Sunday, June 07, 2009

12 In search of swans – Cambridge

Thursday June 4, 2009:

It is in search of swans that my companion and I bend our steps to Cambridge on a blustery but sunny Thursday. My companion, a Cambridge M.A., talks of telling swan stories under weeping willows by the silvery Cam and I am hooked. I picture the rolling green lawns, the graceful waving trees, the majestic white birds floating gracefully upon the silver rippling water and my heart shivers. The “aah” I emit is one of longing and satisfaction.

Cambridge bustles with tourists. The undergraduates not confined to the examination room, lunch and laugh or work away industriously at waiting table and all manner of other occupations. The soft summer air is edged with the cool damp tongue of the Fens.

We walk down to the river. It teams with punts and geese and ducks. There is not a swan in sight.

Assured that there are swans and they don’t mind the busyness of the river, we climb into a tourist punt. Our companions, a large group of Japanese chatter amongst themselves, take pictures or ask questions. Our tour guide, a strong young man keeps up a steady patter of mild information about the colleges as we gently float past.


I settle back, surreptitiously trailing my fingers in the cool scudding water. Weeping willows caress my hair as we float under them. In my mind, I cast a circle and call to the spirit of the swan to come.

The river is quiet. I lie on my back in a punt. Buildings, trees and bridges all pass silently.

Now I turn into a dark tributary. Willows bend and meet above my head. I am in a cool green tunnel, the silver river bottle green with weed and the green light through the trees.

The tributary widens into a pool fed by a bubbling stream. There amongst the dark reeds, a single swan shines silver against the green. I lie there and gaze at her beauty, her head held high, her graceful neck curling, her wings furled.

Words formulate in my mind. I open my mouth to speak …

Bach dances into the air and my pocket vibrates violently.

“Damn,” I say to myself, sitting up and lunging for it to turn it off. No one in the boat takes any notice of me and my phone. Another punt passes; another young man describes the buildings we are passing.

I sigh and sit back and close my eyes. I will myself to return to the swan in the pool but the image evades me. Instead I connect in with the gentle water and allow myself to be soothed by its motion.

More punts go by. Clear voices cut through the brisk air describing the scenes as we pass. The tourists in our punt click away and keep up a steady commentary to one and other in rapid Japanese. Patiently, the tour guide connects with my companion and they talk about Cambridge and her time there in the sixties.

We are back at the place we began. I climb out and we go in search of a toilet, tea and consolatory crumpets., Consoled and sated, we make our way across the river in search of the perfect willow, which we find in the grounds of Trinity.
The tourists have all gone home. The exams are over. A group of young men picnic in a punt and feed the greedy geese.

“Grace, I love you” bellows a young man robustly from the goose feeding punt. Fleet of foot, a young woman in red shorts speeds across the bridge and down to the punt where she tells of her fortune in the exam she has just finished.
I lean against the willow and reach up to stroke its trailing fronds. Below us, the river trickles, ducks and geese splash happily about with the boating undergraduates. I pull from out of my pocket, the circle I had cast earlier and put away for safe keeping.

I stand on the bank. The river flows fast beneath me, silver and cool looking. The breeze shifts the feathers and I shiver, whether from anticipation, cold or something else, I know not. I am heart-sore and I am standing waiting, waiting for something that may never come.

The light changes, shifts from day to night. The river is dark now, the wind stronger and colder. I weep, standing alone on the bank. I can’t name my sorrow, although I know what it is.

Against the dark bank and the darker water, a silver shimmering shape appears. The ghostly outline of a great swan, head erect, neck arched, wings furled against her great body. She stops in front of me, sits silently on the water watching, just watching.

Is that an appeal, or is she simply regarding me? I stand on the bank, the swan’s feathers of my robe warm against my skin, softly caressing me as the wind comes to me.

Now I know she wants me to come with her. Inside, I am afraid. Inside I hear my own voice say “I can’t, I can’t”. My voice is young, the whine of a frightened child. I hang my head and weep. I weep for shame and sadness, hating myself for what I can’t do.

The swan sits and watches me. Her mute appeal is in her very stillness. Suddenly the clouds part. Now she is haloed in silver for the moon beams down upon her, and I know I have to go with her.

I step down to the edge of the river and dip a foot in. Oh but it is so cold. I shiver and withdraw and still she regards me steadily, silently, imploringly.

I take a deep breath and step down into the river, wade towards her, immersing my warm body in its feathered gown and we swim off together.

I don’t know where I go. I only know that I have to do this. The swan swims beside me, guiding me. I cleave through the water, forgetting the heaviness of the feathered gown now waterlogged and clinging to me. We turn down a dark tributary arched with trees which meet above our heads and swim onto and into a little pool, fed by a bubbling stream.



The current drags at the wet feathers of my gown. My hair streams out as the river bears me back to the bank. I am inert, not dead but numbed and still. My heart is heavy. My tears mingle with the cold, cold river water as it washes over my face.

I am alone. The river is dark. The sky is low and thick with clouds. The willow tree on the bank dips sad leafy fingers into the water. I climb heavily onto the bank and sink down beside the great tree.

From the river, from a small tributary under arching trees in a pool fed by a bubbling stream, I hear the most piercing of songs, a peon of pain. High and mournful, it echoes eerily through the night. My sol shivers and I weep anew.

I blow out a great sigh and wipe my face.

“Oh, how sad,” I say to my silent companion sitting upon the bank. I tell her of my journey.

We sit in silence for a while and then she tells me of her search for the right story to tell today. At length, she tells me the Dream of Aengus, story I have never heard before.

“Oenghus fell sick. No one knew what it was. But he did. For every night he had the same dream. He dreamt that a beautiful woman came to him and she played on a lute and sang to him. In the morning, she would go. He didn’t know who she was and he couldn’t get over the longing for her and fell into a terrible illness.

Oenghus‘s mother sent a great healer to find out what ailed her son. This healer was so consummate a healer that he could go to a sick person’s house and know what was the cause of their sickness, simply by looking at the smoke that came out of their chimney. But Oenghus was too sad to kindle a fire.

The healer studied Oenghus. In time he said, “I know what ails you. You have fallen in love in absence.” Oenghus said “this is true.”

The healer went to Oenghus’s mother and told her that Oenghus had fallen in love in absence and the only cure was to find the woman he met in his dreams each night and bring her to him.

So they took the description of the woman Oenghus met each night to the faerie people (for Oenghus people were of the faerie people) to all the corners of Ireland. After a year, they returned and reported that they had not found this woman that Oenghus met in his dream each night.

Then they sent out to the Kings of Ireland. One of the kings thought he knew who the young woman might be. Off they went to search again for another year. Eventually they came back with news.

There was a place in the mountains where every year on the feast of Samhain, this woman came to a certain lake. She brings with her 150 swan maidens.

At the next Samhain, Oenghus was taken to the lake. He was borne there in a chariot as he was too sick to walk or ride. There, he saw the woman of his dreams and with her, the 150 maidens, all dressed in swans feather robes. The swan maidens were chained in twos by silver chains around their neck. His lady had a silver collar and a chain of gold, she was a head taller than they and together they were extraordinary.

Oenghus knew that his sickness would not leave him without her. He saw her, a being of tremendous power, with very great magic. Here was the daughter of a great faerie king. Oenghus returned home, more deeply in love and more sick.

Messengers were sent to her father the faerie king to say that Oenghus wanted to marry his daughter. Her father told them it was not in his gift to give the hand of his daughter because her magic was greater than his. His people were a magical people, gifted in shape-shifting and much more.

But Oenghus people were warrior people. Their ways were war-like ways. They launched a war against the faerie king and they went into the fairy mound and took the king hostage until he would give up his daughter.

The king told them again that her hand was not in his gift, because her magical power was grater than his.

”Threaten me if you will,” said the faerie king. “You cannot drag my daughter into your world. The only way Oenghus can be united with her is for him to give up his world and enter hers.”

They let him go. Oenghus continued to grieve. He did not know how to enter her world. But one night, she came to him and played her lute. She told him that she would be at the lake at the next Samhain and would be in the shape of a swan. If he came to her then and gave up his world, they could be together at last.

So Oenghus went back to the lake. He walked all the way, took no weapons, no warriors, just himself in his illness weakened body.

He stood on the lake and called to her. But she did not come. He called her by her name but there was no movement. He called her again and again and again.

All at once she swam into the lake in her swan form. She spoke to him in a human voice and she said:

“You are of a violent people. You have killed my kin. You have sought me for years. I will not go with you unless you undertake on your honour that I may come back to the lake here whenever I wish.”

He gave her that pledge; he dropped anything that was left to him of his inheritance, of coercion, force and trickery. As he dropped it, his body dropped from the bank into the lake. His weakened body as it touched the water began to transform into that of Aswan.

And so he joined her. They swam round the lake three times in honour of his pledge, of what he had given away never to touch again and in honour of that love that lay between them.

And they rose up together into the sky and flew back to his mother’s land. AS they flew, they sang. This song was such that it put the people of every village they flew over to sleep for three days and three nights. Finally they landed at his mother’s home and stayed together for ever.”

The river has emptied. The cheerful boaters have gone off in search of dinner. The wind rustles the weeping willow leaves and the water shivers. Only the geese and ducks still quack, honk and paddle under the darkening sky.

I shiver. The air has chilled. My limbs are stiff. Quickly, I open the circle and we climb out from under the willow tree.

My heart is filled with tenderness for the beautiful birds. Though they have not graced us with their physical presence, their gentle spirit is all around us. I remember the soft caress of the swan’s feathers and give thanks for their quiet beauty. It is time to leave the tranquil river and return to the busy city.

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