The Song of Dahut


EVERY NIGHT, BEFORE I FELL ASLEEP, my mother would sing it to me: the song of Dahut, the princess of Ys, the Mari-Morgen. She sang it in a low, gentle voice, so that for many years I didn’t realize it was meant to be a sad song.

O from where do my city’s bells now ring,

and where have my people been swept?

O where is the laughter that once lingered here,

and where is the father who wept?

She once told me it was better in French. I asked her to sing me the original, but she said that it’d been years since she’d practiced her French and that she’d only mangle it. A sadness flashed in her eyes then; even at twelve I could see it. I remember thinking it was remarkable that you could translate a song, rhyme scheme and all, and still come out with something beautiful. That you could change everything but its heart. Many years later I tried learning French, but I didn’t have the mind for languages and barely got beyond pleasantries. The anglophone’s curse, I suppose.

For most of those years I didn’t know the story behind the song, either. All I knew was that some princess with a funny name sat down and started singing about city bells and her missing father. I had a vague notion that the sea was involved, but that was it. Breton legends aren’t often brought up in rural Alberta. I only found out because of a friend from school, Steph, who was into myths and legends back then. We used to play a game where I’d try to name a mythological figure she hadn’t heard of. I only won when I cheated and made someone up. Once, when we were sitting in the computer lab, it occurred to me that the lady from Mom’s song probably counted.

“What about Dahut?” I asked.

“Who?” She curled her hair around her finger, searching her memory.

“Dahut. From Ys.”

“Oh, Day-hoot. I think that’s how you say it, anyway.”

I felt myself flush, though I’d later learn my pronunciation was correct. “Right. Yeah.”

“She was the daughter of Gradlon, right? He’s like, the French version of King Arthur or whatever.”

“I dunno,” I said. “I just know her from this song my mom has.”

She made a pouting face. “Must be a messed-up song. Didn’t she try to kill her father?”

“What? No way. The song’s from her perspective.”

“Google it.” I found Dahut’s Wikipedia page, and of course Steph was right. She had plotted her father’s murder, and as punishment her city was drowned. In some versions, she could still hear its bells chiming from the sea, even after it sunk. The page mentioned that she may have also been punished for taking too many lovers. This struck me as a very odd reason to punish somebody, especially when she’s just tried to kill her Dad.

“Huh. You’re right,” I said.

“Of course I’m right, Claire. I get this stuff from books, not my Mom’s lullabies.” She was trying to rile me up, and under other circumstances she might have succeeded. But reading the Wikipedia page had left too heavy a knot in my stomach. The story it told was banal, almost mean-spirited next to the soft lament of Mom’s song. A bad woman did bad things and so bad things happened to her: that was it. It was like watching a beautiful flower pulled up to reveal the naked, filthy mass of roots underneath.

O from where do my city’s bells now ring,

That was the year we finished elementary school. I wouldn’t set foot there again until the summer after high school, when I got a job doing basic IT for the board over the holidays. They’d decided it was finally time to upgrade Windows from the version I used in fourth grade.

Before that summer, I never knew how quiet a school could be when no one else is in it. Sitting there, surrounded by the boxy old monitors, I thought about that conversation with Steph. Mom hadn’t sung me the song in years by then, but I remembered it clear as ever. Somehow I no longer felt that learning its origin had ruined it. I realized how many of the kids in that computer lab I’d never seen since, and for maybe the first time a great sense of loss came over me.

and where have my people been swept?

MOM DIDN’T CRY VERY OFTEN. We were different that way. When we watched a sad movie together I’d end up bleary-eyed by the end, but Mom always stayed stoic. After Grave of the Fireflies left me teary, I asked her why. She said that, once you’ve seen enough movies, they don’t get to you the same way they used to. I wasn’t sure if I should look forward to that or not.

She did cry when I was going off to university. It was a strange thing to see the tears in her eyes and redness in her cheeks, a kind of nakedness, almost. I felt an uncomfortable need to reassure her.

“I’ll call you,” I said. “Every day, if you want.”

She shook her head. “You’ll be busy. There’ll be lots to do. Oh, it’s a whole world out there, sweetie.” She hugged me. “But maybe every week.”

I hadn’t really expected to get into Waterloo. The school’s website was full of crushing graphics showing your admission odds in computer science, and the threads I found online only made things look worse. By mid-May I’d long made my peace with taking up an offer in Calgary. Opening my acceptance email was a watershed, the kind of moment that you look back on as proof that time really is passing after all. A few weeks before I left, Mom drove us up to a lake at the foot of the Rockies. I remember sitting down on a flat rock looking over the waves, a kind of melancholy weighing me down like I was a sponge soaked in water. The feeling didn’t make much sense. What did I really have in Calgary? One close-ish friend I was already drifting apart from, a school I didn’t like. No tight-knit circle, no boyfriend. Not even a first kiss. What was I mourning? I hummed Mom’s song to myself, sitting there on the rock. It felt deep somehow but I couldn’t tell you why.

I met up with Steph one more time before I left in late August. We met up at a park we used to go to as kids, except now we went at night so there wouldn’t be any kids around. She rocked slowly back and forth on a swing set, taking occasional drags of a joint she held between her fingers. I thought it stank terribly but never told her. Usually she wouldn’t get high when it was just the two of us, but that night a silence had fallen on us like never before. It was as if every conversation we could have was transcribed on a disc somewhere and we’d just reached its end, listening to the needle skip on empty tracks. I guess she didn’t know what else to do.

“I forgot to tell you,” she said, tapping out the dregs. “I’m going to that party next weekend.”

“Oh. That’ll be nice.”

“Figured you’d be busy, with like, packing or whatever.”

“Yeah, I probably will be.”

She looked up at the sky. “Shit, I can hardly imagine that. Moving into a dorm, a whole different province.”

“You’ll do it too. When you’re ready.”

She laughed. “My calc grades would disagree. You’re right, though. I gotta leave this shithole eventually.”

Another silence came. “How’s Brian?” I asked, hoping to break it.

“We broke up.”

“Wait, really? Oh my god. I’m sorry.”

She made a shooing motion. “Nah, it’s chill. Fuck Brian, don’t worry about Brian. Or me.”


The joint went dark. Steph looked at me like she was weighed down with some hidden knowledge, the way Mom had looked at me when she told me, age eight, that my hamster had gone to live on a farm. “Seriously,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I won’t.”

It wasn’t until I was walking home that I realized it might be months before I’d see Steph again. It hit me all at once, the same waterlogged feeling that came a few weeks earlier by the lake. I thought maybe I understood why Steph looked at me like that.

O where is the laughter that once lingered here,

and where is the father who wept?

I ONLY LASTED A YEAR IN COMPUTER SCIENCE. It wasn’t that I was failing – in fact, I was getting perfectly middle-of-the-road grades, while putting in half as much work as most middle-of-the-road students. Frankly, I just hated it. Parsing alien syntax, spending hours debugging, churning out scripts for Google or Goldman Sachs. What sort of life would that be? I booked a meeting with a counselor the day after my last exam. I was planning to switch into physics or maybe some kind of engineering – something more concrete, at least. But by the end of our chat I’d realized I didn’t like either of these things and that I should study what I actually wanted to study, which was English literature. I didn’t make many friends in computer science, so when I had to start over all I lost was a year and a good chunk of my savings. In my second first year, I took a course on poetry. At that point I had pretty much only read novels. One of the first pieces we looked at was by Yeats. It was called “A Drinking Song,” a title which I think was supposed to be ironic because it was only six lines long and not much of a song at all:

Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh.

I thought it was a silly poem at first, but it stuck with me. Years later I’d find myself repeating the words in my head while waiting for toast to pop or walking home in the snow. Like the words to Mom’s song, even if you aren’t really meant to sing it.

I kept up with Steph for about a year after that night in the park. For the first few months she said she’d apply to university in the fall. When the deadline passed, I asked her if she’d apply for the next cycle, and she didn’t give me a straight answer. As time went by she started talking about community college, trade school, apprenticeships. She even got pretty close to enlisting at one point. When I switched programs, I let her know by text. I didn’t hear back for a while, but a few days later she called me late at night.

“Steph?” I said. “Jeez, it’s almost midnight here. I have class in the morning.” 

There was music playing in the background, low and pulsing like some kind of engine. “You know – you needa loosen up, Claire,” she said, obviously drunk and slurring her words. “That was always your issue. Just – so uptight, all the time. Shit.”

“Uh huh. So why did you call me exactly?”

“Oh, yeah. Well, I just wanted to let you know. Since you keep buggin’ me. I’m goin’ – goin’ to uni. Uni-ver-sity.”

“Oh. You applied?”

“Yep. Just sent that shit out. U of T, baby. Vic One, like you always said.”

“Wait. What do you mean just now?”

I heard shouting in the background. “Like, five minutes ago or whatever. What’s it – what’s it matter?”

“Uh huh. You sound really drunk, Steph. You should go on to bed.”

“Pfft. You’re not around to – to Mom me anymore. I got back with Brian, you know. He looks out for me now.”

“Oh. Things didn’t work out with Trevor?”

There was a pause on the other end. “Man, fuck Trevor. I don’t even wanna think about Trevor.” It was the first time she’d sounded halfway serious. I thought back to reading about Dahut in the computer lab, how she was apparently punished for her many lovers. It still didn’t quite make sense to me, but maybe I was at least starting to understand why someone would write a story like that.

I THINK MOM GOT SICK THAT NOVEMBER, though I didn’t hear about it until close to Christmas. She told me over the phone. At first, she wouldn’t let on how bad it was, but I could hear it in her voice. That was how I decided to go home two weeks early. If I hadn’t pressed, she would never have asked me to. By the time I arrived she was stuck in a hospital bed. It was bronchitis, I was told, and stubbornly resistant to treatment at that. She was pale as a sheet, and a blueness had crept into her lips and her fingers. Her breaths made an awful wet sound. Worst of all, there was a remorseful look in her eye, as if she was sorry she couldn’t make her condition look better for me.

I spent every evening at her bedside while she was going through the worst of it. She asked me about school, about what I was reading, about my new friends. I told her about the real ones and made a few up. The doctors gave her some kind of painkiller a couple of times – I think that’s what it was, anyways. They made her confused and scattered, but at least they got rid of that sad look in her eyes. She almost looked happy, in fact, for all the suffering carved in her face.

“You should invite Steph over,” she said, looking up blankly at the ceiling. “How long has it been since I’ve seen her? So long . . .”

“Almost two years,” I said. “Maybe I will.” I was humouring her, of course.

“I always liked Steph. You remember that project you did together, when you were in sixth grade? That book report you did.”

“I remember.”

“And you two did the Iliad. Twelve years old, and reading the Iliad! I was so impressed. Oh, and you were the cutest. And Steph, she was so proud, she read the whole speech out for me again: ‘Sing, goddess, of the rage of Achilles . . .’” I never told her about how that book report got us picked on for the rest of sixth grade. “She could always quote things like that, I remember,” she went on. “She could always find the words. Your father was like that, you know. I wish you got to have some memories of him.”

A chill ran up me. Mom never talked about my father. “Me too,” I said.

“Of course, he wasn’t himself anymore, by the time you were born. Oh, but before . . . he had memorized the Song of Roland, the whole darned thing, can you believe that? Never even tried to, he’d just read it so many times that it stuck . . .” She went on for maybe an hour. I heard about the time he stayed up all night making a mural out of pennies because she asked for a cheap gift, about the time his ears got frostbite because he refused to wear a hat in the winter. About how happy he seemed those last few weeks when he went off his meds, right up until he wandered into the street. There was a real messed-up irony to it: Mom was the furthest from herself I’d ever seen her, but it was the closest to her I’d ever felt. I didn’t know if I should find it funny or sad, heartwarming or grotesque.

Mom slept through my next visit. I just sat there reading, mostly. In the silence I couldn’t get away from the thought that she really could die from this, even if the doctors didn’t think she would. The thought made me sad and afraid, and I wanted terribly to get out of that stuffy little plastic-smelling room, but where would I go? I didn’t have any friends in Calgary. Even Steph had moved to Edmonton, last I heard. So I sat there reading, and the words just ran off me like water. I couldn’t make them stick if I tried. For a time I thought it might be poetic if I sang Mom’s song back to her, but in the end I decided it would be cheesy. She probably wouldn’t hear it anyways.

Of course, the doctors were right. A few days later she was on a clear upswing, and in the end they released her the day before Christmas Eve. She never really talked about her time in the hospital after that, beyond thanking me for coming. She certainly never mentioned the times she was medicated. I wasn’t sure if she had forgotten them, or if she just found them embarrassing. She did bring up Steph again, so maybe it wasn’t all lost. After about the third time Mom mentioned getting in touch with her, I finally sent off a text. By then I knew better than to expect a response.

I got a call from her the next afternoon. She wasn’t drunk this time, and there was a seriousness in her voice that I wasn’t used to hearing. I was right that she’d moved out of Calgary, but wrong about Edmonton. It turned out she was trying out van life in Saskatoon.

“With Brian?” I asked.


“Oh. I guess it’d be hard to meet up while I’m home, then.”

“Yeah. It’d be hard.” I could hear faint static in the silence. “Look,” she said after a few seconds. “We’re both adults. We’re like, totally different people now.”


“I just think we should accept that.” I knew almost from the start that this was where she was going, but it still stung to hear her say it. There was no ‘we’ here, after all. She’d accepted it a long time ago.

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re probably right.” I hung up the phone. Whether that’s what Steph was expecting or not, she didn’t call back. I felt like I needed to cry something out but after all that had happened I didn’t want Mom to hear me.

BECAUSE I CAME HOME EARLY, I left early too. I couldn’t stay in Calgary too long without feeling like I was turning to stone. Trouble was, I got back over a week before lectures started, meaning I had to spend a few long days in an empty apartment by an empty campus. I could hardly find the will to sit up in bed. The prospect of sitting in lectures, writing essays, and studying for exams felt distant and like oh-so-much-work, though I knew deep down that in a few weeks it would be mere routine. It took two days for me to leave my apartment and go to the park. It was a grey, slushy day, which felt appropriate. I sat on a bench and thought about all the sadness in the world. How it clings to everything like treacle, makes everything soft and squishy.

It’s a squishy, squishy world, I thought.

I went home when it got too cold. I paced back and forth for a while: first in my room, then across the complex. But that stopped working too. There was something inside me that needed to be excised. I’d thought that maybe it was just a good cry but I’d already cried plenty on the first two days and it hadn’t helped. I kept running my mind in circles: over Mom, over Steph, over Dahut. At some point, I pulled out my laptop and opened a blank document. I’d decided I was going to write a poem. I’d never tried writing poetry before, not even when I wrote my essay on Yeats. I didn’t know what it would be about or what it would mean, but I knew the first four lines:

O from where do my city’s bells now ring,

and where have my people been swept?

O where is the laughter that once lingered here,

and where is the father who wept?

I didn’t know where I’d go from there.