Celtic Junction Arts Review

The Map Maker’s Tales: The Tale of the Finnish Knife Fighter and the Madman of the Trees

Patrick O'Donnell

Author’s note: This is one of a continuing series of original magical realist tales for youngish readers recounting how a Minnesotan Map Maker has in the present day returned to Dublin city to study and learn from a gnarled elderly expert on the forgotten history of Ireland’s capital whom she terms “The Great Professor.” This new tale infuses motifs from the Arthurian literary tradition with Irish lore. They feature the real historical character ‘Billy in the Bowl,’ a beggar who lost limbs as a child and yet – heroically – refuses to be constrained by any normal (legal) limitation!

“Now,” grumbled the Great Professor, shifting his massive bulk in his creaking mahogany armchair with a sigh and a groan and indicating with a sweep of his huge arm the bustling city beneath his stained-glass tower window, “today’s Dublin city is a Tower of Babel. Its workers speak fifty languages which it pretends is new! Unique! Never been seen before. Ha! Thus, has it, once again, forgotten its history. It was a very international place back in the eighteenth century. All kinds of oddballs and curiosities washed up along the quays of the river Liffey. Many languages back then startled the glaring seagulls.”

A large silence stretched like a puddle of ink across the room.

“Indeed,” murmured the Map-Maker arching a single eyebrow and unfurling a vellum parchment roll on the long table under the tall crammed bookshelves looming towards the ceiling.

“This now,” said the Great Professor, reaching for an object on a nearby shelf, “is a very curious object. A very curious object indeed.

“What is it?”

“It is the ivory-hilted knife of one of the most notorious Finnish knife fighters in all of Finland who found himself asleep on the cobblestones of Old Dublin one wintry night two hundred and fifty years ago on his slow journey to the forests of North America.”

Some glimmer of Minnesota illumined the Map-Maker’s eyes as he remembered the North Shore of Lake Superior and those long-jawed iron ore miners from his childhood. Finland was in their walk and their long, pensive silences.

“Now,” said the Great Professor, tossing the ominous blade from hand to hand, “listen to my tale.

A Madman had arrived from Wales or Scotland – no one was sure – and perched himself up in a tree – the highest he could find – in the newly opened St. Stephen’s Green. His only friend was a little pig whom he named Pigling. The pig was not enamoured of high tree living and the location of the Madman could be discerned by the attentive listener by the alarmed squeaks of the Pigling high up in the dark foliage of the Green’s most regal oaks.

Billy in the Bowl drew some grim amusement from pulsing his huge shoulders across the gravel paths to bellow up at the Madman who sat playing a small goatskin drum with his discombobulated pig tucked under his arm.

“Madman!” roared Billy in the Bowl, “Come down and we’ll go thieving!”

With a leap and a roar and a squeak, the Madman appeared beside Billy in the Bowl and let his pig roam freely around his scratched ankles.

“At least you have ankles,” muttered Billy in the Bowl, eyeing his leg stumps with sour affection. “I’m a proud thieving beggar whose only mansion and estate is this battered old wooden bowl. How’s tree livin’?” continued the moody beggar.

The Madman merely nodded before pointing a long finger towards the far off gate and uttering a prophecy in a skeletal voice burred with an indefinitely elusive accent far distant from the cobblestones of Old Dublin.

“Tonight the Bowl Man and the Mad Man will feed and feast until no pig can match them!”

“Squeak!” agreed the pig.

Dark featured and crowned with a blonde ragged mop of disheveled hair, the Finnish knife fighter disembarked from the Liverpool boat that had deposited him on a Dublin quay. He had a week before continuing on a ship to New York. Hunger like a vicious eel tightened his lank stomach.

He was a scarred cautious fellow and intended no misadventure as he wandered the narrow lanes of the crowded merchant quarter. The mistake he made was setting his greedy gaze on a little pig trotting blithely and aimlessly through the thronged streets.

Silently, as in a dream, he unsheathed his razor-edged blade and sidled towards his prey. As he passed beneath an arch, a strange figure clutching another crouched form in a dark wooden bowl clomped on his head from above and a whirling dark-cloaked Madman fell like a vast bat upon him as he collapsed unconscious on the gray dank cobblestones. His knife fell with a clatter beside the solemn pig. It was scooped up in a flash and the trio of beggar, pig, and Madman vanished towards the criminal district.

To pawn the knife took but a minute and the trio were soon feasting in a tavern without a thought to the morrow.

The Finnish knife fighter crawled to the edge of the quay and peered down into its enigmatic soupy waters. What secrets lay beneath that oily surface?

A seal appeared and looked up at the Finn with great understanding eyes.

“You look too human to be a seal,” muttered the Finnish knife fighter.

The seal nodded and indicated with a slight nod of his head that the knife fighter should follow him.

He was quickly led along the quay, over a bridge, and up to a barge where a curious trio lay stretched out under a canvas with their bellies grossly distended, snoring loudly in an ungodly chorus.

The Finnish knife fighter looked about for a weapon. He was tempted to use the bellicose beggar’s own bowl against him.

A splash by his ankle made him look down at the huge quiet eyes of the undulating seal, floating in the river waters.

“Don’t,” the eyes seemed to say. “They were hungry,” the eyes seemed to continue.

With a sudden silent leap, the Madman was upright and flying upwards towards the spur of an adjacent ship.

“I prophesy,” he cried in an accent heavy with Highland moss, “that four of us will follow the pathless path of a wise creature of the river!”

Billy in the Bowl and the piglet both sat upright roaring and squealing in equal measure.

The Finnish knife fighter was very conscious that he was free of a knife. The Madman swung like a sloth high up on the ship’s spar.

“Look!” he cried. “The seal is leading us.”

A grey shape, impalpable, elusive, was quickly swimming away up the quay. The four without introductions hastened after it. Lean and wiry and long-jawed was the cautious knife fighter; hawkish and huge cloaked was the striding Madman of the Trees; squeaksome and sleek was the Piglet, grateful to be on the ground once more; and square-bearded, huge-shouldered and fearsome was the old beggar clanking along in his old wooden bowl.

The seal knew that the knife was lost and the only hope for the Finnish knife fighter was to secure a new one with the assistance of his three new comrades. . .

Where was one to be had?

The butchers and the weavers were battling that night and they’d likely leave a relic or two on the cobblestones.

The knife fighter had a little English.

“Who are you?” he croaked out in a guttural voice.

 The Madman who was tall and moved his hands in fluttering  movements over his face as if disguising his appearance murmured:

“I am Mayor of Flay Town.”

“Flea Town,” muttered Billy in the Bowl. “He has an accent you could hang your hat on. It is when he sleeps at night – Flea Town, he calls it. Don’t mind him. He was in a battle and killed his brother and ran off in the woods to live with the trees. He’s from Scotland or Wales or maybe northern England. Nobody can tell. I’m Dublin as Liffey bilge water.”

“I’m from Finland.”

“Sure, ya are,” said Billy in the Bowl, “what with all those scars, I’d say you know how to survive a fight.”

The seal led them to a bridge where the last of the weavers were hauling away their wounded.

“Each year they fight – the butchers and the weavers – they mostly just injure themselves – but there’ll be plenty of knives lying around if we’re careful.”

The Madman and Billy in the Bowl looked at each other askance. They were reluctant to chance nicking a discarded knife. They hung back precipitately.

The Finnish knife fighter peeked cautiously over the parapet of the quay – yes, there was a knife lying askance a pool of blood.

“Send the piglet to get it,” murmured Billy in the Bowl glancing down at the seal who looked up at him with great sympathetic eyes, imploring him to keep the Finnish knife fighter safe.

The piglet scampered forth. A crowd of butchers dragging a blood-splattered colleague home to their market stalls spied it and dashed towards it, cleavers raised. The piglet made a leap, secured a knife hilt in its mouth, and wriggled speedily away squeaking like a scalded bat. The butchers rounded the corner and were faced by a belligerent beggar in his bowl, a Madman clambering up a lamp post, and in the center of the group, a crouching Finnish knife fighter with the new blade in his scarred claw-like hand and a look of fierce determination stretching his long-jawed face.

“Welcome to Dublin,” murmured Billy in the Bowl. “You’ll fit right in, ya yellow-haired loon!”

The butchers roared to a halt, roared out great guffaws, and waving the trio away, sauntered back to the markets.

“Squeak!” said the piglet.

“I prophesy,” said the Madman, “that the Pigling has explained our fate more cogently than any philosopher!”

And the wise seal with his gentle eyes looked up at them as if to say: “Well, that brought that tale to a nice Finish.”