And so they continued across the Meadow of Brightness with Fedelma’s arms wrapped tightly around the waist of the King of Ireland’s Son. The Slight Red Steed bore them steadily and true, while Fedelma’s loyal, blue falcon circled high above the happy couple.
‘This most pleasant of journeys has been made pleasanter still by your stories. Would you tell me another?’ bade Fedelma.
‘To the truth of this tale I cannot speak,’ said the King of Ireland’s Son. It was told to me by the Son of a Druid who taught himself the languages of the birds, beasts and fishes. He got it from the mouth of the Sly Old Fox of Killinsbrook, who himself heard it from the Ancient Salmon of Durleybally.’
‘Then let me hear it,’ said Fedelma, while the wind blew streams of fragrant white petals through her hair and the Slight Red Steed rode on over the Meadow of Brightness.
‘It is called The Tale of the Salmon and the Impatient Farmer’s Son. As it was told to me by the Son of the Druid, so I tell it to you now.’
‘There lived in the western counties of our great land a wise, old salmon. It is known across all-Ireland that these noble creatures are in possession of a great deal of the ancient magic that has been with us since the days of the Fianna. And such is especially the case in the Irish-tongued part of the land. Now this salmon – his name was Ool-na-liin, which translates from the language of the fishes as Slippery-in-the-hand – had learned the language of the farmers who worked the land beside the waters in which he swam.
‘One day Slippery-in-the-hand encountered a forlorn looking farmhand wandering alongside the river bank; his name was Conall and he was the son of a local farmer. “What ails you youth?” called Slippery-in-the-hand in his silvery, fishy voice from the depths of the river. At first the farmer’s son was alarmed by the talking salmon, but he soon became used to the manner of Slippery-in-the-hand. The people in that region at that time were used to enchanted ways because such things were far more common then than they are now.
‘ “I am lovesick at heart,” replied Conall, beating his chest so as to show the talking salmon the pain in his breast. “I love a maiden named Serafina. I would take her for my wife tomorrow, but her father wishes to send her away for three years. Serafina has no mother, and her father will send her to the northern parts so that she can learn the ways of a wife from her aunt. Three years is such a long time and I fear that my heart will not withstand the wait.”
‘Slippery-in-the-hand replied to the youth with great wisdom. “To a young man three years seems like an eternity,” said the salmon, “but mark my words that if you wait with patience and fortitude the years will not seem so long. Labour hard on your father’s farm and build a small cottage for yourself and Serafina. When she returns and sees that you have toiled hard with a patient heart she will be all the more happy to take you as her husband.”
‘Conall heeded the words of the salmon and began to think that three years might not be such a long time if he would use the days to build a cosy home for himself and his beloved. The farmhand had often-times provoked angry words from his father owing to his indolent manner, and this would be the opportunity to show the old man what he was worth.
‘The talking fish made to depart. “I myself have a long journey to make,” intoned Slippery-in-the-hand. “Each year us salmon must return to the place of our birth in order to reunite with our wives and offspring. They wait patiently for us for many months on end, so it is vital that I make the journey swiftly and safely.”
‘ “Fare thee well, wise one,” cried the farmer’s son, as the salmon turned on its tail and departed.
‘ “And good luck to you, young man,” said the salmon.’
‘It is a terrible thing to wait so long for your love,’ said Fedelma. ‘After all our trials, I do not know that my heart could bear it.’
‘It is a terrible thing indeed,’ said the King of Ireland’s Son. ‘Now I must go on with my tale.’
‘A year to the day of his previous meeting with Conall the farmhand, Slippery-in-the-hand found himself in the same stretch of water where their previous conversation had taken place. In his swim around the rivers of Ireland, the salmon would always follow the same course, so it was not so much of a coincidence that he would arrive in the same place at the same time. He caught sight of the farmhand pushing a barrow of peat by the water’s edge.
‘ “Hail to thee Conall, The Farmer’s Son!” called Slippery-in-the-hand. The farmhand was tired and dirty but he was pleased to be reunited with his old, fishy counsellor. “How fare thee in your task of building a home for yourself and Serafina?”
‘ “I am tired and my bones ache,” the farmhand replied. “My father makes me work hard in exchange for the plot of land on which I am to build a cottage for myself and my love.”
‘ “Your toil will be worthwhile when your home is ready for your wife and the children you will have together,” said Slippery-in-the-hand.
‘ “It will indeed,” said Conall.
‘ “I am well-pleased with your efforts,” said Slippery-in-the-hand. “You might know that the salmon in this part of the land are in possession of a special kind of magic. I will cast an enchantment for you now so that the cottage you are building will be done in a half of a half of the time that it would take an army of strong men to complete such a feat.” With a flick of his tail, the salmon turned about and headed back towards the land of his birth to reunite with his wife and children.
‘The farmhand was well-pleased when he returned to his plot of land. The cottage – which heretofore was but a rugged, timber frame – was almost complete and would soon be ready for Conall and Serafina.’
‘I am relieved to hear that he waited so well,’ said Fedelma to the King of Ireland’s Son as they continued to make their journey across the Meadow of Brightness.
‘With all my heart I am glad to make you glad,’ replied the King of Ireland’s Son. ‘Now you must hear the remainder of my tale.’
‘On precisely the second anniversary of that fateful meeting with Conall the farmer’s son, Slippery-in-the-hand returned to those waters in that particular part of Ireland in order to meet with the farmhand again. He had decided to make it his regular stopping place on his journey back to his wife and children. When the salmon caught sight of the farmer’s son, he saw that the young man looked sorrowful and down at heel.
‘ “Did the cottage not spring to life as I said it would?” asked the wise, old salmon.
‘ “It did indeed,” replied the farmer’s son.
‘ “And are you not labouring hard so as to earn a good living for yourself and Serafina when she returns from her time with her aunt and becomes your wife?”
‘ “I am,” Conall replied.
‘ “Then why do you look so gloomy?” asked Slippery-in-the-hand, wise, old creature that he was.
‘ “My heart is impatient,” replied the youth. “I have a plot of land and a cosy cottage, but no wife and children to fill it with. My father works me hard and my bones ache. All of the young men in the village have taken wives and there is a marriage feast on every holiday. Through all of this I am left alone, waiting for the return of Serafina.”
‘ “Patience can be a hard virtue to cultivate,” said the salmon. “Come down to the water and take a drink. I have enchanted the water with a special spell that will strengthen your resolve until we meet again.”
‘The youth drank from the river and suddenly felt satisfied and full at heart. Slippery-in-the-hand set off, yet again, on his voyage home.’
‘Patience is a virtue that I cultivated through all my years with my father and through all of your trials,’ said Fedelma to the King of Ireland’s Son. 'When I learnt of my father's final, vile task for you, it broke my maiden heart into a thousand pieces. But I bore it just the same.'
‘And all that without the assistance of the ancient salmon,’ said the King of Ireland’s son, smiling at his beloved. ‘Now your must hear the end of my tale.’
‘On the third anniversary of that fateful meaning, Slippery-in-the-hand – the wise, old Salmon of the west – came swimming towards that particular part of the country again. Along the way he spotted a handsome young couple on the river bank, both fair-headed, strongly built and merry. The sight gladdened the salmon’s old heart, until he heard the husband call out to his wife: “Serafina, we must head back home now! With a child inside your belly it is best that you rest some by the fireplace.”
‘Slippery-in-the-hand knew then that Conall the farmhand had broken his vow.
‘When the salmon reached their usual meeting place, the youth was already seated on a rock beside the water, dipping his toes into the gently flowing river.
‘ “I have much to tell you,” cried Conall in despair, “and I beg for your magical assistance one last time, O great salmon!”
‘ “Tell me what has happened,” said Slippery-in-the-hand.
‘So the farmhand told his tale: “When you left me on this riverbank exactly one year ago today, I was determined to do the right thing by my love, and to labour long and hard on her account. But as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, my resolve began to weaken. The old impatience and frustration crept back into my breast, and my father’s harsh words cut deep into my heart. Then a woman named Deirdre came into the village. She was the daughter of a travelling pedlar and the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, save from my dear Serafina. I said to myself, ‘I have waited too long to marry and build a family.’ I began to imagine that Serafina would meet another man while she was living with her aunt – then I would have lost my opportunity with Deirdre for nothing.
‘ “The thought grew and grew until I could bare it no more. My father said that I was good for nothing and urged me to propose marriage to Deirdre, and so I did. Only on our wedding night did she finally show me her true face: it was not the face of the fair maiden I had fallen in love with, but that of a twisted and horrible old hag. Her apparent beauty was only an enchantment, cast by her father the pedlar. The next morning she left me, taking what little money and possessions I had.”
‘ “This is grave news indeed,” said Slippery-in-the-hand.
‘ “The story becomes worse,” wailed Conall. “Just a week later Serafina returned home from her aunt’s. She was heartsick for love of me and so convinced her aunt to allow her to return early. But when she heard what I had done she would have nothing to do with me. She is now married to another and living happily with her husband in a cottage beside the river. Salmon O salmon! There must be something that you can do to help a poor, wretched soul such as myself.”
‘ “There is not,” the salmon replied. “I granted you the benefit of my magic because I believed in your love for Serafina. I gave you a home and the gift of a little patience. In acting as you have done, with the first pretty face you saw, you have thrown my gifts back in my face. I have made many a long and dangerous journey to come back to my dear salmon-wife, but it is clear that you are not a man with the same strength of heart.”
‘For the third and final time the salmon kicked up his tale and turned about, splashing the water hither and thither. As he did so, the cottage he had built for the farmhand crumbled into nothingness; it blew away like bog cotton on the breeze. From that day to this Conall lives in a hut on the same plot of land. He is miserable under his father’s thumb and is haunted by the memories of the woman he has lost.’
‘It is a sad tale,’ said the King of Ireland’s Son, ‘and that is the end of it.’
‘It is a pitiful tale indeed,’ Fedelma replied, ‘but I of all women know the value of patience and fortitude in the face of hardship. Conall should have been a stronger man.’
‘He should indeed,’ said the King of Ireland’s Son. ‘Now let us thank the Lord that our days of waiting are over. Now we are together at last.’
‘I thank the Lord indeed,’ said Fedelma, ‘and I only pray that our trials are all behind us.’
With that she kissed the King of Ireland’s Son on the head and petted the Slight Red Steed. ‘Perhaps there is time for one more tale,’ she said. ‘For alas the Meadow of Brightness is almost at an end.