The Curse of Macha A Retelling by Karina Tynan

Introduction 

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Macha was an Irish Goddess associated with horses and war. The story below tells of how she came in the form of a woman to the house of a widower called Crunchu. She made him promise that he would tell no one about her. But Crunchu didn’t keep the promise and spoke at the King’s court about his wife who could run faster than any horse. The King was insulted and bid her to race his best horses. Macha was pregnant with twins and begged the King to wait until her babies were born. He refused so she ran and won the race but after, her pains came and she died giving birth. But before she died she cursed the men of Ulster that whenever they were in their hour of need they would be struck down with the pains of childbirth. This is one of the tributary stories connected to the great epic The Taín Bó Cúalnge and explains why the men of Ulster were unable to fight when Queen Maeve’s army attached. The site Eamhain Mhacha where she delivered her twins became the capital of Ulster at that time. 

 The Curse Of Macha 

They did not know her- Gods are hard for mortals to recognise – Homer

She was well buried before the dark set in. People brought food to his house and company to keep him away from the loss but they forgot about him then. Once a few days had passed their compassion waned as the length of a long night alone is unknown to some. They said things, “Pity he lives so far out in the hills” or, “It’s no wonder she got sick with the cold wind that runs through that house.” The kind ones said, “Sure who knows, isn’t it all out of our hands and sometimes the way things happen is only for the Gods to know.”

No one saw much of him after unless there was a horse fair and then he would boast like he was managing the whole country. I suppose he was ashamed of how it had gone. Having set out with such a beauty. The next thing expected from him would have been a brood of sons to ride all the stallions he was going to breed. Men like to have their own little armies. I watched from afar. I saw the lonely light in the evening shining faintly from his house. A wisp of smoke rising into the air slow and mean. Was it pride that kept him alone in the cold. He could have gone to the King to ask for another woman but he didn’t.

I was cold too, in a way that is difficult to describe. I’m not talking about cold from any wind nor frost. I’m above all that. There was nothing holding me in.  Nothing mundane, nothing with a name. The talk with another, “Isn’t that a harsh east wind” or “That’s a biting frost this morning.” The sharing of small tragedies like a baby’s bad night, “I haven’t had a wink of sleep for a week with that child crying.” Everyday concerns like a dying sheep or cow, “The old girl owes us nothing, we will miss her.” Gossip, “The roof on that house will fall in for the want of a good man.”

Instead, I live with the wind for company, the smell of horse mane across my face and a freedom that can go to waste and if the truth is known, sometimes I am the one responsible for the baby’s bad night or the unsettling dreams in a girl when her life is too tame; when her nature is too big for the world holding her in. When it has to be numbed with wine or a bad song. I am above the beaten path that thrives in the world, the path that rides over anything resembling wild nature. I am above it but there are times when I have no company for it and that is when I envy them.  I can be weakened into wanting a path, a habit that will take me from constant wind, blowing freedom into my face.

I did little things at first. I emptied the stinking water, the dead flowers from the vase of on his window sill. I cleaned out the fire, moved this, dusted that. Pictured myself his wife until the horses would come kicking at the door for me to come back to the hills when the night fell. I brought foxgloves from the wood, washed and dried his clothes, lit the fire and strangled a hen. Potatoes were boiling one evening when he came in. I think he half expected me. We had no words, none were needed. He took me for granted.

Red crackling smoke rose in circles under the stars that night from the hottest fire that house had ever seen and when morning came he went out singing as he set his mares to the hills to mingle with the wild ones for the seeds of nature for his drove. On her way, a wild mare put her chest through the half door, calling me. I beat her back with my broom.

I beat them all back. I beat my own nature back. I hid it well. There were no reflections in his life to show me full. I could hide behind my beauty, my skill in the kitchen. I could have been any wife to the passer by, knotting up my mane under a shawl tied over my withers. Only night opened me and a man likes wildness at night.

I played a modest tune, shrouding the might of me under my love for his turning up each day for warm water to wash, food and the fire that was in me that had him wondering how I was so, much. Until all that plenty and all that passion worked him back to the fullness of health but Crunchu was no fool. No, he was wise enough to put his own work in to keep the horse in me out until one night when the moon was a definite shade of blue he told me, “You’re a blue moon in my life.” It made me shudder and each time I shuddered, the horses whinnied from out of the dark. He reassured, “Something moved they cannot see is all. Come to bed, to my shelter from the premonitions feasting in you” he said. Then I forgot who I was and I begged him for shelter under his bridled life. “Keep me a secret, tell no one I’m here.”

And while I pleaded for our life he swore and crossed his heart and I believed him. What was I?  A wild horse with a baby’s heart awoken into trusting that he could love me like maybe a mother would. I believed I knew something about love, imagined it coming up from under the ground like flowers, the way the sun comes up each morning to steam the wet from your back when the night has been cold. I thought you could trust love. What I did not see was him taking it all up as flattery, fattening him out, far away from his human heart until I was no more a secret than the hills feeding the horses behind us.

When horse fair day came, Crunchu went away to sell, to buy and to brag.  I begged him, “Don’t tell a soul about us. We are dear to each other but we are a strange tale.”

He was off to the court of the King for a fine day of feasting and selling and telling. I thought about it. I knew I was a rare find in his life. But there were many things to say that would not raise an eyebrow. He could have said I was good in the kitchen, in the bed, for company, for work. He would never say all the rest. But all the rest was what he said. The very thing I asked him not, as the King’s horses were paraded for their strength and health, stamina and speed, as the King looked proudly on the horses that reflected his unrivalled, cut aboveness, my man, Crunchu told the whole court that his wife could out run the whole lot of them. Through loose lips and a satisfied smile he squandered me, just as I was growing tired in the evenings with my feet rightly up on my old nature. Swollen with child and beginning to feel, at last, like a women living a short life forging time and gratitude, settling for the babies feasting on my bones giving me death as a gift.

I begged for time to put the woman aside. I begged them to let me give birth, recover, consider my choices but the King has suffered an insult; that I, a mere wife was faster than his horses. How could that be? I wanted to say no, but if I did, Crunchu would die for the insult his King had suffered. I had made the choice to hang up my old nature? The horses had retreated from me, it was true, they had stopped kicking the door at night, stopped recognising me as one of them. How would I muster old nature in this state. He  said, “We’ll go and they’ll see you. They’ll know they have to wait until you are fit again. All will be well again, you’ll see.”

We begged for time, but the King wanted me to be a swollen bellied cow. He wanted to laugh at the idea of a woman surpassing his mighty horses. So to keep their blood flowing, I was bid to a race to put all the kings horses behind me and to close Crunchu’s boasting mouth, I gave my life for his.

With nothing left for me to do as woman except wipe the smile from a King’s face, I held up my belly,  gathered horse nature to me and won the race. At the last post with the horses surrounding me, my legs opened and my blood flowed as the sky darkened though it was day still and the King’s horses opened their circle for me to curse the men of Ulster:

“To the men from the land that bears my name. From this day on you will witness the world opening inside you alongside the agony of bone tiredness while your roofs fall in. Everything you hold dear and beyond will be out of the reach of your shielding. Life will ebb and death will taunt and war will march all over you and while you watch your helplessness, you will be a living testimony to my outrage, for when you need her most this horse will bolt.”

I cursed the men of Ulster. After that I licked my foals dry and turned to the hills while all the Kings horses fell in behind me and the men of Ulster stared, mouths agape.

It was tea time at home when I passed. A red light had erupted behind the hills. The crows were writing the evening on the sky. I pictured the flowers I had placed on his windowsill as a bowlful of small suns. I thought about the fire that would need a stoking to heat the night and how someone should close the door to the hens. I pictured the hounds who would be skulking at the door, waiting to wangle their way to my feet. Waiting for me to come home.

Instead, a wild mare put her chest through the half door for a last time.

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