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The Green Hero
Early Adventures of Finn McCool
By Bernard Evslin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Bernard Evslin
All rights reserved.
Finn and the Snakes
Finn McCool was a giant but much too small for the work; the runt of the litter he was, yards shorter than his brothers and sisters, which was embarrassing. In fact, it is a better thing altogether to be a large dwarf than a small giant. Such a thing has been known to spoil a man's disposition entirely. But it didn't spoil Finn's. He quickly learned how things were in the world, and said to himself:
"Can't afford to be bad-tempered, not till I get a reputation."
To go back a bit, though. When Finn was an infant he shared his crib with a girl-baby named Murtha, whose own mother, a giantess, had been killed by an avalanche she started herself by throwing her husband headfirst off a mountain because he'd said something rude. So Finn shared his crib with young Murtha, and his porridge bowl, and his rattle, and such.
Now it is well known that infants are nasty squalling damp objects, except to their mothers, perhaps, but this Murtha was something else. Even as an infant she was beautiful. Her skin was ivory and pink, and she was never bald for an instant, but was born with a marvelous black fleece of hair, and had eyes that were neither green nor blue, but violet—rare for eyes. And teeth—a full set of them—so that she was able to bite Finn quite early. On the other hand, her smile flashed like a stream when the sun hits it. She was a lovely creature, and young Finn fell in love with her immediately, just like that, and had resolved to marry her before he was three days old, but decided to keep it secret awhile because he knew she wasn't ready to listen to proposals. Nevertheless, his love for her was so great that he couldn't rest for trying to win her admiration, which was difficult to do; she didn't seem to notice him particularly with her violet eyes, except when she decided to bite him or snatch his bottle. She would lie on her back dreamily watching the clouds go by—their cradle was a leather sling set in an oak tree; this is the way with giant babies—and he did not know what to do to attract her attention.
He noticed that she did not like slithery things. Worms made her unhappy. She would grab a wolfhound by his whiskers and kiss him on the nose, but spiders were a different matter entirely; she hated them and was afraid. This set Finn to thinking.
"My short time in the world has taught me that the way to a young lady's heart is by being very brave. Yes, even if you're not, you must make her believe you are; that's just as good. Now to be brave is dangerous sometimes, but if you're a lad of ideas you can get around that part maybe."
He thought and thought and put together a bit of a plan. "Now it's a fact she's afraid of worms," he said to himself. "This is quite plain. Oh yes, terrified of the tiny things, bless her heart. But why? They can't hurt her. They cannot bite or sting. Why then does she fear them? It is their shape, perhaps, for what else is there about them? And that they crawl on their bellies, squiggling along, for what else is it they do? Now when a worm falls off the branch into the cradle I might boldly brush it away from her, but that is not very impressive, after all. She might appreciate it, to be sure, but she would not go mad with admiration. No, no. I must do something more splendid, more bold, bigger altogether. What then is a big worm? Big worm ... why yes—a snake. That's anyone's idea of a big worm, I should think. Now if she's afraid of worms, she would go absolutely stark blue with terror, the beautiful child, if she saw a snake, a sight she has been spared so far. If only I could rescue her from a snake, ah that would be a thing to admire. This would count as a great deed. This would win Murtha's heart. She would know her cousin Finn is a hero, and fit to be wed. Yes, yes, I see it plain; I must save her from a snake. There's a drawback though. I myself am by no means partial to serpents. Why, as I lie here and think about them, I can feel myself beginning to shiver and shake. I am still but a babe, I haven't come into my strength, and I couldn't handle the loopy beast if I did meet one. Nevertheless, for all the fear and doubt, there is an idea here and I must make it grow."
So he thought and thought until his eyes grew blurred with sleep, and the far stars trembled and went out. When he awoke, the first tatters of morning mist were beginning to flush with light. He swung himself out of his bull-hide cradle, crept down the tree like a squirrel, and went into the wood. As he went he kept his eyes open, and kept thinking very hard. In the deep of the wood he rested himself under a tree. A strange bird screamed. Finn shivered. It was dark in the wood, not the safe darkness of night, but a green scary dusk of day half hidden. The bird screamed again. In the brush something snarled and pounced; something else spoke in pain, chipmunk perhaps, or rabbit.
"All the things here eat each other," he said to himself. "The big ones eat the small ones. An uncomfortable kind of arrangement, especially if you're small."
He felt fuller of sadness than he could hold, and he wept a tear. The tear fell, but did not vanish as tears usually do. It glittered upon the leaf-mold, grew brighter, rose again toward his face. It was a tiny manikin, rising out of the earth. No bigger than a twig was he, with a squinched-up little nut of a face. Upon his head glistened Finn's tear, a crystal now, milky white as the moon, lighting up a space about the little man.
"Who are you?" said Finn.
"I am the Thrig of Tone."
"Are you now?"
"Have you heard of me?"
"An ignorant lad you are then, for I am famous."
"Magic mostly. Mischief some. I'm much abused in certain quarters. But I'm a good one to know, I'll tell you that. Unless I happen to take a dislike to you, in which case you will regret our acquaintance."
"I see," said Finn.
"I doubt it. The thing about me is I'm not around very often, as it happens. A powerful curse is working upon me, you see. I'm the prisoner of a spell, woven by the wickedest old witch who was ever wooed by the devil and wore a black hat to her wedding—her name is Drabne of Dole. What can I do for you now?"
"You wish to do something for me?"
"Why must you?"
"A condition of the curse. I'm a prisoner of the dust, you see, until the purest tear happens to fall on me. Then I come to life and wear it as a jewel and must serve the weeper, whoever it is."
"Did I weep a pure tear?"
"I'm here, am I not?"
"What makes a tear pure?"
"An extraordinary grief. Something outside the scheme of things, so odd it makes the gods laugh. And that laughter of the gods, which you know as the wind, means that someone somewhere has a grief he cannot handle. But it must be something special; plain things won't do, you know, not for the gods. They see enough of ordinary misery, they're no longer amused, they like something special. A crocodile moved to pity, perhaps; that roused me some time ago, and I had an adventure then. Or a king brought low. Yes, they like that. Or something wondrously beautiful made ugly, watching itself become so, and not able to stop. All this will set the night a-howling. What they found special in you, I don't know. But here I am. And there's the wind, hear it? What is your problem, lad?"
"Myself mostly. I come of a family of giants, and am small. I love someone who does not know what love is. And I have a bold deed in mind, but am afraid. Also, something pounced and something screamed, reminding me of the world's arrangements about big things eating small ones. Well, all this made me weep, Master Thrig of Tone, sir. If you help me I shall be grateful, but I don't know how you can."
"What is this deed you have in mind?"
"Well, you see, sir, this young lady I admire is much upset by the sight of a worm. Making me think that the sight of a snake would absolutely terrify her and make her feel very affectionate toward her rescuer."
"Think you'd be much good at fighting off serpents? They're very strong, you know, just one long muscle. Makes it awkward when you start to wrestle them. Not only that, but a mouthful of secret weapons. Hollow teeth that squirt poison, making even the smallest serpent deadlier than wolf or bear. You absolutely sure it's a snake you want to choose for your first bout, young Finn?"
"I am sure."
"Well, this requires a bit of thinking. Let's see. How can we do this with the most honor to you and the most effect on your little friend, and the least damage to both of you? And the most pleasure to the serpents, too, for they're the kind of creature that go along with nothing unless they're pleased. Pleased, yes, that's a thought. You play any musical instrument? Flute, for instance."
"Don't even know what it is. Sometimes, though, I shake my rattle a certain way that makes my blood dance. And Murtha sits there dancing without moving her legs."
"Rhythm section's all very well, but what snakes like is melody."
He broke off a reed from a nearby clump, took out a knife no longer than a thorn and notched the reed, then gave it to Finn.
"A reed, doctored according to me lights."
"What's it for?"
"Well, reeds have a hard life. You must understand that in the vegetable kingdom they're nowhere. Very bottom of the list. No leaves, no scent, not even any nuisance value like weeds. They are frail stalks, bowing before every wind. And yet, this is their magic. Their courtesy to the wind is a very special quality. For they are the first to recognize this cruel laughter of the gods, and so are attuned to human misery. Their weakness gives strength its meaning; their lowliness makes fame shine; their pity is the best description in all the world of cruelty. The owl hitting the mouse, a wasp stinging a beetle to death, the young boy drowned in the pride of swimming, the bride realizing that she has married wrong and that her mistake has become her life—all these things that make the gods laugh and the winds howl, the reeds know first. They bow to it. And as the wind seethes through them, they rustle in a kind of music. It all becomes music in them. Music, which is the essence of all man cannot say in words. And, if you take a reed and notch it in a certain way—like this—and give it to one who will whisper his own story to it, why then a most exquisite music is made. And now happens the greatest joke of all, a joke on the gods themselves, those jesters. For hearing this music out of the reed, why Evil itself, the simplified shape of evil, the snake, becomes enraptured and dances in slow loops of ecstasy. And a slight pause comes to evil arrangements. Strength is diverted from cruelty. The blackness of death is split for a moment, and a crystal light streams, making pictures in the head, and it seems to those listening that things might be different, might be better. But only for a split second. Then the music stops and all goes back to the way it was before. But in that moment the snakes have danced and the victim forgotten fear. D'you follow me, boy?"
"Will you teach me to play this thing?"
"Let me hear you whistle a tune. I can do nothing if you have no ear."
Finn whistled. He could do that. He had amused himself in his cradle, imitating birds. The Thrig nodded.
"Not entirely tone-deaf, I'm glad to hear. Perhaps I can ... maybe so. Very well, let us begin."
"Always now when it comes to learning, especially something difficult."
"But I'm hungry, I'm cold, I'm sleepy."
"Tell it to the reed."
Now it is said that the Thrig of Tone and young Finn stayed under that oak tree a week of days and a week of nights piping duets. It rained sometimes, and the nights were cold. Nor did they stop for food. Nixies don't eat the stuff, and the Thrig had forgotten that humans do. All Finn had during this time was three mushrooms that happened to grow near where he was sitting. For his thirst he drank the rain. Oh, it was a difficult time he had, but it wasn't allowed to matter. The Thrig was a strict teacher, and kept Finn at it. What happened then was that the lad's hunger and thirst and sleepiness and loneliness wove themselves into the music, and the reeds added their own notes of pity and joy. And at the end of their time together under the oak tree you could not tell who was teacher and who was pupil; they played equally well.
They played so beautifully that the birds stopped their own singing to listen. Even the owl left off hunting, forgot her bloody hunger for a bit, and stood on a limb listening, hooting the tune softly to herself. The deer came, and wolves. Weasels, foxes, stoats, rabbits, bears, badgers, chipmunks, wild pigs. They came and stood in silent ranks at night, forgetting their enmity and fear as the moonlight sifted through the leaves and touched different fur with silver. Finally, two huge snakes came slithering out of their fearful nest and sat among their coils, weaving a slow dance.
"Enough!" cried the Thrig of Tone. "Lesson's over, young Finn. You've learned what I can teach. You can pipe and the devil can dance."
"Thank you, sir," said Finn.
"I have done my good deed without interruption, and am free at last, I hope, from the wicked enchantment which binds me to the dust and allows me to see the sun only once every thousand years."
"I hope so indeed," said Finn. "My thanks to you, O Thrig of Tone. Perhaps I can return the favor one day. Farewell."
And he went piping off through the woods, followed by various beasts.
But it's not so easy to get away with a good deed on this spinning egg of a world. Evil has lidless eyes and does not sleep. At the very moment that Finn was ending his lesson, Drabne of Dole, deep in her hole, a thousand miles down, was gazing at a hand mirror, combing her snaky hair with the backbone of a fish. Then the mirror darkened; she could not see herself. And she knew that somewhere on earth a good deed was being born. For good, the mere breath of it, always darkened her mirror. She gnashed her teeth and stamped her foot, crying:
Oh grief, oh woe
I'll not have it,
No, no, no.
Not a shred of kindness
Not a ray of joy.
I'll bend him, rend him,
Tame him, maim him,
Whatever he be,
Large or wee,
Man or boy.
So saying, she flapped her bat-wing sleeves and flew a thousand miles in a wink of an eye to the old oak tree where the Thrig of Tone stood gazing after Finn. She snatched him up and stuffed him into her purse, and flew back a thousand miles to her den. She took him to the stool where she sat to do her sewing, and bound him with thread, and stabbed him with a needle.
Stab and jab
jab and stab.
"No," groaned the Thrig.
"Been doing good deeds again, haven't you? Let you out of my sight for a minute every thousand years, and up you pop into the light trying to help some poor fool do the right thing instead of taking life as it is. Well, you'll tell me now what you did, and I'll undo it."
"Never," said the Thrig.
"Never's a long time, little one, especially when there's pain attached. You'll tell me, for I'll torment you till you do.
I come and I go,
I fly and I spy.
I am Drabne of Dole
I live in a hole,
And I need to know.
"That's what witch means, small fool, Woman Who Knows. Now hear what I intend, Thrig of Tone, if you don't tell me straight. I'll round off your edges a bit and use you as a pincushion for the next thousand years. And it'll be pain, pain, pain all the time. I have plenty of tatters that need mending. My master's socks need doing too. His hooves, you know, they wear right through."
Thereupon she poked and prodded and jabbed and stabbed the poor little fellow until he could bear it no longer, and told her what he had done.
"Aha," she said. "It's a very good deed, indeed, but not too late to stop."
She threw him into her workbasket and stomped off to her big iron pot where it boiled over on its fire of brambles. She cast in the scale of a fishy thing that lives at the bottom of the sea and has neither sight nor touch nor any sense at all but is one blind suck. Henbane she added, and nightshade, wormwood, drearweed, and various poison fats that clog the sense, whispering all the while:
In this cauldron
stew and roast.
Make him then
Deaf as post.
A smoke arose from the witch's brew, curling in the spirals of a most evil spell, and wafted itself out of her den and up the long way into the world. Flew into the wood and fumed around the flat head of one of the serpents who were following Finn, drawn by his music. This serpent straightway fell deaf, heard nothing any more, but followed along anyway, no longer dancing, only crawling, filling with stupefied wrath.
Finn knew nothing. He went skipping and piping through the wood until he came to his own village, silent now, for it was the hot golden after-lunch hour when giants nap. He climbed into his bullhide cradle and gazed upon young Murtha, sleeping sweetly as a folded flower.
Excerpted from The Green Hero by Bernard Evslin. Copyright © 1975 Bernard Evslin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Finn and the Snakes,
Finn Serves the Salmon,
The Winter Burning,
The Scroll of Debts,
The Boar of Ballinoe,
Finn and Goll,