from The Kindly Ones (1)


The river Cocytus is black tonight
tree frogs set up their rhythm
chaka-chaka, chaka-chaka, under the owl’s bark,
nephritic vapours rise from volcanic lakes
near the main gate; the dog’s necks bristle

We’ve spread our couches at the front of the cave
and here we sit, bat-winged, snake-haired, dog-headed,
looking through trees at new arrivals. Passengers
of all kinds are being received by the ferryman –
a woman with a limp steps carefully into his boat

Across the river my sister Alecto stands
on an iron tower, flicking a scourge –
she’s employed to punish betrayers
and hosts who do their guests wrong.
In her part of the world you hear crows

and screaming. The sense of outrage that,
descended to a whimper, is petulant.
Her scourge is made of vipers kept fresh
from feeding tanks and forest reprisals.
The handle neatly tooled by a local leather worker

Our other neighbours are monsters –
Briareus has a hundred arms,
the Hydra spends her days hissing,
Discordi ties up her viper-hair with a fi llet of raw meat
and next to us lives the Sibyl: at least she’s quiet

The ferry leaves, wave noises echo across the river
where bronze-voiced the dog, his necks alive with snakes,
barks with all throats –
the Sibyl throws him a medicated cake:
he chomps it down, stretches out and falls asleep

Straw-coloured rushes shiver on the bank
a man with a lyre has come looking
for the woman with the limp.
The ferryman repulses him
but he waits in the river-weed

My other sister Megaera comes back
to the underworld from above-ground
where she’s found us some work acting
in a play by Aeschylus. Three weeks’ work,
and decent pay.

Next morning we go to the city, to the big
stone amphitheatre, and try on our costumes.
Word is Aeschylus is in trouble
with the court, but we don’t
know why.

While the people filter in and arrange
their cushions, we light our fire at the side
of the stage. We are side-business. This play’s
popular, and because it’s part of the tragedy
competition, it’s free.

Megaera tells us she saw Aeschylus earlier
and he said thirty thousand people were here
yesterday. The sun shines on the steps
where people haven’t sat yet. Hawkers go around
with something, I can’t see what they’re selling.

We take up our positions behind the screen.
For the early scenes, we’re with the chorus, all black.
Later when we’re needed as Furies, we put on red mantles.
The drummers start up, the chorus leader gives us a note,
the audience goes quiet.

from The Kindly Ones (River Road Press, 2008), Susan Hampton 2008, used by permission of the author and River Road Press

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