When she came to the finger-post
She turned right and walked as far as the mountains.
Patches of snow lay under the thorny bush
That was blue with sloes. She filled her pockets.
The sloes piled into the hollows of her skirt.
The sunset wind blew cold against her belly
And light shrank between the branches
While her hands raked in the hard fruit.
The reindeer halted before her
And claimed her as his wife.
She rode home on his back without speaking,
Holding her rolled–up skirt,
Her free hand grasping the wide antlers
To keep her steady on the long ride.
How could they let her go back to stay
In that cold house with that strange beast?
So the old queen said, whose son her sister had married.
Thirteen months after she left home
She'd travelled hunched on the deck of a trader
Southwards to her sister's wedding.
Her eyes reflected acres of snow,
Her breasts were large from suckling,
There was salt in her hair.
They met her staggering on the quay;
They put her in a scented bath,
Found a silken dress, combed her hair out.
They slipped a powder in her drink
So she forgot her child, her friend,
The snow, and the sloe gin.
The reindeer died when his child was ten years old.
Naked in death his body was a man's.
Young, with an old man’s face and scored with grief.
When the old woman felt his curse, she sickened,
She lay in her tower bedroom and could not speak.
The young woman who had nursed her grandchildren nursed her.
The boy from the north stood in the archway
That looked into the courtyard where water fell,
His arm around the neck of his companion —
A wild reindeer staggered by sunlight.
His hair was bleached, his skin blistered.
He saw the woman in wide silk trousers
Come out of the door at the foot of the stairs,
Sit on a cushion and stretch her right hand for a hammer.
She hammered the dried, broad beans one by one,
While the swallows timed her, swinging side to side:
The hard skin fell away, and the left hand
Tossed the bean into the big brass pot.
It would surely take her all day to do them all.
She saw the child watching, her face did not change.
A light wind fled over them
As the witch died in the high tower.
She knew her child in that moment:
His body poured into her vision
Like a snake pouring over the ground,
Like a double–mouthed fountain of two nymphs,
The light groove scored on his chest
Like the meeting of two tidal roads, two oceans.
About the Author: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was born in Ireland in 1942. She was educated in Cork and Oxford, and is a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin. She is a founding editor of the literary review Cyphers along with her husband Macdara Woods, Leland Bardwell, and Pearse Hutchinson. She has published several collections of poetry, including The Magdalene Sermon, The Brazen Serpent, and The Girl Who Married the Reindeer, for which she has been awarded the Patrick Kavanagh Prize and other honors. For more information on the author, please visit the Cyphers website.
"The Girl Who Married the Reindeer" is copyright © 1995 by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. The poem first appeared in The Southern Review (Autumn 1995), and was subsequently published in The Girl Who Married the Reindeer, a collection from The Gallery Press, County Meath, Ireland. The poem may not be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the author.