Under the Hill

The tide of commuters was going out,
Rushing fast towards the sluices
Of the great stations, trapped in the bottlenecks
Of the turnstiles, spinning away into eddies,
Carried on the current.
Against it swam one, eyes downcast,
Muttering to himself, trying to find the words,
Solid with mana, the heft in their power,
Trying to remember where he’d left the runes.
They swept along quacking like waterfowl into their phones,
One blocked his way for a moment,
And stepped quickly back, caught unawares,
At the intensity of the stare that speared him.

An ice-bound path frozen fast,
Leading up a slope in Muscovy
Which ended in Novodevichy.
A cold metallic clank of bells
And an ominous murmur of liturgy
In the sharp air, tombs softened by snow,
And a man bent double on the hill,
Coughing hard, red of face as his wounds
Tore at him inside. Was it there?
That he hacked up some part of himself
That fell out and scuttled away?
A pair of horn-rimmed spectacles
Perched under a grey ushanka
Gazed incuriously and turned away.
A mind raked by doubt like a pockmarked wall
Wept its bulletholes for years.

The army came out of the west,
And lined the top of the green hill:
The Spear-Carriers, the black clan.
They were tall and slim men, with
Fair skin and auburn hair,
But they could run all day and throw
In a mighty arc. They bury their dead
Under the hill, facing east,
That they may face the rising sun.
The citadel was alarmed;
They had built their walls
High, but the king was dying, and lay abed
Playing chess against himself,
His jewelled fingers moving softly over the ornate pieces.
Panic ensued. The generals bickered,
And one of the Spear-Carriers
Talked his way into the gate by means
Of a subterfuge, let down the bridge,
And the city was won with minimal losses.

In the king’s bedchamber musty drapes hung on the walls,
A gilt ceiling bedecked in threads, a dusty chess set
With all the figures toppled, swept aside in impotent rage.
In the corner, past the bedpost, stood a small and golden cage.
Inside they found a she-hawk, sadly neglected. She beat
Her wings against the bars at sight of them and set up
A high, plaintive keening. One warrior,
A bashful, mumbling giant, mocked
For his inarticulacy but valued as a doughty fighter,
Beamed in pleasure, strode forward and gently took her
In his huge hands. Her breast was raw from where
She had plucked at her own feathers, cursing her confinement
But he lifted her, light as coin, and she quieted
And allowed him to stroke her head with a finger.
He took her down to the orchard, where
The fruit hung hugely from the trees in orbs
And flew her on a tight leash between the heaving boughs.
He laughed in delight when she sank her talons into his arm,
Caressing her, but kept a firm grasp on the jesses.
Later he flew her low over the hill after a hare,
Whispering words of praise under his breath
And cried in joy when she struck home:
She always returned to him, and soon
Was persuaded to enter her own cage
With a little hop, from where she muttered
And looked cruelly at others who dared approach.

Nothing here but rock, grey sky, green hills
And more rock: no food nor shelter for an outcast;
No bards, nor drapes, nor chessmen,
Only a chill pool and a rough mouthful of leaves.
The armies sweep back and forth across the land,
Oaths uttered and as swiftly broken,
Thick-muttered couplets, amber liquid in goblets,
The flash of a knife and the arc of a sword.

By our history shall ye know us,
We of character inclement. Clouds
Grey as bruises swoop in and unleash
Their torrents of memory from swollen bellies
Upon soggy green fields in a land
Saturated with history. The wind tears
Our words away out of our mouths
And leaves them scattered,
Our eyes gimlet in raw-boned faces.
Darkness comes at half-past thirteen
Prefaced by a red sash that cinches the sky
Tight beneath the bulging hills.
We huddle closer round the fire,
Each gazing inwards on his own lands:
His private fiefdom which he has toiled for
And won hard rights to.
Win-ter is Icumen in,
What are we to do.

The past
Rotates unspooling round and round
Until it hits a scratch, and jumps
Over and over, replaying a thrown word,
An aside, a circumstance, which had
Lodged upon the surface of the mind
And caused it to stick.

Nudge the gramophone, fetch it a kick
Take it outside and beat it with a stick
Dig in your heels or run for the hills
A shot of amnesia cures the world’s ills.

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