Part One: Drought
Cyrene’s slopes are draped
with marble pillars
fallen columns cross the paths
and grass grows free of traffic
a tiled bath drained of water
flashes blue with lapis lazuli
before the ruined base
of the temple to Artemis
fleecy seed heads float
among the long shadows
of Corinthian pillars
white and ghost-like
the cadence of a horn
sounds the evening fall
its trembling prayer
washing down the valley
sighing in the wind
to halt the suffocation
its ululating tongue sings
for the fissured land
Beyond the amphitheatre
a camel lies in coma
poisoned by a silver leaf whose
yellow flower withered after spring
the old lore of sacrifice
washes through her dream;
red and brutal sacrificial blood
floods and rages there
she must sleep on
to death’s last ambush,
dreaming of the coming winter
and winter’s rain
Part Two: Nightmare
Her shortening breath flounders
lodged in inflamed lungs
and the shepherd’s horn is still
At nightfall, the camel draws
away from the struggle
straining to the tread of
a gazelle halting at the glade’s edge
turning to the sea
with the desert at its hind quarters
It scents the brine and bridles
pulled by the tug of thirst
I have come from where nothing grows
along the tracks of dry stream beds
that wave their ribbons of lost hope
fleeing to a salty sea
On cracked earth forking this way and that
a crazed path takes me to a hillside
where a man is bound to a petrified tree
naked on a hillside.
Dogs growl and snarl around him
snatching at his kneecaps.
Through the night he groans
fading into dawn’s mist.
His pitted flesh leans there
into sand-gritted wind.
He seeks my touch
but I must run.
from the blue edge
of a crescent headland
the gazelle quenches its thirst
in a salt swell
with throat salt-encrusted
blood dried and curdled
The camel has a vision
and shudders in her shelter
under the canopy
of green oleander
a fennec fox glides
over the stone wall
and scents the body
lying in the dust
Sifting through the dust
it finds the camel’s eye
staring under drowsing lashes.
The camel stirs and
thinks the pointed face
is the maddened prisoner
his face scored with tears
that drip a soundless protest:
I answer ’no’
for that is all I have
that is still mine.
I spoke of love
and hate received
from men who feared Reason
No is what I am
No is the action I carry
No is the people you would have me name
No is the plot you say was mine
No is the death you have prepared for me
No is the succumbing to that end.
Part Three: Rain at last
Large drops pressed the dust
plunged the riven cracks
and bounced on iron furrows.
Rain pummelled the earth
into putty softness
carving a corkscrew channel
in a drowning hill.
Red water turned and turned
its watery blades pounding
off-loading loam into the bay.
On the rushing hillside
lay the camel waking;
the flood dividing at her shelter
she heard its roar.
In the orchard of pomegranate
in a rain vast valley
the almond tree cracked.
Rain chiseled a path
with measured pouring
along split boughs
and peeling bark
into red mud earth.
Torrents rumbled the fall
of a sliding surface
that moved into the sea.
Unhinged in bleached memory
the camel waded
through white spaces
of whitening fear.
Witness, camel, how painful
the dying of the prisoner now
in the tumultuous cries
of day’s arrival
how painful the passing away
in the sensational morning
that follows night.
Part Four: Aftermath
A father kneels in new grass
on flowers petal-crushed
and whispers his despair
in supplication over each shoulder.
A mother turns to the tall cypress
in her grief-frozen distance
she reaches for the sky
and birds in flight
A wife gathers her children
consoling and holding them
and their shock stands still
at the centre of embrace.
In the Dee estuary, a flock of red knots was preparing to continue their flight, the longest migration in the animal kingdom. Their destination was New Jersey or there-about – bays, beaches and mudflats where an abundance of horseshoe crab eggs would be found, their arrival so perfectly synchronised with Nature’s spring rebirth.
A gang of youths in search of an event, made its way to the cliff edge, facing on the ebbing tide. The greening muddy flats below looked inviting.
With chest plumage tawny-brown morphing steadily to pink, soon to be a stunning red for the mating season, five thousand birds were feeding on the shore where the estuary had become a wetland. They were building strength for the flight.
The youths tested the unstable cliffs of soil, rolling stones and themselves down to the narrow shingled shore. Then with clothes muddied, faces glowing red and sweaty, they communed in a tight huddle, hatching a plan.
Wheeling in the darkened sky, the red knots sensed the wind direction. Swooping down for mussels and soft fleshy finds in the sand, they grew tense and strained.
The tight huddle on the beach threw all caution to the winds. They filched their pockets for the wherewithal to execute the deed, the event that was lacking, the excitement of disturbance, of the shaking up of nothingness their lives had become.
“Here we go, here we go, here we go!”
“Nah, its a bad-un. I’m leaving!”
“Get along you miserable ..”
“Here we go, here we go, here we go!”
The darkening sky threatened rain. It was now or never for the birds. Their bellies filled, they gathered and swarmed around in circles.
The darkened sky threatened to drench their enthusiasm for the deed. It was now or never. “Here we go!” They waited undecided until the tension might force the impulse of ‘now or never.’
Marshalling their congregation on the shore, the red knots milled around, pecking, digging for the last offerings, waiting for the start-gun lift, when one amongst them would know it was now.
The youths as one decided. They dug into their pockets. They struck their matches, each bending to his own chosen spot. “Here we go!” Fire muscled its hidden track through the grasses. Smoke rising, vaguely, creeping low.
The air was smoked with burn. The acrid smell disturbed the scent. The red knots with plumage almost fully red were agitated. It was now.
The fire caught. The grasses burned and flames shot in the air, visible from the cliffs above. The youths were ecstatic with the show, and chuckled at the flight of so many nameless birds, nameless to them, silhouetted nothingness, their number uncountable, coalesced in a clump of bird anonymity, destination unknown.
The red knots rose as one body of pulsating bird-being, the land alight behind them, in front rebirth. “Here we go!”
What is the point, he asked, sliding down the bed, slowly, imperceptibly and irrevocably, with no strength of his own to heave himself to a position something akin to sitting. He was slipping down a slope that crooked his neck. It was strangling his voice, an already enfeebled uttering constrained by a tumor, a voice that had once crooned his favourite Robbie Burns with honeyed tones.
Not necessary to be completely upright, but something approaching that would do. He lay with his legs stretched out before him at almost a hundred and twenty degrees, at that special angle nature had exploited to its advantage. He could see his feet, white-clean and blue veined. Branches on trees were strongest at a hundred and twenty. He thought of the plum tree in his neighbour’s garden, entwined in ivy. His last venture outside had been to curb it. From an unstable set of step ladders, he had tracked the ivy to its most extreme hook-like root and pulled, losing his balance. May, his neighbour, unable to save him, had stood back giving moral support, repeating all the while her imagined visit to her son in France. It was Jim next door along to her who had heard the fall and called the ambulance.
He was almost horizontal when the medics came. They surrounded his bed behind drawn curtains. His feet had disappeared from view. He liked being able to see them. His toes were nice, he thought, familiar appendages to his legs; they had served him well without him paying them much attention. They were evenly ordered from big toe to little in a neat trajectory that reminded him of a hundred and twenty. Arthritis had not yet wreaked its full damage on the joints. He had seen his feet in x-rays, so well defined in boney whiteness. He worried about losing the ability to see his feet. He kept them out of the bed covers as much to be seen as to be cool. They had looked disembodied. He was not asking to stand on them, to be upright as in perpendicular, for his muscles had atrophied; he knew that. To walk he needed the aid of a nurse. Dependent. Now they were talking about him in earnest.
A nurse came to his aid and set him sitting. He smiled.
It had been slow at first, his decline in strength, and more recently, quite abruptly, it was rapid. So obvious to see. After the fall had come the dizziness that had left him lying on the grass, still clutching ivy leaves, wide awake, conscious but without the will to raise himself. The wasting came from days of lying in a bed. A bed with cot sides. How irksome that his obsession now was with these limitations – wrists that dropped as he held a cup of tea, legs that could not take a step, a voice that rasped. Even so a cot was not wanted; its implacable sign of his withering offended him. A memory. He did not want a cot.
He did want his medication either. His eldest daughter was nodding, but not to him. She was not, he thought, in concert with him when he had doubted there was a point. She had bent her head forwards and raised her eyebrows to show her disapproval. She was not his ally, then. Not at this moment. Not at this critical juncture of life’s inexorable process of dying. She had power of attorney – yet she had not filled the silence that had followed his affront to the doctor’s humane practice, his hypocratic oath, not even with a comforting platitude. She could have said it will give you an appetite, but she must have known that appetite was not the issue here. He was suppressing appetite. It was the will to live that mattered, or the will to die; oh that unutterable unthinkable thought that challenged everything. But no, she withheld her comment and straightened her shoulders the way she always did, meaning now let’s think some more before we follow that line of thought. And without saying anything she had taken the wind out of his sails, drawn his pathetic protest to its very small demise.
She might have said something like well you need to get your strength up, especially if you want to go home. But she didn’t. She didn’t even mention going home. No one mentioned going home. He noticed how they didn’t mention that. No, instead this was another one of those silences she had cultivated over the years. A lacuna, he called it. A bit like a page from the alternative colouring book they give to children these days. You know, the ones with titles so wide open to interpretation that they worked for everyone – draw the thought you have when you are about to sleep, picture an imaginary bird in an imaginary tree. It was an opening, an invitation to supply your own response – if only you could make the right one; the one that fell in line with what was expected of you.
So everyone kept their own counsel. And said nothing. All eyes that were looking at him stopped looking at him. The doctor scanned his notes. His daughter cupped her face in her hands and seemed to look into the blank middle distance. He was being impossible. Again. The nurse avoided looking altogether and busied herself tidying round the edges of the bed, finally interjecting into a space she seemed not to belong to, to say with a practiced coaxing in her conciliatory manner well you need to get your strength up, Tom. And then came the sting. Or you won’t be going home, will he, doctor?
There you are. The matter was dealt with. They could all move on, except not him. They talked some more and he was still in that gap, that dark place, incredulous that anyone could think there could ever be a point to keeping his strength up. To do battle with what? With death? He would not do battle with death. He was doing battle with life. But to go home, perhaps. Was that at all possible? Was that what he really wanted? All that time on his own. Long days endured by constant dozing. The house. The upkeep of the garden, the birds to be fed at the bird table. The birds, yes, he missed them here. But the house. The rain. The interminable rain and cold, rain on the window, birds sheltering in the canopies, bread on the bird table soaked to soggy softness. Weeds growing like Leylandii, ferns like a forest and maybe a newt or two in the pond he could no longer see from his window. The neighbour’s tree in blossom he might never see again. His last effort was to prune the ivy that entwined it to a smothering. He had been doing battle with life for some time now.
His question still unanswered, he felt no one was by his side, only his own inner mutterings. His daughter maybe was there – she had rarely strained against his will. She had not taken her own path like his other children had. She had wandered away from time to time as daughters do, but returned for episodes when called upon to carry out a favour or a duty. Always acting out of duty when what he wanted was devotion, a daughterly dedication. Total obedience to his will. Was she afraid of him, his temper? He knew he had a temper.
But she was always there when called upon. It calmed him to remember that. So she was nodding, and what did that mean if anything had a meaning still? She was nodding again, and now not only to the doctor. She was nodding her concern for him to the doctor, but then she was nodding towards him as he lay there so far away in his own mind, and nodding with her eyebrows raised like a question, wanting his consent, willing it of him; but consent to what? To the fiction that there was a point? Could she herself expand upon the premise, he wondered, that there was a point. Had she thought it through? Could she ever reach his state of sublimated reasoning when she herself was not the person loitering at death’s door, when she was still in control of things, summoning the nurses, contacting the hospice, the social worker. He felt he was only loitering. Holding up a bed, that tainted affliction he had no desire to call his own.
The gate into the next world, into a void as he believed, was pregnant with a possible opening, at any time soon, at some time, in a week, before Christmas, before reaching a hundred. He looked sternly at it. Did it shake, was it about to open to his knock. Oh what impudent thoughts, so appalling he could tell no one. The mortifying suspense. How to fill the time in between with a point.
But then at least she would do nothing without his consent, and that was sufficient control for him, control of sorts, he supposed, for after all he had chosen her. She was his emissary in the world. And she would only do what he agreed to. He would only do what he agreed to. She would see to that. She had the authority to, didn’t she? To say No for him.
So there it is again; the question looms. What is the point of being brought back to an animated existence? What was it all about, this great concern that he should cling on? For he had already faced the same overwhelming surrender to the ending of life when he had fallen that afternoon, the reason he was here. He had felt then as he feels now, that he had had enough. I have had enough he said, and, as tears filled his eyes, he did not see the imponderable alarm on her face, the doctor’s helplessness. Must he be stoic? Must he cling on after all?
Now, Tom. You know it will make you feel better. It was the nurse speaking, the same who had insisted on pulling up the side rails to stop him falling out of bed the day before. Or was it in the night? A shadowy memory taunted him from the sidelines. He would not tolerate a cot. It will make you feel better, though he only caught the last word. Better she had said as she came into view pulling the side rails of his bed up, to keep him safe she had said. No it is not better, he growled. I will not be in a cot. Then he summoned up a strength he did not seem to have. His face contorted with the effort as he rattled on the metal bars. I will not have a cot. It will not make me feel better.
He was not going to slip sideways anyway. He had told them once before and had had a fight about it. In the night too. Something in his memory. But more importantly, and imperceptibly to those around him, or so it seemed, so imperceptibly that they carried on talking to a general space he felt he no longer occupied, he was slowly but surely slipping into a fully prone position so that his view was slowly and imperceptibly shifting away from the ease of eye direct to eye – no, more like away from the lesser ease of raised eyes to lowered eyes – towards the strain of stressed eyes almost closing, seeing only the doctor’s chin moving. The chin was clean shaven. The doctor was a fastidious man clearly in control of things, in his white coat and stethoscope, his mouth moving and contorting making sense of words only by its clear articulation of word shapes.
His own chin rough and bristled, days unshaven, three days perhaps – he had lost all track of time, but he was unshaven to a degree as good as three days; and, ‘unshaven’ being the clearest evidence and tactile sense of the state of loss he was sinking into, it was a symptom of his floating away, of all things falling away from him. In particular, the loss of independence without which there was no point, could not be a point, the very point he wished to make and wanted to have pointed out otherwise, to counter his despair. For what could be the point of clinging on? Of loitering.
As the doctor mouthed the words of palliative intervention woven around the prescription of pills and capsules of his caring trade, which were the material evidence of his human compassion, the fact of which he the patient did not see the point, he could not see the point, not when unshaven he had lost his own independence. Staring upwards tired him. He closed his eyes and the words spoken were now unseen and so were unshaped. Voices were muffled as behind a scarf. Their vibrations were accompanied by a new strain – the strain of making sense of a distant hubbub that was forever losing itself in the walls, in the vast window. Involuntarily, his own unsleeping and closed eyes flickered open. The mouth still moving said it will ease things, make him more comfortable.
Now his torso lay at an angle to his neck, his neck at an angle to his torso, an awkward angle where a hundred and twenty is no longer natural. His head was tilted on a pillow, a soft pillow that hurt him, unreasonably so when it should have cushioned his weight more gently. It was then that he knew, for first time it dawned on him, that he had become quite deaf, his hearing almost gone, gone to a pool of melting sound, his eyes now the sole interpreter of everything. Looking up at the doctor looking down.
He was deaf. Slowly and imperceptibly hearing had slipped away from him, so gradually that he had not realised. And he was angry. Angry at that. Angry with the doctor who made the case for a point, the point of his continuing life, made it with undeniable compassion, the point being the point of easing this time, this last phase, the last phase of his life which was not a life any more, not a phase even, just a lacuna, a large hole, a black hole that all his hearing had fled to, sunk into as into sinking sand, slipping away, deeper, wider, breaking away, scattered, shattered, all gone.
Just as a black hole proves to be a gorging vessel, hungry for matter, sucking into itself everything of universal significance like the making of sense of the world, like hearing music, the music of birds, the songs of the planets, like hearing humanity and human kindness and understanding how sound is meant to sustain, like retaining a sense of being engaged in the world, so this lacuna of his going, his loss, absorbs him entirely. For when the body and mind are wholly consumed in dying there is no soul remaining, he believes, he fervently believes. There can be no spark to set his animus aflame, no imagination, no illuminating cognition. Intelligence is all gone.
Then he remembers to rage and rage against the dying of the light, and it was never his way in any case to go gently, not anywhere. When everything is consumed, it is then stormed out, like the massive supa-nova the black hole has become, but not in anger just because he did not want to die, not because he was not ready, but in anger because he was ready and the world would not let him go.
Why was he so ready, you ask. When did he decide he would not submit to life’s mean trick at its ending, not to the end itself, but to the struggle with the end, when he could no longer have his own way, when cancer had the upper-hand, when cancer would decide the moment for him. What was this outrageous beast that took control of him, uninvited. Ah yes, that was where logic defeated him. Perhaps it was invited in, after all. A guest that inveigled itself into the intimacy of his being. He could not deny his own hand in the coda of his own life, the resolution. It was a doctor after all who had warned him years ago to cut down. He had done so; switched to a pipe, though too late; but then not so late that he had not managed against the odds to hit the nineties, long enough to nurse his wife who had died before him. He was glad of the stay of execution. He had done that well.
Still, he feels he has unreasonably lost control of things. So he does not eat. Not-eating is not an act of not doing something. It is an act of doing what he can, of being non-compliant. He is doing something. He is taking control.
Even so, his behaviour is erratic. He tosses his complaint into the midst of a team of busy nurses, young women, tending to his needs albeit within a bounded framework, the only way they can. He troubles them with his existential discomfort. He is, as he knows, a difficult patient, just as he was a difficult husband, difficult father. Lurching from praise and gratitude to sullen rudeness. He is all at sea with his emotions. They will not be disciplined. They jostle like unruly children in an ill-formed queue. He cannot get them into line.
He was staring straight ahead, when his son arrived. Straight ahead. Transfixed. His face whiter than his son remembered it ever being. Perhaps it was the way the light fell on him from the large window, light uninterrupted by trees or buildings, light that streamed in from the clouds. His hair was whiter too, not grey, but white in long slicks drawn over his head from his brow. But more compelling was the gaze, a white gaze, his brown eyes almost blue in their intensity, light shining on the iris. Looking forwards as though he was listening to something. But there was nothing before him, no sound around him apart from the busyness of ward traffic, voices that did not speak to him. Perhaps he was listening to music, strains remembered, stressed and tortured sounds from symphonies he used to play, over and over. Searching for the music that was gone. His eyes hearing the sound, willing them there.
It was a stern profile, the bony contour almost handsome, chiselled. Could have been a composer’s face, perhaps a conductor. Fiery in temper, steely in passion. Eyes that pierced. But now frozen over. Like a bust, made of alabaster. It had that austere stillness he remembered from some time back. He tried not to think about it. It was difficult enough to retain compassion for so difficult a man, so difficult a father. A man he had not befriended until recently, who had not befriended him until recently. An achievement he had marveled at and expected would be felled in an instant like apple blossom in a heavy downpour.
The son. Long lost. Still a stranger to him. At the bottom of his bed. He stands there diffident. Distant. How he wishes he would throw himself forwards into an embrace. But he withholds himself. He is too far to reach with a handshake even. Not as close as the doctor. The doctor’s eyes leaned into him, poured their healing into his space. But the son was stiff as wood. Hurting still. And he knows his son is hurting still but he cannot change a whit, cannot alter a lifetime of relating in this way.
Sell the house were the first words he had uttered when his son had broken through his frozen stare on that last visit, when he had stood back, kept his distance. Sell the house. Too much to worry about when the brain was occupied, concentrated on the point that he could not find or envisage, or formulate into a philosophy of being. The son was taken aback. He could see he was. Perhaps that was why he did not lean into his father’s space. It was an angry kind of space, a belligerent kind of surrendering to Fate. Not the sort of welcome a father should give his son.
But then at the end, he had managed to hold onto his son’s hand as it reached out to shake his own. He had found strength enough to pull him nearer and with his eyes speak of something he could not say. He had tolerated long enough this not-leaning in, this father’s wanting to say …… what he could not say. What could not be said anyway, after so many years of relating in another way. See you again son. Was it a wish, a pleading, or a statement? Was this, after all, the point? Was it enough?
The son had forced a smile. And embraced him.
“I love you, son,” he said.
“You and me are fine, Dad.”
something in the mind tells me I am overheating
singed neurons frazzle in the brain’s map
the pillow is a lump of rock
the mattress a tarmac road
my blanket is a collage of the cast skins of cicadas
my limbs reach out for air
my lungs expand for want of oxygen
my eyes bulge under prickling lashes and
I press down into the sackcloth vacuum of evasive sleep
the soaring fahrenheit of day barely tumbles in the night
heat accumulates overcasting my breath like clouds of fog
suffocating my thoughts of dreaming light
with would-be somersaults of washed-out energy
nouns are conjugated and verbs disagree with their subjects
facts are slashed across with half-forgotten memories of what was known
somewhere along the way
what was once so sure melts like skewered marshmallow in a flame
the race of time slows and sinks into the raucous din
of insect abdomens vibrating in an insect rally for a mate
the cicadas sing all day and night
competing with some imagined monster rival
the motors of air conditioning buried deep in concrete fabric –
drown conversation with their orchestral performance
the insect horde tunes its forte to crescendo pitch
in overlapping waves of night thermals
from their lofty perches they drill with incessant strokes into the tremors of night heat
while a lone cricket bells its piercing strumming to the heat haze
stoking up its symphony to mercury peaking in a glass
stranded in the still air it strikes a strident note
a monotone of something trapped
like the moth struggling in the heating duct its wings bruised in its panic
the panic in me
as the train’s siren wails its hooting warning across the prairie reminiscent of Western movies and
as the gargantuan refuse truck booms its heavy sweep of melting tar its tyres squealing in the traction
the pillow softens
the mattress relents and
the horizontal receives me
my limbs are abandoned stranded apart north west east and south
my brain is carded into felt
Then in a sudden the moth breaks free from its furnaced holding and
fills the night air with its dark fluttering
Before the day swells up like dough sweating in an oven
the piano tinkles its amazing grace with lilting cadence right to the final coda
then as morning proves itself again
its strains challenge the cicada to a contest
belting out its hymnal to the chorus of morning has broken
the cicadas strum louder still so that
the beat of their tumultuous concert
is like the rhythmic throb of the first awakening
when primal earth first poured forth its molten mass
a racket in the tall cypress
splits the sweep of its upper limbs
a ragged etching of graffiti
like a crown of thorns
a squall of crows squabbles
for a lodging on the bough
feathers ruffled by a blast of wind
flutter in a ragging breeze
the chain saw and the digger
leave their tracks of scarred earth
fences felled and soil turned over
by an intruding harvest storm
the path below is strewn
with a shake of sweet chestnut
blown along in rolls like wooly baubles
prickly green burst-open chestnut red
the vines stretched low with grapes
the ripening a ‘johnny come lately’
of Indian summer set a-trembling
at the shock of the bird scarer
the chestnut sprawl beneath my tread
lies amiss beneath the tall spruce
like cuckoo debris driven to the wrong place
by an indifferent tenant wind
I step over the hoard gingerly
in orange pumps reminder
of the summer almost gone
ablaze in the sodden grass
dragonflies on the bridge
prance in their final hours
the fishermen count the days
before the storm of autumn
and summer soon will be all gone
conversation with a fisherman:
the deer morph from leafy screens
shy, reticent and canny
to the changed air
the mole seeks its chance to forage
pragmatic swimmer carried
by strokes meant for digging earth
a rabbit flees from ferrets
confused enough to tarry
at the lake’s edge
before the necessary plunge
and all the while
leather carps indulge
slow, sluggish and unhurried
by the fishermen
all is hidden from the busy walker
the strolling mother and her buggy
the lovers wrapped in dreamy vistas
the couple with the wheelchair
they wow the swooping swans
they mew the gosling geese
survey the vines’ late ripening
and spy the parrot in its showy flight
and all the while in quiet diligence
the gardener trims and prunes and tidies
the steward notes the signs of growing stock
the groundsman checks for wear and tear
the fisherman plays hide and seek with fish
so that “when you good folk have all gone home”
the deer can morph from leafy screens
and retrieve the landscape as their own
“when you good folk have all gone home”