The Story of Miach and His Sister
(This story was written in thanks to three Celtic gods of healing, for my wife's successful surgery and lack of malignant cancer.)
It is said in the Book of Leinster that:
"... Dian Cecht had three sons, Cu, Cehten and Cian. Miach was the fourth son though many do not reckon him. His daughter was Etan the Poetess, and Airmed the she-leech was the other daughter..."
When I heard the words: "Miach was the fourth son though many do not reckon him." I had to wonder. Miach certainly had earned fame; his healing skill surpassed that of his famous father. Had he committed some crime, that many would not even count him as a son of the fabulous leech (or physician) Dian Cecht?
Well yes, he had committed a crime. As I said, his skill surpassed that of his father. Some fathers, sad in growing past the peak of their powers, take comfort in the knowledge they have raised strong children whose accomplishments outshine their own. Some physicians, chafing at the limits of their knowledge and ability, are delighted by new discoveries that help them bring healing to the afflicted. Miach's father, whose name has been mentioned enough, was not such a father. Nor was he such a physician. Some heal for love, some for profit, others for vanity. It is so now and it was so then.
Not much is passed down about this fourth son, other than the circumstances leading to and following his death. This, then, is the story of Miach, as it was told to my soul's ear.
As a boy, Miach was an odd one. Oh, he played with the others, did his chores without too much grumbling, slept well and ate better, and grew like a shoot. Nonetheless, in some ways he was different from most boys. For one thing, he was kind to his sisters, particularly Airmed. And though he could chuck a rabbit stick as well as any boy, when his bag was full he'd hide away for a long while, down-wind and stock-still, to watch the living creatures only for the sake of watching them. And of his brothers, he was the one who made a nuisance of himself by watching and asking questions as his mother or a sister dressed out the game. "Is our liver like a goose liver?" for instance, or "How do stomachs and guts turn food into shite?" "Ask your father, why don't you?" the women of the house would complain, but they'd regret it. For then they'd have father and son pawing over entrails and organs, making a mess and getting in the way.
Yes, Dian Cecht loved the boy at least as much as his other children, and perhaps a bit more. Though Airmed had a natural knack for herb lore, and none of the offspring could be considered "slow", Miach was the only one whose mind was sharp as a knife honed by countless questions. Brilliant minds sometimes grow very lonely for want of company, and the father discovered that when he explained the workings of life to his son, not only did the son learn quickly, the father's understanding deepened as well. The son loved both the lessons and his father deeply, believing his father to be the wisest man in the entire world. Before the boy had the first hint of a beard, he was going with his mentor to the hearths of the Tuatha dé Dánaan, assisting him in the healing of the mighty whom we now call the Shining Ones. Imagine what that must have been like. In households humble and great, Dian Cecht was greeted with affection, gratitude, deference, and hope. As Miach became less of a boy and more of a man, he shared in the bounty of trust given to the physician, and assisted his father in the most intimate of matters.
Injuries occurred more frequently than illnesses among this robust people, and Miach learned from his father that a leech is paid for discretion as well as medicine. Discretion was also important in the technique of remedies, which were not to be shared, since mysterious cures commanded a higher price than the mundane. Over years, the bond of father and son grew ever stronger with each secret shared. Yet they were not alike in all things. Miach was of a generous nature, and tried without success to convince his father to share some lesser cures with the community, so that the suffering endured while traveling, or sending a messenger and waiting for the physician's visit, would be unnecessary. He also possessed a skill his father did not, though neither of them mentioned it.
A secret that is not a secret seems strange indeed, yet many people have them, to protect the status quo of a valued relationship. So it was that master and apprentice pretended not to notice certain things. Wounds healed faster than expected when Miach assisted with the bandaging. Delirious children stopped struggling against distressing remedies once they met his eyes. Though men did not assist in childbirth, many an expectant mother would conspire to "accidentally" brush against Miach in passing, believing labor would be easier for that touch. No one dared speak to Dian Cecht about the reputation his son was earning. Miach knew, Dian Cecht knew, but both pretended not to notice, as partners might pretend not to notice each other's indiscretions. Despite the tacit pact made to preserve the relationship, Dian Cecht and his son gradually grew apart; the less they could speak openly with each other, the worse it became. Even working side by side, it seemed at times that there were miles between them, miles that neither of them could bring themselves to mention or to even recognize.
It was during the first battle of Mag Tuired, that full-grown Miach was forced to see how things were between him and his father. In consultation with the ancient Fin Tán, Miach's father was supervising the digging of the Great Well of Healing, which was to entirely restore many thousands of warriors put into it no matter how gravely wounded. Into the water, Airmed had thrown bushels full of healing herbs gathered from all the reaches of Ireland. Miach had been set to stir the water with the root end of a long birch sapling, while other men were setting stones in the sides of the well to stop them from collapsing. Miach's father slipped on a stone in passing, grabbed at the young man's arm to keep his balance. Already leaning over the well to stir the waters, Miach tumbled down into waist high, herb-thickened water. His father laughed, suggested he stir the mess with his legs and arms, as long as he was already down there. Miach laughed in turn, took a step, slipped and went under.
He could find no footing. The water suddenly was ice cold, seemed to suck the very life from his body. Miach fought to the surface but was pulled down before he could catch a decent breath. He surfaced a second time and did get air, but gagged and coughed on the slimy green mass he was forced to swallow. Like a living thing, the water dragged him down again. It was no longer ice cold, nor was he drowning. His belly was full of fire, he felt no need for air, and the water around him seemed to be bubbling. He stopped struggling, his hands finding the root end of the birch sapling. Grabbing it, he was pulled out of the boiling water by his brothers Cú and Cian holding the other end. Only ankle deep now, he used one hand to clear the muck out of his eyes, waved thanks to his brothers. They seemed to be shining like stars, and at first Miach thought the sun must be behind him. When he looked down, however, the steaming water at his feet was glowing as though lit from within. When he looked back up, all the people in the crowd at the rim of the well had the same quality, glowing with an inner light, that light forming a luminous second skin around each of them. Then he met his father's eyes looking down on him, and time seemed to stop.
For his fathers' eyes were colder than any water could ever be. In his newfound, newly agonizing clarity of vision, Miach could finally see what had been in front of him for years. His father's slip and grab that tumbled him into the fresh-dug well had been no accident. The man he'd loved and looked up to all his life, whose bidding he had done since he could walk...that man was afraid of him, and had been so for some time now.
There was little time to absorb this revelation. The well was ready, the battle started, and already gravely wounded men were being carried toward the water for the healing. Miach clambered out and grabbed a targe and sword. Many enemy Fir Bolg fell to his rage that day, and many Tuatha Dé were carried by him to the Well of Healing. Though he sustained many wounds and never went back into the Well's waters, at the end of battle not a mark was left on his body. Not so for Nuadu, King of the Tuatha Dé Dánaan.. The Well healed his pain and bleeding, to be sure. Yet he was no longer King, nor could he even wield a sword, for nothing could replace the right arm hacked off by the Fir Bolg.
Or so it was thought. Seven days or seven years after the battle was won, with the Fir Bolg in Connacht, Dian Cecht presented Nuadu with a matchless gift. Under his direction, the Master Artisan Credne had crafted a miracle, a gleaming silver arm to replace the one lost to battle. It fit perfectly onto Nuadu's stump, and after Dian Cecht fastened it, Nuadu could move every finger, flex every joint. It answered his will as rapidly as his old arm of flesh, and it was so strong he could crush a rock to gravel effortlessly. No enemy would be eager to face the King now, surely. The physician was very pleased. Surely his reputation was more than secure. His name and accomplishment would resound through the ages. And indeed it has, and rightly so, for even at the dawn of the twenty-first century, no one has equaled his accomplishment. Unless you reckon Miach, who earned Nuadu's gratitude and his father's wrath.
It was like this: Nuadu heaped honor gifts upon Dian Cecht's household, and was never so ungrateful as to complain of how weird and unnatural it felt to have an arm of metal, powerful, responsive and quite numb. He never told anyone that his wife asked him to take it off before he came to bed. He was too proud to let anyone know how it felt to have all his own qualities and accomplishments fall into the shadow of Dian Cecht's incredible achievement; wherever he walked, the brilliant shine of the silver arm and hand went before him. It was all anybody ever talked about anymore. He never mentioned any of this, but Miach knew how Nuadu felt. Not only was he no stranger to walking in another's shadow, but the bright vision thrust upon him at the Well of Healing abided. He could see and touch and even shape life energy, and had come to recognize the imbalances and interruptions connected with illnesses and injuries. When Nuadu had lost his fleshly arm, the energy surrounding that arm had stayed with him nonetheless, keeping him in balance. The silver arm changed that, interrupting the ebb and flow of life force. Nuadu's energy was thrown out of balance, and the king would never feel like a whole man again until that imbalance was remedied. Miach knew that he could repair the damage done. For many years he had downplayed his own abilities to keep peace with his father, but he could do this no longer. It was time to step out of the shadow, however much it might cost.
The healing lasted three times three nights and days. "Joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew," Miach chanted, among other things, and bandaged Nuadu's arm and hand to his middle for the first seventy two hours, and the arm was entirely covered with skin. "Muscle to muscle of it, and vessel to vessel," sang he, binding the king's arm and hand to his chest for the next seventy-two hours, and everything that had been silver was now flesh, nerve, tendon and bone of it. "Strength to strength of it, and habit to habit," chanted Miach, showing Nuadu the exercises to teach his new arm how to act just like the old one. By the end of that seventy-two hours Nuadu was delighted to have a well muscled and coordinated arm, needing only a bit of sun to look just like the other one. His young healer found it hard to join the celebration, however, for he knew word would soon reach his father's ears.
When Miach came upon his father the great surgeon was sitting upon a stump outside the family roundhouse, honing his sword with a flat stone. The strokes were slow and steady: fffwwwht, fffwwwht, fffwwwht. I do not know the sword's name, but it was crafted by the great smith Goibnu, and was said to have this quality: Whomsoever was wounded by it could only be healed by the hand of Dian Cecht.
As was right, the younger man addressed the older first: "Hello, Da'. A fine day it is, neh?" fffwwwht, fffwwwht, fffwwwht. The son waited for an answer. fffwwwht, fffwwwht, fffwwwht. A long time. fffwwwht, fffwwwht, fffwwwht. Only when Miach turned away to leave did his father speak.
"A fine day for you, certainly." fffwwwht, fffwwwht, fffwwwht. "People have been talking." fffwwwht, fffwwwht, fffwwwh. "They say you are a most wondrous leech." ffffffffffwwwwwwwwwht. Dian Cecht lifted his sword to sight along the edge, finally looking in his son's direction.
Miach met the eyes, cold as they were. "People say lots of things, sir. It is your opinion I care for."
The father laughed, but there was no mirth in it. "Huh. Sir, is it now? My opinion you care for, do you? How can I give you my opinion when it has been so long since I've tested you? Do you agree?" he said, slowly standing.
"As you wish, Father." said Miach.
"I wish you to stand quite still." the surgeon said and let his blade fall ever so lightly upon his son's head. That was the first blow. Miach felt a whisper of pain and a long laceration parted the skin of his scalp, blood flowing over his face and neck. Briefly, he closed his eyes. The cut upon his scalp closed and healed, the spilled blood disappearing into his skin like water into freshly tilled earth.
"Indeed you are a great leech," said the Dian Cecht, "but you have been keeping secrets from your father." The second blow fell a little faster, a little heavier, a little more painfully. When Dian Cecht drew back his sword there was an even longer gash on the top of his son's head, showing the white bone of Miach's skull. He raised his hands to his head and pushed the edges of the wound together, healing it, the blood returning to his body as before.
"I meant no harm, Father. The change happened when I fell into the Well of Healing. I did not mention it for fear of angering you."
"Have I been such a hard father then, that you fear to anger me?"
"That is not what I mean. I mean..."
"You mean to make me a laughingstock and take my place!" The third blow was a blur, driving Miach to his knees. He moaned, softly. The top of his skull was sliced open and the thin clear caul encasing his brain was precisely sliced its exact thinness. Slowly, with pain and difficulty, Miach healed himself a third time. Unsteadily, he stood back up.
"Please, Da', no more." he whispered, so faintly it is a wonder his father heard him. The older man searched deep in his son's eyes for any sign of duplicity or betrayal. He could find none. Bewildered, frustrated, he sat back down upon the stump, and bade his son to sit on the rock in front of him.
"Oh Miach, my beloved... You have worked a miracle for Nuadu, and ruined all my work in so doing. And here is the crux of the matter: I am a great healer, and you are now a great healer, so which of us is to be the master? Two cocks cannot share the same walk."
"Da', I love you more than Life. I care not for pride of place. You are Master of your Art, and have taught me well these many years. I am Master of my Art, and if you will allow, I can teach you."
"Arrogance!" shouted Cecht, and the fourth blow was quicker than light. Miach's head was cleft in two from crown to nape of neck. His muscles and bowels let go; he tumbled off his rock like...like a dead man. Half of his brain rolled out upon the packed dirt, the other clinging to the skull by a scrap of spinal cord. Yet this story does not end with Miach's death.
The old man stood and stared, dumbfounded. He dropped to his knees, fumbling in his pouch for bronze needle and waxed linen. He placed the halves of brain back together in the skull, his fingers slippery with the clear fluid that normally is locked in skull and spinal cord. That was the first water. The blood upon his fingers as he stitched the scalp together, that was the second water. The father placed his mouth upon his son's bloody lips, trying to breathe life back into him. Red bubbles hissed forth from deep in Miach's wound. "Oh my son, even I cannot heal this wound," Dian Cecht said, "and you no longer breathe to heal yourself." He buried his face in his hands. The tears pouring forth from his bloodied eyes, that was the third water.
Tears ran down over his face and hands, mingling with blood and spinal fluid, and the warm salty liquid trickled into the father's mouth. He wept, and he wept, and he wept. When finally he lifted his head, the sun had set. Many members of the tribe had gathered round the awful scene. To the eyes of the leech, the people glowed from within, the light forming a second skin around each one. This vision was to torture him the rest of his days. No one tried to comfort him, which was just as well, for he was inconsolable. He wanted to throw himself onto the point of his sword, but that was not the way of the people, and he knew the Tribe still needed a physician. He had neglected Airmed's training in favoring Miach, and she was not ready to take over.
As for Airmed, she did not attend the burial, as she feared she would kill her father if she saw him. After all had left the burial site, she mourned privately, prostrate upon the mound, weeping long and quietly. By and by, in her mind's eye she saw Miach, shining with light, smiling at her. So it was she fell asleep in the middle of her tears, and awoke to the smell and touch of green growing things. Three hundred and sixty-five healing herbs had sprung up all around her, growing from the joints and sinews of her brother's body, a parting gift for her and all humanity. Airmed spread her mantle on the ground. She cut some herbs, pulled up others by the root. She placed each one upon the cloak, similarly to where it had grown on the mound, each according to what it was good for. When she finished, she had a remedy for every ill that ever ailed man, woman or child. Yet this gift was not meant to be.
For Cecht had come back to mourn his son again. He came upon Airmed, and her cloak upon the ground, and the three hundred and sixty-five herbs, each glowing brightly with a different color, forming the shape of his son's corpse. "Even from the grave he defies me!" he cried, gathering the mantle and scattering its contents broadcast, impossible to rearrange. Thus he assured that the misery of illness would remain manifest through human history.
Airmed howled like an enraged she-wolf, grabbing a stick and beating her father about the head and shoulders. He quietly took the blows, making no effort to protect himself. Finally his daughter struck him behind the crook of his knee, tumbling him to the ground. She picked up a great stone, one heavier than most men could raise, and lifted it over her head with murderous intent. Yet this story does not end with Dian Cecht's death. For Airmed heard, strong and clear, her brother's voice. "No, sister, as I love you and you love me, no!" So she dropped the stone at her father's feet and walked away, leaving him with the mantle, and him weeping, a broken man.
Months later, for the sake of the Tribe and her brother, Airmed accepted training from her father. She became one of the greatest healers ever known before or since. Later, the Book of Leinster says, Dian Cecht died of a painful plague, but the book does not name it. I believe his illness was the same one that plagues healers of every kind to this very day, the inner war between arrogance and compassion.
Thank the gods, Airmed and Miach still move in our world from time to time, whispering into the ears of doctors, nurses, psychotherapists, herbalists, and other healers. They remind them to respect the mysteries they work within, the currents of magic flowing in each patient. Some ears are open; others are not. May our ears be open to their calm reminder that no story truly ends with anybody's death.
That is the story of Miach and his sister Airmed, as told to my soul's ear, and if there be any fault in it, is only the fault of my own hearing.