Niamh, she made fire, and she knew how to love. She carried with her a horn with a single coal in it, and when she stopped, she’d make a fire, and cook in a small copper pot the things her cousins of the earth had given her on the way that day: a gleaning of parsnips, a handful of wild garlic, a pinch of sea salt from her salt box, a piece of mutton from a village where she’d helped kindle the need-fire. Now and now the coal would fade, if she had to walk two days, or the rain got in under the stopper; so she carried flint and tinder too. If the tinder got wet she knew the ways to find more, under the dry sides of bushes, under the trees where the flowers had blown to seed. If she’d given away her flint and steel yet again, she’d cut a fire bow.
This is important, this, that she knew how to make fire a number of ways. We do not say, ”there’s only one way to make fire” and throw up our hands and live in the cold and die when the snow piles up, do we? We keep tinder and flint, and a coal in a horn, and if we live in an age where they coat small sticks with sulphur, or craft the mysterious little vials that burn like candles at a flick of the thumb, we keep those as well. We pull coals from lightning-struck trees or borrow one from a neighbor’s hearth.
If someone told us, “There’s only one way to make fire, and we haven’t that, we’d best sit here in the cold and pray and grieve till we die,” we’d laugh, if we were the sort to laugh, or scowl if we were the scowling kind. Or possibly stick out our tongues.
Yet so many of us, we say, “There’s only one way to love, and I haven’t that, I’d best sit here in the cold and die alone.”
We don’t hop up out of the house, with the flint and tinder of our hearts, and go set stones in a circle, and find dry wood.
Nearly all of us, after a bit of practice, can be good at finding dry wood for a fire. Niamh was one of the best. When she came through a place where some disaster had struck, the people would look up and smile at her, and their faces would reflect the brightness they felt in seeing her—Niamh means brightness, of course, it’s a lovely name for a woman—and they would say, “She’ll make the fire, she has the knowing,” and their shoulders would drop in relief, sure that they could go on with bandaging wounds or pulling people from houses or cooling the foreheads of the fevered, or whatever work the Lady had put into their hands.
Niamh would build up a fire, out of wood nobody’d noticed, and find a bigger copper pot than her own, or maybe an iron kettle if somebody had such a thing, and she’d put up a tripod she’d cut from an enemy lance or three drying rods or some other detritus everyone else had passed by, and in would go this and that, and not only would everyone be warm everyone would be fed.
Now and now she’d stop in overnight, with the blacksmith and her husband, or at the midwives’ triple-circled house, or over moss and under blanket with another wanderer in the shadow of the road.
After she’d gone from town people would say, “Cac, we never thanked her,” and an old woman would say, ”Well I did, and gave her some salt and a mended jacket,“ and some would look at her footprints in the mud of the towpath and say, “How lonely she must be, lone woman walking over the hills of this country.”
Only a few knew. They knew that she walked over the country because she loved it.
Even fewer knew that in autumn she walked home, to a spring under a high hill, with a grove of ninety kinds of trees, and nine round houses beside it. There, she knew she would find a fire laid on the central hearth. Her beloveds said they always knew the day she would return. “The air feels different that day,” they said, her beloveds:
Lugh of the broad shoulders, with whom she raised three children, Aednat, Aileen and Aiden;
Grian and Luíseach, shining women;
Cabhan, who did none of the things lovers do, save open her heart’s greenest hollows;
Laisrén, born woman and transformed into a man;
Laisarfhiona, born man and transformed into a woman;
Evin, young and eager;
Fionntán of every white hair earned;
Maon, with whom she would sit silent, at peace;
Carraig, who remained a rock all night;
And finally her own small empty house, where now and now she would go to sit, and tend to her own relation. For Niamh, she made fire, and she knew how to love.