One winter’s eve I wandered, desolate,
Through haunted slum-lands, drenched in clammy sweat,
pursued by long forgotten ghosts of those
whose high-placed statues loomed in stately rows,
neglected. Once, these heroes’ names held sway,
But their descendants gifted all away
To unknown powers – whispered, never named –
Which kept these citizens alive yet maimed,
Bound nor by chain, nor tithe of land or board,
Indebted not to serve a feudal lord,
But, in the blood-shot eye and pleasure sensed,
Enslaved by ease. Amusements well dispensed.
Some bloated corpses lay there in my path:
Once rebels, crushed against this passive wrath.
“Take leave”, I choked, half-ordering my feet,
With sharpest breath, in rising temper’s heat.
Then, weaving through their gardens — derelict,
Old remnants of tranquility, a strict
Yet free and ordered world now left to rot,
Picked, scavenged, by marauding hordes — whose lot
The occupying throne (with brandished whip;
Itself unseen, but cracked through every blip,
Melodious quips that stream from hosts on air),
Directs the mass like prisoners to swear
A wordless oath that keeps this new estate
Of screen and shop behind its unlocked gate.
“Don’t stay”, I cracked, just short of bitter tear.
“But isn’t this your home?” A whisper! Fear!
A sudden palm had, on my shoulder, tapped —
From where he came, I can’t report, but rapt
By just how kind and tender was the touch,
(How full of care!), I could not dread too much.
On turning, there was stood a gentle man.
Immediately I knew the course he ran:
A fellow fugitive, a hidden friend,
Whose noble garment badly needed mend,
Yet who for all of that, ignored, it seemed,
His rags; the rank decay around, he deemed
of little consequence; despite the plants,
despite the ruins, this tame countenance
Did radiate a peace impossible,
As docile as the flock that sheds its wool,
As peaceful as the dove in winter-tide,
Enclosed around his cot, well-fed inside.
For heart was all he had that was not cast
About; his nation and his kin so long since passed
Away: led straight on through the putrid fog,
They drowned in sensuality’s foul bog.
Aside, within, he took me from the road
To such a humble, yet a warm abode.
The crackling of a fire, not beamed nor faked
By simulated screen, but quivered, quaked,
Gave forth a warmth that humanised the room,
Whose shadows, more companions in the cold
than spectres from our nightmares, pranced and rolled.
We whiled the hours away with swirling steam
From brew – less tea, than water boiled – our theme,
the fellows, peers, and exiled wanderers,
the flighty, satiated squanderers
of all those stately homes and dying parks;
of all things innocent turned into larks.
The night stretched long as those dark forms and blobs
adumbral dancing on the hearth. The mobs
I feared when this new friend’s decisive hand
once touched my startled shoulder, since had fanned
out: newer, virgin pastures, to destroy.
And in the silence, to my great annoy,
the tears long held by tension, finally
burst forth, like vaults of heav’n, burning me.
“How dare we sit and wait the last collapse,
for everything that’s righteous thus to lapse,
eternally to fall into the pit
so never more could men recover it?!
The maggots feast on remnants of our kin.
Marauding, writhing hordes, once first let in,
Have shut our home, to satisfy each whim;
What once was hale, so hearty, vim,
Is lost, and all our native monuments,
despised, obscured by these high tenements,
are left to crumble into dust and ash!
Ugh, let me rise up, seize a fool, and bash
his empty head to limpid pulp, blood specked
on pave-” but then my tears did interject.
A murmur from low embers in the grate,
the only sounds that filled the room, my weight
of anguish far too heavy now to speak.
“And now”, my sympathiser said, with creak
of chair, “the night’s far spent; give up your dish,
for one last cup”, and placed, with brittle swish,
the fragile grail that shook and lightly clinked,
as brittle things preserved by care distinct
oft do — but I stood up and thew it down.
“How can you go on living -” with a frown,
he raised his hand, stooped low to pick it up,
examined what remained of his old cup,
then shuffled to the window, where the dawn
was hinting; blue light spread across the lawn.
“Did all our fathers live in peace and die,
who watch from realms above, that we should sigh
into our cups and bottles, think of war,
and leave our senses far behind, in store
for rainy days? The days are dark; we’re bought
and sold; but via violence or not,
remember all the laws for which they fell:
not failed entirely, for time is long; tell
me, who among our kin did well to raise
a sword against his own? For in your craze,
your justified but wicked urge to cut
and thrust into the belly of the beast
would not, as here we stand, achieve the least
of all the jubilations you would see,
for they would crush what’s left with glee.”
This harsh reply from one who hitherto
had listened quietly, did now renew,
I thought, a deeply-hidden rage of fire,
but not impetuous like mine; an ire,
indeed, that had the staying pow’r of steel,
of all our heroes, those who’d never kneel
to blade of foreign foe nor (what was worse)
corruption from within, nor traitor’s purse.
Now I the one who had to sit and hear,
for every faculty screamed: “lend your ear!”
He stood unmoving, like each paladin
who had, in our great lore, a ballad in
his name, and spoke again, but kinder hence:
“We men of old have only baubles, pence,
it’s true; but what shall happen – try to judge –
when screens go dark and fuel runs out? Long trudge
shall shake the Earth again; we’ll spread our wings,
and sooner than your dread, darksome things
could ever come to pass. Entrust your part
to those you’ve ever held within your heart,
for though it currently seems bleak and ill,
the many now in bonds begin to thrill
as monstrous evils come to blessed light
and criminalities reveal the blight
that creeps beneath what they imagined safe.”
“Oh brother, I have loved these souls; they chafe
against the goad, too civilised to kick,
but every greedy tyrant, lips to lick,
eventually runs off a cliff to chase
his gold, and when that happens will shall trace
the steps that lead us back to those great men
who made us, and restore their state again.
Too early, true, for war-gained victory;
but watch the foe, who, valedictory,
resorts to savage bands and hurling throngs;
no longer can he manage us; with tongs,
he reaches down into the furnace, here,
and flames of outrage burn and blacken, sear
his flesh. He’ll flood us out, he plans and hopes,
but when his darkness fails, the waiting ropes
shall be unleashed and thrown to take him down,
his busts and pillars dragged about the town.
Brave men cannot, for long, take reprimand
for actions not their own; they will demand
the price of justice – blood for enemies –
for nature’s urge is not yet set at ease.”
The sun dawned red on our benighted world.
By now I was a broken man, just curled
athwart the burnt-out soot of hearth and stone.
“Look yon, just down the road: a man alone,
in pallid rays of early sun, has scaled
their compound with a flag; he’ll soon be jailed,
but look how proudly float the colours, won
in ages passed by men whose duty’s done.
He has no need to lose his liberty
for that, but knows it acts a surety,
once books are balanced and the tide recedes,
when sleepers wake, and enemy concedes.”
I rose and stood with him to peer abroad;
the aspect through the window left me awed:
some idle target-practice from the crowds,
returning in their daily drug-soaked clouds,
had struck him in the back, and as he went
to ground, his flag was stuck, but never bent,
by virtue of some oak or thorn that waxed
with rising sunlight; thugs below were taxed
removing it, and left it there to flap.
“A strange but bloody heart’ning thing to hap!”
my still companion startled me with speech.
“Another dead… but every jaded breach
of statutes still obtaining in our laws
brings those who feed it closer to the jaws
of waiting vengeance, starved of righteousness.
That window, down the street, you see? He’ll bless
the corpse at night, with pious prayers he learned
from mother’s knee, for soul and heart have burned
to see the right restored. That woman, there,
ah, did you catch her peek her head to stare,
before we noticed it? She’ll ask me, ‘who,
this time?’, and all her girls will whisper too.”
He closed the blind and turned to me, so warm,
as if the gods of old had newly formed
him. “Look: base treachery will always lack,
and cowards? Lifelong burdens strain their back;
but just because they are this prominent,
when we arise, no more so dominant
can they remain, but dragged along in show
regardless whether they repent or no.”
That winter morning, in the stinging frost,
He turned to me, and counting not the cost,
embraced my pensive weary body long,
and said: “Do not give up the lyre and song,
nor flex the angered mind; be practical.”
And, door shut firm behind, I felt a dearth
of hope; and yet the star of all the Earth
burned brilliantly. A single ray then caught
my eye, and following the path it sought,
mind’s vision then perceived a bolt from God
that settled as a dove upon the quad
where all the ghostly monuments were stood.
I rushed to see where in that neighbourhood
it fell, and found the tomb of one devoured
by war, but whose great sons then flower’d
and bloomed like springtime hyacinth and rose.
Then, ah, what warmth! My soul anon unfroze!
If these could carry on through total loss,
not just alive, but flourish on their cross –
intrepid founders, pioneering kings –
then who are we to fear distressing things?
What shall we do? To revel in the toil,
To take up arms of hope, to love our soil.
To men, to women, children in the swing:
To you, our dying home, new fire we bring.
Today, with face thus set toward horizon’s end,
The woken shall not sleep, nor straightened bend.