I didn't plan on eating the salmon of wisdom. But I did, accidentally. If I had known how easy it was to eat the fish, I’d truly have been more inclined to do it purposefully, and pretend it happened exactly as it had. But I did not. And I did eat it.
My master had searched for the thing for longer than I had known about its existence, for longer even than my master had known about mine. And he had been there at my birth. He was not a fisherman, but he labored with that river long enough that he should have been, were it not for the obsession that undermined the experience.
We had been fishing that day, just as we did most days, sitting on the bank of the Boyne. Master Finn told me often how glad he was for company. I suppose this was true, in part, but I had witnessed the slight grins and shortened breaths as he supervised the extra fishing line. That’s what he really cared about. Though I gladly received the knowledge he had to offer in return for the extra lure I bore.
“Thus, from the nine hazelnuts, the salmon gained all the wisdom of mankind.”
I wasn’t paying attention. I knew the story well. He knew this, and I was never scolded for my inattentiveness. I could recite it all, in his own words, back to him. As long as I kept on my line, or net, or whatever method we used that day, I had earned my keep.
I did marvel however as I sat and pulled the grass, how knowledge could be carried through the nuts of a Hazel tree, sacred or not. I had eaten Hazelnuts, usually prepared with salmon, for the better part of seven years and the only wisdom I had gained came from a wild and feral old poet. Often I believed he might have been a druid who became a bear at night under the light of the moon. But from him, on no occasion, did I witness the use of magic.
Other times I feared his mind was addled.
Finn Eces was a poet of some renown and he knew the ways of the warrior. Quickly I learned them from him. This was our agreement. Whether he was touched by the gods or possessed, it concerned me little. I learned his poems and trained in his techniques.
Finn lurched from the grass into the river.
“Fionn!” He called for me. “Fi- Fionn! I’ve got him!”
I grabbed the net and leapt into the water. I swam upsteam and outward. I cursed myself for my reaction. I should have run along the bank for a ways. I was going to drift too far to reach them. I dove under the surface and battled the current. Maybe I could get Finn to come to me. I stretched out the net, or tried and failed. It had become twisted and ineffective
I gasped for air as I came above again. I saw Finn, wrestling the great beast. If there ever was a time to be a were-bear. I knew at once it was a sacred fish. Its scales shone in the fading sun and the thing was the size of a seal.
“To me!” I shouted.
I don’t know if he heard through all the thrashing, or if Finn’s head was above water at that moment. But if I kept trying to swim toward them, I knew the river would bring them to me. I kept trying to untwist the net.
I could see that my master had jammed his pole into the salmon’s mouth, or gills, maybe through both. Blood was discoloring the water.
They came to me and the fish’s tail beat me like a Formoriian warhammer. Water filled my lungs as I sank and blackness conquered my mind. But it was momentary and I choked back to consciousness. I kicked my feet against some loose rocks on the river bed. I tumbled and banged my joints on other rocks. Before I drowned, I surfaced again, long enough to take a breath for a second round of river current.
The salmon whipped its tail and writhed with fury, but Finn held the rod. Each time the salmon struggled it had less power.
The river bent and I rolled onto a pebbly beach. I got to my feet as quickly as I could, which is to say not at all. And I looked about me. There was a log nearby and I went for it. Heaving it into the river I leaped on it and rode it like a raft. I heard the wood crack as My master and his catch slammed into it. But it held long enough for me to put my hand in the salmon’s mouth. It clamped down and tore my flesh, but I held its jaw and reeled it, slowly, despairingly, back to the shore.
My net had tangled itself around Finn and the fish. It had nearly cost my master his life but it had hindered the fish.
“Well, worth it.” Finn said.
We lay there on the dark sand and gravel for some time. I learned much of the blood in the river had been Finn’s and not the salmon’s. But I was too fatigued to tend to his wounds, or mine, and neither was fatal.
We woke some hours later to the sound of wolves. The wind whistled through the dark forest behind us and the river rolled on at our feet. I was shivering violently and acutely aware of the pain in my arm.
“Finn! Master Finn!”
He got up, checked his prize and begged Avalon that this was indeed the one. I silently added my oblation to it.
“We should leave this place.” Finn said, looking across the river in the direction of his cabin.
He made me fetch the wheelbarrow.
“Too excited to sleep.” Finn squeaked as he saw to the fire.
I changed into dry clothes. Finn did likewise as I set myself on the preparation of the salmon. It took a heroic effort just to scale the fiend. But I got my revenge. After little tribulation, the salmon was gutted, cleaned and on the fire.
Finn dozed while I turned and jabbed at the thing. Over the past seven years that I had been here, cooking salmon had become to me, so familiar, that my mind idly wandered as I did so. But this fish was so large that it took all my attention to not burn the edges or under-cook the middle. I poked and prodded, always being careful not to taste it.
My stomach growled like the wolves in the forest but I did not give in. I could not deliberately disrespect my master. The smell of the meat touched my nose, like the stories of the gods touched my imagination, but I did not eat it. I did not even taste the fish. I pretended to fear it, like an ill omen. And the salmon neared completion.
The thought of finally being done with the ordeal and done with salmon was as sweet to my mind as any meal could have been to my body that night. I tested the thing one last time, pressing it with my thumb. The grease burned me. Even in death the fish found ways to torment me.
“Finn!” I yelled sucking on my blistering thumb. “Come eat your damned fish!”
I was tired and overwhelmed by the night. I felt my mind fatigue and my body lose its vigor. Suddenly the world was too much for me. I thought I would retire that night with an empty stomach and I was at peace.
“Fionn,” Finn said to me, “have you eaten the salmon of knowledge?”
“No master.” I told him truthfully.
“I can see it in your eyes!”
“No!” I removed my sore thumb from my mouth, “I have not taken so much as a single bite.”
“You-” Finn stammered.
I knew he was right. I knew that all the knowledge of the fish had been condensed into that small amount of grease that burned my thumb. And I ate it. That was not all that I knew. I had gained all the wisdom of the world at that time. My mind had filled with knowledge beyond mortal capacity and comprehension. I knew how the sacred Hazel trees bore enlightening fruit and how those nuts had dropped into Nechtan’s well. I knew the salmon, Finntan, had eaten them and gained all the wisdom of the Tuatha Dé Danann. I knew Boann and how she begat the river Boyne. And I knew of all the men who had tried and failed to capture Finntan the salmon of wisdom.
Finn Eces, my master knew it too. It did not take the magic of the well of knowledge to see the light in my eyes.
That was the last I, Fionn mac Cumhaill, ever saw of him. He bade me eat the salmon, which I did and I left the next morning.