The kids sit each in their beds, the littlest one propped up half upside-down on her elbows, her tiny bare toes playing over the pinewood slats of the bunk above hers. Their father has just finished lighting the candle of the newly created altar, its offering bowl already overflowing with small gifts from the day's explorations in the park: acorns, stones, leaves and feathers and cicada shells. Everyone rests, quiet and attentive at the busy day's end. I speak softly.
"When we picked out this statue in the store, your dad and I wanted to get you something that would remind you of your own mother, and of the Mother Goddess who watches over you all the time. And I know some of you—" I wink gently at the second-oldest, a serious girl who frowns a little in thought, "some of you liked the other statue better, the two parents cradling the infant, because it reminded you of rebirth and renewal. I liked that one, too. But the more I look at this statue, the more it reminds me of a story. It's a story about separation and loss, and of finding family again in unexpected places. And I think—I hope—that when you hear this story, maybe you'll begin to like the statue a little better and it will have new meaning for you, as it does for your dad and me." The kids are silent, stretching restless limbs beneath their sheets.
"The story I want to tell you begins, 'Once, a long time ago when the world was new...'"
Once, a long time ago when this ancient world was still very new, there was a mother. Her name was Modron, which means Great Mother, for she was beautiful and strong, and her love shone from her as light from a great sun. And Modron had a son whose name was Mabon, which means Great Son. Mabon glistened and glimmered with his mother's love, and within him, his own heart also shone with love in return. Those who looked upon him were dazzled by his great youth and energy. But when he was still just an infant, a tragedy occurred. Mabon had not yet slept three nights at his mother's side, suckling at her breast and nuzzling into her arms, when he was stolen away into the darkness! When Modron awoke to find her beloved son gone, and no one who could tell her who had stolen him away, she mourned and wept, and her tears swelled and flowed like a great ocean. For a Mother's sorrow, too, can be great as her love.
Many years passed without sight or sound of Mabon, and all this time Modron continued to grieve and hope. Then, one day, a king arrived seeking to speak to Modron of her son. The king's name was Arthur, and he came with a retinue of skillful and courageous knights following behind him. King Arthur and his knights had been set an impossible task: to hunt the huge and terrible boar called Twrch Trwyth. This boar was so strong, and so fast, and so tough, that no hunter in the world could track him down and kill him, save for the greatest huntsman of all. No one knew who this huntsman might be, but rumor in the land whispered Mabon's name, the Great Son who had once shone with such energy even when just a babe. The people said that if Mabon still lived and could be found, surely he could kill the boar. And so King Arthur had come to Modron, to ask her if she knew where her son might be found.
The question pierced her heart and made her laugh through her sorrow. "Do you think I have not wondered that myself, all these long years? And yet, though my sorrow is as great as the deepest ocean, as vast as the darkest expanse of sky on a moonless night, I have never been able to discover where he is, or if he is even still alive. You have come a long way, King Arthur, but I cannot help you. You may as well ask the blackbird where the boy is hidden!" she added with a sad, helpless wave of her hand.
King Arthur, too determined to give up, went and did just that. He and his knights searched out the Blackbird, an old creature who had long guarded the gateway into other realms on the edge of dawn. "Blackbird," Arthur called, "We are looking for Mabon, son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother's side three nights after his birth. Do you know where he may be hidden?"
The Blackbird peered down at Arthur and his knights with quick, obsidian eyes. "I am old, as you well know," he said at last. "You see this dusty spot here where I sit? When I first was born, there used to stand here a smith's anvil, the biggest you might ever see, made of the hardest iron. Yet no hammer ever touched this anvil, except that I pecked at it with my beak gently every day. Now, nothing is left of it but this dust beneath my feet. That," said the Blackbird, stirring the dust with his wings, "is how old I am. And yet I have never seen nor heard of Mabon, son of Modron.
"But," the Blackbird continued, "I know of one who is even older than I am, and I will take you to him."
Arthur and his knights thanked the Blackbird for his kindness, and followed his lead. He soon led them to the bright Stag of the forest, whose old coat glistened as with midday sunlight. "Stag," called Arthur, "We are looking for Mabon, son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother's side three nights after his birth. Do you know where he may be hidden?"
The Stag lowered his huge, antlered head and gazed at Arthur and his knights with ancient amber eyes. "I am old, as you well know," he said at last. "You see this massive oak tree beneath which we stand? When I was first born, this oak tree was barely a sapling sprung up from its acorn, and yet now it is the biggest tree in the forest, thick with years of growth, its heavy limbs stretching wide in all directions, and the prongs of my own antlers number just as many as its branches. That," said the Stag, swinging his head with pride, "is how old I am. And yet I have never seen nor heard of Mabon, son of Modron.
"But," the Stag continued, "I know of one who is even older than I am, and I will take you to her."
Arthur and his knights thanked the Stag for his kindness, and followed his lead. He soon led them to the Owl, whose rippling, moonshine eyes had watched the comings and goings of night for unknown ages and now looked on King Arthur with placid kindness. "Owl," called Arthur, "We are looking for Mabon, son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother's side three nights after his birth. Do you know where he may be hidden?"
The Owl adjusted her silent wings and turned her haunted, blossomy face towards Arthur and his knights. "I am old, as you well know," she said at last. "You see this ancient forested valley in which we stand? When I first was born, there stood a forest here even older and more wild than this one, and I watched as the people of the land moved in and cut it to the ground; yet as the people slowly abandoned the land for more fertile soil, another forest grew up in its place and that, too, became wild and strange with age, until again the tillers of soil moved through slashing and ripping up the roots from the earth, and the forest withered and disappeared and the valley became like an empty bowl beneath the sky. But the lives of people are passing, so easily will they go to war against each other, so quickly do they drain the sacred land dry—and so again human beings left this valley to the gods of wild places, and this is the third ancient forest I have watched grow to wilderness here. That," said the Owl, her low eyes shimmering like deep pools, "is how old I am. And yet I have never seen nor heard of Mabon, son of Modron."
"BUT!" the boy chimes in loudly from his upper bunk, and I laugh. "That's right!" I say, "I see you're catching on..."
"But," the Owl told Arthur, "I know of one who is even older than I am, and I will take you to him."
Arthur and his knights thanked the Owl for her kindness, and followed her lead. She soon led them to the noble Eagle, who held his head aloft and flourished a beak and talons so sharp and true they might slice the air itself in two. "Eagle," called Arthur, "We are looking for Mabon, son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother's side three nights after his birth. Do you know where he may be hidden?"
The Eagle regally preened a few stray pinfeathers into place and blinked at Arthur and his knights with benevolent, piercing eyes. "I am old, as you well know," he said at last. "You see this tiny rock I clutch between my talons? When I first was born, there stood here a mighty standing stone, so lofty that it towered above every mountain, and I could sit upon it every night and lift my head to strike my beak against the upper limits of the black sky, and each peck pierced the darkness and became a star. And yet the stars you see now are numerous, beyond counting, and I made every one; and the standing stone that thrust up from the earth met wind and rain, the elements of air and water, and together the three joined in a dance that wore the stone away, until now all that remains is this mere pebble at my feet. That," said the Eagle, clacking his beak that had made the stars themselves, "is how old I am. And yet I have never seen nor heard of Mabon, son of Modron."
The children moan in sympathetic exasperation, and I hush them and quickly return to the story, riding the energy of their anticipation, pulling their attention taut as a bowstring.
By now, as you can imagine, King Arthur was beginning to despair that he would ever find Mabon, the Great Son of Modron, to help him hunt the wild, terrible boar. His face was haggard with searching, his eyes sunk deep from sleepless nights and long journeying to these ever more ancient beings, none of whom seemed able to help him. His knights, though loyal and trusting in their king, were beginning to tire as well, and being a good king to his people and friend to his companions, Arthur knew he must soon call off the search for their sake if not his own.
The Eagle, whose keen mind could read the fatigue and stress in Arthur's expression, had sympathy for the weary king. "But let me tell you a story," he said to Arthur. "This story begins: Once, a long time ago when the world was new.... There was a great famine in the land. I was still young then, and had my fair share of suffering and hunger. One day, I had flown far from my usual hunting spots in search of something to eat, when I spotted far below me, in a small pool shaded by nine hazel trees, the quick shimmer of a fish in the water. Without second thought, I dove! I clenched onto the fish with both feet, sinking my talons deep determined to catch the thing, for if I didn't I would surely starve before nightfall. But the fish was blessed with an almost monstrous strength, and it dragged me under, down and down into the spiraling, swirling darkness of the pool. If I had not finally relinquished the thought of my own hunger gnawing within me and released my quarry, I would have drowned.
"This creature, I learned later, was the ancient Salmon of Wisdom, even older than I, who had lived for ages upon ages in the sacred pool, feeding on the hazelnuts which fell into the pool from the surrounding grove. Hazelnuts, they say, are food for the gods, and I would not be surprised if the Wise Salmon herself were a goddess dwelling in that strange and mysterious place. A mere king like myself," said the Eagle, "could never presume to capture a goddess against her will! But let me tell you, Arthur—if the Salmon of Wisdom still dwells within that pool, I can take you to her. Although all the oldest creatures of the land could not tell you where to find Mabon, son of Modron, certainly she will know and she will help! And if she cannot, then your quest truly is beyond all hope."
And so, with new hope and fresh energy, Arthur led his knights with the Eagle as their guide far across the land, over gentle green downs and through dark twisting woods, until at last they came to the sacred pool in the hazel grove. Exhausted, King Arthur knelt by the side of the pool. Its surface moved in subtle wavelets from where a small stream fed into the pond, weaving and trickling between the roots of the trees. It seemed to Arthur, as he looked upon the water, that there in the reflection of shading branches he could see the ancient, sparkling eyes of a goddess smiling at him—then they were gone! In a flash, the silver body of a fish flickered by, and Arthur called out, "Salmon of Wisdom! We have come a long way to seek your help. We have spoken to the Blackbird, and the Stag, and the Owl, and the Eagle, and of all these ancient beings, none could lead us to what we seek. We are looking for Mabon, son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother's side three nights after his birth. Do you know where he may be hidden?"
From the depths of the pool there came a lovely, watery voice, barely distinguishable from the bubbling of the stream. "And did you ask his mother?"
"Well, yes!" Arthur said, "But she said she did not know!"
Sad laughter bubbled up from the glimmering darkness. "Modron's sorrow over the loss of her son is as great as an ocean, and as obscure," said the Salmon, "but the ocean is my home, and I know the secrets of its depths as I know my own. Every year I return to this pool and follow the stream far into the hills of this country, all the way to spring in the courtyard of the Castle of Light. And I tell you, Arthur, that for many years now I have heard the weeping and sorrow of one lost and alone when I have come there."
"Do you think, Wise Salmon, that this sorrowing sound may be of the Great Son?"
"I have no doubt," said the Salmon firmly. "And I will take you to him. You may ride upon my back as I swim—but, I can only carry two. So you must come alone, Arthur, so that when you have freed the son from his captivity you may both ride back together."
So King Arthur took leave of his knights, who saw their king off with a mixture of courage and trepidation, and he clambered aboard the long, slippery back of the Salmon of Wisdom. Quick as light glinting over the water, the Salmon swam with Arthur astride her, and it seemed the countryside sped along on either side of them with a magical speed so that in almost no time at all they were approaching the place where the stream began its journey, the spring by the great Castle of Light.
Now the Castle of Light was strangely named, for in fact it was a dark and forbidding place, overgrown and half-rotted and ruined from long neglect. As the Salmon of Wisdom drew closer to the fortress, Arthur too could hear the weeping and sorrowing sounds echoing from within its mossy stone walls. Leaping from the Salmon's back, he charged into the dim courtyard of the castle and battered the hilt of his sword against the inner door. But the door was old and spongy with rot and gave way before him, and he thrust it open, following the sobbing noises down and down into the dripping dungeons of the Castle. There, at last, he came upon the hunched, weeping figure of a man huddled in a corner. At the noise, the man looked up, and though his eyes were red from crying, his face was radiant and youthful beneath the grimy streaks of tears.
"You there," Arthur said, with the command of a king in his tone, "Are you Mabon, the Great Son of the Great Mother, Modron?"
The young man sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, straightening up. "For sure I am, sir, and I've been locked in this dreadful dungeon for ages upon ages."
"Well," said Arthur, "the doors have rotted and the walls have crumbled, and I have need of a great huntsman to stalk the wild, terrible boar called Twrch Trwyth. So I have come to set you free. Will you come?"
"Of course!" Mabon said, and followed Arthur swiftly from the black of the dungeons up into the wan sunlight above. Together they mounted the Salmon of Wisdom, who looked on the young man with secret gentleness and did not strive to keep the King and his huntsman dry on their return journey home. Waters from the stream splashed and danced against their sides as the Salmon leapt and plunged, her glistening body writhing with the joy of dodging rocks and limbs, and soon all the dirt and strife of years in the dark had washed from Mabon's face and his whole being seemed to shine, strong and healthy again.
And this was how he came to his mother, Modron—bright and gleaming, accompanied by the majesty of Arthur and all his brave knights following behind—and she swept him up in an embrace of gratitude and happiness that was greater than the ocean, greater even than the sunlight and the sun itself. Then she released him, with a smile and one last thankful kiss, and gestured that he could go, with her blessing, to help Arthur hunt his ugly boar.
For, it turns out, he was indeed the greatest huntsman in all the land, and he made a swift end to the huge boar that had eluded so many before him. Then, there was a great feast and celebration afterwards, which I assume Modron and Mabon both attended with pleasure, seated honorably at the King's own table. And that is as good a place as any for the story to end.
The children all begin asking questions at once: "Who was it who stole Mabon in the first place?" "How could he be good at hunting when he was locked up since he was a baby?" "Why did it take so long for them to find the Salmon, when she knew all along?" "Where did you hear that story, did you read it in a book?" the oldest asks. And the boy, perched on the edge of his bunk, asks, "Why did Arthur need to hunt the boar?"
"Why did Arthur need to hunt the boar?" I repeat, with a wink. "Well, that's a whole different story, for another time!"