What can the women say about the pails
of beer the sexton’s ordered me to place
at intervals around the cemetery?
As little, I imagine, as they said
about the naked lodger at the parson’s.
They as a rule are not that much for words.
They keep their counsel, keep their clothes on till
Dionysus commands nocturnal presence
and suddenly at the bottom of the hill
there’s only sexton, pastor, churchyard, me.
Their music, scarcely audible down here
to humans, makes the dogs crawl under beds
and beer that had gone flat among the headstones
gains body and a modicum of froth.
What tourists think are fairy lights ignite
the ridges, and another young man’s missing.
Returning women rinse their faces clear
and walk unseeing past us to their beds
and dogs come out and stretch and sniff the breeze.
The one I throw a stick for bites the sexton.
The sexton tells me I can have the pails,
says there was no naked lodger. I go home
and smell the day-old beer, avoid the bed.
Dionysus has weathered leaner times.
A garland and a heavy, pointed stick
and pieces of a cat lie on the hearth.
I can’t abide the smell of fires gone out.
I hear the parson outside, softly crying
and saying were the candles here on time
there would be no women sleeping in today.
The sexton’s answer’s mumbled and I miss
what held delivery up; a washed-out road
was blamed the last time. We don’t have police.
One woman does the laundry. One pours tea.
The one who never would return my gaze
stares at me till I blink. She takes my hand
and leads me to the parsonage where mead
and meat and biscuits and a ruby wine
are given to me, and a splendid room.
She asks for and I give her all my clothes.
He thought, ‘I could get into this book I’m reading
or indulge in illicit love all afternoon.’
Not true. He lived alone with unread books
in a low-rent high-rise far out near the sea.
His penknife broke his pencil point. He wept
for as long as he’d read that heroes should. His cat
made sounds from purring care to impolite.
Together he and the cat walked to the door
and back again. And sat. They heard the wind.
They imagined hearing waves break shells and shale.
What they actually heard was moaning. ‘Let him loose,’
he told the cat. Who did. They watched the mouse,
too traumatised too long to hope, believe
it was free to go. It wasn’t. The cat struck
the last midnight for the mouse. So little blood.
The doorbell rang. The candle gutted. Wires
implanted in the carpet glowed and smoked.
‘It’s your turn,’ said the cat. He half agreed.
He threw open the door, winced and said, ‘Come in.’
The hooded creature, tall, without a face,
came in and brought the front door in behind him.
No outside left, no single place to run to.
‘I might as well,’ he thought out loud, and died.
‘Not so fast,’ the apparition said. ‘You have a task.
Your so-far clueless life acquires a mission.’
It handed him a wax-sealed parchment scroll.
He saw the cat was packing for a journey:
catnip, roach clips, goggles, tinned sardines,
and a silver whistle polished like a mirror.
‘You know more than I do, Cat,’ he said.
The apparition rubbed sand where the mouse had bled.
It said, ‘You both are criminals. That was foretold.
Get out, get out. Get out! I’m getting old.’
Outside was colder than he had remembered.
He carried the cat in both hands, like a muff.
The backpack the cat cradled weighed them down.
He walked the ridge, descended through the mist
to the shale that bore the onslaught of the sea
so easily that he said, ‘Eternity.’
‘Not ours,’ the cat said. ‘I think it’s time we read
our marching orders. Break the crimson seal.’
He tried and slipped. A rogue wave took the scroll.
The cat’s paw swiped and saved the red wax seal.
They shared the wax. As they chewed it, crimson fumes
spelled out instructions the cat read aloud:
‘Proceed to and surmount New Mountain Ridge.
Descend and commandeer a sturdy boat.
Sail to and anchor above St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Wait there for further orders. Don’t be late.’
That’s all?’ he asked the cat. ‘No how or when?’
The cat shook her head as he carried her up the beach.
New Mountain Ridge shown icily ahead
but the intervening forest was pitch dark.
Night fell further. The cat said, ‘We must camp.’
She, the cat, climbed a tall oak tree.
She let a length of coloured cord descend.
‘Tie it,’ she said, ‘to the ladder in our pack.’
He, the man, looked in the pack and found
among the catnip and the tinned sardines
and a snarl of things for which he had no name,
a ladder lashed from ropes and wooden rungs.
He tied it to the cord. The cat pulled it up
and made it fast. She called down, ‘Hurry, climb!’
With his rucksack swinging wide the man climbed slowly
until he saw red eyes below him. Then he sprinted.
From a moss-blurred branch they watched broad lowering creatures
congregating at the oak tree’s base, and sniffling
and exhaling, turning wet leaves into ash.
‘Don’t breathe a word,’ the cat joked. He said, ‘Hush.’
The no-neck creatures heard but could not gaze
upwards. He said, ‘Good you packed a ladder.’
‘And a small sword,’ said the cat. ‘But they are big.’
They watched the creatures circle. Then one stopped.
Its right side opened up. A man jumped out.
‘Those are vehicles,’ the cat said. ‘Like in old books.’
He shushed her, ‘Please be silent.’ Hours passed
in the seconds that the strange broad man below
looked up into the branches, seeing dark
and nothing else. He got back in his ‘truck’
—the word the cat kept whispering— and drove off.
The other trucks kept circling, burning leaves.
There was little to say at his christening. We said it again.
He breathed. He was noisy. His minders hoped he would have friends.
‘Or not,’ we whispered as his minders took him back home.
There was little to say at his weddings. We said it again.
His brides mostly smiled. His best men were maybe his friends.
Or not, we had noticed. It was eventually just he who went home.
There was little to say at his burial. We added it up:
his occasional successes, how he had longed to have friends.
None were there that we witnessed. This time he did not go home.
We dance the Green Chihuahua. Walls fall down.
‘It’s like Jericho,’ you whisper. Irish snakes
scamper. Can you believe that? Badgers frown.
Singing ‘hi-de-ho’ the god of cupcakes bakes
meringues in a marimba he’s converted
into an oven best for pizzas. Icing runs
out as letters spelling lyrics the god blurted
while we danced the Mambo with a squad of nuns.
‘Enough!’ you shout and shouting makes it so.
The snakes and nuns and badgers exit right.
They do the Mashed Potato as they go.
We applaud and douse the lights. A splendid night.
‘Try to relax,’ says Guide Number 1. We watch the entire world ending.
‘Not all of the world,’ says Guide Number 2. ‘Just all the life that is on it.’
‘Not even all life,’ says Guide Number 3. ‘Only the species depending
on plants for food or for their food’s food.’ To us it is way past ironic
to sit stock still and watch Earth burn. There must be a way we can fix…
‘What you broke,’ say all three Guides in chorus, too-easily reading our thoughts.
‘You began small like birds, building modest nests with found bright stones and sticks
but progressed, that’s the very wrong word, to mess with missiles and dreadnoughts.’
‘Not all of us!’ we shrieked (here ‘shrieked’ is the very very right word).
‘We, and many like us,’ we whined, ‘adhere to the venerable thesis
of live and let live.’ Guide Number 2 said, ‘Do not be absurd.’
Guide Number 2, we knew, when we knew, was actually Lachesis.
She took our measure, of each of us, meaningfully waving the rod
we had hoped she had forgotten to bring. Clotho (her sister, Guide 1)
gave Atropos (Guide Number 3) a weary dooming nod.
Clotho vowed that in times future if any she would shun
spinning life threads for human people. ‘They are irredeemably bad
for themselves, for us and for ‘Gaia’ — whatever you want to name it,’
she said. She looked for an immortal thoroughly hauntingly sad.
‘They inherited the Earth but soon misused their growing powers to maim it!’
said Atropos. She smiled softly then. A Fate’s smile is disarming.
Could it be that our fate that threatened simply disappears?
We smile back. We try to laugh. The planet keeps on warming.
Then we see that Atropos is sharpening her shears.
We forget again, forgetting our Guides’ — these three dire Fates’ — true names,
and then from fright we forget our own. There is nowhere we can run.
The shears’ edges spark. Our threads spew smoke. Our souls go up in flames.
The Guides count down, the last thing we hear: ‘Three’ and ‘Two’ and ‘One’.
The lion’s coat, renowned in tribal vision,
is redolent close up of muck and dirt
and zebra remnants from the subdivision
of his last meal. Gazelles that you think flirt
with lions do so perhaps on television
but in real life the pride itself is hurt
by breath past fangs that flecked with unflossed prize
explain why lions converse with squinted eyes.
‘Who’s Wot Gnu?’ you ask. A magic gardener
conceived from little just like you and me
and thus with bugs and beasts and us coparceners
an inheritor of the sun, the fields, the sea.
Wot operates with me a veterinary
practice: we heal beasts to set them free
as they free us. They bring colour to our world.
We do not want a home that is not merled,
not foxed nor robined. We are for preservation
of rat-cheer rodents, sleeping ants, the chough,
and, in moderation, every nation.
‘What’s Wot got,’ you may ask, ‘to do with lions?’
I answer, ‘Everything from here to Orion.
It’s similar to asking how much twine
goes in a piece of string. All life is fine.’
‘What knew Wot Gnu to make you his disciple?’
you ask despairing of an answer clear.
‘Damn all,’ I say, ‘except he’s archetypal
of this whole confusing mess that I hold dear.’