Working To A Different Plan
Part One of The Voyage of Brendan
Hello friends, I’m delighted to start The House of Beasts & Vines with a story that is causing a stir in my dreaming. Bats are bopping in the belfry, horses have broken free from the stable. Brendan and his plucky lads swoop in and out and I catch their hymns through dark waves of sleep. On waking I’m moored up in some new place. I hope you’ll all climb into this currach with me and push out into the marvellous. For the next three letters I’ll be telling the story and reflecting on it. I’m also adding drawings that I cook up en route. The whole thing is fresh bread from the oven of my imagination.
You likely know me as mythographer or as someone that wanders in and out of forests for long periods. My last vigil of 101 days undid me in the most splendid of ways. I find my ink compelled to journey further into the devastation of love that was waiting out there for me. This really is new country, and I so value your companionship as we set out. Hip flask of the peaty drop, dark chocolate in pocket, a bullish smear of clouds coming in. Perfect.
Shall we go?
Born north of Tralee Brendan, out of Kerry Brendan, bear-hearted, fierce-willed Brendan. Whale rider Brendan, storm conductor Brendan, ecstatic of the sea spray Brendan. Brendan of whom pale angels gathered radiant above his birth-house. Brendan of the nimble spiritual ear. Brendan who had a crow as an ally. Brendan who heard whisper of a land far to the west, a strange and marvellous place, amok with vast missionary possibility. This place was called The Hidden Country. Every herb was permanently in full blossom, all trees swung heavy and happy with fruit.
This news pricked his conscience. He’d once owned a book filled with stories of lands so strange he’d been inebriated by the reading. Vivid colours and extravagant adventure burst from its pages. Dizzy with the tales––so different to thistle, bog and crow as it was––he lit a fire and piously burnt the book. It seemed dangerous. It seemed utterly alive. Inflammatory. It rocked him.
He then nibbled on acorns and cress, drank nothing stronger than water and tried to locate calm. But an angel came in a dream and reprimanded him, told him the book was in fact a true picture of a wider, sumptuous planet. God’s earth was almost infinite in variety and texture. Shame flooded Brendan and when he heard the whispering of The Hidden Country he felt he had a second chance. This he would not waste. He would not be on the wrong side twice.
No ale on his beard this Brendan, no overfed partridge he. He swept up fourteen wide-eyed and oak-strong monks and inventively ignited a desire in the red daggers of their blood to go seek this blessed place. And of course there was good news to share. Tremendous news to share.
The monks took to fervent contemplation: in the dingles and dells, the high places and the low places, shoulder to shoulder then deep in the lonesome. Forty days and forty nights. Every flight of prayer, every binding of devotion, every anchoring of incantation that one needs when preparing to set out into the marvellous they provoked. Then there was the emptying of the belly, the wobbly steps, the blurred vision then the tingled focus of a good hard fast.
Up to Inishmore of the Aran islands to seek the blessing of St. Edna they went. They made camp by the mountain we call Brendan’s Seat, by a sweet little river. Their minds honey-buzzed with God, bodies were stiff from sleeping rough but still they commenced to making. They dipped their hands in the fat of animals and smeared the joints, they tanned the ox hides with the good stink of oak bark, made it light enough for swiftness, robust enough to hold their bodies and grub. Softened the hide with butter. Chatter and song spilled from the boys, they devotedly bringing their journeying boat into delightful life. That kind of lively spirit makes you a flame for moths and at the end of the making three strange monks sloped up asking to accompany them. Brendan gave them his odd seeing, the proverbial once-over, and told them they could come, but two would die horrifying deaths and the third would not return. Surely these things did come to pass.
Quietly Brendan would take to the evening with his thoughts, not so strident and assured as daytime, public Brendan.
King Mystery, shall I throw away my home comforts?
Turn from the country, focus entirely on the sea?
Abandon Long-haired Mountain, or the Hill of the Tooth?
Leave the Summit of the Deer, the Hollow of the Hag,
The Rump of the Drum, the Hill of Old Holly,
The Mountain of Women?
Shall I be utterly at the favour of your mercy,
With no silver, horse, fame or honour?
Shall I be without weapons, without food or bed?
Shall I rip open my chest so you see my heart’s condition?
Tell you of my relentless sinning, my need for confession?
Will my praying knees leave prints in the sand as a record?
Will the sea wound me? Shall I take my tiny craft
Out across the sparkling, dreadful, endless ocean?
King Christ, will you even hear my voice over the blue roar of the waves?
Some of his terrors he was able to leave on the beach, but not his deepest questions.
Come the day of sailing from the Kerry coast, robed men issued protection in the greening shallows and women quietly stood on the cliffs, twisting ropes in their pockets, negotiating the winds. Faces heavy as anchors, the monks pushed out. What sprites of the salt awaited them, what midnight reckoning plagued their prayer making?
I’m trying to remember when I first caught a whisper of The Hidden Country. A giddy rumour that promises more than generic ease. That offers the possibility of a rugged failure, a proper drubbing rather than a mild and easy victory. It’s no small thing to cross an ocean, find a hidden country.
Though a whisper is a quiet thing, its impact is its intimacy. It’s for your ears only. The modern world generally shouts, but wisdom often whispers. We have to down tools, go outside and really attend to the disclosure. We are in ‘still small voice’ territory.
Dare we humbly clamber up onto the anvil of adventure and submit to the blacksmith’s hand? All that tutelary heat? We sense we will be in an utterly new shape when the pummelling is complete. The education will be granular. ‘Dare we submit?’ is the question. It’s hardly flavour of the month these days. We’re meant to know everything already. ‘Don’t give your power away,’ goes the mantra. And how’s that working out?