There was a company of women sitting up one night in the house of Barbara of the Bridge, spinning frieze. It would be music to you to be listening to them, and their voices making harmony with the drone of the wheels, like the sound of the wind with the shaking of the bushes.
They heard a cry. The child, it was, talking in its sleep.
Some evil thing that crossed the door, says Barbara. Rise, Maire, and stir the cradle.
The woman spoken-to got up. She was sitting on the floor till that, carding. She went over to the cradle. The child was wide awake before her, and he crying pitifully. Maire knelt down beside the cradle. As soon as the child saw her face he ceased from crying. A long, beautiful face she had; a brow, broad and smooth, black hair and it twisted in clusters about her head, and two grey eyes that would look on you slow, serious, and troubled-like.
p.128It was a gift Maire had, the way she would quieten a cross child or put a sick child to sleep, looking on that smooth, pleasant face and those grey, loving eyes of hers.
Maire began singing the Crónán na Banaltra (The Nurse's Lullaby) in a low voice. The other women ceased from their talk to listen to her. It wasn't long till the child was in a dead sleep. Maire rose and went back to where she was sitting before. She fell to her carding again.
May you have good, Maire, says Barbara. There's no wonder in life but the way you're able to put children asleep. Though that's my own heir, I would be hours of the clock with him before he would go off on me.
Maire has magic, says another woman.
She's like the harpers of Meave that would put a host of men asleep when they would play their sleep-tunes, says old Una ní Greelis.
Isn't it fine she can sing the Crónán na Banaltra?says the second woman.
My soul, you would think it was the Virgin herself that would be saying it, says old Una.
Do you think is it true, Una, that it was the Blessed Virgin (praise to her for ever) that made that tune? says Barbara.
I know it's true. Isn't it with that tune she used put the Son of God (a thousand glories to His name) asleep when He was a child?
And how is it, then, the people do have it now?says Barbara.
Coming down from generation to generation, I suppose, like the Fenian tales, says one of the women.
No, my soul, says old Una. The people it was heard the tune from the Virgin's mouth itself, here in this country-side, not so long ago.
And how would they hear it?
Doesn't the world know that the glorious Virgin goes round the townlands every Christmas Eve, herself and her child?
I heard the people saying she does.
And don't you know if the door is left ajar and a candle lighting in the window, that the Virgin and her Child will come into the house, and that they will sit down to rest themselves?
My soul, but I heard that, too.
A woman of the Joyce country, it was, waiting up on Christmas Eve to see the Virgin, that heard the tune from her for the first time and taught it to the country. It's often I heard discourse about her, and I a growing girl. Maire of the Virgin was the name they gave her. It's said that it's often she saw the glorious Virgin. She died in the poor-house in Uachtar Ard a couple of years before I was married. The blessing of God be with the souls of the dead.
Amen, O Lord, say the other women.
But Maire did not speak. She and her two big grey eyes were going, as you would say, through old Una's forehead, and she telling the story. She spoke after a spell.
Are you sure, Una, that the Virgin and her Child come into the houses on Christmas Eve? says she.
As sure as I'm living.
Did you ever see her?
I did not, then. But the Christmas Eve after I was married I waited up to see her, if it would be granted me. A cloud of sleep fell on me. Some noise woke me, and when I opened my eyes I thought
p.131I saw, as it would be, a young woman and a child in her arms going out the door.
No one spoke for a long time. Nothing was heard in the house but the drone of the spinning-wheels and the crackling of the fire, and the chirping of the crickets. Maire got up.
I'll be shortening the road, says she.May God give you good night, women.
God speed you, Maire, they answered together.
She drew-to the door on herself.
There was, as it would be, a blaze of fire in that woman's heart, and she going the road home in the blackness of night. The great longing of her soul was plundering and desolating herthe longing for children. She had been married four years, and hadn't clann. It's often she would spend the hours on her knees, praying God to send her a child. It's often she would rise from the bed in the night-time, and go on her two naked knees on the cold, hard stone making the same petition. It's many a penance she used put on herself in hopes that the torture of her body would soften God's heart. It's often when her man would be from home, that she would go to sleep without dinner and without supper. Once or twice, when her man was asleep, she left the bed and went out and stood a long while under the dew of the night sending her prayer to the dark, lonesome skies. Once she drew blood from her shoulder-blades with blows she gave herself with a switch. Another time she stuck thorns into her flesh in memory of the crown of thorns that went on the brow of the Saviour. The penances and the heart-scald were preying on her health. Nobody guessed what was wrong with her. Her own husbanda decent, kindly mandidn't understand the story right, though it's often he would hear her in the night talking to herself as a mother would be talking to a child, when she would feel its hand or its mouth at her breast. Ah! it's many a woman hugs her heart and whispers in the dead time of night to the child that isn't born, and will not be.
Maire thought long until Christmas Eve came. But as there's a wearing on everything, so there was a wearing on the delay of that time. The day of Christmas Eve was tedious to her until evening came. She
p.133swept the floor of the house, and she cleaned the chairs, and she made up a good fire before going to sleep. She left the door on the latch, and she put a tall, white candle in the window. When she stretched herself beside her man it wasn't to sleep it was, but to watch. She thought her man would never sleep. She felt at last by the quiet breath he was drawing that he was gone off. Then she got up. She put on her dress, and she stole out to the kitchen. No one was there. Not even a mouse was stirring. The crickets themselves were asleep. The fire was in red ashes. The candle was shining brightly. She bent on her knees in the room door. It's sweet the calm of the house was to her in the middle of the night, though, I tell you, it was terrible. There came a heightening of mind on her as it used to come betimes in the chapel, and she going to receive communion from the priest's hands. She felt, somehow, that the Presence wasn't far from her, and that it wouldn't be long until she would hear a footstep. She listened patiently. The house itself, she thought, and what was in it both living and dead, was listening as well. The
p.134hills were listening, and the stones of the earth, and the starry stars of the sky.
She heard a sound. A footstep on the door-flag. She saw a young woman coming in and a child in her arms. The young woman drew up to the fire. She sat down on a chair. She began crooning, very low, to the child. Maire recognised the music. The tune that was on it was the Crónán na Banaltra.
A while to them like that. The woman hugging the child to her breast, and crooning, very sweetly, very softly. Maire on her two knees, under the shadow of the door. It wasn't in her to speak nor to move. She was barely able to draw her breath.
At last the woman rose. It's then Maire rose. She went hither to the woman.
A Mhuire, says she, whispering-like.
The woman turned her countenance towards her. A lovely, noble countenance it was.
A Mhuire, says Maire again. I have a request of you.
Say it, says the other woman.
A child drinking the milk of my breast, says Maire. Don't deny me, a Mhuire.
Come closer to me, says the other woman.
Maire came closer to her. The other woman raised her child. The child stretched out its two little hands, and it laid a hand softly on each cheek of Maire's two cheeks.
That blessing will make you fruitful, says the Mother.
Its a good woman you are, a Mhuire, says Maire. It's good your Son is.
I leave a blessing in this house, says the other woman.
She squeezed her child to her breast again and went out the door. Maire fell on her knees.
It's a year since that Christmas Eve. The last time I passed Maire's house there was a child in her breast. There was that look on her that doesn't be on living soul but a mother when she feels the mouth of her firstborn at her nipple.
God loves the women better than the men, said I to myself. It's to them He sends the greatest sorrows, and it's on them He bestows the greatest joy.