All desires save one are fleeting, but that one lasts for ever. Fionn, with all desires, had the lasting one, for he would go anywhere and forsake anything for wisdom; and it was in search of this that he went to the place where Finegas lived on a bank of the Boyne Water. But for dread of the clann-Morna he did not go as Fionn. He called himself Deimne on that journey.
We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell. Fionn asked every question he could think of, and his master, who was a poet, and so an honourable man, answered them all, not to the limit of his patience, for it was limitless, but to the limit of his ability.
"Why do you live on the bank of a river?" was one of these questions. "Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind."
"How long have you been here?" was the next query. "Seven years," the poet answered.
"It is a long time," said wondering Fionn.
"I would wait twice as long for a poem," said the inveterate bard.
"Have you caught good poems?" Fionn asked him.
"The poems I am fit for," said the mild master. "No person can get more than that, for a man's readiness is his limit."
"Would you have got as good poems by the Shannon or the Suir or by sweet Ana Life'?"
"They are good rivers," was the answer. "They all belong to good gods."
"But why did you choose this river out of all the rivers?"
Finegas beamed on his pupil.
"I would tell you anything," said he, "and I will tell you that."
Fionn sat at the kindly man's feet, his hands absent among tall grasses, and listening with all his ears. "A prophecy was made to me," Finegas began. "A man of knowledge foretold that I should catch the Salmon of Knowledge in the Boyne Water."
"And then?" said Fionn eagerly.
"Then I would have All Knowledge."
"And after that?" the boy insisted.
"What should there be after that?" the poet retorted.
"I mean, what would you do with All Knowledge?"
"A weighty question," said Finegas smilingly. "I could answer it if I had All Knowledge, but not until then. What would you do, my dear?"
"I would make a poem," Fionn cried.
"I think too," said the poet, "that that is what would be done."
In return for instruction Fionn had taken over the service of his master's hut, and as he went about the household duties, drawing the water, lighting the fire, and carrying rushes for the floor and the beds, he thought over all the poet had taught him, and his mind dwelt on the rules of metre, the cunningness of words, and the need for a clean, brave mind. But in his thousand thoughts he yet remembered the Salmon of Knowledge as eagerly as his master did. He already venerated Finegas for his great learning, his poetic skill, for an hundred reasons; but, looking on him as the ordained eater of the Salmon of Knowledge, he venerated him to the edge of measure. Indeed, he loved as well as venerated this master because of his unfailing kindness, his patience, his readiness to teach, and his skill in teaching.
"I have learned much from you, dear master," said Fionn gratefully.
"All that I have is yours if you can take it," the poet answered, "for you are entitled to all that you can take, but to no more than that. Take, so, with both hands."
"You may catch the salmon while I am with you," the hopeful boy mused. "Would not that be a great happening!" and he stared in ecstasy across the grass at those visions which a boy's mind knows.
"Let us pray for that," said Finegas fervently.
"Here is a question," Fionn continued. "How does this salmon get wisdom into his flesh?"
"There is a hazel bush overhanging a secret pool in a secret place. The Nuts of Knowledge drop from the Sacred Bush into the pool, and as they float, a salmon takes them in his mouth and eats them."
"It would be almost as easy," the boy submitted, "if one were to set on the track of the Sacred Hazel and eat the nuts straight from the bush."
"That would not be very easy," said the poet, "and yet it is not as easy as that, for the bush can only be found by its own knowledge, and that knowledge can only be got by eating the nuts, and the nuts can only be got by eating the salmon."
"We must wait for the salmon," said Fionn in a rage of resignation.