Authors: Ted Hughes
If it were not Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, for whom these obscene songs are sung and festivals are made, it would be a shocking thing, but Hades and Dionysos are one.
Their battle had come to the point where I cannot refrain from speaking up. And I mourn for this, for they were the two sons of one man. One could say that ‘they’ were fighting in this way if one wished to speak of two. These two, however, were one, for ‘my brother and I’ is one body, like good man and good wife. Contending here from loyalty of heart, one flesh, one blood, was doing itself much harm.
The Reverend Nicholas Lumb walks hurriedly overcobbles through the oppressive twilight of an empty town, in the North of England.
He has no idea where he is going. Or where he is.
Is it dusk or is it eclipse?
He urges himself, as if towards solid ground.
He concentrates on the jolt of his reaching stride and the
dragging flap of his cassock.
The sky is darkening.
The charred black chimneys jag up into the yellowish
The stillness is every minute more awful
Like the dusk in a desert.
He walks with deliberate vigour, searching in himself for
control and decision.
He turns abruptly into a side-street
And is immediately stumbling.
He draws back to the wall.
All the length of the street, dead bodies are piled in heaps and strewn in tangles everywhere between the heaps.
Incredulous, he touches hands and faces.
He looks for wounds.
The jaws loll, as he lifts strengthless heads, which drop
Layered, interlocked, double-jointed, abandoned,
The corpses stare up into the purpled sky
Or at the black walls, or deeply into each other
As in the bottom of a mass-grave.
A mass-grave! The whole street is a mass-grave!
They were herded in here, then all killed together.
As they embraced each other, or fought to be free of each
other, or clutched at each other.
Babies lie, tumbled separate, like refugee bundles.
He turns again to find the empty street where he first walked. But directions have shifted. And the street he comes into is carpeted with corpses – the same. He clambers over corpses, from street to street, turning and turning among the streets, and every street is the same – a trench of fresh corpses. Finally, he simply stands, listening to the unnatural silence. He realises he is lost. The whole town is a maze of mass-graves.
He begins to run.
He runs regardless of the soft hands, the spread hair.
As if he might outrun the swift developing cunning of this
Or the narrowing purpose of this twilight,
Or the multiplying corpses.
He begins to shout.
He shouts to strengthen his running.
And falls, and gets up from the dead, and shouts.
And as he runs he hears another shout, in among his own shouts. He stops and listens and shouts. And the shout which answers is no echo. He shouts again, listening joyfully. At this moment he thinks only of another like himself, a lost man in the same plight, a comrade. And he hears the shout searching through streets towards him. He runs, shouting, to head it off, and to meet it.
And suddenly out of the twilight of corpses
A flapping shape –
A wild figure gyrating toward him.
A flailing-armed chimpanzee creature, bounding over the
bodies and shouting.
Lumb has stopped.
This swirling apparition is something horrible.
A horrible revelation is hurtling towards him.
That shout is nothing but a mockery of his own shout.
The blackest clot of the whole nightmare has found a
shape and is leaping towards him.
Lumb’s shout becomes a roar.
And the other stops, as if weightless.
A surprisingly small hunched figure.
Going forward Lumb finds an old man, in scarecrow rags, gasping for breath – and laughing. Gasping not as if he had exhausted himself with running, but as if he had laughed himself helpless. Still gasping, and quaking with laughter, he glances up at Lumb from tear-streaming eyes. A small aged face, wild as a berry – the scorched, bristly, collapsed face of a tinker.
Lumb stares down at him, too astonished to speak. He waits for some explanation of the hilarity, and as if in obedience the old man becomes solemn. He tells Lumb he has been searching for him everywhere.
The voice is startling, abrupt, like a cattle-drover’s. A rough-snagged shillelagh of voice, hard and Irish. But courteous, apologetic, almost affectionate. Lumb will have to accompany him for some little distance.
But what about these corpses? What about these dead people all over the town? What has happened? Lumb’s questions erupt. The old man turns away and starts walking.
In a firelit, domed, subterranean darkness
Lumb stands, numbed
By a drum-beat, the magnification of heart-beat.
Who is the woman tangled in the skins of wolves, on the
rock floor, under the dome of rock?
And who is the aged aboriginal crouching beside her, stroking her brow, stroking the hair off her brow, with glistening fingers, with a trembling tenderness?
Shadows wrestle overhead in the dome gouged with
Flames leap, glancing on the limbs of watchers under the
The firelight jerks in their eyes. Who are those watchers?
Lumb bends low
Over her face half-animal
And the half-closed animal eyes, clear-dark back to the
And the animal mane
The animal cheekbone and jaw, in the fire’s flicker
The animal tendon in the turned throat
The upper lip lifted, dark and clean as a dark flower
Who is this woman
And who is the ancient creature beside her?
Lumb kneels to understand what is happening
And what he is to do.
He thinks most likely this woman also is dead.
While the ancient man rocks back on his heels
And folds his long-boned hands over his skull
And mourns and cries.
Lumb feels for her absent pulse.
He lays his cheek to her lips
To feel her absent breath.
He lifts the moist eyelid open wider
And the startling brilliant gaze knifes into him
He stands in confusion
And looks round at the shadowed hollow faces
Crowding to enclose him
Eyepits and eyeglints
He declares he can do nothing
He protests there is nothing he can do
For this beautiful woman who seems to be alive and dead.
He is not a doctor. He can only pray.
He does not feel any blow. Only a sudden jagged darkness that rends him apart, from the top of his skull downwards. He sees lizard figures of lightning spurt up on all sides. They pounce on him with pins and needles of claws. A crushing weight rolls slowly across him. He understands it is the bristling back of a gigantic man. He is able to inspect minutely the leathery grain of the giant skin, a mosaic of tiny lights like the eye of a fly, radiant as under a microscope. He gazes into the widening beauty of this as the weight of it descends and squashes him dark.
And now he feels grass under his hands. He opens his eyes to a blue sky. Bright leaves hurt his head. He sits up in the clearing of a steep, rocky wood. At first, in his daze, it seems to him that lions lie all around him, watching him lazily, but as they get to their feet he sees they are men. He stands up with them, to be one of them, but their eyes separate him from them. He is ordered to choose a tree. So now, he thinks, they will hang me. And he looks at each man in turn, intending to fix each face in his memory. But even this exercise is frustrated. All these primitive, aboriginal faces around him are as alike as badgers.
He begins to speak. He would rather not choose a tree. He would rather understand what is happening. He hears his voice at a distance, as if he lay under anaesthetic. He is aware that an arm has moved violently. A hard, heavy whip, hard and heavy as a lump of wire cable, comes down over the top of his bald skull. He sees every detail of the pattern in the tight braid as a bright snake which bites his lungs and flashes away downwards. He must choose a tree.
He straightens from the pain and moves uphill and stops at the top, pointing to a young oak tree growing there on the summit between rocks. He considers taking his chance and bolting, but has already learned too well the reluctance of his limbs. At least he has picked a tree of distinction. But the next move surprises him, and without doubting for a moment that this is his own death in preparation, he becomes absorbed in watching.
Two men with axes fell the tree and trim the boughs, till the lopped trunk lies like a mutilated man, with two raised arms. Now Lumb is forced down, flat on his chest, and his arms are pulled above his head. Each of his wrists is tied to one of the two stumps. Because I am a priest, he is thinking, they will crucify me. The silent men arrange everything with great care. At last, Lumb and the tree lie, as if holding hands, their bodies stretched out opposite.
Now one of the men comes forward with a short heavy whip, and taking up his position starts to flog the senseless tree-bole. He swings the whip in a high arc, as if he intended each measured stroke to empty all his strength and be the last. As if he intended each stroke to cut the tree-bole through.
Lumb stares, uncomprehending, and tingling with the memory of that whip across his skull. Till a shock of real pain grips his back. His body clenches in spasm, like a fist. Hands lock round his ankles. Another whip is whistling in air, above him.
So, stroke by stroke, he and the tree-bole are flogged, tied together, until Lumb chews earth and loses consciousness.
He comes to, under heavy sloggings of cold water, naked and lying on concrete. Fingers unknot the cords which tie his wrists to the wrists of another man who sprawls, still unconscious, in torn and now sodden clerical garb. Through distorting water, Lumb sees this other is himself. He stares at him, in every familiar detail, as if he stared into the mirror. Seeing the ridged red track of the whipstroke across that glossy skull, Lumb feels gingerly over his own skull,
fingering for the corresponding welt or pain of it. He finds only clean whole skin, without any tenderness. He reaches to feel that lumped rawness on the skull of the other, but hands jerk him upright, and turn him and hold him. And so he stands, supported, on the wet concrete, under a high steel roof.
A colossal white bull stands in front of him
Like the ceremonial image of god
That needs wheels. Its hooves splay
Under its ton and a half.
Ropes sag from its nose-ring
To either side, held by attendants.
Just as two others hold Lumb by the arms, facing the bull
Which now steps towards him
Deep-hulled, majestic, lifting each hoof as if from a great
To join the momentum, getting its mountainous top-
heavy sway moving
With gentle massaging tread,
Lifting its long piling power-wave towards him.
Lumb looks over the broad hump of neck
And down the long undulating range of its shoulders and
Ugly with cobbled muscle, knotting and sliding
Under the silvered hide.
He sees its crooked knee-bosses calloused
By the kneeling weight of its own tonnage
As it halts, like a monument,
And sniffs ponderously towards his white naked feet
And the novel object of his streaming naked body
And, wakening a little, ponders him
With boyish, wicked, indifferent eyes.
Its head is like the capital
Of a temple column.
Then it forgets him, dozily masticating, happy behind the
wall of its curls.
Lumb is handed a pistol.
A finger indicates with a tap the target-spot on the bull’s
Steadying the pistol
With both wet hands, which are shaking unrecognisably,
Lumb rests the muzzle in the white curls
Below the straight-out stumps of horns.
The bull gazes inward, nodding very slightly to
accommodate the work of its jaws,
Blinking sleepily, drooling a little,
And listening to the bull-music far back in the mountains
of its body.
Squeezes the pistol
Squeezing his eyes shut as the shot slams into his brain.
The bull’s legs are in air.
Lumb huddles in a tight coil
On the puddled concrete, holding his splitting head
As if he had just dropped from a height.
Heavy cattle are surging through gangways
Driven through banging steel gates
By bellowing men
Who jab them with electrified clubs.
The white bull hangs from a winch
Like a cat swung up by the scruff of the neck.
Lumb is spreadeagled beneath it.
A long-handled hook rips the bull’s underbelly from ribs
Half a ton of guts
Balloon out and drop on to Lumb.
He fights in the roping hot mass.
He pushes his head clear, trying to wipe his eyes clear.
Curtains of live blood cascade from the open bull above