but I like it, so there.) I find it interesting that Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill only writes poetry in Irish and not in English. It was in fact, keeping diaries in Irish as a sort of unbreakable code, that first led her to thinking of herself as a writer.
The painting is by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), a Norwegian historical painter, who specialized in painting motifs from Norwegian history and images from Norse mythology.