Monday, May 30, 2011


Mag and the Tar Pig
By Jesse Harlin

The story goes that, long before the split that rent The Twin Kingdoms in two, a young man named Mag Gairbhin claimed the forests outside of Esh as his personal playground. When there was goatsmilk to be milked, or orchards in need of orching, one could rest assured that Mag Gairbhin would be off hunting pixies in The Wood and shirking all responsibility that any fool dared to place upon him. It was said that Mag was good for little else than excuses and time-wasting, both skills he prided himself on. And not for nothing neither, for when it came to skirting work or blame, the lad was a virtuoso.

So it was one day, as the potato crop remained unharvested and the sheep remained unattended, Mag wandered aimlessly through his Wood, a merry tune dancing lightly upon his lips. After a few fruitless sprite chases and a brief pursuit of something he swore bore a striking resemblance to a leprechaun, Mag realized he had wandered far beyond the familiar shade of The Wood. Mag followed a scant path through the bare white birch trees. Soon, a strange and distant sound fell upon his ears. As he moved closer, it became apparent that the sound was a voice, and the voice was calling out for help.

Mag followed the voice’s call to a clearing in The Wood where, before his startled eyes, he found a large tar pool set neatly between a ring of tall pines and ferns. In the center of the tar pool, half swallowed by its sticky blackness, there struggled a wild pig – and this pig was calling for help.

“Oh, good sir,” said the pig politely, “do be a good lad and help me out? I seem to be sinking quite quickly in my present predicament.”

Mag eyed the pig skeptically, for he was sure there was some manner of deviltry afoot. The pigs on his father’s farm were not fond of talking – least not that he had ever seen, and most definitely not as eloquently as the pig before him.

“Tell me, Pig,” said Mag, screwing his face up in a smirk of distrust, “how is it that you came to be stuck in this tar pool?”

“I can answer that,” came a bright, new voice from the pines above. And with that, a small robin bounced lightly into view. “The darn fool went and fell out of this tree. I always told him I was a better tree climber. Though I never meant for him to go and feel the need to prove me right.”

With a heavy pig sigh, the unfortunate tar pig agreed with this assessment of his skills. “She’s right. I fell like a stone from the lower branches and with a single bounce landed right where I am now, for I have been stuck here ever since.”

In a strange way, Mag could accept this answer. It made sense enough – surely, a robin could out tree-climb a pig. “But how did you come to be able to speak?” asked Mag with a slight sense of embarrassment, for he worried that the pig would find him obscene for asking such a personal question. Worse still, the pig might find him to be extremely ignorant should it turn out that all pigs in fact have the ability to talk. Perhaps his father’s pigs simply looked down their snouts at him and had never found Mag worthy of joining in their intellectual discourses.

With a furrowed brow, the tar pig looked tentatively at the robin who offered only a curt nod in response. “Well, lad,” began the pig, “I’m not in fact a pig at all. My name is Ketill, and Drifa and I are Druids.”

Mag looked quickly from pig to robin and back to pig. Spending as much time in The Wood as Mag did, the young man had of course heard of the Druids. Long had it been whispered in his ear that the Druids were a secretive people, intimately tied to the nature of Nature of the ways of The Wood. Some said they were witches. Some said they were worse. Mag’s own father said they weren’t anything at all but mistaken shadows amidst the twisted forest branches, merely the intangible stuff of legends and spooktales. But, as best as Mag knew, spooktales couldn’t get stuck in tar pools, so he found himself inclined to believe the little tar pig.

“What would you like for me to do?” asked Mag kindly. “I’m afraid I should sink into the tar beside you were I to try and pluck you out myself.”

“No need for that. For all you need do is sing to me a fine dancing song,” said the tar pig. “If you sing for me a tune that’s fast and light, why surely my poor pig feet would have little choice but to kick up their heels and dance their way right out of this mess.”

Mag thought the pig foolish, for sure; but, trusting a pig to know his own feet better than a young boy might, Mag began to sing an old tune that his mother had often sung when he had been but a child.

Fireflies is dartin’ in the early ev’nin’ light,
While Farmer’s wife if darnin’ ev’ry stockin’ in her sight.
Hound is sittin’ lazily and snappin’ at the flies,
But the devil’s in the cold at night no matter how he tries.

Oh! P’shaw! Keep the door a-tight!
No! Papa! Keep the candle bright!
Strangers in your fields may be why your baby cries.
Let the devil in the cold at night no matter how he tries.

The song was brisk, the tune a lively one. And though he stumbled over a word here or there, Mag Gairbhin handled the ditty well with a voice that grew with confidence the longer he sang. By the end of the first verse, the little tar pig was happily bobbing his head along with the beat. By the end of the second verse, Drifa was bouncing happily around the tar pool, her little wings aflutter in excitement. Mag was delighted to have such an enthusiastic audience and soon found himself clapping his hands and stomping his feet along with the music.

Before long, and much to his amazement, the little tar pig seemed to rise up from the very tar itself, his hind feet busily dancing the merriest pig jig Mag had ever seen, albeit the only pig jig he’d ever seen. Twice more round the last verse, and Ketill the pig was dancing pleasantly beside Drifa on the forest floor.

“Oh, thank you!” exclaimed the small pig once Mag had finished his song. “You’ve saved my life and given us such a wonderful new song at the same time.”

Mag was rather surprised that his song had managed to do anything at all. Still, bewilderment aside, he bent low to the little tar pig and shook his front hoof in a gesture of friendship. Then suddenly, the realization that he was shaking hooves with a pig was enough to remind him of where he was, and that he was lost and far from home.

“Oh, please, Ketill. Might you tell me how I may get back to my farm? I am lost and don’t know my way.”

The pig was only too eager to help. And with a few quick goodbyes, Mag set off quickly for his father’s farm.

A week passed. Then another. As time went on, Mag came to think of his adventure in The Wood as little more than a daydream, a wistful fantasy he had concocted while asleep beside a haystack. He tried on occasion to hold a conversation with his father’s pigs, but the pigs seemed more bemused than talkative and Mag eventually stopped trying.

Finally one morning, as Mag was grudgingly chopping wood beside the barn, he heard knocking from the front door of the family’s cottage. When he came round the front of the small house, the boy found two strangers standing at the doorway in conversation with his father. In their hands was a cloth-wrapped bundle tied with string.

“We come with a gift for a young man named Mag,” said the male stranger.

“A gift?” his father snorted incredulously. “What game is this? My son has done no work and can hardly be deserving of a gift. You must have the wrong house.”

“No, kind sir,” said the female stranger who smiled broadly when she saw Mag appear from behind the house, “Your son has helped to save a life and there is no grander work than that. This gift is one of sincerest gratitude from a special friend.”

At that, the male stranger approached Mag and handed him the bundle. “This is a gift of thanks, Mag. Your friends in The Wood asked me to bring it to you.”

Awkwardly, Mag took the bundle from out of the stranger’s hands. Its contents felt lop-sided and smooth beneath the burlap wrap. Without another word, both the strangers bowed low to Mag, then again to his father, then turned and walked back along the path towards The Wood.

Mag unwrapped a beautiful new lute from within the bundle, its face adorned with inlayed wood portraying a young man dancing beside a robin and a little tar pig. The boy smiled broadly, and amidst the din of his father yelling for answers, Mag was sure he could hear the two strangers’ voices singing harmoniously as they moved up the road:

Strangers in your fields may be why your baby cries.
Let the devil in the cold at night no matter how he tries.

--from The Collected Tales of The Family Gairbhin, vol. 1

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Jesse Harlin is an author and composer living in San Francisco, CA. When he isn't writing words or music, he can either be found playing video games with his wife or feeding food to his cats that they probably shouldn't be eating.


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