Arthur and I arrived back at the standing stones about 8pm. On most nights, it would have been dark by now; if not completely dark, then well into twilight. But these were the longest days of the year, the sun still shined brightly in the late spring sky and it wouldn’t pass beneath the western waves for another two hours. We were in no rush to bring on the night. The early morning’s stiff northeast breeze changed direction, mellowed into soft southerlies, raising the air temperature to a balmy 53 degrees F. It was delightful weather.
We were physically drained from our long trek across Coll, emotionally spent after reliving the bloody events from 1593. Arthur and I were more than happy to just set up camp, get something to eat and lay back on the soft grass about a hundred yards from the megalithic stones, still embedded in their time bubble from the far distant past.
My belly full, my thirst slacked, I fell back on my sleeping back content, looking straight up towards the heavens.
“I bet it’s good sky gazing here,” I said, as Arthur finished his simple meal.
“Oh, it is,” he replied, “no better place on earth. There aren’t any streetlights on Coll. It’s been named a Dark Sky Community. You can see faint stars here you can’t see anywhere else due to the light pollution. And The Milky Way? It just explodes overhead; you never knew there were so many stars in the sky.”
“Bring on the light show,” I said, looking forward to the onset of total darkness.
“I’m afraid your timing is bad, Magnus,” said Arthur. “It’s almost a full moon, lots of natural light out tonight. Not too good for star gazing.”
“Oh, that’s too bad, perhaps another night,” I said.
If light pollution is one way to ruin a nice evening’s star gazing then excessive noise is another. Now approaching from the north, the killers of quiet, eight or ten children, laughing and playing. That, too, changed when a seven year old girl’s blood curdling shriek brought a speedy end to their carefree fun.
“Ewan! You cheated!” she screamed.
“Oan yer bike, a wisna.” declared the accused.
“Aye,” she continued, “yer aff yer heed, ya scunner.”
“Am no,” he continued, becoming angrier.
“Aye, yer a coarse loon, ye are, Ewan Fergus,” said the girl, upping the anxiety.
“He is na,” said a second boy, coming to his friend’s defense.
The loud squeal of a seven year old girl is specifically designed by God to pierce an adult’s eardrums. So when young Flora’s final screech sounded as loud as an air raid siren, Arthur felt it was time to intervene.
“Lassie, Lassie, ye cannae do that,” said Arthur, addressing young Flora. “You’ll scare the corncrakes, ye will. They’ll fly away. Ye dunnae wan a do that, do ye?”
“Naw,” said the girl, calmer now.
“I thought so,” said Arthur, “You seem like a bonnie lass, I think…”
“She started it!” implored young Ewan, still angry over whatever grievance he still felt.
“Aye, I know how you feel; I do.” said Arthur, whispering, so Flora wouldn’t hear him. He put his steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder, feeling compassion for the youngster experiencing his first case of woman troubles. “Get used to it, laddie; it won’t be the last time. Strange beings these female creatures; that they are. Difficult for boys to understand. Men, too.”
I was enjoying the moment, chuckling as I watched the King trying to corral the kids and get them to focus on something more productive; something a bit quieter.
“Is this how the Round Table started?” I asked, with a condescending tone to my voice. “The King trying to quiet a pack of squabbling knights?”
“Magnus, you don’t know how right you are. That was very much what it was like. Nobody listening to anyone else. Finger pointing. Screaming and scheming. Except they were all adults. When we’re at our worst, that’s how we act, like a gaggle of little kids.”
It went on like this for five minutes or so, the wise and kind King, surrounded by the energetic and adoring kids of his court, organizing them into teams and playgroups, no modern electronics in sight. This could have been a scene right out of 6th century Camelot, more normal than anything our overscheduled, 21st century children ever experienced.
Then it struck me. This was a living, breathing Currier and Ives water color, true enough, as normal as normal could be. But there was nothing normal about the Isle of Coll. King Arthur, marooned here for centuries; not normal. An angry mad-man, Gordon Graham MacLean, allied with my centuries long nemesis, Mr. Hissy-Fit; not normal. An invisible wall surrounding the island; not normal. Three days going on four, not being able to contact Eilidh; not normal. Finally, if one accepts the “new normal” of Arthur’s invisibility to the residents of Coll, then why could these children see him and he could see them? Not normal.
I walked to where Arthur was finishing up, trying to teach the kids how to play Kick The Can.
“Everyone hides, except whoever is IT. They have to put one foot on the can when they spot someone and then they yell: ‘1-2-3, I see Mary behind the Sycamore tree,’ which means Mary is captured. She now has to stay by the can. Of course, there aren’t any sycamore trees out here on Coll, so that’s a problem, but you get the idea.
Any questions?” said Arthur, after finishing up his explanation. “No? Alright then, off you go,” he said as he handed Ewan Fergus the can. “Don’t lose it; it’s the only can I’ve got.”
They were off; blessed silence returned to Totronald.
“You know,” I said, walking up to Arthur, “you really are wonderful with them. You’re a natural. Not everybody can do that.”
“They were my only source of sanity, all these years,” he said. “Without the kids, I would have lost it, long ago.”
So why can they see you?” I asked. “You aren’t invisible to them.”
“Because they are the children of the fairies,” he explained. “It goes with the territory. I love them all.
It seems like there are more and more of them coming here every year. When I first arrived on Coll it was just me and the locals. After the battle, when I became invisible again, the fairies started to arrive. They said they liked it here; it was so much better than that crowded island back in Glastonbury. Whenever they had the chance, they moved here.”
“If these are young fairies, why can I see them? When I first met you a couple of days ago, there were fairies all over your house; I saw you talking to them. I couldn’t see them. Now I can? Is it just because they are children?”
“Don’t know,” said Arthur, taking a more serious tone. “This is all new to me, too. My guess is you’re getting acclimated to this island’s special ways. Being able to see the fairies is the first sign. That’s not good, Magnus. I’m afraid the longer you stay here, the more my situation becomes yours.”
“You mean trapped, unable to leave, invisible to the world?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
Arthur and I returned to our campsite, waiting until the sun set so we could begin the search for Donald Og.
“Kids, can you all come over here, please” said Arthur, motioning them to circle around. “I’ve got a project I need your help with. We need some peat to build a fire; there’s a pile of dried peat up the road. My friend, Magnus, and I have decided to spend the night here so…”
“That’s not his name,” said the precocious lad, unafraid to interrupt the King. “His name is Merlin.”
BOOM! That was unexpected. How did he know that? It wasn’t like Arthur and I met anybody since my arrival. Neither of us told anyone the truth of my other identity. And yet, this seven year old knew.
“Alan, how do you know that?” asked the King, directly questioning the young boy. “Who told you his name was Merlin?”
“Me da,” said the boy. “He said it was a big night. We were all going out to meet the great taibhsear, Merlin.”
“Alan, where’s your da now?” asked the King.
“Right here, Your Majesty,” said the baritone voice coming from the shadows behind us.
Arthur and I were startled, not just by the surprise sound but also by the presence of another adult. We turned in his direction, towards the granite outcrop looming over us. At first, he was hard to see, our eyes being unaccustomed to the bright, white light of the newly risen moon which silhouetted him with its intense yet mysterious glow. Deep shadows covered the man’s face as he walked towards us. Standing about 6 feet 2 inches tall, comfortably dressed in modern, summer weight clothes, he wouldn’t have looked out of place on any golf course in Scotland. As he walked closer, close enough for the rays of the setting sun to illuminate the front of his face, we saw a handsome man, about 40, with just enough grey hair to give him a look of distinction.
“I don’t know if you remember me, Your Majesty,” continued the man. “We met once, back in 1948, the last time the solstice and the full moon were aligned. I looked a lot different then.”
“Perhaps we did,” said Arthur. What is your name?”
“It is Cuideachaidh; I am Donald Og’s assistant. It is so nice to see you again, Your Majesty,” said the man, bowing before the King. “And you must be Merlin. I can’t tell you how excited we are to meet you, Merlin. We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. Isn’t that right, kids?”
“Yeah; yeah,” exclaimed the assembled throng of children, thrilled to make my acquaintance. But they were as total strangers to me and I was still too weirded out by this strange named person, referring to Arthur as, ‘Your Majesty,’ calling me by this name I had yet to embrace.
“Then Donald Og is here?” I asked. “He sent you here to meet us?”
“Not exactly,” said Cuideachaidh. “Perhaps I had better explain. But first. [addressing the children] Kids, please do as your Sovereign requested and bring back some peat. We might be here for a while. We wouldn’t want His Majesty and Merlin to get cold. Except Caroline. Caroline, sweetheart, will you please bring bràthair naoidhean here please.”
The children scattered as Cuideachaidh requested. Within minutes the cut and dried bricks of peat began to arrive and were stacked neatly beside the firepit so they would be ready when we summoned them to surrender their warmth and light.
We made small talk for a few minutes as we waited for eight year young Caroline to return. When she arrived back at the fire pit, she came with a baby in her arms, a child wrapped in an infant’s blanket, a child so young he couldn’t have been more than a few days old, and she gently placed him in Cuideachaidh’s arms.
“Can’t I still hold him,” asked Caroline.
“No, dear,” said Cuideachaidh gently, “you’ve had your turn. Now it’s Merlin’s turn to hold him. That’s why we came here, right?”
The young girl nodded her head in agreement, not the least bit surprised by Cuideachaidh’s answer. That didn’t mean I wasn’t blind-sided, I WAS; totally caught off guard by yet another surprise here on Coll.
“My turn?” I said, with a dumbfounded look on my face as Cuideachaidh passed the small, fragile baby to me. I took him in my arms, ever so gently. “Why is it my turn? I don’t have to change any diapers, do I?”
All the kids gathered around the baby and me, squeezing in closer to get a better look at the child. These were happy faces, the unpleasant screams of earlier that evening, a long forgotten memory.
I looked down at the face of the young boy, wide awake. As his eyes met mine, a big smile crossed his face, his small, little hands began to wave back and forth, in excited agitation.
“He remembers you,” said Cuideachaidh. “I wasn’t sure he would. You’ve made him very happy, Merlin, very happy.”
That was a strange thing to say. But how was THAT any different than the other strange things which went on out here. “Strange” seems to be a way of life in this island.
“I don’t understand,” I said, still looking down at the face of the happy young boy. “How could a child so young remember me?” I asked.
All the kids laughed at once, as if they were in on the joke. Cuideachaidh explained it to me and, after he did, it all made some sort of nutty sense.
“The kids call him, bràthair naoidhean; that means Uncle Infant in Gaelic. Of course, that’s not his real name. You know him as Donald Og,” said Cuideachaidh.
BOOM NUMBER TWO! Didn’t see that one coming.
“That’s Donald Og!” I said, without nearly enough amazement in my voice to convey my true astonishment. “I thought he was supposed to be this old, guy. Only spoke Gaelic.”
“True enough,” said Cuideachaidh. “Back in 1948. He was even older before that. That’s probably why you’re having a hard time remembering me, Your Majesty. When we met, I would have looked quite old, older than old, in fact.”
“Yes,” said Arthur, stroking his white beard, thinking back to that time. “I do seem to remember meeting some very old people that day. So that was you? And Donald Og?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. “Unlike all the people here on earth who age as they move forward through time, we taibhsears don’t age, we youthen. So Donald Og has youthened since you last met him. So have I.
I’m afraid we’ll only have him with us for two more days, Your Majesty. He’ll leave us on the solstice and return to a time before time.
But I apologize, Your Majesty, if you already know this. I assumed Merlin told you how this all worked, but then I second guessed myself and thought I might be mistaken.”
“Yes, yes, you’re right,” said Arthur, trying to help the man save face. “Absolutely. I remember now. Merlin explained it to me. Indeed, your explanation of the youthening process was an excellent presentation. Merlin’s explanation was good too. Wasn’t it, Merlin?” said Arthur, looking at me with a smile and a wink of his royal eye, as if he was playing a cute little game of gotcha with me.
“What explanation was that, Your Majesty?” I said, playing to the youthful crowd with a big grin on my face, rolling my eyes and feigning forgetfulness.
All the kids laughed, as did Cuideachaidh, as if they appreciated being in on the joke. Arthur laughed too, prompting yet another wink from the King, a non-verbal ‘atta-boy’ for escaping the confines of his practical joke.
“Merlin, I didn’t know you were so funny,” said Cuideachaidh.
“Neither did I,” said I, half seriously, before sticking out my tongue, bugging out my eyes and playing to the 7 year old crowd, again, eliciting yet another round of giddy laughter.
“Merlin, I think we had better give Donald Og back to the people who know how to care for him,” said Arthur.
“Yes, Your Majesty, of course,” I replied, handing the blanket wrapped baby back to Cuideachaidh. “I think he just farted.”
This third round of laughter received the biggest laugh of all, uproarious squeals and giggles coming from the peanut gallery as if a very naughty word was spoken. Of course it was, intentionally.
The kids laughed the way all seven year olds do because all these stupid jokes are new to them. Unlike adult members of Homo Tooserious, a humorless species too enamored with isms and causes, creatures without the ability to laugh, these seven year olds still thought my jokes were funny. It’s why kids this age are priceless.
Here’s a Life Lesson for all who are still paying attention. Never underestimate the power of a good poop joke. Farts are funny; always have been; always will be.
Cuideachaidh dismissed the children. Uncle Infant was now back in the protective arms of Caroline, his young babysitter, and they headed back to wherever it was they lived, all smiling and waving goodbye, as pleasant an audience as any aspiring comic could ever hope for. I waved back, milking the moment for all it was worth.
“Good bye. Good bye. I’ll be here all week,” I said. But under my breath, unheard by either Arthur or Cuideachaidh, I mumbled to myself, “Maybe longer. Maybe, a lot longer.”
We built the peat fire and it was soon alight, just as the sun set over the ocean at 10:15 pm. The temperature was still in the low 50’s F. but the warmth of the flames felt good nonetheless. It was time to ask the question which had been sitting in the pit of my belly ever since the children left with Donald Og in their arms.
“I want to thank you for meeting us here tonight, Cuideachaidh,” I began. “I am unsure what comes next. My mentor, Mer…, I mean, well, let’s just call him Swede, he told me I was to come here and meet Donald Og. I doubt he meant a 2 day old Donald Og. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting that either. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now.”
“That is a good start, Magnus Cook. Sincere humility is always appropriate,” he said.
“You know my real name? How is that?” I asked, startled yet again by a Coll surprise.
“I know everything about you. It is why Donald Og chose me to assist him in these matters. As he came closer to the beginnings of his youth, he was afraid he would not be around to meet you. But you’re here and, as I said, you made him a very happy man, Merlin. But he selected me to take his place and I am fully capable of assisting you as he would.”
“Then you possess this second sight too?” I asked.
“I do. But now it’s time for me to be honest, Magnus Merlin Cook. I do not feel it to be a gift. The second sight is annoying. I’d give it away or shut it off if I knew how to do that. It’s not like a light switch you turn off. I can’t stop it; I see bits and pieces of the future all the time, constantly swarming around my eyes. That gets old, so to speak.”
“You’re right, that sounds annoying. I’m sorry it has to be that way for you. I’m still curious, though, what do you see about me? Is that why I was supposed to come here? For you or Donald Og to tell me about my future?”
“That’s very possible, Cook Merlin Magnus,” said Cuideachaidh. “But to do that I must look at you through the fire. You must sit on one side of the pit and I shall sit on the other. I will look at you through the flames, Merlin Merlin Magnus. That’s how I can read you.”
“I can do that. But why are you doing that with my name? You know I am Merlin and you know my real name, Magnus Cook. Why all the musical chairs with my names?”
“I’m trying to find out what is real and what is illusion,” said Cuideachaidh.
I was starting to get a pissed now. This was stupid.
“I’ve hidden nothing from you,” I said, a defensive tone now creeping into my voice. “There’s no deception here.”
“Are you so sure?” asked the neophyte taibhsear. “Merlin or Magnus. Add the Cook or drop it. You instructed His Majesty to call you by just one name when he used two and yet you rightfully possess two. His Majesty was not incorrect, was he?
Do you have a middle name, Magnus Cook?”
“Yes, I do. It’s Andrew, named after the Patron Saint of Scotland.”
“So it would not be incorrect if people called you Magnus Andrew Cook; would it not?”
“NO, technically speaking, that’s correct. But I don’t self-identify that way. I chose not to use my middle name.”
“Self-Identify? That’s an odd word. You are deceiving people, are you not? You legally possess three names yet you only offer the world your two favorites, the ones you select for yourself, denying the world the full benefit of knowing your whole person.”
“I wouldn’t say that. The modern world doesn’t work like that,” I said, falling right into Cuideachaidh’s rhetorical trap.
“Is that so, Mr. Cook,” said the seer. “And just how does the modern world work, Mr. Cook? If you have the answer to that question then you are a far more powerful wizard than any of us wee, ordinary taibhsears.”
“I don’t think you’re getting the right picture here, sir.” I said, my anger now beginning to rise.
“Oh, I think I see the picture quite clearly, Mr. Whoever you are.”
Cuideachaidh stood up, straightened his pants and buttoned his coat before continuing.
“I don’t think I can help you tonight, sir. Not in your present state. I don’t need to look at you through the flames; I’ve seen enough already.
Rest assured, I did not come here to abandon you in the end. As I said, I am here to help you, in any way I can. I will return to this same place tomorrow night, at sundown. It’s alright, we still have 48 hours until the alignment.
With that, I bid you both, a good night.”
Cuideachaidh walked towards where he first appeared and disappeared, just like that.
“That was fun,” I said, still a bit out of breath. “Is that what he put you through back in ’48, this psychological shrink wrap he just laid on me?”
“No, Magnus, it was different then,” said Arthur. “I don’t remember much. I don’t think I was the main event back then, like you seem to be.
This guy said he knew everything about you. I wouldn’t like that. Everything? That’s a lot. These spooks don’t mess around when they talk like that. You need to take him seriously.”
“I get that. But what’s up with all that mumbo-jumbo with the names?” I said. “Magnus; Merlin Magnus; Cook Magnus Merlin; Mr. Whoever. I didn’t deserve any of that shit.”
“Maybe,” said Arthur, “Then again, maybe he was pushing your buttons, seeing how you’d react, hoping to get at something he saw, before he looks at you through the flames.”
“And what might that be, Your Highness?...Admit it. You were loving all that kingly King treatment I laid on you back there, weren’t you.”
“Merlin, I didn’t know you were so funny!” said Arthur, imitating Cuideachaidh. “Now THAT was funny. You, playing to the 7 year olds. That was even better.”
Arthur came over to my side of the fire and sat down beside me. He put his arm around my shoulder, like a father talking to a son of whom he was most proud.
“Magnus, it’s been a long day. I want to go to sleep now. But I wanted to say how much I appreciate what you did for me today back there at the stream. I didn’t know all that stuff was eating me from the inside out. I always felt guilty I couldn’t do more to stop the decapitations after those Duart men were killed. It was vengeance by my people, pure and simple. I didn’t do enough to stop it. It’s out now. I want to thank you for that.
But I think what the tiabhsear was getting at was true; I noticed it the other day. I know you want to help people; I think you can be very good at that. But how can the world know who you are if you don’t know who you are? I think that’s what he wants you to think about between now and tomorrow night.
Good night, Magnus. And thank you. For all you’ve done; and all that’s left to be done.”
“Good night, Arthur. You should move into the tent. I’ll be along in a bit. I’m going to stay up with the fire a while.”
“As you wish, Magnus. Good night.”
Arthur moved into the tent and zipped the flap closed.
I sat there for fifteen minutes. Clear twilight morphed into nautical twilight. Drawn into the flickering flames, I was captivated, seduced by their light dance, intoxicated by the smoky aroma floating off the burning bricks of dried peat.
Perhaps the taibhsear was right. Did I know who I was? If I was truly to become Merlin, as expected, how was I supposed to feel about my first name, Magnus, given to me by my parents? And of my surname, Cook? Should I feel comfortable surrendering it in service to a noble cause? Could I hold on to at least some of my Cook identity and become a modern hybrid, one foot in Merlin’s world, one foot in mine?
I wouldn’t come up with any of these answers tonight. But Arthur was right; it had been a long day and I was more tired than I imagined. So as I sat there before the fire, watching the smoldering embers burn themselves out, I fell asleep, facing the flames. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this would turn into the longest night of my life. Literally.
Oh, Coll; why? What is it? Why do you continue to surprise those who love you?